Saturday, May 23, 2009

Old Shanghai

Hidden among Shanghai’s endless blocks of high-rise buildings and badly designed metro stations are quaint little pockets of antiquity.

These decades old clusters of houses resemble the disorganised clutter of squatter houses: narrow crooked lanes that will not fit vehicles with more than 2 wheels, tiny houses built side-by-side with common walls on 3 sides, abrupt forks and branches in lanes that lead to more branches or sudden cul-de-sacs.

Fortunately, the abject misery of squatter housing is not present here. Houses are built of brick and mortar (I suppose so- anyone living in a corrugated sheet metal shanty will freeze to death in winter), there is running water, the lanes are paved with cement and provided with adequate drainage and there’s a marked absence of reeking piles of rubbish.

My walk through the area was surprisingly calming. The narrow crooked lanes do not let in any sounds from the busy streets outside, and the pace of life inside seemed considerably less hectic.

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Not all houses are created equal. The buildings on the left side have carefully laid brickwork and beautiful door and window frames, as the next image will show.

Quaint, Almost
Except that the light bulb has been replaced with an energy saving tube

Hey, where did the boy go?
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Quaint, Almost
Except that the bicycles have been replaced with electric scooters

It was said that there were 9,000,000 bicycles in Beijing1, but that number is likely to continue decreasing over coming years. Electric bicycles, mopeds and scooters are replacing bicycles as the affordable means of personal transport.

Electric bicycles are powered by a lead acid battery, usually tall and narrow in shape unlike those found in cars. Typically, the rather heavy battery is recharged by hauling it indoors to be plugged into a charger. Also, some people make it a point to take the battery indoors as its high price and good resale/salvage value makes it a target of thieves.

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1. "Nine Million Bicycles", Melua, 2005.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Adventure at a post office

Let me tell you a story.

I went to the post office with my envelope.
The envelope is from FedEx, made of manila card with a clear plastic pocket for the air waybill.
I used a sheet of A4 to tape over the orange and purple logo on the front and wrote the destination address there nicely. And slipped another piece of paper into the air waybill pocket to show the return address.

The girl at the counter asks, “Is this a letter?”
“Erm, this is not an envelope.’
“It is.”

She then goes to ask someone else if it is an envelope.
She returns, “No that’s not an envelope.”
“It is a courier service envelope.”

She leaves her position to consult with another colleague.
On her return, she tells me with an air of finality, “You cannot use this envelope.”
“Fine, sell me your envelope.”

For 60 cents, she gives me a normal brown paper envelope. I write the delivery address and tear open the beautiful FedEx package to repackage my goods. She eyes the contents suspiciously.
“What is that, you cannot send that as a letter.”
“Only documents can be sent as letters.”
“So how do I send it?”
“You need to send it as a small package.”

In the end, I decided not to mail it. I’ll repackage it properly as a ‘letter’ and mail it another day.

Online, wiser expatriates have advised exasperated newcomers to lower their expectations when in China. Expect everything to go wrong, and you’d be fine.


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Monday, May 18, 2009

Finally putting things into practice

I have been unable to access any blogspot sites since Friday, a remarkable coincidence with my little outburst against the local government regime. Perhaps they are related?

Anywhere else and I’d have said bullshit, but this country has proven itself at being able to throw up unpleasant surprise after unpleasant surprise after unpleasant surprise.


In the intervening time, I have FINALLY taken the time to actually start some financial planning. Like what the texts books have been telling me since… June 2007.

1. Identify financial needs and goals
2. Allocate assets

In line with item 1, I did a budget forecast of my next big thrust into fatherhood dictatorship, and the initial results were not encouraging. 10,000 AUD just to secure a miserable seat in the Outer Party’s Supervisory Committee is just… depressing.

How the fish do these crooks finance themselves into the Inner Party Censorship Board and Economic Planning Council? Ok fine, stupid question: they are crooks.

The asset allocation bit was a bit trickier. Having made earlier contributions to various mutual funds, I had to break down each fund into its constituent asset types to find my total exposure to each asset type. Then compare the existing allocation to the target allocation etc etc.

Ok I’ll not bore you with the number-crunching and data manipulation game.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Hong Kong, part 3

Here's something a bit more pleasant to contrast the previous entry.

Mongkok, Kowloon

We met my uncle, granduncle and their families for a fantastic dinner in New Territories. The granduncle purchased about 7kg of live seafood from the seafood market nearby, and brought it to the restaurant to be served.

