A Few Notes from China

Part of a collection of travelogues by Trevor Hopkins.

A series of notes I made when I was travelling to Taipei (Taiwan) and Beijing (China).

Taipei: First Impressions

I've just arrived in Taipei, and it's been a very odd experience. Of course, I ate and drank too much on the plane, it was a hugely long flight, and I didn't sleep very much - so maybe I'm just imagining (hallucinating?) the whole thing.

The first impression, as I left the airport in a taxi, was of visiting a reasonably prosperous Mediterranean country - say Spain - the weather was overcast but warm, and the trees (including palms) alongside the main road from the airport looked green and fresh. A fair number of very respectable cars on the road. And the architecture was only a bit unusual - modern almost throughout, but it could have been any reasonably westernized country.

And then things began to change. Of course, the funny Chinese writing on the signs was a big giveaway - although there was more written English than I had expected. But then you start spotting the shrines and temples on the hillsides - varying from tiny and secluded to huge and impressive. I passed a park, and there were dozens of kites, of all shapes and size, being flown by people of all ages.

Then, I started approaching Taipei's centre. Basically, then entire city is built on a floodplain, surrounded by big hills/small mountains. So there's lots of flood defenses and bridges everywhere. Most of the architecture is high-rise - lots of slightly stained concrete tower blocks. And then you get off the main road, and suddenly it's like being inside one of those novels by William Gibson - or perhaps the filmed version of Blade Runner - all dark, smoky, crowded with people and cars, and lit by millions of neon lights. It was fascinating and slightly spooky. The use of English on the signs dwindled to nothing, so I had no idea what's going on. But there are shops and stalls everywhere, in between the huge skyscrapers and under the overpasses - it looked like you could buy anything here...

There's hundreds of kids on motor scooters, weaving in-and-out of the traffic - and being nicked by the cops on a regular basis. I saw at least 3 tickets being issued. Do not, ever, under any circumstances, drive yourself in Taipei - the drivers are all completely loony, and I had to close my eyes and grip the door handle tightly at least three times on the 30-minute journey. The taxi driver kept weaving in-and-out of the other traffic at speed - but that was all right, since everyone else was doing it, too.

The Grand Hyatt Hotel, Taipei is astonishing. A huge modern hotel, with a zillion staff ready to leap out and grab your bags, etc. A four-story atrium - which was huge; it took me two minutes just to find the reception desk! And the use of marble, granite and other expensive building materials was amazing. It looked like very little expense has been spared to give the impression that no expense has been spared. The room's not bad - a standard room on the 15th floor - terrific view of the city hall - more granite. Very spacious - separate bath and shower, and a huge mirror over the bath. Next time, a suite on the 25th floor... Now I'm off to bed - it's 9pm here, and 2pm at home, so I'll be completely jet-lagged for a few days.

Taipei: Second Thoughts

Well, I've completed my second full day in Taipei, add I have to say that it's continues to be just as strange and interesting as I thought before. Monday was very busy - length meetings all day. On Monday evening, I was taken out for dinner by a couple of members of the IBM team. I (perhaps rather foolishly) told them that I was willing to try any kind of food, so they elected to take me to a rather well-known, and typically Taiwanese, restaurant called "Fang's", and encouraged me to try some local specialities. Well, I did try everything - the jellyfish and noodles dish was particularly nice - but some others were really not to my taste at all - I had one dish which resembled nothing so much boiled, spiced, used nappies, with extra chillis!

Tonight (Tuesday) I had survived another long day, this time with meetings with the customer. Since a major part of these discussions took part in Mandarin, I was quite lost sometimes. Fortunately, the convention seems to be that, even when speaking Mandarin, the presentations are in English, and English words are used for technical terms, so I could usually keep up. When we left after work (8.45pm), we had a late dinner in a Korean noodle place - apparently, most restaurants tend to close their kitchens early (that is, around 8.00pm!). The noodles were great, but I need a good deal more practice in eating sloppy noodles with chopsticks without getting it all over the place - I had to send one of my suits off for dry-cleaning this evening!

