China Business

Reflections on My Shanghai-Bangkok-Yangon-Beijing-Busan-Seoul Tour

Seoul Busan Beijing Shanghai Bangkok

Just returned from a couple weeks in Asia and ready to pour out my wholly random and pent up thoughts regarding the places I’ve been. So here goes, in chronological order:

1.  Shanghai.

The Good:  I started my trip in Shanghai, where I went for the tail end of the Shanghai Film Festival. I skipped Shanghai on my last trip to China and I found it good to be back. My sense of Shanghai is that it is China’s easiest city for foreigners. The roads from the airport seem to get better every time and Shanghai’s taxi drivers are generally calm and professional. I also don’t get the sense the drivers are out to kill me when I walk across the street. Shanghai is a great food city and I did my best to realize its potential.

The Bad:
Many people are worried about how well foreign movies are doing in China. The thinking is that China’s government is not going to let foreign movies keep blowing away Chinese movies at the box office and it eventually may restrict foreign movies even more.

The Really Random: It struck me on this trip that Europeans seem to favor Shanghai over Beijing and the opposite is true of Americans. This may have been due to my having met up with two European lawyers in Shanghai, but I am starting to think it goes beyond that. Am I completely making this up?

2. Bangkok.

The Good:  Bangkok is booming economically and if it can deal with its political problems and its pocket of violent Muslim extremists  in the South, it will continue to thrive. ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam) is going to become one common market by 2015 and many multinationals are already looking to take advantage of this. Singapore will be where the largest and wealthiest of the multinationals set up their ASEAN headquarters, but I see many a smaller company choosing Bangkok because it is so much cheaper, and yet still a fairly easy city for foreigners. I have a friend who lives in a very nice, 2 bedroom, 2 bath condo, right off Wireless Road (one of Bangkok’s nicest areas) and pays only USD$1200 per month. Bangkok even has excellent healthcare. And the food is off the charts incredible, if you (like me) love spicy.

The Bad:
Thailand is rightfully proud of its history of withstanding colonization and that means it often does things its own ways. In practical terms, that means things like Bangkok’s street system are like just about nowhere else. Get used to hot and humid.

The Random:
Seems more flights land late at night in Bangkok than anywhere else. I am told not to complain about this because late night landings are the best way to avoid the traffic. As fewer and fewer people continue believing China’s economic growth-line will perpetually point straight up while its costs remain flat, the concept of a China Plus One strategy is gaining considerable currency. ASEAN is becoming the plus one.

3.  Yangon.

The Good: The people. The food. The sights. The new. The temples.

The Bad:
The business climate.

The Random:
A surprisingly decent local wine. The world’s most (only) patient cab drivers. Twice I got stuck in horrible traffic due to accidents/rain and this was after having negotiated ridiculously low flat fees (USD$1.80). If this had happened in Beijing, I probably would have been tossed out of the car in the middle of the freeway in the pouring rain. Instead, the cabbies were polite as could be the whole time. Both times I paid them double on the fares and both times the drivers were as gracious as could be. I know it makes me sound like a complete hick to say that the people are nice, but dammit, the people are nice.

4. Beijing.

The Good: I swear Beijing’s pollution seems to miraculously disappear every time right before I arrive. Granted I was there for only two days, but (again) everyone told me it was as nice as they had seen it in a long long time — I even avoided the heatwave. In spite of China’s downturn, Beijing is still totally hopping, or maybe it just seemed that way to me because I was always hopping. I added Beijing on to my trip at the last minute and that meant trying to squeeze in double the meetings possible for the time allowed.

The Bad:
Beijing has become wicked expensive. The drivers are still out to kill you and the taxi cab drivers are still the least competent and meanest in the world. I prefer risking my life with the pedi-cabs.

The Random:
I had to show my passport six times to get out of the country.

5. Busan.

The Good:  I always love staying at the Westin Chosun Beach Hotel (you need to pronounce it Wes-TIN CHO-SAN BEECH-UH or nobody will even know what you are saying).  I love how just about everyone in Pusan seems to be middle class. Busan is Korea’s baseball city and you can hardly go anywhere without seeing a couple of kids playing catch. There’s something reassuring in that.

The Bad:
Busan is a port city of more than 5 million, but it has less than a handful of international law firms and no new ones for many many years. I’ve been going to Busan since forever and this was the first time I had ever seen a homeless person there and I saw a handful of them. Were they not there before or had I just missed them? I saw five and three were at the train station.

The Random:
I took the high speed train from Busan to Seoul and I am never going to fly that route again.

