The Chinese View of Dentistry

 Recently, I was traveling with goods friends of mine, John and Cindy Cancelliere. John is a dentist extraordinaire and he was on his way to Spain for discussions on cutting-edge developments in dental implants. Despite my gentle ribbing that holding the class in Spain was because the dental techniques he’d learn there had actually been practiced during the Spanish Inquisition, our discussion soon turned into how the Chinese view dentistry.

Dentists in China have an image problem. The Chinese, as a whole, just don’t like to go to dentists. Not that they differ, in that respect, from people in other parts of the world. And I’m one of those. It’s a close toss-up whether I’d take an IRS audit over a trip to the dentist with the later just marginally edging out the IRS.

In China, many beliefs are passed down generationally. A majority of Chinese, for example, believe as their parents did, that it’s natural to lose all your teeth with age. Furthermore, that even with dental care, it’s unlikely that one can retain their original teeth. This view is especially prevalent with older people. Older Chinese seldom place much value on look of one’s teeth. It’s expected that one’s teeth will yellow, darken, and eventually become lost with age. In addition, many are taught by their parents that a dental cleaning, such as that performed by Western dentists, will eventually wear down your teeth and that flossing, for those that have even heard of floss, will eventually create gaps between your teeth.

Because of these beliefs, and the subsequent lack of focus on dental hygiene, it’s projected that half the population of China have dental cavities. This figure is even higher in children. According to 80% of urban children and 60% of rural children are thought to have cavities. Moreover, 97.1% of children suffering from cavities do not get them fixed. Part of the reason for this is that parents will only take themselves, and their children, to dentists when there’s pain. Therefore, according to the Journal of Dental Research, 23% of middle-aged and 24% of the elderly had visited a dentist within the preceding year with most of these visits due to existing pain. Furthermore, government educational programs have been limited with only 10% of Chinese schools teaching dental hygiene to children.

In the past the government has not placed much emphasis on dental care and has therefore provided only a small number of dental clinics relative to China’s population. According to a March, 2013 article in the South China Morning Post, even in Hong Kong people sometimes queue at 5 AM to get into one of the limited number of dental clinics in the city. Others may stand in long lines at a hospital for similar dental treatment. Moreover, this is the only option available to a majority of China’s population. Private dental care is beyond the financial reach of most Chinese. Western-style dental clinics are even more expensive for the average Chinese and are usually found only in larger cities.

The Chinese government is trying to change this and improve both dental care and dental awareness. In 1989, for example, it launched National Love Your Teeth Day, celebrated on September 20th. In addition, they’re increasing the construction of dental clinics. There’s also an increased emphasis on teaching children dental hygiene and to brush twice a day and to not consume as much candy (good luck with that). Even so, dental hygiene seems to be practiced more among the higher socio-economic classes within China who pay more attention to their appearance and their teeth. As China becomes more internationalized, and this socio-economic class interacts with the outside world, dental appearance becomes more important and is also used as a reflection of one’s social status.

For older people, and those lower on the social stratum, particularly in rural China, the care of one’s teeth is not a priority and a visit to a dentist costs money. Therefore, dental visits are made after the pain has reached a point where a procedure, such as an extraction, is necessary to relieve this pain. It’s still not unusual in some remote rural areas for dentistry to be practiced with home-grown techniques such as pumping a treadle drill by foot and the use of pliers for extractions.

In addition to increased government efforts, and increased dental hygiene as a result of rising socio-economic wealth, dental awareness is also improving in China because the young. Young people want to look good and have bright smiles. They see movie stars, television personalities, and other entertainers all smiling brightly and they want to emulate this. Therefore, younger people in China are tending to gradually move away from traditional biases and adopting more Westernized approaches to dental care.

Alan Refkin

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China’s Fondness for Gambling

Most of the information for writing both of my books, The Wild Wild East and Doing the China Tango, came from interacting with the Chinese people for over a decade. During that time I’ve had a chance to observe and socialize with them at the grass roots level. One thing that surprised me when I really got to know them is their propensity to gamble. This transcends age groups, socio-economic barriers, and other societal delineations. Perhaps no other culture has an affinity for gambling more than the Chinese. I asked the CEO of a company I was visiting why the Chinese people loved to gamble so much. His reply: we’re an optimistic people and this optimism leads us to believe that everything will turn out fine in the end. Even when things seem to be going against us, we believe a change of luck is just around the corner.

