I came back from Chinese New Year holiday in Nagoya, Japan on February 10 to a Shanghai already in lockdown over the novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19. I’ve been getting lots of questions from friends all over the world about how things are going in Shanghai (especially as the virus continues to spread globally), so I decided to share a bit more about our situation in Shanghai, one month in.
The official CNY holiday was extended, and we started working from home after that, until February 14th. The following week, starting February 17th, we returned to the office to lots of required face masks, registration, and disinfectant. Very few people were at the office, and one of my co-workers was still in 14-day self-quarantine after returning from Shandong. It was easy to avoid human contact! Only one of my co-workers elected to keep the face mask on in the office.
It’s March already. All the same protective measures are in place, but with a bit less “vigor,” you could say. More and more people are coming back to the office, but the morning line for the elevator is nowhere near what it was yet. (I suppose a lot of companies are discovering that working from home isn’t that bad?)
AllSet Learning‘s face to face consultancy for learning Chinese has definitely taken a hit, as many of our clients are either (1) not back in Shanghai yet, choosing to wait out the virus abroad (not sure that’s going too well!), or (2) dealing with a lot of uncertainty and craziness for work due to the virus, and thus not able to do lessons. One client even left China with his family around CNY and decided not to come back.
Fortunately, AllSet is doing more and more online lessons as well as other products, so we’re able to weather this storm. One thing that would make this ordeal much easier is a reduction in our office rent, but our landlord insists that he hasn’t gotten a break in rent from the office building owner, and thus can’t give us one. Other tenants pushing for it hasn’t helped, either. Situations like this make the economic cost of the virus quite lopsided.
My wife has been doing a rotating thing where in the first week, each person went into the office one day a week, and worked from home the other 4. Then 2 days a week in the office, 3 at home. This week it’s up to 3 days in the office, 2 working at home. Seems like a smart, cautious way to gradually increase the numbers of people at the office while also monitoring and controlling possible infections.
My kids are at home through all this. My son is young enough that the missed school doesn’t really matter, but my daughter in second grade has been doing regular online lessons since last week (with homework). It seems like she’s even learning something!
So we haven’t had to pay for my son’s tuition at all yet this semester, but my daughter’s was paid (a bit late, while they figured everything out). It’s unclear how the school semester is going to play out. I had a fun summer vacation planned in the US, but that’s all been canceled. I fully expect the school year to be extended into the summer to make up for missed school (and low efficiency of the online methods tried so far). Canceling summer vacation would be such a China thing to do, unfortunately…
It’s still cold outside, so my kids aren’t super stir-crazy yet, but they’re not getting enough exercise.
The main differences at home are:
The kids are home, all the time.
When you have food or packages (kuaidi) delivered, you have to go out to the front gate to pick it up (the delivery guys are not allowed in).
When you go in or out of the compound, you need to wear a face mask (I tested this going out one morning last week, and the guard wouldn’t let me out of my own compound without a mask on!).
Every time you come back into your compound, your temperature gets taken.
If you leave your own apartment and stay within the compound, no one really says anything if you don’t wear a face mask.
Some pictures of various apartment complexes around the Shanghai Zhongshan Park area:
Around the City
I got that haircut on February 19th, but for the most part, barber shops are still closed. The ones that are open are the small independent ones. The big chains like Yongqi and Wenfeng are all still closed.
Most restaurants have gone into “take-out only” mode. Starbucks, one of the first well-known brands to announce store closures, is a good example. After closing for 1-2 weeks, Starbucks reopened in “take-out only” mode. Just to step inside the store, you have to be wearing a mask and have to consent to your temperature being taken (this is the new norm for essentially any public building).
Still, many of the restaurants remain fully closed. I assume that many of the smaller ones will not be reopening at all.
I haven’t used any taxis (or Didi) at all yet this year, except for the airport taxi on February 10th. But public transportation seems to be working just fine. You just need to wear a mask, and there’s a temperature check for the subway.
Signs related to COVID-19 are everywhere, such as reminders that wearing a face mask is a requirement to enter a building.
In general, the overall atmosphere in Shanghai is resignation or possibly annoyance. There was some minor panicking going on over COVID-19 about a month ago, and I saw rumors flying around in WeChat, spread irresponsibly. But now things are a lot calmer. Obviously, economic worries are very real as well. We’re just waiting for things to go back to normal… if that’s what’s next.
I didn’t notice this until I looked up my old blog post, but it’s kind of funny thing that she’s wearing almost exactly the same outfits as Chloe Bennet was.
I’m well aware that little boys in China loooove Marvel superheroes (my own 5yo is one of them). Aside from Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc., they also love Captain America. I always thought this was kind of funny, since China is pretty nationalistic and has a complicated relationship with the USA. No one seems to think anything of it, though. And the love extends well into adulthood… plenty of young men are totally into Marvel superheroes, obviously (those movies sure do well here).
