Made in China Part 1 : Chinese Brands (or the Lack Thereof)

I have the utmost respect for China Law Blog as it regularly hits on topics that make me think and, more often than not, nails a topic that I was planning on blogging about. He's done it again, this time around its on brands in China. I'm working on a series of articles on the "Made in China" issue, and since Dan's hit on the topic of Chinese brands, that's what I'll start off with.

This topic's been in the news a lot lately, Dan's entry hits on a recent Newsweek article titles "Generic Giants". Interestingly, Fortune's taken a different approach with an article titled "China Buys the World". From an American standpoint, it doesn't appear that there are a lot of big Chinese brands out there and people are only starting to recognize them when they purchase a major American brand. However, that is far from reality.

First off, and what should be most obvious, is that China's brands are on the rise, but there's still a ways to go. Its hard to believe, but Japanese brands haven't been major players in the US market for that long and Korean brands, limited mainly to electronics, have been around even shorter. Chinese companies have started out fighting in home electronics, a wide open category where they can beat a lot of competitors on price and still offer good quality. In other areas, there have been minor achievements, but its going to take some time, in 10 years the picture will be far different.

Another issue is that the magazines are writing from a US perspective, where Chinese brands are few and far between, yet if a more global view is taken, greater influence can be seen. China has placed a heavy focus on developing countries that the Western world and multinationals has left behind. In Asia, Latin America, and especially Africa. This allows them a more open playing field, less brand loyalty, and less obsession with locally made goods. Not only is it an incredibly smart move, but its also a "training ground" for these brands before they make the more difficult entry into the US market. A number of Chinese car manufacturers have started building factories and importing cars into Mexico, hoping that the market there will pave their way into entering the US and having factories nearby will ease deliveries.

Newsweek argues that its the "incredibly competitive" domestic market (what market isn't competitive?) that hurts Chinese brands, but they are missing something about the domestic market, its incredibly large. If you're the boss of a major Chinese brand in a 2nd tier city and you're making money hand over fist domestically, why bother dealing with the bureaucrats in Beijing only to then battle your way in an unfamiliar market? For many, the headaches involved with creating a global brand aren't worth the potential gains.

This post focused on the major reasons why we've yet to see a lot of Chinese brands "go global", but it doesn't hit on all the issues, for that I'd need a lot more words and I think I'm already trying most of my few dear readers patience, so they'll be more on this in the coming days.

Tales of an Apartment Hunter (aka Burst Damnit, Burst!)

Another weekend just passed, for me, that means spending an inordinate amount of time dealing with despicable real estate agents and walking through some stranger's home for 5 minute only to be shocked and disappointed, shocked at the price, disappointed by the unimpressive home. I've made the mistake of giving out my number to too many agents, this has led to calls and texts at 7 am and 10 pm, often for apartments that are far outside my price range and in one instance, outside of Beijing.

The problem is that there is little governing real estate agents in China. Unlike the US, you don't need to be pre-approved by a bank before you start looking for an apartment. In fact, basically everyone with a job will get approved by a bank for a loan, part of why down payments typically start at 30% of the purchase price. To be a real estate agent in Beijing the basic requirements appear to be 1. that you are not from Beijing, 2. that you are young and have no other experience, and 3. that you are dumb as a bag of hammers.

As someone who has studied economics, I realize that it doesn't take an understanding of complex economic theories to understand supply and demand, which is all the current real estate picture in China is right now. Everything in my being says that this has to be a bubble, it has every sign of being a bubble, and yet it has been a bubble that shows absolutely no sign of popping anytime soon. It will also be interesting to see how the government reacts if there are signs that this bubble is starting to pop.

I'm looking at apartments that are in the 90-120 sq. meter range (around 1000 sq. ft), places that 10 months ago were going for RMB1.7 million that are now going for RMB2.2 million, a difference of around US$75,000. I've looked at places all over the city and even in the "suburbs" and have rarely found a place that I can be happy with. I understand Beijing is quickly becoming a major, international city, but even in a city like Chicago, US$300,000 will buy you a very impressive spot, probably in a nice, old building that you know will be standing in another 50 years.

That is rarely the case in China where you have to worry doubly about fears of faulty construction and fears of government requisition. I work among young Chinese who make a solid salary and yet many of them are in the "house slave" category. Who are all these people capable of buying US$300,000 places in China? Where do they come from? What do they do? And how in God's name do they do so without even taking out a loan?!?

Further, unlike the US where the suburbs are established, here you can save money buy looking for a place in the "suburbs" of Tongzhou or Shunyi or wherever, but you have to be worried about basic living amenities and the lack of restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, etc. For those things, you'd have to wait 2 or 3 years, part of the reason the apartment is so cheap now. There is also the habit of "buying air", purchasing a place that has yet to be built, with no recourse when its move in date and you aren't satisfied with the construction.

