September 7th, 2009
06:02 AM GMT
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You know how it is –- you’re in a strange city, maybe a strange country, tired, hungry, missing home, it's kind of late. You walk into that little (in my case, Chinese restaurant), there are teeth marks on the chopsticks, the floor is kind of sticky, and on the menu is the house specialty: rabbit face. Not quite what you wanted, but as luck would have it, just down the road you can see it in the distance – the golden arches, sitting high and proud calling to you.

OK, this might be (in my case) China, but you know that somehow, once you walk through those doors, there on the menu will be a cheeseburger, a Big Mac, Quarter Pounder and fries. And for the most part the food will taste pretty much like the Mickey Dee’s on Santa Monica not far from my old apartment in LA.

So, when I buy my Big Mac here in China, it’s just over 12 RMB, or $1.76. When I buy a Big Mac in L.A. it costs around $3.50. The great thing about a Big Mac as far as economists are concerned (wel, the ones at “The Economist” magazine, anyway) is that it's pretty much the same wherever you go . . . two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.

And that means for economists it’s a great way to compare currencies. Much like the Big Mac itself, it’s not perfect – wages, rents and other costs vary, as well as the size (I have noticed the Chinese burgers a little on the small side). But for more than 20 years the people at “The Economist” have been doing this exchange rate comparison, and – surprise, surprise – they found Asian currencies under-valued, European over-valued.

In the case of China, by about 40 percent undervalued – this is at the far end of the spectrum as far as many critics in the U.S. are concerned. They accuse Beijing of deliberately manipulating the currency, keeping it undervalued. That means exports from China are a lot cheaper, giving exporters here an unfair competitive advantage, they claim.

Imagine if you could go to that McDonald’s in L.A. and instead of paying $3.50 or so for the American Big Mac, you could pay $1.76 for the Chinese version, knowing the ingredients are the same.

June 15th, 2009
02:39 AM GMT
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HONG KONG, China – How many of us have day dreamed of getting even with a back-stabbing colleague or a bullying boss?

Sticking voodoo dolls with pins.  Throwing darts at their photos on a board.  Playing a practical joke.

Here in Hong Kong, we have another fine option - hexing our office enemy with a shoe.

Under a bridge in the crowded shopping district of Causeway Bay, frustrated locals visit little old ladies who offer to curse that nasty co-worker (or anyone else giving you hell) for a bargain price of U.S. $6.  These geriatric mystics are busiest during the lunar "Waking of Insects" holiday, which marks when animals end their winter slumber.  However, "beating petty people," as it's known here, is now attracting those burned by the recession.

I recently visited one of the clairvoyants, Mei Ngan Leung.  She asked me to write a name down on a flimsy strip of paper.  She chanted a few words, took out a worn leather sandal, and beat and beat and beat the sorry-looking slip before torching and tossing it into a pail.

Who did I curse? Watch the segment on

The curse, Leung told me, will cause my enemy to change his behavior, to disappear from my life, or just leave me alone.  The hex, she said, cannot be undone and could, if the gods will it, last for eternity.

I'm not encouraging bad behavior, but I'm interested in hearing how YOU deal with the office pests.

June 9th, 2009
03:08 AM GMT
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HONG KONG, China – My colleague Ali Velshi likes to say that there are three ways to secure your financial future – by winning the lottery, marrying a millionaire, or managing your finances.  Managing your finances would appear to be most practical – unless, of course, you are a student of Ms. Lisa Johnson Mandell.

Lisa is an American dating guru.  She recently held a class in Hong Kong giving tips based on her book "How To Snare A Millionaire."  Snagging a sugar daddy is one of the best investment decisions you can make, she assured me.  She should know, she said, because she is married to one. She has had 50 marriage proposals – at least a dozen of the men came with seven-figure salaries, she told the room of aspiring spouses.

So how do you snare a millionaire?

This is the advice she gave to the 98 women and two men in attendance.  (Well, more like one man – the other fled the meeting during the first break. The poor guy didn’t know what he had signed up for.)


Be the prize.  Lisa suggests women wear bright-colored dresses and walk around in “power” (read: stiletto) heels.  Men were programmed to hunt, she says.

Be approachable.  While walking, make eye contact and smile.  When interested in someone sitting across a room, think (but don't say aloud), “Oh, baby, oh, baby, you are the hottest thing I have ever seen, and we need each other bad.”  If you can do that (without snorting your drink with laughter), supposedly like a tractor beam, your target will wander over and ask, “Excuse me, did we just have a moment?”

Be at the right place, at the right time.  To Lisa, that means hang out where the rich boys are - cigar bars, full-service apartments, bar areas at expensive steak restaurants, posh hotel lobbies.


