Friday, May 30, 2008


I'm a pretty big Lakers fan... or used to be. When I first moved to LA in the mid-80's, it was Showtime with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Pat Riley as coach. Lately however, I haven't been watching that much, even when the Lakers had both Kobe and Shaq. While I was in China, I didn't even know which team they were playing after beating the Utah Jazz (San Antonio Spurs).

Anyway, during a staff meeting this Wednesday, two of the people in the room started talking about sports, mostly about basketball and Boston teams. I found myself totally disinterested since all I heard about the previous week was the earthquake in Sichuan. I'm not sure how you can compare anything to a natural disaster but the NBA playoffs seem so insignificant in comparison. The amount of money spent on courtside seats is obscene when the need for relief supplies are so great in China.

Sigh... but where do we stop? I just watched a video about people risking their lives to escape from North Korea. There is an estimated 300,000 North Koreans living illegally in China where they have no status and are in fear of being deported back. Unlike the earthquake, all this suffering is man-made. How come nobody does anything about that?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Chengdu Trip #5: Home

I finally got home last night around midnight which isn't too bad considering how long it usually takes to get out of Bradley terminal at LAX. We had to deplane at the remote terminal again and take a bus to the main terminal; usually this means all the gates are full and therefore a long line at U.S. immigration. In addition, they were having problems with the jetway to our plane so we were stuck on the plane for an additonal 15 minutes. I thought we would have to walk off the plane onto the runway; not even sure if that is possible in a 747 since the doors are so high off the ground.

Maybe someone read all my complaints about coming back to the U.S. through LAX (ok, probably not), but there were more lines open and more immigration agents. It only took ~5 minutes in line for my 15 second interview, and my luggage was already out. Anyway, Leon picked me up with my 4Runner, and I drove home from his house.

I'm really glad to be home this time, with all my stomach problems, sprained ankle, and the threat of aftershocks (even though I joke about being from California). One week every three months seems to be my limit... :(

Monday, May 26, 2008

You know You've Been In China Too Long When...

Leon pointed me to a Facebook group with a huge list of items unique to living in China. I've only been to mainland China six time but I've personally experienced a lot of stuff on the list.

My favorites:

3. A June 2001 Great Wall Cabernet (mixed with Sprite) is your vintage of choice [the first time I went to a Karaoke place, my friend ordered a bottle of wine and I was shocked when the waiter poured it into a pitcher along with a bottle of Sprite]

25. You find western toilets uncomfortable [actually the opposite... I've spent many uncomfortable moments searching for a sit-down toilet vs. a squatting toilet]

43. You believe that pressing the lift button 63 times will make it move faster [in every elevator in China, the most worn button is the "close door" button]

72. You buy an XXXL T-shirt when you returned home [when I lost my luggage on a trip last summer, XXL was the largest size I could find at the local Wal-Mart and it was way too small]

107. It becomes exciting to see if you can get on the lift before anyone can get off [!]

113. You find that it saves time to stand and retrieve your hand luggage while the plane is on final approach

131. You honk your horn at people because they are in your way as you drive down the sidewalk

140. You get your first case of bronchitis and you have never smoked a cigarette in your life [I've seen people light up their cigarette in a crowded elevator]

Chengdu Pictures from May 12, 2008

My friend took some pictures on the day of the huge Wenchuan earthquake. They are from a few hours after the quake since she ran out of the apartment without taking anything. Coincidentally, the first major aftershock hit while she was back at the apartment getting her cell phone and camera (and cash, Chinese people always have cash at home).

Free water for old, weak, sick... I think.

Parking lot outside Wenshu Temple. There are still people sleeping in tents there after two weeks.

A lot of shingles came down from the roof of the Wenshu Temple complex. The furniture was tossed there later to prevent people from walking that way and getting hit from more falling shingles.

People hanging out at the side of the road.

More people staying away from their homes. This was around 11pm at night; the quake hit at ~2:30pm.

1am in the apartment lobby. My friend and her classmate went back to her apartment at ~2am. She said the floor was too hard to sleep on.

Chengdu Trip #5: Aftershock!

I'm back at Hong Kong International Airport. This means I can access my blog without using the VPN to get around China's Internet filters, though the free wifi connection is pretty flaky right now. I didn't get to do anything during my last night in Chengdu; I was still sick from the Zigong trip and had not eaten for about a day and a half. The flight from CTU to HKG was only about 30 minutes late, compared to ~3 hours during the days right after the earthquake.