The search continues, its an incredibly depressing process, one that hundreds, thousands of others go through every weekend around Beijing (many who I've probably seen) as apartment after apartment is viewed, each even more substandard than the one before it, all incredibly expensive. I hope this bubble bursts soon and things go back to being realistic. I can see how property in Beijing inside the 4th Ring Road would be an incredibly wise investment over the next 20 years (though foreigners can't legally rent their apartment), but for the time being, it seems the price is destined to come down.

Unless, of course, China can yet again find a way to defy all economic formulations and the price just continues to go up. If that's the case, where are all the "laobaixing" going to live?!?


Thanksgiving 2009: East 33

Thanksgiving in Beijing has a very different meaning from in the US, where everyone gathers at home with family. In Beijing, its a time to get together with friends and head out to one of the city's few restaurants that serve turkey and follow this very American of traditions. The past few years, the Raffles Hotel has done Thanksgiving events at its restaurants East 33 and Jaan, once again this year we headed to East 33 to enjoy the Thanksgiving buffet.

As many Chinese don't fully grasp the "traditional Thanksgiving menu" of turkey with stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, etc etc, a buffet is the perfect option to satisfy all tastes. Plus, this one is all-you-can-drink, need I say more? The other nice thing is that this year there was a real expansion of the offerings, including a large seafood raw bar.
a seafood bounty my seafood bounty

Of course, the main reason to come is for the turkey. For me, turkey isn't the most flavorful of birds (then again, I've never done an organic, free range heritage turkey before) and it is far too often overcooked, but this one was well cooked and moist, I had no complaints. At the carving station, a nice honey baked ham was also available, offering a nice saltiness and deep flavor if turkey is too boring for you.
turkey being carvedthe turkey carver in action

Other stations included Italian pastas and Chinese noodles cooked to order with a variety of options as well as a grilled meats station. There was sushi and prepared hot foods of both western and Chinese provenience (seafood lasagne or lazi ji anyone?). Of course no buffet is complete without a dessert bar, this one was especially impressive, including cakes, tartlets, a cheese section, homemade ice cream, and some cute little dessert bites.
desserts on offerJust some of the dessert bar offerings

At RMB298, it wasn't cheap, but considering most the other options were above RMB200, comparatively, it was a bargain. The Raffles Thanksgiving buffet is quickly becoming my own Thanksgiving tradition in Beijing, this year's buffet offerings were even an improvement over last year and our party walked out completely stuffed. The only problem with attending a buffet is that you don't get turkey leftovers for Friday's lunch, oh well.

East 33 (东33)
Raffles at Beijing Hotel, Wangfujing
Price: ¥¥¥ out of ¥¥¥¥¥
Rating: 4 out of 5 (a damn good buffet and a great way to celebrate the holiday)

pro: all you can eat&drink, great turkey, excellent raw bar, nice dessert bar
con: RMB298 ain't cheap, no leftovers, some of the sashimi was still frozen

Finally, a Happy Thanksgiving to all!!!


Did the Economic Crisis Hit Thanksgiving?

Is it just me or are there far fewer restaurants, especially hotel buffets, putting on Thanksgiving events tomorrow? Last year, my email box was overwhelmed with 5 star hotels hoping for my presence at Thanksgiving dinners or buffets, this year, to my knowledge only Raffles Hotel and the Legendale have advertised Thanksgiving meals.

As for restaurants, its a lot of the usual suspects, Steak & Eggs, Chef Too, Blue Frog, All-Star, and Salt all have Thanksgiving offerings. Chef Too's home catering option is always popular and is pretty tasty, while Salt's 5-course menu this year looks tasty.

For all you Americans out there, where are you choosing to celebrate the holiday? For me, the hotel buffet is the way to go, the resulting food coma is the closest thing to tryptophan induced sleep, plus since we can't plop down on the couch and wallow away the hours watching football, why not simulate Black Friday and walk some of it off at Wangfujing?

PSA: Beijing Taxi's New Tax

For anyone who took a Beijing taxi today, there was a bit of a surprise (especially if you haven't been paying attention to the news). Midnight saw the start of implementing a RMB 1 gas tax on any fare that goes over 3 km (though this isn't understood by every driver). Most drivers have a book of receipts stating the new policy, however the RMB1 does not show up on the meter, creating a bit of confusion. I'm sure after a few days it will be more widely understood and accepted, but on day 1, it seems there's a lot of confusion for both passengers and drivers.


