Review – Crazy Rich Asians (#books, #Asia, #wealth, #family)

Crazy Rich Asians

by Kevin Kwan, published 2014

On its surface, Crazy Rich Asians is a sordid story of dysfunction and social positioning within mega-wealthy sorta-nobility Chinese families originating in Singapore. It’s full of flashy outfits and the shocking shopping trips that put them in the characters wardrobes; over-the-top square footage and fully-furnished living arrangements in a part of the world known for nearly inhumane density and some of the highest real estate prices in the world; petty gossip like only those with too much time and money on their hands can engage in; oh, and wonderful, wonderful sounding food. For those reasons, it’s an entertaining read.

But just below the surface (not too far, mind you… these issues are philosophically auxiliary as far as I can tell, not intentionally contemplative like a work of classic literature) lie a series of family-planning and wealth-planning puzzles for the observant reader to consider. In no particular order, and with very minor spoilers, these puzzles are explored more below.

The first puzzle has to do with identity. When one of the main characters finds out that the early story of their family’s history is a fabrication, they are thrown into psychological turmoil and shock, their sense of self seemingly obliterated in a moments revelation. It begs the question “Who are you?” One answer is, you are your history, a series of factual contexts and accumulated decisions made up to any point in time at which you exist. Another answer is, you are whatever you believe you are– if you can convince yourself you are, than you are. This question is important for a few reasons. The first is that the way our brains function on a psychological level may require us to have certain beliefs about ourselves to maintain psychological integrity and thus enable us for other modes of action in the external world. We may be able to “constantly reinvent ourselves”, but only within a narrow band of experience or possibility, beyond that we are driven at a hardware level into anxiety and distress. Another reason this question is important is because it sheds light on how arbitrary our identities can be. If we can operate quite competently and confidently with a certain view of ourselves and our role in the world, even if this viewpoint is built on falsehoods, it suggests that what is important in terms of forming an identity is consistency of story, not accuracy. If someone can convince you you are the rightful king, maybe you are. If you come from a noble family but you’re told you’re a lout, maybe you will be. Where does one find “self” in all of this?

Related to this puzzle is parental relationships and the question, “Do you really want to know everything about your parents?” Each one of us is born into a world our parents have already been living for some time. We don’t know all the choices and ideas they had prior to our arrival and often we receive a filtered list of such information sporadically throughout our lives. We don’t have the ability to query our parents’ true thinking at any given moment and without becoming paranoid and running background checks or doing some sleuthing on them, we’re mostly in a position to accept what they tell us about themselves unless we receive some kind of alarmingly contradictory information that would lead us to question it. Similar to finding out your life might have been a lie, do we want to know who our parents really are? We presume they share the good about themselves with us, do we really want to hear about more of their foibles?

The second puzzle is about intergenerational wealth building. The narrative focuses on Singaporean Chinese families of stupendous wealth. Most of this wealth seems to be owned and controlled by surviving matriarchs whose heyday was the 1930s and 1940s (Gen1). The descendants (Gen2) and their children (Gen 3) appear to be idlers. Sure, some of them have “jobs” and other preoccupations, but none of them have to work and none seem to be contributing anything productive to the family wealth, which appears to be managed professionally by outsiders.

Why don’t rich families prepare future generations to manage their wealth responsibly? When the matriarch dies, what will keep the professional managers loyal, and what will give the surviving descendants the ability to manage these obligations without undue risk? Money is clearly important to these families, as they could give it away or have less of it but they don’t. But there doesn’t appear to be a meaningful attempt to teach the succeeding generations how to contribute to its growth and management.

Related to this is the question of what is the value of fantastic wealth? Although they think of themselves quite highly, the families depicted don’t seem to be better at much of anything that doesn’t involve buying things. In terms of character they have the same flaws and struggles as everyone else. If this wealth can’t make you a better person, or, put another way, you don’t use it to enable greater self-actualization, of what use is it? Ironically, wealth in this story is depicted as not creating conditions by which those who possess it can elevate themselves, but simultaneously it explores the ways wealth changes a person in terms of tastes and behaviors. Here we see not how a person’s values change, but the ways in which their ability to express those values do. If you don’t use it to become a better version of yourself, and you don’t learn how to manage and control it, what logical benefits does wealth offer you?

