Thursday, April 20, 2017

Hangzhou Pt 6: Dinner and Karaoke

Dinner that night was back at the hotel, in one of the private dining rooms. As we were on the way in to our room, we passed by another dining room where there was clearly some kind of party going on in full swing. Kathy said she thought it might have been some kind of corporate party, but as we walked past, they were doing some sort of fashion show. They were playing their music at full volume, and we could hear it over in our dining room. At some point, we could hear them blaring the song "Du Hast," by Rammstein. Even if you don't speak German, that's a pretty hardcore song to play for a corporate party.

Joining us for dinner that evening was a local government official. I think she may have been some sort of regional governor but, I wasn't sure. There wasn't any sort of formal meet-and-greet, and as usual, due to the size of our group, we sat at two tables. She was seated at the other table, so dinner was a bit more relaxed at my table.

Later in the meal, Sara W came over to our table with a somewhat bizarre set of instructions. She told us that in a few moments, Kathy would come over and tell us about a bar/coffee shop that the governor thought we should check out, but that we should should say no to it. Sure enough, a few moments later, Kathy came over and told us about the bar the governor was recommending. However, immediately, she tried to downsell it, pointing out that it was about 20 minutes away. That seemed easy enough to politely turn down. Twenty minutes away is a rather off-putting distance when you're in a city that you haven't memorized the geography of, aren't familiar with the mass transit systems, and don't speak the language.

A few moments later, Sara came back and said we should say we're interested in going to the coffee shop, but that we won't actually go. A few moments after that, Kathy returned and asked us how many of us were going to the coffee shop, and that TJ and Sara were already planning to go. This had everybody at our table a bit confused as we thought the plan was to express interest in the coffee shop, but not to actually commit to it, so we said we'd think about it.

Again, Sara came back and said they weren't actually going to the coffee shop, and that Kathy didn't want us to go to the coffee shop, but for the sake of politeness to the governor, we should say we'd consider going. Finally Kathy came back with one more message from the governor: that the bar owner had a daughter who was single, and about 32 years old.

All of the complicated back and forth conversation made a lot more sense all of a sudden. Suffice to say, we did not decide to venture 20 minutes away so that one of us could maybe be set up with the coffee shop owner's daughter.

What we did end up doing was going to KTV, and this time everybody decided to come along, (except for our professors.) After a bit of downtime at the hotel bar after dinner, Kathy met up with us to show us the way to a karaoke bar she recommended. There was a small problem. All of us had assumed we were just going to the KTV bar across the street from the hotel, but she said there was a better one a few blocks up the road. To complicate things, some of the group lagged behind, saying they'd catch up with us, However, our phones only seemed to work on Wi-Fi, so we couldn't text those waiting behind to let them know where we were going.

Yes, we could have just waited for the whole group to meet in the lobby, but Kathy had clearly had a long day, and we didn't want her to stay out any later than she had to. So, I suggested that some of us go along with Kathy so we'd know where the place was, but then form a human breadcrumb trail with a person waiting behind at regular intervals, so the stragglers would be able to the find place. I'm not going to lie. I had that scene from Lord of the Rings in mind where they light the chain of torches along the mountaintop to send a message.

Walking tho the KTV bar.
The plan worked. The stragglers found one of the group outside of the hotel who led the group further up the block until they met the next person in the group, and so on until everybody was at the KTV bar. It turned out that there was probably no way we'd have been able to message the location to the group even if text messaging was working on our phones. Despite the multiple KTV bars on the street with bright neon signs, Kathy led us to a place with much subtler signage, on the second floor of a building that was on a cross street.

We thanked Kathy for showing us the KTV bar, and told her we'd be fine from here, because she really did look exhausted, and Steve knew enough Chinese to get everything set up. As in the KTV bar back in Beijing, there was a store where we'd buy our drinks. Unlike in Beijing, I actually lingered around the store, and was surprised at just how big a selection there was. It was like a small convenience store, with various beers, energy drinks, snacks, and fairly decent liquor selection. I can't say it ever occurred to me to knock back a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label while singing karaoke with friends, but now it was an option. That being said, we just stuck with beer.

The karaoke machine in our private room was much easier to use than the one in Beijing, and we were able to set it up fairly easily. Like before, we just queued up a bunch of popular songs, and whoever wanted a go at the songs could grab a microphone. Even though only half of the group actually sang, it was one big dance party, and the it was first time we had really all cut loose and partied as a whole group. For those who didn't want to sing, they had tambourines and stuff so everybody could participate.

I apparently knew the lyrics to Pitbull and Ke$ha's song "Timber" far too readily. 

