Monday, August 31, 2009

Bangkok Boys

Here's another linkback -- or whatever kids are calling it these days -- to a site that links to Joyceyland, and that has contributed a good number of hits.
Bangkok of the Mind is written by a farang (that would be Thai for gweilo) and his local boyfriend.
It's decked out with G-rated glossy pix of cute boys in their underwear, and is about daily life, food, cooking, Thai celebrities, etc.
The great thing about personal blogs is that they give you a fly-on-the-wall look of lives you would never lead yourself. On my late-night blogosphere wanderings, I sometimes find myself immersed in the daily minutae of an angry lesbian waitress, a horse rescuer, or U.S. troops stationed in Korea.
God knows what those Bangkok boys see in Joyceyland. I think they started linking to me when I wrote about Chinese censorship in Esquire.
I wonder if my Gay Best Friend -- who has a coterie of admirers in the Thai capital -- has something to do with this.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Chow Sang Sang family fortune

It was my dad who reminded me that my article appeared on the IHT/NYT website. He's a pretty dedicated reader.
Me -- I sometimes get so busy and distracted that I actually forget when my pieces appear, particularly if they'd been held for a long time, like this one was. I wrote it months ago.
Anyway, here is the business page feature I did on the Chow Sang Sang gold family.

Spotlight

A Hong Kong Gold Merchant Seeks Fortune in China

By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU

HONG KONG — When Chow Sang Sang opened its third jewelry megastore in Hong Kong in April, it was not a quiet affair. The 464-square-meter space was packed with publicists, fashion models, art installations, drummers and a diamond necklace priced at 5.7 million Hong Kong dollars.

Vincent Chow, the grandson of the company’s founder and now its general manager, was at the 5,000-square-foot store to oversee the proceedings — and to take a hand at banging on the drums himself.

But although Mr. Chow, 62, is overseeing a rapid expansion in the family jewelry business, he is staying firmly focused on the commodity that made his family’s fortune.

“We started as goldsmiths,” Mr. Chow said in a recent interview. “Today, gold still makes up half of our sales.”

Chow Sang Sang was founded in 1934 in Guangzhou, China. In 1948 — when masses of refugees and companies fled political turmoil on the Mainland — Mr. Chow’s father and two uncles re-established the family business in Hong Kong, then a British colony.

In 1973, the jeweler went public on the Hong Kong exchange. Today, Chow Sang Sang has more than 190 stores in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and China, and it had revenue of 9.88 billion dollars, or $1.27 billion, in 2008.

For Mr. Chow, one of the buffers against hard economic times is gold’s role in Chinese culture — a role that will not fade with fads or volatile markets.

“In this part of the world, gold is a part of life, and people are used to trading it,” he said. “It is what elders give to newlyweds. It is what a Chinese bride wears — or perhaps I should say exhibits — to show off gifts from the family. If you are going to buy a wedding bracelet, you cannot not buy gold.”

Like most Hong Kong jewelers, Chow Sang Sang’s bread-and-butter items include gold baby bracelets, as well as pendants and figurines shaped like religious or iconic figures.

There are more than 40 Chow Sang Sang stores in Hong Kong, but the Central megastore will be the last opening in the foreseeable future. Expansion will not be here, but north of the border.

“The Mainland is our engine for growth — there’s no doubt about it,” Mr. Chow said.

According to the Hong Kong government, the value of total retail sales fell 6.2 percent in May, compared with a year earlier. In a report, the Census and Statistics Department said consumers were “cautious” about luxury spending on items like cars and jewelry but that “local consumer sentiment continued to hold up rather well.”

“The key reason for that drop is the change in the macro-economy,” said Eric Yuen, the head of research at Guoco Capital, an investment management company in Hong Kong. “Overall, the slowdown of the economy will affect consumption.”

However, according to Mr. Yuen, the spending power of the Mainland Chinese — the main buyers of jewelry in Hong Kong — will play a big role. The Chinese economy is picking up, having grown 7.9 percent year-on-year in the second quarter of 2009.

The jeweler’s Mainland shops are not yet big earners; despite the fact that there are 125 of them, they account for less than half of total sales. Still, the Mainland offers more room to grow than the more developed markets of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao.

“There should be room for maybe 100 more stores on the Mainland,” Mr. Chow said. “But not thousands of stores. We don’t want one on every street in China.”