So this ad campaign makes me wonder how into female superheroes Chinese women are. Is that a thing? Or are they just two attractive Hollywood stars that wound up in ads in China?
All kinds of stores and shops in Shanghai have been closed for weeks. This past Tuesday, I went for a walk and noticed that a few barber shops were open. Yesterday I decided to finally get my first haircut of 2020.
It was a somewhat unusual haircut.
They took my temperature first. Everyone in the place wore a face mask (which has to be partially removed during the haircut to cut around the ears), and there was lots of disinfecting between haircuts.
Hopefully we’ll put this coronavirus affair behind us soon. March 2020 is looking much better than February!
It’s true that we Shanghainese don’t really celebrate Chinese New Year because there’s not really anything for us to do! Chinese New Year is just competing who can make the earliest restaurant reservation for Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner [年夜饭], then lying around at home browsing WeChat Moments to see how the rest of the country is celebrating Chinese New Year…. We have no fear of the massive CNY migration [春运], and we’re not allowed to set off fireworks anymore. We don’t like the CCTV New Year’s Gala [春晚], and we don’t have any real traditional customs or local specialty foods. We have few relatives, and the ones we do have, we’re not on great terms with. There are no shops open or any people in the streets.
My immediate reaction was, “wow, this is so true! And sad!” I shared it with my co-workers, and a Shanghainese co-worker’s reaction was:
So true. Sometimes I envy those people crammed into trains just to get home for Chinese New Year.
[I had to take liberties translating 春运.]
This year my family and I will spend Chinese New Year in Japan (again). At first I felt uncomfortable with this. You hear Chinese people say all the time, “Christmas is like you guys’ Chinese New Year,” and while that’s not really true in many ways, it is true in that they both are the year’s biggest holiday in their respective cultures, they both mean a lot to the people of that culture, and they’re both meant to be spent with family. But then how could my wife be OK with running off to Japan (without her parents) instead of spending CNY in Shanghai with them? I would not be OK with blowing off Christmas in similar fashion.
One of the ways I’ve made sense of this cultural issue is reflected in the post above: the Shanghainese really do have a bit of a different take on Chinese New Year, and it has evolved rapidly in recent years (as evidenced by the role of WeChat in the original post). The Shanghainese are different.
My first Chinese New Year was spent in Zhuji (诸暨), Zhejiang Province. It was cold, it was crowded, it was noisy, it was non-stop eating and card-playing and tea-drinking chatting. It was undoubtedly very Chinese. It was pretty fun for me, but as an outsider, it’s not something I would really want to commit to every year (especially if it’s not with my actual family).
Over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m not a huge fan of Chinese New Year festivities. But as the traditions have faded in Shanghai and the holiday is left something of a husk of its former self, I can’t help but feel bad for the Shanghainese.
I’ve noticed these new crosswalk signal “posts” going up all around Shanghai. At first glance, they seem to be a user-friendly upgrade, highly visible with all those lights, and clearer. (All the jaywalking was going on before because people couldn’t see the tiny red guy, right? Sure…)
The thing is, when you look closer, you notice to things:
There’s a space at the top of each post housing three video cameras: one facing the street, and one facing either side.
There’s a street-facing screen which currently doesn’t have much on it, but kind of looks like a Windows desktop.
Combine these facts with the AI-powered facial recognition craze that’s sweeping Shanghai, as well as the fact that video cameras in Shanghai can already identify and auto-fine automobiles in real time, and it becomes pretty obvious what’s coming: these crosswalk posts are going to start identifying any jaywalking citizens and fining them automatically. (The little blue and white notice in the bottom photo also says as much.)
As for the under-utilized screen? Possibly it will be used to display photos of offending jaywalkers. (When you get auto-fined on Shanghai’s elevated highways, an LED text screen immediately displays your license plate number, notifying you that you’ve been fined.)
Of course, these crosswalk signal posts won’t do much to stop people from traipsing across streets at other locations, and what happens when people start wearing masks, or wrapping their jackets around their heads specifically to confound the technology at these intersections? Unclear.
I’m not sure how to classify “normal” Chinese government propaganda. As a foreigner, it all seems kind of pointless, like background noise. Almost a stylistic choice, rather than some kind of effort at shaping (or just nudging) the direction in which society is developing.
Often, the propaganda is of the “values” kind, cheerily informing the population what values Chinese society holds so dear. Other times, they’re more focused on specific objectives. I guess the recent “Sweep Black, Eliminate Evil” campaign from June of this year is of that type, although for the average Shanghai resident, it didn’t really mean anything.