After dark, the streets seem to be really busy and crowded, even when it was raining - heavy, but very warm rain - and everyone more-or-less ignoring it. And the sky is permanently overcast - terrible smog - I haven't seen blue sky or sunlight since I've been here, even though the temperature hasn't fallen below 20C even at night. With the lighted signs, and the smells, and the crowds, it felt even more like a scene from Blade Runner...

Escape from Taipei

Well, I've just about survived my week in Taipei. It's been extremely hectic and high-pressure, since I've been asked to comment on practically every technical aspect of the proposal we've been working on. I've given several presentations/discussions with senior customer people (CIO/Senior VP/Director), which are interesting - these are quite formal occasions.

The way in which people work here is amazing. Everyone (at least, in the IT professional arena) seems to work incredibly long hours - meetings scheduled for 7.30am, intensive all-day discussions, and so on. At 6.30pm on Friday night, every cubicle/desk in the IBM office was still occupied! I'm sure these people do have homes to go to, but they don't seen to spend much time there...

Professional people here dress very well, and very formally. Business suits and conservative ties are very much the norm, even though the temperature is in the high 20's/low 30s. I followed this approach, trying to blend in - I haven't worn a suit so much for ages. You could spot the Americans by the jeans and lumberjack shirts... Also, it was interesting being perceived as tall - looking out over the top of a sea of heads in the lift. Another observation which took a surprising amount of time to sink in (pay attention, Trevor!) was that most meetings were 50/50 men and women - yes, I can tell the difference! - in the UK, most technical meetings are mostly (or exclusively) men.

The meals seem to have improved - no more spiced nappies! Best meal of the week was lunch in a specialist fish restaurant - just popped out for a half-hour - whole fish with ginger and spring onion, with rice and seaweed. So now I know how to pick the fish off the bones using chopsticks without ruining my suit.

On Friday night, I was taken by some of the team to 'Ziga Zaga', a restaurant-cum-nightclub inside the Hyatt hotel complex. I had my first western-style meal since I got here - much to my relief, I found I hadn't lost the knack of using knife-and-fork together! The nitespot hotted up late in the evening (i.e. after 9.30pm!), with a live band playing classic rock numbers, and singing in an American accent. And lots of sharply-dressed young people dancing away. Unfortunately, I was too shattered to stand the pace, so I bottled out early...

Beijing: First Impressions

Coming in from Beijing airport by car seemed at first to be just like arriving at Taipei. And then the differences started striking me. Firstly, I didn't have to grip the door-handle so hard - in Beijing, it seems, people drive more slowly and carefully - or perhaps there are just much fewer cars around. Mind you, they still don't worry about this overtaking-on-the-inside stuff. The other thing which struck me was that there were lots of bicycles - in Taipei, everyone seemed to have motor scooters (sometimes 3-up, with a small child standing between the drivers legs, and still zipping in-and-out of the traffic) and I don't recall seeing a single bicycle on the street (perhaps it's just too dangerous!).

The hotel is quite a contrast to Taipei. Now, of course, it could be that the difference is just in the amount of money being spent for my accommodation, but I don't think it is just that. The Jing Guang New World Hotel is described as five-star, as was the Hyatt, but there is a world of difference. The Hyatt had every modern convenience you could possibly want or need, and several I couldn't imagine a use for; the Jing Guang, although plushly appointed with granite and marble everywhere, feels small and dated by comparison. 'Faded Grandeur' is perhaps the phrase - it puts me in mind of the hotels we stay in, in the Maldives - a slight impression of things being done with a minimum of money, and much effort and manpower instead.

Other differences from Taipei - you can see the sun! It's very hazy - somewhat smoggy, even - but you can make out a large yellow thing in the sky. Temperature about 26C, so cooler outside - and much drier, too. Mind you, the hotel air-conditioning is much less efficient, so I'm still feeling hot most of the time.

Beijing: Second Impressions

It's been pretty busy over the last few days. I've given three different presentations - only one more to go! One of them was decided at very short notice - the expected speaker was not able to come - so I had to pick someone else's foils on Sunday evening, and present on Monday morning, My voice has gone a bit croaky, but I can give it a bit of a rest today.

