Moving to China for a Job? Some Tips in Negotiating

“Surviving China” requires paying attention to contracts and promises. My experience coming here has been generally positive, but I encounter lots of horror stories among other foreigners. Foreigners recruited to work in China will sometimes be promised the moon, but when they show up and are asked to sign the final contract, it may only refer to a mid-sized asteroid. “Oh, those extra items have to be off-record. We aren’t allowed to put the non-standard things in a contract — this would cause trouble with the authorities or violate regulations. We have to keep that as a private matter between you and us.” But if it’s not in writing, it’s not there. At this point most foreigners buckle and sign the contract, hoping that whatever they were promised will be delivered later, often after the person who made the promise has left the company or been transferred to another area, and the person you have to work with tells you, “What? We don’t have such a policy. Where did you get that idea? No, we can’t do that, it’s against regulations.”

Rather than buckle, as most foreigners do, or walk away and lose the job, one thing you can do is simply amend the contract with a few sentences somewhere to preserve what you were promised. It helps if the items you were promised have been confirmed in an email that you have printed out. So BEFORE you come to China, make sure that every important promise to you has been confirmed in an email. HR won’t put their offer in writing usually, but you can summarize the key items of the verbal offer in an email and ask them to confirm if you have understood correctly.

If they won’t stand by the details of the offer, find out what they will stand by because that’s probably what you will get in the end. Only trust what is in writing before you come to China. When you have proof that important items were in your offer, you can insert whatever is missing back into your contract and initial it, and if needed attach a copy of the proof too coax the company into accepting your revision if they hesitate. Insist on having whatever really matters to you in writing because otherwise it may vaporize. Even having it in writing might eliminate trouble, but it gives you a much stronger position.

A friend of mine was promised a title and pay level equal to or better than his previous job, but when he showed up the contract had both pay and title lower. He didn’t realize that the title and rank was lower in the APP hierarchy than he thought until after he signed, and when he went to get that corrected, he was told it was too late and would require a double promotion (two levels) to fix, which is contrary to corporate policy. The person he had worked with, of course, was gone.

One friend had been promised an educational stipend to help pay for his child’s tuition, but two years later when his child was old enough to begin school and the ridiculously high cost of kindergarten in Shanghai looked like it was outside his budget, he went to HR to claim his educational stipend, but HR told him that they had never heard of such a thing. The person who promised him that chunk of the moon was no longer with the company, of course. This is one of the benefits of high turnover in HR. On the other hand, perhaps its the reason for the high turnover: people make promises without authorization, collect their bonus for recruiting someone, and then move on before they have to face painful consequences. You need to be prepared for that and take steps to protect yourself, including modifying contracts as needed.

I have been handed a renewed contract and was told it was exactly the same as what I signed before, but fortunately I read it carefully and found out that important changes I had required in the past were not incorporated in the new contract, and needed to be manually added. Don’t ever just sign something because it is supposedly the same as what you have signed before. Scrutinize. Good faith mistakes happen all the time. But they are often not going to be in your favor. Pay attention!

It also helps to know what risks to worry about and what questions to ask before you come here. Toward that end, it’s valuable to talk with a foreigner who has worked for the company you are joining. They can tell you their own stories and griefs and give you tools for negotiating properly. Sometimes there are surprise rules and requirements, like having to work on weekends, that can really cause a lot of trouble if you don’t know they are there. If you know the risk, you can negotiate to avoid it. But you have to ask the right questions in the first place. Be informed. Talk to people. Network. Learn all you can before you pack up and move to  the other side of the world.

For most of us, the experience of working here is wonderful and rewarding. Prepare properly, then come join us!

