Living in a Ghost Town

Taipei, Taiwan

The pictures looked great online.  And having no knowledge of the terrain, we judged it not so far from the subway station.

Only 20 minutes away by bus, they said.

After living in small apartments for the past three and a half years, we were ready for an upgrade.  It was an unimaginable size for us, over 1,500 square feet, which in most Asian cities is a mansion.

Little did we know, after settling in, that we were living in a typical Chinese ghost town, developed one of those mainland developers starting with the letter ‘V’.

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In our building of 22 floors, we’ve counted about five families.  We see the same faces in the lobby.  A twin building next door to us, reserved only for owners, has one actual tenant, judging by the lights at night.

Inexplicably, about five of the lights come from homes with no curtains, whose owners just decide to keep their lights on for some reason.  Maybe to ward off ghosts, maybe to give the impression to prospective buyers that the community is not so deserted.

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I’ve wandered a lot of ghost towns and shopping centers in China over the past few years, and the thing that sticks out to me the most, is how quickly a development can be overtaken by nature.

Make no mistake, we are all here by the grace of the planet and not long after we’re gone, there will be no trace.  For an unmaintained building, the process might take less than a year, if that.

Next to us a set of villas have a plastered wall around them, literally whitewashing over the fact that they lie in a decrepit, dilapidated state, although you can glimpse the broken windows, missing walls, above them.

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But our twin buildings are pristine.  The staff who work here, outnumber the residents, and it results in an echo chamber of a residence where you are never really out of surveillance range.

Four children under the age of 10 live across forty-four floors of residences, and two of them walk to a school down the street.  And the whole way, from their exit out of our buildings, to the corner of the development, and finally to the converted villa that is their school, vigilant guards with walkie-talkies announce their progress.

Of course, it’s nice living here.  It’s serene.  When the weather is right, you can see almost the entire expanse of Taipei.  And sometimes when it’s cloudy below, it’s sunny up here.  Other times, the clouds envelop us, making it seem as if we’re literally floating.  And there are no problems with our building.  In fact, it’s like a 22-story hotel being maintained for just the ~20 of us.

All of it is maintained, but at what cost?

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where all this is being maintained profitably.

Especially since next door lays a work-in-progress, triplet of a tower that has been under construction for the past few years, where a single worker shows up several days of the week to operate a drill that reverberates loudly throughout the entire neighborhood, but is otherwise ineffectual.

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I can’t help but note that if this building were located anywhere else in China, where there was an actual market for this stuff, the whole building would be taken to completion from its present state, in a matter of weeks, if not days.

I have a problem with the way the media portrays China’s “ghost towns”, because a lot of the developments are in a state of waiting, built in advance of the demand.  Sometimes they actually do fill in over time, while sometimes they don’t.

But I’ve always had an underlying anxiety with isolation.  And this lays bare why.

Something so far from an urban center has great costs to maintain.  The cleaners and clerks commute here by scooter or bus.  The landscaping.  The maintenance of two minibuses an hour that service the residences.  It all seems fragile.  Because if for some reason the owner of the development decided one day to stop financing it, it would no doubt within a few years, look as if no one had ever lived here.

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What I Learned in the Jungle

 

Last week, a client called me to join him for a site visit in the jungles of Southeast Asia.  It was the first time I had ever been sent a packing list that included things like: emergency rations, waterproof boots, first aid kit, and “materials for showering in the river”.

One thing I learned was that unlike later models, iPhone 5’s are not waterproof, especially when your kayak tips over in a tributary to the Mekong River.

Another thing I learned was that fire ants blend in really well to tree branches, and that ignoring the packing list’s suggestion for “hiking gloves” was not a good idea.  And that no matter how many times you dunk your hands in the river, fire ants do not wash off.

Now, one cool thing I learned was that inside caves, you can be surrounded by total darkness, and if there’s a hole at the top of the cave, the sun really does shine like a light beam through the blackness, in almost a straight line.  Kind of like a movie effect, Indiana Jones-style.

One last thing.  We toured a number of rice paddies with other members of the team, who were Malaysian farmers.

What I had assumed about agricultural practices in not only Southeast Asia, but around the world, was that if generations of farmers had been farming rice for about 10,000 years, it must be pretty optimized, right?

But no.  The consultants pointed out seed spacing problems.  They pointed out the use of inferior fertilizers.  They pointed out the fact that despite an abundance of water, many of the fields were not irrigated properly, if at all.  They basically said that yields could be increased by 50% to 300%, easily.

