Ctrip Trouble: Beware “Free Cancellation”

Ctrip.com is one of the most popular sites for booking travel in Asia and my experiences with it have generally been positive. Unfortunately, I learned that hotel rooms advertised with “free cancellation” policies may leave the purchaser without the protection sought. I also learned that Ctrip’s customer service needs serious improvement.

I was booking a room for 5 people for a tentative stay in Haikou, Hainan. Seeing that the Tienyow Hotel offered some rooms with free cancellation, I booked one of those rooms and then prepaid. The listing with free cancellation had a higher price than the same kind of room without free cancellation, but the extra price was worth the security of having free cancellation if our plans were to change.

On the payment page, the listing continued to show the words “free cancellation” (I didn’t pay much attention to that at the time, actually, but have since verified this behavior on similar listings at the hotel) — but also had a confusing message about not being able to make changes once an order is confirmed. I figured that was standard verbiage that had not been updated to reflect the free cancellation that I was paying for. After all, I was paying extra for the free cancellation service.

When I completed payment, I received an email from Ctrip that said I had paid and that everything was nonrefundable in case I wanted to change. So I called customer service and was told that there was no free cancellation and they couldn’t do anything about it. The representative didn’t seem to get that it was a pretty disturbing, actually illegal, thing to advertise a service or benefit (free cancellation), charge extra for it, and then withhold the service. I asked to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor was too busy, I was told, but would call me back. He or she did not.

I later went to Ctrip’s live chat and explained the problem and asked for the email of the Legal Department and the CEO so I could register my complaint. They refused to give me that information, after repeated requests, and simply said that “We would inform the staff.” Huh? It took a while to get them to explain what they meant by that, but it was that they would ask a customer service person to call me. Other than that, the chat rep would not answer anything, in spite of my other questions about how they could offer free cancellation and not provide it.

Finally I did get a call from a supervisor in customer service who wanted to argue and tell me that they “had clearly” given notice that there was no free cancellation because of the conflicting message on the second page. They could not change my order because this was their policy, and they cannot change their policy.

At this point a native-Chinese speaking lawyer in my office jumped in and argued with the rep. After about 30 minutes, they offered to try to cancel the reservation for me. But that failed because the hotel refused to cooperate. Later, however, Ctrip did kindly acknowledge that there was something of a problem here and offered to cover 50% of my loss if we have to change or cancel the reservation that I’ve paid for. They also offered 100 RMB, later upped to 200 RMB, as Ctrip-bucks if we do complete the reservation. OK, that’s an improvement, but it took a lot of time and energy to get Ctrip to budge, and they still have a credibility gap when it comes to their offerings. They claim they will fix that soon. I hope so.

By | October 20th, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Shopping, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

Surviving Bank Theft in China: What to Do Immediately When a Thief Robs You with an ATM Machine

If you have taken my advice elsewhere on this site, your bank account is already set up to alert you by text message whenever there is activity such as an ATM withdrawal. But what do you do when you get the dreaded message that a large unauthorized withdrawal has just been made on an ATM machine somewhere in China or elsewhere? Sadly, few victims know about an important defensive action to take at that moment that will increase the odds of prevailing in court if your bank, like many banks in China, refuses to refund the money that was stolen from you.

Court? Really? Yes. Unfortunately, Chinese banks may actually accuse you, the victim, of having given your card to someone else to use in the usually distant city where the theft takes place. “How do we know you didn’t take the money out yourself, or give the card to an accomplice to take it out? You’re trying to cheat us!” The bank sometimes won’t even cooperate by providing you the recorded images or video of the person who made the illegal withdrawal, or providing other forms of information they might have that would show this was a criminal act unrelated to you. It’s up to you to prove that you are innocent, without any help from them. What to do?

My advice is simple: the moment you get notice of unauthorized activity, RUSH to the nearest ATM machine, use the ATM card for the account that was just robbed, and make a deposit, a transfer, a withdrawal, or some other action. Stare into the camera monitoring the machine and make sure your face is visible. Your goal: create a record about the location of you and your card at that moment. For extra protection, hold up a sign with your name and the date, maybe holding your photo ID near the camera, and also show your ATM card before and after the transaction (perhaps unnecessary since it will be read and recorded, but this will verify that it’s an ordinary card you are using). The point is to create a record showing that you and your card were in your neighborhood very near the time of the theft, ruling out the possibility that you or your card was in, say, the backwoods of Guizhou province at the time. With this approach, one Chinese man recently successfully overcame the ridiculous defense of his Chinese bank in court and was able to have the judge demand that the bank reimburse him in full for the large unauthorized theft from his account. Just in case, take your card to another ATM machine from a different and do this again. Maybe it helps if one of the ATM machines you visit is associated with the bank whose account was hacked. Create at least two records. In the process, have someone take a photo of you on your camera as you are holding your card (maybe cover the last couple of digits with your fingers) and do that with a background that is easily recognizable (street signs, famous landmark, etc.) and then text it to someone you trust to create an electronic record. These forms of evidence may be helpful in proving your innocence so that the bank will be held accountable for allowing someone to hack your account.

There are thieves out there who use your scanned card and stolen PIN to make bogus duplicates and suck your money out. Sometimes money gets sucked out from your account with inside help from crooked employees. However you are robbed, be ready to swiftly create evidence that can help you in court. Further, defend yourself by using your card as little as possible. Every transaction could result in your data being given to thieves. Always shield your PIN entry. But even that won’t help when an ATM machine has been hacked and is sending data to a thief. Keep lots of cash on hand and use only a few trusted ATM machines in well monitored locations like inside banks to reduce the risk of using a bad machine.

Don’t let large amounts accumulate in your accounts, either. Diversity your resources and don’t risk losing everything if a bank goes belly up, an account is hacked, or you make a ridiculous mistake like leaving your card in an ATM machine and walking away while the terminal is still actively connected to your account (I know someone that happened to, and someone stepped in and just started helping themselves to their money).