Don't talk too much.  On the first date, no mention of children, former lovers, emotional hang-ups, the state of your finances or his.  Don’t prattle on about the finer details of your overqualified resume – he might be inclined to hire you, rather than date you.

Don't be nervous.  Exude confidence.  If you don't know what to talk about - don't.  Ask him more questions about himself, Lisa says.  He'll think you understand him even more.

Don't jump in the sack.  She says most women would want to sleep with a millionaire right away.  So you need to play hard to get.

Lisa cannot quantify how successful her advice is and admits that it could sound mercenary.  However, she blames the stigma on society's double standards.

Men and women were wired, she believes, to behave this way.  “From the cave man days way back when, we had to mate with the men who were the most successful.”  Those would be the best hunters, she explained to me.  “These days that kind of success often equates to wealth.”  She says men, in turn, are engineered to pursue beautiful women because beauty indicates good health.

“Nobody looks askance at men because they want a beautiful wife,” she points out.  “But if you say, 'Go out and find a rich husband', it sounds awful.”

What she preaches, she says, is different from gold-digging.

Gold-diggers are women who “want to separate the man from his money,” Lisa explains.  “Someone who wants to marry a successful man is just normal.”

True, perhaps, though not all women define success in terms of dollars.

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Filed under: BusinessChinaSign of the times

May 19th, 2009
08:22 AM GMT
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HONG KONG, China — The Chinese banner above a modest Hong Kong store reads, "Time Coupon Place."

The 'money' that buyers use at the 'Time Coupon Place' in Hong Kong.
The 'money' that buyers use at the 'Time Coupon Place' in Hong Kong.

It makes you wonder what this store sells. Does it sell clocks? Does it sell watches? No, not exactly. It literally buys and sells time through the old-fashioned art of bartering.

But there is more. I soon learn that the store is really a platform for creative buying and selling.

I walk into the store and am surrounded by a hodgepodge of items. Shelves are jammed with toys and used books. There are crates of vegetables for sale - eggplants, spinach, string beans. There is a table piled high with second-hand clothes, like denim jeans and cotton shirts.

Talk about a mixed bag. This is not your ordinary second-hand store. This is a time coupon store. It is a place that uses a combination of cash and time coupons as its currency. A time coupon looks like play money from the Monopoly board game. In this case, time coupons come in the value of minutes - from 1, 5, 10, 30 and 60 minutes.

Here is how it works:  If I agree to tutor someone in English for 30 minutes, I can earn a 30-minute time coupon. Then, for example, I can come to the store and buy a wooden toy boat with the 30-minute time coupon. The actual price tag has an hourglass symbol with the number "30" next to it.

This boat's price tag has an hourglass symbol with '30,' meaning you need a 30-minute coupon to buy it.
This boat's price tag has an hourglass symbol with '30,' meaning you need a 30-minute coupon to buy it.

Only a few time coupon stores exist in Hong Kong. Community organizers and NGOs came up with the idea in a bid to help local families save money. The first time coupon store launched here in 2001 with a few members. (It is easy to become a member. You pay a small membership fee and sit through an orientation class to learn how time coupons work. Anyone can join.)

But in the past six months, 120 new members have joined, pushing up the total membership to 1,200. It is a significant spike, which community organizers attribute to the current global recession. You can also earn time coupons by donating used items that other members might want. This explains the random assortment of stuff around the store.

On the day I visited, I noticed the most popular items were organic vegetables. A farmer had rolled in a cart of fresh vegetables straight from her organic farm in the New Territories, which is across the harbor from Hong Kong island. A few customers hovered over the different crates - pulling, picking and squeezing the greens. Each vegetable is priced with a combination of time coupons and cash. For example, a bunch of eggplants and spinach might cost a 11-minute time coupon and 7 Hong Kong dollars (about US$1). Not a bad deal!

The old-fashioned idea of bartering skills, services and personal items seems to be the new practical "trend." In Argentina, barter clubs are gaining popularity. The barter clubs started there in 2002 after Argentina's economy took a dive. Then they sort of faded away and now they are enjoying another surge in this recession.

Back at the Hong Kong time coupon store, a woman quietly works at a sewing machine in the back corner. She is creating fabric handbags that are a nice patchwork of different colors. The handbags are sold at the front of the store. The community organizer says the handbags are quite popular with the expatriates who wander into the store. The seamstress splits the proceeds with the time coupon store in yet another creative way of doing business.

As I exit the store, I appreciate the idea of a different kind of currency. Time has value. Time is money. But here is the added bonus: community involvement.

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