Long Live the King

I never expected my 1st restaurant review would end up being Burger King, but I couldn't help being excited a few months back when I saw the Wagas space at Xidan's Joy City (tear! I used to really enjoy their pasta) was being turned into a Burger King. You see, I regularly travel to Hong Kong and Shanghai, where the King's domain is wide, however in the capital, the only Burger King was located at the airport, until now that is.

I don't eat fast food in the US, but I guess in part due to the difficulty of finding a good burger, every now and then a BK whopper is mighty tempting (after all, the whopper is the only edible major fast food brand burger in my book).

Last Friday afternoon, the city's only BK outlet was really hopping as plenty of people were trying to understand this new fast food option. For those used to the US or even Shanghai's BKs, this branch is a bit of an upgrade, plenty of seating choices with large booths, nice seats for people watching near the atrium, and barstools. There's a flat screen tv (though it was only showing more about BK), a Beijing city mural, and lots of steely gray/metal tones.
How did we live without whoppers?!?

The food, well, its the King, all of your US favorites with very little localized items. Prices are a few kuai above the other fast food joints, with most "meals" going for between RMB26-30, though one (the bacon cheeseburger whopper I believe) topping out at RMB37. The taste is identical to any BK back home and its a welcome alternative adding a bit of diversity to the fast food scene. It's still early days, but it looks like the king will have a successful reign over Xidan.

Burger King (汉堡王)
Joy City, Xidan

price: ¥ out of ¥¥¥¥¥ (¥42 for 2 people)
rating: 2 out of 5 (I love BK, but its still just fast food, I'm not going crazy)

Boozy Saturday at the Hilton

Hilton's annual bacchanal, otherwise known as the Food and Wine Experience, was held last weekend (sorry for the delay in reporting back) and it was a really great party. The crowd was a mix of industry insiders, wine connoisseurs, the "see and be seen" crowd, and those who wanted to get really, really hammered.

The format of the event was simple, spread out over 2 floors around the hotel's atrium was table after table of wine, you paid your RMB200, got in, grabbed a glass, and roamed. Despite this being the 12th year this event has been held,it was my first time attending and so I didn't have any strategy other than the basic (whites the first go round, reds the next time).
Grace Vineyard's offeringsOfferings from Aussino

When there are nearly 1,000 wines to choose from, one really needs a system, but with over 7 hours to try them all, I'm sure more than a few made that their goal. Old world, new world, and even some rarer Chinese wines were on offer making this a must for any wine consumer who wanted to prepare his order list. Beyond that, there were also cocktail and beer stations if the wine got to be too much.

wine options galoreJust a small example of Grace Vineyards' offerings

The event was wonderful, though I still came away feeling a little let down. If you're going to have people drinking for 7 hours, then you must feed them, the logic is actually pretty simple. However, despite this being deemed the food and wine experience, food was hard to come by. The advertised food stalls consisted of 5 or so different food companies, including a bakery, a chocolatier, and a cheese maker (with only the cheese maker offering decent samples). There were meat "cooking displays", though they weren't well organized and those that attended were ravenous. By 5 pm, there was already people lining up at the restaurant prepared for the 6 pm buffet. Considering the amount of wine on offer, RMB200 for all that PLUS a buffet was a really good deal, but just because its a bargain is no reason to half-ass it on the buffet, which, considering the quality of the options, is what they did.

meat cooking demoThe meat cooking demonstration, the Kobe was transcendent, but everyone was ravenous by this point

My only other tip to the organizer, limit the number of attendees. It was cramped quarters with all the people and tables and it somewhat lessened the experience. That said, I definitely plan on going back next year, though this time prepared with a tasting notebook and pen(s) and definitely not on an empty stomach.


2 of World's Top Late Night Dining Spots in China?!?

Travel + Leisure recently ran an article on top late night dining spots where they quizzed some of the best chefs in the world (and Anthony Bourdain) on their favorite late night restaurants. I was a little surprised to find 2 of them were located in China.

Massive kitchen luminary Daniel Boulud, whose restaurant Maison Boulud a Pekin is arguably Beijing's best restaurant, included one of my favorite spots after a couple of "pops", Jin Ding Xuan (金鼎轩). Boulud offered this about the popular dim sum spot:
“This is a 24-hours restaurant that serves Cantonese cuisine, mainly in small dim sum portions. It’s a great place for people-watching, too. The shrimp dumplings, stewed beef with radish, and spare ribs with black bean sauce are some of my favorites. This is just the kind of steamy hot food that’s especially comforting on a cold, damp Beijing winter night.”
Hmm...people watching? Not sure about that, though you definitely see some interesting characters at the massive Yonghegong location at 3 am. I do agree that their dim sum, especially the fried options and a big bowl of zhou, are perfect to soak up the alcohol consumed during a night on the town. I wouldn't recommend the place before midnight, but then again, this is a list of late night restaurants. What Boulud fails to mention (and why should he, money's no object to him) is that after midnight many of the dim sum are discounted, making it all the better in these tough economic times.