One more thing: Be sure to call the bank and report the theft as soon as you’ve created the evidence you’ll need to show where you and your card were located. Hopefully they will work with you, but if you have to sue, it will take several months and once the award is ordered by the judge, they may still drag their feet for a few months. Sigh. One of the challenges of surviving China.

By | September 24th, 2016|Categories: Business, China, Safety, Scams, Society, Surviving|Tags: , , , , , |Comments Off on Surviving Bank Theft in China: What to Do Immediately When a Thief Robs You with an ATM Machine

Review of The Lion King Musical at Shanghai Disney Resort, the Chinese Version of the Broadway Hit

The Chinese version of the Broadway hit, The Lion King, was one of best performances I’ve seen. Spectacular, beautiful, wonderful to watch, even for those who don’t speak Mandarin, the language it is performed in at the beautiful theater in Disney Town at Shanghai Disney Resort. We attended a matinee performance on June 11, a few days before the official opening. There were no serious rough edges that we could see. The cast was wonderful, though a few voices weren’t as strong as one might encounter on Broadway. I was particularly delighted with the costumes, which were brilliant, clever, beautiful, and fascinating to watch. Special effects were also nicely done. Dramatic, fun, well choreographed, just a lot of fun. I really like the uniquely Chinese elements that were added such as the appearance of the Chinese Monkey King a couple of times. I understand one of the songs was added also for the Chinese production, though I’m unclear on that. The Disney Town theater is spacious and comfortable, and I think seats about 1500 people.

If you are coming to Shanghai, attending The Lion King might be one of the big attractions you should plan for. Note, however, that going there by taxi can be rough since many cabbies don’t know the area yet and since the Shanghai Disney Resort Website is surprisingly deficient in basic information on how to get there. There is no map or address given! There is a chat function for help, so I tried in many ways to squeeze information out of the chat service, but they insisted that there was nothing to worry about, that you just had to say “Disney” to cabbies and they would know where to go, which proved to be completely wrong for our friends who tried to meet us early at the theater to get their tickets. I eventually got an address from the chat service–actually 3 addresses, which confused things further, but none of them were helpful to the cabbie and my friends, came within a couple minutes of missing the opening of the performance. As of today, June 23, 2016, the website still lacks an address for those coming by taxi. Huh? I tried about several times to ask the chat service person to let the webmaster know this needed to be added, and just got the delusional “no worries, there is no problem, cabbies will know how to get there” response. Disney, wake up! You are not the Middle Kingdom in the center of the world where everyone knows your location. You are in an obscure remote corner of the outskirts of Shanghai and people don’t know how to drive there.

Best to go by subway. Line 11 ends there at a station clearly marked as “Disney.”

Here are some photos of the theater.

Before or after the show, enjoy a meal at one of the many good restaurants in Disney Town. This is a fun place that doesn’t require a ticket to get in. Just stroll from the subway (Line 11, Disney station) to Disney Town and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. The restaurants include some of China’s most popular higher-end places like Shanghai Min (wonderful Shanghai-style food, one of my favorite places), The Dining Place (fairly inexpensive dim sum and Shanghai fair), Element Fresh, Simply Thai, and many others. We tried a tremendously popular US restaurant that is the first of its kind in China, the Cheesecake Factory. We were very impressed. They have a menu just like the typical menus in the States, with strong leadership from the States here to train the staff and ensure high quality service and food preparation. Food was delicious though pricey for Chinese standards, but portions were also huge, maybe twice the size we are used to in China, so for us a single dish shared would have been enough, coupled with the appetizers were bought. I had Jamaican chicken and shrimp, and it was so flavorful and tender. The guacamole was surprisingly good, almost perfect. A slight disappointment was that the fish tacos were almost cold by the time they came to the table. Looks like they try to bring all the food at once, which means uneven wait times for some dishes. Ask to have food brought hot as soon as each dish is ready. More work for the sometimes overwhelmed staff at this hugely popular place, but you deserve your food fresh and hot.

By | June 23rd, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Food, Parks, Products, Restaurants, Shanghai, Travel tips|Tags: , , , , , , |Comments Off on Review of The Lion King Musical at Shanghai Disney Resort, the Chinese Version of the Broadway Hit

Shanghai Disney Resort: Fabulous Theme Park, Awesome Lines

China is buzzing about the new Shanghai Disney Resort in the southern end of sprawling Shanghai. On Saturday, May 28, 2016, my wife and I were kindly invited to attend a “soft opening” event at Disney, about two weeks before the official start date. Even though it was a rainy day, there were MANY people there. We were accompanied by about 40,000 other lucky people, creating lines as long as 5 hours (as in FIVE HOURS!!!). This was with about 70% of the rides open, so when in full operation, there will be more lines to divert the crowds, but the crowds could be even bigger. During regular operation, even bigger crowds are expected, perhaps as high as 70,000 or so. Wow.

This was a “stress test” day since other days of the soft opening had been limited to about half as many people. It was wonderful to be there, but there was plenty of stress.

Our favorite ride of the day, by far, was Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course, to be fair, I should point out that it was our ONLY ride of the day. We tried to get through the Tron ride, twice actually, but gave up even though we had managed to obtain a fast pass ticket for our second attempt (with the help of a kind friend) and were just minutes away from entering. But then there was a mechanical problem that shut the ride down before we could go on it (I later learned that an employee foolishly opened a door that could have let someone walk onto the track, and the interlock safety system shut the ride down for safety reasons until they could troubleshoot the problem), and we were out of time. We had to leave early for a dinner event, unfortunately. One day, one ride–but it was still a great day.

If you go, don’t make our mistake of attempting to get fast food in one of the big eateries. That wasted an hour and a lot of money, and we ended up walking away from our food, largely uneaten. Ugh. Bring you own. But Remy’s Patisserie was excellent and fast, with perfect spinach quiche. Try that, perhaps, but now the hamburger joint near Tron. Ugly lines, very slow, and lots of craziness.