The final puzzle of the story is the puzzle of permanent capital. As none of the major characters and their families seem to contribute to the generation of their wealth, and none seem capable of doing so, where the wealth comes from and how it manages to persist, especially as it is being consumed at such enormous rates, is a bit of a mystery. Of course, in this story we can only see the families whose wealth has persisted across multiple generations despite all of the above-mentioned conditions and despite the changes in social and economic circumstances over decades. What we can not see are the families whose wealth ran aground over this period, because they won’t factor into a narrative about those who have great wealth except as a tale of warning which never seems to be told. It is amateurish and perhaps speaks to the intelligence or values of the intended reader but the author never provides even a small hint as to where the wealth comes from (oh sure, some new money families introduced here and there are the Such and Suchs of plastics, or the So and Sos of tech).

Though friends with government officials and even extant royalty, the primary families are disclaimed as not being of purely aristrocratic extraction or otherwise connected directly to a government-based wealth extraction mechanism. But from where else could such voluminous and seemingly interminable wealth emanate from, especially without influence or concern of the family? If such a source exists in the market (a contradiction in terms at the very least), how is it undiscovered by other market participants and thus immune to competitive factors? How is it financed?

In studying great exceptions there is an honest temptation to find some kind of exploitable rule. But I think it’s ultimately a fool’s errand, because you’re essentially looking at a highly improbable stack of luck and trying to figure out how to emulate something that is amazing that it even exists at all.

 

3/5

Assorted images from the southeast Asia tour (#travel, #photos, #Asia, #Singapore, #HK, #Taipei)

I went through the posts of our recent trip to southeast Asia and realized all the image links had broken. I have fixed them all now, though there were some places where I couldn’t figure out what I had intended to feature in the spot where a photo once was. I also found a lot of images that I thought were interesting, and I remember intending to include them in a blog post somewhere, but somehow I didn’t get to it.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the “lost” photos from the trip:

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This was from our first dinner in Singapore. Fried shrimp heads in chili sauce.

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A strange toilet rating touch screen at the Changi Airport bathroom in Singapore. I did not rate the toilet, having just washed my hands.

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Colorful shutters in Tanjong Pagar neighborhood, Singapore.

img_20160420_074714The Wolf got this cool shot of these lanterns in Singapore.

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A refreshing koi pond found in Singapore.

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Eggplant in Singapore!

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Modern skyscrapers overlooking a humble hawker center in Singapore.

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Feeling a bit claustrophobic in the urban canyons of Hong Kong.

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Outside our breakfast spot one morning in Hong Kong. They use bamboo shoots to build scaffolding when doing construction work.

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Funny cultural knick-knacks at a shop in Hong Kong near the Mid-Levels.

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Bull iconography near the International Financial Centre.

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Our first dinner in Hong Kong, at a hip Korean joint. No complaints here!

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An old temple in the city in Taipei.

img_20160412_125229An amusing handbill advertisement seen in someone’s mailbox in Taipei.

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A power control switching board made of marble and iron in the water pump building in Taipei.

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CKS’s mausoleum, a bleak place visited on a bleak day. He began construction before he died, clearly concerned about how he’d be venerated after he passed away.

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A miniature koi pond out in front of a restaurant in Taipei.

 

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Looking down Yongkang Street in Taipei.

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An old residential building built during the Japanese administration, in Taipei.

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Our streetside breakfast spot one morning in Taipei.

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A children’s public school in Taipei, near Da’an Park.

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Construction cranes and steel superstructures in Taipei.

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Statues in Songshan Creative Park, Taipei.

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A lonely soup dumpling on my plate in Taipei.

