Thursday, December 20, 2012

Return of the Law of Unanticipated Consequences

December 19, 2012

A few months ago, my wife and I dined at a French restaurant. We were in withdrawal concerning the law prohibiting the sale of foie gras in California, where we live. I mentioned our unhappiness to the waiter. He said, “True, we can’t sell it anymore. So, we give it away. The law doesn’t prohibit free foie. There are dishes which aren’t on the menu, and when you order them, for example a plain green salad, you can ask for it to be topped with foie.”

I asked, “How would we know about them if they’re not on the menu?”

He replied, “You just asked about them.” He smiled.

I asked how much the salad is and he replied, “It’s thirty dollars.”

More expensive for a salad than for steak. But for someone who wants the product and knows the “password,” it’s still available.

The moral for us all, is that capitalism always seeks to find a way.  You may find the work-around difficult to find. You may find it to be nasty, but there will always be a work-around.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

China (PRC) is a Puzzle-Box

September 5, 2012

My wife and I just returned from a visit to Hong Kong and PRC. It was a vacation trip for her, research for me. And it was eye-popping. As a result, I’ll have to revise about fifty pages of the settings in my novels. As my friend Barry Eisler says, "Nothing beats first-hand research for writing fiction."

We bookended our trip in Hong Kong, both starting and finishing it there. Hong Kong is Manhattan on steroids. One of the major fictional characters in my espionage thrillers, William Wing, lives there, in the New Territories. I decided to visit the location where I’d put his residence. So, yes, I’m a bit crazy. Go figure. We ate in Fook Lam Moon, downtown on Johnson Street, the restaurant where I’d had one of my major fictional character Cassandra Sashakovich, dine. The food was superb. We also ate dim sum at the Dim Sum Bar and at Super Star Seafood, both extraordinary. Between the huge throngs walking the streets, the tall apartments, and the fastastic dim sum, Hong Kong was a dream.

Hong Kong is a shopper’s paradise, and fills its tiny island with over 20 million people. Everywhere you look, they are building or have already built skyscraper apartment buildings. I believe the residences make Manhattan condos look like a bargain.

In the PRC, we visited Beijing, Guilin, Yangshou, Hangzhou and Shanghai. It was an amazing experience, one I had wanted for years. So, what were my impressions of the PRC?

Mainland China is a puzzle-box. They are still mostly a third world country, but slowly – faster than I thought possible – becoming a mature nation with all the opportunities and problems faced by any leading world force. The cities are huge; 20 million or more in Beijing and Shanghai, 7 million in Hangzhou and Guilin. We only saw these coastal gems.

We saw rampant poverty alongside magnificent villas. Too many cars to believe. PRC has the same problem with income redistribution that America has, with too many poor and too little opportunity for them to advance. But, in China, they’re trying to remedy the problem. In America, we’re making it worse. And soon, if we don’t watch out, we’ll be China and they’ll be us.

Beijing is both ancient and administratively oriented. The buildings – the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, all look similar and very old, even restored they are full of character and show off what is ancient about the places they inhabit. We saw the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and, way far away from the city, Andrea (my wife) walked the Great Wall while I took some of the over 1,000 photos of our trip. Our guide Jesse often would tell us a story about one of the sights and include the footnote, “This has a hidden meaning.” Seems, much of the history of China is filled with double meanings or hidden meanings.

As you move from central Beijing toward the outer ring roads, the city could be anyplace suburban. Tall apartments and factories dot the landscape. By the time you reach the airport, outside Ring Road Six, the city seems light years away. The high point of our visit to Beijing was when our guide pointed to a building in the heart of downtown Band said, “See that building? It’s the Chinese CIA.” Can’t fault him for not knowing that I write espionage thrillers, but I copied the street address so I can use it in my books. The best food we had in Beijing was at a vegetarian restaurant. Most of the rest can’t compete with the Chinese food we get in San Francisco.

Guilin was a remarkable contrast to Beijing. Country clubs with golf courses and villas filled the approach to the city from the airport. The city was almost entirely modern and middle class, with patches of poverty, but no major places where things looked sodden. We saw a cavern that was totally amazing and I took hundreds of photos in the caves. That’s when it hit me: China is now organized to look like Disneyland. It is entirely commercial. We visited a jade factory, a silk factory, a Chinese medicinal pharmacy, and bought an entire suitcase filled with functional, useable souvenirs.

Anyone visiting China should take the boat ride from Guilin to Yangshou. Our guide Warren helped take photos while we ate the dinner served on the boat. The needle-shaped mountains jutting out from the shoreline are both photo-worthy and eye-popping. As for the merchandizers in Yangshou, run away as fast as you can. Especially if you’ve already had to buy one new suitcase and fill it with stuff you bought.

Hangzhou Was pleasant enough, but after what we’d already seen, not that interesting. ‘Nuff said.

Shanghai, on the other hand, was the most impressive piece of real estate we saw in PRC. An amazing skyline. Our guide Cindy showed us a bake shop where almost a thousand people waited on line to buy their delicious Moon Cakes. We bought and ate many. Yum! And, after the tour finished, we had the best and most expensive meal we’d ever eaten, at Jean Georges, located on the fourth floor of Bund Number Three. Of the six courses, four had foie gras. Fatty but delicious. Our wait staff person, Olivia, was a marvel. We wanted to take her home.

So then, why is China a puzzle-box? The easy answer is that they have shown how fast a country can change from a closed dictatorship with a communist view toward life, to a capitalistic and materialistic society, where the entire country is on sale as a commercial enterprise. How can they manage such fast change when our society refuses to change? They are still the ancient society they always were, but with the patience of expert planners. Their long view rivals that of Japan. In the United States, we don’t even make short range plans, only annual budgets. And, in our Congress, even those never get approved anymore. This single difference gives the Chinese a major competitive advantage we cannot match. But, China has its own problems, like nothing we can understand. It appears to me from what I saw, that people living in the PRC and Hong Kong are left on their own without a government safety net to cushion against bad joss. In the USA, we have welfare, Social Security and Medicare. But we also have a very nasty financial system, where in China and Hong Kong at least their financial system isn’t nearly as corrupt. In the Far East, there is the threat of starvation motivating the poor and destitute. Here in the USA, we have a sense of entitlement that supersedes our desire to improve our lives and those of the next generation.

In Shanghai, Andrea got sick the last night we were there (after that amazing fatty meal at Jean Georges). It got worse our last night of the trip, in Hong Kong. So when we returned home, we had her see her doctor. She had her gall bladder duct blocked by a stone and we needed to rush her to the ER and get her gall bladder removed. Here’s the neat little irony: A life of eating fat food was the predisposing cause of her problem. But the precipitating cause was the dinner in Shanghai. Seems like no matter where we go, we remain constant. But, across the world, things have myriad shades of difference. And so it is between the USA and China. So similar, yet so different.

It was the vacation of a lifetime and a research opportunity that will continue to inform my fiction writing for the rest of my life. But, what it all comes down to at its end is, it’s good to be home.