Prepare for Disney by using the fast pass system and by making online reservations. Do your homework first! Then enjoy. Please don’t stand in any line over 3 hours long! Life is too short.

By | June 1st, 2016|Categories: China, Products, Restaurants, Shanghai, Shopping, Travel tips|Tags: , |Comments Off on Shanghai Disney Resort: Fabulous Theme Park, Awesome Lines

Renting an Apartment in Shanghai: Some Practical Tips

We’ve lived in Shanghai for almost 5 years now and have rented four different places in this time (#4 about to start). Moving is a pain, but it’s given us some valuable experience. Here are some tips based on what we’ve seen.

Looking for apartments in Shanghai usually involves a real estate agent who will help you find an apartment. You’ll be asked to sign a one-year rental agreement. Anything less is difficult, but can be done with special arrangements, but only with a minority of landlords. Those needing an apartment for less than a year might try subletting a place listings at SmartShanghai.com or by personal connections with Shanghai residents willing to let someone use a room for a while.

You will need a lot of cash. In general, apartments are rented out one year at a time with contracts requiring one or two months’ rent as a deposit, and then upfront payment of the first two or sometimes three months of rent. This is a big surprise for many foreigners coming here, for it means that obtaining an apartment in one of the most expensive cities on earth will require at least three and usually four or five months of rent paid before you can even move in. In addition, you will also need to pay 35% of one month’s rent (typically, but be sure to check) as a fee to the real estate agent. (That may seem like a pretty steep fee for the work of signing you up for an apartment, but it’s actually worse than that because the landlord has to pay also, and the going fee now seems to be 100% of a month’s rent as payment from the landlord to the rental agency they signed up with.) Many foreigners coming here are shocked to see how expensive apartments are (e.g., often 2 or frequently even 4 times as much as in many US cities), and are even more shocked to see how much cash they have to provide in their first few weeks.

The company that brought you here typically won’t help with any of that upfront cash you need to pay. If they offer housing assistance, as many do, it comes in the form of a monthly stipend that will start after (maybe a month or even two after) you’ve paid all that cash and moved in. You will need to provide a fapiao (official government tax receipt) for the first month of rent from the landlord to your work and it must be listed with the exact name of your company (generally) in order for you to get reimbursed for one month of rent at a time.

For the process of finding the apartment, here are some tips:

First, if you don’t speak Chinese, bring or hire a Chinese-speaking friend to help you get the information you need. If you rely on rare English-speaking agents, your choices will be much more limited and it will be hard to find multiple agents covering a desired region, which is part of Tip #2 below.

Second, work with more than one real estate agent to find a place to rent. The listings from landlords are not all visible to every agent, so the perfect place for you might not be known to the first agent you work with. The quality and diligence of agents varies greatly. Most recently, for example, we started looking about seven weeks before our current contract ended. We had one agent we really liked who took us to a few places but then told us that we needed to wait a couple of weeks before we came back because landlords were not willing to sign a contract what would start in mid-June when it was only early May. But as we were saying good-bye to that agent, another one approached us on a street corner and said he could do better and that he thought it wasn’t too early too look. He worked hard to come up with some places where the landlord was somewhat flexible, and we soon found an ideal place that we’ll be moving into shortly. But during out search, we worked with three different agents, each with different listings and different strengths.

Third, be very clear about what you want and understand where you can compromise. Some people want to be up high enough to have very few mosquitoes. But if you could save 1000 RMB with a place on the first floor, could you cope by using bug zappers and mosquito netting over your bed? Do you really need two bathrooms? If you have lots of guests, this can be especially valuable. Understand how much space you need for the kitchen. Do you need an oven? Do you need a dryer? These are rare but some places have them. Understanding the difference between “nice to have” and “game over if I don’t have” is vital, because you are probably going to have make some compromises or pay a lot more than you want.

Fourth, generate lists of questions and issue to consider and discuss by visualizing details of your life when you are in an apartment you are considering. Look at the kitchen layout and consider how you would use it. Is the fridge too far away for practical work? Is there inadequate storage space? Obvious dangers? In other rooms, look at the electrical outlets and see if there are enough. See if windows can be closed and sealed off in winter to keep cold air from flowing through your home. See if air conditioners work, hot water flows, etc. Sit calmly and listen: is there lots of honking from street traffic, or are you in an peaceful place where you have a chance of getting decent sleep? Try out the furniture. Designed for someone half your size? Feel the bed. Rock hard? If reading is important to you, is there a comfortable place with decent lighting you can use? Look carefully at the neighborhood and the street you will live on. Is the traffic clogging the road all the time? Are there no taxis? Also, make sure your clearly understand if the quoted rent includes a fapiao (if you need two fapiaos, this could be trouble, and make sure that is clearly and plainly explained, and make sure you explain that you need real fapiaos, not fake ones–no kidding!). Ask if there are any extra fees you are responsible for. Will there be an installation fee to start Internet or TV service? Understand parking rules for you or for visitors.

Fifth, don’t trust everything you see or hear. Many online apartment listings rely on fake information to lure you in, and some agents you meet will feed you fake information to win you as a client. This fake information will be a listing that looks absolutely perfect, such as an ideal apartment in the place you want, in your budget, with loads of cute extras that make it seem like a real steal. When you call the agent to schedule a visit, you’ll find out that it has “just been sold.” That same apartment may end up “just being sold” over and over again. It may not even exist. I suggest not relying on that service or agency if they play that game. Further, real estate agents will often make statements when they don’t really know the answer. Be suspicious and ask how they know. Some agents, especially those working for firms that seem to be trying hard to push market prices higher, will quote you greatly inflated prices. Checking with multiple agents can give you a feel for what the real price should be for a given type of apartment.

