12/22/2013 – Day 3 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:32 am No Comments

We started off the day bright and early in Ueno, the main museum plaza. With the sun shining and the weather crisp, we really enjoyed our walk through the park to the Tokyo National Museum. Alas, I must admit that after going to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, very few Asian historical “national treasures” can compare in scale. Nevertheless, we found the collection quite extensive. In particular, the extensive Noh mask collection fascinated me – perhaps creepy almost. From Japanese swords from the 13th century and paleolithic relics to curios of the imperial family from the 19th century, the museum had an extensive sampling of art, cultural relics, and historically relevant artifacts.

After the National Museum, we headed to Shibuya – the main youth “hangout area”, similar in feel to Myongdong in Seoul of Ximending in Taipei but much more geographically expansive. We saw the statue of Hachiko, the loyal dog, and the famous Shibuya crossing so often portrayed in anime scenes. The crowds almost became overwhelming in the late afternoon, but that didn’t stop Grace and I from weaving in and out of the famous 109 department store or wandering the crowded pedestrian streets. It’s fascinating to observe the attire and appearance of the shopkeepers, each dressed in almost haute couture outfits, armed with 5”+ inch heels, and dolled up to the extreme with heavy cosmetics, blond-dyed hair, and circle lenses. The shopkeepers all talk with a certain intonation, and resemble living dolls…everyone in Shibuya certainly dresses to impress, and to be honest, I felt downright dowdy.

We stopped for soba at a local restaurant – as a general commentary, the food here is absolutely amazing and very reasonably priced for the quality. Even when we select places at random, we haven’t had a bad meal yet. I have a mental checklist of the foods I want to eat – Tokyo truly is a food lover’s Paradise. Even the bento boxes at the convenience store look delicious! In particular, I really enjoy the food halls in the basement of the department stores, as well as the restaurants in the train station. Grace certainly humored me when at 4 PM, I declared a strong desire for chicken katsu, breaded and fried tender chicken cutlet, as well as the Japanese staple chestnut Mont Blanc cake.

We left Shibuya for Ikkebukuro since we didn’t have sufficient time the first time around to wander and explore. First, we stopped in at the geisen to observe pachinko games in motion, and then we wandered back to otome lane to buy doujinshi (she’s a huge fan of Arashi) and anime goods. We wandered into a gigantic multi-story building dedicated to cosplay, with a crazy assortment of wigs, costumes, props, everything that one can possibly think of…Grace and I couldn’t help but stare.

After we built up an appetite, we went to Saizeriya, a Japanese “family” restaurant chain that serves faux Italian/European food; the name itself evocative of a faux Italian province. The food is quite inexpensive and delicious in its own very odd Japanese-Italian manner that I can’t really properly describe. I had escargot for less than $4, while Grace had a seafood gratin and an unlimited drink bar where she sipped melon and peach soda, among other flavors. Given the atmosphere, the chain was clearly very popular with middle and high school students – to me, a quintessential Tokyo experience for its quirkiness and blatant eccentricity, perhaps Italian in purported objective, but 100% Japanese in its existence.

We rounded out the day back in anime town, in which I bought some mementos and encountered a seedier side to the denizens of the area. All in all, a great conclusion to our Tokyo trip. Tomorrow, we head to the Kansai region and the heart of Japanese culture – Kyoto.

12/21/2013 – Day 2 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:29 am 1 Comment

Our second full day in Tokyo started with a trip to Tsukiji Market, the world’s largest seafood market moving more than 2,400 tons of fresh fish and shellfish daily. Even though we missed the 5 AM maguro (tuna) auction, we still saw plenty of action as wholesalers hawked their fresh goods. While trying to avoid the motorized carts that criss-crossed the floor, I managed to see the largest crab ever (even bigger than the crab that we had at the National Zoo in the invertebrates exhibit), fish of all types (some were still alive and flapping around despite being out of water…kind of cruel), gigantic shellfish (a mussel the size of my head, fresh scallops each the size of my palm), and a peek into the frozen tuna supply chain. Grace and I both felt overwhelmed – the working market certainly did not stop for tourists, and we both felt like frogger as we tried to trapeze the fishy, watery aisles. The fish market is one of Tokyo’s top sights, and it’s just amazing how much seemingly rare bounty from the sea gets transacted each day. It doesn’t seem sustainable sadly…

