Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The key to change perceptions about China: Seriously train its tourist guides!


My return journey from Wuyishan, a world heritage site famous in China for it Dahongpao tea, had to done in two flights – a Xiamen Airline flight from Wuyishan to Hong Kong and a Cathay Dragon Airline flight from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur. The Xiamen Airline flight was not accorded apron convenience. The aircraft came to a stop somewhere in the tarmac; passengers were then ushered into two buses to go to the airport terminal for Immigration and Customs clearances.

Many of the passengers were Mainlanders. Managing the tarmac transfer must be a very frustrating task to the ground crew. Younger passengers spread out to try to take selfies and pictures of one other. Older ones tried to disembark, and some did, from the first buss when they saw that their tour guide was not amongst them. But the ground crew had to fill the first bus before they allow more passengers step down the ladder or go into the second bus. It was very much a chicken-first-and-egg-first situation! You could literally hear the ground crew’s frustrations!

This, to me, is another classic example of “There you see, all these Mainlanders!” We hear these day-in-and-day-out. But it also speaks volumes about China’s inability to exercise commonsense despite their political clout!

Don’t Chinese always pride themselves to be or civilized people? And the rest of the world are either (barbaric) or (native, but with a tinge of uncivilized connotation)?

China has not been quite successful with its soft power endeavours, even in countries where Chinese largess is an everyday necessity. I personally think Chinese don’t quite understand what is real soft power!

Soft power is not about setting up of Confucius Institutes to teach Chinese or to showcase Confucian culture to foreigners, or about handing out goodies. Soft power is about earning empathy with strangers. Only exemplary behaviours practised en masse can change perceptions, not isolated cases of good deeds. Take Japan for example, I don’t think anyone can dislike Japanese tourists, can you? Caucasian Americans, Europeans and Australians don’t quite go in organized groups like what we do in East and Southeast Asia. Of course, some can turn rowdy once they have a drink one too many. But generally, they do not lose respect.

Outbound tourists are a country’s soft-power ambassadors. In China, where millions and millions of internal tourists throng sites within China, they are also reflectors of the country’s behavioural norms. Tourism holds an important key that can help China change others’ perceptions about its people.

Seriously train the country’s tourist guides!

Train them to INSIST on a few things from their charge before they even embark on the journey:

1.     Don’t shout, Don’t jostle, Don’t spit, Don’t stare. Don’t pick nose publicly.
2.     Don’t behave like hungry ghosts in restaurants.
3.     Don’t throw rubbish anywhere they like.
4.     Don’t hog pathways at airports, public places, etc.
5.     Queue up for food, drinks, tickets, toilets, public transport, etc.
6.     Don’t climb, Don’t walk on grass, Don’t feed animals if there are signs to say so.
7.     Don’t smoke if there are no smoking signs displayed.
8.     Don’t over- or under-dress.
9.     Don’t behave like Liu Laolao (country bumpkins) in museums, palaces, etc. or towards foreigners.

 I am sure with this in place people would see Chinese as Cinderellas in no time!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A revisit to Wuyishan

The principal of the group with which I am associated decided to hold a high-power get-together at Wuyishan. Friends from America, Canada, Europe, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia would be attending. The 12-day do was packed with programmes ranging from visiting tourist sites to being feasted by Michelin-starred chefs and entertained by world-class performers to practising meditation and getting a taste of tui-na (traditional Chinese kneading massage) to understanding Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism to taking part in a two-day discourse on East-meets-West medicine. It was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience to many of us.

Saw Hwa and I visited Wuyishan in April 2013, when we decided to find our roots in China. Fujian Province was where our ancestry hailed from. Wuyishan is in Ming-bei, or north of River Ming; we are both of Ming-nan (south River Ming) heritage, i.e., we speak Ming-nan dialect which is spoken by people from Xiamen down to Quanzhou and Zhangzhou. Native Taiwanese also speak Ming-nan. Many say that Ming-nan was also the court language of the Tang Dynasty which ruled China from AD 618 to 907. I believe there is merit in this claim. Buddhism spread to Korea and Japan during the era, so did the "court language", hence the large number of  terms in both Korea and Japan which are basically Ming-nan in pronunciations. Many migrated south  and ended up in Ming-nan to live. They took their dialect along. Some went further south to Chaozhou. This might be the reason why the Chaozhou dialect is quite similar to Ming-nan. To put Chaozhou in Guanzhou is a huge heritage aberration!

Wuyishan is renowned throughout China for its Dahongpao tea, besides its reputation as a UNESCO cultural and heritage site. From Kuala Lumpur, the most expedient way of getting there would be to take Xiamen Airlines to Xiamen and from there take a connecting flight direct to Wuyishan. I had to rendezvous with some of my Singapore colleagues; we decided to congregate in Hong Kong and from there we took Xiamen Airlines to Wuyishan. I flew Cathay Dragon and my colleagues from Singapore used Singapore Airlines. This was a big mistake; I will explain why.