Sixth, negotiate. Three times we have offered somewhat less than the asking price and had success, but if you ask for more than, say, a 10% reduction, you might not only get a rejection but find that the landlord is not willing to talk with you any more at all. But do negotiate, respectfully. In one place, we pointed out how terrible the furniture was and got the landlord to agree to lower rent if we scrapped some wasted furniture and bought our own instead of requiring the landlord to buy new items. We got 1000 RMB a month off our rent which quickly paid for the cheap used couches and a used bed we bought from expat friends who were moving back to the US. In another place, we got the landlord to buy an over for us if we would pay 500 RMB a month extra, which was fine with us–but in the end a bad deal for us because we stayed there two years, and an over costs about 5000 RMB. Oh well!

Seventh, allay landlord concerns. The visit to an apartment with a landlord present is a two-way interview. You are trying to find out if the landlord will be reasonable, but the landlord is keenly interested in seeing who you are. They have invested way too much money in this place and don’t want to lose it through a disastrous tenant. Dress nicely. Be on time. Be very pleasant and polite. Compliment the landlord on the things you see that are positives. Act like a considerate guest. The feeling they have about you can play an important role. They want responsible, trustworthy people who aren’t going to trash the apartment or sublet it to a tribe of party animals.

Eighth, once you’ve found the right place, be prepared for the closing. Find out if the landlord wants the upfront payments in cash or via an electronic deposit (credit cards often are not accepted for these kind of things). If you need, say, 40,000 RMB, realize that you can’t get all of that on one day from an ATM machine, but you can get it from a bank if you have an account there with that much in it. Otherwise you may need to have money wired to China from a US bank. Also as part of preparing for closing, ask the agent to get a copy of the contract to you before the closing so you can review it, and make sure it is in English and Chinese (but the Chinese terms will govern if there are any differences). If they have changed the agreed-upon terms or offer new unexpected conditions, be ready to walk. Also have someone who knows China and Chinese be there with you are at least available to help if there are any issues or questions. Inspect the apartment carefully and make sure agreed-upon repairs or changes have been done or are spelled out in the contract.

Ninth, prepare for moving out of your old place.  Be sure to give your previous landlord plenty of notice (usually by 30 days or a month before the last day of your contract, you need to give written notice if you aren’t going to continue) and cooperate fully to help them sell the place. Keep it clean. Do your best to be thoughtful of your old landlord. While that’s just good human behavior, it also has a practical aspect: it may increase the chances of you getting your deposit back, or at least some of it. Sadly, some landlords make excuses and keep the deposit. We’ve had luck so far in getting our deposit back, though we have another deposit quest coming up soon. Wish us luck. Have an inspection meeting with your former landlord to review the apartment and see if there have been any unusual damages. It may be good to have photos of the place when you moved in and photos of the current place to show that you’ve taken good care. If you’ve spent money on repairs or other things, receipts will be helpful. You may need to prove that the furniture you wish to remove from the apartment is actually yours, since the door guards (“menwei”) at apartment complexes are trained to prevent theft from departing tenants and so will require conformation from the landlord for you to remove something you may own. Make sure you move on a day when the landlord is available by phone.

Tenth, when you move, take many precautions and get help. Hire movers to move your stuff if you have a lot, and watch over the process carefully. They may be fly-by-night and can damage many things. Work with them to protect whatever is really valuable or move it yourself. For special items like a piano, go to a piano shop and get their recommendation for skilled piano movers. Work with the agent and landlord to make sure that services like power, Internet, gas, etc. are operating when you move in. Be very careful not to damage walls, flooring, windows, or light fixtures as you move in. Make sure you have keys and understand how to enter the complex and the building (passwords, key tokens, etc.?).

It can be tiring, but with luck, you’ll have avoided major disasters and will find yourself in a pleasant new setting in one of the most delightful and beautiful cities on earth, Shanghai.

By | May 29th, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Housing, Shanghai, Shopping, Surviving|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |Comments Off on Renting an Apartment in Shanghai: Some Practical Tips

China’s Dangerous Housing Bubble: Lianjia’s Bold Efforts to Support Price Momentum

China’s housing market may be in a bubble, especially in top-tier cities like Shanghai, for that markets seems to share some of the same excesses that the United States had in its real estate shortly before the subprime mortgage crash in 2007. Here in China, we have a flood of newly created cheap capital flowing into the market at low interest rates for easy loans. We find unusual business models popping up to exploit the cheap credit and drive up housing prices and demand. What is happening is not sustainable and represents a huge misallocation of capital. The problem could get much worse, as it has in the United States, through vigorous government “help.”

Easy credit from the banks of China and China’s equivalent of “quantitative easing” have been used to stimulate the markets, just as was done with little success in the U.S., Japan, the European Union and Zimbabwe (before their cataclysmic crash with hyperinflation and economic chaos). Initially much of the new money being created was being used to drive the Chinese stock market. As that bubble popped, wealthy Chinese looked again to real estate as the traditional safe way to make lots of money. In popular cities, home prices have shot up. In Shenzhen, housing prices show a 57% increase over last year. That’s an insane rate showing something is wrong.

Owners of apartments until recently were not too concerned about rental rates since they real money were making was coming from rapidly appreciating property values in cities like Shanghai. But with fear that recent rises were no longer going to be sustainable, rental prices are now getting more emphasis. This appears to be driven in part by the very large-scale actions of a giant force, the real estate company Lianjia (United Homes), according to a friend of ours who is a real estate agent. Lianjia is a respected heavyweight in the market. It has somehow managed to obtained huge capital reserves that it has used to buy up many former competitors, giving them a stranglehold on the real estate business, at least in terms of the agencies and agents that buyers, renters, and sellers use for transactions of homes and individual rental units. According to our friend, they are also using large amounts of capital to make loans to customers who otherwise might not be able to afford the down payment of a new property. Further, they are actively working with property owners to push for significantly higher rental values. This increases their commissions and also make landlords happy. I am not saying this is unethical, just that it is bold and seems to require easy capital to keep the momentum going.

In spite of a slowing economy in China, many renters are reporting significant jumps in rent this year, at least here in Shanghai. Our landlord, for example, wanted to increase our rent by 33%. Since we take good care of the place and don’t make many demands, though negotiation, she was willing to sacrifice to help us by just asking for a 24% raise in rent instead. But she has agents from Lianjia calling her and saying she could be getting 33% or even 40% more. This seems to be happening all over the city.