That’s why the recent campaign for recycling and garbage separation feels really different to me. It feels like meaningful propaganda with a tangible (and achievable) objective! I’m not sure what the locals feel about it, but to me, it feels like a rare effort at actual social progress. Here is some of the “propaganda” I spotted in a local neighborhood or two:
There’s a nice green lawn (not too small) inside my apartment complex in Shanghai. I always thought it was weird how I never seemed to see a lawn mower anywhere, but the grass was clearly routinely cut. Then I got my answer:
Yes, the entire lawn is routinely mowed by weed wacker. When you think about it, it does make sense for China, but I know I’ve seen Americans mowing lawns half this size using riding lawn mowers.
If you live in China and can read some of the Chinese around you, you’ve probably noticed this phrase of late:
Literally, “sweep black, eliminate evil.” It refers to the current ongoing crackdown on “crime” and “vice.”
It is super pervasive, though. Big red banners like this are on almost every single street corner in Shanghai now (this image not from Shanghai):
And then there are signs like this everywhere as well:
Given how the city is heavily blanketed in this propaganda right now, you might be forgiven for thinking that the city was absolutely infested with crime, with drug-dealers and prostitutes on every corner. But no, that’s not the case. To the casual observer, there’s no clear reason for the severe crackdown.
If you talk to the Shanghai foreigners that hang out in bars a lot, you’ll hear that there have been many raids this month, including forced drug tests and deportations. So drug-related arrests are definitely happening, but again, that is not at all related to the average resident of Shanghai.
If you ask Chinese people about it, they typically mention that it’s a move to take out organized crime (黑社会). You also see stuff like this:
I don’t doubt that’s true, but the bizarre part about this campaign is that the “evil” being combatted seems to have absolutely nothing to do with most people. I can’t see it or feel it (I certainly have never seen mobsters shaking down fruit vendors in Shanghai). And I think that this is true for most Chinese citizens. So really, all the propaganda is just to let you know: “we are totally kicking crime’s butt right now.”
OK… it’s just one of those weird things about living in China.
The average person in China doesn’t go to a doctor’s office when they get hurt or sick; they go straight to a hospital. Then they have a pretty horrible (often all-day) ordeal ahead of them, involving paying to get a number, waiting to be seen, getting briefly looked at to determine next steps, then waiting in line to pay for tests or other services, then waiting on the results, then taking them back to the original doctor for a final diagnosis, etc. It really is a ton of time waiting in line to be seen by a person with (understandably) very little patience, only to be curtly passed off to the next term of waiting.
So when recently I visited Huashan Hospital in Shanghai (one of the better public ones), I was surprised to see these kiosks:
The big title on the wall is 智慧e疗. The 智慧 refers to “smart,” and the e疗 is a pun on 医疗, which means “medical treatment.” (Not even healthcare is above a good old “e” pun!)
The closer view displays the following words:
建卡 (jiàn kǎ) to create a card (and associated account)
挂号 (guàhào) to register (at a hospital)
缴费 (jiǎofèi) to pay fees
签到 (qiāndào) to sign in (for an appointment)
I didn’t use this kiosk, and it seems not many people did. Hopefully progress is just around the corner!
This picture was taken from my office building (18th floor):
It’s a crew of delivery guys which have become an extremely common site in big Chinese cities. The yellow uniforms belong to 美团 (Meituan), while the chief competitor, 饿了么 (Ele.me) decks its delivery guys out in light blue.
I’m no expert, but I would assume they do these daily morning meetings as the only time these “co-workers” are even together in the same place. The rest of the day they’re on and off their scooters all over the city, speeding from restaurant, to home, to restaurant, to home….
It’s kind of interesting how her English name in the U.S. shows no trace of Chinese heritage, but when she appears on ads in China, her English name is not used at all.
Turns out that “Wang” is her surname by birth (her father is Chinese), and she actually pursued a singing career in mainland China as a teenager, using the name 汪可盈.
According to Wikipedia:
While pursuing an acting career in Hollywood, she changed her name to “Chloe Bennet,” after having trouble booking gigs with her last name. According to Bennet, using her father’s first name, rather than his last name avoids difficulties being cast as an ethnic Asian American while respecting her father.
Furthermore, she has explained Hollywood’s racism this way:
“Oh, the first audition I went on after I changed my name [from Wang to Bennet], I got booked. So that’s a pretty clear little snippet of how Hollywood works.”
The ad, using super simple Chinese, reads:
找工作 [(when) looking for a job] 我要跟 [I want to] 老板谈 [talk with the boss]
This ad is hanging in Shanghai’s “Cloud 9” (龙之梦) shopping mall:
First of all the repeating character is 鹅, which means “goose.” In the circular logo, you can see a little characterplay going on with the goose head.
