Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Chasing Chip

China's cities are tiered according to their size and development and yesterday we headed out to a tier 4 city called Ba Zhou, and then even further afield into the rural economy to get a feel for what it means when a household mobile phone purchase requires a few months or more of saving. I've really been looking forward to this part of our work because as I've pointed out before it doesn't take too much effort to win over the cosmopolitan elite with bells and whistles but the solid working people from the rust belts and further afield work hard for their money and it takes considerably more respect and sensitivity, not to say thinking, in order to understand more fully the contexts of their lives. The pampered classes like you and I are a pushover in this respect. First off I was struck by the polythene sheeting for the windows of one household above. It was pretty chilly but warm tea was served and we were treated as welcome guests with apples and oranges and even cigarettes left by a clean ashtray.

Cooking is done with a coal fired oven and I got thinking of Graham and his Pheasant plucking which took 45 minutes over here, and how much more work it woud take to cook the thing, not to mention the cleaning and maintenance. I regret now that I didn't get a shot of the steaming dumplings under the lid of this one. Its not quite the same as taking a phone call over the new Smeg Oven while peeling off the cling film wrap from some Sainsbury's pork chops is it?

Yes it's a huge living room compared to many city dwellers but all I could think of was how much harder it would be to heat up with those polythene windows. Good for the kids to crawl about in the summer though. On the right is one of those huge posters depicting a non existant idylic rural scene such as smoky waterfalls, that are so popular right across Asia.

There are two types of coal used in these parts and this is the lumpy stuff that gets broken down to feed the oven. Behind me is the local coal dealers stock pile.

Which is purchased by the households and then kept in dryer conditions because gas mark 5 to get the frozen pizzas nice and crispy isn't so easy to achieve when dealing with damp fuel.

Then there are the coal briquettes which are used for the relatively primative central heating. They are more efficient in terms of quality and the size that allows them to burn stronger but also for longer. I was particularly excited by the winter cabbages being stored here because when I heard about the whole 'stocking 200 heads of cabbage' for winter in Chinese households I couldn't quite imagine how it worked but in the cold of winter its practically a fridge outside and so they are maintained. I'm also rather fond of cabbage in soups, as well as buttered with some creamy mustard. Out here though its pretty much a staple food.

I couldn't help but imagine that this scene hasn't changed since the the middle of the century and further back really. It wouldn't take too much to knock out a Hovis inspired Ad for those phones evoking the romance of a bygone era would it? Point being its far from gone yet.

This Gentleman was the happiest and simplest guy I've met in ages. Only recently married his house was decked out with all new mod cons including the winter bed behind him which is harder than the summer bed because of a thinner mattress to allow the heat from the oven outside to permeate through. When oil reaches three hundred dollars a barrel maybe we'll all be a bit more frugal with how we use energy with ideas like this. It was also interesting figuring out why he'd switched from three consecutive international mobile phone brands to his intention to buy a local brand next. Initially his reasoning was that all technology is the same so why pay a premium but with some thoughtful probing it turned out his new wife was now in charge of the purse strings. Fair play to him I thought. Women make for great houshold finance directors, although I'd be inclined to communicate that those local brands are in fact a false economy.

One more oven shot from the Gentleman above, you can tell I like them can't you? I got the feeling that this one would be less frequently used to begin with, as he and his new wife took communal meals with his parents who live close by after building him his new home. I forget the Chinese word for this style of living. I like the way that relationships are maintained through meals though. They don't share the living space together but food helps to keep a sense of familial involvment doesn't it?

And here is their equivalent of a 7-eleven convenience store for those last minute veggie purchases maybe forgotten to be picked up at the local weekly market shop. There were quite prominent mobile phone operator tariff communications in that establishment too.

Those ovens do require feeding with some decent kindle to get that coal going, and this 53 year old woman seemed to be making reasonably light work of the load needed for her household. All in all it was a fascinating day but I got the feeling that I'd like to have done a couple of nights braving the winter chill and getting into the routines of their lives to really understand what it means to sell a liberating and democratising piece of technology such as a mobile phone to these folks.


  1. You really learn how important dinner can be when you have relatives from a Chinese background.

    It makes such a change from our idea of dinner. Its friendlier and much more of a family thing.

  2. This is the ONLY way to understand China - I am so bloody happy you're doing it the right way because there's an awful lot of bollocks written about the place, both in the urban and rural cities.

    This is going to make you a superstar - oh god, can we cope with it. Ha!

  3. Hey charles,

    I like this stuff. Its all about the details. I can see now the benefit of physical fuel - perhaps in the UK its a case of "out of sight, out of mind". Its amazing that you can find retired engineers and kids on youtube building their own hydrogen fuel cells in their back gardens, yet we are still stuck with relic fuels....the future of energy is so simple it beggars belief.

    Mind the annoying presenter


    Hotter than the surface of the sun!


  4. No, we CANNOT cope. Can you imagine what a pain in the butt he would be??

  5. Thanks for your kind comments Rob. It means a lot to me...and yeah you're right. I've gotta reign in that ego because its my Achilles heel.... I'm sure I was Royalty or something in my last life :))

  6. Famous Rob. I think you would stand a good chance of getting into planning in Asia. Have you had a word with the missus? ;)

  7. I have mentioned it before briefly yeah, I don't think it would be a problem if the right thing came up.

    Would have to get used to the heat in some places though!!

  8. Fantastic post Charles. What an incredibly fascinating country. It must be odd applying twenty first century marketing principles to early / mid twentieth century 'consumers' (which is probably a totally innapropriate term).

  9. Howdy Henry. I'm going to do a post shortly that should show you some Beijing life. You might be surprised at what is going on here after reading it. I've never seen anything quite like it, even in all my Asia years and also in Shanghai. Its quite powerful. China rocks.