After leaving the central wholesale market, we explored the adjacent retail stalls nearby, many of which serve delicious fresh delicacies made from their nearby purveyors. We found the lines of the most famous sushi stands quite ridiculous at only 10:30 AM so we decided to snack our way through the market instead. We stopped for some fresh tuna and salt water eel rolls, quail egg onigiri (fondly named bakkudan or “bomb”), sweet egg omelet, and taiyaki, while sipping Calpis soda (say that quickly with Japanese-English pronunciation and the name evokes “cow piss” unfortunately). Before joining with Grace’ friend, we went to the Hanzomen gardens nearby to enjoy highly manicured traditional landscapes – evidently, General Grant had once lived on its premises during one of its ambassadorial missions after the Civil War.

We then met up with Grace’s friend and headed to the greater Ginza area to pick up a free gift from the Tourism department for foreigners, none other than a Arashi hankerchief. Grace’s friend told me that given the cost of a Arashi concert ticket can easily surpass $2,000 for foreign fans trying to buy second-hand. What a crazy industry!

Ginza represents one of the most fashionable, modern shopping plazas in Tokyo. Albeit, as I pretty much work on 5th avenue each day in New York City, the splendor of the big window displays from luxury brands came as less of a surprise. We went into the flagship Sony store where we saw products under development, and then took pictures at the famous Ginza crossing – one of the widest pedestrian crossings I’ve ever seen.

We then headed in the subway towards Akihabara – I’ve always wanted to come here after watching Genshiken in college, a slice-of-life anime about otaku culture in Japan. Also known as electric city, extremely large electronic stores filled the skyline! We went into one of the largest anime/manga stores – nearly nine floors of cramped floor space crammed full of anime goods, posters, manga, DVDs…absolutely beyond imagination and very overwhelming (almost to the point at which I wonder if the building violated a fire hazard of some sorts). Sadly, I don’t recognize many of the character designs anymore – alas, I haven’t had the time to really watch anything since college. We went to the floor mainly targeted for women, and there were all these trinkets featuring the respective bishonen (beautiful boy) of the most popular shows. We went to the floor targeted for guys, and well, some of the items sold were certainly bordering on “embarrassing to let other people know that you own something of this sort.”

We left the store, and then took a break at Mr. Doughnut. Lauren had told me that the doughnuts were very different from that of the US, and having tried them, I’m inclined to respond that they are much crispier with an even buttery texture in the mouth.

Despite the initial reservations of the group, I’ve always wanted to try out a maid cafe since it figured prominently in one of the animes that I enjoyed growing up. We went to a @homecafe, which came highly recommended by our guidebook. Well, it was certainly an interesting experience. Girls were dressed in short, exaggerated poufy maid costumes and head-ruffles complete with circle lenses and exaggerated eye makeup, and the overall ambiance exuded “extreme cuteness”. We ordered omu-rice (omelette rice) that the maid decorated with ketchup into an Arashi symbol upon Grace’s request, and sweet caramel lattes in which the maids used syrup to draw a picture of a cute bunny and dog. For dessert, a pudding was served in which the maid demanded that our group participate in a sequence of “moe moe” hand motions before serving. I had gotten the package deal for Grace, so she went on to the stage to take a picture with one of the maids that she selected from the photo box. All in all, a really weird, Japanese subculture experience – more comfortable than the butler cafe given the casual environment, but still certainly an underlying element of amazement at the sheer “oddness” of the entire establishment. Understandably, we were one of the very few groups of girls attending. I guess the frequent attendees (mostly guys) must enjoy the attention from the cute girls and the experience of being called “master” by the girls, but the cuteness may by still be overwhelming…

We then went back to our host’s place to meet him for dinner. Since he has been very friendly to us significantly beyond our expectations, I wanted to take him out for dinner as a thank-you (and also given Grace a chance to practice Japanese with a local). He chose a really delicious cook-your-own monjayaki/okonomiyaki place in Tsukushima, which actually was an island formed by reclaimed land using earth from the dredging work done in the creation of the Tokyo shipping channel in 1892. We relished the tasty food in the tiny little restaurant – interactive dining at its best!