Quality — and the perception of quality — is important in a crowded market. Mr. Yuen, the analyst, described Hong Kong retailers like Chow Sang Sang as having “a very strong operational history.”

“They’ve got good brand names, which gives confidence to the Mainland buyer,” he added. “If they’re buying gold from an unbranded store on the Mainland, they have no guarantee of good quality.”

Despite a drop-off in the latter part of the year, Chow Sang Sang’s jewelry sales for the year ending Dec. 31, 2008, were 5.3 billion dollars, up 30 percent from 2007.

The economic downturn has meant that Mr. Chow has had to keep a cold eye on costs. “In the first half of 2008, things were go-go-go in terms of buying materials like diamonds,” he said. “But by the third quarter, we knew things were not right. So we quickly refined our logistics in a way that allowed us to reduce our inventory. We had to both confront the recession and make preparations for the volatility in the price of gold and platinum.”

A well-known supporter of the arts in Hong Kong, Mr. Chow was once the head of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and has also worked in an official capacity with the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre. He has brought that interest into his business, adorning a Beijing megastore with works by young local artists.

“We don’t want to rely too much on celebrity spokespeople,” Mr. Chow said. “Celebrities come and go. Their popularity, notoriety, fame can be nebulous.”

Gold, on the other hand, is solid — and eternal. “In hard times,” he said, “people cling to it.”

Saturday, August 29, 2009

London Day #1: I Miss the Green

Because I live in polluted, crowded Hong Kong, it didn't take much for me to start gushing about lovely England, with its quiet sidewalks, preserved old buildings and vast green spaces.
I'm not even talking about some protected area of natural beauty, like the Berkshire Downs. I'm talking about the ho-hum areas between Heathrow and the suburb of Clapham, as seen through our mini-cab window.
Now, that says something.
****
We stayed with a couple and their young daughter.
They're typical London professionals. They aren't rich-rich: They don't live in the centre of the city; they don't have a yacht or holiday home. They work long hours and commute on the Tube. While they can afford good childcare and a part-time helper (and, I presume, a good school when time comes), they do worry about how to pay for it all.
But they aren't poor either. They own a car and a lovely three-storey house with a great backyard. They've got designer-brand clothes and they vacation overseas.
In essence, they are the London equivalent of what Marc The Metrosexual and I are in Hong Kong.
The difference: The green.
We spent so much time enjoying their backyard -- for breakfast, BBQ dinners, drinks, smoke breaks -- you'd think it was Hyde Park. We oohed and ahhed over the fact that one could be in the kitchen, step outside barefoot, pluck some thyme out of the herb garden, and pop it right in the cooking pot. (Yes, mom. I'm sure it was full of dirt and germs).
Clapham Common, a vast grassy park, is within walking distance. "Grassy." For Hong Kongers baffled by that word -- that means filled with soft green grass that people can sit on, walk on or play on. It doesn't mean some sort of weird concrete / flower / waterfall arrangement that looks pretty, but is totally useless to, say, a kid who wants to run around.
Clapham is nice, but not an exclusive area like The Peak in Hong Kong. Having a neighborhood park is not some sort of rare priviledge there.

My friend's backyard
*****
I've heard so many excuses on why grass is impossible in Hong Kong. One is that it's too hot, wet and prone to typhoons. To that argument, all I can say is that it doesn't seem to be a problem for the entire southeastern United States, which is hot, wet and prone to hurricanes.
The other is that we're a big crowded city without enough space. Well, London and New York are big crowded cities, too.
Plus, there is some space in Hong Kong. A small example: Our building complex has multiple marble lobbies, concrete / flower arrangements, plus a gym, exercise rooms, two outdoor pools, one indoor pool, tennis courts and a faux-grassy air-conned indoor area for kids to play in. Despite the fact that there are more than 2,000 homes here, many of the outdoor facilities are empty. If there wanted to put in a small grassy area, I'm sure they could've found room.
****
We got into London early and didn't want to sleep our first day, to avoid jetlag. So we all piled into the car and drove to Richmond, in nearby Surrey. I'd read about a Globespotters review of a restaurant set in a gardening centre (yes -- we IHT writers do take our own advice).
We couldn't get into the Petersham Nurseries restaurant proper without a reservation. (It's run by some hot-shot critic / chef). So we settled the cafe instead.
As my friend's English husband noted with a sniff, it was "shabby-chic" with an emphasis on the "shabby." It was self-serve, which meant you balanced everything on a wooden tray and stepped around people's dogs, kids and prams to get to your rickety table.
Surely, it was overpriced. Shared sandwiches, salads, cake and non-alcholic drinks for four people came to 40 pounds, or more than HK $500.
As someone who grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut, I am well acquainted with expensive places so twee and quaint that it hurts. But I was still charmed. Where in Hong Kong -- regardless of how much you paid -- could you eat amid flowers and trees in the fresh air, with dogs and kids running free?


