Friday, 23 June 2017

The Straddling Bus is Dead

This hybrid bus was supposed to alleviate traffic and air pollution -- not!
Guess it was too bizarre to be true.

The Chinese-designed "straddling bus" that was supposed to allow cars to run underneath it has reached the end of the road.

It was originally hailed as "the future of public transport" because it was supposed to be a bus-train hybrid that would create less air pollution and transport commuters faster by avoiding traffic jams.

Less than a year after its unveiling, the bus has gathered dust
However, the widely hyped vehicle in the city of Qinhuangdao was dogged by difficulties and controversies. Local residents complained that the straddling bus was a traffic obstacle, making it hard for cars underneath to see, while the straddling bus would have difficulties making turns and there were questions if it could sustain its own weight and that of its passengers.

"It can only run on wide and straight roads," said Sun Zhang, a transport professor at Tongji University in Shanghai. "In big cities where roads are winding and jammed [with traffic], such roads are in short supply."

State media outlet The Global Times criticized the project for being "stuck in a concept with no real breakthrough", and for not realistically taking traffic problems into account.

The paper was also critical of the Transit Elevated Bus (TEB)'s funding source using peer-to-peer investment platforms. Huaying Kailai, the parent company of TEB Tech, which was to produce the bus, had reportedly raised billions of yuan online by convincing investors they were getting in on the ground floor of the next big thing.

Workers are dismantling the test site in Qinghuangdao
But it seems the company spent less than 200 million yuan (US$29.2 million) on research and development. And it doesn't seem like the project was ever approved by local authorities, as many government departments denied any connection with the project or gave it their blessing.

So now workers have begun dismantling the test site and will demolish it by the end of the month. Meanwhile the giant vehicle that is covered in dust -- less than a year after its debut -- will be moved to a nearby parking lot to wait for further action.

The "straddling bus" is now officially a dud.

Wonder what the next big thing will be...

Thursday, 22 June 2017

China's Cheap Labour No More

There are still armies of factory workers -- but they want better pay to stay
On my first day at work in Beijing at a state media company in 2007, my new boss took me out to lunch and I remember him saying the supply of migrant workers was "limitless".

He believed (or wanted me to believe) there was an endless supply of cheap labour for factories.

I was very skeptical -- eventually the country would run out of migrant workers because everyone had one-child families save for ethnic minorities.

Ten years later I wish I could go back to him and say, "Remember you told me the supply of factory workers was 'limitless'? You were completely wrong!"

Workers come from the countryside and are hardly "limitless"
Factory owners are having a tough time not only finding but retaining workers these days.

Rising labour costs have led to a high turnover rate among factory workers. Wuhan University did a survey of factories in Guangdong and Hubei and found 26 percent of workers in the Pearl River Delta had changed jobs.

"With high turnover, they have to pay workers more to retain them," said Albert Park, one of the designers of the survey and is a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The average monthly wages in China rose to 4,126 yuan (US$603.78) per month in 2015, almost comparable to Brazil and much higher than developing economies like India and Vietnam.

In addition, in order to gain subsidies and tax benefits from the government, more than one-third of mainland factory owners try to gain favoritism from the state or the Communist Party. More than half surveyed received government subsidies, which account for 2.6 percent of their sales revenues.

Some factory owners resort to using robots to cut costs
About 23 percent of factory owners do this by serving in local parliaments and political consultative committees, while 39 percent are party members.

Because of rising labour costs, 40 percent of manufacturers in Guangdong and Hubei use robots in production. To Park, this means factory owners aren't sure demand will improve and so they are cautious about making large investments.

How much has changed in a decade! While we're pleased to know migrant workers are earning more money, the cost of living for them has increased too.

What they really need is access to education to further improve their employment opportunities. However, this is the next hurdle that really needs to be tackled so that children of migrant workers will at least see more hope for the next generation in terms of social and economic mobility.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

An Early Canada 150 Celebration

Red maple leaf-shaped cookies appropriate for the birthday event!
Tonight I went to a celebration for Canada's 150th for those living and working in Hong Kong. It was held in the ballroom of the Island Shangri-La and a lot of effort was put into organizing the event.

Walking into a hallway leading towards the ballroom, there was a giant long poster on both sides of the narrow corridor to give the impression you were walking into a forest. Once inside, one side of the room represented the west side of Canada, the other the east side.

Leung Chun-ying and Jeff Nankivell have a toast on stage
Not only were there gorgeous video images to show off the different areas of the country, but also food too. The side with British Columbia and Alberta had fantastic roast beef, fresh salmon and tuna, while the other side had mussels, lobster and ham.

There were also mini burgers, Ambrosia apple crumble, very chocolatey Nanaimo bars and maple bacon oatmeal chocolate chip cookies shaped like maple leafs.

Our relatively new Consul General Jeff Nankivell impressed the crowd packed into the room with his pretty good gweilo Cantonese and then joked that he now had our attention...

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was an honoured guest at the event. I wasn't sure how the audience would react, but on the whole they were supportive. Maybe it's because he's leaving in a matter of days so it didn't matter anymore?

He gave a lengthy speech, but not before praising Nankivell for his Cantonese. Leung explained that his parents came from northern China and when they came to Hong Kong tried very hard to speak the local lingo, but it sounded like the consul general's. That got a few laughs.

A video presentation showing the western provinces
Leung's speech was the usual spiel, and he had to throw in the Greater Bay Area and how Canadians can take advantage of that. Uh right. But he joked how Canada is turning 150 years old, but looks so young with a 45-year-old prime minister, and how Canada and Hong Kong share the same birthday.

Afterwards an Edmonton born singer Joyce Lee took to the stage and belted out Summer of '69 by Bryan Adams. Woohoo.

Perhaps most moving for me was singing the national anthem... I don't get to sing it often but when I do I feel very proud to represent my country.

My favourite time singing the national anthem was during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. I was taking the bus downtown to get to my shift at work to cover the Games when the bus driver announced we would sing O Canada. It was the best rendition ever.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Parking Spot Bubble

Parking spots are a hot commodity in Hong Kong for the uber rich
Hong Kong property analysts are saying people should invest in parking spaces because their value has risen 270 percent in the last 12 years.

A few days ago, a business executive paid a gobsmacking HK$5.18 million on a parking space in a residential development in Sai Ying Pun. It's not even Central.

One parking spot was sold here for HK$5.18 million
In 2005 the average price for a parking spot was HK$396,000, but as of April this year it's HK$1.47 million.

During the same 12-year period, flats rose 256 percent.

The reason for car parking spaces rising higher in value is that three government car parks have closed for redevelopment -- Tsuen Wan Transport Complex Car Park, the Middle Road Multi-storey Car Park in Tsim Sha Tsui, and Murray Road Car Park in Central.

Since 2013, the city has lost 1,888 parking spaces due to changing land use.

For the first five months of this year, prices for parking spaces have gone up 12 percent to an average of HK$1.46 million. During the same period, 3,013 parking spaces changed hands for a total value of HK$4.3 billion.

But if you're looking to break into the property market, owning a parking spot before having a roof over your head is absurd.

Murray Road Car Park (above right) has closed in Central
And how much rent can you charge for a parking spot? Not as much as if you rented the same amount of space to actually live in. It would take you forever to make back the money you paid for the spot. Not really financially viable.

Which makes parking spaces only in the realm of the super rich who need places to park their cars.

Real estate is not a game us ordinary folk will ever win at -- the rules keep changing to make it near impossible for us to have any kind of leg-up on the system.

So maybe speculating on parking spaces is the next big thing. Get ready for a really big bubble.