12/20/2013 – Day 1 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:27 am 1 Comment

I haven’t taken an international full vacation since starting work after graduation. This year, however, I finally squeezed out the time to go on a trip with my sister to Japan! From watching anime in high school to relishing sushi/ramen/soba whenever I can, I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese culture and wanted to experience it firsthand.

The flight was relatively uneventful, and we landed late at night. Rather than do the traditional hotel route, I booked our entire trip with AirBNB host stays with the intention of saving some money with compromising comfort, while also giving Grace a chance to practice her Japanese. (As a side note, Grace’s Japanese language skills are essential. I don’t think anyone here understands me when I try to communicate with them in English…) Our host has been really friendly and helpful – even cooking us breakfast, picking us up from the station, and preparing photo books showing us the easiest way to access transport. Furthermore, the apartment is very clean and comfortable, with a beautiful view of Tokyo SkyTree.

Our day started early with mass confusion concerning the Tokyo subway/train lines. Evidently, given the decision to privatize the system, competing lines overlap each other throughout the central and commuter areas such that our day passes only worked on certain stations. Thinking that the stations ought to not be too far from each other, I made the mistake of convincing Grace to stop at an earlier station so we could take a walk to Meji-Jingu from Shinjiku. It looked only like two subway stations…big mistake…Tokyo is a massive city with very limited named streets and we learned our lesson that we should just go to our point of destination directly.

Nevertheless, by lunchtime, we managed to find ourselves at Marukaku, a wonderfully scenic traditional Japanese restaurant in the heart of Harajuku. Grace and I dined on grilled mackerel, rice, and pickled vegetables as we planned out the rest of our day. We then wandered through the busy streets of Harajuku, going into stores such as “Kiddie Land” (filled with extremely cute toys and trinkets), boutiques of all different styles (Takeshita dori is famous for its subculture bazaar and preponderance of aspiring gothic-Lolitas), department store basement food halls (a visual feast beyond imagination – Grace and I shared a green tea matcha Taiyaki but I saw all these cakes, breads, bento boxes, handcrafted mochi, octopus chips that I wanted to try…), and large Japanese knick-knack chain stores. The sheer amount of consumerism astonishes me – people crowd everywhere and the streets teem over with activity even on a cold, wet dreary day that hailed. Grace had told me about the many delicious desserts in Japan – frankly, it seems contrary that a nation with an average BMI significantly lower than the United States would have bakeries, cake buffets, tonkatsu shops, and crepe stands serving green tea cheesecake and fresh cream all over the place…

We then walked over to see Meji-jingu, Tokyo’s most famous shrine shrouded in the woods – a peaceful haven amidst all the bustle. By pure luck, we made it directly at 2 PM, right in time for the afternoon ritual of “feeding” the gods. We saw the priests strike a gigantic drum, and present their prayers to the Shinto gods. Compared to the shrines I’ve seen in China, Korea, and Taiwan, Meji-jingu manifests a simpler design, all curved wooden roofs without embellishment and open plazas. Constructed in 1920, WWII air strikes destroyed the original shrine, but it was later rebuilt in 1985 to the structure that we see today.

After meandering through the subway system, we exited at Ikkebukuro, a neon-light, youth-centric plaza with large gaming halls, shopping galore, restaurants of all types, among other sights. Grace and I tried the (infamous) puri-kura photo booth machines which automatically enhance the size of one’s eyes (even if you do not want it to). We also shopped around the area, browsing popular local chains such as Tokyu Hands, Daiso, Book-Off, and GU, among others. Notably, Ikkebukuro has a certain section known as “otome” road, which translates very poorly into “pure-hearted maiden” road. Frankly, I’ve never seen such a large collection of manga and anime stores dedicated to female-directed entertainment…most of which, I must admit, is far from being “pure-hearted”.