Speaking of earthquakes, I felt the largest aftershock since the main Wenchuan quake yesterday afternoon at around 4:20pm local time. It was a magnitude 6.0 or 6.4 depending on who you ask. Interestingly, the original quake has been "upgraded" again to 8.0 in China but remains at 7.9 at the USGS site. I wonder how much of this is the politics of exaggeration common in China.

Anyway, the aftershock didn't feel that big even though I was on the 10th floor of an apartment building. The building swayed a bit, stopped, and swayed a bit more. It only lasted a short time, probably less that 20 seconds, but I heard all sorts of screaming and freaking-out from outside. Lots of people ran outside of their building and stood in the middle of the street. In China, that's probably more dangerous than an earthquake.

After about 10 minutes and no buildings collapsed, some people went back inside. However, there were still a lot of people sitting outside. I wonder if they're going to start sleeping in tents again.

Not everyone was scared by the aftershock. I was watching TV and didn't bother to get up. Across the street in an 8th floor apartment, they continued cleaning right away, even climbing half-way out the window.

On the plane ride, I was reading some articles about the quake in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong newspaper). During the quake, a lot of school building collapsed, apparently from shoddy construction, probably from a combination of lack of education funds in rural areas and corruption. The article also had an interesting statistic:
In March, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged to increase spending on education by more than 45 per cent, to 156.2 billion yuan, this year.


By contrast, government officials nationwide annually spend nearly 300 billion yuan on dining and entertaining, 300 billion yuan on the use of vehicles and 250 billion yuan on government-sponsored domestic and overseas tours.

Dang! I though the U.S. government was inefficient but this is crazy. To spend double the education budget (after a huge increase) on just eating out?! Meanwhile, China's foreign exchange reserve stands at ~US$1.76 trillion.

The other article reported that the government will ease the one-child policy for parents of dead/disabled children:
Chengdu, capital of stricken Sichuan province, is to allow families who lost their only child in the earthquake to have another, official media reported.

Parents whose only child was disabled in the quake can also apply for the right to have another, provided the disability is serious enough.

Sigh... having children is a "right" you need to apply for with the government. Also, who decides if an injury is serious enough? Some bureaucrat in the government?

Chengdu Trip #5: Back to Chengdu

With nothing else to do or see in Zigong, we headed back to Chengdu Sunday morning. Unlike the small bus station in Chengdu, the main Zigong bus station is much larger. Also, the buses seem to run on a schedule. For some reason the bus ticket for the trip back was only RMB65 and there are assigned seating on the ticket. I guess the seat numbers are assigned sequentially; my friend and I ended up sitting in different rows. I’m at the very back of the bus and interestingly, out of the 5 people sitting back here, there are three notebook computers out. One guy has a GPRS wireless card and he’s surfing the Internet and the girl next to me was playing Warcraft… or at least trying to play since it’s very difficult to play with a touchpad.

Chengdu North Gate bus station. There were many many rows of buses, probably several hundred buses in all.

I am noticing a general lack of courtesy everywhere in China. You’d figure with 1.3 billion people, they would be more considerate but the opposite seems to be true. While we were waiting for our bus at the Zigong station, a girl was playing MP3’s out loud with her cell phone. I guess it doesn’t matter if other people in the waiting area want to hear or not. Likewise, the girl next to me on the bus was playing songs out loud on her computer, even singing along, poorly. Sheesh, get a pair of headphones or something.

Chinese drivers are terrible. Instead of slowing down or stopping for pedestrians, they would incessantly honk their horn so you will get out of their way. They also don’t seem to obey any traffic signs. I think part of the explanation is that cars are pretty expensive and most people cannot afford one; car owners probably feel a sense of entitlement because of their wealth… communist paradise indeed.

What I hate the worst is when people try to get on the elevator before you’ve had a chance to get off. How am I supposed to get out of the elevator if you’re blocking my way?

Guy at the departure gate in Chengdu. Dude doesn't look old or pregnant; maybe he's weak (love the white t-shirt/pinstripe pants/white socks/dress shoes combo though). It wasn't just him though. The other three seats were occupied just before I took the photo and none fit the description.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Chengdu Trip #5: Saturday

After throwing up lunch and dinner from the past couple of days, I felt really crappy this morning. Almost every hotel in Asia includes a breakfast buffet so I tried eating some congee. The breakfast was just slightly better than the food at Jinghu Hotel which isn't saying much.