In many places in Southeast Asia, farmers often ‘forget’ the practices of their grandparents.  Exacerbating this is that use of GMO crops make them indebted and dependent on large companies for their livelihood, as GMO crops do not seed.

It strikes me that something so fundamental and as ancient a technology as farming can be forgotten in just a few decades.

I don’t have any profound realizations related to this except just a reminder that life, on all fronts, is subject to entropy and decay: what things in my own life, and what practices or values in our society are we forgetting?

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Elements: Osmanthus

Cherry blossoms get all the attention, while this one is a nondescript, sturdy green bush.  It’s easy to just walk by it.

But stand anywhere in its vicinity with the lightest of breezes, and suddenly you’ll catch a whiff of something that smells like what a plant bearing fruits of Hi-Chew would smell like, unbelievably sweet, almost fantastical.  It smells like what the inside of a cartoon would smell like.  It is hard to describe.  It is hard to believe that a plant would have this scent.

And their scent is agonizingly faint, because even in full bloom its flowers are sparse and tiny.  Walk amidst a grove of them, and its fragrance flits in and out like a nostalgic memory.  Tenuous to the grasp, but evocative of something unbridled – joy?

These trees – osmanthus, sweet olive, being some of its names – are everywhere in Asia, but again, cherry blossoms get all the attention.

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You can barely even see the flowers, can you?

Elements: Jiufen, Taiwan

Jiufen is an old mining town in Taiwan and is famous for a traditional old retail street.  The street is a market that winds down narrow alleys, giving it a souq-like atmosphere.

On the weekends, the amount of people visiting gives it a feel like you’re in Downtown Disney – packed full of people walking in either direction, not exactly leisurely.

But it’s famous for a reason.  The elevation and its placement on the hillside also gives you charming, wonderful vistas like this one.

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So much so, that it was reportedly an inspiration for Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.  You might see the resemblance.

What is the essential element of this place that gives it magic?

1.  The stairways and elevation changes give it a lot of charm.  You don’t know what’s around the corner, and you have a lot of views that are uncommon.

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2.  Red lanterns: lighting is huge, and by stringing these everywhere, basically it gives the night market a special glow.  Warm, inviting, a little magical.  Lighting can be a huge signature, and you can really see the difference here when you compare the market during the day versus the evening.  So simple.

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3.  Vibrant tenant mix.  I’ve consulted on a lot of projects where clients try to artificially create this kind of retail entertainment.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but usually where projects like this fail, is that everyone spends time on creating an incredibly fantastic, magical environment and less time on the actual substance of the place – it’s great to have spectacular surroundings, but what will people actually end up doing?

Shopping, eating, being entertained – and that is delivered by the individual tenants themselves.  Ensuring a vibrant, authentic, sometimes irreverent tenant mix is the absolute key.

If you really think about it, and decompose Jiufen into its elements, that last one is really the secret to its success.  There’s nothing so crazy about stringing up red lanterns, or narrow alleys.  But the reason it’s like Disneyland on a summer weekend, with a crush of people walking in either direction, is because of the combination of all three of those elements.

The other place I’ve seen this is in Hongyadong, in Chongqing, which is arguably more fantastic and magical looking than Jiufen.  You can take the whole sight of Hongyadong in, at a glance, but you can’t put the architecture or structures of it into any category.  You can’t even tell where it starts or stops, or what anything even is.  It’s hands down the craziest piece of real estate I’ve ever seen.  Below:

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Do yourself a favor and Google ‘hongyadong’.  It’s really one of the most insane structures I’ve ever seen.

And inside, it’s much of the same.  Chongqing is a hilly city, and you need to climb narrow winding stairs to get anywhere.  Once inside, you’re greeted by a crush of people, restaurants, shops, like you’ve arrived at a magical floating island.

Back to Jiufen.  Teahouses are one of the essential places to visit in Jiufen.  And there’s a lot to be said about Chinese teahouses.

This is the one we visited in Jiufen.

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The apothecary-like counter and cabinets holding a variety of teas, accessories, paraphernalia imbues the place with a special, bespoke touch.  You get the feeling they’re sifting through all these pots and bottles for the tea that you and you alone ordered, mixing it in the exact proportions right for you.  They possess an arcane knowledge of teas, the depths of which are mysterious and a world to be explored.