In looking for new, more affordable apartments, my wife found that when she went to the nearby Lianjia office and asked for places with a price similar to what we have been paying the past year, they said it wasn’t possible and that we would have to pay a lot more to get a place with the features we now have. When we went to one of the increasingly hard-to-find non-Lianjia dealers, we learned that there certainly were places in our price range that could meet our needs. While my wife and a non-Lianjia agent were looking at one apartment priced at 14,000 RMB, a Lianjia agent came to the same place with a Chinese girl who was looking to rent. She liked the place and asked how much it was. My wife heard the Lianjia agent say it was listed at 18,000, a full 4,000 RMB above the actual asking price. The girl was shocked and wondered how it could be so expensive. She turned to the agent my wife was with and asked what price he had been told. Not wanting to make another agent lose face, our agents just nodded his head and said it was 18,000. But this apparently was Lianjia’s attempt to drive up the price, deceiving a customer. Ugly. That may be a rare exception, but our non-Lianjia realtor also confirmed that Lianjia is aggressively talking up the prices. Landlords seem eager to listen to this talk. But this bubble is unsustainable.

By offering easy loans to customers who might not otherwise be able to get one, and by collaborating with landlords to drive prices up, the rental market in Shanghai has been booming at a crazy pace, the kind of pace that looks like a classic bubble. The housing bubble is already popping in Hong Kong, with a significant drop now in housing prices since the Sept. 2015 peak, said to currently be in “free fall.” That cold front may soon sweep northward to cities like Shanghai.

In bubble economies, it’s hard to tell precisely when the insanity will stop. With abundant injections of cash and other policy actions, the government could keep driving up prices for a while, but eventually (what, two more months? maybe six? a year?) economic reality has to kick in, and when it does, it can be painful and sudden. The bigger the steps taken to keep the bubble going, the worse the pain will be and the longer the correction will take.

When cheap mortgages to unqualified buyers begin to fail and threaten the banks, we could be in for a repeat of the subprime mortgage crisis the US faced a few years ago. When property owners begin to see that real estate values can drop significantly, they may look to the ultimate way of preserving capital in risky times: precious metals, particularly gold and silver. A dramatic pop of any kind in China could send shock waves throughout the world.

What to do? Be prepared for trouble. Get out of debt. Have cash on hand to keep you going for two or three months in case there is a run on the banks (the available currency in the US is a tiny fraction of the vast amount of digital money that has been created, and if banks fail or are hacked, turning those digits into something you can spend may be a challenge that faces many delays, not to mention massive threats of hacking). Physical cash on hand may be an important part of your survival kit. Food and other supplies, and some gold and silver coins or bullion, may be a good idea.

By | May 15th, 2016|Categories: China|Comments Off on China’s Dangerous Housing Bubble: Lianjia’s Bold Efforts to Support Price Momentum

Passport Tip: Keep Photocopies, Carry a Copy, and Have Photo on Your Phone

There are many times in China when you’ll need your passport. For travel and bank transactions, you generally need the physical passport (sometimes even train travel requires that, though it’s hard to predict when there will be a passport check to get into the train station). But for buying train tickets and a variety of other situations, a photocopy or cell phone image of your passport is fine. I recommend that you always have an image of your passport with you in your wallet or purse, plus have an image on your phone. I also suggest that in addition to an image of your main passport page, you also have an image of your current visa.

Don’t allow hotels to keep your passport. Some want to hold them at the front desk, but this puts you at risk. One person I know had their passport stolen that way. Leave them with a photocopy if they need something from you, but don’t give up your passport.

By | April 27th, 2016|Categories: China, Safety, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: |Comments Off on Passport Tip: Keep Photocopies, Carry a Copy, and Have Photo on Your Phone

One Nutritional Supplement You Probably Need in China: Vitamin D3

The medical literature tends to suggest that people waste a lot of money on the vitamins and other nutritional supplements they buy. But here in China, there is a vitamin that I think you may need: D3. Vitamin D3 is normally created in our skin by sunlight, but sunlight is sadly lacking in typical Chinese cities because of the air pollution. Even when there is sunlight, there is not much UV light getting through the haze. In the US, people also get some Vitamin D in dairy products since it is routinely added to milk, but I haven’t seen evidence of that being standard in China and dairy products tend to be a much smaller part of one’s diet here.

Lots of people here have lingering colds and coughs. In a couple of cases I know, giving the sufferers regular vitamin D3 helped them get back to normal. D3 is said to play a role in strengthening the immune system and other systems. It’s something we really need in China. You can buy it here, but it’s much more expensive than in the U.S., so I recommend that if you are coming to China for a long time, bring a good supply of Vitamin D3 with you and stay healthy.

By | January 11th, 2016|Categories: China, Health|Tags: , , , , , |Comments Off on One Nutritional Supplement You Probably Need in China: Vitamin D3

Where to Find Cheese in Shanghai: 2015 Update

2015 Update: The previously recommended wholesale market on 1255 Linahua Road that I recommended back in 2012 has been closed, and the key stores selling cheese have moved to a new location north of the airport at 333 Zhangye Road, south of Cao An Gong Lu (Cao An Highway).

One of the great mysteries of expat life in Shanghai is where to find cheese. Some expats rely on expensive cheese sold in small delis in the French Concession or places like the deli at the Westin Hotel/Bund Center. Some rely on cheese sold at supermarkets such as Tesco, Metro, Carrefour, or City Shop. But if you use a lot of cheese or just want the best price on cheese, you should know about the food warehouse in Jiading District Minhang District which supplies cheese and a lot of other products to restaurants all over town. There you can buy cheese for prices surprisingly close to what you might pay in the United States. A 3 kilogram block of good Gouda cheese was purchased yesterday by my wife for 165 RMB. That’s under $4 a pound for cheese in Shanghai. Awesome! You can also get similar blocks of mozzarella, Emmenthaler (Swiss), or cheddar. We love the rich, full flavor of the Gouda cheese, though.

