Monday, 24 May 2010

Suzhou - Day 3

Playing Musical Chairs, Tough Titty on Soft Hiney and Solving Mystery Cases on the CRH Express

semi-overcast 26 °C

Suzhou Train Station
We caught the HSR to go back to Shanghai. We wanted to grab some chow before boarding the train. Didn't see much actions around Suzhou Railway Station except for KFC.

KFC has greater penetration in China than Macky, in fact, I've hardly came across any Double Golden Arches thus far. I guess Chinese are more into chickens than burgers. Also the chicken meats in KFC are, as far as I can see, not breasts. Like all Chinese, I prefer all other tasty parts of a chicken (or any other animals) instead of the blander breast part (Westerners actually prefer breasts (while others prefer blonds)).

I'm not a big fan of Colonel Sanders, but can't say I hate his 11 secret herbs & spices or his nicely pressed attire of the Southern Gentlemen of Leisure. I'll be damned, sounds like there ain't nothing I have against the colonel at all, y'all hear? Etta wanted some twisters but they run out, and so we settled for chicken popcorns. I also ordered a Portuguese tart (who can say no to a Portuguese tart? No Portuguese chicken here though).

KFC, Suzhou Train StationLike many fastfood restaurants KFC tried to add local flavours into their menu. A large poster advertising that they're adding rice dishes starting June (won't be here to see its debut). I remember I ordered a sugarcane juice in either HK or Singapore few decades ago (but don't ask me what I have for breakfast this morning. Can't possibly remember something so recent). We give the chicken popcorn a thumbs up. The Portuguese tart is a inter-cultural marriage between Chinese and Portuguese cooking. And my review of this mixed marriage is as best, mixed. Still, edible. Or should I say, eatable? For drinks we ordered a freshly squeezed lime on the rocks. Quite refreshing.

Perhaps, the greater KFC's market share relative to Macky's comes from KFC's successful localisation of their menus like those I pointed out above: non-breast chicken parts, addition of rice dishes, Portuguese tart, lime, and Chinese herbs and spices, etc. I'm sure Macky's had attempted similar strategy, but their market share reflects that they're being thrashed by KFC in their game of tempting the Chinese taste buds.

Western ideas and tastes aren't widely accepted at this point in time. So if Macky's think they can replicate in China what they have pulled off in HK and Singapore thinking these 2 countries are also Chinese dominated culture, then they have to think twice. China isn't HK or Singapore. At least, not when it comes to food. These two ex-colonies have been Westernised for at least 2.5 - more like 3 - generations. Middle income Chinese Singaporean speak English to each other frequently in social situation, and virtually all the time in work/business situations. Chances are, Macky's is fully aware of the situation, but just not as good as KFC when it comes to reading the Chinese taste buds, and come up with the goods.  They need to read the taste buds as closely - if not more so - than the Chinese physician reading their patients' tongues.

In fact, my experience tells me that these localisations are even more localised than one imagined. When a group of workers gather around in social situation in Shanghai. They usually speak Mandarin when they want to communicate to wider audience. As the dinner progressed, the Shanghainese all started to speak Shanghainese among themselves, leaving the people who can speak Mandarin only cold. What I'm saying is that these fastfood restaurants can not simply come up with a very successful localised menus in Shanghai and thinking it's going to work for the whole of China. Cantonese taste-buds are quite subtle and mild, while Sichuan people think their tongues have stopped working if their tongues aren't numbed by their Sichuan chili, and Shanghainese would probably think the market has run out of salt if their food isn't salty enough. Of course, I'm pointing out the broad strokes while the subtle differences in tastes are as myriad as the number of taste buds we have. China may have the world's largest market, but they're all very fragmented. Chinese are fussy eaters. It isn't going to be easy selling food to Chinese. It's like trying to sell camels to Australian. Australian sell camels to Arabs. They also sell sake to Japanese. And rice to Chinese. Maybe the Aussies are working on selling apple pies to the Yanks. Just you wait...

Selling English language, would be much easy than food because you don't have local competitors (only foreign competitors), and there's a huge shortage. Many English teachers became celebrities. Kathy Flower from UK became the most recognisable face in China in the 1980's. She hosted a English language TV program called "Follow Me".

