Thursday, September 20, 2007

Lingnan Toastmasters

Yesterday, I went to a Toastmasters meeting. Toastmasters is an organization that helps people improve their public speaking ability. There are clubs in 90 countries that meet weekly or bi-weekly for 1-2 hours. During meetings, several members make short prepared speeches (generally about 5-10 minutes) and there’s also usually a “table topics” portion where people volunteer to give a very short (1-2 minute) impromptu speech on a topic chosen by the session host. Although this can be very intimidating, its great experience in thinking on your feet (both literally and figuratively). Since most people are afraid of speaking in public, Toastmasters provides a great way to conquer that fear and develop confidence since everything is done in a friendly way.

Anyone, the meeting I went to was at the Lingnan Toastmasters group. Several students and one guest from another Hong Kong Toastmasters club gave speeches on the topic of “heroes.” The standard superheros like Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman weren’t the wiiners though. Instead, it seemed that to the members, the biggest heros of the evening were anyone willing to take the chance to get up in front of the group to speak. As I was listening to the student speakers, I kept thinking how difficult it must be to make a speech in front of a fairly large audience in a language that isn’t your native language. All of the speakers were Chinese, but the speeches were all in English. Although many of the speakers were nervous, they all managed to get through it and do a good job, making some good points and even using some humor.
If I had to make a speech in Mandarin Chinese, I’d be pretty nervous and would probably end up saying something that no one would understand and I’d have a hard time filling up anywhere near 5 minutes. After all, there’s only so many times you can say ni hao (hello), wo shi meiguoren (I am American) before you have to just give up and say zaijian (goodbye). Of course, my fear of public speaking has diminished greatly since I started teaching since I speak to a classroom audience regularly, dazzling them with my genius and wit (as evidenced by the photo below).

Note: This photo is not from one of my classes, but I have observed this reaction on occasion. I gues that means there's always room fro improvement. End of speech - Until next time, Zaijian!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Freedom of Speech?

I'm teaching a class called Legal Aspects of Business at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and have been discussing the Hong Kong legal system with some comparison to China, England and the U.S. One of the things we've covered is the basic freedoms that are guaranteed in jurisdictions with a legal system based on a Constitution (or Hong Kong's Basic Law) . So it seemed a bit ironic when I just saw a new story about a student at a John Kerry speech in Florida who ended up being arrested and shot with a taser gun by police, apparently for exercising his freedom of speech. Like just about anything else nowadays, the scene was caught on video (see below). Of course, there are some limits on freedom of speech, but from watching the video, it seems like the guy was simply asking some questions although he may have been taking up too much time. He also might have been playing it up a bit as the police tried to escort him out, but it certainly didn't appear like he was inciting a riot or anything else that would be deemed impermissable forms of speech.

Freedom of speech under the First Amendment gives people the right to protest as long as they do so peacefully. There were some student protests against the Iraq war last week so maybe that's an indication that the Constitution still has some practical value. I particularly appreciate a quote at the end of this article which desribes a student protesting the protest with a sign saying "Get your ass back to class," but acknowledging that although he's opposed "to the ideologies of the protest, he still appreciates the fact that Americans are able to protest." Maybe our legal system still has some hope.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The public relations folds at Belmont University have put together a little announcement on my sabbatical here in Hong Kong at here. I went out Friday evening with some other Lingnan faculty members to a restaurant at Hong Kong Gold Coast, a resort area not too far from campus. We had a table on an outdoor patio with a nice view of Castle Peak Bay. Some of the Lingnan faculty live in the apartment complex there and its also home to Chinese pink dolphins (the sea, not the apartments).

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Chinese Movie Market Growth

According to an article I came across recently, Chinese B.O. to Make A Great Leap Forward, the movie industry in China is growing rapidly. By the way, the "B.O." in the article title stands for Box Office (revenue from movie theater ticket sales) rather than any other type of B.O. you might be thinking of. Its predicted that Chinese movie theaters will see a 15% increase in revenue this year, taking in about $400 million (compared to $340 million in 2006). A sizeable portion of this revenue comes from foreign movies shown in China such as blockbusters “Spiderman 3”, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End”, and the recent Harry Potter, each earning around $13 million. However, domestic Chinese film also account for a substantial share. Chinese filmmaking also seems to be becoming more diverse. In addition to the martial arts-based epics, Chinese filmmakers are increasingly exploring other themes.

One recent example is Ang Lee's erotic, spy thriller “Lust, Caution” which recently won the top-prize at the Venice film festival. The film involves a student acting group in Hong Kong during WWII. The group's patriotism inspires them to assassinate a Chinese official who is collaborating with the occupying Japanese forces. The female star (played by newcomer Tang Wei) seduces evil official (played by veteran Hong Kong actor tony Leung). Moving from Hong Kong to Shanghai , the heroine becomes increasingly embroiled in her real-life role. The film also stars Joan Chen and pop star Lee-Hom Wang.