The teapots on the counter look industrious.  You get the feeling that something is always brewing 🙂

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The individual seat compartments are divided by dark woods and stone, and spaced at perfect intervals.  Solid, subdued materials surround you and invite quiet contemplation.

One day I’d like to develop such a place, but it’ll be one dedicated to chocolate.

A Real Estate Career: Lessons Learned (2014-2015)

In 2014, my tax business was winding down, and during the summer I was getting anxious again.

As these things tend to happen, while randomly talking to a friend, he asked me if I wanted to join his hedge fund as an analyst.

Completely putting aside the fact the position was in Hong Kong, I accepted.  And for the next 18 months, I helped them analyze real estate and Korean stocks.

This was my first real job in finance.

When you work in finance, you get spoiled – especially if you’re on the buyside, and you have all sorts of service providers working for you.

Finance draws hard-charging, intelligent, and driven types, and when you have Ivy Leaguers and graduates of Asia/Europe’s top 10 universities as your service providers – your bankers, brokers, traders, accountants, and researchers, well, I’m not sure I’ll ever have that level of service again.  Emails were written to me in clear prose.  If there was a problem, I received a phone call explanation within seconds.  Things got scheduled, presentations were efficient, full of information, and if I asked for anything, things just got done.  No one passed the buck, and if they did, it was to actually find the person who could solve the problem, and these problems got solved in hours, if not minutes.

Sigh.  Maybe this is the daily reality for many people, but for me it was new.  This meant that literally all I had to do was focus on the thing I had been hired to do, which was to stay plugged into the markets, pore through financials and industry reports, think, and analyze.

Never before in my life had I woken up so early, before 6, to catch the bus into Central to start fielding the calls and get work done before the Korean and Japanese markets opened at 8am.  Never had I had so much energy as when I was plugged into the information flow and market chatter every day, hearing from analysts, companies, and brokers spanning Tokyo to Mumbai.  The financial markets are an arena where the biggest game in the world – the exchange of capital – is played out on a daily basis, against some of the smartest people, with huge sums of money at stake.

And looking back at that time, that’s what I miss the most.  There’s no feeling or job quite like working in the financial markets – the pace, the energy.  It’s like being plugged into an IV of chatter and information and raw sentiment.  You can actually feel, around town, when the markets are up or down.

Now onto the actual job.

Our fund had a value bent, which meant that we were looking for undervalued or overvalued companies to buy or sell.  Before joining, I had a romanticized notion that it was all about digging through data and research, coming up with some sort of brilliant, deviant opinion and using that to make money.

There is that.  But I learned I was quite naive, because identifying the stock to buy/sell is only a fraction of the job.

Being good at analysis, and picking the right name, is only one leg of the stool.  It doesn’t matter if you’re good at analysis if you buy in at the wrong time or sell at the wrong time.  It also doesn’t matter if you buy/sell too much or too little of it, or if you can’t or don’t have the conviction to hold during the hard times.  Also, since you’re never going to be 100% right, 100% of the time, you have to be constantly evaluating your own decisions, your decision-making process, your own thoughts, in context with the present and history of the market.

In short, not only do you have to be brilliantly analytical, you have to have the instincts of a gambler to size and time the bet, the temperament of a stoic to not let gains or losses affect you, and the introspection of a monk.

Only by getting all four of those things right, can you succeed in the job, and it’s why investing is so hard.

It’s always been my opinion that investing is the best interdisciplinary exercise you could ever conduct, or learn.  And one of the biggest reasons is for the last point above.

Constantly evaluating your own thinking and process for making decisions will serve you well not only in investing, but in life in general, and is the foundation for success in general.

At the fund, though, I found myself teetering on the edge of this.  If you’re not careful, endless introspection can lead you to have massive self-doubt all the time, and start going down epistemological rabbit holes, like ‘how do I know I know this’, or ‘am I sure that I know this, and with what probability, and how do I know this probability is even correct’.

In my job, I found a lot of parallels to surfing.  The financial markets do not have sympathy or other human sentiments, just like the ocean.  You can’t fight them, just as you can’t fight or force a wave to do anything.  You can only react to what’s given to you.  You can’t argue about rightness or wrongness.  The markets, and the ocean alike, do not care about you.

Working in the markets is one of the most humility-inducing jobs you can have, and those who get arrogant get crushed.

In many ways, the job gave me an appreciation for knowledge in general.  When you can sit in a room with extremely intelligent people discussing a company, and everyone has extremely divergent, completely opposite viewpoints and opinions on the company’s prospects, you begin to see that it’s hard to purport to ‘know’ or declare anything with certitude.