The address is 333 Zhangye Road (张掖路), south of Cao An Gong Lu (Cao An Highway,曹安公路), north of the airport. From Hongqiao the cab fare is about 50 RMB. The shop we like is Xinzhiwang (鑫之旺). Phone: 61277793.

333 Zhangye Road: This is the place for inexpensive cheese!

Sunline (Xinzhiwang) at 333 Zhangye Road: This is the place for inexpensive cheese!


Big blocks of cheese in this cooler.

Big blocks of cheese in this cooler.

Cream, cheese, and other great products in the cooler.

Cream, cheese, and other great products in the cooler.

Some of the other import stores and dry goods stores inside the complex.

Some of the other import stores and dry goods stores inside the complex.

More cheese at Sunline.

More cheese at Sunline.

Sunline's business card.

Sunline’s business card.

View of the complex from the street.

View of the complex from the street.

This mecca of affordable cheese is inside a big warehouse at 1255 Lianhua Road, Shanghai. You enter this warehouse along a road used by forklifts or other vehicles. On the second lane to the left inside, you will find a row of shops. One of the first is SunPin Ran’s outlet, Shanghai Topwin Foods Trading Company (www.TSFoods.com.cn). Email contact: hero.db at 163dotcom, or call 021-5480-2293. Fax: 021-54934329.

By | October 11th, 2015|Categories: Food, Restaurants|Comments Off on Where to Find Cheese in Shanghai: 2015 Update

Travel Tips for Thailand

Just returned from my second trip to Thailand. The first was in Bangkok. This time we went further south, flying to Phuket, then taking a ferry to Phi Phi Island (Kho Phi Phi), another ferry to Krabi Town, and then flying to Chiang Mai.

Thailand is one of the easiest places in Asia for Westerners to visit and enjoy. It’s generally safe, both in terms of personal security and the safety of the food. It’s also convenient, for the most part, for most important signs include English and many people speak English, so hotels, restaurants, and shops are easy to use. Many cabbies also speak some English.

While theft is low and the people are usually honest and kind, there are some risks. On Phi Phi Island, a man from Brazil we met explained that shortly after he used an ATM machine at a  bank on the island (one of the numerous yellow ATM machines associated with Krungthi Bank), his account had several thousand dollars stolen from it. The ATM appeared to be secure and did not have bogus scanners or cameras attached to it to steal his card information. After discussing his case with his bank card company, he concluded that someone at the Thai bank must have helped make this theft possible. He went to talk to the local bank and of course, they denied any knowledge or complicity. One day he might get his money back, perhaps, but he was relying on that account to pay for the remainder of his trip. Fortunately, he had brought along enough cash to get by and would be OK, but the prospect of having an account cleared out by a local thief working in or with a bank made me unwilling to risk using an ATM card in Thailand.

My tip: avoid the risk of ATM fraud by bringing enough cash for your trip. I had brought along some hundred dollar bills from the US, and before coming my wife had converted Chinese RMB into Thai Baht at a bank in Shanghai. We budgeted our last couple of days very carefully so the money we had converted turned out to be just enough (OK, I skimped on our last meal and wished I had had another 100 Baht or so), avoiding the need to use an ATM machine or to use any credit cards in Thailand. (To be fair, I also avoid using credit cards in China, and am constantly on the alert for ATM risks, though I do use ATM machines in China frequently.)

In Bangkok, taxis are a pain because they want to charge foreigners very high rates and don’t want to use the meters. Have a Thai friend help or at least know what a reasonable fare should be for your destination so you can negotiate from a position of knowledge and walk away when the rate is way too high.

In Chiang Mai, there are metered cabs at the airport, but they are rarely seen on the streets. Instead there are abundant tuk-tuks (motorcyle-powered vehicles with three wheels that seat two people) and red trucks (small covered pick-up trucks with seats in the back that can hold up to about 10 people). Fares are negotiated but are usually quite inexpensive (maybe 80 Baht to get across town, 20 or so Baht for a few blocks). You can rent one of the red trucks for a private trip to a destination like Doi Suthep. For long trips or any trip where you care about comfort, safety, and the ability to see where you are going, rent a private driver in a nice car (typically a minivan). A day of driving in the off-season will cost around 1000 Baht (about US$27).

Both of our trips have been in the fall (September/October), which is a great time to visit Thailand. Not too hot, not too crowded, though it is the rainy season so be prepared for several days of rain. For us, that was OK. It was still sunny when we really needed sun and fine otherwise, though some views were less than ideal. But we here that in the peak seasons, the popular beaches and other attractions can be both unpleasantly hot and overcrowded. Not for us.

Electricity is fairly easy to manage. US plugs, both two- and three-pronged, will fit into the standard outlets here, which are around 220 V. No problem for typical electronics. I’ve read that sometimes outlets aren’t well grounded, so be careful, but we had no trouble in the places we stayed.

In spite of the beauty of Thailand, many places can be a little run down. Watch your step: sidewalks may have unexpected holes or other dangers. Walkways may be missing boards or have dangerous openings or unstable sections. Watch your head also: there are plenty of poles and other objects waiting to gouge your head if you aren’t careful, especially if you are tall.

It’s a beautiful country and a great place to relax, enjoy the scenery, enjoy adventures like elephant riding, diving, and white water rafting, and enjoy wonderful food. As for food, Khao Soy, a Chiang Mai specialty, something like a coconut-based curry with noodles and fried noodles on top, was one of our favorites, along with Massaman curry and Panang Curry. We also loved the fresh fruit drinks and smoothies.


