From cells to bells, 10 things the Chinese do far better than we do

A comparative list compiled by JAN WONG

Saturday, October 23, 2004

BEIJING—Ah, those clever Chinese. First they invent gunpowder and a few other essentials of modern civilization. Now they're gunning their economic engines. Yet who would have thought that, after a millennium of poverty, they'd already do so many things better than we?

In fact, compiling a Top 10 list of what China does better than Canada isn't easy. There are so many items. To whittle it down, let's assume it's unfair to count anything related to cheap labour.

So we won't include the wonderfully thorough mop-ups of supermarket spills: The staff don't plunk down those yellow you-can't-sue-us caution signs. They actually fan the floor with a broken sheet of Styrofoam until it is dry.

Nor will we mention the exquisite, free head-and-shoulder massages that come with every shampoo and haircut.

And we will only sigh with envy over bicycle couriers speeding theatre tickets to you the same day—free.

Frequent travellers will love this one: Even remote rural hotels in China, not previously known for world-beating hygiene, now routinely slip blankets, quilts and coverlets into freshly laundered duvet covers. No more puffy bedspreads and nasty polyester blankets that cover guest after guest without being cleaned, which is still the practice in most of our hotel chains.

Considering how cheap labour is, it's astonishing that so many Chinese facilities offer free automated lockers now, the way European airports and train stations do. No more old-fashioned keys to form a lump in your pocket—just a slip of paper with a randomly chosen number that lets you retrieve your belongings. Stores like them because they cut shoplifting; customers like them because they reduce schlepping.

Not all progress is good. Taxis, subways, trains and elevators barrage you with non-stop ads on flat-screen videos. Some city buses feature live television. Who wants that? Pickpockets, probably.

For this list, we won't count minor things, either, like the narrow plastic bags that department stores and offices offer on rainy days to sheathe your dripping umbrella. Or the invention of the electronic fly swatter, which electrocutes without squishy messes (and is now available in dollar stores in Canada).

On this list, we won't count mega things, either, like the soaring architectural wonder of China's airports—even in provincial capitals like Fuzhou—awash in natural light. (Not to mention that you can understand the public announcements, and the restaurants are much better.)

We won't include the vast subway and highway systems and huge underground garages that Beijing, Shanghai and Canton have built in astoundingly little time. Or Shanghai's magnetic-levitation train, the first in the world, which accelerates to 431 kilometres an hour in 2 minutes and 53 seconds. Even the Germans who designed it can't afford one for themselves.

No, for this list we were looking for truly brilliant ideas, the forehead-slapping kind, the ones that make you say: Now why didn't we think of that?

  1. Cellphones

    By any standard you can think of—coverage, price, ubiquity—China's cellphone practices beat ours. You can use them in elevators, subways and parking garages. They work in Tibet, at the Great Wall, in remotest rural China, which is more than you can say for Ontario cottage country. Patients, doctors, nurses and visitors use them in hospitals, too, with no apparent ill effects.

    It's a cheap, pay-as-you-go system, with no stupid monthly contracts or credit checks. The phones are so cheap—even sidewalk cabbage vendors have them—that China is now the biggest cellphone market in the world. With 300 million in use, each one telling time, wristwatch sales have plummeted.

    "We're a nation of thumbs," a young Shanghai woman told me, meaning that Chinese use cellphones like BlackBerries, text-messaging friends 24/7, at 1.6 cents a pop. The Chinese never got used to voicemail or answering machines; installing home phones was equivalent to two years pay in the 1980s, so the country leapfrogged over landline technology right into cellular.

    Chinese author Qian Fuchang even plans to transmit a novel—about an extramarital affair—via text-messaging, one 70-word chapter at a time.

  2. Informative stop lights

    In Tianjin, a city of 13 million people, traffic lights display red or green signals in a rectangle that rhythmically shrinks down as the time remaining evaporates. In Beijing, some traffic lights offer a countdown clock for both green and red signals.

    During a red light, you know whether you have time to check that map; on a green light, you know whether to start braking a block away—or to stomp on the accelerator, as though you were a Toronto or Montreal driver. (That's probably why Montreal has a few lights with countdown seconds for pedestrians.)

