Paul Burrell in China as Downton Abbey effect continues

Chinese girl curtsying to Paul Burrell

One of the more interesting outcomes of the internet revolution in recent years has been China’s continued fascination with British culture.

Merlin, Silk, Hustle, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Black Mirror, Dr Who, North and South, and The White Queen among others have all been lapped up by young Chinese viewers in their millions through digital platforms like Youku and Iqiyi. The popularity of British telly is such that Mr Bean was recently reprised for a Chinese production.

But one cultural export in particular has spawned a new trend among China’s new rich. Call it the Downton Abbey effect. Not only did the popular period drama help boost sales of afternoon tea products from the UK, it also led to increased demand for butlers.

Great Scott, Jeeves! You?

No butler has an arguably spiffier CV than Paul Burrell. Perhaps better known in UK households for appearing on Celebrity Big Brother, Paul served the British Royal Households for 21 years, becoming personal attendant to Her Majesty The Queen and later butler to the Prince and Princess of Wales.

It doesn’t get more Downton Abbeyesque than that, and Paul (or is it Mr Burrell, or even Mr Burrell, RVM?) was in China last month to share his Royal Etiquette expertise in different sessions with local audiences that included ladies, children and business people.

Paul Burrell and etiquette students in Guangzhou

The training, organised at the Ritz Carlton in Guangzhou by etiquette specialists Prestige Education Consultancy (PEC), focused on dress styling, manners and behaviour, skills gained at the very highest level by Paul Burrell and useful for mingling with the global elite.

Paul Burrell delivering etiquette training in Guangzhou

In an increasingly competitive and “globalised” world, China’s ambitious – as in any nation – will look for an edge beyond a solid grasp of English. A student in Danong today might well become a speaker in Davos tomorrow. Anyone thinking about teaching English in China ought to consider the cultural dimension on top of language tuition.

But of course, this is a two-way street. Anyone looking to make friends and influence people in China should do the sensible thing and learn from the Chinese.

That means not only taking a course in putonghua but also making an attempt to understand their culture, from guanxi to mianzi, baijiu and beyond. It’s a steep learning curve, but so is learning which spoon to use at the dinner table (I still can’t get it right).

We can and should learn from each other – that’s when the good stuff happens. Now, who is China’s equivalent of Paul Burrell?

Hong Kong SAR: 20 years later, it’s time for 2.0

Hong Kong Island skyline

Has it been twenty years already? 1997 was a memorable year for people in Britain, for reasons good and bad. Among other events, Hong Kong was finally handed over to China, marking a new era for all concerned – Hong Kong especially.

Much has happened in the two decades since, and of the three territories, it’s China with the glowing school report. The nation is exerting its influence from Africa to Indonesia, while domestically cities such as Shanghai are luring top global talent, eager to have a stab at the world’s biggest market.

In contrast, Hong Kong and the UK have both seen relative decline (let’s be honest), becoming increasingly divided and unsure of themselves. The parallels between the two are obvious.

But life goes on, as they say, and Hong Kong is the ultimate embodiment of life. No matter who calls the shots; the territory remains a supreme machine, where 7 million people combine efficiently and tightly to keep its wheels turning.

This is hustle and bustle on steroids (if you’re looking for balance, you’ve come to the wrong place), with Hong Kong operating with an intensity and impatience that makes London feel like a country club in comparison.

Yet despite the blistering pace, Hong Kong feels remarkably risk-averse. If Silicon Valley’s mantra is “move fast and break things”, Hong Kong’s spirit can be better described as “move fast and keep things unchanged”. From tech to housing and public light shows, the city now trails behind Shanghai, Singapore and even neighbouring Shenzhen.

There is, mercifully, a growing appetite for disruption. Call it what you want: fintech, regtech, wealth tech, biotech, travel tech, the movements are out there, eager to cement Hong Kong’s “hub” status in the region, leveraging on the city’s strengths.

To get “there” – frankly there is no final destination, as this is a process of constant reiteration and reinvention – Hong Kong will need to overcome its biggest adversary. Not Singapore, not China, but itself. It won’t be easy.

As Hong Kong enters its third decade and adulthood since the handover, new opportunities (and challenges) await that will better serve the “intrapreneurs” and change makers among us. We could be witnessing the start of a new era altogether. And if anyone can help put an end to the city’s whopping cost of living, beers are on me…

Belt and Road promises to open up Asia like never before

Other than the takeover of Reading FC by the Dai siblings, the big announcement coming out of China this month that will change the world as we know it was the 900 billion dollar “One Belt, One Road” project.

Sounding like a line from a syrupy U2 song, One Belt, One Road refers to a Chinese initiative of unprecedented scale that will see more than 60 countries connected through high-speed rail, bridges, harbours, tunnels, airports and goodness knows what else in the next 5 years…hyperloops and spaceports maybe. Hence “Belt” and “Road” (though confusingly the “Road” is the sea – the so-called Maritime Silk Road). As the professional world loves acronyms, One Belt, One Road is also known as OBOR, not to be mistaken for something cobbled together by the banking sector.