Since I had been in Wuyishan, I decided to skip most of the attractions that had been organised for us: Heavenly Tour Peak, Tiger Roaring Rock, A Thread of Sky, Bamboo Raft Tour, Dahongpao Tea Site, Wuyi Xiangjiang Mingyuan Tea Culture Tourist Park, Zhonghua Wuyi Tea Expo Park and the Neo-Confucianism attractions. Even though I had also visited the Xiamei Village and the Dahongpao Show directed by Zhang Yi-mou at "the largest outdoor theatre in the world", I decided to join in the fun. The Xiamei Village which was a tea trading hub in the early Qing Dynasty remained ugly and largely disorganised from a tourism angle. The Dahongpao show has not changed a bit since my last visit, that was more than five years ago. No wonder the crowd was pretty thin.
With friends at Xiamei Village

The town has undergone a big make-over, though. The streets are wide and building look clean and orderly, at least from far. But you still see the town make-shift carts everywhere; they make the place look tired!



Zhang Yi-mou's Dahongpao Show
Earlier I said it was a mistake for us to rendezvous in Hong Kong using non-Chinese airlines. Going there was not a problem. Even though Cathy Dragon is a OneWorld airline and Xiamen, Skyteam, the Cathay Dragon at Kuala Lumpur International Airport was able to send our bags all the way to Wuyishan, we couldn't have that convenience on our return journey. We have to clear Immigration and Customs at Hong Kong and re-check in to catch our respective connecting flights. There was a one-hour delay in take-off by our aircraft in Wuyishan. My Singapore colleagues were resigned to the fact that they would have to put up a night in Hong Kong. And an unusual thing happened. SQ, which always prides itself with great punctuality, strangely decided to delay its departure for that flight. All ended up; save for the great anxieties we were made to bear earlier.

Wuyishan's airport is still new, but its lounge is already showing signs of fatigue! I suspect the sofas have become staff's resting pad when the lounge is not in use. The toilet exuded an unpleasant ordour. The only water basin there was not working. I asked why there was no alert; the receptionist there nonchalantly told me, "oh, it has just happened." You know she was telling a lie. Luckily there was a tap outside; but that's meant for food! Old China dies hard!

My overall take is this: Everything in China moves forward at lightening speed; but etiquette and manners crawl like snails and in circles.




Saturday, December 8, 2018

Taiwan ditches Tsai Ing-wen

I have not been to Taiwan for years. The last time I was there was in the mid-1990s when I had to accompany the late Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong of Genting to meet some leaders there. There was a crisis between China and Taiwan then; Tan Sri Lim wanted to play Kissinger. Of course, he couldn't do anything to help. We flew in and out the same day. Nonetheless, we did have time to share a meal of Taiwanese porridge in one of the hotels there!

When Chen Shui-bian became the country's president, I shunned Taiwan completely. I just could not understand how the people there could elect such a clown to be their president. And his vice president Annette Lu was equally obnoxious to me.

When Shen-yang (my son) suggested that we joined him for a visit to Taipei where he and his partner would be speaking in an international conference, I was not too keen at first, but being a harsh father to Shen-yang when he was young, I felt I should try to make up the wound that I had inflicted. Sure, let's go! I said to my wife.

I now hold a different opinion of Taiwan, thanks to the latest visit!

When we were there, the country was in the midst of electing new mayors to their cities. Freedom of speech is virtually absolute in Taiwan today; it is frighteningly democratic. Policies don't mean much. If you cannot deliver, you are out! Chen Shui-bian was promptly replaced by Kuomintang's Ma Ying-jeou. But Kuomintang lost ground in 2016 and Tsai Ing-wen was elected president. Democratic Progressive Party under her suffered massive defeats in these latest mayoral elections. She promptly resigned as the president of DPP, which means she is unlikely good for second term. Tsai is academically brilliant. And this is one example that great academics are usually not effective leaders. Politics in Taiwan moves in a pendulum fashion. Tsai is pro-Independence. But I think China should not gloat over the results!

The people of Taiwan are not embracing the Mainland anytime soon! They truly understand Realpolitik. The country's economy is not in great shape. Instead of counting on an erratic Trump, they know it is time to work with your own big brother, even though he is too patronising for your comfort.

Perfect co-existence in Taoyuan Airport...
Unlike many of our Mainland kin, Taiwanese by and large conduct themselves with a very high level of etiquette. The exhortations of Chiang Kai-shek have largely been forgotten. Today Taiwanese speak not only Mandarin, they are also at home with Mingan diaclect (similar to Fujian's Xiamen variety). They don't harbour hostility towards Japanese, for Japan had indeed been quite benevolent to the island when it was under its occupation. Mainland China therefore doesn't mean much to them, save for the investment opportunities they used to take advantage when China first opened up, and the large number of Mainland Chinese tourists that have been pouring in after it after China became rich. Be that as it may, Taiwanese are still steep in Confucianism in culture. Our driver-cum-tour guide says Taiwan can boast to be No 1 in these three things; most number of motorcycles, most number of temples and most number of 7-Elevens. A cursory look convinced me that he was not wrong!

The visit was not without disappointment, though. Saw Hwa and I thought we should revisit Sun-moon Lake. We tried the high speed train. The ride was perfect. But I just could not believe that the resort had degenerated so much. It looks more like a third-world holiday spot to me.


7-Elevens are everywhere
Taiwan is No 1 in temple counts...
So it is also No 1 in motorcycles...


Labour shortage in Sun-Moon Lake; only paper bowls and cups are offered.
Time to get rid of this  sheriff! A life-size statue in Grand Hyatt