Friday, May 29, 2009

Are Spiders and Octopuses Lucky in China?

After Singapore, we flew to Hong Kong and stayed there for a couple of days. There’s something about Hong Kong that I really like. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is but it definitely has a character that I find appealing. San Francisco, Kyoto and Edinburgh are all the same.

I’m not the only one that likes Hong Kong. Paul Krugman was there at the same time, and he talks about how futuristic the place looks because the city has grown vertically rather than horizontally. (Incidentally, it appears he followed me back to Japan too. Paul, if you’re looking for advice on the economy and want to get in touch, just leave a comment below) Unlike Japan, Hong Kong is blessed with an absence of earthquakes, which allows for the construction of closely packed skyscrapers. With the dense greenery cloaking the Kowloon mountains behind, it makes for an incredible sight. (Click for full screen)

The majority of our meetings were in the loftier section of one of the skyscrapers and we had plenty of opportunities to admire the view. One of our clients joked that he has the best economic indicator right outside his window. He just monitors the number of tankers and haulers making their way in out of the bay and assesses the economic health of the region. One thing I did notice is that there are is no 4th floor in any of the skyscrapers. There’s no 24th floor either. I think that probably extends to 34, 44 and the rest. In both China and Japan, the number 4 is unlucky. The concept of “luck” is a western one and perhaps “unlucky” is a poor description. The reason for the negative association in both countries is that the number has the same pronunciation as the word for death. The character for 4 is 四. The character for death is 死. In Japanese, both words are pronounced し (shi). In order to avoid the association, the Japanese even go so far as to provide an alternative pronunciation for the number 4. You can also pronounce it よん (“yon”). The practice of excluding the 4th floor in a building is similar to that of excluding the 13th row in an aircraft. I’ve always wondered if anyone on the 5th floor gets upset. After all, if you’re on the 5th floor, you’re actually on the 4th floor and to add insult to injury, you’re being lied to.

On the opposite side of the fence, it turns out that two wrongs do make a right because when you double 4, you get 8, which is a very lucky number in both Japan and China. When I was in Hong Kong, I noticed that the number 8 appeared in a lot of advertisements, prices, signs etc. A quick search on Wikipedia, reveals the following trivia:

A telephone number with all digits being eights was sold for USD$270,723 in Chengdu, China.
A man in Hangzhou offered to sell his license plate reading A88888 for RMB 1.12 million (roughly $164,000 USD).

And I’m sure you will remember:

The opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing began on 8/8/08 at 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8 pm (local time)

Interestingly, the reason for the positive association with the number 8 is different in Japan and China. My friend from Hong Kong tells me, and Wikipedia confirms, that the Chinese pronunciation for 8 is similar to the pronunciation for “prosperity” and “fortune”. In Japan, the shape of the character used to represent the number is more important. The Japanese say 末広がり, which means to “broaden towards the end” and can be used to describe increasing prosperity as time goes on. The character broadens towards the bottom and represents this idea.

I wonder if things associated with the number 8, like octopuses or arachnids, inherit the association of good fortune?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


If you like puzzles and you haven’t seen my post on Singapore where I shared a puzzle that some clients gave me, please take a look and read no further!

For those of you who have already been thinking about it, here’s the solution:

There are 30 coins in front of the blind man. 18 have heads facing up, 12 have tails facing up. His aim is to separate the coins into two groups such that there is an equal number of coins with heads facing up in both groups.

The blind man takes 18 of the coins and puts them in a group to his left. He takes the remaining 12 and puts them in a group to his right. He doesn’t flip any coins over yet. The trouble is that he doesn’t know how many coins on the left have heads facing up. It could be all 18, it could be 12, and it could be a minimum of 6. What he does know is that the heads that don’t go to the left pile, must be in the right pile. So if there are 18 heads on the left, there are zero on the right. If there are 12 heads on the left, there are 6 on the right etc. To insert some letters: if there are x heads on the left, then there are 18-x heads on the right.

