“Super leftover girl”…Super Shengnv!

Photo art credit: ROSEANN LAKE, LEO LEE, AND RYAN MYERS @ The World of Chinese magazine

Photo art credit: ROSEANN LAKE, LEO LEE, AND RYAN MYERS @ The World of Chinese magazine

“It’s a girl… It’s an old girl… It’s ‘Super Old Maid’!” My book-writing friend RL has teamed up with the magazine I used to edit and put together an awesome comic series about her personal superhero, Super Shengnv! For those of you who don’t know, “shengnv” is a single girl heading into “old maid” territory, which poses a big headache to The All-China Women’s Federation and our population planning honchos. Read more of Super Shengnv’s adventures here!

For the a more thorough look at China’s gender imbalance and preponderance of singles, check out RL’s article “Bachelor Padding” in Foreign Policy magazine.

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Best story to come out of China this holiday season: rent-a-boyfriend

Chinese New Year is just around the corner (new year’s eve = Feb 9)! Department stores are slashing prices, the city’s armies of courier delivery boys have hung up their electric bike keys and gone home (what a tragedy to discover last night that none of the vendors on Taobao will deliver my bunny’s pet food until after Feb 15), and everyone everywhere is talking about “grabbing train tickets” (some Chinese news reports said that the day holiday tickets went on sale ticket sales websites crashed within a minute from all the people logging on).

Oh, and the air has been much much better. We’re still hovering around 150-250 AQI readings for PM2.5, but we’ve seen a couple of days of blue skies. Ever since I read about the government shooting down rain clouds to clear the skies for important national occasions (like the 60th anniversary of the founding of the nation) I’ve become rather suspicious of clear days that coincide around sensitive times. Could the latest streak of visible skies be part of an elaborate plan to keep us Chinese citizens dumb and happy as we head into the most important holiday of the year?

Speaking of keeping people happy, with China’s population imbalance (120 boys : 100 girls) you’d think there wouldn’t be a shortage of boyfriends to bring home to see the folks. In fact, my travels around the country pretty much convinced me that men are throwing all of their (and their parents’) resources at winning over wives — typical middle class dating starts with a woman reviewing a potential suitor’s credentials (parents buying you a house? a car? other goods?). (Read more on China’s demographic woes at Next Big Future and Economist).

Think again. The best story I’ve read in Chinese media this week is the “boyfriend for rent.” Check out this dashing entrepreneur, selling himself as a fake boyfriend to appease worried parents (what? 25 and single? that’s a sin for a young Chinese woman). He bills himself as a “rental boyfriend, cooks and cleans, capable conversationalist, willing to drive long distances.” For the auspicious price of RMB 388.88 you can rent him for a day, or pay RMB 2588.88 for 8 days. Hurry ladies, he has had 57 transactions in the last 30 days!

It is China after all, so where there’s a good idea, somebody’s bound to copy it (and undercut prices). Here are some more rental boyfriends…Looks like there might be enough to go around for every single girl, if you’re willing to pay!

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What is “middle class” in China?

The article “What Is Middle Class in Manhattan?” in the New York Times took me back to my thoughts on the middle class in China last year. Maybe China is kind of like a blown up version of the Manhattan portrayed in the NYT article, in the sense that nominal income alone won’t tell you much about how someone lives, what their values are, and how their life will turn out, because rapid inflation, especially in real estate prices, have thrown everything out of whack.

This argument below taken from the NYT article almost echoes exactly my thoughts on China, based on extensive travels to China’s mega-cities, suburbs, townships, counties, and even villages in 2012.

An intriguing definition of what helps a person gain entry to the Manhattan middle class was ventured by Jonathan Bowles, the executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, who issued an in-depth report in 2009 that examined the city’s changing class dynamics. “Understanding who is middle class, in New York, but especially Manhattan, is all about when you got into the real estate market,” he said. “If you bought an apartment prior to 2000, or have long been in a rent-stabilized apartment, you could probably be a teacher in Manhattan and be solidly middle class. But if you bought or started renting in a market-rate apartment over the last 5 or 10 years, you could probably be a management consultant and barely have any savings.”

What I found in China last year is that a couple that each makes RMB 6000 (call it $1000) a month in China living in a small city where their family is from probably had their parents buy them a home years ago (no mortgage), free baby care and housekeeping from their relatives (this could run up to $90k a year if you live in a city like San Francisco and have a legal nanny), a car that they might not have paid for themselves (it’s customary for men’s families to provide all the “hard goods” in ordr to attract a serious girlfriend / wife in this day and age), and other communal / cultural non-monetary subsidies. This couple could spend as little as 10-20% of their income on life necessities and has more room for disposable spending (say on imported cosmetics or relatively “expensive” clothing / accessories) than their wages alone suggest.

Contrast that with elite white collars in Beijing, say at an ad agency, making ~RMB 20-25,000 (~$4000) a month. If they’re not from Beijing they’re probably paying rent to the tune of at least RMB 1000 per person, eating out a lot at overpriced restaurants if their parents haven’t moved from the hometown to come help with babysitting or housekeeping, and the possibility of ever owning a home (heck, even neighborhoods around the 5th Ring Road are considered unaffordable now) in the big city seems very remote. On paper, this tier 1 city office worker should be doing better than the small city worker, but reality is more nuanced than that. After all, the terms “yueguangzu” (zero monthly savings) and “daotie” (reverse subsidy, by parents to kids) didn’t come out of nowhere!