6. Seoul.

The Good:  The Westin Chosun is maybe the best business hotel in the world. Not elegant, just uber efficient. It has a phenomenal health club (and they supply all of the work-out gear) and the best sushi restaurant in town (okay, maybe tied with the Hyatt). I also love how it is right next door to the Lotte Department Store and so it makes it nearly impossible for me to go just about anywhere without seeing the Lotte Parking Ladies, which I view as quintessentially Korean. Incheon is just a great airport. I really respect Korea. It has gone from being the second poorest country in the world (only Niger was poorer) in the 1950s to a developed full-on democracy and, by many measures, the cultural capital of Asia. Count me as a big fan. Korea does not get the kudos it deserves.

The Bad:
Seoul is very expensive. I hate that a really good friend of mine (with whom I would have dinner just about every time I came to town) has been transferred to Singapore.

The Random:
Everyone is talking about Korea’s having recently signed a free trade agreement with the United States and of how Korea’s legal market is finally opening up. Korea is a very wealthy country but in many ways even more difficult than China for foreign companies to navigate. Will the new rules/laws change that? Nobody seemed willing to give real  answers. Will we be seeing more American companies seeking to go to Korea? I expected more optimism on this point than I got. Then again, I cannot remember a Korean lawyer ever doing anything other than downplaying his or her country. Korea just always seems to do well….

What do you think?

15 responses to “Reflections on My Shanghai-Bangkok-Yangon-Beijing-Busan-Seoul Tour”

  1. “It struck me on this trip that Europeans seem to favor Shanghai over Beijing and the opposite is true of Americans.”
    I’m European and I do prefer Shanghai mainly because its structure is more similar to the old European towns, that is everything that matters is in a small zone called city center and you can walk almost everywhere in less than one hour (as long as you live between People Square and Jiangsu Road).
    I’ve lived six months in Beijing and I agree taxi drivers never know directions and are always trying to kill you (and themselves). Also, since everything is so far you end up paying a lot of money.
    This is why I use to live on the subway, while I was in Beijing.
    I’ve commented this several time to American and usually they answer:
    “I live in Sanlitun and over there I have everything I need.”
    The problem is I see Beijing as a bit more than Sanlitun (Guomao, Gulou, Wudaokou, Xidan etc etc)
    Other two points against Beijing are the cold winters and the unbearable pollution.
    I must say that Beijing cultural and night life is the best in China though. 

    • Yeah, I’m American and in most regards I prefer Beijing.  I think you’re right that Shanghai is laid out more like a European city (hey, part of it *was* practically a European city at one time).  Some parts of Beijing remind me of Chicago — very broad streets and rectangular layout.  I think there’s nothing in Shanghai that quite compares to the Hutong neighborhoods of Beijing, around the drum tower for example.  On the other hand, I find the pollution in Beijing to be insufferable.  Dunno, they are both nice cities but I agree with Dan that on the balance, Americans seem to slightly prefer Beijing and it makes sense somehow but it’s hard to put into words, haha.

  2. I hope you sent postcards of China, Seoul and Bangkok to your clients in the US to let them know you were actually really there!  

  3. I guess I’m an exception to the rule – I much preferred Beijing to Shanghai, despite being European.
    I visited Shanghai after 5 months in Beijing and, like Tianjin and Qingdao, it had a familiar appearance – but its not Chinese. Shanghai, in particular, made me feel very uncomfortable. 
    Why is my culture here and in such an imposing way? It is in the wrong place – lost, angry for finding itself in such an alien land. I’m used to people moving, but not buildings.

  4. Nice overview!
    I live in Shanghai and happen to be at the cinema yesterday to find that there wasn’t any foreign film playing. An aftermath after the film festival you mentioned?Also: Agree with the kudo’s regards Korea!
    Thanks for sharing! 

  5. Taxi drivers in Beijing are bad, but so are the ones in Shanghai. Taxi drivers all over China are just plain horrible. I have lived and traveled in China for nine years, Rude and incompetent taxi drivers have been a big, big problem for me.

  6. Americans on tour in Asia. Conclusions: the traffics bad but the foods good. Sounds about right.

  7. The Beijing-Shanghai route is very familar to all businessmen and lawyers who work in China. Some do it once or twice a week, all the time. And Shanghai-Hong Kong, its normal travel routes.