Review – Before The Dawn (#evolution, #genetics, #anthropology, #history, #books)

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

by Nicholas Wade, published 2006

Evolution and history are not two distinct processes, with one following another like the change between royal dynasties. Rather, evolution and history overlap, with the historical period being overlaid on a still continuing process of evolutionary change. (pg. 272)

Something I always used to wonder about when reading history was the recurring theme of barbarian invasions of “civilized” societies striking from the frontiers. Why were there separate civilized and barbarian populations? And where did all these barbarians keep coming from, given that the explanation invariably given for their invasion was that they themselves were being invaded/pressured by other barbarians on their frontier? (Was it barbarians all the way down?) I purchased Wade’s “Before the Dawn” to try to better understand the debate about “race” — which is one chapter of twelve in the book — and ended up with a much better understanding of this perennial personal historical quandary, the book having offered a framework for understanding early human history and migration patterns and the way evolution played the keyboard simultaneously.

The most descriptive word that comes to mind when I think of this book is “sweeping”, which is both its strength and its weakness. This is very much a strategic book examining large trends that took place over vast geographic expanses and long periods of time, rather than a tactical examination of the various microphenomena involved, although there’s some of that, too. Concerning itself with the evolutionary changes which led to the splitting of the human and chimpanzee genetic lines 5 million years ago, and then the ensuing genetic changes and speciation of the pre-modern human genetic lines between 5 million and 50,000 years ago and then finally sorting out the geographic expansion and social and likely genetic transformation of modern human beings from 50,000 years ago to the present, the author surveys key findings and scientific developments since Darwin’s writings that have helped to piece together the early history of humanity. And while it’s supposed to be an introduction written for the knowledgeable layman, Wade nonetheless covers so much ground, so many academic controversies, so many studies and theories and oddly-named regions and eras and behavioral developments — the world’s scientific community seems to have an unresolved dilemma when it comes to naming things — that it is sometimes hard to keep up and remain focused on the broad narrative of which these items are a part.

The book has 12 chapters, simply named, which serve as essential themes explored:

  1. Genetics & Genesis
  2. Metamorphosis
  3. First Words
  4. Eden
  5. Exodus
  6. Stasis
  7. Settlement
  8. Sociality
  9. Race
  10. Language
  11. History
  12. Evolution

It’s a testament to either the astounding volume of detail in this book, or the limits of my own cognitive abilities, or both, that having just finished this book last night after picking it up just over a week ago, I couldn’t reliably tell you which parts of the story fit in each section, so I won’t bother trying to summarize it all here. Instead, I thought I’d mention just a few pieces that I found especially interesting.

First, the “out of Africa” moment. I didn’t realize that this was not one moment, with one group of people. It happened many times with many different groups of people who, according to the historical record, went many different ways from there, some traveling around the coasts and then into the interior of Asia (and eventually outlying islands and over the land bridge to North America and South America), others migrating through Southern and Northern Europe. Wade argues that they were strong mariners due to the navigation and spread throughout the south Pacific archipelago, but why weren’t they navigating the coasts of North Africa and the Mediterranean and transiting out of Africa directly into Southern Europe? Meanwhile, numerous other pre-modern humans such as the Neanderthals (Europe) and Homo erectus (Asia) had already left Africa thousands of years before and fully populated the regions they were migrating into. But there was little discussion or exploration of how these other human species managed this, or why they might’ve been the firsts. Geologic history plays an important role here as well, and the multiple ice ages which occurred during these migration waves not only may have been drivers of evolutionary change which then led to social and migratory change, but they also dictated where various migrations could reasonably be achieved and increased the chance of tension and conflict between previous inhabitants and new arrivals in environs experiencing increased ecological scarcity.

Another important idea in the book, which for the present appears to be a hypothesis with a disputed body of evidence behind it, is that we might be able to peer deeper and more accurately into the historical record by means of the interplay between language and genetic diversification. The idea seems to be that every time a distinct genetic population splits off from an existing group, they tend to modify their language as well. Understanding where and how various language splits occurred might allow scientists to pinpoint new genetic branch timelines and vice versa, all the way back to the “original mother tongue” of the first “out of Africans”. One extremely speculative hope is that this original human language might even be reasonably reconstructed. Proto-Esperanto?

A third item I wanted to highlight isn’t interesting so much as it is entertaining, what I consider to be a bit of comical proledom. In a discussion of the relationship between last names and shared genealogy in Britain, Wade states,

Commoners acquired surnames between AD 1250 and 1350, apparently for the convenience of feudal record keepers who needed to differentiate between tenant farmers with the same first names. The surnames were not highly original. They tended to be a person’s profession (Smith, Butcher), or a patronymic (Johnson, Peterson), or derived from some landscape feature (Hill, Bush).