Although gambling is illegal in China, the law against gambling isn’t enforced and is generally ignored, unless you plan to open a casino. It’s estimated that, outside of the country’s two sanctioned lotteries, an estimated over $146 billion is wagered illegally in China each year. This is a staggering figure considering that 700 million people, or more than half of the population, live in rural areas where the average annual income is approximately $770 per year. Most of this gambling seems to be in the form of card games and Mahjong, a game played with small tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols.

Mainland China has only one legal form of gambling – two lotteries which generate about $40 billion per year in gross sales revenue. Outside of these national lotteries, the country has no sanctioned form of gambling.

Legalized gambling, outside of these two lotteries, can only take place in Macau, which is a special administrative region (SAR) of China. Prior to becoming an SAR, Macau was a Portuguese territory until it was handed over to China in 1999. When China assumed control it elected to maintain gambling in Macau. Asians now view it as the Monte Carlo of the Orient since gambling has been legal there since the 1850s.

Macau is a short hydrofoil ride from Hong Kong, and it’s also accessible by flying from one of one of a number of Chinese and international cities. When the Chinese assumed control of Macau it encouraged Las Vegas casino owners to come and open up Las Vegas style gambling there. Many did so and, with the advent of these casinos, Macau overtook Las Vegas in gaming revenue in 2007 and has never looked back since. This is in spite of the fact that Macau only attracts 27 million tourists a year versus 39.7 million for Las Vegas. However, the reason Macau, with 33 casinos, makes so much more money than Las Vegas, with 122 casinos, is that the average person gambling in Macau will gamble with three times more money than the average gambler in Las Vegas. In addition, numbers can be deceiving. Macau casinos tend to be very large and, on occasion, I’ve seen gamblers stacked three deep at tables placing their bets. In fact, 70% of Macau’s government income is a result of gambling tourism, primarily from mainland Chinese and Hong Kong residents.

One of the first things I noticed when I went to Macau is that it’s totally different from Las Vegas. It has no Strip. In Macau everything is spread out and you need a taxi to go from one cluster of casinos to the other. The second thing I noticed is that there are few fine dining restaurants at the Casino hotels, and that the few sit-down casual restaurants they have, such as I saw on the bottom floor of the Venetian Macau, for example, had very few customers. I viewed the same lack of attendance for Cirque du Soleil’s show, which I went to at the Venetian. The show there seemed unique to Macau, but every bit as fantastic as I’ve seen in the U.S. However, the theatre was only about a third filled.

The reason this is that the Chinese love to gamble and the average Chinese person is not going to sit in a fine restaurant for an appropriately long dinner, or go to a show, when they could be gambling. Moreover, they’re not going to spend money on a fine dining restaurant or a show when they could use that money to gamble. That’s the average person’s mindset. When they do eat they usually choose the food court which can get them in and out quickly and inexpensively. The food court is pretty basic, even at the Venetian, with Fat Burger occupying a prominent space. I plead guilty to eating there myself and the burger was great!

Gambling in Asia is a growing industry with Asia-Pacific casino gaming projected to increase from $34 billion in 2010 to $80 billion by 2015.

Alan Refkin

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Ethnic Groups in China

There are 56 ethnic groups in China. Everyone in China has to register as belonging to one of these ethnic groups. The Han is the largest of these ethnic groups and comprises 92% of China’s populace.

The name Han comes from the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). This was a period when China expanded its influence over central, southeast, and northeast Asia. It was considered a classical period in Chinese history in which arts and culture flourished and, at the same time, China expanded militarily. Many Chinese, considering this one of the greatest periods in the history of China, began calling themselves the people of Han, a name that’s been used ever since. Prior to this, Chinese people were commonly referred to by scholars as the Huaxia people, which in Mandarin translates intocivilized society. This is a reference to the ancestral roots of the Huaxia people who lived along the Huang He, or Yellow River.