  8. I find most Beijing cabbies to be very colorful, happy to talk and quite friendly, which is not usually the case when in my Shanghai experiences. They may not be the most professional but since taxi fares have not increased with inflation or fuel prices…

  9. oh god, i just came from Beijing, and yes, it does seem that drivers are out there to kill you. Loved your little travel log. 🙂

  10. Shanghai is far more foreign friendly. In the span of the one year that I’ve been traveling back and forth between Shanghai and the United States, the foreign population there seems to have exploded. I suspect that this is largely due to the severe economic downturn in the United States and especially in Europe. Plenty of European nations are facing economies that are hurting more than they did even during the period of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. I see many Europeans flocking to China in search of some kind of economic future they cannot find at home. (This is less true for Americans – we tend not to uproot for economic reasons, and as of yet our economy isn’t so bad that we are searching abroad for opportunity). 
    As well, the overall cultural atmosphere of China’s varying regions must be taken into account. Beijing is a much more subdued city. I would argue that American’s generally prefer the North of China because it reminds us more of home. The Northern Chinese are generally more considerate. They are far less likely to plow you over while walking. You are more likely to receive a smile and a hand shake in Beijing. 
    The capitalism versus culture battle is raging all throughout China. I find that in the North culture has won, and in the South the opposite can be said. And I think this attraction to culture is what draws Americans more toward Beijing and the Northern areas of China. It could also simply be that Shanghai is dominated by the Europeans, and thus Americans don’t feel as comfortable around a gaggle of people who look similar but speak some unintelligible dialect. Every time I stay in the French Quarter I get tickled by the French T.V. stations. 
    I would note, that my experience with taxi’s has been the exact opposite of what you have described. I find that in Beijing the taxi drivers are often locals. They often speak Beijinghua. In Shanghai everyone is either using a GPS or getting lost. Every taxi driver in Beijing had to take an etiquette course prior to the Olympics, and this noticeably effected their behaviors. I’ve been thrown out of taxi’s in Shanghai, even when accompanied by my Chinese friends. In Guangzhou I have only once agreed to take a taxi, because only once was I not charged 100 kuai on the spot. I will walk 40 years in the desert before I pay one extra cent for having white skin. And that one time in Guangzhou I even tipped the guy double his faire, and told him that I respected him so much for being honest – that in Americas we tip people who do a good, honest job. I told him to spread the word. 
    But all of this comes with a big caveat. China is changing. I was in Shanghai recently for a business conference when the three illegal campaign began, three night clubs were hit. Hundreds of foreigners were arrested. (The campaign has already completed its initial steps in Beijing – more to come). 
    The mood throughout China is turning. Being foreign used to accord you celebrity status. You were allowed to commit acts that would otherwise land you in jail in the States. Jobs were handed out to green recruits of other nations simply for the color of their skin and their fancy foreign diploma. Illegal work was looked past. 
    As of recently, 80% of Chinese college graduates have been unable to locate work in their major upon degree completion. Work visa’s for many foreigners are being rejected. And the environment of forgiveness for lewd, rude, disgusting behavior is quickly disappearing. Word is out that the three illegals campaign is going to spread next to Guangzhou. If you work in China, if you study in China, if you live in China, and you do so below board – your livelihood is ever more becoming temporary. 
    The Chinese government is now beginning to implement the new law concerning foreigners in China. It is strict: 500 a day for every day after your visa’s expired, a possible 20,000 if working without a permit, a 10,000 fine for employing an illegal plus all assets related to work performance confiscated (all figures are in renminbi). And jail times of up to 15 days for any of the listed infractions. China has already begun the process of building ‘special’ jails. Even worse, the Chinese are being encouraged to turn in foreigners. Have a local Chinese competitor? I hope you have your documents in order. Have a coworker who is a little jealous over that promotion – better make sure your boss did your visa paperwork first. 
    The domestic pressure on the government to step up and deal with foreigners is only going to increase. Whether this pressure is deserved or undeserved the outcome will be the same. 
    If you are a foreigner in China, I hope you learned the language and  committed to the culture. You better be living legally and you better have more Chinese friends than expat friends. If you have done these things fear not. But for everybody else, if Shanghai and Beijing are any indication, the party is over…

  11. As an European living in Beijing 3 years (2003-2006) and Shanghai since, I prefer Shanghai for it’s more international feeling. However, what I miss from Beijing is all the cultural things, hard to describe, but the heavy historical feeling you know. We were in Beijing last weekend, and the pollution was worse than I ever remember when we lived there. Shanghai is also simply better build, I nearly forgot my irritation on how stuff just seem to fall apart in Beijing.
    I agree with your view on Thailand, that country is going to boom in the coming years if they can hold together politically. And that is always easier when it’s booming.
    I have been travelling to the area around a lot Busan recently. The Koreans are basically worried about their future and yes, it’s opening up. You see a lot of international brands there, Volvo bought a factory from SHI and Renault bought Samsung Motors. I think the Koreans struggle with this integration with the rest of the world. The debate to the coming election also show this.
    I’ve also been to Japan recently. Japan is now on a stage where they are much more at ease with the west and the integration. Anyway, that was my feeling.
    Oh, and thank you for a lot of good posts.

  12. Beijing is the best of all these cities. I was on Beijing tour and I was surprised of many things: culture, people, food and many more beautiful things in this amazing city.

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