Last post from within China

Happy May Day! I found a free wireless connection in the BGS lounge at Beijing airport and am replicating my Notes database before the 11-hour flight to San Francisco, then onto Phoenix, and eventually Raleigh for the last half of the week.

Relaxing Sunday writing reports, drafting the outline of the next book, and staying off line. Saturday was insane, running around Beijing with the director Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring) and checking out the cheap DVD shops with him. Watched a fantastic film yesterday, Days of Living Wild, Wong Kar Wai’s 1991 masterpiece.

Saturday was a gorge fest of great food, very little sightseeing, an amazing massage that made me drool, then dinner with my sister’s inlaws, Huang Hua and He Liliang at their hutong. Great hospitality and a great story about Kissenger’s secret flight to Beijing in 1971 to arrange Nixon’s historic meeting with Mao. The sticking point was the language in the proclamation indicating whom invited who, the point being that Nixon invited himself.

Huang Hua was Mao’s translator to the West beginning in the late 1930s and served in the Chinese Foreign Service for years, in the capacity of the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations in the 1970s after spending the sixties in Africa as ambassador to Egypt, Ghana, and elsewhere. When someone tells stories of Edgar Snow (Red Star Over China), Nixon, Kissinger, negotiating the truce of the Korean War, an armchair historian like myself can’t help but be captivated. It was the perfect punctuation point to a productive and eye-opening week.

More blogs when I get stateside, or on the plane if I can’t sleep, which I should as it is now 11 pm on the east coast and I have to restart the jet lag resetting process.

Tons to digest and blog about. I wrote a four page report on the market and trends for my boss which I won’t share for obvious competitive reasons.
Heartening to see so many responses to my previous post. It means someone is reading.

Boinging around Beijing

Jeez, what a day. I have completely collapsed in my hotel room north of city after an evil hour long cab ride from the Haidan District, the Silicon Alley of China, up here to Huilongguan, a sort of no-man’s land on the way up the Badaling Expressway towards the G-Wall of CN. Cabs are cheap — at least compared to their NYC counterparts — but they are just about as impossible to hail during rush hour on a Friday before a big holiday. The city was shitty with traffic when I walked out of my last appointment at Sina.com and flagging down a cab was an endless jaywalk, off-sidewalk, walking from corner to corner, dodging buses, bicycles, mopeds, more bicycles, bicycles ridden by the “surgeons” (the one’s with the gauze masks), bicycles that were loaded down like trucks, and insane cabs already filled with luckier people, while my buddy and guide, Liu Liu, told me: “Wait here.”

And then Liu Liu vanished into the seething masses with my hotel key and my only record of where I needed to be. The sun was setting. I was screwed if he didn’t come back.
Beijing is defined by its intersections. One can roll down the expressway, admire the view along the boulevards; but come to an intersection and everything changes into a rush for the lifeboats. They say the most dangerous occupation in Beijing is that of a traffic cop. These poor guys get run over on purpose, or beaten up for issuing tickets.
When your interpreter and guide tells you to Wait here you feel very, very alone. The Chinese writing looks like Klingon. The restaurants have big pictures of food never seen in nature (to be fair, when has anyone seen good pictures of food?). Street signs, even with Western writing, are unpronounceable. You look around, the tallest guy for miles, staring into the face of 20 million commuters headed your way and you think:

I want my mommy

Liu Liu returned. He is a senior at Beijing University studying finance. Tall, bespectacled; he isn’t into sports, loves movies (obscure Russian movies, which means he’ll get along great with my son), lives with his parents, is an only child, and wants to work in film. He likes gin and tonics, hanging with his buddies in the quiet cafes around Hohai, and the noisy rock and roll joints on Drum Street. He is immersed in World of Warcraft, lives on the Internet, reads lots of blogs, but doesn’t feel comfortable blogging himself yet.

Here were the learnings of the day in the order in which they were learned:

  • I am blessed with patient, nice colleagues in here in China. They are forthright, share what they know, don’t pull punches, and face completely different, and amazingly similar challenges that any online operation does anywhere.
  • Everyone has a humidifer that looks like a frog in their cubicle. Big plumes of fog over every desk. This place is dry. Like ten bottles of bottled water per day kind of dry. Chapstick is your friend.
  • Everyone is younger than me. China is young. You see a 40-something in the office and you notice.
  • James Ding at AsiaInfo is smart. He’s got a Long Tail Internet TV company — UITV.com — to do niche channel streams and PPV. I liken it to cycling.tv. His partner, Edward Tien, wired the country for broadband in the 90s and is the man behind China Netcom.

  • Old Beijing, the hutongs or traditional one-story neighborhoods and alleys north of the Forbidden City, is my favorite part of the city. Funky and lively.