I've still been tracking the status of the work in Taiwan, and discussing it with some of the more senior local people (also attending the same event here in Beijing). After a failed attempt to get a conference call with the Taiwan people, I left my mobile phone with some colleagues (no GSM phones in Japan and US). I felt quite naked without a phone! I'm getting quite dependent on it! I hope we get some good news from Taipei soon -if all goes well, I may well be coming back to Taiwan, at least later in the year.

Quite a lot of the class here are from Australia, so there's been quite a lot of discussions about the differences between US, Canadian, British and Australian culture, and the use of the English language. Being Australian, quite a lot of this discussion has both loud and in-your-face - thoroughly supporting the cultural stereotype - while I have done by best to avoid being perceived as a "whinging pom".

Last night I went out for a meal with the Australian crowd. Apart from me, and one other (a local from Beijing, who recommended the restaurant), the 12-strong party was all from Oz, some it got pretty noisy. This was another speciality restaurant, and again we had a large collection of interesting dishes - I tried everything. It was all really good. One dish was caused something of a stir - pork cock (yes, really!) with chillis and Pak Choi. It was quite amusing to see some of the younger Oz males claiming (after a few beers) that they would suffer irreversible psychological damage if they ate this dish - and having the piss taken out of them something rotten by the Australian females in the party...

Beijing taxi drivers are bonkers, even by Taiwanese standards. My earlier impressions were quite wrong. U-turns across several lanes of fast-moving traffic, weaving from lane to lane, jumping the lights, white lines being regarded as the merest hints, eeeekkkk! And the taxi drivers don't know their way around! The most successful approach seems to be to get some Mandarin speaker to give directions. One of the Australians speaks excellent Mandarin (and Japanese as well) - he has a linguistics Ph.D - so he's been very helpful in explaining more about Chinese culture and language.

Greater China Trip: Final Impressions

The business in Taiwan seems to be going ahead - still details (and prices!) being negotiated, but I think we are in a good position there. This probably means that I should plan a return trip - probably more than one - and this might actually be in the next few weeks. Maybe I should consider learning some Mandarin - I'm told that you can get to be quite good in a couple of years! Mind you, this was a remark from the chap who has a Ph.D in linguistics - he also had the view that everyone should speak English, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, on the grounds that this would allow for communications pretty much anywhere in the world, except for a few obscure places (like France and Japan)!

My colleague Rudi had a disaster the day before yesterday. He was planning to stay up in the evening for a while (after we'd all been out for dinner) and finish off his presentations. But, his computer failed catastrophically - a software fault which made the thing useless. And he had two presentations on it, both to give yesterday afternoon! So, we had to go to the local IBM help desk - on the 26th floor of the IBM tower - to get it all sorted out. Rudi managed to get his presentations onto my machine, and he went back to the hotel to give his talks, leaving me and the local support people to baby-sit the repair work. This means that, during my trip here, I have on different occasions given up the two machines most precious to me (my mobile phone, and my portable computer); both times, it was really strange - I felt cut-off from the world and unable to do anything. Very unnerving...

I went to a restaurant yesterday evening with Steffan (another colleague) and Rudi. The restaurant was pretty busy when we arrived, so we ended up sharing a table with a couple of young Chinese women. Steffan, who is never known to be backward when it comes to talking to young ladies, rapidly introduced himself (and us). It runs out that they were both language students - one had just returned from Grenoble (France) and the other from Japan. The girls helped with the selection of food (spicy fish cooked at the table in oil was the main dish), and chatted away in a mixture of English and French (to us) and Mandarin (between themselves). Of course, I offered (and succeeded) in paying for the whole table - for all five of us, it came to 147 RMB (about 10 quid!) - which just goes to show the differences in the cost of living.

There have been vast changes in Beijing since my last trip - which must have been 7 or 8 years ago. Then, it was all Mao jackets and exercises in the streets at dawn; now everyone wears western clothes (cutting-edge fashions, even!) and the shops are full of things you might actually want to buy. And the city is rapidly becoming modernized - more roads, huge skyscrapers going up everywhere, and so on. I get the impression that there are not that many tourist attractions - once you've done the Great Wall, Forbidden City, etc., there's not much to do - so I was glad I was working. But, I'd come again - on business - without hesitation.