We had lunch with my friend's friend even though I didn't feel like eating. She picked us up at the hotel and it was quite exciting since she just learned to drive. I think she got lost twice and had to make several u-turns. There were also several near misses with pedestrians but that's typical in China. She drove a Kia Spectra (or the Chinese equivalent); her "husband" has a dealership in Zigong. I put husband in scary quotes because the guy is not really her husband. He married a girl he didn't like when he was young and had a daughter. However, for the past 10 years, this other girl has had a relationship with him and just had a son several years ago. The guy did not divorce his first wife, supposedly to save face, so things are pretty complicated. I hear things like this (second wife) is pretty common in China.

Dinner was pretty interesting too. My friend's uncle, who works for the Zigong city government, took us to dinner in a restaurant across the street from my hotel. The food was decent and it only cost ~RMB300 for 10+ dishes and some beer. During dinner, the topic of politics came up. I usually try to keep quiet since my father's family were all KMT (losing side in the Chinese Civil War), and I was born in Taiwan, another touchy subject in China. Anyway, the uncle was telling me how as a Young Pioneer/Red Guard/whatever, he traveled to Beijing to see Mao during the late 1950's. My friend's mom (younger sister) also said that she saw Mao during those days, though in Sichuan rather than in Beijing. I guess things were more idealistic during the early days of communist China; food/lodging/travel was free back then since everyone were comrades. The uncle also told me that during the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to the countryside to work at a commune along with his university professors. One of the professors couldn't endure the stress and ended up committing suicide while another one survived to become the dean of a university today.

I just thought it was surrealistic that I, son of a KMT military officer from Taiwan, was sitting in a restaurant in the middle of China, listening to stories from ex-Red Guard members.

Chengdu Trip #5: Meet the Parents

I just called Leon thinking he's on his way home from LAX. Instead, the plane is just pulled into the gate after landing a hour ago. Nothing like cruising around LAX for an hour after a 12-13 hour flight.


On Friday night, my friend took me to her parent's house in Zigong for dinner. They're both retired but they bought their own house several years ago. They live in an older part of town, up on the hilly part of town.

Apartment complex. Even new buildings get dirty really fast. I think it's the dust/smog in the air.

Parent's apartment - 5th floor. The staircase was so filthy that it was scary.

The apartment is about 56 sq. meters and has two bedrooms. I think my friend told me that it was RMB1,000 per sq. meter when they bought it; it is worth about double that now. Her mom cooked some dishes for us. It was quite greasy and salty which didn't help my stomach but I had to eat what they gave me. After dinner, we went to visit an uncle (who is treating us to dinner tonight) in another part of town.

Non-regulation ping pong table made of brick and stone. I particularly like the solid net.

View from the bus station at the top of the hill

Bus #37. It was really old and the seats were made of wood. The fare was only RMB1 though.

Street vendors and shoppers in the commercial part of the old town. It looks like every other large city in Asia.

Chengdu Trip #5: Zigong

Since Leon is taking off on Friday, I decided to go visit Zigong with a friend. Zigong is about 3 hours southeast from Chengdu and has a population of 3+ million. I think the most famous thing about Zigong are the salt mines that have been in operation for centuries.

North Gate bus station. Buses to different cities depart from different places so you need to know where to go. My bus ticket was RMB75 but they also added RMB2 for travel insurance... not reassuring. There is no timetable either. You buy your ticket, get on the right bus, and wait until it fills up. We ended up waiting about 20 minutes before departing. While we were waiting, lots of people came by selling drinks, snacks, newspapers, and even roasted corn-on-the-cob. Hmm, I just noticed that the characters on the building are traditional characters (simplified = 北门车站); maybe the station was built before the communists took over though it doesn't look that old.

The bus ride wasn't too bad. It was a typical tour bus so there was plenty of leg room. The entire trip took about 3 hours with a rest stop. My problem was that my stomach was acting up and I did not want to try squatting at the rest stop bathroom. There were TV monitors in the bus and they showed a couple of movies.

A traffic accident, I think. Maybe the truck was like that before... sometimes it's hard to tell in China. There are many vehicles on the road that belong in a junkyard.

Once you get out of Chengdu, the landscape becomes more rugged and mostly agricultural. There were a lot of billboards along the road to spoil the view though.

Typical farm house along the road

After arriving at the Zigong bus station, we had to take a taxi to the hotel. Like at an airport, there was a line of taxis and we got into the first one. As soon as we pulled out of the bus station, the driver says, "Um, I have to run an errand... it won't take that long." What? Why can't you do this on your own time? Anyhow, he pulls onto a side street and starts talking to a motorcycle policeman. After a few words, the policeman gets into the front passenger seat. I didn't get the entire conversation but it appears that the taxi driver's friend got in trouble and had his documents taken by the police. It would cost a lot of money to resolve officially plus leave a record. The driver wanted the policeman in the front seat to "take care" of it and he agreed to do it for RMB200-300. So here we are driving down the street, the taxi driver on the phone with his friend, the policeman on the phone with someone in the police station, and me in the back seat amazed at the level of corruption on display right in front of me. All this while the meter is running on our short taxi ride.