  • When two opposing cars meet, the one with the white license plate and the man in the green Army uniform wins.
  • Not knowing how to speak Chinese makes me feel stupid. I have to speak slowly and clearly and not use idioms. I feel like a text-to-speech reading machine.
  • Blogs on WordPress.com are inaccessible from China and that pisses me off.
  • I discovered Rebecca McKinnon’s blog on China and think it is smart. She is at the Harvard Beekman Center.
  • I can tell a cab driver how to find my hotel in Outer Mongolia with sign language and extreme grimaces.
  • A noise like “Doo-way” means “OK.” Answering the phone with “Hway!” means “Hello” and thank you is “Shay-Shay.” I do not know the word for “no.”
  • Cashing a 100 RMB bill is like trying to break a $100 at a convenience store. And it’s worth like $12. If it has a hole — a pin hole — no one will take it.
  • It is fitting that there is a BMW and a Jaguar dealership in the lobby of the Sina.com building. Gauging from their IPO performance, this is sensible and a better idea than Starbucks.
  • Jeff Young at ZDnet needs to see China before slagging it.
  • There was something called the Sexy Weather, where the weather lady started at the north in Harbin wearing a fur coat, and stripped by the time she got to Hainan in the south.
  • Sexy girls are a big deal on Tom.com.
  • All traffic numbers here are staggering.
  • There is a cell phone called the “I Chocolate You”

  • I counted 36 construction cranes when I looked out a window this morning.

  • I want to come home. Work week is done. Some tourism this weekend. Big old jet airliner on Monday to S.F., then Phoenix, then RTP, then home on Friday night — one week to go.

Fred Wilson : Flickr Rocks — Let me add an Amen

A VC: Flickr Rocks

“My love affair with Flickr rages on unabated.”

It wasn’t until the past week or so, with a new digital camera, and a ton of shots piling up on the SD card from this China trip, that I really have come to appreciate the sheer genius of Flickr.

I love it so much I will probably upgrade upgraded to a Pro account. I haven’t had much experience in the community functions, but I am receiving notifications of people adding my photo stream to their accounts, and that, as Martha Steward would say, is a good thing.

You don’t have to blog to love it, but if you blog, you will definitely love it. From uploading photos taken off my Treo, to managing hundreds of digital snaps from the Canon IXUS — Flickr is now a “core” application for me.

Fred Flintstone Eats Out In Beijing


IMG_0387

Originally uploaded by dchurbuck.

I like the presentation on this dish. Basically spare ribs with the spare ribs included to remind you what you’re eating. Which is actually very useful as I had to turn to my colleague Fei Hongxing every other spin of the lazy-susan to ask him what was coming around the bend.

Spent the day learning about the China mobile phone market. 80 vendors duking it out for one billion potential customers, a third of whom have already signed up and plunked down some serious disposable income to get connected.

It’s a GSM world over here, but it’s moving to a China specific 3G standard called TS-SCDMA by 2008, with the push starting next year to get the Tier One cities signed on by the Summer Olympics in ’08. The market is young, professional, and concerned either with price or fashion. I went to a trendy nightclub earlier in the week and people were wearing their phones around their necks on leashes like ID badges. Phones are jewelry and will be the way the Chinese get online and stay online, since Internet penetration is only around 8 percent. When 3G hits I think that trend will intensify as broadband content starts streaming to the devices.

Before dinner I visited a Chinese version of Best Buy which was total electronics heaven. Bazillions of phones, PDAs, phones, USB memory sticks.

Then off to dinner. Chinese hospitality is humbling. Very gracious hosts and many toasts made for a late evening and tired blogging. More to come when there is time to process it all.

Sohu.com – “The Search Fox”

I spent the morning with Philip Zhang, sales director at Sohu.com at his offices in the Science Park near the Academy of Sciences in Haidan. Through an interpreter, I learned some pretty cool stuff about Chinese web publishing, interactive networks, and wireless content strategies.

Sohu — which translates as “Search Fox” — is the grand-daddy of the Chinese Internet, and having listed on NASDAQ in March of this year, is one of the better known Chinese internet brands. It also helps that it is one of the few Chinese sites to have an English version, which at the very least allows inquiring Western browsers to check out what all the fuss is about. Soho is a site, but also a 1,700 employee networks that has a search engine engaged in a battle with Baidu (Baidu is the Chinese king of search. No one seems at all concerned with Google nor Yahoo) for dominance, has Chinaren — an “alumni” or social networking site; Focus, for real estate, and 17173 for gamers.

About 65% of the company’s revenue is from advertising revenues and the most profitable segments are IT, Auto, and telecomm (which includes wireless). Real estate is the most profitable segment for Sohu (not surprising, as I would say building materials is a bigger growth business than Internet, at least in Beijing). 10% of the income comes from wireless advertising — SMS, MMS.

