"This road is a dead end. Please walk around."

"This road is a dead end. Please walk around."

Divide and conquer: the demolition of Shenzhen's most centrally located urban village - affordable housing for the city's immigrants, students, and low-income workers - starts here, behind this wall. I flew to Shenzhen to witness it myself, to understand what the city was losing by tearing down the structures that made its village-to-metropolis origin story possible.

"We're old now," said a butcher in Baishizhou. "We're too tired to start over."

I had expected to walk away with a story framed around loss. But for immigrants who had nothing when they first came to Shenzhen, more devastating than losing their apartment is the idea of having to start over - again.

Analyse Asia Podcast: Xiaomi Part 1/2

Once touted the 'Steve Jobs of China', Xiaomi founder Lei Jun has not gotten a lot of love from the media lately. Last year, Xiaomi only sold 70 million smartphones, down 30 million from their goal of 100 million. On top of that, instead of pushing out innovative products, the company has been bogged down in a bizarre smorgasbord of devices, from rice cookers to electronic mosquito repellent.

Still, the $45 billion company -  king of shanzhai, master of the flash sale model - has certainly left its mark on China and the world.

Hear me discuss the "X" in BATX with Bernard Leong on the latest episode of Analyse Asia and stay tuned for Part 2!

Taobao's "Maker" Festival

Over the weekend, Alibaba threw a "Taobao Maker Festival" to showcase its latest VR e-commerce technology. They're partnering with a company called Buy+ to give people an immersive virtual shopping experience.

Like most Alibaba events, it was all PR and very little substance. Buy+'s lingerie shopping experience was more about sexy demo content than useful functionality. You could walk around a showroom and pick up lingerie, but you couldn't actually try anything on. Clicking on a bra would just show a half-naked model preening in front of a mirror. The guys watching in line were happy to say the least.

The Sound Of 黄梅 Season

Shanghai's 黄梅 season is almost here. It's a two-week season defined by continuous bouts of cool, torrential rain that eventually give way to the heavy heat of the summer. My scooter nearly died the last time 黄梅 season came about (my fault for making it wade through calf-deep puddles). 

Anyway, this is just a recording of a normal rainstorm, a precursor to the real deal, which should start in a week or so. I bought my first audio recorder a month ago, a feather-light Sony ICD-UX560F, and have been recording at every chance I get. It's amazing how listening back to interviews - or any kind of sound - can ground you in that moment. Maybe the magic will fade, but for now, I am thrilled. More audio clips to be posted in future Flotsam posts!

Renewal Center, Zhabei District, Shanghai

Not sure why anyone would donate a pair of used heels to a homeless shelter (usually that stuff annoys me - keep your secondhand cocktail dresses and bikinis, donate good walking shoes and warm jackets instead ) but I'm glad they did. 

three_phones_taxi.jpg

"It's custom made," says the cab driver, nodding at the black phone holder. "My husband had it specially ordered."

The three phones are talking at once, rattling off orders from people waiting in the rain. She keeps an eye on the first phone, where our path to Tianzifang is outlined in green.

"This is the only 'mobile' phone," she laughs. "The other two never leave this cab. My shift ends around 2 or 3,  then my husband drives." 

She turns the steering wheel with a gloved hand. "It's so we can snatch up taxi orders," she explains. "There's no other way, right? The competition is too fierce."
 
We wind through the Former French Concession. The streets are lined with London planetrees, their leaves heavy with rain. The cab driver takes us on a small detour, crisscrossing the highway and zigzagging through one-way streets. Rounding the corner, we approach the red target on the first phone. DESTINATION AHEAD, it says. She pulls over, and we step into the rain.

Analyse Asia Collaboration: 2-Part Podcast On Tencent

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of working with Analyse Asia's Bernard Leong on a 2-part podcast covering Tencent. Like other Chinese tech giants, Tencent is an empire of different services: gaming, advertising, content, social networking, messaging, ride-hailing, O2O services, payments. On top of that, they're notorious for being mysterious and close-mouthed to the press. Good thing they're a public company!

In these two episodes, I dive into the nuts and bolts of Tencent - their business model, revenue sources, investments, and more. Click here for more information about my podcast with Bernard, including detailed and timestamped notes on what we discussed. 

yanqing_lanzhou_lamian_police

"They broke open the door at 5AM. They made us leave. All our stuff is still in there. The clothes I'm wearing are the only ones I have now. We have to stay out on the street until it's resolved - we don't have any other choice."

The corner where the noodle shop used to be is a strange intersection of space. Three districts converge here - Xuhui, Huangpu, Jing'an. Go west and you hit a residential cluster; go south and you stumble into a bar street for foreigners. You can see it in the crowd: middle-aged women with curlers in their hair, old men in their PJs, young, tipsy, 20-somethings, a foreigner in a polo and flip flops.

"There's no need for all this police," says a bystander. "It's like crushing an ant. It's unnecessary. We can sit down together and talk about it, right?" He pulls out a cigarette, inhaling deeply from the gold filter. "You bring all of those police officers over here and us common people, well, we feel it's unjust."

This is the case, cut and dried: Mr. Han and his family signed a 3 year sublease for their noodle shop. The rental agreement was supposed to end on December 30, 2018, but the original contract ended this year. The sublessor had lied about the terms, taking Mr. Han's deposit and rent when he fled. Total loss: 550,000 RMB (~$85K). On April 27th, the real estate company sent police officers to take back their property.

"Some people think we did this on purpose but that's not true. I may be an ethnic minority but we're all humans, right?" Mr. Han paces the street wearing his taqiyah, a white skullcap worn by Uyghur men and other Muslim ethnic minorities in China. "Our Chinese isn't very good, you know," he says. "We can't read and write very well, like that contract."

I'm confused about the relationship between the police and the real estate company. I ask a bystander about it, but he shakes his head. "I can't talk about that here," he says. He lowers his voice. "There are plainclothes policemen everywhere, listening."

No Laptop Weekend

Last weekend, I watched the entire sixth season of The Walking Dead as a way to recover from an insanely busy week in Hong Kong. Everyone has their own way of rejuvenating - apparently mine is watching zombies and humans kill each other.

I tried something different this weekend by taking a 'low-tech' trip to Hufu, Yixing. I parted with my laptop for over 48 hours, picked tea, hiked, played with clay, and biked around tea fields. A lot less bloody, but just as a potent. 

 

Mili Pictures (米粒影业): Shanghai's First VR Arcade

Archived [3/25/16]

Conclusion: Not as cool as it looks. The demo content was pretty terrible - poor resolution, limited interactivity - and the space was empty, more warehouse than arcade. Also, one of the demos required a staff member to guide you and hold the wires trailing off your helmet. Not exactly the liberating, immersive experience I was hoping for. Still, if Mili Pictures can fix these issues, this place could be awesome.