Next: More corporate visits, and the road to Shanghai

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Hangzhou Pt 5: Alibaba HQ and Xianghu Lake

After lunch at the conference center, (which was one of the fancier lunches we'd had so far,) we headed out to Alibaba Headquarters. We were familiar with the company partially because one of our groups chose it for their MBA project, but also because it was starting to make its presence increasingly known in the US, as its anticipated IPO lingered on the horizon.

A scale model of Alibaba Headquarters

From what I'd heard of Alibaba, it seemed to be China's own answer to many of the West's hottest startups. There was a bit of Amazon, Google, PayPal, and based on what they told us, even a bit of FedEx to their business plan.

Their corporate campus embodied all of the wondrous things I'd heard about Silicon Valley offices. There were tons of luxuries on hand at the employees' disposal, such as game rooms, bookstores, grocery stores, gyms, and coffee shops. It looked like an employee could go from home to work and back again, be able to take care of their personal chores, have a bit of time to relax, but still get plenty of work done.

Highly adorable corporate mascots

On top of that there was the architecture of the campus, which seemed to invoke a bit of the famous Bird's Nest stadium from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. There was a intricate webbing pattern that dominated the outside of many of the buildings, and pools that wove about the campus, along with some unusual choices in sculpture.

Yes. Very unusual choices.

Eventually we were led into a room with a giant video wall showing various bits of company data, along with a map depicting the frequency with which Alibaba transactions were occurring across China. Naturally, the group that was doing Alibaba for their project devoured the presentation, but even the rest of us were thoroughly impressed. Clearly Alibaba was a company primed to take itself onto the international stage.

Our highly fashionable Alibaba tour guide.

We hopped back on the bus and were taken to Xianghu Lake, another resort area similar to West Lake. As we drove towards Xianghu Lake, I noticed a bit of "duplitechture" off in the distance. Duplitechture is a term often used to describe when builders set out to recreate iconic landmark buildings. The podcast 99 Percent Invisible did a pretty good episode on the subject. While there are plenty of examples of the phenomena scattered throughout America, (my hometown of Cincinnati has it's own scale replica of the Eiffel Tower,) many have noticed that the trend has exploded in China in recent years, with towns modeled after Parisian streets (complete with their own Eiffel Tower,) or replica versions of the White House. Here, at the edge of one part of the lake was a replica of the Venice waterfront.

A replica of St. Mark's Campanile sits off in the distance.

Our bus took us to a less developed part of the lake, one that was left in a more pristine state, and not surrounded by as many resort hotels. At the edge of this part of the lake was the Kuahuqiao Site Museum, the site of an archeological excavation that unearthed artifacts as old as 8000 years old. The building itself was made in the shape of a boat, in homage to the fact that the oldest known canoe (as in, "ever,") was found at the site.

The main exhibit of the museum was a large hall, which I believe preserved the original excavation site. (I couldn't verify for sure, but as the hall was separate from the main structure, and most of the excavations took place between the 90's and the early 2000's, I doubt there would have been a need to recreate the site.) Among the archeological plots they put statues, to give a better context of what archaeologists were doing during their excavation. The rest of the museum was various artifacts recovered from the site.

When we went outside, instead of getting back on the bus, we were led to a small boat. We were going to take ride out on the lake itself. I should mention that we were still in our suits. It seemed a bit strange to be doing the touristy stuff while still dressed for corporate visits, but it didn't make sense to change at the time.

The ride out on the lake was nice. It was one of those moments you conjure up in a postcard image of China. A wooden boat out on a lake with hills off in the distance, as the sun sets. On top of that, there were little islands scattered through the lake, with ornate bridges and pagodas. It was a place I would have never figured out how to get to if I had planned this trip on my own.

The museum, as seen from the outside

St Mark's Campanile again

As the boat came back to the dock, I could see the back of the museum we were at earlier, and noticed that part of it was built out into the lake. I had a hunch that the part of the museum with the archeological site was under the lake, which would make sense. Again, I wasn't able to confirm this.

Next: Dinner and more karaoke

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Hangzhou Pt 4: Hi-Tech Development Zone

The morning had a bit of a strange start to it. One of Dr. Wu's associates was in charge of the development zone we were going to visit that day, but since his associate wouldn't be able to meet us at the park, it was arranged for him to meet us at the hotel for breakfast. A handful of us were randomly chosen for the breakfast, presumably due to the size limitations of the room we were eating in.

The idea of doing a formal breakfast was somewhat new to me. Breakfast is usually the time of day I'm still tying to put myself together. It is not normally a time that I don a suit and tie and meet high powered business executives before I've had my eggs and coffee.