The Han is a diverse genetic, linguistic, social, and cultural group that resulted from the gradual immigration and assimilation of various tribes within China. It’s not one genetic pool. It’s not a singular culture. It’s an amalgam of small ethnic groups which, over time, became assimilated by adopting the existing Chinese culture, its customs, and its written and spoken language. They then became absorbed into the Han.

With the Han being the ethnic majority group, the other 55 ethnic groups are referred to as ethnic minorities. The official Chinese government definition of minority is: a historically constituted community of people having a common territory, a common language, a common economic life, and a common psychological makeup which expresses itself in a common culture.

Ethnic minorities occupy 60% of China’s landmass, and tend to live in southern China, Tibet, or the western province of Xinjiang near the borders of Burma, Laos, Vietnam, India, Russia, Mongolia, North Korea, and the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. These areas contain important natural resources for China’s growing economy, such as timber, water, and petroleum.

Most minorities retain their own language, have different dress, diets, residences, marriage ceremonies, etiquette, and even funerals which can be anything from cremation, inhumation (burying one in a grave), water burials, and even sky burials (exposure burial).

The Lhoda is the smallest ethnic minority and comprises only 2,965 people living in Tibet, while the largest ethnic minority is the Zhuang, with a population of just over 16 million. Two of China’s ethnic minorities are Muslim: the Hui and the Uyghur. They number ten million and nine million respectively. One ethnic minority, the Lisu, with 730,000 people, is the largest Christian minority in China.

Notwithstanding the importance of the natural resources which come from minority dominated areas of China, one of the reasons that China pays such close attention to its minorities is because of their strategic locations. Many minorities are located near the borders of Burma, India, Russia, Mongolia, and the republics of the former Soviet Union. Living along these borders, many minorities have a chance to wonder what it would be like to have their own state or have the economic freedom of some of their neighbors. The Chinese government is concerned that this could lead to an independence movement such as those experienced in border countries such as India, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. In addition, if one ethnic group demands freedom, then another might also. This is China’s primary concern with Tibet, and why they have cracked down so hard in this area. If China were to allow Tibetan-like independence uprisings, then this could very well develop into other minorities wanting the same freedom. If this happened it might break apart the country, such as what occurred in the former Soviet Union.

Since 1953 the minority population within China has significantly increased. One reason for this is that China’s one-child policy doesn’t apply to minorities, except in urban areas, which has led to birth rates triple that of the Han ethnic majority. In addition, the government is trying to improve conditions for ethnic minority groups and has provided preferential treatment to minorities in several areas. For example, in addition to not being bound by the one-child policy, ethnic minorities pay fewer taxes, obtain preferential admissions to universities for their children, get preference in attaining public office and government promotions, are free to speak and learn their native languages, can openly practice their religion, and can publicy express themselves through their art and culture.

Nevertheless, implementation of some of these concessions by the government has been slow and spotty. Minorities still have the lowest incomes in China and are generally very poor with, according to Jeffrey Hays, an estimated 70 percent of ethnic minorities in southern China living below the poverty line. Many still don’t speak Chinese and live in villages without roads or electricity. Government programs for minorities have not been able to reach many of China’s ethnic communities, resulting in poor education, economic, and social conditions. Moreover, China’s decades of economic success has occurred in its southern and coastal areas dominated by the Han. To a large extent, minority areas in central, northern, and northwestern China haven’t kept pace. This uneven distribution of wealth has increased tensions between the Han and China’s minority groups. In addition, the Han generally look down on minorities, much as many Western countries look down on their minorities. The Chinese government is trying to change this.


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China’s Mid-Autumn Festival

In Chapter 6 of my book, The Wild Wild East, I mentioned the Mid-Autumn Festival, but didn’t have an opportunity to explain what it was as the chapter had a different focus. Let me do that now. Most people don’t know about China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, but it’s the second grandest festival next to the Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival. For those of us who speak with Chinese staff and companies on a daily basis, this means that the country is basically shut down for four days. This year the Mid-Autumn Festival fell on Thursday September 19th and, just as with our Thanksgiving holiday, everyone will return to work the following Monday, even though the official holiday period is just one day. Technically, this festival always falls on the 15th day of the 8th month according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Therefore, the date of the festival is a moving target and next year it will fall on September 6th.

