Wednesday, 19 September 2007

House Hunting

I have written before about the contrasts in China, and that these are what you love or hate about the country. Well these contrasts are more evident in Shanghai than majority of cities I have visited.
I guess most people have an affinity with Shanghai, they have either visited, or the have seen the skyline and the building’s from films such as Lara Croft, Mission Impossible and James Bond (Not to mention Paul Merton’s recent TV series), so everyone has an image of what they will see before they arrive – what TV, Films, Magazines and news articles don’t show you are the extremes of the everyday people who live, work and play in this enormous city.

Just across the HuangPu River in Pudong, you have an area called Lujiazui, this is where the worlds financiers have located and contains probably the most famous sights of Shanghai, The Pearl Tower, Jin Mao Tower, HSBC Bank and an assortment of the best hotels in the world. Here you will find the usual pin stripped men and women of the financial world, a place to work, eat, sleep and play, along with the thousands of tourist that visit each day.

On the other side of the river you will find the Puxi area of Shanghai, is where the first modern day foreigners settled, and gave rise to the famous Bund area with its colonial architecture, nearby a district called the French concession, which as the name suggests was an area set aside for the French during the Foreign occupation of the city, it is still inhabited by many foreigners and is a chic, cosmopolitan area. Where dozens of fancy restaurants mingle with classy boutiques and designer hotels.

The choices of where to live in Shanghai are enormous, unlike Nanjing where you can only select between half a dozen or so expat compounds – the accelerated growth, and invasion of the foreigners in Shanghai, has led to a building boom for high class, extremely expensive and in some cases bizarre housing compounds, all designed to make us foreigners feel at home.
Several of these have been the focus of reports before; probably the most famous of these is the Thames Town complex (which isn’t actually in Shanghai, its about 35Km outside in a place call Songjiang), this is a pastiche of all things English – including windmills, churches, village greens, mock Tudor houses, corner shops and small bars – all of which are deserted.
When we decided to move to Shanghai we limited our choices due to 2 distinct factors, The first being that having experienced traffic in big Chinese cities, we realised that it that it takes twice as long to get anywhere, and our desire not to have our children spend hours travelling to and from School, meant that we would choose somewhere that was local to the school of our choice, and secondly I would be working quite far out of the city and needed somewhere with good transport links to my work.

The injection of foreigners has seen an enormous growth in foreign schools, these employ English speaking teachers from around the world – they charge exorbitant rates for an education that finds itself tending to non-English speakers, rather than providing advanced education for private school money. Not a great situation, but then beggars can be choosers! We had decided that the British International School in Puxi, fitted our 2 criteria best – so all that was left was to identify somewhere to live.

Close to the school are many housing compounds, in many different styles. The closest 3 are the Shanghai Racquet Club, a resort based on the club med way of life, with apartment living in low rise structures, individual swimming pools dotted around each building, and a fantastic club house with professional tennis courts and coaches, a sprawling pool, large gym, squash courts, 2 restaurants, a shop and a beauty salon, all of this without a cash register in site – you pay with a membership card and settle your bill at the end of each month. The place has a holiday club atmosphere about it all, and caters to those who want to completely forget that they are in China.

The next and the most impressive is a place called Forest Manor, this has to be one of the most prestigious housing developments in the world, yes I did say world. Each house is individually designed, with rents ranging from $8000 per month, up to a staggering $32,000 per month. For that you get your own replica Whitehouse, including men in black style guards whispering into earpieces, and your very own golf buggy to help you ferry the kids back and forth to the lavish club house.
Well the choice we made wasn’t as ostentatious as Forest Manor (our budget barely got us past the security gate to have a look!), and the Racquet club just didn’t feel real – I love going on holiday because it is something different, living in a resort complex for more than a few weeks, seems more like hell than heaven to me!
We fell in love with our chosen abode as soon as the electric gates opened, and our car past under the hacienda style entrance. It’s hard to explain exactly what it’s like, but imagine a cross between Bonanza, High Chaparral and the BBC soap Eldorado. With grapevines hanging from the carport, lime trees in the garden and whitewashed villas dotted around creeks and plantations, its incredibly beautiful, strangely authentic and completely surreal experience – quite what the dozens of local workers who tend to the gardens, empty the rubbish, clean the swimming pools and man the security think heaven only knows – to be honest I’m not quite sure what to make of it either, but while the sun is shining and I can reach out from my garden chair to pick a lime for my bottle of local beer – life is pretty good!
To think that only 30 minutes away from our Spanish / Mexican style dwelling, you can be amongst a forest of skyscrapers, 20 minutes a range of colonial buildings, 15 minutes from the tree lined avenues of the French quarter and never more than 5 minutes away from enormous tower blocks that provide the majority of accommodation for the 17 million inhabitants of Shanghai, in fact I was discussing this with a movie producer who said that China was quickly becoming the place to shoot movies, and was on the brink of an explosion due to the variety and availability of real life sets, cheap labour, inexpensive hotels and an ever improving access from the Chinese official’s. Why was I speaking to a movie producer? Well someone has had the foresight to make a film about the trials and tribulations associated with MG-Rover, PVH and NAC MG debacle – not sure if it will ever make the spotlight of Hollywood or even Bollywood, but I imagine the households of Nanjing and Longbridge will be glued to their goggle boxes!

Sunday, 9 September 2007

It takes all sorts!

Many months ago when I started this BLOG, I didn’t feel it necessary to introduce the company I worked for – well at least the brand. MG has to be one of the most well known brands across the world - better known than I ever imagined!
Whenever I was in new company and asked, “Whom do you work for?” “Nanjing Auto”, or “NAC MG” would always get the same response “Who?” Whenever I responded with “MG”. The response was always – oh “Rover”, “Yes I know – didn’t they used to make funny sports cars” or “My granddad used to own an MG”!
So you see outside the circle of enthusiasts (Or Chinese!) it will always be a reference back to the hey day’s of the British Motor industry – but at least it is always something I could explain fairly easy, and the majority of people would identify with the company or the brand fairly quickly. My new company of choice doesn’t quite have the same global identity – or does it?