 

By | 2017-08-21T16:47:22+00:00 August 21st, 2017|Categories: China, Society, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , |Comments Off on Moving to China for a Job? Some Tips in Negotiating

Milk in China: Try the Asahi Brand for Safe, Delicious Fresh Milk

Milk has been a problem for many people in China. Trust of Chinese dairies has been low after some past disasters. Large milk powder companies struggle tend to import the milk they use because of quality control problem among the numerous small dairies that provide milk to large providers. Foreigners who like to use milk tend to buy ultra-high-temperature (UHT) treated milk that does not require refrigeration until it is opened, but the flavor tends to be poor from the heat treatment and nutritional value may be lowered as well.

After struggling with various brands of UHT milk and shying away from Chinese dairies for fresh milk, I finally found a brand of fresh that impresses me: Asahi milk. This is a Japanese company using good Japanese dairy methods on their Chinese dairy. The flavor of the milk is better than anything I remember in the US and tastes like fresh milk I enjoyed in Switzerland long ago. Really delicious. A liter will cost slightly over 20 RMB, about the same price for good quality UHT cartons of milk. But so fresh and delicious. Also, I think, safe and consistent in quality.

Asahi brand whole milk: possibly China's best?v

Asahi brand whole milk: possibly China’s best?

By | 2017-01-21T18:24:21+00:00 January 21st, 2017|Categories: China, Consumers, Food, Health, Safety, Shopping, Surviving|Tags: , , , |Comments Off on Milk in China: Try the Asahi Brand for Safe, Delicious Fresh Milk

Funny Red Beef in China: Treated with Sodium Nitrite?

I’ve noticed that beef sold in small shops in China is often a bright red color as if very fresh, maybe too fresh. It may have been sitting out for hours or days, and it is still that bright red color, never turning brown as regular beef does. We were buying beef from a local market for quite a while before it hit me that there was something odd about the color. It never turned brown until you cooked it. Finally it hit me that this beef has been treated in some way, probably with sodium nitrite or other chemicals that prevent the normal browning that occurs when beef oxidizes over time.

Some people worry that nitrites might cause cancer, especially when present in meet that is grilled or cooked at high temperature. Whether nitrites are carcinogenic or not, I don’t want chemicals being added to my beef to disguise its age and let old beef look fresh. This might be a good topic for further investigation because I don’t know for sure what is being added and who is doing the treatments, or of they are safe or not. But in the absence of assuring data, the strange absence of browning in some of the been being sold here has given me one more thing to worry about when it comes to meat in China.

Eat meat sparingly. Make sure it’s fresh and from a trustworthy source. Pork and chicken, which are sold in large quantities with high turnover, may be freshest and safest, in my opinion.

By | 2017-01-06T21:12:08+00:00 January 6th, 2017|Categories: China, Consumers, Food, Health, Restaurants, Safety, Shanghai, Shopping|Tags: , |Comments Off on Funny Red Beef in China: Treated with Sodium Nitrite?

Travel Tip: Don’t Fly to China Without Knowing the Trouble with Chinese Taxis (Have Your Destination Printed in Chinese)

We recently met a college student in the Pudong Airport of Shanghai as we were waiting to get through customs. We learned that her university, a famous US school with a campus in Shanghai, had only given her the English address and directions for her living quarters. Clearly, the university was unaware of the primary problem with Chinese taxis: the cabbies don’t speak or read English.

In fact, most cabbies won’t even recognize many prominent place names such as the Marriott Hotel because the Chinese name doesn’t sound anything like the English name. Marriott Hotel, for example, is know as the “wan hao jiu dian” in Chinese. No relationship to Marriott. So you can’t just hop in a taxi and say “Marriott.” Further, if you have a street name transliterated into Pinyin (the dominant system for transliterating Chinese into the Roman alphabet), giving a street name and number is usually not sufficient. Not all cabbies have a GPS system so they require cross streets rather than numbers to find a place.

Fortunately, we were able to write the address down for her in Chinese, including the cross street and the other street the cabbie would need to reach the entrance of the dormitories for this student’s study abroad experience, but there must be many others who face trouble right after landing as they learn that they directions they have aren’t useful. Further, as this student discovered, foreign cell phones may not work here even though the provider claims to provide international service. This student couldn’t call for help because her phone with its nice international plan wasn’t working at all. You may need a new Chinese SIM card. You may be able to buy them at the airport. At least on the night of our return, there was a SIM card vendor at a table just after passing through customs and the baggage claim area.