We used the time with the executive to ask questions about the development zone, as well as gain some insight for our group projects. At some point we were asked to go around the table and introduce ourselves. As most of my classmates had well established careers, they were able to give lengthy descriptions of who they worked for and what they did for their company. Unfortunately, at that time I was somewhat unemployed, occasionally doing short-term legal document review projects. 

I tried to explain to the executive that I worked with law firms to identify and prepare documents for upcoming litigation, and just to pad things up a bit, I also talked about how I had also worked in criminal defense law, and studied intellectual property in law school. I should point out that the executive didn't speak English, and Dr. Wu was translating for him. I can't say for sure, but as I talked for about a minute, but he translated for only a few seconds, I assume he just told the executive that I was a lawyer and moved on.

After breakfast, the entire group boarded the bus to the Hangzhou Lingjiang Hi-Tech Development Zone. I had initially assumed this was going to be some sort of industrial park: a few square miles of corporate offices amidst small scale factories. No, it turned out that they were building a new city. Officially, the area was called the Linjiang New City (at least in the investment brochure we were given.) 

I mean, I don't know what it does, but I kind of want one.

First we started at an info center, where we were shown videos, presentations, and models for what was in the zone, and planned expansions, as well as some various gizmos and devices that were being produced there. Then we visited a car company called Geely. No photos were allowed once we left the lobby, which was a shame because they really did have some cool concept cars on display, including a compact car that not only had an electric scooter that popped out of the center console, but also had a hatchback door that turned into a wheelchair ramp. They also showed a promo video that had been translated into unintelligible English, which sadly I have not been able to find online.

As nice as the building we were in, it did look noticeably empty. The lobby was spacious enough to fit a whole car dealership showroom, but had little in it besides the front desk, the concept cars, and the video wall. The upper floors were visible from the lobby, but still looked like they were under construction. Clearly, they had plans to expand at a rapid rate.

They did have a red carpet laid out, but they also left the sliding doors open, which surely must have been murder on their heating bill in the early March weather.

We were taken on a tour of the factory floor, and even were able to see the crash test track. Sadly, they were not doing any crash tests that day, while we hoped they might do one just for us, they pointed out that they were very expensive to conduct. I'm embarrassed to say that it was the first time I really thought about the cost of doing a crash test. At minimum, you're deliberately trying to trash a vehicle that costs anywhere between $10,000 to $60,000 or so, just to see exactly how its going to break, not to mention the cost of all of the equipment to monitor everything.

Yeah, they're definitely not going to do a crash test just to amuse a pack of twenty American students.

After Geely, we took the bus to a building that I assumed was some sort of conference center. Not only did they lay out the red carpet for us again, but they changed the LED sign in front to read "Warmly Welcome the Delegation of Dr. Wu to Linjiang."

That made me feel extra fancy.

We were then led to a conference room that honestly made me feel like we were supposed to be negotiating international trade relations. We were each assigned a seat in a leather chair, some of them with microphones in front. At each seat was a finely laid out arrangement of a coffee, bottled water, a pen, an investment brochure about the Linjiang Industrial Park, and a name plate. On one side was our name written in English, and on the other side our name in Chinese. Or, according to Google translate, a reasonable approximation.

My nameplate in Chinese

Translation of my Chinese nameplate using Google Translate
Here, we were given a much more thorough explanation of the development zone, and I really started to understand the scope of it. The plan for Linjiang wasn't just to build an industrial park, but to build an entire city. They outlined plans for full scale factories, high rises, apartments, schools, and even plans for a wetland reserve. It was, in essence, a city dedicated to advanced technology.

Next: Alibaba Headquarters and Xianghu Lake

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Hangzhou Pt 3: Dinner and Nightlife

Driving through Hangzhou at night, almost every building was covered bright lighted signs, making it look like a Times Square that ran on for blocks. The building where we were stopping at for dinner was no exception. The awning over the entrance was lit with Xs and Os, the front pillars were wrapped in Christmas lights, and there were signs everywhere, with flashing lights.

The restaurant we were eating at was called Zhangshengji. It looked a bit more luxurious than the restaurants we had eaten in so far. The walls were covered in marble, and it seemed to epitomize the look of things that were high end in the early 90's, (in a good way, mind you.)

We were led to a private dining room, of which there were many in the restaurant. I learned it was actually quite common for people to rent out private dining rooms in China. The food was excellent, but it definitely strayed off the beaten path of what I thought of as "Chinese food." The flavors were familiar, but the dishes looked unlike anything we had come across yet on the trip, or for that matter that I had come across at any Chinese restaurant in the US.