David Chang, the Asian chef who took over New York with his noodles, offered up an equally popular Shanghai spot (with a number of Beijing outlets as well), Bellagio, saying:
"This Bellagio is not a Las Vegas hotel, but a faux-swanky Taiwanese brasserie. There are several locations in Shanghai, and they’re all open at all hours. It’s my favorite restaurant in Shanghai—which I know is sacrilegious—but everything is so delicious, like the pork-belly pot with egg and their weird fried breads. Don’t leave without ordering the shaved ice—it’s a must."
Personally, I tend to prefer some of the late night "da pai dongs" on Shouning Rd, I've been to Bellagio a few times during more "regular" hours and, well, the food is pretty good.

While many of the late night restaurants on the list were located in New York, Tokyo, and Paris, its great to see some Chinese spots getting some love.

Jin Ding Xuan (金鼎轩)
multiple locations around Beijing, but the favorite is the 3 story behometh just north of Yonghegong
77 Heping Li Xi Jie (和平里西街77号)

Bellagio (鹿港小镇)
multiple locations around Beijing, but Gongti branch probably best for late nighters
6 Gongti Xilu (工体西路6号)

Khan of Self Promotion

The first post of the "new era" was a PSA about a mall sale, how boring, I couldn't let that stand for long. You know, I'd like to fashion myself as a "man about town" when it comes to Beijing life enjoying the "good life", nice clothes, good food, and, of course, good wine. I get my wine through Torres' home delivery and if I'm going out to drink a bottle, its typically Enoteca or Big 9, due to their east side location.

Perhaps its because I rarely venture outside of my Chaoyang base, but I'd never realized a new wine shop/bar opened up at Nanluoguxiang until I read the New York Times a few weeks back. That's right, I learned about a new spot in my own city from a US paper. Anyways, it seemed one of the owners of a wine bar named Cambulac, located at Nanluoguxiang, wrote in to the New York Times, started exchanging emails with one of their food writers, and got himself a mention in an article that showed off his wine pairing knowledge.

I've yet to go to Cambulac, it barely gets any mention on most of the usual suspect expat sites, but I must say, after reading the article in the Times, I'm intrigued. Has anyone been? I have't been to Nanluoguxiang in awhile, is it time for a field trip?

Guomao's Annual International Brands Sale Opened Today

The annual international brand "bazaar" that is held this time every year at Guomao began late this afternoon and will go from 11 am to 7 pm from tomorrow to Sunday. If you missed out on today's opening, don't worry, get there at 11 tomorrow and there's sure to be some good stuff left. The sale features many of the brands that are based in the Guomao concourse, including Dunhill, Pink, Stella McCartney, and Mark Jacobs. Last year, I was most impressed with some of the discounts at Lane Crawford's stand, but I'm not sure if they're taking part this year.

For most, this sale will be a pass, prices are often only marked down 30-50% on the "good" stuff, bringing it in line with prices at home while the majority of goods look like fakes that you'd never see in the actual stores. Anyways, to each their own, and if you're in the area, it may be worth it to stop in and take a look.

Ya Dead Yet? Nah, Mon!

And...We're back, and without the football (soccer) season to think about, our mind's focused on the "upcoming" 2010 Olympics, so why not reference a movie about another Olympics that was held in Canada?

Sorry about that bit of babble, but indulge me, we've been gone for a long time. So here's the plan, this blog will undergo a bit of rebranding, the focus will mainly be on the Beijing food and fashion scenes, expect fewer posts a week, but hopefully more quality. There have been a few promising Beijing foodie blogs, but they all end up sputtering out over time, as this is a big area of interest to us and we think we have something to offer on the subject, that's going to be the focus. So expect something like 70% food related posts, 20% fashion/shopping information, and 10% randomness.

If you've dropped us from your blogrolls, shame on you, you're gong to want to add us again! Also, thanks to all who've offered support and encouragement since we've gone silent. The return is thanks to purchasing a Witopia VPN, while its unbelievably slow and frustrating (any recommendations for a better VPN?!?), it gives us access to the world beyond the Firewall. All posts will be cross-posted at Modern Leifeng Inside the GFW for those who have to deal with the evil that is the Firewall, and we'll start out slowly, if all goes well, it may finally be time to purchase our own url.

Thanks to all the readers out there, please come back! And thanks to those who named us one of the Top 50 Blogs on China.

Finally, while this blog has dealt with sports in the past, we're moving all that to our blog Beijing Football (or for those outside of China, you can go to Gongti Legends).