The Mid-Autumn Festival originated in ancient China around 1046 BC. At that time it was generally accepted that seasonal changes were related to the lunar cycle. As a result, crops were planted and also harvested at a certain time during this cycle. People at this time were also very superstitious, and China’s ruling class was no exception. They would traditionally make a sacrifice to the Moon Goddess on the Autumnal Equinox, a time when the crops were nurturing and the weather pleasant, for a prosperous harvest. But this practice by the ruling class was not a festival, it was just an individualistic offering of thanks by a ruler. The festival itself didn’t start until around 618 AD when farmers started to give thanks to the Moon Goddess for their harvest. At that time the festival by the farmers, and the sacrifice by the ruler, merged into a single festival held on the Autumnal Equinox.

When I’m in China around the time of the festival, I can sense that the entire country is in a holiday mood. China is big on symbolism and, during this time, moon cakes, are sold throughout the country. Moon cakes are flat round pastries that supposedly resemble the moon, and are the symbolic food for this festival. They’re given to both friends and relatives to wish them a happy life. Over time the festival has shifted its meaning to where it’s now considered a time when families and friends reunite and renew their relationships. In fact, many people refer to the Mid-Autumn Festival as the Festival of Reunion.

Alan Refkin

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Tipping in China

Tipping is an accepted fact of life in most of the world. It’s how we show satisfaction, or dissatisfaction in some cases, with the service we’ve received. To a large extent, this is not true in China. China is basically a no-tipping nation. Chinese don’t tip and, for the most part, don’t expect to be tipped. Most Chinese establishments, in fact, have a strict no-tipping policy and, in some places, tipping a taxi driver may actually be against the law.

The Chinese government had previously declared tipping illegal since giving good service was expected. This policy existed in China as recently as the 1980’s. So ingrained was this no tipping policy that it’s sometimes, even now, difficult to get someone to accept a tip. In contrast, Westerners are used to tipping and do it as a matter of course. The Chinese aren’t and basically won’t tip. Therefore, when you try to give someone a tip they’re usually surprised and initially don’t want to receive the money. They feel awkward and possibly embarrassed. It’s out of the norm. In fact, some staff will just flat out refuse to take a tip as they view good service as part of their job and some, especially older servers who lived before China was opened to the world, may even find a tip to be impolite as it implies that we feel their work is undervalued by their employer.

This national no tipping policy seemed to work well when China was a closed society and prices were controlled by the government. There wasn’t much to buy anyway. Gradually, however, China opened itself to the world. More foreigners started coming to China and with them came their natural bias for tipping. Over time the government relaxed its no tipping policy and moved on to more important issues. As China became the manufacturing melting pot of the world, more and more foreigners stayed in China’s hotels, ate in restaurants, and paid for ancillary services. Gradually, especially with the younger generation, which has grown up with global media and personal exposure to the outside world, tipping has begun to enter life in China, but primarily with those who have interaction with Westerners.

If you’re staying at a Western hotel in China, then the rules on tipping would be the same as those in the United States and Europe as Westerners, over time, have conditioned the staff to tipping. You would therefore tip bellhops and add a tip to your bill at the hotel’s restaurant, where there’s often a blank space left for this purpose. The amount of the tip, however, usually averages less than a tip you would give at a similar hotel in the West. This will be in stark contrast to a Chinese hotel and its restaurant whose employees would probably suffer a stroke if a Chinese person gave them a tip.

As a general rule, tipping is acceptable, and probably somewhat expected, at Western hotels and their in-house facilities. But it’s not mandatory. Even so, tipping even in a large city such as Beijing wouldn’t be the same as New York where you would have to stop at the local ATM before commencing your journey out of the hotel, and through the raft of staff willing to assist you in this journey with their palms out. Even in major Chinese cities a modest tip is very well received as Chinese very rarely, if ever, tip in China.