In addition to involving a serious plot, "Lust, Caution” also includes explicit sexual content and relaistically portrayed violence. Lust, Caution" is planned for U.S. release in late Septemeber and has received the most restrictive NC-17 label in the United States, banning viewers under 17. In mainland China, portions of the explicit content had to be cut for exhibition in theaters.

Monday, September 10, 2007

China's Loch Ness Monster

As a child, I was fascinated by legends of the Loch Ness Monster, affectionately known as Nessie. While reading the China Daily newspaper today, I came across an article about China's Nessie (although they don't call it that so I'll dub it "Tessie"). It turns out that for over 100 years, there have been occasional Tessie sightings in Lake Tianchi (Heavenly Lake) which is located in northeast China's Jilin Province, bordering North Korean.

A Chinese TV reporter claims to have seen some of Lake Tianchi's alleged inhabitants a few days ago and shot a 20-minute video as well as some photos of 6 loch ness type animals. One photo supposedly shows the creatures swimming in 3 parallel pairs. There have been over 30 reported sightings by Chinese and foreign tourists in the past 20 years, some of which took photos and videos although apparently none are clear enough to determine exactly what has been photographed or recorded. Tessie has been described as a blackish green dinosaur-like creature with a round, black head with horns and scales on its back.

Lake Tianchi is a 1,243 feet deep, volcanic crater lake located at the foot of the Changbai Mountain. Rumors that the 373 m lake is the home of some kind of monster have existed for over a century although scientists claim the lake is too cold for large creatures to survive and that the lake's volcanic activity would not be too hospitable. Nevertheless, whether Tessie exists or not, like Nessie, the legendary monster is sure to attract tourists curious enough to want to get a look for themselves.

Friday, September 7, 2007

iPhones in China

Apple's iPhone (a combination cellphone & music/video player) is off to a mixed start. The iPhone apparently has not been selling up to the company's expectations in the United States so Apple reduced the initially inflated price by about $200. However, this angered people who had already bought iPods. Apple CEO Steve Jobs's initial response was basically tough luck, but after this further angered purchasers, he must have realized that pissing off your most loyal customers probably isn't the best public relations strategy and Apple announced today that it will offer $100 credits to people who bought iPhones at the initial $599 price (see Jobs Apologizes: Gives $100 Credit).

Ironically, while American consumers are griping about the iPhone price, some eager consumers in China have been paying about 3 times the U.S. price for iPhones that don't even work fully (Chinese are paying up to U.S. $1170 for phones that can make, but not receive calls). More ironically, Apple is not selling the iPhone in China yet and does not plan to introduce iPhones to Asia until 2008. The phones being sold are either counterfeits or legitimate copies being illegally sold in China (See Unauthorized iPhones on Sale in China). Here's a video showing one of the fake Chinese iPhones:

Apple's decision to release the iPhone only in the U.S. initially seems to me like a big mistake, reflecting a company that is ignorant of the Asian market and the reality of globalization. By ignoring Asia, Apple is passing up the chance to sell iPhones to the vast majority of potential customers for the device. Mobile phone use is extremely prevalent all over Asia, from highly developed countries such as Japan and South Korea to lesser developed countries including the India and the Philippines (see Cellphone Users by Country). China has the world's largest number of mobile phone users (around 500 million) and the number of Chinese mobile phone users is likely to keep growing substantially due the increasing middle class with disposable income.

Now I realize that Steve Jobs has a lot more money than I do, but being the profit-hungry, capitalist he is, I'd think he'd be working frantically to secure deals with Chinese (and other Asian nations) wireless service providers to offer the iPhone (which may admittedly not be easy). Consumers in Asia that want iPhones and can afford to pay for them are going to get them, whether they're legally available or not. Not having them available legally gives more time for fakes to take over and dominate the market. With the high prevalency of counterfeiting in China and other countries, businesses must figure out how to make their products legally available in all markets for their products in order to have a chance. Ignoring the majority of your customer base which results in buying imperfect, illegitimate copies just doesn't seem like good business sense to me. C'mon Steve, get on the ball or at least on the iPhone.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Beijing Pop Festival

Beijing will be rocking this weekend as the Beijing Pop Festival brings 30 bands to the stages in Chaoyang Park. Performers include foreign superstars as well as many popular, but lesser known foreign and Chinese bands. Saturday features performances by headliners Public Enemy and the New York Dolls as well as Chinese groups such as Joyside and Wang Feng. Sunday’s lineup features Nine Inch Nails (NIN) and the godfather of Chinese rock, Cui Jian (who was banned from performing in Beijing for *** years). Other acts include Brain Failure and bands from countries including England, Russia, Japan, and Sweden.
This type of event, featuring controversial artists like NIN and Public Enemy shows how much China has opened up in the past few decades. However, according to a Los Angeles Times article, this is just the latest in a series of social and economic juxtapositions that have become commonplace as China opens itself up to the world with increasing rapidity. They see government approval as official acknowledgment that Beijing, as it prepares to host the world at the Olympics next year, must expand its artistic offerings if it is to emerge as an Asian cultural capital.