He goes on to give an example where it turned out that two Brits with the same last name, one a CEO and one an academic, actually did have a shared lineage originating to a common ancestor in a particular region of Northern England/Southern Scotland of whose geography the surname was descriptive, and who lived in that area according to official records. I got a chortle out of the way the elites of yore chose to humanize and differentiate amongst their tax cattle simply to aid their own tax farming, and that they didn’t bother to come up with anything more illustrious than tacking on terminology for slight changes in elevation on the land the peasants originated from, etc. It’s also interesting to think of how many people today have “commoner” last names (which group of ancestors, then, was reproductively more successful, the commoner or the elite?!) and how the market economy has allowed the sons of so many peasants to accumulate so much wealth!

A fourth item worth mentioning is the issue of “race”. It appears from this reading that “race” is a real and scientific phenomenon, though the implications of race are not well-know and are likely far different from what both “supporters” and “critics” of the concept currently think they can extrapolate from it. I’d like to learn more about race, and I think there will be more race-related scientific discoveries in the near future as this area of genetics is more thoroughly explored, but I would say I have less confidence in current race debates and their conclusions than I might have going into this book.

I’ll probably keep this one on the shelf and come back to some of the questions raised as I explore more books on the subject of genetics and evolution, pre-modern history, archaeology, economic history, etc. But I was less engaged with this book than I had hoped to be and I do hope there is a better organized, updated treatment of the subject I can read and discuss with my children in the future.

3/5

Longshan Temple and the Night Market (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

This is a post from Taipei that didn’t get up in time because my battery was dying on my phone and then I forgot to go back and upload it when I had a charge.

We took a free walking tour with Tour Me Away – Taipei to see one of the nightmarkets. This was our 2nd or 3rd night in town.

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This is a lion statue near the Longshan Temple MRT stop, about a block from the temple. I love these things, I never get tired of seeing their slight variations around town.

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This is the entrance to Longshan Temple. The central doors of big temples like this are often closed off and only opened for visiting dignitaries or major holidays. Like most of the temples we found, you enter on the right side (out of frame) and leave from the left side. Each side is guarded by an animal, I believe it is the dragon on the right and the tiger on the left. Going in this order is Feng Shui and gives you good luck because the dragon is a positive luck symbol and leaving out of the tiger is like avoiding its jaws and danger. So going in reverse is just the opposite and bad luck– tiger gon’ eat ya!

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This is an image of some of the detail on the temple.

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Detail of a lantern. My Nexus 5 camera obviously doesn’t do great in varied lighting conditions but I still think this lit lantern is interesting.

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Detail of a dragon statue.

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This is the inner temple. I don’t know what the proper term is but that’s what I am calling it. Inside this structure are the various Chinese gods that the temple goers worship at for luck, happiness, marital bliss, a good crop, what have you.

On the right, out of frame, is a “hospital” area where a person can go buy what is essentially like a lottery ticket. The funds go to the temple to provide alms to the poor and keep up the structure. It’s almost like an indulgence. You get this little lottery ticket and it has a lucky number or some kind of fortune cookie saying on it that is supposed to calm your anxiety and help you on in your troubles.

It’s really smoky inside the entire temple despite so many outdoor areas because people are just constantly burning incense and waving it around.

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This incense urn in the inner temple sports a couple of Dutch colonists who have been condemned to bear the heavy burden of the urn cap. We were told by the young tour guides that this was a kind of damnation for their cruelty during the colonial occupation of Taipei. I guess the locals and the colonists didn’t get along.

In the back of the outer courtyard surrounding the inner temple, more Chinese god statues were being prayed to for various purposes. One common one is a God that grants students success in their tests for school. Another is a God that grants good luck in finding a partner. Pursuants grab a pair of red banana-shaped tokens and cast them on the ground near the idol. The way the tokens land indicate different results in terms of the hoped for outcome. It’s common for pursuants to throw the tokens repeatedly until they get three signals in a row for the outcome they’re after.

