Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Sexy Beijing

I've been a big fan of Sexy Beijing for some time now or maybe its just Su Fei who has got it going on for me, as you may recall when I first tipped China's number one internet TV show off back here. On more pedestrian mattters, a few days ago I just had to get on the subway. The first free planning lesson in any country is to use public transport. There's so much to be learned from observing public social discourse, and on this occasion I had a real insight into how the Pekinese tick which gained momentum from a discussion I'd had some nights before thanks to a quality thinker called James about Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange and some very provocative thoughts on the idea of harmony and socialization vis a vis personal liberty. I'm stoked at what is going on. James, I really hope you start a blog soon you'd be a very welcome additional voice.

Beijing is a supercity and to manage all that human traffic takes some order, or the system would be dysfunctional. It starts with queues on the subway platform. The train arrives, those disembarking get off and those embarking wait briefly, as you can see from the orderly queues in the picture below. Any dawdlers getting off the train are smothered quite quickly by those waiting to get on board. There was a heated discussion in my queue one day.

The subway system (Die Tie if you're asking) shifts an awful lot of people around the city, and in my experience so far, is more often squashed than the London Underground which is a lot more extensive than the Beijing system completed in 1977. The Queens silver Jubilee right? Here's the view inside the train in the morning once all that getting on and off is completed. Lots more headroom there which is something the Northern and Piccadilly line can be a bit tricky providing to tall people like me standing close to the doors.

But the thing that really turned me on was the completely civilised way to exit the station. This one pictured below is new so its not very representative of rush hour, but the principle is the same. Notice how there is no barrier? Once you've handed in your ticket at the luxuriously manned (not turnstiled) subway entrance or swiped a 'tube Card' on a sensor, the journey is hassle free and you're good to go, on your way wherever you choose to get off.

This woman asked me why I was taking pictures of Subway exits, and when I explained she gave me her business card. Turned out we both work in the strategy end of communications and we're going to touch base when she gets back from Paris. Small world isn't it?

Moving away from public infrastructure (one of my favourite subjects), I have been shamelessly ambushed by McDonalds who have such a savvy marketing outfit, that not only do they know my weakness for a Sausage & Egg McMuffin breakfast, but have also accurately stationed a restaurant devastatingly close to my apartment. I thought I'd kicked the habit from my Brixton runs which were becoming less and less enjoyable but now that I'm back in the sausage patty groove I'd love to share a couple of points with you. First off is the amazing coffee in McDonalds China. Now I'm not a coffee freak although I do like my friend Terry's award winning Dakine Kona Coffee from his farm in Hawaii but other than that I'd be fibbing to suggest I'm an aficianado. I prefer tea generally, and I'm particuarly enjoying my Chinese and green tea these days. But getting back on track the McDonalds coffee here in China is on another level. To make the stuff bearable in the UK I'd need to order a latte or cappuccino, yet here its borderline fantastic and a real caffeine kick to boot. Which begs a serious question for me.

Why can the product be superior in one country and significantly inferior in another, and yet the logo and marketing communications have to be uniform? Does anyone else believe all that 'think global act local' pabulum? Whatever happened to 'when in Rome'? OK it's a little more complex than that but my point is that anything reduced to a binary input/output such as think this, do that is obviously questionable and in this instance is mostly about economies of scale with communication. That doesn't mean that consistency isn't important but as Richard over at Adliterate put it much more eloquently than I ever could, coherency is often more important.

I would go on but it does feel weird to be drinking from a Styrofoam cup again even though it insulates from the scalding heat much better than those cardboard affairs that seem to need doubling up anyway. They could quite easily have just as large a carbon footprint when all is said and done as far as I can figure out. Just less biodegradable I guess. Its one of those throwback things that I'm getting used to again. Its frightening how quickly we normalise from change and how much we disproportionately fear it in the first place. The other point that struck me as telling were the charity boxes in McDonalds over here. You may recall I did some qualitative research for a
Childrens Charity back in London and I've a post about that process to finish yet, but ever since then I've been chucking my spare change into the box and so I notice details like this. McDonald's children's charity boxes in China are not chained to the counter as they are in the UK. I think this says a lot about social harmony, division in society or the benefits or socialisation versus liberty of the individual. I haven't figured it all out yet and will need to go into some more impoverished places to get a fuller understanding but I'm formulating ideas on subjects that I haven't really thought about for a long time now.


  1. It's ironic - I'll be going to Romania and Bulgaria this week and then to France for the holidays but I did notice a few things.

    For instance, the similarities between the subway in Romania and Beijing. It was just as crowded everywhere you went and the London tube is like a walk in the park after you've seen how bad other stations around the world can be. I even have pictures of it but I considered the queues and amount of people on the tube to be 'normal' when I came back to the UK (surprising).

    It felt strange to be treated a lot worse and then to return to England. When I say people are being treated nice around here they look at me in disbelief because they always complain about the cashier at the till, the one minute queue at the supermarket..obviously they've never seen worse in their lives so they can't compare and I'm just sitting there thinking 'wow, this is fast...compared to my 20 minutes wait'

    The boxes in McDonald's...they have those in Bucharest as well for instance but they're a lot bigger in size than any others I've seen - I might take a picture next time I go there. Also not chained to the till even though some suggest they should be...well, anyway.

    The coffee used to be really bad, I haven't drank any since I came to the UK to compare but people weren't drinking it at all back there before they changed it to 'premium' and added a lot more flavours. I'll be checking to make sure but I remember it quite well. If they're happy with their sales in the UK and they're not alarmingly low we might never get to see 'premium' Mcdonald's coffee!

    I really should go to Beijing, it would make me feel all nostalgic.

    You haven't mentioned one thing though: are you enjoying it? :) Or should do you think you'll still be enjoying it in a few weeks from now?

  2. Did you answer honestly and say I'm taking photos of the subway in order to meet women?

  3. One thing worth noting on subways is the age respect thing. People are much quicker to offer seats/space to older people.

    Green tea is great. Jasmine goes great when having Dim Sum.

  4. Wow. My longest comment yet Andrea. First thing is that as a planner I can give answers to your great questions based on a couple of perspectives. Do you want the pampered white boy answer? If so then I think the underground service is more civilised service than London. I'd probably answer in the negative for a local because a local would be lot more humble than me when dealing with truculent London turnstile staff. Its a complex answer and I could spreadsheet it up dependant on different contexts! Planners answer for ya there. Do I like it here? Yep. It fucking rocks. I could of course find fault in anything. That's my specialist subject ha!

    Doddsy. That woman is reading my blog right now so you mind your step sunshine ;)

    Famous Rob. I'm particularly fond of Japanese green tea with a roast rice flavour to it. Exquisite!

  5. Then she can contact me direct for the low-down.

  6. The MTR in Hong Kong is worse than London. People try to walk through you as you get off!

    Good man Charles. How are your chopstick skills?

    Don't forget the wonders of cold ovaltine and Sago pudding. I also recommend going to Hong Kong for New Year (Chinese of course), it's mad but amazing.