Dashan (= 大山 = "Big Mountain" = Mark Rowswell) is the most famous Canadian (not just for his height) - if not Westerner - in China in the early 2000s. He hosts a language program on CCTV-News where he teaches Chinese to foreigners. English is the one thing you can sell to China that has a clear distinct advantage over the local competitors (not to mention a sense of mission). This isn't so different from a situation in Japan even today despite the much higher percentage of English speakers in Japan relative to China (about 11%). Teacher (老师 Laoshi) is a highly respected title in China (Confucius was one. Need I say more?).

Speaking of language and Mandarin, I must say I have more problem understanding it in Shanghai than I have in Singapore. The number of different accents are bewildering. Of course, I sometimes have problem being understood as well because of my Aussie English cum Cantonese accent (ok, my talent agent described my accents as 'Australian'). But the problem is skewed towards one direction - me understand them. The 'locals' I likely had contact with were migrants from other provinces who come to Shanghai to work in occupations like cabbies, hotel staff, waitstaff, masseuses, etc. But nothing a little patience, repetition and elbow grease - in the form of hand gestures, sign language - can't solve. Although gesticulation in a cab does pose somewhat of a challenge. For people who intend to backpack across China, you'd better learn some basic Chinese in different accents to get anywhere. Or get one of those universal translator thingy that speaks. I bought one (from loyalty points I accumulated) and have never used it. Didn't need it, so far.

When we boarded the CRH bullet train, there was a flurry of mad rush into the coaches by some local passengers. At first, I read this as impatience. All seats are allocated, so what's the hurry? I soon solved this train mystery (without any help from Agatha Christie, maybe in spirit). We entered the wrong carriage/coach. So we were still trying to locate our seats while the train had already in motion. When we did arrive at our seats, they were occupied by a couple. We told them that they were in our seats, and without putting up an expected fight, in fact, without even checking their tickets, they vacated the seats promptly. This mystery of civil behaviour calls for urgent investigation. I had no choice in this matter!

It was soon dawned on me that besides 1st Class ticket (aka Soft Seat Coach), and 2nd Class ticket (aka Hard Seats Coach), there's a 3rd Class tickets, better known as 'No Seats' Coach. I suspect CRH sells a small percentage of tickets in this class to make up for the usual losses for things like last minute cancellations or changes, passengers who couldn't make it, or most likely scenario: less than 100% bookings. I don't know the percentage nor do I think this is public info. I could be wrong. But judging from the number of people who squatted or stood in an area between carriages, they're under 5%. Of course, the percentage should be or is dynamic, and inversely proportional to peak hours. Say, 5% at off-peak hours, and 0% at peak hour.

The couple that got kicked out by us were apparently bought 'No Seats' tickets. Since the train has already left the station, the 'Standing Only' couple simply didn't account for a couple of silly, and take-it-easy Aussie buggers like us. This Aussie laid-back culture should be quite an eye-opener for them where everything works on first-in-best-dressed basis. The mystery about the initial rush into the train was due to the 'No Seats' ticket holders playing musical chairs with the vacant seats. I don't believe this 'Standing Only' coach is available to longer distance train ride (don't know what defines 'long distance'). Anyway, that's that for the double mysteries of "The Case of Some Passengers Rushing onto the CRH Express", and "The Case of way too Cooperative Passengers on the CRH Express". Cases closed.

We were disappointed yesterday because we couldn't book the Soft Seat Coach for this return trip from Suzhou. This couple of laid-back, pampered Aussies will have to put up with some tough titty on our soft hineys. The Hard Seats we found ourselves in turned out to be quite comfy, and spacious too. In fact, this 'Hard Seats' are a lot softer than the seats on new Sydney suburban trains, which were quite hard because of the steel mesh that are designed to prevent sabotage by a thousand cuts. Random, and senseless vandalism doesn't seem to exist in China or Asia in general. This CRH train is newer than the one we arrived in Suzhou. The seats are slightly narrower than the 1st Class as there're 5 seats in a row instead of the 4 in 1st Class coach. Even in the 2nd Class coach, only 4 seats in a row in the first and last few rows in the carriage to make the aisle bigger near the doorway to reduce traffic bottlenecks. Good design. The leg room in the 2nd Class are practically the same. We placed our large, 22kg luggage in front of Etta's seat, and she still had adequate leg room (not a comment on the length of her legs. She can reach the gas peddle in our sport car. She may have problem in Lexus. But we will never have the luck to find out, however).

Again, the time from Suzhou to Shanghai is practically identical to the reverse trip in 35 mins. It was a much more satisfying trip than we envisaged for a 2rd Class coach. 1st class experience. Thumbs up to CRH.

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