Petersham Nurseries cafe
*****
After that, we went to Richmond Park. My friend showed her Hong Kong Chinese roots by interpreting "a park visit" as a quick drive through it.
Richmond Park is wilder and less manicured than most.
"Look! A herd of wild deer!" we said from the backseat of the car.
"Whatever," she said. "There's nothing to do here."
"There's grass, trees, bike paths, places to picnic, wildlife -- what else do you want?"
"I don't know. An ice cream place. A carousel. A playground with games."
So we continued our park tour / sleep-delaying plan and drove to yet another area park, at Battersea, where the below photo was taken.
I slept better that night that I had for months.



Battersea Park

Monday, August 24, 2009

The joys of home ownership. Did I offend the Kitchen God or something?

"Welcome back to the insanity and heat," Gweipo writes.

When we got home last weekend, the flat was stifling, since the air con and dehumidifier had been off for two weeks.
(Hong Kong summers mean 90% humidity and temperatures in the mid-30s C, or 90s F) It's not like European heat, which is fresh and drier. Here, the temperature doesn't drop for any reason -- not at night, not when it rains.

I was doing our usual get-home-from-holiday clean-up. I had just separated four dirty-clothing mountains -- whites, colors, delicates, dry-clean -- when I heard dripping. Drip, drip, dripping at our chamber door. Air con water spilling onto our new wood floor.

I ran to get two plastic buckets and some Good Morning towels. Maybe, I said, it was just built-up condensation from when we were gone.
No such luck. It just kept going and going. Where in God's name was all this water coming from?

****

We went out a bit. We retrieved Hugo the Cat from my lovely colleague's home. We fought the mobs at the Tai Kok Tsui TASTE supermarket to fill our bare cupboards and fridge. But the air con was still spilling when we got back.

Finally, we turned it off because the dripping was driving us mad. But that night, we realized how hot our bedroom was without it.
We tossed and turned, and I had this flashback of being a kid.

In our first Connecticut home, which was old and charming and rambling, Mom kept the curtains drawn all summer. To our American neighbors, this probably looked like some weird Asian behavior to shut out the lovely New England sunshine. To us, it was a technique to keep the home cool. We only opened the windows at night when the temperature dropped.

I'm doing a similar thing now. We have heavy, hotel-style, double-thick curtains in the bedroom. Those have not opened for a week.

I'm blasting the air con in the "2nd bedroom" / de facto closet in an attempt to cool the entire area, but the cold air has to do an "L-" shaped turn to get into the bedroom. So the small room was freezing, while the bedroom was sweltering.

So I went to the Japan Home Center and bought their biggest, most expensive fan -- which is fine, it's still cheap. The manager brought it out it on one of those metal wheelie cart things favored by amahs and old Chinese ladies. AND he wanted to charge me a HK $100 deposit to borrow it.

"A hundred bucks? For one of those cart things? I'll be back in 15 minutes!"

"Company policy," he says.

So I handed over 100 and wheeled my giant fan home.

*****

Anyone out there scientifically minded? Because maybe you can help me.
I have the modest goal of getting the bedroom to stay below 29 C (or about 85 F). Because it has giant, West-facing windows that get alot of afternoon sun, it can reach 33.
Ideally, it would be about 27.

The fan does little except for moving hot air around. It feels cooler, since the breeze evaporates the sweat off our skin, but the actual room temperature doesn't change. So I only put the fan in the bedroom at night.

During the day, I set the fan up in the adjacent room, where the air con is blasting, and angle it so it blows cold air around the L-shaped bend into the bedroom.

My question is this: Is it better to blow cold air in? Or blow hot air out? Sometimes, I set the fan inside the bedroom, blowing out towards the hallway, but I'm not convinced this works.