Return to Taipei - The Sequel

I'm back in Taiwan again - as I type this, I'm sitting in the departure lounge at CKS airport, Taiwan, after a 10-day stint working on a couple of projects. As last time, I kept a diary of my thoughts and reactions - perhaps you'd be interested in some more of me scribblings! I've enjoyed trying to experience the local culture, and it's been very rewarding - but it has brought home to me just how big a gap there is between the "western" and "chinese" cultures.

I arrived on schedule at 5.30pm, after the usual lengthy flight. I managed to get a seat on the 'top deck' of the 747, which was pretty exclusive - also, very quiet, since there are few people moving about and the engine noise is low. There are a couple of problems, though: there is not much space in the overhead luggage bins, so do not take large bags on board. Also, the windows are set quite low, so you have to crane your neck to see out - which was the point of requesting a window seat, of course.

After arrival, I was driven to the hotel. Not a scary ride at all - maybe I am just getting used to the way in which people drive here. This time, I am staying in the United Hotel - not as posh (or intimidating) as the Hyatt, much smaller and quite comfortable. The room is quite interesting - it is triangular, with the door at the pointy end, and a large window at the flat end. Talking of windows, there is a large window into the bathroom from the bedroom - yes, really! If I were to have a companion in the hotel room (in my imagination...), then that person would have an excellent view of me showering, and so on. (I could just shut the blinds, of course!)

Riccardo in Taipei From the hotel, it is just a short trip from the IBM office - say 10 minutes in a taxi, and also 10 minutes if you walk. This tells you everything you need to know about the traffic density in Taipei centre.

I do seem to meet some interesting people. I met Riccardo, an Italian from Noo Yark, born in France, living in Taipei with a Chinese wife. Another impressive person who can speak Mandarin, as well as several European languages. Maybe I should study my books on Chinese characters more.

I had a heart-stopping experience recently - I thought that my computer had completely broken! This would have been a real calamity, since everything I know is stored in that machine - basically, it contains my entire professional life. Fortunately, it was the work of only a few hours for me to repair it, and I have in the process fixed a niggling bug which has been there for ages. I am glad I sorted out my computer backup arrangements!!

You may recall that I've been observing that people here work really hard. Well, it's always good to discover that my opinion is backed up by fact - it's not essential, mind you! I read in the China Post newspaper (an odd combination of local news and syndicated articles (inclusing sports coverage!) from the US) that South Korea has the highest average hours-per-week worked of any country in the world, followed by Taiwan. The same survey said that the fewest hours-per-week were worked by the Italians, with the British in second place. No wonder the working patterns are such a surprise to me!

The sun has finally come out. This has had the effect of making it much hotter - and very sticky, too, since it still rains frequently. It's OK inside the hotel and offices - the air-conditioning is efficient - but, in the IBM offices, the air-conditioning is turned off at 7.30pm. We've been working until 9.30pm most days - the last hour gets very uncomfortable....

It seems that some people here (particularly older women) still stick to this old tradition of exercises in public. First thing in the morning, when I am walking to the IBM offices, I pass the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Park and Hall. There's music from loudspeakers and loads of people taking careful exercises - precise and coordinated movements, rather elegant in many ways. After the exercises finish, many people stay around to chat, or to do more individual exercise: badminton, jogging, etc. So, it's clearly a social thing - a way of meeting your neighbours.

The park has another feature which puzzled me for a while. Along one edge, there's a long path paved with stones - small rounded pebbles set on their edges. At first, I couldn't work out what there were for; then I saw people wolking along the path in their bare feet, so it's some kind of exercise or massage. Coming back from the offices with Greg (an Australian I've been working closely with), we decided to have a go on the path. Off came shoes and socks, and along we go. It's really very uncomfortable - painful, even, since the very irregular pebbles dig into your feet in all sorts of unexpected places. But we struggled on - I guess it didn't help that I was wearing a 15-pound rucksack - and made it to the end. And just in time, too. Just as we finished, the heavens opened, and there was a downpour - incredibly heavy rain. We sheltered under an overhang for 10 minutes, until it stopped, and then the sun came out again. By the time I got back to the hotel, my feet felt really good (and my clothes were dry) - so it was all worthwhile!