According to Zhang, the primary online activities for Chinese users is pretty much the same as it is the world around:

  • Email
  • Search
  • News

The demographic for online users, vs mobile users, is 18-35 years old. Mobile skews to the 16 through 25 year old segment.

Sohu is big on blogs and claims to host over 4,000,000 blogs, where users can do the usual blog thing and upload to their hearts content. There are 40 million registered users in the overall Sohu “community” and the intention is to migrate that mob to the blog model over time.

Ads are sold on a day basis, let me repeat, a day basis. Not CPM or CPC. Day.

The killer for Sohu is the Sogu toolbar, this is their search play, and as I understand it, this browser plug in allows them to serve popups on other publishers’ site. This sort of freaked me out, and remember, this discussion was via interpreter so I may have misinterpreted it, but what I heard was this: the toolbar provides Sogu with the ability to “push” (I kept thinking Pointcast, but whatever) pop ups onto other sites.

Sounds positively Gatorish to me.

Rich media advertising is the hottest thing they have going. There is so much clutter on the typical page that it stands to reason that video based adverts are going to stand out. Sohu does offer a channel sponsorship model as well for exclusive ownership of specific “channels.”

On keywords, one cool thing they do is mash up maps with advertiser’s logos. Search for “Peking Duck” around Hohai, and bang, you will see the map with the Peking duck shops that paid for the right to be there appear.

Very cool stuff and further reinforcement that if you want to see the future of online advertising in large dollar volumes, go to China. If you want to make Jakob Nielsen have a seizure, ask him to critique any Chinese website. My favorite is http://www.it168.com — an IT site. I think I could count 14 ad impressions on the homepage, and some of them will induce epilepsy like that weird Japanese cartoon did to six-year old kids a few years ago.

More in a future post on Chinese page design and online clutter.

My thanks to Philip Zhang for his time. Very instructive. It’s a total battle of the bands over here and Philip says they have their hands full at Sohu dealing with the China market let alone consider exporting the model internationally.

Very few Chinese interactive media brands are operating internationally. Oak Pacific is looking for a US country manager. Sina has offices in the US. But so far, no hot interactive model has crossed out of the country. Give it time.

Technorati appears down within China

Or so it would seem. I spoke to a young American yesterday who explained the censorship and site blocking strategy and he said “everyone knows how to proxy around it. It’s no big deal.”

Wish I did. I need to run my daily searches against my favorite blog search engine. Google blog search next ….

… and it works just fine, it just isn’t as good at Technorati.

Wikipedia is dead too.

Breaking through the clutter in Beijing

I’ve been keeping an eagle’s eye out in the chaos and confusion of moving through Beijing for marketing impressions from Western Brands and comparing them to how Chinese brands represent themselves. To keep the discussion simple, I’ll first look at outdoor advertising and then in a second essay, look at online.

Outdoor advertising — and by this I mean bus shelters to buses, billboards to storefronts — really should be separated into nighttime and daytime effects. Nighttime is a battle of neon. Not a lot of it, saturated Vegas style, but islands of it that really stick out. Daytime is a war for space. The Baidaling Expressway, which runs north out of Beijing up to the Great Wall, has its share of billboards, but only once one gets inside of the fourth ring road (Beijing is defined by concentric circles of ring roads, like Washington D.C.’s Beltway). Then things get interesting. No Western brands appear until one gets into the heart of the city, and the most effective ones are actually building brands — IBM, Ericsson, Microsoft — which interestingly enough are not out in the main technology park in the Shandi district where Lenovo is based and one can see Western companies like Peoplesoft and Nordisk.

Once in the city proper, the advertising starts going nuts.

Here’s a few photos:

Then, one starts to notice some familiar brands, but still competing for attention:

And right around the corner ….

The situation in the stores is even more chaotic, according to my colleagues who visited a tech mall last night (which I need to do before the week is over.) Lots of machines competing for attention — like your average 42nd St. electronic store in NYC.

Bus shelters and sidewalk displays seem focused on mobile phones. Lots and lots of Lenovo impressions for our handheld business. This one is for a Lenovo PC.

And finally, my favorite impression of the day. From lunch:

Next up, online advertising for PCs in China. This is mindblowing stuff.

Jim Forbes: Waiting For Break Out Notebook Marketing

My Weblog: Waiting For Break Out Notebook Marketing

“Notebook makers are going to need to step up to the plate and differentiate their machines on their own. Some are already working on this. The best example I can think of is a ThinkPad ad that creates an image of ThinkPad as being a tough platform that protects data. This is a tremendous start but I hope Lenovo goes farther and creates messaging highlighting how emerging features are based on valuable DNA that’s still a part of the product line.”

Jim Forbes once again proves why he is one of the smartest guys observing the notebook market.