Grace managed to get us a reservation at Swallowtail, a butler cafe renowned for crafting and defining its sub-culture genre. We both looked upon our reservation with a conflicting combination of trepidation and anticipation. Swallowtail takes the concept of “butler” and “fantasy cosplay” to an extreme. They basically pretend that you are a princess, and serve you as such with plenty of bowing, extremely polite linguistic mannerisms (Grace got a kick out of this…) and references to activities that princesses ought to do, and some very odd behaviors, such as (1) not letting you pour your own tea from the available teapot, (2) butlers dressed fully in white tie with long tails, (3) not letting you carry your own purse into the venue, (4) not letting you pull the plates down from the afternoon tea tower, (5) providing a bell to ring for service and bowing after every action taken, and most oddly, (6) escorting you to the bathroom and back (when I walked back by myself after not understanding the instructions heaped at me in Japanese, I swear one of the butlers nearly jumped/leaped out at me…very weird). It was certainly a combination of awkward and interesting, the type that makes one cringe and smile at the same time. The food was faux European, with some odd amalgamations such as “Turkey Teriyaki Quiche” Normandy-style (what is this?) and Grace’s “strawberry candy tea”, but also some relatively reliable replications of afternoon tea service with sandwiches, scones and clotted cream, cream puffs, and cake, along a decent selection of gourmet international teas.

Personally, I was really surprised at how many individual women came to the establishment alone – in fact, Grace and I coming as a group was the anomaly rather than the norm. I would never do this by myself…it would be just too awkward in this pretend land of self-import. The women dining alone came from all ages and backgrounds, from young girls to middle-aged housewives. The butlers each had hair more vertically enhanced the next – some of them probably were no taller than me in height originally, but may have gained more than half a foot with the help of hair spray or some other product. Yup, sub-culture at its best – impossible to explain, but yet a very profitable niche.

After our time was up (Grace translated our exit to a butler calling us away for a carriage ride), we went to Shinjuku to see the lively night-life. We got lost several times in the process given the confusing layout of the station and sheer size of the area, coupled with narrow twisting alleys. We visually absorbed all the crazed neon lights, the clubs and bars, the ubiquitous Christmas lights in the shopping arcades, and just marveled at the sheer scale of commerciality. If only we each had had three different stomachs to sample all the food! Even the 7-11s sell tasty-looking bento boxes, fresh oden, scrumptious fried meat and fish fillets, and tasty-looking cakes.

Exhausted, we headed back home for some rest and a hot shower. We certainly covered a lot of ground today and ticked off many boxes in the quintessential Tokyo experience…I can’t wait for tomorrow when we visit the fish market!

Now into June…

June 7, 2013 - 2:15 pm 1 Comment

Alas, it’s been a while since my last update! So much has happened in the last few months – I’ll do my best to summarize.

Art for  a Cause Gallery Exhibition: We raised nearly $18,000 for the DoGoodAsYouGo Foundation! Held at AppNexus gallery, we celebrated the art and photography of talented students around the world, while enjoying Mexican food and drinks. It was a real pleasure working with Alice, Jay, and Katie – I’m incredibly inspired by the ingenuity of leveraging traveler networks to train and assist communities around the world. Similar to Givology, the organization looks for sustainability of impact and empowerment of the community through grassroots bottoms-up efforts, rather than top-down externally imposed. The NYC chapter really worked hard to pull the event together, including late night gallery hanging sessions to 2 AM and e-mail blasts out to thousands. Katie and Alice really have a talent for detail – the painstaking efforts to hang the artwork and create little signs for each individual piece really paid off with an impressive final result. I like the motto of the DoGoodAsYouGo Foundation: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But, if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mind, then let’s work together.” Click here to check out some of the art pieces that we featured at the gallery exhibition, and to purchase your prints today.

UPENN 5th year reunion: I had a fun time going back to Philadelphia for a weekend to celebrate my fifth year reunion. The reality is that not much has changed – everyone still looks the same and typically continues on working in the same industry. Furthermore, despite being five years out, I don’t feel that disconnected to university life because of all our Givology campus chapters and the influx of college students who join our team each year. Regardless, I truly enjoyed connecting with friends that I haven’t seen for years (some flew in from Asia and the Middle East!), as well as walking around the city. Notably, we attended some interesting panel discussions held by older classes at Penn that featured the stories and life experiences of social entrepreneurs, biomedical ethicists, neuroscientists, and urban developers, to name just a few. I certainly feel no nostalgia for college life – I enjoyed my classes (perhaps too much..) and delighted in my extracurricular activities, but I’m more eager to see what the next five decades bring. The pursuit of knowledge is a lifelong endeavor requiring no structured institution, but yet, there’s just something truly unique about an environment for open debate with the sole purpose of learning in it of itself, rather than a means to an end. Between the class picnics and receptions, I just had a great time.