Greg and Ken in IBM office Taipei I've worked quite a bit both days this weekend. At least I've not been starting until 10am at the weekend - I've finally managed to get some decent sleep. On Saturday evening, I went for a Japanese meal with Greg - this was a 'cook at the table' experience. My dinner had two methanol burners - one for a bowl of fish, seafood and vegetables in sauce, which bubbled away while I tucked in; the other burner heated a covered hotplate, with (initially) raw steak and vegetables. A bowl of rice, dipping sauces and some tea completed the experience. Really tasty!

I'm afraid I've not been very communicative (with anybody) while I've been in Taipei! It's been really quite stressful. Apart from the local habit of working like maniacs the entire time, the extra pressure of trying to keep straight in my head two different (and fairly complex) computer systems has been very hard work.

Another new experience for me while in Taipei - being in a real earthquake! I was in the hotel room one evening, preparing for bed, when suddenly there was a banging noise from (I thought) the next room. "Either it's an earthquake", I thought, "or the guy in the next room's having a really bad time". Then I realized that the building was swaying, and I began to feel slightly seasick! I thought "what am I supposed to do in these circumstances" - I don't think I've experienced a serious quake before. After about 40 seconds, things seems to have settled down, so I peeked out of the window. Entire buildings had completely failed to crash to the ground, huge cracks were entirely absent from the pavements, and no-one seemed to be particularly worried, so I just went to bed.

According to the China Post the next morning, this earthquake measured 6.3 on the Richter scale, but "no casualties were reported". Reassuring, yes? Later the same day, there was another earthquake, slightly stronger this time! I was in the IBM offices this time - again, no-one seemed particularly worried, although I did get a few earthquake survival tips - like: stay away from the windows, in case they shatter and spray you with glass fragments. The earthquakes were definitely a subject of conversation around the office. There was a series of aftershocks for days afterwards, too - just minor disturbances, which makes me think I'm just suddenly unsteady on my feet - but I can get the same effect by drinking a couple of beers! (There's been another aftershock while I've been typing this!)

On my walk into the IBM building in the mornings, I pass a junior school. It seems that school starts at 8 o'clock, and so the streets are crowded with mums, dads and kids. The loudspeaker from the school booms out something-or-other as I pass - sounds like exhortations to be on time - or perhaps there's rousing music instead. I don't know what the children do while at school, but I did notice a detachment armed with brooms sweeping up the grounds!

I went to a Sushi restaurant one lunchtime - you know, the Japanese-style raw fish places. I went with Riccardo, who (I discover) also spent time in Japan, and also has passible Japanese. This was fun - one of those places where the dishes of food are on a conveyor belt, and you wait until something you fancy passes by, then grab it! The plates are colour-coded (white = NT$30, green=NT$60 and so on), so they can work out how much you've eaten (and therefore how much you pay) by counting the plates. Highly amusing, and very tasty, too.

The Taiwanese seem to love their plants and gardens! Perhaps this is because Taiwan is a tiny island, with more people living here than in all of Australia and New Zealand but together - so it is hugely crowded, and almost everybody lives in a high-rise building. So, the public gardens are well cared-for, every balcony sprouts a forest of pot-plants, and many of the buildings have roof-gardens. From the 13th floor of the IBM offices, I can look out over many roof-top gardens - one in particular is astonishingly well-cultivated, and includes two full-size palm trees!

It's been a hectic couple of weeks - hardly time to relax, and certainly no time to play tourist. I think my local hosts are slightly embarrassed about this - two visits to Taiwan, and I'm yet to see anything of cultural interest! But, very productive, and (I hope) professionally successful - it's quite probable I shall be asked to return once again, so we will just have to see! Maybe there will be time for sightseeing then....