And that states of the world are best expressed in probabilities, and the smartest people are always questioning and changing their minds.  They’re comfortable with uncertainty, and don’t let it paralyze them.

I learned a lot on the job, but that might have been the greatest lesson for me.

What I’ve Seen in China

Spending time in China is enough to convince you that you know nothing about it.

  • There is no architecture quite like the public architecture of the Communist Party.  Roads and sidewalks are massive, supposedly wide enough to drive tanks through.  The railroad stations are simply just the largest buildings I’ve ever seen or been in, looking like you could fly an A380 through them.  Government buildings are fronted by sidewalks that are like stadiums.  It communicates authority.  The scale is hard to comprehend if you’ve never been there.
  • The power of the state, in terms of it being manifested, is intermittent but ubiquitous.  After 950 AQI readings (~20 is healthy) on the air quality scale in Beijing, you can count on the next day being completely crystal blue.  How does this happen, is there a natural way?  It’s as if the air itself was reprimanded by the inner sanctum of the CCCP and told about the errors of its ways.
  • Blue skies are not taken for granted.  I once had a taxi driver take me from the airport in Chongqing to my hotel, and for the entire thirty minutes he was exclaiming loudly about how clear and blue the skies were, sticking his head out of the window, looking up, and yes – all while driving.  The air is indeed noxious, and during days when the readings are, say, above 300, visibility on the streets are as if you’re driving through fog.  Above 500, heavy fog.  Above 700, like you’re in a cloud.  The romantic side of me, on these days, can’t help but imagine myself back in London during the Industrial Revolution, or Chicago during the age of the railroads.  It must be what those cities were like: swarming seas of people, raucous roads, barely contained chaos, buildings rising impossibly fast, out of nowhere.
  • Is there another economy that has so many feverish booms and busts, in so compressed a timeframe?  Bubbles roil through the property market, then stock market, then private wealth products market, not necessarily in that order, but predictably every few years.  Technology companies are the same.  Two years ago, I started noticing a lot of green, orange, and yellow bikes on the road, with bike-sharing becoming huge there, way before it did anywhere else in the world.  A few months later, I saw entire sidewalks become parking lots for these bikes.  They were everywhere, the streets were filled with them.  A few months later still, I saw empty lots full of these bikes, rusting and old, unattended.  A few months later, I came back and saw nearly all of the bikes gone, and read that a lot of the companies had gone bankrupt.
  • Parts of the large cities – Shanghai, Shenzhen, Beijing – are more expensive, posh, and futuristic than equivalent places in London, Hong Kong, or New York.  And I will assume that they will only get even more so.
  • The line cutting is maddening and annoying.
  • But I can emphathize with some of it, as it is less a personal act of discourtesy, and more a symptom of an everyone-for-themselves, distrust of rules and the state that leads people to have this interesting mentality that there are rules and laws, there are taboos, and there are absolutely forbidden things that you must never do, and the intersection of those three things are like a Venn diagram – they are not one and the same.  I.e., everyone seems to use a VPN to access all the ‘forbidden’ websites, even at work, no one actually uses the metal detector machines in the subways, queues are optional, and most confoundingly to foreigners – contracts really don’t mean anything.
  • People are honest and straightforward.  They will tell you to your face that you look tired or if you’re fat, or if you need to eat.  In restaurants, you can regularly ask for things not on the menu.  You can ask and talk about anything, and people will tell you, as long as you avoid the subjects of Tibet and Taiwan.  Sometimes when we do market research, we literally go to our competitors and ask their frontline staff about stuff.  For a North/East Asian country, refreshingly informal and with a language devoid of hierarchy and formality.
  • When I first went to China, back in the winter of 2010, there was barely even a smartphone market.  I remember buying a used Nokia with a monochrome screen and using that.  Now just 7 years later, almost the entire population is on WeChat, which is a portal for everything from taxis, medical services, banking, and other payments.  Merchants in the middle of rural villages in China will prefer taking your cash over your credit card, but WeChat payments trump all.  In 2010, I remember my classmates telling me there was a huge difference between kids born in the late 80s and kids born in the 90s.  It was a seven-year difference we were talking about.  Now, you could probably feasibly move those endpoints to the 90s and aughts, and there would be even more of a generation gap still – think about it, two degrees of a generation gap in 20 years.
  • The resultant optimism, though, is refreshing.  This is a country that hasn’t had a major recession in twenty years – economic growth has always rounded to 10%.  Can you imagine that?  It means that everyone is down to try new things.  They’re figuring it out.  There’s no established tradition that needs to be followed, but nor are there established best practices.  In my field, it means that clients sometimes ask for – and expect – insane things that have never worked in the history of the world.  I’ve driven through 2nd and 3rd tier cities to the edge of the city, through rural villages, and then come face to face with resorts on the scale of Dubai.  I’ve driven deep into the mountains and seen waterslides and retail malls that wouldn’t be out of place in Orlando.  I’ve spelunked through entire cities where they built something, and no one showed up – yet.  To be clear, many of these insane projects and endeavors are destined for the dust-bin of history, but the risk-taking and dice-rolling is something to marvel at.
  • There seems to be no established dress code at most of the offices I visit.  Women wear skirts that are shorter than sexy nurse Halloween costumes, and tops that look like bright foliage.  Men wear business casual, loosely interpreted, like rocker boots and hawaiian shirts and whatever it is, it’s untucked.  Everyone is on their own phone during meetings.  Sometimes people answer their own phone during meetings and whisper into it without any repercussions from others.  Business cards were a thing for a few years, but it’s gone straight to WeChat.  Government officials will add you as contacts on WeChat and then send you funny memes.
  • It’s changing rapidly.  And on this note, a lot of the criticisms leveled against Chinese tourists abroad – rude, dismissive of lines, loud and obnoxious, pushy – I recall as things I thought about Koreans about 20 years ago.  Koreans of a certain age, say 50s, will fit this stereotype.  Social norms change and I can see them changing in China too.  Younger people have been abroad, studied abroad, and bring mores and expectations back home.

