Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Nanny Money-Bags

The 21st century Mary Poppins?

Below is a re-print of an article that appeared in the always-interesting shanghaiist.com website.
Just how far will some families go to have bilingual children? For the US's elite, it may include paying your nanny a six-figure salary. At Pavilion Agency, one of New York City's high-end housekeeping agencies, such numbers are the norm. The nannies are expected to be both caretaker and language teacher, along with whatever else the family may require.

On top of the astronomical salary, apartments, paid vacations and health benefits may also be worked into the arraignments. Before you run and hop on a plane though, consider your options carefully. The price of such a high paying job is very little social life, as the women are expected to drop everything for the whims of the family or even put up with extreme emotional abuse from their employers. The typical nanny in NYC though, earns around 90 yuan (USD $15) an hour.

"I'm desperately seeking qualified Chinese women," Says Pavilion's president Clifford Greenhouse in an article from China Daily. "Bring me one and I can give her a choice of ten top families." Elsewhere too, the demand for bilingual and trilingual nannies is on the rise, and those that are native Mandarin speakers can easily make 300,000 yuan more than their European counterparts. At the Elizabeth Rose Agency in Beverly Hills, mansions, hand-me-down Prada, and ball gowns can also come as perks of the job.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Club Red

Prison guard or concierge?

Now that Bo Xilai’s conviction has been confirmed with the rejection of his final appeal (to no one’s surprise), full attention can turn to examining his fate. Exactly how much of his life sentence will be behind bars is yet to be seen. It’s not unheard of that some political prisoners are released for “medical” or other reasons after only serving a few years, to live out the rest of their years retired by a placid body of water.

It’s also noteworthy to consider what conditions he will be subjected to during the years of his incarceration. Very likely, he will spend his time in Qincheng Prison, an elite correctional compound somewhere in the hills outside of Beijing. As this news article on Qincheng prison details, the place has a section reserved for elite political prisoners that is akin to the “Club Fed” network that exists in the US to house high-profile white collar criminals. Mind you, white collar criminals may not deserve to be locked up together with mass murderers, rapists and hardened violent criminals who can make dropping a bar of soap in the communal shower a life-debilitating event. However, it’s worthwhile to debate the fairness of the relatively cushy conditions of places such as “Club Qincheng”, which some observers joke is like a five star hotel.
According to second hand reports, Qincheng provides its VIP guests, er inmates, with the following amenities:
- large private cells (215 square feet) with soft bed, sofa, desk and en-suite bathroom.
- prison guards who provide “warmth and care”
- choice of clothes chosen by loved ones at home
- jail chefs that used to work in top Beijing hotels or for “ministry chief level” officials
- milk for breakfast, choice of meat and soup, an apple as dessert
- view of “pavilions, trees and grass reminiscent of a Chinese garden”
- a plot of land to grow vegetables
- TV privileges between 2 pm and 9 pm daily
- walks in the open air six times a week
Another source of spiritual comfort for Mr. Bo is that he follows in a line of prisoners who have shared political values and beliefs akin to his own, including his father Bo Yibo and Mao’s widow Jiang Qing. So in this respect, perhaps this sentence is more than simply a long period of reflection and remediation. It may even feel like a homecoming.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Want to be Wealthy? It’s a Feng Shui-In.

A compass for the road to riches

This New York Times editorial by novelist Kim Young-ha presents a rare and intriguing look into an ancient practice (I won't call it a superstition) that Mr. Kim claims is alive and well in corporate Korea today – the country’s version of feng shui, called pung-su. Many of the underlying principles of pung-su are similar to the Chinese system of geomancy that holds that mankind needs to be in harmonious relationship with his surrounding space and with nature in general. However, Korea’s active practice extends into something called physiognomy — the notion that a person’s personality and fate can be “read” in the shape of the eyes, nose, ears and forehead.This type of fortune telling has variations around the world, most notably in astrology and gypsy-esque divinations. However, Korea has a shamanistic strand to its cultural history that raises pung-su to the status of a minor religion.
Still, how much weight big-shot Korean CEOs truly place on the directives given to them by their shamans (versus through more conventional forms of number-crunched market analysis) in making business and investment decisions is up for debate.  It would defy credibility that chaebol chiefs rest the fate of their fortunes on the mysterious workings of the Taoist nether world. Nevertheless, as with Western religions, a measured dose of humility towards powers that are outside the human scope of understanding and control is certainly not a bad thing for anyone facing uncertainties, big or small. If nothing else, hedging bets is a good business practice.

Friday, October 18, 2013

2013 Forbes China Rich List

Many more of these to go around

The Forbes list of 100 richest mainland Chinese is out. In aggregate, the numbers are significantly bigger than in 2012 – 44%, in fact. The top 100 are worth $316.5 billion, or on average $3.16 billion each. The new money emperor is Wang Jianlin, the Chairman of Dalian Wanda Group, a real estate conglomerate. He is worth $14.1 billion. He eclipses China’s beverage tycoon Zong Qinghou, who headed last year’s list. The key themes for top wealth are real estate, internet/IT, and automobiles. Of the leading 25 names, close to half are in either real estate (seven) or internet (five). Another key theme? Despite the volatile times, the rich as a class continue to get richer. In a capitalist’s world, together with death, gravity and the speed of light, that seems an immutable law.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Chinese Women: Hapless? Ruthless?