I spent the last couple of weeks in the UK, a time to reflect on what has happened, and the future – but also a time to meet up with old and new friends. The conversation always started with – “So I hear you have left MG, who are you working for now?” If I answered with “MBH” (Manganese Bronze Holdings), “LTI “(London Taxis International) or “GEELY” I received the same response “Who?” Admittedly once I explained that LTI are the company that build the Iconic London Taxi – everyone instantly understood – maybe not the company, but at least the product!
So to save me going through the same explanation several hundred more times – I thought I would use my BLOG to give a brief explanation of the companies, and the product that will absorb my life for the next who knows number of years!

The actual company I work for is a joint venture between separate entities, MBH (British) and GEELY (Chinese). This is an important fact, mainly because most of us have seen the rest of the UK manufacturing industry disappear in to foreign ownership. This is in fact an expansion. MBH (The owners of LTI) have seen good growth in their European and North American expansion programmes, and can see the enormous potential for growth in Asia – to do this you need an Asian partner, which is where GEELY come in.

GEELY were the first private carmaker in China, and their story is incredible. Shufu Li Founded the company in 1998, he was born in 1963 into a farming family, and his personal rag to riches story requires a full BLOG entry on its own. I actually got to meet the guy personally, a few weeks ago, and was incredibly impressed by his powerful presence yet quiet demeanor.
He has headed up an automotive company that produced a only handful of vehicles in 1998 through to a planned production of 300,000 vehicles in 2007.
With a business plan that simply identified a market, filled it and made money from it - simple but very effective. Whilst everyone else fought over the middle class and business purchasers – GEELY provided what the majority needed, economical, simple and reliable forms of transport. His empire has expanded to building factories all over China and exports to over 40 countries (compare that to NAC MG’s or even MG-Rover’s recent performance!). Having secured the lower end of the car market, GEELY now has ambitions on the rest of the automotive sectors (Just take a look at the latest vehicles to see where those ambitions lie).

Not satisfied with there global passenger car plans, GEELY Identified a market for a purpose built taxi, and have decided to join forces with LTI, to engage in a program of vehicle development, that will see the Iconic London Taxi as the first product being built from the partnership.

The history of LTI is quite different to GEELY’s, and is probably a more familiar tale of rise and fall!
To those “in the industry” it is still referred to as “carbodies”, the original name for the company that started in Coventry as far back as 1919 .
That name was very appropriate because it built separate vehicle bodies to supply the UK’s expanding motor industry, including providing every cabriolet body for all of Fords products up to 1964, and supplying bodies for companies such as Rolls Royce and Bentley, however it was probably most famous for supplying the body of the FX3 to Austin (MG link!), this became the most recognized form of the London Hackney Cab (Black Cab, London Taxi etc.) of all time. In 1959 it took over this business from Austin, and became a full vehicle producer. Building a variety of London Taxi themes over the years, and changing hands several times during the process it finally became part of MBH in 1973, and it changed from the original “Carbodies” name to LTI (London Taxis International) in 1984.

I guess whilst the company is interesting in itself – the history of the London Taxi is even more fascinating.

The history of the London Black Taxi goes back as far as 1625, when they were operated by inn keepers to ferry drunken soles home after hours (nothing changes there then!), the 1st Taxi rank opened outside the Maypole Inn on The Strand (London).
Soon after this Charles the 1st, and then Oliver Cromwell set up legal rulings to control the industry, and over the years the rules governing the industry, have been developed and now build into ensuring that London arguably has the best Taxi service in the world!

The design of the vehicle derives from some of the weird and wonderful laws that surround the vehicle regulations – called the “conditions of fitness”. For example:
The height of the vehicle comes from its requirement to seat a gentleman without him having to remove his bowler hat! (This has been preserved due to the vehicles current need to seat a wheel chair passenger).
The driving position, and that of the front wheels is all to do with the fact that the turning circle needs to be within 25ft (7.6m). A requirement that stems from the fact that the original taxi’s were horse drawn, and were required to travel down the centre of the road, to prevent the horse manure from blocking up the drains or fouling the pavements!

The entrance itself must not be more than 15 inches (38cm) above road level – again harking back to a time before kerbs and footpaths. All of this goes into ensuring that the shape of the vehicle is far more famous than the badge that adorns each cab – I cant think of anything else similar, but would welcome suggestions!

Other interesting, but maybe not pertinent facts about London Taxis

The London Taxi is also (and properly) referred to as “Hackney Carriage”, the word Hackney derives from the French “hacquenee”, which literally means ‘ambling nag’ which is a reference back to the horses that used to pull the carriages.

The term CAB, comes again from the French for ‘Jump like a Goat’. As the original cabs came from France and used to bounce over the cobbles of Londons Streets.

Wilhelm Bruhn invented the taximeter in 1891, and is where the term ‘TAXI’ comes from. Taxe from the French for ‘Price’ and ‘metron’ from the Greek for ‘measure’.

London Taxis don’t have to stop when you hail them, legally Taxis are only plying for business when they are stopped, and cannot refuse a fare under 6 miles or one that will take less than 1 hour.

London Taxi drivers are not legally obliged to give change. If you pay with the incorrect change, they can insist on sending the change to the passenger’s home by post!

Only 1% of London’s Taxi drivers are women.

So as you can see, a very strange joining of companies, but then as my dad would say – it take’s all sorts!