The blind man then flips over all the coins in the left pile. Problem solved. If there were 18 heads on the left then they all turn to tails. If there were 12 heads on the left, then those 12 turn to tails and the remaining 6 turn to heads. To use letters again, if there were x heads on the left, then after flipping all of the coins on the left, there are now 18-x heads on the left. This is the same number as the number of heads on the right.

I like puzzles and I thought that was a good ‘un. Hope you had fun thinking about it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Singapore – Storms, English and a Puzzle

I spent the past week in Hong Kong and Singapore on business and I thought I'd write a little bit about these trips.

Arriving in Singapore on the Sunday evening, I was dreading the tropical heat that I knew would greet me. Running around town attending 6 meetings every day in temperatures of up to 36 degrees is a challenge for a Scotsman. I politely suggested to my 部長 (director), that perhaps we could attend the meetings in the same fashion as our clients – with no jacket or tie. I got a firm rebuttal. Fortunately, I had made the wise decision of investing in a summer suit and short sleeved shirts in preparation for the similarly unpleasant heat during Tokyo’s summer.

I had anticipated the heat, but what I hadn’t anticipated were the tropical storms. We were in a meeting on the 15th floor of a central building when quite suddenly, the sky darkened and the heavens opened. We’re not talking about the typical Tokyo drizzle, we’re talking about seriously heavy rain crashing against the windows. Thunder and lightning then began their assault on our exposed position and interrupted my presentation. My listeners were completely unperturbed though and asked me to continue, saying that it would be over soon. Sure enough, after about an hour, the skies cleared. Talking to locals, I was told that these storms occur almost daily so I resolved to carry around an umbrella for the remaining two days. Of course, carrying the umbrella with my heavy bag full of presentation material ensured that the rain didn’t return.

Singapore is slowly becoming the dominant financial centre in Asia and it becomes quickly obvious that one of the main reasons for this is the prevalence of English. Although the vast majority of the population is of Chinese, Malay or Indian descent, English is the official language and is spoken by everyone. If you get in a taxi in Singapore, you can have a good conversation with the driver. If you get in a taxi in Japan or Hong Kong, you end up stabbing a map with your finger. The street signs look identical to those in the States, with white writing on a green background. It’s no wonder that so many American firms choose to set up their Asian hub in Singapore.

Singapore is similar to Japan in quite a few ways. There’s no tipping and you get great service. Everyone smiles, talks to you politely and calls you sir. It felt very safe too.

On the last evening, we were having some drinks with clients and one of them gave me a puzzle. I love puzzles and this is a good one. It took me about 20 minutes to figure it out. Continuing with the theme of Michael’s post last month, I thought I’d share it with you.

A blind man has 30 coins in front of him on a table. 18 of those coins have heads facing up. The remaining 12 have tails facing up. The blind man has to separate the coins into two groups such that the number of heads facing up is the same in both groups. How does he do it?

I can tell you that there are no trick answers to this puzzle. The coins are all perfectly smooth so the blind man can’t feel the pattern of heads or tails using his fingers. Balancing the coins on their edges doesn’t solve the problem either. It’s pretty straight forward when you’ve got the answer but figuring it out takes time.

Answers in the comments or by email!

Monday, May 11, 2009


You don't tip in Japan. Despite this, I wouldn't be surprised if it's the best service in the world. I've heard a few stories of foreigners who leave a tip on the restaurant table and the owner comes running down the street to give it back to them. 

This story takes the cake though.

At the weekend, we went to the supermarket and picked up a few things. One of them was a small pizza that cost around 200 yen. We got a call today from the supermarket telling us that they'd overcharged us by 30 yen. 30 yen is about 20 pence or 30 cents. They apologized profusely and wanted to come to our apartment to give us the money. Of course, we told them not to bother but they insisted on putting it aside at the shop and told us to give our name and pick it up the next time we're there.