Penn Microfinance Conference: The conversation of microfinance has certainly evolved – I remember when I attended this forum as a student in which microfinance was presented as a panacea for global poverty. How the sentiment has shifted! It was an honor to be invited back to present on the Microfinance+ panel, focusing on the links between microfinance and education, and to judge the social pitch competition. I’m truly impressed by the students who I met and the commitment on campus to bring social entrepreneurship to the forefront.

Princeton Social Enterprise Conference: Just like at Penn, the interest in social entrepreneurship has really skyrocketed, with more students willing to take a risk and pursue a different career path. In the seminar that I conducted, more than 85% of the attendees were working on their own launches, the majority technology based. I enjoyed the keynote speech by one of the co-founders of Code Academy, and his reflections on best practices and lessons learned – mainly people management. Just as I’ve discovered with the Givology, it’s so important to set the right culture and to understand what motivates people to give their time and best effort. We’re still improving our own internal processes, but in the years that Givology has grown, my role has shifted from partnerships and day to day management of our web content to just making sure that my team is engaged.

Launch of #giveinspiration campaign: Creative design can be a powerful force for change – art can be used to inspire people to think about their impact of the world, and to convey a powerful message. We’re in the process of building out our archive of interviews with artists/designers, and collecting the iconography that will be used for our product launch later this year. If you know of someone who is great for this project, please let me know!

Visit home for Dad’s birthday: It’s always such a pleasure to go home and spend time with my parents and sister. For my dad’s special birthday, I got him a heavy tome on Gravitation (his latest phase before Betrand Russell). We went to see 33 Variations at the Little Theatre in Alexandria – the story was really thought-provoking and interesting – and then went to celebrate at midnight with shaved ice and frozen yogurt. I love the experience of going home – even though my mom forgets my age and insists on treating me exactly the same way she did ten years ago, it’s sometimes nice to forget all my responsibilities and just enjoy being with everyone together.

Ice hockey in NYC: I joined a team since I missed playing too much. My skills have atrophied, particularly stickhandling and passing. My poor skates have also disintegrated into a form of Frankenskate (had to get the holders replaced, and also a new bottom for the skates since the interior rotted). Yet, still fun to play, even though I wish my games didn’t start at 11:30 PM EST sometimes! Ice hockey in NYC is so expensive – costs about $50/game + $40 for round-trip transport by taxi. Alas, it’s my one big spending splurge here.

Oh! And here’s a youtube video from our last Katra event, filmed by our talented Media Director Liza!

Givology Book – A Guide to Giving

April 20, 2013 - 7:36 pm 1 Comment

We’ve sold 1,000 copies so far since our book launch in January 2013! Get your copy here on amazon!

What is effective giving? What exactly is the meaning of giving? A Guide to Giving, written collectively by volunteers of the global organization Givology, answers these questions by delving into topics of social enterprise best practices, measuring “return on giving”, and optimizing volunteer engagement. The first half of the book is primarily a handbook for effective giving, drawing lessons from the Givology experience for budding changemakers. The second half shares the stories, motivations, and practical advice of 12 inspiring social entrepreneurs who have enabled extraordinary change around the world. Looking at statistics of global poverty, it’s easy to think, “How can one individual make a difference?” The purpose of the book is to inspire you to action to start making a difference today!

“As young as they are, the authors have realized what took me years to learn: understanding, assessing, and optimizing impact is at the core of any truly effective philanthropic act…In this book, you will find encouraging stories of giving, practical advice from amazing organizations about how to create a successful culture of giving, and a framework for how to ensure your giving yields results. I have no doubt Givology will ignite a new generation of effective changemakers.” - Bhavna Shyamalan, representing the M Night Shyamalan Foundation

The social entrepreneurs featured in the book include the founders of:

