Today, January 31st, is the first day of a new Chinese year, and 2014 is a year of the horse.

I had been excited about spending Chinese Newyear, also called the Spring Festival, in China for once, instead of watching the firecrackers and lion dances in Chinatown at home. Yet, I’d also been warned not to expect too much of CNY in Shanghai. After all, this is the time of the year when everyone goes back to their hometown which is often not anywhere near Shanghai.

For New Year’s eve I was invited to spend it with a friend’s family in one of Shanghai’s suburbs, Baoshan. In China, this is the evening everyone’s home for a big family meal. And that was true in this family as well, the food was getting to the table in an endless stream it seemed.

After dinner we moved in front of the television for this year’s TV gala. The gala is an evening-long show presenting the best entertainment China has to offer, or at least that’s what it looks like. Though I couldn’t understand everything that was said, it was interesting to watch: songs about the Chinese dream, supported by visuals of rolling green hills and acres of grain, dance performances following the achievements of the Red Army, and comic sketches on current social issues. It was clearly meant to be much more than just entertainment.

Later we went outside to set off some firecrackers (LOUD!!!), and walked around the neighbourhood to see more of the fireworks. In the days preceding I had seen bits and pieces of news that the fireworks could likely be less this year because of the current air pollution levels. That, or just being in a city and not being in a small village somewhere: I have to admit I was underwhelmed. Yes, it was noisy, and there were loads of firecrackers and fireworks going off…. but as someone who’s used to Dutch innercity NY eve fireworks, this wasn’t all that much more. Still fun to walk around though!

The next day my friend took me to the Shanghai Confucius Temple where every year many students go to pray for good luck in their exams this year. While we were there, several students were going through the prayer ceremony with their parents and almost man-sized incense sticks.

Back in Shanghai proper, I was expecting a fairly quiet city. Relatively speaking, I guess it still was. But walking around many more people were using today as a day out in the city, and the streets were still buzzing with people – even if they were more relaxed than the usual rush outside.

Welcome to the year of the horse! Online reports on predictions for this year seem mixed and generally quite full of instability and uncertainty. Should be an interesting one…. (at least for me!).

Where to work in Shanghai

One of the things I find difficult here? Finding decent places to work at in between meetings….

It’s proving quite hard to find places such as coffeeshops or other where you can have a coffee or lunch and have a reliable internet connection. Without a smart phone (though my Fairphone has supposedly arrived, hurrah!) I rely a lot on checking in to my email regularly to keep track of meeting schedules, pending emails etc. And just to do some work while I have some time to spend in between one place and the next.

There are some co-working spaces, though all of them rely on membership and montly fees. I haven’t yet come across a space that is more flexible. From what I’ve seen so far (online & in real life), LOHAUS seems the nicest and most flexible. Other locations around are People Squared (though closed when I walked past), COHUB and Agora Space.

So finding myself at Aura, a quiet cafe, after a breakfast meeting there to discover decent internet, good coffee and sunlight coming in on Wednesday was a nice surprise. Definitely a place to remember!

Shanghai’s streetscapes

Last Thursday I attended an evening on ‘Re-imagining Shanghai’s streetscapes’ where two speakers presented their ideas on how you can create greener space in a city, and space which gives more opportunity to people to enjoy time there.

I especially liked the topics that Damian Holmes talked about, with one of his main points being that urban space shouldn’t be just about cars, transport and buildings but also need to facilitate people and community. His line of thought reminded me of discussions I’ve had in Tokyo on the same topic. A city needs ‘pedestrian space’ to be a community. And Shanghai isn’t doing much of that right now. New developments focus on making things shiny, smooth, commercial and in such a way that people don’t linger or ‘make it theirs’. But the people in a city make it real: small communities, food stalls, mom&pop shops selling random things – but these are also considered the things that are untidy, a little rough maybe.

As Damian Holmes said on Thursday:

This city has been buffed up too much: too many rough edges are gone.

Nevertheless, one of the questions asked on this night was if people thought the streets were ‘friendly’ to people walking. I hadn’t really thought about it until then but in fact: for walking this city isn’t bad (assuming the pollution isn’t on dangerous levels!). Yes, there are lots of people. Yes, there are cars going past wherever you go. And yes, there will be bikes parked across a sidewalk occassionally, but overall it’s surprisingly good and I love exploring and just walking for an afternoon seeing where it takes me.

And those walks lead me to get to know the Shanghai streetscape much better – which is a mix of old and new. Tall high-rise buildings are mixed in with European colonial-style buildings from the 1920s & ’30s with of course the Shanghai lane houses everywhere else.

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P.S. if you are interested in more pictures from Shanghai, have a look here

Update March 7: GreenInitiatives has now also published their own report of the evening of January 16th. You can read a detailed and extensive report here.

Weekend reading: on Myanmar, rural China and coal

While I’m out of my routine exploring a relatively new city and meeting many interesting new people, I still keep an eye on anything interesting that pops up online of course. This week I came across a few things I thought are worth sharing.