I'm staying at the Huidong Hotel, a 4-star hotel and supposedly the best in town. The room cost RMB410 per night. It's not that nice; I think they added 2 two stars too many. They're also doing construction so there's loud banging all day. At least the Internet connection works.

Intersection outside the hotel. This is the new section of town; the old town is up higher on a hill and the buildings are much crappier.

Chengdu Trip #5: Sick Again

Sigh... I'm having stomach problems again. The first few days were fine since we've been eating in restaurants. On Thursday night, we ventured out to some local hole-in-the-wall place. We ate dinner at a "firepot" place; you get a base pot with soup base plus tofu and you add meat/vegetables. We got the pork ribs but the meat was really tough. I ended up puking this all up 24+ hours later... no pictures!


Fruit stand: mostly kumquats (very good) and watermelons

Butcher shop... maybe that's where the meat in the firepot came from :(

Chengdu Trip #5: More Tents

I saw a lot more tents on the way home from work. Aftershocks from the 5/12 quake is definitely decreasing in number and magnitude so I’m not sure what people are afraid of… they still have to go back to their homes to eat and use the bathroom. It’s also been raining overnight so it has to be a lot more miserable sleeping outside.

This is just one intersection near the old factory; it's like this everywhere.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Chengdu Trip #5: Wednesday

It rained last night so people in makeshift tents were all wet this morning. I had to step around people sleeping in the apartment lobby. With a lot of people volunteering in the earthquake damage zones, the traffic is noticeably less during the morning and afternoon commute. There were no aftershocks last night so a lot of people spent the night in the rain for nothing.

Driveway to Jinghou hotel. People were sleeping in tents, under tarps, and in their cars.

For the past two days, we’ve been taking a different route to work in the morning. I think our drive likes this route since a portion of the road is under construction and there are very few traffic lights. The problem, for passengers, is that the road is still unfinished and there are many obstructions in the roadway, mostly manholes that stick up about 6 inches from the road surface. Everyone still drives fast through this section so you see all these cars, including ours, in a crazy slalom race.

Why is that huge piece of concrete in the middle of the road?!

Road outside the current PMI location. Still unpaved since my first trip to Chengdu one year ago.

We stopped by the new factory again this morning to discuss the electrical room construction with the general contractor. We also took a look at the 2nd and 3rd floor of the building to see if anything was damaged during the earthquake. Almost everything is complete, including bathroom, showers, and the kitchen/dining area.

Some serious cooking equipment

Power conduits for our casting furnaces along the wall

Grrr, what do you want?

Some chickens at the back of the building lot. Maybe we can make kung-pao chicken with the huge woks in the 3rd floor kitchen.

Lunchtime! There are a few other companies in the same compound as PMI. I think they get rice and a few dishes in huge pots and bring their own bowls/utensils and eat out in the parking lot.

We went to a nearby restauant for lunch; I guess we didn't want to join the local lunch crowd. Kung-pao chicken! It wasn't too good... the chicken was kind of tough and the peanuts were not crunchy.

After lunch, we had a pretty long meeting to go through our costing information and manufacturing process. I need to determine the new factory’s output capacity, lead time required for new orders, and a comprehensive cost model to make sure we're making money. I think this is more work than I normally do for my "real" job at Broadcom.

Chengdu Trip #5: Tuesday

Today was more of the same. All the TV channels and radio stations are talking about the earthquake. We found out that our accountant's husband went to the mountains last Monday and was "missing" for two days. It turned out he was okay but for a few days, she thought he was dead. Crazy! She said he also helped several people escape the disaster area. One person kept fainting and he fed them Coca-Cola to keep them going; must be all the sugar and caffeine. For lunch, we went to a local restaurant and ate on the sidewalk. Again, due to the fear of earthquakes/aftershocks, all the restaurants put their tables outside under tents; no one wants to even have lunch inside.

Sign outside restaurant where we had lunch. Their specialty is something that looks like an eel-like fish they cook in a clay pot. Leon and I passed so we got a large bowl with catfish fillets and mustard greens. Like everything here, it was salty and greasy. They gave us a plate of peanuts as an appetizer; you can actually see the MSG crystals on the plate. Yum!