Back in the main temple, more luck and gods favor games. This time one with numbered sticks and corresponding numbered drawers with the fortune paper on it. While explaining and demonstrating these processes, one of our guides unnerved a worshipper mightily because she had removed some of the sticks from the jar without using them, thus throwing off the cosmic chances of achieving a particular lucky combination.

All I could think was, isn’t that part of your luck, to not get a fair draw? The irony of using ones rational intelligence and purposeful efforts to influence desired outcomes was completely lost on this person.

The grounds around the temple are now and traditionally have been a kind of safe place for vagrants and the down on their luck. This is because the temple historically has served as a conduit between the charity of the wealthy who provide it and the indigent who are in need of it. It creates a somewhat seedy atmosphere around the temple which is only reinforced by the night market.

Now, night markets are perfectly innocent. They’re mostly markets that are open late with hawker food stands and the odd vendor of trinkets and trash. But there is a reason these vendors are open so much later than everyone else and the atmosphere is strangely marginal. Some people (like the Wolf) find them interesting but I don’t too much, and most of the food just doesn’t appeal to me.

So we walked around, saw the restaurant where people eat snakes and take the 5 shot challenge (snake blood, snake urine,…) Walked down the alley where the brothels pose as some kind of men’s parlor and are tolerated by the community, toured the hawker stands and then went home for the evening. We were bushed and its a lot of excitement to take in late at night.

More images from Hong Kong (#travel, #HK)

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Creative outrage at Chinese Communist party social priorities.

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Graffiti temple dragon murals

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Pagoda and pond in a park, or as the signage refers to them as, a “sitting-out area”

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Burning incense bells in a street side temple

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Another small temple

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A view down a street in the hills

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More towering buildings and density

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“Dog parking” in Stanley

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“Dog latrine”

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Chungking Mansions, “the most globalized place on Earth” reportedly home to people representing over 130 nationalities and a notoriously seedy public housing project turned marginal trading post

Passing through Taipei (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

We’re on the second leg of our trip home, connecting from Singapore in Taipei. I remembered that I forgot to share about our visit to the Taipei Municipal Water Museum when we were here last week.

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This building and pump system was constructed by the Japanese administrators after Taiwan was transfered to Japan by the Qing Dynasty. It was constructed around the 1920s, maybe earlier, I don’t remember. We have to assume the city didn’t have anything like this prior to the Japanese building it as I saw no mention of it replacing any previous water sanitation system.

The system is fed by gravity from a canal that diverts water from a nearby river. The dirty water is pumped up an incline to create pressure where it is gravity fed into a filtration system below. The water passes through various sand compartments and is filtered of particulate. The clean water then enters the second half of the installation and is pumped back uphill to create pressure and is then gravity fed into the distribution network of mains around the city.

The project is fascinating for its technological complexity. It required knowledge of hydraulic engineering, metallurgy, electricity, biology, physics, masonry, and mechanical engineering to construct. It undoubtedly took the labor of hundreds of people to construct and operate. While the pumping station has been replaced by modern equivalents, the filtration system is still in use and has been expanded and the general principle of operation remains the same.

The Japanese left many legacies like this behind them. Setting aside the brutality of their occupation, they left many cultural, edible, and practical social improvements behind them that the Taiwanese admire to this day.

Why did the Japanese feel they must expand their influence through militarism and conquest? Why couldn’t a Japanese engineering firm have been hired to construct this project on the basis of market principles and freely entered contracts?

How much different could history be, and how much further ahead socially would southeast Asia be, if the Japanese had been captured by a more peaceful ideology?

POS and cash in Hong Kong (#travel, #HK)

This is just a quick observation. Most of the small eateries we went to in Hong Kong did not have an electronic POS cash register. They used a simple locked drawer, if that, with a cashier who hand tallied the receipt and then collected payment and distributed change.

Often they’d have wads of cash for making change very close to the door where seemingly anyone could make a grab and go. I’m surprised to infer that must not happen often.

You need to have decently intelligent people you can trust to do fairly menial work accurately and honestly each time. I also wonder how they reconcile their receipts for tax reporting purposes?

