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Shanghai calling June

Shanghai calling June

Dear all

The heat has been coming our way; hot and humid as many Shanghai veterans predicted me it would be with a sarcastic expression on their faces. Why oh why does it make people feel better to find out that yet another fellow human being is going to join them in a particular suffering? ... and this is just the beginning, July and August are the real deal.

Luckily, often enough, a pretty strong breeze blows through the streets and for now still cools us as we walk to get our lunches. It does however also blow the dust of the Eternal Building sites in up in the air. A few weeks ago I was particularly unlucky and got quite a bit of grit and dust in my eyes. You should be wearing goggles if you were contact lenses I suspect!

I spent a painful first hour at the office trying not to rub my eyes that were hurting like mad. Now the rainy season has begun so the dust is less of a problem. Or so it seems. Leaving your windows open in the house, which is vital if you don't want your shoes and clothes to become a mould fest, you notice that the dust is still flying around.

In addition the sweet company of mosquitoes keeps reminding us that Shanghai was build on a swamp. Fortunately the big supermarkets now sell the little devices with tablets that you can plug in the electricity socket, freeing you from burning a coil all night close enough to your face to keep them away from there, which can leave you with a pretty dense headache. I do miss the elegant mosquito net above my bed at my parent's friend's estate in the Caribbean island of St Lucia. Of course expats staying in fancy compounds and luxury hotels have no such troubles. All is regulated by air co and windows often remain closed all the time.

Still, mosquitoes and humid heat on a late night in a leafy garden of an art deco house in the French Concession (unfortunately not mine!) or a terrace of bar along the Bund with a view of the Huangpu River (not every night for me!), are part of the experience that often times makes you feel in an old movie or novel. No air-conditioned room can offer you that same sensation. It is in tree lined wet streets of the inner centre of the French Concession, where Chinese and expats really live side by side and shop in some of the same shops, where you have to deal with Chinese plumbers and landlords yourself, that I feel most grateful for being here. This is where I would not be surprised to meet Humphrey Bogart coming out one the old lanes. The sort of alley ways that when you peek through the open gates you can only see the central walkway onto which more lanes and all the habitations are attached to. You see some bicycles, sometimes the odd person, overhanging laundry, but you can only guess how deep and extended that particular lane is and how many and what kind of people live there, what little businesses are set up in there.

I regularly enter them, since I have noticed that no one seems to be bothered by it, especially when you say hello and smile.

The lanes used to be the fabric of Shanghanese society, but as people have become richer they move to more private quarters and are replaced by migrants. I spoke last time of the social fabric change in 1949 and following years, when the communists "nationalised" all private housing and forced people to cohabite, rich and poor, mostly locals, but also immigrants. Since the economic boom, which for Shanghai was unleashed in the early 90's, a steady stream of migrants has entered Shanghai and the surrounding area benefiting from liberalising tax and other regulations.

Migrants here are the Chinese economical "refugees" from other provinces. They often speak different dialects, eat different foods (very different!) and share beds in rotation if they are extremely poor, which is often the case. The result is that the poorest in Shanghai, certainly when older, share the tight lane accommodation without the traditional benefit of being able to share and support each other. They are strangers to each other, and both older Shanghanese and migrants are liable to not being able to master the nationally imposed Beijing area dialect, Mandarin. So economic development has much like the creation of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and only 40 years later, again shaken society from top to bottom.

Last Saturday, I guided a group of 2 American and 1 Australian business leaders (Corning!) enrolled in the Tuck Executive Program doing nine months around the world with an assignment relating to their respective jobs. We walk around Shanghai for five hours. When I prepared the tour and summarised Shanghai's recent history putting all the pieces together also for myself, it is just makes it even more impressive what Chinese people have been through in just the last 150 years. Western colonial foreigners, Japanese invaders and Chinese leaders really can compete with each other on the degree of force imposed on the population, the first in terms of 100 years of racial injustice and slave labour (often in cooperation with a equally cruel Chinese mafia); the second imitated the first one just before and during the Second World War, and the third ones imposed terror mental and physical in the name of the greater good for all and the more recent changes in a free for all survival of the fittest.

For those at home still surprised or horrified at China's reaction to the West on many issues, I only repeat that we still cut a pretty bad figure here on many accounts. Both in business, complaining about improved labour laws (for the workers), often refusing basic salary pay raises especially in sales, arrogant behaviour, glass ceilings for well educated managers, bringing low cost factories, and most visible of all, the increasing import of ageing men who, date women so young and pretty, that by the look of their waist size and looks, they could only dream of them at home.

I have recently heard of a highly paid American lawyer being fired for using abusive language to Chinese personnel, but I think that is an exception.

No westerner comes to my HR firm with the brief: get me the best in his field, money is not an issue. What do we expect China to do for us, if we are prepared to give so little in return for big returns? Why do we still have double standards when dealing with humans and business, when we are the ones preaching the loudest about democracy, equality and the good life for every one on earth?