Granted, I suppose most Chinese food in the US is presented in a way to emphasize its "Chinese-ness," whereas here it was being presented in a way that emphasized its gourmet nature. As was par for the course, I had no idea what any of the dishes were called, and could only deduce which was chicken, beef, fish, etc.

On our tables were several bottles of beer, for us to enjoy with dinner. At first glance, the label appeared to be for a brand of beer called "MONS." The name was written sideways, and as English is generally read top to bottom, and most of the other English text was written top to bottom, it was the logical assumption.

However, somebody eventually picked up on the fact that the label had a big snowflake on it, and had a picture of a snowy mountain. Upon closer inspection, next to "MONS" was written "BEER" in smaller letters, sideways, but bottom to top. So, it turned out, that the brand of beer was actually called "SNOW."

We headed back to the hotel after dinner. Outside of my hotel room, there was a loudspeaker somewhere that was blasting what sounded like traditional Chinese music. Upon playing closer attention to the song, it was actually being sung to the melody of "Scarborough Fair." Meanwhile, in the window across the alley, several floors below me, there appeared to be some sort of casino in operation. The combination of the two brought to mind some outdated, seedier version of China from a film noir era, and I found myself lingering by the window, taking it all in. I might have just stayed there for as long as the music was playing, but my friends did have plans to venture out into Hangzhou for a bit.

Thankfully, the mysterious music seemed to play at about the same time every night.

I met with Dhruv, Dan, Charles, Steve and Sarah S in the lounge in the fourth floor atrium. The atrium had the noticeable bite of cigarette smoke in the air. We grabbed a beer and kicked around plans for the night. I wanted to do karaoke again, but with five guys and one woman it didn't seem like the optimal mix. Fortunately, Kathy said she'd meet us in the lobby to help us find some kind of bar to go to.

As we walked around town, we found ourselves drifting towards the sound of a thumping bass beat. Eventually, we found the source of the sound, a nightclub covered in neon lights. The sign on above the door read "DAD," as did the one written vertically on the building.

We figured it was as good a spot as any, and Kathy bid us farewell, leading Steve to take the lead from there on out. The club turned out to be a bust. The doorman lead us to a booth, allowing us to look out over an empty club with blaring music. If five guys and one woman wasn't the ideal mix for karaoke, it definitely wasn't the ideal mix for a dance party.

And it was too loud for us to hear each other.

And they wanted the six of us to buy a minimum of 24 beers.

So, we ducked out of the club, and went over to a nearby convenience store where we bought considerably fewer beers. I also snagged a few boxes of Pocky, because I wasn't about to pass up having my favorite Asian snack, while in Asia.

We took our purchases back to the hotel, and lacking a better place to hang out, we ended up having our beers and snacks in the second floor lounge, overlooking the lobby. This lounge also had a bar which was open at the time. We sheepishly asked if it was okay if we could have the beers there, and the bartender said it was fine.

View of the hotel's front sign from the second floor lobby.

On the way back to our room, I noticed some of the signage around the hotel, and realized we were staying in the "Pleasure Tower." Perhaps not the best choice of translations.

Blanka? Time for some Street Fighter!
Next: The Hi-Tech Development Zone

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Hangzhou Pt 2: Dragon Well Tea and the Lingyin Temple

One of the troubles about traveling to China is that it isn't always easy to just Google location names and come up with an exact answer. For that reason, I'm a bit fuzzy on what the name of our next stop was.

We were taken to a tea shop at one of the tea plantations. I snapped a photo of the sign at the door which said "Welcome to Meijiawu." The problem is, when I later Googled "Meijiawu," the search results either suggested it was the name of the shop we visited, the name of the plantation, or the name of the village.

I suppose it's possible that it's all three, and that we visited the tourist shop at the plantation, which shares the name of the village around it. The itinerary from the Asia Institute was surprisingly useless on this front, as it merely says "Dragon-Well Tea Culture Visit."

Tea set out to dry
We first had lunch on the ground floor of the tea shop, then we were led upstairs to the tea room. We were seated around tables, each with a Lazy Susan in the center, which had bowls of sunflower seeds resting on them.

Our guide for the day explained how they had various grades Dragon Well tea, the finest being Emperor grade, which we were going to try that afternoon. He then described the proper way of preparing it, which was to first let the water sit for about five minutes after boiling it, so it cools back down to the ideal temperature. (This being a much easier method than trying to turn off the heat just before the water boils.) Then, you take two pinches of tea leaves and drop them directly into the cup before pouring the water over it. They didn't use strainers or tea bags.