****

In the last week, the air con has broken, the toilet has broken (it either doesn't flush, or the water in the tank overflows) and the shower drain has blocked up. The plastic knob has fallen off the oven and we now have to use a wrench to control the temperature. Also, the washer/dryer allegedly broke; but it seems to have fixed itself.

Obviously I can't call the landlord to complain, since I am the landlord.

What happened? Nothing broke for a year, and now everything's broken at once.

I'm generally not superstitious, but I found myself thinking back to Chinese New Year. Did I clean my home the night before the appease the Kitchen God? (I think I did). Put lucky paper banners on my door to welcome him? (No. I didn't). Set up bright, fresh flowers? (Maybe not). I did go up to our ancestral village and visit the temple. Then again, I also tripped and fell in front of said temple. The Kitchen God is the diety for all things domestic. I hope to get on his good side again.

*****

The air cons came with the flat, which was surprisingly decrepit given that it was less than a decade old. We spent mucho money renovating it. After re-doing the walls, floors, kitchen and bathrooms, we decided to hold off on replacing the air cons, too.

But we were planning to at some point, since they aren't very good. And we've learned that spending a little more time and money to do something well pays off in the long term. That's why I didn't do the easy thing and plug a cheap HK $3,000 air con from Fortress into the wall.

Instead, I called our renovator, who was good the first time round. He can get us fancy cooling / heating / energy-efficient models. Plus, he can dispose the old ones, install the new ones, and fix up any weird gaps or falling paint. (I know Fortress. They'll probably leave a mass of wires hanging out the side of the wall). He also recommended replacing our two clunky living room models with one sleek new one, which will save energy. But that also means more renovation work to fill in the hole.

This potentially greater expense comes at an awkward time. We just paid off our renovation loan last month, and just got back from Europe, which was our one big splashy holiday of the year.

Hopefully, the work will be done this week.

Horse riding in Normandy





I could blog more about my home fix-it problems: Getting permission from the building management company to access the outdoor air con fan thingie. Figuring how to lock Hugo the Cat in the side room so he doesn't escape through an open window during construction, while not keeping him locked in all night till Marc gets home from work at 9 p.m. (Do you think I can trust construction workers to let the cat out of the room at 5 p.m.?)
But no more of that. I've got at least 10 days of European holiday back-blogging. In fact, I have many things to back-blog about -- like my brother's fabulous wedding that took place five months ago. That was nice. I think my work-addled brain can still remember bits of it.
****
Marc took this video on our last day in Normandy, near his hometown of Granville, on the coast near the Brittany border.
It was taken with my crappy point-and-shoot, which is why it's blurry, in the same way that all my videos are blurry.
I opted to do an hour's lesson first. Later, Marc and his stepmom, Mireille, joined me for a more scenic, "touristy" ride through the fields and along the beach.
Marc's dad, who is camcorder mad, took much nicer video of that ride, with a whole row of gorgeous horses making their way up the coast, and the sun setting over the water. Unfortunately, that video is not on YouTube, so I can't figure out how to post it here. So you're stuck with the boring one of me and a horse going over poles on the ground.
Personally, I found it really helpful to see myself ride. For the first time, I can actually see all my amateur mistakes. (At least I can on the clearer version on my laptop).
Marc actually took about a dozen videos of me doing various things like changing reins, sitting trot, trying to canter, etc. I just thought I'd spare Joyceyland's readers.
(In case Fumie was wondering, I am not wearing jodhpurs, which are hot in the summer and are bulky in luggage. These are just plain old leggings.)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hate airline food? Best angry customer rant ever

I realize this has nothing to do with my Europe trip, Hong Kong, or anything I usually blog about. But it's hilarious. Marc the Metrosexual Chef will get a kick out of it, as will a friend at Cathay Pacific, who was hounded for years by a woman who claimed her child didn't get a kid's meal.

This guy has that tone of crazy indignance down perfectly, plus great colorful language, photographic evidence and the balls to send it to billionaire Richard Branson. I made the mistake of reading it at work. After the bit about the hamster, I crouched behind my cubicle wall, trying to suppress hysterical laughter.

(The original, which I edited down for length, is from the Emails From Crazy People blog.)