Above that, you have “鹅，鹅，鹅” which, of course, reads “goose, goose, goose.” This is a famous first line of a classical Chinese poem. It’s famous because it’s so simple, so a lot of kids memorize it as one of their first (if not the first) classical poems committed to memory.
The word is 扣子, meaning “button” (the kind you sew onto clothing). In Chinese, the kind of button you press is a totally different word, and even has the verb for “to press” as the first character: 按钮. (When you think about it, it seems kind of dumb that we use “button” for both of those things in English. Sure, you can say “push-button” in English, but it still feels to me like whoever decided to use the word “button” for the new kind that you press wasn’t super bright…)
Because it’s from classical Chinese, it’s written in traditional characters and also reads right to left. It’s also a pretty simple introduction to classical Chinese, so if you’re intermediate or higher, it’s worth a closer look.
Even in small matters, do no evil.
Even in small matters, do not fail to do good.
A few notes on the classical (or harder) Chinese:
勿: “do not” for commands (also used in formal modern Mandarin)
I was surprised to see this new bus schedule display screen using what appears to be e ink for its display:
I did a double-take at first, thinking it had to be paper. (Obviously, it’s a screen.)
Pretty cool! I had no idea that this technology was being applied in this way. Curious if this is just a tiny experiment, or if this kind of display is rolling out at a larger scale already. E ink totally makes sense as a way to roll out more dynamic (networked) announcement boards across the city at a lower energy cost.
One of my co-workers remarked that there’s a conspicuous lack of ad space on the display. Other similar bus stop displays have used conventional monitors to show the bus ever-changing schedule alongside video ads. This does seem like a user-friendly lower-cost option, though.
I’ve loved the office building where AllSet Learning has been based for the past 6 years. How can you not love a building like this??
I like the natural light and high ceilings, the white walls and natural wood, the lack of fluorescent lighting and cubicles, the “indie but professional” vibe. But recently the government decided it wants the building back, and since technically it’s zoned for education, they can take it back. So it’s time to find a new office!
What’s really striking is how co-woking spaces have totally taken over Shanghai and, unfortunately, driven up office rental rates. Currently the main co-working spaces are:
That last one is a new one, but it seems to have gone all in on co-working, buying up locations all over Shanghai (and several other cities) in a short amount of time.
The co-working space competition is really heating up, and I’ve definitely felt that as we looked around for office space. Co-working spaces charge by the “seat” rather than the actual space provided, and they are generally overpriced (they try to justify it with free coffee or “member-only activities,” as if the main point of renting an office isn’t space to work), but they really are squeezing out a lot of the more traditional options. It used to be much easier to find office space in a small building for a decent price. It’s still not impossible, but the landscape is changing fast.
So AllSet Learning decided to go with Kr Space. Since it’s new, the rates are very competitive, and we were able to choose a larger office than you typically get at one of these places. While I originally wanted to stay away from co-working spaces, I like the location, and Kr Space is more focused on providing a good working environment for individual offices than some of the others.
One downside to moving into a co-working space is that there’s way less storage space. But I’ve come to recognize that one of the reasons co-working has taken off is that most modern offices really don’t need to store a ton of stuff. Most records should be electronic these days, so a company shouldn’t need walls and walls of shelves and cabinets. So we’re taking this opportunity to slim down, and one of the unfortunate results is that we need to unload a ton of books. Some of the Chinese textbooks in our library are showing their age, and some we just never use. So it’s time to weed out some books.
I’ve advertised on WeChat, but if you’re looking to pick up some free Chinese study materials, come by our old officethis week (before we move on Nov. 10, 2018). We also have some Mandarin Companion inventory for sale (imported from the U.S., but at 100 RMB per book still cheaper than on Amazon.cn).
Spotted in the People Squared (West Nanjing Rd. location) co-working space lobby in Shanghai:
In case it’s not entirely obvious, there are no quarters or coins of any kind. There is no “caninet” to hold coins. It’s just a TV hooked up to a small computer of some kind (housed under the controls, it looks like), and all payments are done by scanning the on-screen QR code and paying via mobile payment (WeChat or AliPay).
The games cost:
5 RMB for 10 minutes
8 RMB for 20 minutes
15 RMB for 40 minutes
Pretty cool business model! I’m not sure this is the best location for this particular venture, but I like the idea.
I spotted this EF advertisement here in Shanghai recently:
The text reads:
At English First, we
only use real foreign teachers
100% TEFL/TKT double certification
100% full-time teaching
100% university graduates
So you see a white face and the promise of “REAL foreign teachers.” Is this some kind of racist ad? No, no, you are mistaken: they’re referring to the qualifications of their teachers, which just happens to be written in smaller type below. It’s just a coincidence that the teacher they chose for the ad is white, right?
This seems like a dog whistle advertisement to me. They’re communicating with the racist segment of their target market while also maintaining plausible deniability.