By | October 5th, 2015|Categories: China|Tags: , , , , , |Comments Off on Travel Tips for Thailand

Joyous Living in China (and Perhaps Other International Settings)

Having shared a variety of my experiences here in China on the pages of my Shake Well blog, I hope some of you will be more willing to come here when the opportunity comes. I thought coming here would be a sacrifice, but it has been a blessing and joy beyond all my expectations. After four years, hardly a day goes by without me expressing wonder and gratitude at the privilege of being here. My love for China has only grown, in spite of the various challenges that Westerners may face here. I deal with some of the challenges and the more daunting aspects on the Surviving China section of my website, where I discuss some issues like the occasional scams to avoid, the problems with the Internet, dealing with food safety, etc. Lots of places will give you advice on those topics, and it’s important to understand them to stay out of trouble and survive here.

Beyond mere survival, though, comes a more important factor: joyous living. For many foreigners who find China an endless frustration and can’t wait to get back home, the joyous living part may seem remote. I’ll admit that sometimes foreigners end up in situations that are difficult and painful. But I’ve seen foreigners living in remote, difficult locations on shoestring budgets finding the same excitement and happiness that I’ve experienced in Shanghai, where my circumstances are favorable in many ways, and I’ve seen foreigners with much better settings who find the place intolerable. I’ve learned some valuable lessons from those who seem to living on more than their fair share of joy here, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned.

If you approach China in the right way, I feel you can make your in China one of the most enjoyable and rewarding times of your life. (This probably applies to many places, but there are some uniquely wonderful things about China.) China offers a richness of culture, scenery, history, language, and food that can make life here better than what you might experience anywhere else, but it takes preparation, work, and some mental adjustments to discover the richness that is here. You may also find Shanghai in particular to be one of the safest, most convenient and most delightful places on earth, IF you are flexible, overlook some gaps, and enjoy the strengths and beauty of the city.

It Begins with the People

Finding happiness in China, in my opinion , begins with the people. In spite of my various warnings about scams and other dangers that I give elsewhere, you need to understand that the Chinese people in general are kind, honest, friendly, and very kind to foreigners. There are times when you might cause problems and cross over hidden boundaries when it won’t seem that way, but you’ll soon learn how to avoid those situations and how to act properly for Chinese culture.

The key to finding joy in China, in my opinion, is learning to respect and love the people. Once you discover who they are and what they have to offer, it can change your life and your attitudes. To begin, you need to get out of your expat shell and make friends with the locals and learn about their lives. There are many ways to do this, such as:

  1. Hire a Chinese teacher to come into your home at least once a week and teach you Chinese while also discussing Chinese culture, current events, etc. A good teacher can help you understand the vast culture behind the words and better look into the heart of China.
  2. Invite your neighbors and other Chinese acquaintances into your home for dinner. This can lead to lasting friendships and great exchanges of information. Some of our lasting friendships arose by apparent chance after talking to a stranger on the street or chatting with someone on a train. Talk to people, make friends, and follow up.
  3. If you have guards (“menwei”) at your apartment complex, smile at them, wave, and occasionally bring them treats, especially Western goodies that you make or bring to China. A plate of cookies for them to share with each other can earn you a lot of “brownie points” and help you make friends. If you can afford it, I also strongly recommend giving “hong bao” (red envelopes with some cash) to all your menwei right before the Chinese New Year holiday. Once you understand how little they make, you’ll be grateful for the opportunity to give them a bonus. That kindness will often be more than reciprocated by the help they can give you. For example, once my wife left her suitcase in the back of a taxi. The menwei at our complex spent an hour or so reviewing security camera video footage to track down the cab and then recognized and called the cabbie, and we had it back that day—in time for a flight that night. They could have just said, “Too bad!”
  4. Treat your ayi (maid) well, if you have one (this also applies to a driver or others who might be hired to help you). One of the benefits of living in China is that help in the home is very inexpensive. Actually, it’s often too inexpensive. While you may hire an ayi at a fair market price, take care of her with occasional tips, be sure to give an extra month of salary in February as part of the traditional employer obligations to employees at New Year festival (you can pro-rate this if they have been working for you for less than a year), offer to pay her transportation costs to get to your place, and pay her even when you’re away and she doesn’t need to come to work (giving her vacation, in essence). A happy ayi who trusts you and respects you can spare you from a variety of problems and will be motivated to go out of her way to help you.
  5. While tipping is not required, I suggest doing it when you can. Cabbies will always appreciate it. Once you learn how little they earn for working so hard, and what a small portion of each fair actually goes to them, you’ll realize that a small tip makes a big difference. When they are friendly and helpful, why not give an extra tip and make them really happy?
  6. Don’t just shop at expensive expat stores like Carrefour. You will get some of the healthiest, freshest, and tastiest produce, eggs, and even meat at local wet markets. There you can become a regular and make friends with vendors, and experience an important part of Chinese life: the market. Chinese markets are wonderful, but often missed by foreigners.
  7. What about annoying people pushy salesman who approach you on the street selling questionable products? Perhaps they are scammers or crooks, but there’s a good chance they are real people with real needs. They get rejection all day long. Instead of brushing off the salesmen, be polite, smile, and say “Thank you.”
    BACKGROUND: A friend of mine asked a wise Chinese man for a powerful Chinese “zinger” to put annoying salesmen in their place and get rid of them. “What can I say to verbally shove them away?” was his question. The highly educated Chinese man thought for a moment and said, “Try this phrase: Xiexie.” My friend was surprised: “Wait, that just means thank you!” “Yes,” said the Chinese man, “and it’s the right thing to say. Those pushy salesman are just people trying to make a living, and deserve as much respect as you or I, even if we don’t want their goods. So don’t try to make them feel bad. Just be respectful and say ‘Thank you’ or ‘No thanks.’” My friend told me he felt humbled by this and saw those annoying people on East Nanjing and elsewhere in a new light.
  8. What about beggars? There’s a chance that they are scammers, but there’s also a good chance that they are real people in difficult situations. Carry a few coins or small bills reserved for the occasional beggar you meet. Treat them with courtesy. Look them in the eye, smile, and give them something. There may be times when you’ll sense something is wrong and you may just wish to move on, but in general, you won’t regret giving. You may even find some regulars you really like.
    Tip: When giving, don’t expose your wallet or purse to potential pickpockets. They are rare, but at Yu Garden a friend of mine had her wallet and passport stolen by a group of migrant kids while she opened up her purse to give some money to a beggar. (The empty wallet and passport was found shortly after by a Chinese man, a worker from the north, who spent 3 hours tracking down the owner to return it. Since the wallet had my wife’s card in it, he called my wife to report the wallet he had found, and waited until we could meet him to retrieve it—one of the many honest and kind people we have met in China.) Have your change in an easy-to-access place.
  9. Don’t let language barriers stop you from connecting. Get out and meet your neighbors. Find a translator if you need to, but introduce yourself and find out who your neighbors are. They may not be interested, but a consistent smile will eventually work wonders. Also try to be sensitive to things you may do that annoy neighbors, and get feedback from others on how to be a good neighbor. Meanwhile, keep your expectations from others low and don’t assume that others are being deliberately annoying when they are making too much noise or doing other things that bother you.
  10. Be patient in lines, while defending your position when you need to. When people cut in front of you, they may not have realized that you were really in line. After all, why was there a 12-inch space in front of you if you mean to be in line? Be patient and forgiving. You can indicate that you are in a line and ask them to get in line (paidui)—but do it with patience and a smile. (I know, this is easy for me to say, and admittedly often hard to do.) They probably didn’t understand. That’s the kind assumption, anyway, and a good way to think about the frustrations you might experience that come from the culture gaps you face.
  11. Be aware of the people around you and look for opportunities to help. If you are healthy and strong, a seemingly frail or elderly person carrying a heavy suitcase up or down stairs can be a great opportunity to help. A mother struggling to get her baby’s stroller down the stairs is another opportunity. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to go occasional good, and be ready to back off with a smile if they refuse help. But being considerate of the Chinese people helps compensate for the numbing effect of living in crowds and helps you feel more part of the community that is China.

