141 Shanghai Christmas Trees – 2010 Edition.

[Blogging break in effect until January 3. Reach me via email, here, or follow my occasional holiday season tweets, here. Scrappy new year.]

It’s that time of year again – the time for Shanghai Scrap’s annual (2nd) 141 Shanghai Christmas Trees post (last year’s post, here). There’s not much to explain here: basically, we’re talking 141 photos of Shanghai Christmas trees (in a handful of cases, multiple trees per photo), snapped over the last couple of weeks, and uploaded to Shanghai Scrap. It’s a lot of fun, actually. Time consuming, but fun.

Anyway – how do 2010′s trees compare to 2009′s? In general, I think Shanghai really lifted its game this year. As proof, I give you this year’s ‘Cover Tree,’ discovered in front of a chain dessert restaurant in a Xujiahui shopping mall. Please note: unlike most shopping mall trees, this one wasn’t canned or forced upon an ambivalent staff – rather, according to the staff (they and the store shall remain anonymous), they were struck by inspiration and fashioned it themselves. I absolutely love it. Click image for exquisite detail:

140 more Shanghai Christmas trees after the page jump … Continue reading

The aging face of what we think of when we think of Chinese labor.

Below, a photo of a metal sorter in Jiangsu Province, China. To those who don’t recognize what she’s doing, it may look like she’s sorting garbage. To those who do, they know that she’s a semi-skilled laborer who can distinguish different types of metal by sight and feel. That job description doesn’t generate much respect in China, or outside of it. Eight years ago, when I first started encountering workers like her, she was paid like it: between RMB 600 and RMB 800 per month (US$73 to US$97 by the 2002 fixed exchange rate). She was also younger: most of the hundreds of thousands if not millions of women engaged in this type of metal sorting were under the age of 30, unmarried, uneducated, and relatively local to the factories where they worked.

Over the last several weeks I have been having a new, intense encounter with these metal sorters, and much has changed. The factories where they worked, once filled with the happy gossip of younger women, are now quiet, the sole territory of women in their late thirties and older, many of whom have remained single. Young women, the sorts who, ten years ago, would have flocked to these factories, are now migrating to the cities in hope of better jobs, and better lives. And so, in the absence of new laborers to bolster their ranks, China’s semi-skilled metal sorters have become highly sought. Wages, once so low that they could only be justified as decent in comparison to a farmer’s i ncome, have risen to levels that – ten years ago – none of these women could expect. In this factory, wages have risen by 20%, annually, for the last couple of years, and now average in excess of RMB 3000/month (US$441/month) – exceeding what most Chinese college graduates can reasonably expect to earn after graduation.

It won’t last, though. The employers of China’s metal sorters, panicked at high wages, are investing in efficiency and automation designed to eliminate RMB 3000/month metal sorters. In a few years, there’ll be fewer Chinese metal sorting jobs, and – presumably – lower wages in the field. At least, that’s how it looks right now. Then again, eight years ago nobody was predicting the current bottleneck – everyone just assumed that there’d be plenty of cheap labor flowing from the countryside, into scrap yards, for years to come. I won’t hazard a guess as to where all of this is going. But it sure doesn’t feel stable – it sure isn’t the China that metal industry leaders told me I’d be watching in 2010. It feels much more unstable.

UK, stripped.

I finally had a chance to visit the ongoing demolition of the Expo 2010 [Shanghai World's Fair] grounds this afternoon. Much of what I saw is destined for publication somewhere other than Shanghai Scrap. But I’d be remiss in my duties as a blogger if I didn’t post the striking state of the (once) iconic UK pavilion, now stripped, denuded, humiliated – just another Shanghai demolition, in-progress. Those signature lucite branches that used to sway in the breeze? You’ll find them cracked and broken on the ground – and at the front of the photo (for detail beneath the pavilion, click here).

For reference sake, a nighttime image taken a few months ago, during happier times (for the beleaguered pavilion), from roughly the same spot. Alas, all good things must end (and, for the record, I thought the UK pavilion was a very good thing, indeed).

My patriotic British friends will surely be proud to know that the demolition of their pavilion appears to be much further along than the demolition of most other Western European pavilions. Rule, Britannia!

[for additional images and commentary on Expo demolition work, see this excellent post at Shanghai Shiok!]

Some post-Expo transparency shall shine on the USA’s inexplicable pavilion secrecy.

My interest in reporting and blogging any further on the USA pavilion at Expo 2010 [Shanghai World's Fair] ranges from none at all to zero. The Expo is over, and the consequences – if any – for how the founders of the pavilion conducted themselves in the course of securing, funding, designing, and promoting the pavilion is in the hands of others. But, then again … this weekend I received copies of some of the USA pavilion’s federal tax forms from 2008 and 2009. I had no interest or intent in posting them, but then, at the end of the 2009 filing, I found this:

Please note that the organization – officially Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc [SE2010] – was commissioned by the US State Department to design, build, fund, and operate a USA pavilion at Expo 2010. If the State Department itself had done it, the governing documents, conflict of interest policy, and financial statements would have been – by law – available to the public. But, for reasons I won’t go into here, it wasn’t run by State. In any case, the State Department, the Beijing Embassy, and the Shanghai Consulate apparently saw nothing objectionable in hiding from the American people, how money, raised and spent in their name, was being spent.  This is precisely the kind of secrecy – totally unnecessary, over-the-top secrecy – that makes organizations like wikileaks so valuable and necessary. So, in that spirit, I’m going to make available for upload/viewing SE2010′s Form 990s from 2008 and 2009. Right-click them to download; otherwise left-click and they’ll appear in a form you can read them at Shanghai Scrap.

