Archive for the ‘Beijing’ Category

My impression of Beijing changes every time I visit.   Compared to my last trip in Sept 08 (right after the Olympics), I noticed the following changes, both big and small.  Of course, the entire world has also shifted quite a bit over the past 6 months or so.

  • Traffic is a bit worse than during the Olympic period.  Apparently they have moved from a “driving every other day”  system to a “driving 4 out of 5 days” system.  All traffic controls will be off in April, so perhaps back to normal.
  • Beijing looks more weathly across the board.  6 months ago, I noticed young people being particularly wealthy (or at least in their display of wealth).  This time around, I would say that an average Beijinger does not look much different than someone from any other major cities.
  • Beijingers look more content, for people up to say, 50 or 60 years old.  I used to be able to see the worries off people’s faces from everyday toll.  Not so much this time around.
  • Cab drivers have become less talkative; minding their own business
  • Lastly, at least among the educated elite there, there seem to be an acceptance that some form of social or political unrest will come over the next decade or so.

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Is China ready for the Olympics?  As we get closer, increasingly, I don’t think they are.  Not in the same way Athens wasn’t ready – if you look at the infrastructure, Beijing is more than ready.  But not emotionally. 

To almost everyone in China, the Olympics is a monumental moment.  It indicates China’s coming of age – that it has “made” it.  Hence, nothing can get into its way.  Sacrifices has to be made.  And sacrifices have been made by many residences of Beijing (not the wealthy ones, of course). 

Yet, is Beijing ready for failure (of any extent)?  Recent news suggest that they’re not.  When air quality is being challenged, an official replied that Beijing is like a steam room.  That what you see is really steam, and not pollutants.  Instead of admitting that pollution remains a problem, he chose to deny it (a cover up, as we say). 

So much has been invested in the Olympics, China cannot allow it to fail.  For China, there is only one possible outcome – that the Beijing Olympics will yield awe from around the world.  What if that doesn’t happen?  Can the nation still feel the pride of what has been achieved to date?

Update: Wang Jian Shuo blogged about his impression from his recent short trip to Beijing.  Similar sentiments there.

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townhouses1.jpg  palmsprings.jpg 

Yep, Beijing.  I won’t be able to tell… the townhouses (and cars) on the top-left picture are quite similar to those one can find in N. California.  

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Something I appreciate a lot about Beijing as a city is the preservation of its attitude and culture.  There’s certain pride of being a native Beijinger – in similar way that New Yorkers think they’re the certain of the world, Beijingers certainly think they’re at the center of China, if not of the world (yet).  Yet, this makes it quite challenging for us, waiguoren (foreigners), to break into the circle. In fact, it’s equally difficult for waidiren (non native beijingers) establish a strong foothold.

I also sense a bit of bitterness, of waidiren eroding the Beijing culture.  Many older generation native Beijingers can no longer afford to live in the city “new money” continues to flood in.   The city is getting younger, wealthier and more diversified. 

There’s something about this that is heartbreaking – Buried under Beijing’s growth, a few generations are getting left behind. 

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Malls in Beijing are escapes from the hustle and bustle of the city.  They are eerily empty.  The problem is pricing.  I was at the Oriental Plaza in BJ, and checked out a few international brands.  Across the board, the pricing is 20-30% above what you’d pay for the exact same item in Hong Kong or New York.  Which seems to make no sense given China is an emerging market.  More shockingly, these malls also have department stores selling “luxury” Chinese brands – and alas, they’re priced at Prada/Gucci level too.

A friend who works in luxury retail once told me that the brand’s strategy in China is to enhance the concept of “luxury”.  Since 99% of the people cannot afford the item anyways, the idea is to nurture the brand’s image of being luxurious, which equates to being outrageously expensive.  Stores in China certainly loses money – but they claim to make it up elsewhere.  Wealthy Chinese travels to HK, Europe, and the US and make big purchases.  Thus, stores in China are viewed as marketing expense, and a loss leader.  In the long run, they’d make it up elsewhere.

Josh Adams wrote an article in Asia Times titled Retail Strategy Rethink.  The thesis is that malls in China are not living up to its earnings potential and that at some point retailers will have to adjust and tailor to middle class consumers.  If we look at HK as a model for how a city develops, we might end up with a handful of super high end malls, and many residential community malls where supermarkets are the anchoring stores. 

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The NYTimes has a running series on China entitled “Choking on Growth”.  Among many important environment problems highlighted, this week’s focus is on Beijing.  The picture on the left was Tiananmen Square last Thursday (12/27).  When I was in Beijing last winter, this was the image I remembered.  I could hardly breathe whenever I stepped outdoors, probably as a reflex against breathing in dirt.   This got to have a toll on the health of Beijing residents – I worry about my friends in Beijing, and am dreading my trip out in February. 

As I was just about to post this article, I read a post on Danwei called Blue Sky 2008, with the following picture, taken 1/1/ 2008.


Beijing is supposedly just over the wall.  Well, I guess you can paint whatever story you want about Beijing’s pollution problem depending on which picture you pick. 

It’s never black and white in China, is it?

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 I visited the Silk Market the first time I was in Beijing 8 years ago.  Then, it was an open market, smack in the middle of the embassy district and around the corner from the St. Regist Hotel where we stayed at.  I remembered walking around with my Chinese colleagues, not finding anything in particular to buy, but ended up negotiating for a sweater nonetheless.  It was a green woolen sweater, branded Gap.  The asking price was rmb 300, we returned price of rmb 40 and didn’t blink.  We got it for rmb 40, and I was told we could have gotten it for 20. 

8 years later, the market moved indoors to a new complex, completed with air con, heat, escalators/elevators, a restaurant…  it must be 10 times the size of what it was before.  10 times in size, and perhaps just 2 times the merchandise.  Which means there’d be 100 stores selling exactly the same items.  Competition is fierce, though not hostile.  At least not hostile between stalls.  I hear business is very tough these days… 

For me, I’d love to see the silk market gone.  Not only because they sell fake pirated goods, but more because of the horrible shopping experience.  The saleswomen there have an incredible command of English, both when wooing you to buy, yelling when negotiating, grabbing your arm, and swearing at you for not purchasing.  Last time I went, I got money thrown at me.  To be fair, my colleagues thought it was entertaining and enjoyed the sport; I felt abused. 

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