What I learned in rural areas was most interesting. Because many rural residents were allocated land in the land reform process over the last few decades (urban Chinese don’t own the land, even if they buy the apartment it’s just a leasehold), some have done quite well, by selling land early to developers and reinvesting in property, or buying into other small businesses, like taxi licenses (whose prices have gone up 7x in the last 10 years in one small city I visited). I know there are countless cases where land ownership and land sales haven’t worked out fairly for peasants, but given how much coverage these issues get I think it’s fair to point out the other economic reality too. That timing and property or land ownership can make or break one’s class status in China today.

Instead of assessing “class” on the basis of nominal income or people’s place of residence – as most China watches do – I have started thinking about Chinese people as being either part of the new “have’s” camp or the “have’s not” camp. You’d be surprised at who falls into each camp! This partly explains the mystery of why my old neighbors from the village where I was born started asking me to bring back Dolce & Gabana handbags worth a few thousands dollars from overseas in the 1990s and why I, living in Beijing and working an “elite” white collar job, still feel like those luxuries are unaffordable (or incongruous with my middle class values).

That’s the income bit of the “class question” for now. As for values, I think I’ll address that in a separate post. More on this topic to come…

The trouble with taxis in Beijing…

…is that you can never find one!

I used to get annoyed at people who complained about getting taxis in Beijing when I first moved here in late 2009. I was, of course, coming from Singapore and New York, where fares were way high (my average commute in those two cities were $8-10 vs. $3 here) and cabs were hard to find. Try hailing on the corner of 45th and 5th at 6pm on a Friday night! I resorted to crashing other people’s taxis and offering to pay the whole fare many times…

But, this early in 2013 I have noticed that it has become increasingly hard to get any kind of transportation (unless you count the death traps that are public buses and the subway system at rush hour). Here’s a simple summary of my experience:

2009: never had a problem finding taxis

2010: “black cabbies” (not taxis but private individuals making a buck driving a passenger vehicle around town) start entering my phone book. I resort to taking them at 1.5-2x the fare of official taxis.

2011: black cabbies tell me to start booking them in advance, and I often couldn’t get one because they all had regular bookings from commuters

2012: I resort to taking tricycles (aluminum boxes on wheels), also unlicensed and illegal, during rush hours

2013: last week a tricycle driver gave me his business card and said, “Book in advance please”!!!

Instead of getting mad at the cabbies, I’m annoyed at the system. Cab fares have been flat since almost 10 years ago. And what has inflation been in the meantime? If you were a cabbie consistently for the last ten years, your quality of life has deteriorated beyond repair. Agenda Beijing did a great job with back of the envelop calculations on how unprofitable cabbies are.

So, instead of picking up rides cabbies sometimes 1) hide out in a corner until traffic gets better, 2) call it a day and go home, 3) refuse to pick up desperate hailers on the street, 4) or don’t run the meter and see who gives them the best offer.

Yesterday was a snow day and I was late to teach my morning yoga class. I knew I was screwed as soon as I got onto the street. So I ran into an intersection during a red light and told the cabbie – who was getting ready to refuse before I even got close – I would give him RMB 50 (~$9) for a RMB 20 ride. He agreed.

We chatted and I asked him if a typical RMB 10 (starter fare, short ride) ride is profitable and he said, “If there’s any traffic, not at all!” He seemed embarrassed to take my high offer but did anyway. I told him not to worry about it – we’re all victims of strange policy and inefficient pricing mechanisms in this market!

Oh goodie, a chance to write about one of my favorite topics – love! (Remember those “Dear Q” love agony emails I was receiving in 2009-2010?).

But one can’t very well write about love in China without writing about Marriage and, of course, about Property! So here goes, my take on modern Chinese relationships and what keeps the real estate “bubble” going, published in the January issue of NewsChina (available in print in the US, Canada, and China).

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What do Chinese people want?

I write research for an investment company for a living. Because the sector I cover happens to be consumer goods and retail, I obsess over what Chinese people want, in the literal sense. Is it LV, Gucci, or Prada? KFC, Chongqing-style fast food, or fine dining? A new car, a bigger house, or a ticket abroad?

As I traveled around China last year talking to people about their material desires I realized that their intangible wants were more compelling. Here’s what I found on self-actualizing in the pseudo-communist-capitalist state, published in the December 2012 issue of NewsChina.

Copy of NewsChina 2012-12

 

Publishing again!

Between 2009-2011, I spent two happy years as a writer / editor plugging away at my keyboard making social / political / cultural commentaries for various English publications about China. Some of my work is still on this blog, but a lot of it was lost in an IT-ineptitude-induced episode of “Oops, someone stole my domain name” (in truth, I forgot to renew it). When I have time, I’ll repost the old columns I published on this blog.

For now, the more exciting news is that a magazine I used to contribute to monthly – NewsChina – has asked me to start writing again. I happily share with you my first publication after a year-long hiatus, during which I traveled around China plenty and wrote a lot (for private consumption by my indulgent and encouraging investment-colleague readers at my company), here. If you don’t have a subscription to NewsChina you should look into it – Obama himself is a reader :).

Click on this link to read a PDF copy:
NewsChina Sep 2012

P.S. Sorry for the blurry image. One day I’ll figure out how to be a real blogger.