Due diligence in Myanmar business operations

The Institute for Human Rights and Business published a review of Coca Cola’s report on their Myanmar business operations, which is required by US law currently. I was particularly impressed to read in what way Coca Cola has used this report to describe their due diligence process: how to do business in a high-risk country such as Myanmar while working in line with the company’s internal policies for human rights and other issues.

Both business opportunities in Myanmar and due diligence are important topics in the Netherlands right now. The Social Economic Council will be organizing a conference on how to set up a proper due diligence process within multinational corporations in March, and the Dutch government published their National Action Plan on Human Rights and Business at the end of December. So reading about how a company is successfully putting this in to practice is very interesting – and encouraging!

Life in rural China

I really liked coming across this article earlier this week. It describes a project in China aimed at revitalizing rural China, now that so many people are migrating from the villages to the cities. It shares experiences from the Bishan project where new activities have been started in smaller villages. But, the article also contains links to several Instagram accounts of migrant workers in Beijing, where they share images from their villages when they travel back, such as @Mulanhuangling. Especially timely now that China is getting ready for the spring festival at the end of next week.

The elephant in the room

This afternoon I found this opinion article on CNN by the head of the International Energy Agency, Maria van der Hoeven. In China, the problems with air pollution are well known and one of the main causes – especially in winter – are the coal plants used to generate energy. In this piece, Van der Hoeven has some strong words to say about the necessity to shift away from coal to more sustainable energy options:

When it comes to a sustainable energy profile, we are simply off track — and coal is the elephant in the room.

Good to hear this coming from such a high level. But, when will this lead to any change in world wide energy policies?

China’s soil and food security

And closing off with a China article on food security: huge issue with so many different aspects. This article via UrbaChina touches on the scale of soil contamination and the options the government has to chose from – none of which sound great.

A regular day in Shanghai

Now that I’ve been in Shanghai for a bit over a week, I’m slowly getting into a daily routine. Today was a good example.

This week I’ve started my mornings at the Dutch consulate in the city as I’m preparing some work for them which is part of a larger CSR project to support Dutch companies in improving CSR throughout their supply chain. Wednesday, and then next week, will be particularly busy with this work when I will be talking to Dutch businesses about the issues that are difficult to manage for them in their supply chain. So, my mornings are spent preparing these interviews, discussing the objectives of the project and how they can best be met.

For lunch, I met with a Dutch acquaintance who has been working here locally in the CSR field. We’ve met a few times and today we caught up on what both of us are working on and had an interesting discussion on how increased transparancy can help improve responsible business practices in the textile industry. It makes sense, of course, but how do you entice companies to be open and transparent about where and how they source their products?

In true Dutch fashion, I was given a lift on the back of a bicycle to my next meeting at LOHAUS, a co-working location in central Shanghai that I’d got in contact with via the people of GreenDrinks. LOHAUS stands for Loft on Health and Urban Sustainability. It is a relatively new location, started 7 months ago, and aims to bring together independent professionals in the city working on sustainability in some way. They organize events, host meetings, and offer flexible workspace for professionals working in this or related fields. The space is located in a beautiful building, with what looks like a good choice of drinks and some food, and with lots of green plants and interesting art around which makes it seem a very nice location to work at. I hope to be back there behind my laptop one of these days as well.

From there, straight to my daily Chinese class: every day from 3-5pm I spend practicing my Chinese with a private teacher. I’m learning a lot and I feel like I’m quickly progressing – but getting back outside, stepping into the real world always causes a bit of a disappointment when once again my taxi driver can’t quite make out where it is I want to go to. Oh well, one day…

Several people had warned me that Shanghai in January would be cold. I’ve only visited at other times of the year, but I shrugged at these warnings: the Netherlands is cold as well. What I didn’t realize is that Shanghai is pretty much cold everywhere. Cold outside is fine, as long as I can warm up inside. With the old houses here, the limited heating and badly insulated houses I’m always cold, no matter where I am. So what better way to end the day than with a large bowl of hot noodles… Yumm.

Ethical food in China

One of the networks that is active in Shanghai on sustainability in China is the local GreenDrinks chapter. In fact, whereas Greendrinks usually are monthly events or so, in Shanghai this group has become more active, and has now re-branded itself to Green Initiatives, aimed not just at bringing together like-minded people and increasing awareness but also (and mostly) aimed at creating impact.

Last Thursday I was finally able to attend one of their events in person: a forum with different speakers on ‘Ethical food & drink‘ in China. Food is often a very personal part of sustainability – or at least, it is to me. It is one of the things I feel I can make my own choices on the food I buy (meat/no meat; organic or not; seasonal or not) relatively easily. It is also a personal issue because everyone needs food: it’s what you put into your body and what keeps you healthy. At least it should: and that’s where food has become a contentious issue in China where there are regular announcements of a new food scandal. Food safety/security is high on the agenda for anyone concerned about what they’re eating. But also in the Netherlands there are have been several cases involving food, labelling and transparency over the last few years.

The above topics were all part of tonight’s forum which talked about the pro’s and con’s of different types of labelling, the good and bad parts of fair trade products etc.

