Archive for June, 2012

A Short Stop to Taipei

June 3, 2012 - 6:07 am 1 Comment

Who would have imagined that I would end up in Taipei? I had not anticipated on returning for at least several years. My schedule was kept very busy with meetings, but later in the evenings, I still had a chance to meet with my relatives for dinner and tea. As I discussed earlier in my journal nearly three years ago, discovering that I indeed have these deep family roots always takes me by surprise. Growing up in the USA, it’s always been the four of us – blood relations that span such a broad network always feels foreign.

My maternal grandparents appear healthy – age has treated them kindly. My grandmother’s mind remains sharp and crystal clear – dates, facts, numbers, and schedules all in order. We had a wonderful time together in the states with weekend trips to Baltimore, New York City, Atlantic City, among other destinations, but I can see why they prefer remaining in Taipei.  In general, Asian culture affords the elderly more respect and participation/relevance in community life. Before leaving, I had a chance to meet up with the Meng side of the family as well, with my various uncles, aunts, and cousins. Truly, a bunch of big personalities culminating in an excitable evening.

After visiting China, I looked upon Taiwan with more objective eyes. For the Taiwanese, China’s development has certainly been both an opportunity (FDI, investment opportunities abroad in manufacturing) and a bane (giant sucking of both skilled and unskilled labor). Compared to the ~8% GDP growth trajectory of China, Taiwan now remains in a muted developing country 3-4% GDP growth rate era. Real incomes have stagnated for years, if not slightly declining. The glory days of Taiwan – as remembered by my parents and grandparents – appear seemingly over. That being said, standards of living in Taiwan are generally high and the sense of satisfaction with life robust – at a slower pace certainly, but comfortable so.

I remember the Taipei of my youth with dubious toilets and stray dogs wandering the streets. None of this remains today. Compared to the luxury new high rises in China, old apartments still dominate the Taipei cityscape, as the democratic government has much more trouble evicting old tenants to raze the area and promote new construction compared to its communist counterpart. Although I’ve only been to Taiwan only a handful of times, the culture still resonates familiarly with me, mainly through the stories and nostalgic reminisces of my father and mother’s childhood.

A Night in Shanghai

June 3, 2012 - 5:36 am 1 Comment

I only had a few hours to walk around Shanghai after my meetings ended, but gosh, Shanghai astounded me in how western, contemporary, and “built” it felt. As a stroke of luck, I met up with my MFE friend – a native of the city who happened to be back for the weekend. We started in the Xin Tian Di area near my hotel, an affluent car-free shopping, eating, and entertainment district known for its reconstructed traditional shikumen houses on narrow alleys.  Notably, I saw the location of the first congress of the Communist Party where Mao hosted his first meeting, also the family house of Sun Yat Sen.

Without a doubt, Shanghai is the commercial and financial center of mainland China – in the 1930s, the city was one of the most prosperous in the Far East, and from the European-style buildings dotting the waterfront Bund, clearly played an important role in international trade. Along the Bund, we saw numerous former banks and trading houses from the UK, France, US, Italy, Russia, Germany, Japan, among other countries. In the 1940s, many of these buildings housed the headquarters of the big four national banks – the properties have since been released to private financial/commercial enterprises after being used for government purposes through the communist stronghold before China’s opening to global trade.

I didn’t know what to expect in Shanghai, but the skyline truly amazed me in terms of the scale. Despite China being a developing country, Shanghai stands out as a municipality with significant wealth. In 2011, the city had an average per capita income of $12,700 USD (perhaps misleading given the substantial income disparity), but regardless, more than the double the average wage in China at $5,414 USD. Considering that Taiwan has a per capita income of $20,101 USD, I found it somewhat hard to believe given that a plethora of luxury stores inundate Shanghai, albeit admittedly my reference point was skewed given the location of my hotel and the select areas I visited. Undoubtedly, there was little remaining of “old Shanghai” that I saw visible upon cursory exploration. China powers the world – in both demand for commodities and the rising tide of conspicuous consumption that drives global growth higher.

For dinner, my friend took me and a fellow investor to a traditional Shanghai restaurant where we ate delicate soup dumplings, turnip fritter, vegetable dumplings, sweet and sour fish, among other traditional dishes. We then went to the Bund to enjoy the night scene and marvel at the astounding pace of development in the city – the view was breathtaking by all accounts, the amalgamation of old and new Shanghai, separated by the river. We then went to the rooftop lounge of an adjacent hotel for a nightcap and appreciation of the scenery. Alas, I certainly hope to return one day to properly explore the museums and varied districts. With the wealth flowing through the municipality, Shanghai has expanded its collections of historical artifacts through overseas purchases, as well as established itself as an up and coming center for international design. Although part of me wanted to lament the unitary effects of globalization in transforming cities to a monolithic scheme with all the same reoccurring brands and architectural styles, at the same time, progress creates wealth and opportunity – a rising tide to lift standards of living and create a more integrated global community.