For those who try, tipping outside of Western hotels and restaurants can be tricky. When you pay a bill with cash at a restaurant in Los Angeles, for example, you would probably leave the tip directly on the table. In China, however, that practice may result in you actually paying more for your meal, as it’s likely that the restaurant would keep the tip and not pass it on to the waiter or waitress. Instead, it’s better to put the money directly into the hands of your server without management seeing you do so. If they do, they’re very likely to make the server give the money to the restaurant. As a general policy, if you do tip, any amount is likely to be sufficient as the gesture in China is so uncommon that the amount is often beside the point.

Alan Refkin

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Catching a Domestic Flight in China

Catching a domestic flight in China is usually an eye-opening experience for most foreigners. It starts when you get to the airport, as most domestic airlines won’t let you check in until two hours ahead of time. They also don’t give you your seat assignments, unless you’re in a tour group or in first class, before you check in. With 1.3 billion people and an increasingly mobile society, most Chinese planes are larger than most countries typically use for domestic flights. When going between Beijing and Shanghai, for example, I’m frequently on an Airbus A330, a fairly large plane for a three hour flight. As a result, since the check-in counter usually closes 30 minutes prior to the flight, in the space of one and a half hours you have lot of people trying to check in. The check-in counters are jammed, especially the closer you get to flight time.

The second obstacle you’ll encounter in catching a domestic flight is boarding the plane. Unlike most countries, Chinese airlines don’t use zone numbers to board the aircraft. They usually board first class, and then everyone else. As I said, China uses big aircraft and the lines can be very long. The Chinese people’s solution to avoiding long lines is to simply cut in front of the person at the head of the line and thrust their ticket at the gate agent. I prepared my wife Kerry for this by informing her the scene when boarding a Chinese domestic flight would be reminiscent of the last flight out of Saigon. She told me afterwards that it was a pretty good description. To be clear, not everyone cuts in line and tries to hip check you out of their way, but enough people do that it’s considered that way it is within China. Gate agents, for their part, don’t care as they just want to get everyone onboard.

Now that you’ve gone past the gate agent you might believe you’re through your last hurdle and can relax. You’re wrong. Once you’re on the plane it’s common to see people going up and down the aisles looking for their seats. I have no explanation for this as you’d believe that seat numbers are sequential and only a few people would have their mind somewhere else and pass their seat. I’m wrong. On most Chinese flights two way aisle traffic isn’t unusual once you board, as well as having people stand in the aisle and talking with their friends. As a result, the aisles are always crowded and you frequently have to “squeeze” between people to get to your seat.

Mercifully, you sit down and eventually everyone’s seated. There’s no aisle traffic and you believe they’re ready to close the cabin door and depart. Wrong. In China, if someone checks in for a flight and receives their boarding pass, they wait for them! I’ve sat on board a number of flights where the infringing parties have come onto the aircraft 10-15+ minutes late. It seems that if you have a boarding pass, the airline will wait for you.

Finally you’re airborne. Chinese airlines almost always serve some sort of meal or snack on the flight. The flight attendants are courteous, young, and attractive and you now begin to relax. However, the finale is about to occur. When the flight lands, and begins to approach the gate, people start getting up from their seats, step into the aisle, and start taking their bags from the overhead. To be clear, we’re creeping towards the gate and still moving. It’s the last flight out of Saigon in reverse. By the time the plane stops the aisles are jammed and people want to get off. If you snooze you lose in getting off a Chinese plane.

Therefore, when I write in one of my books that I took a flight from one city to the next you can see that there’s substantially more drama involved than taking a domestic U.S. flight.

On a positive note I should mention that in the hundreds of flights I’ve taken within China I’ve never once had my luggage not make the flight, even when I’ve checked in 30 minutes beforehand. No one is better than the Chinese at luggage handling and, at least in this, they can give any U.S. carrier a lesson.

Alan Refkin

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The Influence of the English Language in China

English is increasingly becoming a language of the young in China and its influence is transitioning beyond basic communication. English is also influencing Chinese culture, and even the way the young think and act.

Today, according to Diane Sawyer on ABC World News, there are more people studying English in China than there are people living in the US. Chinese primary schools, as a matter of course, begin teaching English in the third grade and, in the next five years, according to China Daily, all schools will begin teaching English in kindergarten. In addition, within the next five years, all state employees younger than 40 will be required to master at least 1000 English phrases.