Basically, it’s growing at an exponential pace and everything you know about it now, will be wrong tomorrow.

If you are interested in the evolution of cultures, the study of cities, if you’re interested in seeing an economy and society change, if you’re interested in history or curious about what the future might look like, visit China.  Don’t miss it.

Elements: Hakone, Japan

Before Hakone, we were in Ginza.  Ginza is the quietest retail high street you’ll ever encounter in the world.  This is the 5th Ave/Rodeo Drive of Tokyo but you can carry on conversations at a whisper.  And the lights, all muted.  True class.

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A centuries-old ryokan.  It practically looks like the building has grown out of the same soil as the trees around it, the way it’s blended in so well.

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The ryokan where we stayed.  Simple wood, polished by decades (centuries?) of guests walking over it.  The wood creaked and bent – almost bounced – under your step.  I’d never had that feeling of walking on wood before, with so much give.

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The warm lighting in the hallway across this garden really makes this scene.  This was in the dead of winter, and it looks like the building promises warm hearths and fresh, hot tea for a traveler that’s come a long way.

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It’s hard to describe why the below scene affected me so much.  To the right of here is a shrine, and that red torii gate is the threshold to the sacred space.

As you stand here, the sun bursts through the crack in the trees in just the right way to light the moss verdantly.  The wind rustles the leaves gently and they sound like palms rubbing together, some sort of reverential gesture.  You have the sense that this space, which if you were in a hurry and passed by it looks completely ordinary – what with the street signs and electric wires – was hallowed.

And why was it hallowed?  Because of the torii gate?  The way the sun hit the trees?

Or maybe because the combination of all these things made you just stop.  Stop, and recognize the sacred or hallowed in the ordinary, which is the whole point of shinto and a core part of the Japanese aesthetic.

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There were very few things in the courtyard/garden of this temple.  But for some reason they looked artfully arranged.  I don’t know why the whole scene was so beautiful.  It just is.  The fact that the grounds were completely silent helped.

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But maybe the point of the space, with very few things in it, is precisely that there is space.

The space brings into greater relief the objects that are in the courtyard, like the bell and the beautiful trees.

Also, the space seems meaningful.  The space allows for things to grow, like the moss.  It provides space for the steps to the shrine.  It provides space for you to move through it.  The space is deliberately there, without space things cannot grow or develop or move.

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Elsewhere in Hakone, this was a restaurant.  And after eating there, you pass through this portal on your way out to the real world again.  The way this dark entryway framed the winter scene outside was astounding.  It wouldn’t have worked, I think, if the distance of this passage were any longer or shorter.

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I just love how these trees are gnarled with character.  Although the branches ended up growing in one general direction, they twisted and took corkscrew paths to get there.  It’s about the journey.

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