Worse than crying in a BMW?

This thoughtful New Inquiry essay about yuppie-aged women in China is well worth a read, despite its length. Written by a Yale graduate student, the piece discusses the way that many 25-35 women are perceived in the fast changing, materialistic-minded society that is modern China. The article focuses the spotlight on two female archetypes – the shengnü and the BMW Lady. The shengnü refers to “leftover women”, characterized as well-educated and highly successful females aged thirty or older who are not married, either out of choice or because they can’t find suitably enlightened and compatible mates. The BMW Lady is the stereotypical gold digger, coined in 2010 when a young female dating reality show contestant rejected a male suitor who had offered her a romantic ride on a bicycle, proclaiming, “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle.”
The essay is full of eye-opening tidbits, including pithyisms such as “As soon as a man has money, he turns bad; as soon as a woman turns bad, she has money,”characterizations of not-so-old women as “white bone spirits” (baigujing) and gold digging club hoppers as “dry cleaners: just looking to pick up suits!” However, for the most part, the piece raises a number of pressing social issues, including the gender population discrepancies that have resulted from the one child policy, the uneasy tussling between Communist egalitarian ideals with Confucian male-oriented traditions, and the moral vacuum that has descended onto a society doused with showering of new money. As for those who say they might prefer to cry while riding a BMW all the way to the bank, one can only hope that they will someday soon get to appreciate pleasures that are truly priceless, such as having the sun and wind on one’s face as bicycle wheels whirl below them. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Travel Guide to the Chinese Tourist

Love me, love my wallet

With China’s National Day Golden Week holiday recently ended, this Forbes magazine artlcle provides a useful updated summary of the types of Chinese tourists that are increasingly making their way into the world. While the image of the stereotypical uncouth, great unwashed Chinese tourist cramming into souvenir and luxury shops with camera phones at the ready is an easy butt of jokes, their numbers and spending exuberance are no laughing matter. Estimates are that in 2012, 83 million Chinese traveled overseas and spent $102 billion. For sluggish economies around the world, those are welcome figures.
The article breaks out the Chinese tourist into five broad groups:
Business tourist: Generally entrepreneurs and business owners looking to expand their enterprises overseas. They attend conferences and meetings, but also spend big bucks shopping for family and friends back at home.
Student tourist: Not your typical $10/day teenager. Chinese students overseas are often backed by doting parents who don’t think twice about ensuring that their sole child is well pampered. One MBA student studying in London admitted to spending on average $5,000 per month for general expenses.
Adventure tourist: This category may sound like an oxymoron when associated with the Mainland Chinese. However there is little doubt that, amongst 1.3 billion people (of whom some are finding themselves with more time on their hands), there are those looking for the less-trodden discretionary experience. Scuba diving, mountain climbing and backpacking fall into this category.
Danwei tourist: “Danwei” means work unit. The modern day equivalent of this Communist concept is a department in a Chinese corporation. Some companies give their workers the perk of traveling overseas to learn and broaden their horizons. Given that these folks get to travel on the corporate dime, they tend to be loose with their pocket money. All told, their total spend can be up $10,000 per person per trip.
Locust tourist: By numbers, group tours are still the largest and most conspicuous segment of the Chinese tourist market.This disparaging characterization will be particularly familiar to the much maligned Hong Kongers who feel that their city-state has been swarmed in the past few years by the Mandarin-speaking hordes. The “locusts” have been accused of everything from buying up baby formula, taking up scarce hospital beds, jacking up retail rents and real estate prices, and soiling public transport systems with their appalling sense of hygiene.
For a number of Western countries, including the US and France, Chinese tourists may soon become the most important source of tourist dollars. And meanwhile, the Chinese government is taking pains to try to clean up the manners and image of their people. Therefore, given the steadily increasing quality and quantity of the Chinese visitor, foreign residents should come to realize that, far worse than the sometime-annoying presence of these masses, is the tinny echo of their absence.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Asia’s Luxury Investing : Addendum

The growth of luxury investments by country. (WealthInsight)

Thanks to Jing Daily, above is a graphic that provides an interesting adjunct to this blog’s Monday October 7 posting about the growth rate of luxury investing in various countries. The graph plots the growth rates for both the past and prospective five years for each country, as well as depicts the relative sizes of the markets. As shown, India leads the pack looking both backwards and ahead, chased closely by Indonesia. Interestingly, Hong Kong has shown ripping growth in the past few years, but looks to slow (by its standards) in the years ahead. The non-Asian nations? With a few exceptions, they seem positively plodding by comparison.