SE 2010 Inc. 2008 990

SE 2010 Inc. 2009 990

I should be clear: there’s nothing confidential or secret here. These are publicly available documents – a person just has to go through the trouble of getting them. So consider this post my gift to Shanghai Scrap’s readers: you no longer have to go through the expense and trouble of getting them. Now, a warning: there’s no obvious smoking gun here. These documents span a period that ends in late summer 2009 – before most of the money associated with the pavilion had been raised and spent. Still, there are a couple of item that stick out, the most glaring being the US$367,830 on legal in 2009 (Part IX, line 9b). Ellen Eliasoph, a co-founder and director of the pavilion, is also a partner at Covington & Burling – the official legal services provider for the USA pavilion. In other words, as a partner in Covington & Burling, she personally benefited from the money spent on those legal services – which may be one reason that SE2010 didn’t want its conflict-of-interest policies and financials made public.

But whatever. Have a look for yourself, let me know if you see anything, and I’ll be back at you with what promises to be a much more interesting batch of 2010 tax filings whenever they become available next year.

The Scrap Toy Maker Up the Street

[Traveling for the next couple of days. May be difficult to reach. So, before I go, a light post on a light topic.]

A couple of months ago That’s Shanghai ran a lovely, well-written piece on Zha Peihua, a middle-aged maker of small model bicycles constructed from bits of scrap wire and rubber tubing. According to the article, he works from his home, and from the back of his custom tricycle. Anyway, as regular readers know, I’m interested in anybody who makes anything from scraps – rubber, copper, whatever – and so I was absolutely delighted when, the other morning, I ran into Zha on my street, surrounded by several curious children to whom he was showing his bicycles – and a laminated copy of the article about him from That‘s.

Shanghai being Shanghai, he was also soon approached by a couple of elderly cynical hags who accused him of buying his bicycles from others, and passing them off as his own. He seemed much less bothered by this than me. But anyway, in his defense, after the page jump, his tricycle work table and scrap inventory. Continue reading

Would the New York Times publish wikileaks if they weren’t wikileaks?

In China, at least, among the most anticipated of the wikileaks cables was the one that purportedly suggested that a member of the Chinese Politburo set off a crackdown on google after finding that searches for his name produced unflattering results. To me, at least, this seemed implausible (at least as a source-able news story), but I thought I’d at least wait for the actual cable to make a judgment. And today, I got that cable, dated May 18, 2009 (warning – that link may be blocked/shut down at any time). Interesting enough, Wikileaks blacks out the name of the Politburo official who purportedly was offended by the search – but the New York Times, for reasons unclear, could not resist and unmasks him as Li Changchun, China’s Propaganda chief. Neither party, however, identifies the source of this very high-level and damning story. But we do know this: a) there is only one source for this story, and b) it was not Li Changchun. Furthermore, we know that the author of the diplomatic cable wasn’t nearly as confident in the story as the authors of the New York Times piece, and s/he states this lack of confidence in the second to last sentence of the cable:

“While we can neither confirm nor deny the provocative language and views attributed to xxxxxxxx, the claims of government-forced retribution by the major SOE telecom companies are cause for serious concern.”

Now, it’s worth noting that a single source anecdote, backed by doubts from the reporting journalist, would automatically disqualify the Li Changchun story from any major newspaper or magazine in the United States – especially those with fact-checking departments, and especially the New York Times (newspaper of, ahem, record). Because, in effect, knowing what we know, for the single-sourced Li Changchun story to be true (in a fact-checked sense), the reader (or editor) is required to believe that Li, at some point, verbally expressed his displeasure at finding negative google results about himself to another person. That, or somebody saw Li google himself and find negative results. The former strikes me as highly unlikely – personal vanity, even at the highest levels of Chinese power, isn’t any more socially acceptable in China than it is in the US. You really are required to imagine Li saying to somebody: “I was googling myself the other day, and can you believe it – there were negative results!” Or, in the second case, and marginally more plausibly, you are required to imagine something like this “I heard over dinner from Li’s secretary that he went absolutely nuts when his kid came in and showed him the negative results that turn up when his dad’s name is googled.” And not to belabor the point, but I’ll point out again that the author of the cable doubts the story, too. Continue reading

Cultural Revolution Chic, American Style

[UPDATE 12/3: Somehow I missed my friend Rob Schmitz's excellent October 14 piece for NPR's Marketplace regarding Gap's entry into the China market. It touches on the question of localization, and whether or not Gap has made sufficient efforts to do so in China. It also touches on what happens when companies don't localize in China. Highly recommended.]

American retailer Gap opened its first China-based store in Shanghai a few weeks ago. I didn’t go. Maybe I should have because I’m sure I would’ve immediately been struck by all of the bright red branding, yellow stars, and “1969″ – a sorry year at the very heart of China’s decade-long tragedy, the Cultural Revolution – all over the store. Now, I’m quite aware that “1969″ is a signature brand for Gap (which was founded in 1969), but I’m also aware that smart companies know when to alter their means of operation, product mix, and marketing when they enter a new county (see: McDonald’s and the lack of beef in India). And this strikes me as the work of a company that’s either a) clueless about China; or b) is sticking to its campaigns and brands (and damn the local sensitivities, they’ll learn to like them). Historically speaking, neither approach has been terribly successful.

Anyway, I’d given absolutely no thought to this matter until this morning, when Sky Canaves, a Hong Kong-based self-described truant journalist, runaway lawyer, and new academic (blog here, twitter here), tweeted news of the limited edition 1969 jean for China, released in honor of the retailer’s recent entry into the market. I had a meeting across the street from the shop later in the afternoon, so I figured I stop in and get a look afterward. Continue reading