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Clockwise from bottom left, roast goose, snails, clams, kangkung, bamboo mussels, and lobster noodles. Steamed fish in the middle. The lady on the far side is Michelle, who inadvertently provoked an analysis of conservative functions on the family tree.

Ok lunch break is over, back to work.

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China is a great place to live in

Excerpts from a chat:

I'm convinced the Chinese government grew up eating shit.

We have an additional electrical control box to send to Australia. It’s going to be quite a hassle because the customs/capital control does not allow goods to go out without an invoice.

Same goes for funds moving in/out. Need to reconcile to import/export documents etc., and if the client sends the money early, it sits in the bank account. You cannot access it until the payment time as stipulated on the invoice/contract.
So if your purchase order says "payment of 50k on June 15 2009", and the overseas client pays in February (a fantasy, but it happens), you cannot touch the money until June 15.

The logistics lady just said since it’s a replacement box we don’t have to reconcile to invoices. But customs can only let it out AFTER the existing broken one is back in the country. Even if the broken one is broken beyond repair, unsalvageable, a total write off.

Shit for brains. MCH.

Oh, and my post title is a lie.


Monday, May 11, 2009

I stumbled out of the study heading for the washroom, my eyes fuzzy from a night of sleep. I see my aunt and cousin in the living room, so I greet them with an artificially crisp ‘good morning’ before turning into the loo.

Freshened up by the quick wash and my dragon breath banished, I join them in the living room. The night before, my aunt had just arrived back from the United States after some MBA-related classes.

She asked me how I found my work in Shanghai to be like.
“It’s ok, I suppose,” I reply vaguely.

She tells me that as I am starting out my career in China, I have to be particularly cautious as most standards of best-practice are not adhered-to. It’s important for me to develop a methodical, thorough approach and avoid picking up the bad habits.

She’s right. I have noticed a general approach that the Chinese workers seem to take: as long as it works, it’s ok. Never mind that the standards are not adhered to, as long as the equipment works (on the most basic level).


On my return from Hong Kong, I was faced with a shit-storm of sorts. It turns out that one of the projects I’m working on is a mess. The electrical engineer did not adhere to much of the basics of the electrical code, including using wrongly colour coded cables, lack of separation between cables of different voltage categories, insufficient documentation…

And he did try to wriggle out of the mess by saying we should try to talk to the end user to see if they will turn a blind eye to these violations. As long as the equipment works.



After talking for a bit, I slipped away to get ready while my aunt fed her daughter breakfast. I, on the other hand, was going with Jean for some much-needed dim sum.

On the recommendation of my granduncle, we visited Dou Hiong. It was supposed to be a good balance between reasonable price1 and excellent food2, and we were not disappointed.

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Top: prawn dumplings
bottom: steamed lotus seed paste buns; chee cheong fun with char siew

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Top: ham sui kok
bottom: siew mai; char siew pau

Total damage: 156 HKD for the above and servings of prawn dumplings and siew mai.

1. By Hong Kong standards. Doesn't help that cost of living in HK is a bit on the high side
2. Again, by Hong Kong standards. This is a good thing, as HK food standards are already high

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

High key; low key

A minuscule bottle of toilet water, priced at 45 HKD. Labelled "not for sale", these samplers are widely available regardless. The bottle and its box is wrapped in cellophane paper and displayed in a huge mixed pile of sample-sized perfumes in pharmacies throughout Hong Kong.

Low Key

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High Key

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Hong Kong

Hong Kong was great!

Before I get to the real content, I will note here for archival purposes that Jean and myself are mightily pleased with ourselves for a very accurately forecasted budget.

Before our trip, we had predicted a total expenditure of 6343 HKD (2899 MYR) inclusive of air tickets and transport to airports. At the end, we found that we had spent 6391 HKD, merely 0.76% more than the forecasted amount. *proud*


Lai King MTR Station

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The Lai King station has an attractive red/ black colour theme, nice for a few portraits.

Each station has a distinc colour theme to help distinguish the stops. For example, Tsim Sa Tsui is dark grey, Lai King is red, Kowloon is white and Tsing Yi is pale green. Helpful if you know your stop's colour, hence not requiring commuters to crane their necks to find the station signs.

Nathan Road is a busy 4 lane road lined with retail and commercial buildings. When the traffic lights turn green to release a cluster of large double-decker buses roaring down the narrow lanes, it can be quite a scene. The road is quite narrow, the pedestrian walkway is built right up next to the road (sometimes without the reassurance of guard rails), and tall shop fronts on both sides close in the scene. It feels like watching the wave from an uncorked dam gushing down a narrow pipe.

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