In the afternoon, we went to the high-tech development zone office to talk about changes to our factory building plan. Initially we thought we only needed 1000kVa of electrical power to run our equipment but after refining our forecast with our primary vendor, it looks like we need to start Phase II of construction and another 1000kVa of power. It's been a struggle with the local government in arranging the necessary electrical power and now, we need to build another small building to house our step-down transformers. Their office was really nice but we noticed they also had cracks inside their building from the earthquake.

Nice office building

We made another stop at the new factory in the afternoon. This time, there was a stray dog on a homemade rope/leash. It didn't bark at us at all so it's probably not good as a guard dog.

Stray dog... not dead, just resting

Homemade (?) ladder. There's no way that thing would support me.

I had hurt my ankle before the trip, er... playing ping pong. After all the walking today and walking to/from dinner, my ankle was swollen even more. Once again, I got back to the apartment and crashed again, earthquake or not.

Chengdu Trip #5: Road Construction

During my last trip, Leon and I drove to the bank ourselves. Even though the roads are small near our factory, the traffic was still crazy. Add to that, they were fixing the roads so it was torn up in many places. It was like driving off-road just to get to the bank. This time, Mr. Lin (our driver) took us and the roads were even worse. I thought they would be done after three months but they just tore up even more roads. One thing I noticed is that they do not close the road for construction. Even under construction, there is still lots of traffic on the road, kicking up huge amounts of dust.

The intersection right outside Bank of China. The road was under construction 3 months ago but in much better condition.

Another street under construction in the same neighborhood. It may look done but the street is still just dirt.

Chengdu Trip #5: Earthquake Warning

At around 11pm Monday night, a loudspeaker truck came by telling people about an impending earthquake within the next 24 hours; the information was also on many TV stations. My first thought was, "Huh, they can't predict earthquakes?!" and went back to sleep. There was a 5.2 aftershock at around 2am Tuesday morning but I didn't notice. At Jinghu Hotel, where Leon was staying, Prof. Yan found him and "evacuated" out of his hotel room. When I got up the next morning, there were a lot more people sleeping outside in tents or just in the open.

I'm pretty surprised that most people believed the warning/prediction. Being from California where earthquakes are a daily occurrence, we know there is no reliable way to predict earthquakes with any precision or accuracy. Most of the predictions are more statistical, telling us that there is an x% chance of a large earthquake during the next so many years; definitely nothing good enough to get me to sleep outside in the rain.

First tent sighting along the road to the airport.

More tents along the road near our old factory. There is an open sewer that runs behind the row of tents.

Chengdu Trip #5: HKG to CTU

The flight to Chengdu was only half-full. Typically this flight is pretty full with business people and tourists. This time, there were two teams of rescue volunteers and a handful of other passengers on the flight. Likewise, clearing customs took all of 15 seconds though they started scanning people's luggage on the way out. I was a bit worried since I was carrying a couple of diamond tipped bandsaw blades for PMI but the customs people didn't stop me.

Countryside near Chengdu airport. Not much earthquake damage in this area.

I think this is a municipal courthouse. All the flags were at half-mast.

The brand new IKEA building is still standing.

From the airport, we went to check out the new factory to see if there was any earthquake damage. There were a few cracks in the exterior wall but no structural damage. The building is pretty much complete and most of the interior as well. Amazingly, when I first came to Chengdu exactly one year ago, it was still a patch of dirt.

PMI fab 1. Worker already patched most of the exterior cracks but we may need to repaint the entire building.

Main customer entrance. I'm pretty unhappy about the "no space" after the period.

Some of the new furnaces delivered to the new factory waiting to be installed.

We also drove around the high-tech development zone and saw minor damage on some other buildings. The west high-tech area is about 10km closer to the epicenter than downtown Chengdu so you would expect more building damage. Finally, I went to the bank to exchange some money. I have an account at the local Bank of China branch and I wired some money to myself from my WaMu account. The exchange rate is only 6.96 RMB/USD; it was about 7.45 a year ago.

Intel packaging plant. There was no visible damage outside but we received several interior photos of wall damage. I think they’re shut down for at least two weeks.

Superficial structural damage on SMIC's fab in Chengdu. No idea if there is any damage inside.

All along the way, I saw many tents along the street and in any open area. A lot of people are still afraid of returning to their apartments due to the fear of large aftershocks or even another major earthquake. Most of these "tents" are not real tents we use during camping trips but plastic tarp covering makeshift wooden frames. Entire families are hanging out next to major streets, sleeping or playing cards.

I was really tired after being up for ~48 hours so I crashed as soon as got to the apartment.