One of the obstacles to this plan is a shortage of proficient English teachers. Although the government is accelerating the training of teachers, it will more than likely be the next generation of Chinese who are able to speak English as a natural form of communication, such as Europeans might easily transition and speak the language of another European country.

Part of the reason for this emphasis on English is that China wants to become more international. After being an isolationist nation for nearly 5,000 years, until 1978 when China opened itself to international trade and adopted capitalism, the government decided that having its citizenry speak the English language would allow it to better communicate with the international community, especially in matters of business, trade and technology. As one mother puts it, speaking about her son learning English in school: science and math are all written in English so it’s essential for my son to be fluent in the language. China feels that English is the international language of business and that by speaking English, China will be more effective in its business dealings with the West. In addition, the government feels that understanding English will allow China to better adapt technologies from the West and also provide increased impetus to its current and long-term growth.

However, while the young may be able to converse, and actually become fluent in English, older Chinese have a difficult time. Therefore, in a great many companies Westerners still conduct business in Mandarin or Cantonese with their Chinese counterpart. That’s changing as the next business generation should be better able to transition from Chinese to English in its conduct of business. Also, English is not displacing Mandarin, Cantonese, or the ethnic languages in China. On the contrary, Mandarin is still, and will continue to be, the dominant language of China. Instead, English is the language of international business, and China is quickly adapting. As the World’s number two economy, and destined to be the World’s largest economy, importer, and exporter, it’s essential for China to be able to understand and conduct business on a global basis. English allows them to do this.

Learning English has had an additional influence on younger Chinese, beyond an increased ability to communicate and conduct business within the international community. According to Boye Lafayette De Mente, in his book The Chinese Mind, the English language is also a reservoir and transmitter of culture and also encourages individualism and independence. Younger Chinese who learn English also tend to absorb American culture. They’re likely wearing American-style clothing, watching American-style shows such as American Idol, and gathering with their friends at Starbucks. But the behavioral changes in China of those who learn English is even more profound. When one learns English they tend to project themselves outside their culture and immerse themselves in America. The younger the person, the faster and more profound this American influence will be on their thinking and behavior. The more they speak English, the more they begin to think like Americans. In children, for example, this influence is usually noticeable in a year or two. In fact, in children this change becomes so pronounced that it’s almost immediately noticed by older Chinese who don’t speak English or who have minimal exposure to English culture.

Speaking English is looked upon, by younger Chinese, as a good thing. Younger Chinese want to speak English and tend to envy those in their peer group who have a better command of the language than they may presently have. While in some countries speaking English is looked on as being anti-nationalistic, among China’s young it’s looked upon as a leap beyond the constrictions of Chinese life and into the open spaces of the US and the international community. It gives them an enhanced sense of status, and a feeling of modernity, independence, and internationalism as China gradually begins to transform itself in the 21st century.

Alan Refkin        

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Catching a Taxi in China

Taxis are everywhere in China. They’re inexpensive and easy to catch. However, as a foreigner, directing them to where you want to go can sometimes be challenging. In Doing the China Tango I mentioned that I frequently traveled within a city by taxi, but I never went into the problems a foreigner can encounter by using this ubiquitous form of transportation. Let me do that for you now.

The first problem you’re likely to encounter is, of course, language. Outside of Hong Kong, taxi drivers know very little English. In fact, the further north you go in China the less English will be understood by the Chinese people, especially taxi drivers. For example, if you were in Hong Kong you can almost always get to your destination by giving the taxi driver instructions in English. Beijing, in the northern part of China, is different. If you were at the Beijing airport and wanted to go to the Sheraton hotel, for example, you may instead to be taken to the Hilton as, surprisingly, both words in Chinese sound very similar. If you asked to be taken to the St. Regis you’re likely not to go anywhere as, I’m told by my translator, that St. Regis translated into Chinese comes out as International Club. If you’re already at your Chinese hotel you can get a small card from the concierge which will have the name and address of your hotel in Chinese and you can then hand this to the taxi driver. The same for major shopping and tourist destinations.