Dear Mr Branson:

REF: Mumbai to Heathrow 7th December 2008

I love the Virgin brand, I really do which is why I continue to use it despite a series of unfortunate incidents over the last few years. This latest incident takes the biscuit.

Ironically, by the end of the flight I would have gladly paid over a thousand rupees for a single biscuit following the culinary journey of hell I was subjected to at the hands of your corporation.

Look at this Richard. Just look at it:

virgin airline branson food complain disgusting

I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? What have I done to deserve this? And, which one is the starter, which one is the desert?

You don’t get to a position like yours Richard with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it’s next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That’s got to be the clue hasn’t it. No sane person would serve a desert with a tomato would they. Well answer me this Richard, what sort of animal would serve a desert with peas in:

virgin airline branson food complain disgusting

I know it looks like a baaji, but it’s in custard Richard, custard. It must be the pudding. Well you’ll be fascinated to hear that it wasn’t custard. It was a sour gel with a clear oil on top. It’s only redeeming feature was that it managed to be so alien to my palette that it took away the taste of the curry emanating from our miscellaneous central cuboid of beige matter. Perhaps the meal on the left might be the desert after all.....

....So lets peel back the tin-foil on the main dish and see what’s on offer.

I’ll try and explain how this felt. Imagine being a twelve year old boy Richard. Now imagine it’s Christmas morning and you’re sat their with your final present to open. It’s a big one, and you know what it is. It’s that Goodmans stereo you picked out the catalogue and wrote to Santa about.

Only you open the present and it’s not in there. It’s your hamster Richard. It’s your hamster in the box and it’s not breathing. That’s how I felt when I peeled back the foil and saw this:

"

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s more of that Baaji custard. I admit I thought the same too, but no. It’s mustard Richard. MUSTARD. More mustard than any man could consume in a month. On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown glue-like oil and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.

Once it was regurgitated it was clearly then blended and mixed with a bit of mustard. Everybody likes a bit of mustard Richard.

By now I was actually starting to feel a little hypoglycaemic. I needed a sugar hit. Luckily there was a small cookie provided. It had caught my eye earlier due to it’s baffling presentation:

virgin airline branson food complain disgusting cookie biscuit bag

It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A CRIME AGAINST BLOODY COOKING. Either that or some sort of back-street underground cookie, purchased off a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast. You certainly wouldn’t want to be caught carrying one of these through customs. Imagine biting into a piece of brass Richard. That would be softer on the teeth than the specimen above.

I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was relax but obviously I had to sit with that mess in front of me for half an hour. I swear the sponge shafts moved at one point.....

...My only option was to simply stare at the seat in front and wait for either food, or sleep. Neither came for an incredibly long time. But when it did it surpassed my wildest expectations:

virgin airline branson food complain disgusting cookie baggie biscuit
Yes! It’s another crime-scene cookie. Only this time you dunk it in the white stuff.

Richard…. What is that white stuff? It looked like it was going to be yoghurt. It finally dawned on me what it was after staring at it. It was a mixture between the Baaji custard and the Mustard sauce. It reminded me of my first week at university. I had overheard that you could make a drink by mixing vodka and refreshers. I lied to my new friends and told them I’d done it loads of times. When I attempted to make the drink in a big bowl it formed a cheese Richard, a cheese. That cheese looked a lot like your baaji-mustard.

So that was that Richard. I didn’t eat a bloody thing. My only question is: How can you live like this? I can’t imagine what dinner round your house is like, it must be like something out of a nature documentary.

As I said at the start I love your brand, I really do. It’s just a shame such a simple thing could bring it crashing to it’s knees and begging for sustenance.

Yours Sincererly

XXXX

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sunny European holiday; dark, disturbing summer reading list

I’m back from 12 days in Europe, so I have lots of back-blogging to do. I probably won’t get to it all (I start work tomorrow morning), but I'll start with my summer reading list.
This time, I had lots of transit time (i.e. reading time), which is great.
We flew the overnight from Hong Kong to London (13 hours), took the Eurostar to Paris (2.5 hours), drove to the westernmost point in Normandy (3.5 hours), drove back (3.5 hours) and returned on the Paris-Hong Kong overnight (10.5 hours). Including airport waiting time, that’s almost 40 hours of transit, or way more than a Frenchman works in a week.
All these books were acquired en route, in small shops and airport kiosks, in cheap paperback form.