  • Shining Hope for Communities: Working in the Kibera slums of Kenya, Shining Hope runs a school for girls and a community health program
  • Circle of Peace School: For the last two decades, the school has provided high quality education to underprivileged children in Kampala, Uganda
  • DoSomething.org: Harnessing the energy and passion of young people, DoSomething advocates volunteerism as a platform for social change
  • Emerge Global: In collaboration with women’s protective shelters, Emerge Global provides a comprehensive education for girls, teaching them jewelry making skills to earn a living
  • Rural China Education Foundation: Focusing on evidence-based metrics, the Rural china education Foundation pioneers new models of education in rural China to promote effective learning
  • Peach Foundation: The Peach Foundation provides scholarships and mentorship to students in rural China, with identifying high-potential students under tough economic circumstances.
  • Starfish One by One: Catalyzing education of rural Mayan girls in Guatemala, Starfish one by one invests in scholarship and mentorship to promote leadership and achievement
  • More than Me: Working in the slums of West Point, Liberia, More than Me focuses on getting girls off the streets into schools
  • The Yonso Project: Working in the Yonso community in rural Ghana, the Yonso Project implements community-driven development and education projects
  • Colectivo TAN 473: As community art space in Guanajuato, Mexico, Colectivo TAN 473 encourages creative exploration with the goal of literacy and community development
  • Tanzanian Children’s Fund: Dedicated to improving the lives of marginalized children in the Karatu region of Northern Tanzania, the Tanzanian Children’s Fund provides comprehensive education and care to students
  • Kabultec: Championing the causes of women and literacy in Afghanistan, Kabultec promotes the development of civil society through educational and literacy programs

Fall Times

October 29, 2012 - 12:36 pm 1 Comment

It’s been a while since my last update. Alas, I seem to do poorly on my resolution to keep posting regularly! With Hurricane Sandy now passing through New York City and two NYSE market days now cancelled (in the middle of earnings season no less), I find myself with some extra time. Below are just a series of updates, in no particular order:

  • I moved into a new apartment in August – still down town, but in a much nicer building with more space and a more comfortable living arrangement. Rather than “dorm like living”, this new place now feels more like home, and I’m taking advantage of a nice kitchen and living area to cook more and invite friends over for dinner. We’ve had plenty of friends and family visit, which is always a delight on weekends.
  • I went home to celebrate my sister’s birthday in surprise. (Alas, my dearest father has good intentions but an inability to keep a secret.) Together, my family went bowling and then had a blast sharing stories and eating tasty home cooked food. Later, my sister came up with New York City to visit me, as well as attend a 2NE1 concert! She’ll be back later for a Big Bang concert in November, which I’m also excited to attend!
  • During the end of the summer, I took a short trip to Maine as well. In addition to taking a food tour of Portland, we ate eat duck fat fries, lobster rolls, fried clams, lobster, maple syrup popcorn, whoopee pies, and tons of other tasty local delights. Even though I love living in New York City and the exciting pace of life, sometimes getting away to a quiet, quaint town gives a nice reprieve.
  • In September, my 26th birthday came and passed happily, with Dave taking me out to see Wicked! Since hearing the music over and over again sophomore year while sharing a room with Lauren, I was incredibly delighted to see the actual musical, particularly from fantastic seats in the front! With dramatic prop effects, funny songs, an engaging plot, and eye-catching costumes, Wicked really exceeded all my expectations!
  • As an effort to see more of the city outside of Manhattan, I went to Flushing twice to explore ‘small eats’, reminiscent of the night markets of Taipei. Rather than going the conventional route of restaurants, we decided to journey into underground shopping malls to sample traditional dishes from food stands representing cuisine from all over China. From hand-pulled lamb noodles and bone marrow soup to spicy Chengdu tripe and beef tongue and traditional Taiwanese oyster pancake, I relished in the vast diversity of Chinese food. That being said, nothing can beat my mom’s dumplings and now my dad’s bread – for me, home cooked food still trumps everything.
  • Givology has been going well! We have so many exciting upcoming campaigns and events. On November 4th at Culture Fix from 12 PM to 4 PM, we’re holding a joint event with 10×10 to showcase volunteer opportunities in the Givology NYC chapter, as well as spread awareness about the upcoming documentary about girls’ education. Please click here to learn more about the event, as well as reserve tickets in advance!
  • With the complete new launch of our website at the end of the September (basically absorbing Carl, Dave, and me for weeks), we’re initiating an exciting 12/12 campaign for Givology to reach our goal of $120,000 by the end of this year. Not only do we have our book and product launch coinciding with this milestone, but we’re poised to make 2013 the best year yet for Givology, starting with a large kick-off event in early December. With now 16 chapters and a fully committed team in place, I’m really excited about the future for Givology.

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!