Before you fly to China, make sure you have the Chinese address for your destination. Also have some Chinese currency or get some from an ATM (best) or currency exchange window so you can pay for your cab fare. From the Pudong Airport to downtown Shanghai, you’ll want at least 150 RMB. To go to the Hongqiao area where we are, you will generally need over 200 RMB (about US$30).

By | 2017-01-03T16:37:26+00:00 January 3rd, 2017|Categories: China, Surviving, Travel tips|Comments Off on Travel Tip: Don’t Fly to China Without Knowing the Trouble with Chinese Taxis (Have Your Destination Printed in Chinese)

Shanghai Disney Resort: Second Time’s the Charm! My Best Disney Experience Ever

Shanghai Disney Castle

After a frustrating but still quite fun first experience at Shanghai Disney during their pre-opening test days, I was worried that Disney lines in Shanghai would always be too long for most customers. I am happy to report that our second experience on a beautiful winter Saturday, December 10, was much better. This time was clearly my best Disney experience ever. I’ve been to Disney resorts in Anaheim and Orlando more than once for each, and while Shanghai is smaller, this was the most fun I’ve had.

Why was my visit on Dec. 10, 2016 so much better than my visit earlier this year? First, lines were much better than before, partly because there were more rides open and perhaps because the thrill of a new Disney resort had worn off, so crowds, while healthy, were not overwhelming. Many good rides had lines only 30 minutes long. One hour was the longest we waited for anything all day.

For peak times and peak rides, this time we also had the benefit of a good mix of fast passes that gave us rapid access. Plus this time we used the outstanding Shanghai Disney app that shows wait times for rides to help with planning and provides a live map to show you where you are and where to go. Also in our favor, essentially all the rides were operating whereas many were closed during the pre-opening period, so there were more events to spread out the crowds.

Another plus was that we didn’t lose over an hour wading fighting chaos as the giant dining hall near Tron that still hadn’t figured out how to manage their food system, but instead went to better places like Barbossa and Remi’s Patisserie to eat much faster and with better quality food. Further, this time we got an earlier start, arriving right at 9:00 AM when the resort opens, and we also didn’t have to leave early to catch a dinner event as we did our first time. Overall, a longer, more efficient, and much more fun day. Bottom line: use the app, use fast passes, arrive early, and visit your top picks early in the day when lines are short. They may also be short after 6 PM when lots of Shanghai folks focus on eating.

On our first visit, we tried to do the Tron ride but were thwarted by wait times of over 4 hours (!). Even when kind employees there had pity on us and helped us get fast passes, we were thwarted again by a mechanical problem that shut the ride down right as we entered. That mechanical problem turned out to be a new employee leaving a door open that triggered a safety alarm that shut down the ride until engineers could pinpoint the problem. No mechanical failure, just a silly human error. Today Tron was flawless and we rode it 3 times! We did it twice in a row in the morning, and later in the evening around 7 pm the wait time was low.

Favorite rides were Tron, Soaring, and Pirates, and we even liked the interactive fun of Buzz Lightyear. Wonderful, beautiful resort. Thank you, Disney!

By | 2016-12-16T07:56:22+00:00 December 15th, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Food, Shanghai, Shopping, Travel tips|Tags: , , , |Comments Off on Shanghai Disney Resort: Second Time’s the Charm! My Best Disney Experience Ever

Accident in Shanghai: The Ambulance Never Came

On my way to work each day, I usually walk or ride my bike, but on a rainy night recently, I tried taking a bus. The journey ended up taking longer than just walking. Part of the problem was a busy road (Gubei Road near Gubei’s elegant pedestrian street) was partly blocked by a traffic accident. As the bus drove by the scene, I saw a car and a little motorcycle-powered three-wheeled rig for a restaurant delivery service. There was a woman pacing next to the car talking to someone on a cell phone. And then I saw two feet pointed upwards on the ground. A man was lying on the asphalt near the car that had struck his little vehicle. Cars were passing near him. It was raining on him. Nobody seemed to be looking after the victim, with hundreds of cars steadily moving on both sides. Why was nobody helping?