I really cannot make up my mind of where this country is going to and where the relations with the outside world are heading too. The most genuine relationships East West I see here, are friendship between women, Chinese and foreign. Chinese men are far less likely to strike up friendships with foreigners.

The sexual relationships, with very few expectations all Western man- Chinese female, most agree, are almost all physical-material "win-win" situations heading nowhere as most men, young and old, stay only short periods of time and only very few marry. Maybe I am too cynical, and things are improving as more Westerns move here, however as the partnering is rarely with "common" looking Chinese girl, so I remain sceptical!

Business relations are trying and ever tested.

A lot of things drive me crazy here. Much of it is because of to me inexplicable Chinese behaviour, both in my professional life, as in my private life. It can make you feel intensely lonely and lost. It is not without reason that the French Concession with its European history warms my heart. I would lie if I did not admit that I recognise and am comforted there.

A China old hand from New Zealand told me that I was not an exception; he had seen grown men cry out of sheer desperation in China. He himself here for 20 odd years, made sure he took long holidays on regular intervals. He needed this to remain here however much he loved China.
If I can advise one thing to the ones of you who which to venture out here on their own, it would be to try and get a solid notion of Chinese in before you come. I am all good with all my historic knowledge, but it is the use of the language that could really get me ahead here in understanding the locals.
So summerise: I find life pretty difficult here, but I should not be surprised. I want it all: understanding Chinese people, get to know them better, but I came here woefully unprepared and now I feel like I am drowning.

Luckily there are plenty of fun moments too and I have lovely Chinese and Western friends, so I am still breathing!


Some news on the HR side of things from my professional activities: currently 6 million Chinese youngsters graduate from university each year. China faces some of the most complex human resources challenges in the world today. The country's workforce is growing at 11% per year. However, it is expected to start shrinking after 2015 and by 2050, due to ballooning number of elderly and decreasing number of people born after 1979, close to a third of China's citizens will be over 60 - three times the current proportion.

Up to 30% of young graduates will not find a job in the first year. At the same time, foreign companies are not finding the kind of skilled labour they require. One of recurrent complaint from foreign companies is the lack of problem-solving capacity in new recruits. A second one is of the legal kind. The new labour law better protects workers but simultaneously limits the opportunity for short term and interim contracts which can great job opportunities and allow start ups to get their feet on the ground.

I would again say that the lack of good English and the lack of mental flexibility are real obstacles. But these are especially true for smaller companies like the many of the customers of the recruitment company I work for. I recently realised that the larger companies with sufficient funds to hire the cream of the crop and with rigid personnel structures are much less subjected to these problems. Unfortunately as far I can see, there is no organised or centralised help or information for smaller foreign companies from an EU governmental standpoint in China to find their way through the legal and mental obstacles courses. If being very cynical, I am still trying to find out what exactly the benefits of the Chamber of commerce are, bar offering network opportunities and workshops. In addition their memberships are expensive and the same for everyone, so relatively much more so for smaller fishes, and prohibitive for single individual trying to setup business here. What is really needed here is a much more comprehensive service to Chinese law and local regulations that are ever changing and corrupt. A common approach might force local authorities at least not to apply laws according the weather on a particular day and give smaller entities some protection. And this goes for private individual as well as for businesses. Let's not forget that the word is that many come to China, but few make a profit.


A massage parlour next door has very interesting menu. Apparently there is something called "Belgium Volatile oil massage".

The local newspaper has a column with newly invented words in Mandarin. I selected some for you as it gives an idea of is new and thus requires naming. It also show, creativity and not just copying is a Chinese feature.

* Boss shortcut key (loabanjian): used by internet users to quickly hide or close software or Web pages they don't want the boss to know they are browsing at work
* Tomb for the living (huorenmu): Many rich people have built tombs for themselves or family members in a country in the Three Gorges Dam area. Building tombs for oneself or living family members has become a status symbol in some places in China.
* Agflagation (nongye tongzhang): A blend of agriculture and inflation. It refers to the inflation driven predominantly by rising prices of agricultural products.
* Hitting a wall in job search (juwuba): refers to job seekers who are repeatedly turned down by employers. The expression came from another word which originally meant megatro transformer in Japanese cartoons and translates as jumbo.
* Zero Training (ling peixun): Unemployed people who have never received any professional training for a new job.


I have travelled to Beijing and to Xi'an with Lucy, but that will be for a next email due shortly with pictures!
For now just some pictures of Shanghai life.

*Pudong by night,
* the lanes hosting art shops in the French Concession and Western style bars,
*the museum of contemporary art
*and the marriage market in the park where parents advertise their child on a piece paper looking for an appropriate partner - all with a lot of laughter and big smiles!

Lucy in Shanghai (5).jpg
Lucy in Shanghai (10).jpg
Pudong by night.JPG
Afternoon with Anna (2).jpg




Gepost door Flavia