As he spoke, somebody from the tea shop started placing glasses of tea in front of us already prepared. Yes, glasses, not ceramic cups. Our guide told us that when tea is brought to you, the proper way of saying thank you is to tap the table three times, instead of saying "thank you" out loud. He also pointed out, the tapping three times only applies to tea. If you're drinking beer, apparently that means, "I want more beer."

While we waited for the tea to steep, the guide told us that people commonly refresh themselves by holding their eyes open above the steam from the cup. I assume that's more of a formal tea ceremony thing, and not an everyday tea drinking thing, because of the numerous times we were offered tea on the rest of the trip, I didn't see any of the locals do that. Nevertheless, we all held our eyes over our glasses of tea.

The tea was indeed quite good, although it did take some getting used to the fact that the tea leaves were freely floating about the cup, and it was inevitable that I would drink some down on the first few sips. After we finished our first glass, the tea shop hostess poured more hot water into everybody's glass. As we waited for it to steep, our guide told us that many people find the second cup tastes better than the first because some of the bitterness has already been diluted out.

Downstairs, they of course had tea for sale. We could pick between regular and emperor grade, and if you bought the larger size they threw in a metal tin for free. I hesitated on buying, as I was increasingly becoming concerned about how much space I had in my luggage, especially since there was still plenty of the trip left to do. I did end up buying a larger bag of regular tea, as I knew I would later regret it if I didn't bring back tea from China right from the source. Also, I liked the tin.

I sat in the bus, while I waited on some of my fellow classmates to finish their purchases. I noticed that a strange sense of calm and revitalization began to wash over me. I felt focused, and awake, but not jittery. I looked to my classmates who had joined me back on the bus, and they agreed that they too felt the same sensation of being relaxed, yet energized. That tea was definitely something unique, and I felt confident that buying the bag was a good choice.

Fields of the tea plantation
Our next stop was the Lingyin Temple, which is one of the largest Buddhist temples in China. When I heard we were going to a temple, I was picturing a single building. In actuality, the temple was more of a complex of buildings surrounded by a park.

As we walked through the park, we were led to a hillside where scores of statues of Buddha and his disciples were carved into the rock. I admit, I'm not familiar enough with Buddhism to understand the meanings of the various depictions of him, but there was a wide variety of statues. Some showed the seated Buddha, while others showed the laughing Buddha. There were so many carved into rock surfaces that we even saw Buddhas where nothing had been carved out of the rock at all. The guide pointed to something in a cave we had walked through, which I thought was a Buddha high up and tucked away, but was in fact just a natural rock formation.

Not actually a Buddha carving. I just looked like one from the ground.
We left the park and went into the temple itself. At the gate we were given three sticks of incense, and were told to light them, bow once facing each of the cardinal directions, then place them in a massive censer that stood in the main courtyard.

The temple itself was a magnificent collection of brightly colored buildings, each at the center of a winding path of stairs, terraces, and gardens. Throughout the various buildings were scores of statues, either cast in metal or carved from wood. In some rooms there were several individual statues grouped together. However, at the back of the main hall was an enormous sculpture depicting a scene that may have actually had hundreds of carved statues as part of it.

I honestly have no idea where I got the umbrella from...

While we were exploring, the monks were at their late afternoon prayers. The harmonious sound of their chanting and ringing of chimes permeated throughout the temple, drawing you in towards the main hall. Yes, I did take plenty of pictures as I walked about the temple, but I also took the time to put away my camera, and just take in the moment.

It really is hard to convey just how tranquil an environment the temple was, as the monks chanted. Just being immersed in the sound of their harmony washed a sense of peace and relaxation over me. You can feel the sound of their chant deep within you, physically echoing through your body.

When they finished with their prayers, the absence of their chanting left a void in the air.

There were a surprisingly high amount of dogs wandering about the temple. I'm not sure if they were pets (either belonging to visitors or the monks,) or just an abundance of well trained stray dogs.

We still had some extra time to spare once we left the temple, so we were given a half hour to wander about. TJ, Nate, and I decided to explore the hills in the park, with the Buddha carvings. There were signs indicating the various routes we could take, but the paths turned out to not be as well laid out as we expected. Some of the paths turned out to be blocked off in parts, either because work was being done on the path, or trees had fallen down in the way. Other times, the path just seemed to disappear into rocks and vegetation.

We worked our way towards the top of the hill, expecting that we might find some sort of shrine or pagoda, but instead came across some sort of encampment. Nobody was there at the moment, but it was clear that somebody was, or at least had been, using this part of the hill as a home. It was starting to get dark anyway, so we decided it was a good time to head back and rejoin the group.

Next: Dinner and nightlife.