It seemed beyond my ability to do anything about it, but I got off at the next stop and thought I should at least walk back to the accident site and see if things were OK. I debated internally as I pondered all the things I needed to do and the shear improbability of making a difference because things were probably under control by then. But I felt drawn and so I went back. As I approached the scene, I was relieved to see two police officers had shown up. Things were under control. Still, I crossed the street near them to get a peak at the victim, whom I assumed would now be receiving some kind of help. He was still lying in the same place, rain falling on him, with no protection. Then I realized that, perhaps for the first time ever, I had two umbrellas with me that day. I had grabbed one when I went to work, forgetting that I already had one in the bag I carry. I had two, and since the officers didn’t seem to have any, I could offer them one to help them at least keep the victim dry until an ambulance showed up.

The officer I spoke to recognized that an umbrella would be useful, but he was busy directing traffic and said if I wanted to, I could hold it for the victim. Well, OK, the ambulance would be here any minute and so sure, I could help out a bit. I recognized that people passing by might think that I had been the driver of the vehicle that struck the man, but hoped that I would be doing more good than harm by being the volunteer umbrella holder. The woman driver who had been standing around doing nothing said something like, “Oh, right, good idea” when I started trying to protect the victim. But she didn’t offer to take over that role. I was disappointed that the driver didn’t seem very worried about the delivery man she had struck. He was about 50 years old and had a lot to say about the allegedly reckless driver who struck him while he was driving properly and carefully. Proper driving isn’t all that common here, so I can’t judge who was at fault. He worked for one of Shanghai’s best and healthiest restaurants, Element Fresh, which I would learn provides good health care coverage for their employees.

The man was in pain but it didn’t appear critical, but I was worried about the possibility of internal bleeding and wanted the ambulance to get there ASAP. After about 10 minutes I asked if ambulance was coming. “Yes, I called for one.” After about 20 minutes I asked again and she then said that the ambulance service she called had said all the ambulances were busy and that they would call her when one became free. Huh? I talked to the police and suggested that we should give up on this no-show ambulance and take him to the hospital in a taxi. There were taxis coming by all the time. Why not use one of them?

The police reminded me that moving the man could be dangerous. By then, though, the man was sick of lying on the road and said he was going to sit up, and would we help him. So the police helped him to sit up. And then he said that this was a bad place to be waiting and that he wanted to talk over to the curb where it would be safer and more comfortable, and could we please help him walk over there? So the police helped him as I held my two umbrellas above us, and continued holding both for the man and me as we waited. And waited. I again raised the possibility of a taxi. After about 40 minutes of waiting, the police saw that as a good idea and agreed. So I waved down a taxi and wondered if I would be needed to take the man to the hospital, but was relieved to see that the police arranged for the woman to take the man there and that I would not be needed.

The ambulance never came. A poor man struck by a car laid on the road for perhaps an hour or so waiting for am ambulance that never came. A Taiwanese friend of mine later suggested that the woman may have lied and never called the ambulance because in China it is the person who calls the ambulance that pays for it. Perhaps. But later another friend at lunch shared an even more painful story of a stroke victim he was helping in Shanghai, where it took an hour to get an ambulance and then when they came, the team had rough street people who moved the victim like one moves a bag of potatoes. In any case, in this, one of the most advanced and modern cities in the world, when you need it, the ambulance might not come for a very long time. This is a problem that can happen anywhere, especially in times of crisis, not just in rush hour.