A lot of attention was given to fair trade production, but the more interesting part of the evening for me was learning about the market for organic products in China. This market is in fact growing quickly, but also offers some strong obstacles for foreign companies interested in entering the market: any food labelled as organic in China must go through China’s own organic certification scheme. Unsurprising, as China uses its own certification procedures for many other product groups as well, but considering the cost this still makes it difficult for – especially – smaller producers to enter the market.

This Australian article shares some experiences of going through this procedure from Australian producers. The China Organic Food Certification Center is responsible for this certification.

Clearly, this is of course also a prerequisite for any Chinese producers who are interested in expanding on this market. One of the panelists of the forum was Jane Tsao of BIOFarm, an organic farm in Pudong. They supply to both business (hotels & restaurants) but also to consumers directly via their weekly delivery of vegetables – good to know if I ever end up in Shanghai for a longer period of time.

Shopping for groceries tonight in a near-by (fancy) supermarket, I was again reminded of the forum and the fact that safe & healthy food is quickly becoming more important – at least in Shanghai: all vegetables there come from Organic Shanghai.

Shanghai’s marriage market

No luck finding a partner yourself? Why not send out your parents instead to find Mr/Miss Perfect, while you are busy in a successful career.

Weird though it may sound, in Shanghai this happens every Saturday & Sunday in the city’s People’s Park. When walking around yesterday after the MOCA-visit I walked into a huge mass of older people with many people sitting along the sides with what looked like advertisements on umbrella’s and stands. I couldn’t quite make out where I had ended up. The (often hand-written) advertisements were describing people: age, gender, height etc: were they selling people?

The mystery was answered this morning when watching a video explaining the most important things about Shanghai: economy, landmarks, food – and the marriage market. Aha! So this is what I had walked into.

Because of the one-child policy in China the ‘wedding market’ is quite out of balance with China’s population including many more men than women. And with a strong focus for the current generation on work, career and financial stability there is apparently not a lot of time left over for dating and finding a partner, especially when there are less women around than you’d like. And this is where the marriage market seems to come in: this CNN article explains (and shows) it well.

Apparently Shanghai men are also considered very eligible in China: romantic and family-oriented are some reputed qualities of a typical Shanghai man.

Still, it’s hard to believe that an outdoor matchmaking fair like this can lead to successful and stable marriages… (although I’m sure the idea of a successful marriage is probably different in China than in the Netherlands).

Settling in in Shanghai

It’s always a bit disorienting to wake up in a new place: this morning the sounds came from Sunday morning Shanghai traffic and shouting Chinese men. But, luckily, I could also spot some weak sunlight coming through the windows to get me outside and discover a little more of the area I’m staying in currently.

Even though I’ve been in Shanghai and China quite a few times already, it has usually been for just a short trip visiting several cities. So this time I also had a few things to sort out which I never bother with normally: registration at the local police bureau, getting a Chinese phone number and getting a VPN-connection set up.

Now that I have all of the above, I’m set to go – which meant in practice that I joined the throngs of people (with their kids) on a Sunday outing to Shanghai’s Museum of Contemporary Art for a Yayoi Kusama exhibition. It’s a good exhibition, so go and see it – especially the different installations and mirror rooms – but: don’t go on a Sunday afternoon if you don’t want to be stuck in long queue’s for every individual installation.

The police registration mentioned was luckily quite easy to get, together with my flatmate for the month. I’m sharing an apartment while I’m here as I wanted to stay away from big hotels and hostels or some sort of serviced apartment. That also means that you need to register yourself at the local police which is something the hotels normally take care of. I’m happy I chose this type of accomodation – because now I’m also in the middle of a very Chinese neighbourhood in an old lanehouse. The picture above is our courtyard. Of course, this also means that some of the morning sounds include shouting in Chinese but I’ll take that as part of the package.

‘School’ starts tomorrow morning, so that should be interesting…

One year ago today…

One year ago today, the first thing I did was to walk into the local Chamber of Commerce and register my business MACHI. A big moment that year, and possibly the biggest as that was the start of a year building, discovering, experimenting, and so on.

Sometimes a plan didn’t work, or it needed more time. But I’ve also been able to do a lot of things that have helped me to build my plans, such as travelling to the CSR Asia conference in September and trips to China & Japan. But also taking time to develop my services and to learn about the boring bits: administration and finances.

With all of those things ready and done, it also feels like this adventure is only now starting for real. Over the past year, I have been lucky enough to work on one major assignment for the National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines, with a few other smaller projects on the side – most of which were initiated on my own. As I write this, I am seeing one of the major parts of that NCP assignment come online. It’s good to see that that is now ready for me successor to take over after the weekend.

It also means that I am on my way to something new. No more regular office to go to or colleagues to have lunch with. Instead, I’m flying to Shanghai for a few weeks tomorrow. These few weeks will be filled with Chinese classes, network meetings, possibly some projects to work on and a lot more. This will also get me started on this new year and should make some project ideas and possible collaborations more concrete to continue with when I’m back.

So, new year’s resolutions? I think I have only one ‘professional’ resolution: to make MACHI a success this year. Somehow… I am not too worried about this.

I hope that 2014 will also bring inspiration and energy for you to realize your goals: Happy 2014!