Those seeking further confirmation of the trend of Asians storing their wealth in pretty things need look no further than the just-completed Sotheby's luxury goods auction in Hong Kong. The event resulted in total value of over US$500 million, including a 118-carat white diamond that sold for a record $30.6 million. With the value of financial assets looking increasingly suspect due to the shenanigans of governments and financial institutions around the world, stashing cash in the form of a flawlessly cut rock may end up being a brilliant strategy.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Hey, K-POP: WTF??

Too beautiful for K-Pop

This is a story that should piss off any person who cares even remotely about developing healthy self-esteem in teenagers:
Australian-born Sri Lankan singer Shimali De Silva entered a reality show contest in Hong Kong to have a chance at a K-Pop career in Korea. She won. The show organizers flew her to Seoul together with other finalists from around Asia. However, once there, she was told the following: “You’re 14 but you look 30”, she was too dark, she did not have the right curvature of forehead or a good ratio of nose to chin.  She was given a catalogue binder with pictures of alternative eyes, noses and boobs, with a suggestion that she could avail herself to surgical procedures that could alter her appearance. Some of the contestants opted to have work done during the contest. Shimali, however, was emotionally devastated and flew home shortly thereafter. Incidentally, she was the youngest of the contestants.
K-Pop has been a great asset to help Korea and Asia build a hip brand. But the darkest aspect of the industry is the cost that it extracts from its young talent. Likening the K-Pop farm system to a prison camp network is probably going too far (even though I just did it), but turning young, talented and diverse people into the homogenized milk equivalent of popular musicians is a deplorable practice. As the industry matures and grows, one fervently hopes that it expands out beyond the Belieber-esque and Miley Cyrus-esque style to welcome all shapes, sights and sounds. Maybe then, K-Pop might unearth the next Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin or Mick Jagger.
Sample Shimali on YouTube here. And listen to what K-Pop is missing.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Asia’s Growth in Conspicuous Investing

Now THAT's an investment I can flaunt.

Forbes magazine (link below) has compiled a Top 10 list of countries which will experience the highest growth rate in luxury investing, defined as high end consumables (e.g. wine, paintings, vintage cars, big-rock jewelry, watches) which are expected to rise in value. At the risk of acting as spoiler, here is the list, in ascending order of growth rates. Surprise surprise, Asian countries take four of the five top places. India’s growth rate leads them all with a 23% annualized growth rate through 2017. One might also suspect that Asian influence is considerable in places such as the UK and Canada in helping those countries make the list.  
10. Switzerland
9.  Germany
8.  France
7.  Canada
6.  USA
5.  Japan
4.  UK
3.  Singapore
2.  China
1.  India
While advanced countries still spend more in the aggregate on these blingy things, the future is clearly moving East, following the cash.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Gangnam-Style Bespoke Beauty

V is for vacuity

This Bloomberg article on Korea's cosmetic surgury tourism industry provides an update on the swells of foreigners traveling from Asia and Western countries to Seoul for cosmetic surgery. The Korean government is now pitching in to help fuel the trend, actively promoting a domestic industry that is becoming recognized as the best in the world. Whether it is Koreans wanting to look more Western, other Asians wanting to look more K-pop, or Westerns wanting to look slimmer and more subtle (a bemusing circularity of envy), Seoul is increasingly the place to go for that needed nip and tuck. Certainly, it’s not cheap, as attested by the Vietnamese kindergarten school manager budgeting $10,000 for a chin implant and face-lift. The cost includes travel and hotel stay during the post-op rest period, during which flying on airplanes is highly inadvised, lest patients suddenly have to check their new noses into the overhead bin.
The epicenter of cosmetic surgery is in the Gangnam district of Seoul, where it is virtually impossible to throw a jar of night cream without hitting a building that has a beauty clinic in it. The Korean government is targeting the industry as part of its goal to add 20,000 new jobs, including nurses and interpreters who can speak Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Russian etc etc. Despite the questionable moral and social issues of encouraging a global homogenization of beauty, the government recognizes the economic value of drawing in foreigners willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars per visit. Apparently, the hope is that the benefits to the country of promoting itself as the cutting edge of the cutting edge is more than, well, skin deep.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

It’s SH Hammer Time!

43 reasons to smile

Going, going, gone: Shanghai’s free trade zone is now open. Much is being speculated about how this goldfish bowl of liberalized economic policies on the Pudong side of the city will fare as an experiment in the Mainland government’s ongoing efforts to loosen centralized control. The international auction house Christie’s has wasted no time in finding out – they’ve jumped into the waters with both feet.
A couple of days ago, they offered a clustering of premium items for sale to the Mainland market – the first time that an international auction house has been able to independently do so. Still restricted from dealing in Chinese antiques, Christie’s brought a sampling of some of the West’s best known wares – Picasso’s, Warhol’s, Lafite, diamond and ruby necklaces etc – as well as some contemporary Chinese pieces.  The result was encouraging. Against pre-sale estimates of $15 million, the auction yielded $25 million in sales for the 43 lots. The water felt warm indeed.
Mind you, a $15 million event is light by Christie’s standards, so there was not much fear that the water was ever too deep. Still, it was a decisive plunging in, one that sends a clear indication of things to come. Presumably, the powers that be in Hong Kong have been paying close attention.