By the way, I was able to reach the man later to check up on him. He’s doing well and is taking a month off from work to recover from the injury to his side. No surgery needed. He was quite upbeat. Element Fresh provides good health care benefits it seems and the responsible driver paid for the medical care. I also was impressed that the leaders at the Element Fresh restaurant at Yili Road/Yanan Road were aware of the man’s situation and care about him and helped me contact him to check on his status. To thank Element Fresh (and more selfishly, to enjoy delicious, healthy dining), my wife and I dined there last night and had a wonderful meal.

More and more, it seems that we need to be increasingly prepared to take care of ourselves and reduce our dependency on others. When it comes to health, we need to be doing more to reduce our future reliance on services that might not be there or whose quality might be far below what we need. Now is the time to exercise, lose weight, stop smoking, eat wisely with plenty of plants in our diet, and to reduce behaviors that put us at risk.

In China, by the way, preparedness also means carrying cash or an ATM card with you so you can pay for medical services. You often won’t be treated until you or somebody pays first.

Another health care tip is to beware surgeons pushing for surgery when it might not be needed.

A couple years ago I had a near-miss with a bad surgeon at a good hospital here who was going to “fix” a knee problem (he said he would repair my meniscus), but after I had checked in for the surgery, a comment from one of the staff about “removing the meniscus” raised my suspicions and I decided to just get up and walk away. I’ve been walking ever since. Had I succumbed to the recommended surgery, I think my mobility might have been impaired.

After I walked away, I called a physical therapist I knew for a second opinion. He said the way to check to see if I really needed surgery would be to go to another reputable hospital and meet with a surgeon there and show them my MRI scan, but tell them that if I needed surgery, I would not do it there so they would have no profit motive to sell their surgery to me. Surgery is the solution for everything in China, he explained, because that’s where the profit is. Something like 70% of all babies born are delivered with C-section. And I suppose a lot of knees get repaired unnecessarily as well.

I took a taxi to another hospital and minutes later was meeting with a surgeon. He checked my knee, looked at the MRI, and said this was not a case where surgery was needed. “Try physical therapy.” I went to that physical therapist and after the first treatment, my problem was significantly reduced, and ten treatments later, I was pretty much back to normal. There is a damaged meniscus, but better damaged one than none at all. I came so close to reducing my long-term mobility, and I remain grateful every day that I can walk or ride. It’s exhilarating to move and to be independent. I will greatly miss this freedom when it is gone or limited someday. But for now, my mobility is one of my most cherished gifts, and I recognize it all the more as a gift since that near miss, and from some accidents that could easily have given me a broken bone or worse, where I am just so grateful to have been able to walk away.

Our health is so precious, and it is up to us to protect it. With the strains on the healthcare system and the increasing difficulty of paying for medical insurance, coupled with the decreasing quality of coverage in many places, it is imperative that we do more to preserve our health and to be able to cope with our problems on our own or with our own resources. We can’t always assume that the help we expect to get will be available. And when we do get it, even from good doctors at good clinics, things can go wrong. Prevention must be our first line of defense. Being prepared to render first aid and take care of basic problems is also vital. For more serious things, doing our own research so we understand the issues can make us less dependent on one person’s opinion and can often increase our ability to guide outcomes in the right direction.

By | 2016-11-25T16:54:36+00:00 November 25th, 2016|Categories: China, Health, Shanghai|Comments Off on Accident in Shanghai: The Ambulance Never Came

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 | 2016-10-24T05:57:52+00:00 October 20th, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Shopping, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , , |Comments Off on Ctrip Trouble: Beware “Free Cancellation”

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 | 2016-10-24T05:57:53+00:00 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 | 2016-10-24T05:57:53+00:00 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 | 2016-06-02T06:24:17+00:00 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 | 2016-10-24T05:57:53+00:00 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 | 2016-05-16T06:05:08+00:00 May 15th, 2016|Categories: China|Comments Off on China’s Dangerous Housing Bubble: Lianjia’s Bold Efforts to Support Price Momentum