  3. Transit debit cards

    Wouldn't it be great to have a single debit card for buses, subways—and taxis? That's how it works in Shanghai. Passengers don't have to fumble for exact change on buses and subways, or line up to buy tokens or tickets. Taxi drivers don't have to make change, or get ripped off by counterfeit bills, a real plague in China. And they aren't loaded down with cash, which would make them tempting targets for robbery.

    (In another transit plus, forget those illegible handwritten taxi receipts we get in Canada. China's taxis automatically print out receipts with date, mileage, taxi medallion number, even the start and end times of the ride. That certainly would help you recover the Stradivarius you inadvertently left in the back seat.)

  4. Adult playgrounds

    Hate paying those gym club bills? Loathe huffing and puffing around buff bodies in spandex? Beijing provides free outdoor exercise equipment in neighbourhoods throughout the city: walking machines, ab flexers, weight machines and rowing machines in bright reds, blues, yellows and greens.

    Adult playgrounds get everyone out in the fresh air, especially seniors who might stay shut in at home. Teens like to hang out there, too. And it sends a not-so-subtle propaganda message about the benefits of healthy living.

  5. Anti-theft slipcovers

    What do you do with a purse in a restaurant? It can slide off your lap, and looping the handle over the back of your chair is an invitation to a thief. In China, when you sling your purse or laptop or coat over your chair back, a waiter hurries to toss a tasteful slipcover over it. It foils thieves, and also protects coats from food spills. Some restaurants provide hooks under the table for purses.

  6. Daily banking

    We feel so lucky when a bank branch in Canada opens for a few hours on Saturday mornings. (Notice the long, long lines?) But Chinese banks are now open 9 to 5, seven days a week. Even on New Year's Day and other national holidays, at least some branches will open for business. The ones that are closed post helpful notices directing you to the closest open branch. And, yes, they do have a full network of ATMs.

  7. Wireless service bells

    Trying to flag down your waiter for a glass of water? Just press a made-in-China gizmo at your table. Your table number lights up on a panel inside the kitchen and your server is soon hovering by your side. The bell also eliminates that annoying waiterly interruption: "Is everything all right?"

    The same gizmo in spas alerts masseuses when you're demurely under the sheet and ready for their attention.

  8. Parking data

    A celebrity I once lunched with was an hour late because he couldn't find an empty parking spot in downtown Toronto. He had driven to a dozen lots, each time finding a wooden sign plunked at the entrance smugly announcing that the lot was full.

    In China, roadside electronic billboards not only give directions to nearby lots and garages, they crucially reveal how many empty spaces are left.

  9. Computer seating maps

    Canadian concert halls will tell you that Row DD, Seat 81 costs $74.95. But where on earth is it? At the Shanghai Grand Theatre, the black granite ticket counter is embedded with a Samsung computer screen which lights up with the event you want to see, showing unsold seats, colour-coded by price, and the sightline to the stage. There is even a bar stool on which to perch while you consider your choices.

    Movie theatres offer the same service. You choose which film and what showing, and the screen in the counter shows you what's unsold. After you make your choice, you can go shopping or enjoy a latte until show time. No one will take your seats.

  10. Free hemming

    This doesn't count as cheap labour because only three people service an entire department store. In Canada, hemming a new pair of trousers adds at least $10 to the cost, plus two trips to the tailor. And you have to try them on again while you get measured.

    At the No. 1 Department Store in Shanghai, the salesclerk measures you while you are trying on the pants, asking: "Will you be wearing these with high heels or flats?" If you decide to buy them, she scribbles the length on your receipt. You head to what looks like a gift-wrapping station where a man measures and chalks the pants, scissors off the surplus and flings them to two women behind him. One hems the raw edge on a machine and tosses it to the other, who stitches the final hem on another machine and presses them.

    Even with two customers ahead of me, I swear it took under three minutes in all to get two pairs back.

    When I tell the woman ahead of me that stores in Canada don't do this, she's astonished. "Really?" she says. "How inconvenient."