There are still significant challenges to bringing foreign musicians to China since the Chinese government's Ministry of Culture must approve concerts by foreign performers and getting approval is anything but easy. The festival promoter, Rock for China Entertainment, had to submit detailed biographies of each group as well as lyrics to all of the songs to be performed well in advance of the concert. To gain approval for controversial rap group Public Enemy, promoter Jason Magnus described them as band with a ocial conscience and champions of America's black underclass. Somehow I can visualize Flavor Flav (at least in recent years) as a champion of anything other than himself, but who knows what the Chinese will make of him. Maybe the next thing will be a Chinese Flavor of Love TV show airing on CCTV.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Song of Pig: Over 1 Billion Served?

China probably has the greatest potential for growth of the music industry despite the huge problem posed by piracy. With its huge population (1.3 billion) and rapidly expanding economy which is resulting in more and more Chinese people with disposable income wanting entertainment, both domestic (Chinese) and foreign companies are hoping to sell various music products in mainland China.

One example of the great potential involves a Chinese young lady and a pig. 21 year old
Xiang Xiang became a famous pop star in China after writing a song about a pig which she recorded at her home with a computer and digital editing software, then uploaded to a Chinese free music site. Although likely an overestimate, one of the websites that hosted the song for free download stated that it had been downloaded about 1 billion times in China, Singapore and Malaysia.

Xiang Xiang didn't make any money directly from the many downloads of her song and she even stated that "It's unprofitable to publish a song on the internet . . . There's no money." However, the attention she attracted was noticed by a Beijing record label which signed her to a recording contract and quickly produced and released an CD.
Xiang Xiang's CD sold over 800,000 legal copies in China which is a huge amount in China (or anywhere else for that matter). So Xiang Xiang managed to make some money after all (royalties from CD sales). Of course, despite the large number of legal sales, there were undoubtedly many more illegal copies sold as well as downloaded (which Xiang Xiang receives no income from although others certainly do), but at least this proves that there is the potential for a serious legal music market in China. If a pig song can do this well, I'm getting to work on writing Song of Dragon.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

James Clavell Asia Novels

James Clavell was a British author who wrote several novels set in Asia (Hong Kong, Japan & Singapore). Clavell’s interest in Asia was sparked by his actual experiences. He joined the British Royal Artillery at age 16 and fought the Japanese in Malaya where he was wounded by machine gun fire, captured and became a prisoner of war at Changi Prison in Singapore. This could not have been a good experience since Changi was notorious for poor living conditions and the brutal treatment of prisoners by the Japanese. Its therefore somewhat surprising that Clavell’s novel’s generally portray the Japanese in a positive light, especially the samurai culture portrayed in Calvell’s most famous novel, Shogun.

Clavell’s writing style was highly descriptive, enabling readers to visualize exotic places they’ve never been to and know next to nothing about. Although fictional, his novels are partially based on historic events and contain a lot of information about Asian history, culture and Western stereotypes. Although his book are very long (over 1000 pages), they're very east to read and hard to put down once you've started them.

Clavell also lived in Hong Kong in the 1960's where he wrote Tai-Pan, the plot of which involves European and American traders who develop the highly lucrative opium trade with the Chinese in 1841 after the first Opium War. Like all of his novels, Tai-Pan is loosely based on fact; in this instance Clavell fictionalized the story of Jardine Matheson's beginnings as an opium trader in Hong Kong (Jardine Matheson is still one the the biggest companies in Hong Kong). The book’s main character is Dirk Struan, an extremely ambitious, opium trader who helps found the British colony of Hong Kong and becomes Hong Kong’s "tai-pan" (supreme leader).
Although Struan is a ruthless pirate and opium smuggler, he also has more admirable qualities including loyalty, generosity, openness to cultural differences and willingness to learn from them. While many of the Western characters view the Chinese as inferior human beings, Struan develops much more respect for the Chinese and their culture - learning their way of doing business, having a Chinese mistress who he actually falls in love with and has a half-Chinese son with. Tai-pan paints an exotic and often realistic picture of early Hong Kong, many aspects of which are still present (relentless pursuit of wealth & power, free trade and business-friendly government, horse racing, mixing of Eastern and Western culture) into a highly entertaining adventure/love-story/pseudo-history.

Clavell also wrote a sequel to Tai-pan, Noble House which takes place in Hong Kong during the 1960's. The story of the Noble House business empire, founded by Dirk Struan, picks up with a new tai-pan, Ian Dunross, a descendant of Dirk Struan who has to rescue the family business from mismanagement by partnering with an American millionaire and simultaneously fighting off a competitor descended from Dirk Struan’s enemy in Tai-pan. Noble House became a best-seller and became the basis for a 1988 TV miniseries starring Pierce Brosnan.

Clavell is one of my favorite authors and I've read all of his Asian novels. I recommend them highly for anyone who wants to get a decent introduction to some aspects of Asian history and culture in a very entertaining way. Who knows, it might even lead you to want to know more as it did me (I've since read many books on Chinese history).