I’ve handled getting from the Beijing airport, or from one destination to another, for example, in one of two ways. The first method I use is to have the phone number of the hotel, or business person I’m meeting with, loaded into my cell phone. When I get into the taxi I dial up the hotel operator or party I’m meeting with and simply hand the phone to the taxi driver. It works every time. The second method I use is to e-mail the hotel or other party ahead of time and ask them to put their address and driving instructions in Chinese and send it to me in an e-mail. This also works every time.

Getting around in China by taxi sounds easy in my books but if you can’t communicate the address in Chinese you may have a difficult time getting to your destination, depending on the city you’re in.


Alan Refkin


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Tomb-sweeping Day in China

Chinese holidays are both creative and imaginative. Over ten years ago our General Manager in China, Zhang Jingjie, or Maria to those who have worked with her over the years, told her new boss (that would be me) that she and my staff were taking the day off for a national holiday. Asking her what holiday was at the beginning of April she replied: Tomb-sweeping Day. My partner Dave Dodge and I had never heard of this holiday. Believing there was a bad connection, I asked her to give me the name of the festival again. She responded that it was actually the Qingming Festival, but is better known as Tomb-sweeping Day, and was a national holiday.

Better educated, I now know that Tomb-sweeping day is either on April 4th or 5th, on the 104th day after the winter solstice or the 15th day from the Spring Equinox. The Tomb-sweeping Festival is named for exactly what it’s intended to accomplish – taking care of ancestral gravesites. It’s a time where a family will pay their respect to dead family members. They clean weeds and other debris from the tomb and add fresh soil if needed. In many cases they will take with them paper replicas of money, various foods items, computers, luxury handbags, and material goods. They then burn these paper products in symbolically hoping that the deceased is not lacking for money, food, or material goods. In addition, family members will often bring a person’s favorite foods and drink to the gravesite and may even have a family picnic there.

Over time, tomb-sweeping customs have been modified as more people are being cremated. As this happens relatives and friends will gather and present flowers as a token of respect. The remainder of the day is then used as one where family members gather and enjoy each other’s company.

The Qingming celebration is also big business. Over 520 million people visited their ancestor’s tombs in 2012 and spent more than $1.5 billion on paper replicas of material goods and money that was then sacrificially burned. Sometimes, especially in heavy winds, the burning gets a little out of hand and over 200 forest fires were reported during the 2012 Tomb-sweeping Festival.

Maria is now telling us that the Dragon Boat Festival is on June 12th. We can’t wait to hear what this is about!

Alan Refkin

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Having a Beer in China

People don’t normally think of China as a nation of beer drinkers. I think of Britain, the United States, and possibly a number of other countries as being beer aficionados, but not China. Most people place China in the category of a nation of tea drinkers. In Doing the China Tango I mentioned that the Chinese often drink beer with their meals. The beer is generally served warm and it’s usually consumed from a glass rather than directly from the bottle. But until I got to really know the Chinese people outside of my business meetings, I didn’t have any idea that China was indeed a nation of beer drinkers. In fact, the Chinese beer market is growing at 10% a year.

From this you might assume that the beer of choice would be Tsingtao, which is synonymous with Chinese beer in the United States. That’s because Tsingtao, which is 27% owned by Anheuser-Busch, accounts for 50% of China’s beer exports. However, in China Tsingtao is not the beer of choice and only has a 15% domestic market share. It’s actually Snow beer that’s the #1 beer in China. I confess that don’t know of anyone outside of China that’s even heard of Snow beer, but if you live in China it’s THE beer. The Chinese consumed 16.5 billion pints of Snow beer last year. To give you an idea of how much beer that is it’s twice the amount of Bud Light that’s consumed globally.

Snow beer was formed in 1993 as a joint venture between SABMiller, the same company that manufactures Miller Lite, and China Resources. In 2011 it brewed 50.8 million barrels of Snow Beer, which is only sold in China, not even in Hong Kong. Snow beer is considered bland tasting by most Westerners. Since beer in China is usually consumed at meals, with 50% being drunk on restaurants, the Chinese prefer a beer that’s less filing and has a low alcohol content, typically between 3% and 4%. Therefore, for the Chinese palate, it fits the bill: it’s bland, not filling, and with a low alcohol content.

The next time you think of a Chinese beer, erase the image of Tsingtao, and think Snow.

Alan Refkin

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