In general, go out of your way to be friendly and respectful to people, though sometimes you’ll need to be firm and insistent. The times you slip and lose your patience will be times of regret. There are things that happen that will try your patience and yes, it may be easy to become angry and frustrated.

The times you do things that help others and the times you overlook the things that annoy are the times when you will most quickly appreciate who the Chinese people really are. The more you can see the good in these very different but very similar neighbors, the more you will connect with China and find happiness and excitement living here. But do take steps to avoid some of the problems that can leave you feeling angry and frustrated.

One opportunity to serve comes through various charities. My employer runs one of the China’s biggest private charitable trusts, the Huang Yi Cong Foundation, which provides help to needy school children in Gansu Province and supports other charitable efforts in China. Many of my colleagues donate a small part of their monthly income to the Foundation, which helps them become connected with the child or children they are helping. They receive occasional letters and photos that help them better understand the difficult life of the poor in China and give them opportunities to make a lasting difference. There are other organizations, of course, providing opportunities to make a difference, but I’m proud of the good people running the Huang Yi Cong Foundation and their passionate care for the needy families they serve.

In addition to building connections with the people, you’ll love your China experience more if you experience Chinese culture. There are many ways to do this. Go to museums, parks, community events, etc. Walk through neighborhoods and watch the dancing, game playing, calligraphy, tai qi, etc. Parks in the morning are great places to visit, and the Bund between 6 am and 7 am is another example, as you witness kite flyers and others at their best. Get involved in community events like special interest groups, classes, musical productions, dance groups, etc., especially those that reflect Chinese culture. There are numerous opportunities here and many friendships and mind-expanding opportunities here.

Again, don’t live in an expat shell. Get out and experience China and its culture. That includes the food. Please don’t just eat Western food. Learn about the many varieties of sophisticated Chinese food and experience many parts of China through its cuisine. Also learn about Chinese history, watch some Chinese movies, and continue learning the language and the culture as much as you can. You’ll find China to be a never-ending puzzle and mystery that rewards you deeply for each layer you unravel.

I hope you will experience life in China one day. May your experience here be exhilarating!

By | September 17th, 2015|Categories: China, Shanghai, Society, Surviving, Travel tips|Comments Off on Joyous Living in China (and Perhaps Other International Settings)

The Paper Industry International Hall of Fame to Recognize China’s Answer to Gutenberg, Wang Zhen

On October 15, 2015, Appleton, Wisconsin’s Paper Industry International Hall of Fame will be inducting six new figures into the hall of fame. One of them is a historical figure from China who can be considered China’s answer to Gutenberg. Gutenberg is frequently cited in the West as one of the most important inventors of all time for giving us the world’s first book printed with movable type, a remarkable achievement from around 1455. As with many inventions long thought to have had European origins, there’s a touch of Eastern flavor in this one, for Gutenberg’s Bible came 142 years after the world’s first mass-produced printed book made with movable type, the large Book of Farming (Nong Shu) from China, printed in 1313 by Wang Zhen.

Wang Zhen was a Chinese official who recognized that vast amounts of agricultural technology scattered across China needed to be preserved to help all of China reduce famine and be more productive. He took a Chinese invention, movable type, and improved upon it to make a practical way to print an entire book. He used carved wooden blocks for each character, and developed a sophisticated way of arranging them on two rotating tables to allow typesetters to quickly find needed characters to place them in his press. The Nong Shu was printed and preserved many notable inventions in China, including an early form of a blast furnace driven with a reciprocating piston attached to water works, something long that to be a later European invention.

Recognizing Wang Zhen for his important role in the advance of printing is a fitting step for the Hall of Fame, and I look forward to many more Asian inventors, scientists, and business leaders being recognized in the Hall of Fame in future years. The historical contributions of China in numerous fields have received far too little attention, and I’m delighted to see folks in Appleton taking the lead in rectifying this problem. Kudos to the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame!

By | September 10th, 2015|Categories: China, Consumers, Industry, Innovation, Paper, Products|Comments Off on The Paper Industry International Hall of Fame to Recognize China’s Answer to Gutenberg, Wang Zhen