Urumqi

June 2, 2012 - 6:47 am 1 Comment

As the capital of Xinjiang province, Urumqi perhaps represents a prototypical “Tier 2” city that supposedly would still have a robust property market and development trajectory that would buoy China’s commodity demand and provide an avenue for sustained growth. I’m not quite sure that I would readily agreement to this statement considering that 40% of all housing built remains vacant and high rises and cranes litter the skyline already, but without a doubt, Urumqi will only increase in prominence as the Chinese government concentrates on promoting industrial development in this incredibly rich natural resource base. Xinjiang has abundant coal, oil, and copper reserves, among other base metals. Given cheap electricity as a result of captive local coal, it’ll be the epicenter of coal to chemicals plants , aluminum smelters, among other forms of industrial production. I had a chance to visit some of these gigantic coal and power station operations, and was astounded by the speed of construction, scale of the facility, and the aggressive plans to accelerate resource extraction.

 

Notably, the demographics of the city are unique – 13% of the population is Uighur (a Turkic ethnic group), 8% Hui (Muslim ethnic group), and 2.3% Kazak. Mosques abound in the city, and all the signage has both traditional Chinese characters and an Arabic-looking script. When we went to the bazar, renowned for dried fruits and handicrafts, the vendors were all Hui people, and I could almost imagine their ancient participation in the Silk Road. Considering the abundance of Han people globally, going to Urumqi gave me a deeper appreciation of the rich ethnic diversity within China – a fact easily neglected.

 

For dinner, we went to Milaji – a traditional Muslim restaurant. Dining on lamb served 12 different ways (on skewers, on a rotating spit, in steamed buns, as a congee…the list goes on) and relishing sweet pomegranate juices and fragrant teas, I perhaps indulged too much! Even though I didn’t have a chance to climb the famous lake on the mountain or enjoy the desert scenery (we drove pass a national wildlife reserve where I saw camels and coyotes), I wish to return one day.

A Foray into Beijing

June 2, 2012 - 6:22 am 1 Comment

This past week, I went to 4 cities in Asia – Beijing, Urumqi (capital of Xinjiang province), Shanghai, and then to Taipei. Although I did not have much free time in between my meetings, I was able to get a feel for the city in the evenings. One day, I hope to return!

BEIJING: Having never been to China before (excluding Hong Kong), I was astounded by the scale of the city. The streets amazed me in their width, and all the official buildings seemed fit for giants. As Beijing is arranged in a series of ring roads with perfect symmetry, the city combined the ancient with the modern. On Sunday, I had a chance to fit in some sightseeing with my MFE pals as guides. Starting off in Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, I marveled at the scale of the ancient imperial administration and learned a lot about the complex politics that governed society. Although Mao permeated Tiananmen Square with various shrines and murals, I sensed a general indifference in the younger generation as compared to the reverence expressed by the older generation. Given how much the Cultural Revolution disrupted Chinese society and structures of industrial production, the resilience of the human spirit manifests itself in the phenomenal development trajectory of the country over the last few decades. This new China would be completely unrecognizable to my grandparents who fled the countries when the Nationalists ceded power.

The Forbidden City housed the imperial administration from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. Built in the early 1400s, the complex consists of 980 buildings and spans nearly 1km^2, with an official outer court for ceremonial purposes and the inner court housing the residences of the imperial family. Given the scale, simply servicing the entire area would require a huge contingency of workers! I was particularly impressed by the Hall of Supreme Harmony – the ceremonial center of imperial power culminating in a gigantic throne for the emperor.

After visiting the Forbidden City, we went to eat lunch in the Hou Hai area. The willow trees by the lakes presented a tranquil scene as we died on “over the bridge” noodles and other delicacies. To get a better sense of traditional Chinese communities, we hired a “three wheeled” bike and a guide to show us the “hutongs” – or, traditional courtyard residences formed along narrow alleys. As a testament to the hierarchy of ancient society, the doorways varied in length, depth, number of wooden markers, and also the entry stone (round for warriors, square like a book for academics). Historically, the hutong was used as a the lowest level of administrative geographical division within  ancient Chinese cities, but was later abandoned.  Along the way, we stopped and climbed the ancient drum tower that helped the citizens keep track of time.

I never anticipated the scale of Beijing. Unlike New York City, the city is difficult to walk given the sheer span. With nearly 20m officially residents (those holding hukous), it’s about the same size of New York City in terms of population, but substantially more spread out. As I stayed in the heart of the financial district, Beijing felt even more “developed” than many US cities. That being said, the bifurcation of the wealthy and the working class is truly stark – the modern high rises, luxury hotels, and commercial skyscrapers contrasting with the squalor of migrant workers crammed into tiny antiquated apartments and without municipal rights. Having not seen my friends for nearly two years, it was great catching up about their latest developments, their views on Chinese growth, their concerns about the Bo Xi Lai debacle earlier this year, and their general sense of the evolution of Chinese society. In the evening, we walked around the commercial districts, teeming with people and activity. I even saw live scorpions, flailing while impaled on wooden skewers, ready to be deep fried and consumed!!

 

On a different evening, before departing the city, I had a chance to learn about the Chinese economy while relishing tasty traditional Peking Duck banquet. As a consummate favorite dish of my family, I delighted in eating a huge multitude of rolled duck pancakes (they carved nearly 5 ducks for my table alone!) – a indulgence that I hope to repeat one day, but bringing my parents and sister to share in the joy. Despite my dad’s clamors for healthy eating, I know that Peking Duck is one vice he can’t relinquish!