In the US, even small businesses and startup food locations have electronic cash registers. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone operating a business this way. It is another good example of the contrasts I saw between the overhead costs of doing business in the US versus here in Southeast Asia. While there’s certainly a wide variety of clientele and no one is running a fancy steakhouse without electronic POS, it is nonetheless fascinating how little customers expect from small scale operations in terms of aesthetic design, seating comfort and cashiering services.

The changing skyline of Taipei (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

In the 1920s, this smokestack at a cigarette factory in the city center that produced 2 billion cigarettes a month was the tallest structure in the city.

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Today that honor belongs to the Taipei 101, which is also one of the tallest buildings in the world.

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It looks like there are some new contenders in the works though! It is interesting to see such large structures because the city doesn’t feel as dense as NYC or Tokyo and its hard to understand how the land values justify the development of such skyscrapers in those conditions.

More great coffee in Asia (#travel, #HK, #coffee)

Breakfast yesterday was at Brew Bros. in Central. I had a cappuccino with my “brekky”

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There was some initial confusion about my request for a heavier cream buy I resolved it by asking them to just make it the way they make it, and that worked out just fine.

My breakfast dish was solid as well, the poached eggs were impeccable and I think I’ll go for smoked salmon more often at home.

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The best US bank for travel in Asia? Citibank. (#travel, #Asia, #banking)

I opened a Citibank account when I moved to New York back in 2004. It seemed like a good option for ATM access in the city, but I came to regret my choice when I moved to Dallas and then back to California. Citi was not everywhere and was often difficult to come by– luckily I was never a big cash user, preferring to use my credit card for monthly cash management. Still, it was inconvenient and I often thought of switching to BofA or another major branch when I enviously spied these locations much closer to home and work whenever I went.

In fact, today I do most of my banking with Chase. Their bank branch expansion has been nothing short of explosive over the last few years and they’re now everywhere. In addition, they seem to have the most advanced ATMs which can read and deposit checks directly with OCR technology and an app that can also handle check deposits under $2000. I realize other banks (such as Capital One) offer similar technologies and I think maybe Citi and BofA have ATMs that are as capable now as well but my point is that Chase seems to offer the best overall package, domestically.

However, in the three Asian cities we’ve visited, Citibank has been hands down the best option.

Now, I keep a decent balance with Citi so I get their Citigold service. This means I am entitled to ATM fee reimbursement at non-Citi ATMs and I get their best forex exchange rate with no forex fees. When we traveled to South America three years ago, I pulled cash from local ATMs (I don’t remember spotting a Citi there, maybe in Santiago or BA but I don’t remember) and never had to go to a money exchange like Travelex. The rest of the time I just ran my debit card when it was an option and I got the same benefit– pay for the meal, ticket, whatever, at the best exchange rate with no fees.

In the three cities we’ve visited so far, Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore, I’ve found a Citi ATM within two or three blocks of our AirBNB as well as around the city while walking. Even better, in Hong Kong and Singapore I found Citi ATMs in the baggage claim area of the terminals so I had cash for cabs, airport trams, etc. immediately upon arrival. I probably could’ve found one in Taipei as well but didn’t bother checking as we were being picked up by relatives and I planned to exchange money with them.

My Citi MasterCard debit card has been accepted anywhere the merchant offers credit card payment services, which has been just about everywhere but local food stands and some cabs.

I haven’t seen one other major US bank ATM or branch office here– no Chase, no BofA, no Wells Fargo. However, there are a TON of local/regional banks, it is actually amazing how unconsolidated the banks in Asia appear to be even with dominant local giants such as Standard Chartered and HSBC. This is something I read about in “Asian Godfathers” by Joe Studwell. Asia in general is kind of overbanked because every crony capitalist wants his own bank to play financial games with his holding companies.

As I don’t have any substantial BitCoin holdings I didn’t explore how using BitCoin might work out here but my suspicion right now is that it doesn’t make it any easier or cheaper.

For a “globalized” world such as the one we live in, with so many people traveling for work and pleasure, isn’t it amazing we don’t have one, market derived currency of choice?