“My Sister, My Love” by Joyce Carol Oates. Here’s an example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The pink color, the cutesy little girl photo, the title in faux-handwriting cursive -- and, I hate to say it, the “woman author” byline – all point to a soft, sentimental family drama. (Frankly, I think publishers do this packaging more with female writers than male ones).
It’s a disturbing novel told from the point-of-view of a mentally ill teenage boy who is unsure whether or not he killed his younger sister. It echoes the real-life story of JonBenet Ramsey, the child beauty queen found murdered in her home, aged six. This time, the little girl goes by the stage name of “Bliss” and is pushed by a domineering mother into being a figure skating prodigy, in a process that includes eerily sexed-up outfits, make-up and forced injections (steroids?) before her gruesome death.

“The Fifth Child” by Doris Lessing. This is another novel about troubled childhood, though Lessing’s crisp, short, British style is the opposite of Oates’s long-winded prose, with its many literary flourishes and U.S. pop culture references.
The Lovatt family so perfectly embodies idyllic English life that you know something horrible must happen. There’s the industrious dad, the stay-at-home mum, the bread-baking grandma, and four pretty blond children in a rambling country home. The fifth child, however, turns out to be the monstrous Ben, a baby so terrifying that the tale takes on horror-story / sci-fi tones.
The book was so good that when I finished it -- right there in my hotel room -- I bought its sequel, “Ben in the World,” from Amazon.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is actually a short story that publishers are marketing as a “book,” its thinness disguised by big type and a glossy cover featuring Brad Pitt. I don’t usually watch movies, so I have no idea how the two versions compare; but I am thankful for “literary films,” as they draw attention to stuff I would otherwise not notice. (I found this in the Hong Kong airport shop discount bin.) As you all probably know, the main character starts life as an old man, and grows progressively younger as time goes on, finally dying as a baby.

“The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink. Here's another literary treasure I never would have read had it not become a blockbuster film starring Kate Winslet. (I don’t think I’ve read anything by any contemporary German writer). You probably know this story by now, too. A woman in her 30s befriends a schoolboy who becomes her lover, and who reads to her in bed. Only later does he discover her Nazi past. It’s simply and touchingly written. (Ulaca's review of the film is here, though it contains a spoiler. So like him to give away the ending!)

“A Mercy” by Toni Morrison. Funny bit of trivia. In some French bookstores, Toni Morrison – a black woman best known writing about black slavery in America – is found under the “Anglo-Saxon” section. So is Barack Obama. (I, too, am considered “Anglo-Saxon” there.) Ah, those silly French. It’s the Saxon bit that really amuses me.
I couldn’t get into this book for some reason. Though I can tell it’s an excellent piece of writing, reading it somehow felt like homework. I will go back to it later.

“Lisey’s Story” by Stephen King, one of my guilty-pleasure authors. You know those books you pick up over and over to reread bits at random? One of those, for me, is “It.”
“Lisey’s Story” is not as good as “It,” maybe because King spends too many pages trying to get into the emotional lives of his characters. Illustrating tender family relationships or romances are not his forte. His forte is in scaring the living daylights out of me, which he does, starting at about page 200.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

If Paul Krugman can do it, so can I

No, I'm not talking about winning a Nobel Prize in Economics. Or even writing intelligently about financial matters and becoming a top name at The New York Times. I mean blogging about cats. Yes, Paul Krugman blogs about cats on his "Conscience of a Liberal" blog. See? So it must be a respectable thing to do.
I know all of you non-Liberals are rolling your eyes right now at the name of his blog. And you'll roll your eyes some more when I tell you that Krugman's adorable pet is named Doris Lessing.
Lessing's humorous, simple essay on cats are among my favorite writings, although they are certainly not among her deeper or more sophisticated works. I always vowed that if I ever got a rangy, orange street cat, I'd call him Rufus, after one of Lessing's feline characters.
Go ahead and laugh. My cat was named after Victor Hugo ('ugo) by Marc the Metrosexual.
Speaking of whom, here's my first stab at actually editing a video by putting together different clips and some words. It's very low-tech and not very good, but you have to start somewhere. (I have no idea why it got so much blurrier when I transfered it to YouTube).
Maybe if I were as smart as Paul Krugman, I'd be able to figure out why.