While the name doesn’t translate well into English, OBOR has a clear enough vision and even a template from the past: the ancient Silk Road that connected China with Europe, when bearded traders slugged over mountains with camels and spices, and told fantastic tales.

Marco Polo was a long time ago, of course, and today’s Central Asian countries, the “stans” from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, are relatively unknown to travellers even through they account for a huge chunk of the globe.

Gleaming new highways built with OBOR money might change that, in time helping to make those flyover states between East and West even more appealing destinations. If anything, that midlife London-Kathmandu bike trip should be a less arduous experience.

Railways are shrinking the map further. Earlier this year, the first ever direct train service from China to the UK arrived in Barking after 17 days, passing through 10 countries on a 7,456 mile trip. This was just a freight service., however, and there’s no sign of a commercial service any time soon, which is perhaps just as well: just imagine trying to buy a ticket to China from a train station machine (it’s hard enough finding the right fare from Reading to Oxford).

Commercial bullet train services will, however, string together countries in Southeast Asia. Despite the ubiquity of today’s low-cost airlines, Southeast Asia is not an easy region to navigate.

OBOR will connect Jakarta to Bandung, Indonesia’s third biggest city and creative capital, through a high-speed rail project opening in 2019. More spectacular still, a high-speed line will connect Singapore with Kunming in southern China (Singapore Kunming Rail Link, “SKRL”), through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.

The 3,000km project will include sections such as Singapore – Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Lumpur – Bangkok. SKRL will, in a sense, “unlock” cities along its route – like the Laotian capital Vientiane – making them more accessible and propelling them into the future. Backpacking through Mekong countries will never be the same again.

Of course, a lot of this might not happen. The world is complicated enough and fraught with uncertainty. But if there is one thing we all need right now, it’s optimism. And OBOR optimism doesn’t get bouncier than this:

Le Wagon hosts digital nomad meetup in Shanghai

X-Space in Shanghai

The digital nomad movement is normally associated with spiritual places like Bali and Chiang Mai, rather than the financial hubs of this world – and for good reason. But as the name suggests, digital nomadism denotes location independence, and so the trend is rapidly finding its way into our big cities where you’re more likely to encounter a football field than a rice field.

And big cities frankly don’t come much bigger than Shanghai, a heaving megalopolis of 24 million souls (more than double the population of Belgium, or eight times the population of Wales, if you prefer), the scene of an upcoming digital nomad meetup.

On 11 May, coding bootcamp specialists Le Wagon Shanghai will deliver a free evening of digital nomadism talks on how to take advantage of our “ultra-connected world to work whatever suits freelancers”. The event will be held at bar/cafe/hipster space X-Space, Jiangning Road near Fengxian Lu, which has the added kudos of being located in my former neighbourhood.

Beginning at 7pm, the evening will include a snapshot of the key challenges relating to the digital nomad lifestyle in Shanghai, short talks from digital nomads on remote work, Q&A and drinks (obviously).

(With special thanks to Brian Tam for alerting me to this.)

From Shanghai to Changchun: cities in China that most appeal to foreigners

West Lake, Hangzhou

In these Brexit times, China is a land of opportunity, but where to even begin? It’s not all Shenzhen and Shanghai (former British PM David Cameron visited Southwest China with his business delegation).

A cursory look at a map of East Asia will reveal a territory of mindboggling size. I once took a flight from Shanghai on the east coast to Chengdu – not even in China’s geographic centre – and landed in Sichuan 3.5 hours later. That’s like going from London to Kiev. A flight from Shanghai to Urumqi will meanwhile take 5.5 hours – the same as going from London to Amman in the Middle East.

A former colleague once asserted that China was more a continent than a country – and I could see his point. Twice the size of the EU (yes, including Britain) and surprisingly diverse, China is also the world’s most populous nation.

Each of China’s provinces could be considered a country in its own right. Take Shanghai – a city whose population exceeds Australia’s – a sprawling society with a thriving economy, its own identity and a language (Shanghainese) spoken by 14 million people (more than the number of native Czech speakers). Shanghai is a virtual country.

And it’s Shanghai where most foreigners gravitate to, according to a new survey. A report released by “China Society for Research on International Professional Personnel Exchange and Development” reveals the cities with most appeal to foreigners living and working in China, based on criteria such as living environment and local culture. The top 10 is as follows:

  1. Shanghai
  2. Beijing
  3. Hangzhou
  4. Qingdao
  5. Tianjin
  6. Shenzhen
  7. Suzhou
  8. Guangzhou
  9. Nanjing
  10. Changchun

If anyone is wondering, like I was, about tenth-placed Changchun, I can tell you that it’s the capital of Jilin province, bordering Russian and North Korea. Changchun is home to some 7.6 million, making it slightly bigger than Hong Kong. It’s also an important industrial base, known in China as the “City of Automobiles”.

It would be no surprise to see more cities appeal in the years to come, as foreigners explore more of the country. Some China urban areas are seemingly sprouting from nowhere, like volcanic islands rising from the sea, while other cities, from Beihai to Dezhou, are busy putting themselves on the international map.

And finally, while I’m not resident in China, of the 10 cities listed above my vote would go to Qingdao. Beaches, seafood and fresh Tsingtao beer served straight from the keg in takeaway bags.