Sunday, January 9, 2005

Hong Kong #5

Day 5
Sunday 1/9/05

Once again when I got back I was too tired to write so now I've got to update my journal after having slept since then.

At an early hour I woke up, got dressed, and went down for breakfast. By 8:30 we were at the office and everyone met up to head down to the train station. Ken, Jim, and I walked to the station and picked up our tickets to get on the train. The train was very nice, the seats reclined like an aircraft's seat and like most everything else in Hong Kong, it was very clean. It was a Sunday and I was informed that most people were at home so the train would be very empty. It was. We were some of the few people in the car and certainly the only non-chinese (though I come close). The ride from Hong Kong to Dong Guan would take about an hour so I settled in to enjoy the scenery and conversation. The ride out from Hong Kong took us through the New Territories (paradoxially the area was named that a long time ago so it's actually quite old) where we got to see the dramatic drop off in urbanization once you cross the first set of hills. I saw tin huts, concrete scavenged to cobble together stone enclosures, and a lot of rubbish and trash all around. The highway system just shot over all the poverty and into the new housing developments. There were many skyscrapers and apartment buildings all over the place. I'm told that people commute 1 hour each day from the cheaper housing of the New Territories to Hong Kong. To give some sense of cost, in the paper I read about an apartment complex that opened this weekend and people were in line for yards and yards (hundreds of people) to have the chance to sign a lease at $2000 per month in rent for a 500 square foot apartment. The New Territories are larger apartments for cheaper (I didn't find out the percent less).

Quite unspectacularly we crossed the river into China. It really didn't feel that much different at first. Something I would be reminded of over and over again this day would be that China was different in many small ways but very few big ones. The customs agents greeted us warmly, asked us our business in China (and in the time honored tradition of asian businessmen we said 'leisure' to the customs agents) and asked us to please read the health notifications regarding SARS. The little ways that this was different from what I was expecting where the little digital cameras that you hand to stand in front of for three seconds and the fact that they were all wearing army uniforms. I mean the full communist army uniforms, red stars, shoulder boards, patches, jack boots, belt, I mean everything. Once we walked out of the train station Ken negotiated a ride with the cabbies out front. Actually, the cabbies all mobbed Ken and tried to shout each other down trying to get the fare and finally ken picked one based on vehicle size and price. The rest of the cabbies looked sad but then went on (one cabbie smaller) to the next group and mobbed them for their business.

Now I must say something about Dong Guan (the city we were in) and the roads. In the plus column is that the roads are well paved and arrow straight. Cross streets are at 90 degree angles to the main streets and they are very level and smooth. In the minus column is the fact that you have 4 to 6 lanes of traffic where a) there are no highway police b) the white and yellow lines are only suggestions c) there are no traffic signs and very few lights and d) if there's enough room to poke your vehicle's fender in or squeeze by, then there's plenty of room. The trip in the cab was an exercise in street anarchy. I couldn't help but grin the entire time as we were weaving in and out of traffic, squeezing by buses and dumptrucks or were being narrowly avoided by the same. Oh yeah, the sidewalks are not off limits. Motorcycles were everywhere and the best ones were the motorcycle cabs with 4-6 people on them or with only one farmer on it and several bamboo poles loaded down with packages or buckets of produce. One thing I noticed was that the Kawasaki 250 motorcycle was apparently used as the prototype for just about every motorcycle company there. Clone vehicles were everywhere with chinese nameplates I couldn't recognize, though I could recognize the vehicle. I saw a clone Toyota Corolla and tons of Kawasaki motorcycle knockoffs. The best vehicle had to be what Jim and I called "The People's Truck." Imagine if you will a four cylinder engine with two pickup truck wheels attached directly to it via a single axle. Then, put all your controls for that engine and the brakes for the wheels on a pair of long handlebars like a Harley chopper. Then attach this monstrosity to a flexing hitch that is itself attached to a single axle pickup bed that is dragged along behind the engine. Now put a tractor seat on the front part of the pickup bed and put a guy on it holding on the handlebars... that is the People's Truck. We saw it everywhere.

We drove past the largest factory in China. 50,000 employees. Yeah, fifty THOUSAND employees. They make toys for Mattel. Barbie keeps 50,000 people at a single factory working. The Chinese work ethic is amazing. Seven days a week, 12 hours a day, paid once a month... and if you as the factory owner/boss don't give them those hours they'll quit and go someplace that will. China had to legislate a maximum workday of 15 hours to keep national health up, the employees would work and not sleep and get sick. It's funny but in the US we'd think that it was the employers that were forcing them to work these hours, but not here. The factories are communes. The workers live there in apartments sharing the apartment with up to 3 other workers. When they get paid they send up to 85% of their paychecks back home to their parents or relatives in the agricultural commune where they grew up. Everywhere around Dong Guan are "people's gardens" where the communal workers all plant crops, raise the crops, then when they need food just harvest a basketful as needed or for a very small fee. Chinese workers also dress very well, in the factory I saw people airbrushing toys while wearing a sport coat. The ladies usually wear makeup while they work and they generally dress well when not on the clock. The toilets are the old school "squat" style that I remembered from my childhood in Thailand. In the factory we visted there were only one or two "throne" style toilets for foreign visitors. The flush mechanism on the squatters was a water handle you turn on and turn off when you're done. There's no premeasured gallon flush system on those. What little Mandarin I know served me very well in China. I was able to do very rudimentary communication with the factory chief engineer when he was trying to explain some mold and injection molding concepts to me. It was a very productive meeting and we discussed a lot of things that were possible and a few things that weren't. We went to eat lunch and I ate lots of really tasty food, including Duck Tongue, a delicacy. I liked it but I don't think I could recommend it to most folks in the US. You have to break open the duck beak to get to the roast tongue inside. After lunch we visted a Polyurethane factory out in the boondocks (well, it was in the city, but just at the edge so we had to drive offroad to get there). That was very educational as well. Polyurethane is an amazing material.

After the last factory we got back on the train and headed back into Hong Kong. It was dark, but not very late, so Ken and Peter went to go tend to family matters while Jim and I just grabbed some pastries and headed to sleep. This was the most productive day business-wise of my entire trip. I learned a lot about making products in china.

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