A Hong Kong Gold Merchant Seeks Fortune in China


HONG KONG — When Chow Sang Sang opened its third jewelry megastore in Hong Kong in April, it was not a quiet affair. The 464-square-meter space was packed with publicists, fashion models, art installations, drummers and a diamond necklace priced at 5.7 million Hong Kong dollars.

Vincent Chow, the grandson of the company’s founder and now its general manager, was at the 5,000-square-foot store to oversee the proceedings — and to take a hand at banging on the drums himself.

But although Mr. Chow, 62, is overseeing a rapid expansion in the family jewelry business, he is staying firmly focused on the commodity that made his family’s fortune.

“We started as goldsmiths,” Mr. Chow said in a recent interview. “Today, gold still makes up half of our sales.”

Chow Sang Sang was founded in 1934 in Guangzhou, China. In 1948 — when masses of refugees and companies fled political turmoil on the Mainland — Mr. Chow’s father and two uncles re-established the family business in Hong Kong, then a British colony.

In 1973, the jeweler went public on the Hong Kong exchange. Today, Chow Sang Sang has more than 190 stores in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and China, and it had revenue of 9.88 billion dollars, or $1.27 billion, in 2008.

For Mr. Chow, one of the buffers against hard economic times is gold’s role in Chinese culture — a role that will not fade with fads or volatile markets.

“In this part of the world, gold is a part of life, and people are used to trading it,” he said. “It is what elders give to newlyweds. It is what a Chinese bride wears — or perhaps I should say exhibits — to show off gifts from the family. If you are going to buy a wedding bracelet, you cannot not buy gold.”

Like most Hong Kong jewelers, Chow Sang Sang’s bread-and-butter items include gold baby bracelets, as well as pendants and figurines shaped like religious or iconic figures.

There are more than 40 Chow Sang Sang stores in Hong Kong, but the Central megastore will be the last opening in the foreseeable future. Expansion will not be here, but north of the border.

“The Mainland is our engine for growth — there’s no doubt about it,” Mr. Chow said.

According to the Hong Kong government, the value of total retail sales fell 6.2 percent in May, compared with a year earlier. In a report, the Census and Statistics Department said consumers were “cautious” about luxury spending on items like cars and jewelry but that “local consumer sentiment continued to hold up rather well.”

“The key reason for that drop is the change in the macro-economy,” said Eric Yuen, the head of research at Guoco Capital, an investment management company in Hong Kong. “Overall, the slowdown of the economy will affect consumption.”

However, according to Mr. Yuen, the spending power of the Mainland Chinese — the main buyers of jewelry in Hong Kong — will play a big role. The Chinese economy is picking up, having grown 7.9 percent year-on-year in the second quarter of 2009.

The jeweler’s Mainland shops are not yet big earners; despite the fact that there are 125 of them, they account for less than half of total sales. Still, the Mainland offers more room to grow than the more developed markets of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao.

“There should be room for maybe 100 more stores on the Mainland,” Mr. Chow said. “But not thousands of stores. We don’t want one on every street in China.”

Quality — and the perception of quality — is important in a crowded market. Mr. Yuen, the analyst, described Hong Kong retailers like Chow Sang Sang as having “a very strong operational history.”

“They’ve got good brand names, which gives confidence to the Mainland buyer,” he added. “If they’re buying gold from an unbranded store on the Mainland, they have no guarantee of good quality.”

Despite a drop-off in the latter part of the year, Chow Sang Sang’s jewelry sales for the year ending Dec. 31, 2008, were 5.3 billion dollars, up 30 percent from 2007.

The economic downturn has meant that Mr. Chow has had to keep a cold eye on costs. “In the first half of 2008, things were go-go-go in terms of buying materials like diamonds,” he said. “But by the third quarter, we knew things were not right. So we quickly refined our logistics in a way that allowed us to reduce our inventory. We had to both confront the recession and make preparations for the volatility in the price of gold and platinum.”

A well-known supporter of the arts in Hong Kong, Mr. Chow was once the head of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and has also worked in an official capacity with the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre. He has brought that interest into his business, adorning a Beijing megastore with works by young local artists.

“We don’t want to rely too much on celebrity spokespeople,” Mr. Chow said. “Celebrities come and go. Their popularity, notoriety, fame can be nebulous.”

Gold, on the other hand, is solid — and eternal. “In hard times,” he said, “people cling to it.”