Whatever happened to winter this year?

Beijing, Tokyo, Harbin

My first business trip this year was on January 9th, where I had to carry my blasted 9kg shoulder bag and drag that drag-bag with wheels to the airport for an overnight flight to make it to Beijing to keep relationships going there. Somehow, years of traveling does weigh heavy on you, especially if you have to carry heavy bags all the time. Generally, I have become a very efficient traveler. I never travel with more than two bags – one sling and one drag bag – that I can handle myself. But even then, it can weigh on me.
Well, as the airplane was landing in Beijing, the captain says that it was minus 10 degrees on the ground at about 6am in the morning. That is the other thing about traveling, especially in winter. Southeast Asia is perpetually summer, and then you fly into deep winter and then back to summer – like walking in and out a refrigerator. Well, in a sense, we do that a lot in Southeast Asia anyway, with the air-conditioning in most buildings set at some freezing temperature while it is a blazing 32 C outside.
It does not help that I am psychologically a tropical kid, which means that dressing up with layers of clothes for winter does not come naturally. It shows when I am leaving a building in winter and have to spend time padding, getting into my over-coat and wearing the gloves in a respectable fashion. I dress like a protesting kid. It takes a bit of practice to come across as a sophisticated urbanite in a winter wonderland.

Having said that, I really do like winter. For a kid from the tropics, give me the four seasons anytime! The newness of spring, the happiness of summer, the colours of autumn and the dressing up in winter.

So, I land in Beijing and by the time I clear immigration and pick my bags, it is 7am before I am in a taxi to the hotel. I look out of the window and….. no snow. Not one slice of white anywhere. It should be about minus two by 7am and by 9am, it is about 2C. But no snow. Some of the drains and lakes enroute were clearly frozen, but no snow. It is in times like that you realise that Beijing is one of the driest cities in the world. Not enough humidity for snow.

In that trip, I visited with some key officials in the CBRC (the banking regulators in Beijing) and the China Banking Association and had lunches and dinners with people who were being moved around.

One month later, on January 31, I go to Beijing and Shanghai again for meetings with clients and to interview potential new staff, and again there is no snow. By this time, in the US, there is already a blizzard, delayed but welcome because of freakish December. But Beijing was doing a nice 12 degrees.

I then go to Tokyo to interview with Hiroshi Saito, the president of Mizuho Corporate Bank, as well as the CFO of Auzora Bank to find out if they were happy with their IPO (we had made some comments in our weekly Perspectives sent out every Monday that the Japanese banks are not getting nearly as much interest for their IPOs as the Chinese banks!). Saito only travels abroad about 6-7 times a year, and so a visit from someone like me is very much welcome for him. Mizuho is looking at China and India very closely, and will be making investments in these countries (you may wish to read the text of my interview with him on our main website).

I also hooked up with the erudite Shen Weijian, the Newbridge head for Asia to see what else he has been looking at in the region. Weijian will be moving back to Hong Kong, although he has been in Tokyo for only a short time. It has been difficult for someone like Weijian, being a mainland Chinese, to make his family adjust to Japan. But anyone who has been reading his commentaries in the Asian Wall Steet Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review would know what an impact he is making on Chinese corporate commitment by asserting that Chinese corporates are technically not committed to shareholder value and are declaring profits that don’t make sense. We talk shop…

Oh, and the new head of retail at Shinsei is from a Megabank. Whoa! Interesting guy. Met him. He has great plans. Let’s see.

Well, it was a great time in Tokyo, except that the weather was …… 16 degrees! What in the world happened to winter??? I did not have to dress up at all! The thing about traveling during winter is that I carry all my wollen socks and thermal inderwear, but in Tokyo, I was dressed in just one layer all the time I was there.

From Tokyo, I flew back to Beijing because I had bought my ticket Beijing-Tokyo-Beijing as it is expensive originating any flight from Tokyo. When I landed in Beijing, I called Janet, my assistant to ask what my meetings were like in Singapore and found that I had one day to spare.

So, I gave myself a treat and borrowed a friend’s really deep winter wear (tight fitting but functiona) and then hopped on over to Harbin to spend a day looking at the ice festival. Now, Harbin’s temperature is notorious during winter. I was told that it can go down to minus-30 degrees. But after Beijing and Tokyo, I was ready for it. I wanted minus 30! I wanted real winter. So, I braced myself, booked the flight, made arrangements with a travel agent for someone to take me around Harbin, wore three layers of clothes even in the plane, and went on my way.

When I landed, I looked around, wondering what minus 30 was like. Exited the baggage area, and was met by the travel guide, and the first question I asked him was, “what is the temperature?” His answer. Zero degrees. “Zero?????” I repeated, incredulous. I felt cheated. Man, this whole winter I wanted to kick snow and traveled to so many cities and saw nothing, and then here in Harbin…zero degrees???!!!!! If I wanted zero I would have visited my refrigerator! I did not have to visit Harbin.

In any case, the tour guide was a pretty decent chap. There was sludge all over the place. So I kicked sludge instead with my trusted winter boots (oh, I love the fact that women look great in winter boots, especially fashionable ones. The great thing about winter is the dressing up, I must say, in as much as the great thing about the beach is the dressing down, and both have their place!).

I played a new form of racquet game that some locals were promoting in front of the Sophia Church, went to a local aquarium where large numbers of Chinese families were loudly applauding local trainers playing with beluga whales. Very nice.

Said hello to the Siberian tigers in a new pathetic park near the city and bought a fake one for my room (I was born in the Year of the Tiger, and I have a very strong emotional affinity with them. I sincerely think I understand tigers very well, but that’s another story). They feed Siberan tigers with dead chicken. If I were a Siberian tiger, I would say yuks! pew! But these beautiful beasts have no choice in this so-called safari. I advised the guide to tell the management to thro in some live goats, and give the tigers some exercise catching and killing them, and I am sure the crowd would love it.

Right after the Siberian tigers, Patricia Welch from the McKinsey office in Singapore sends me an sms to call her back, which I did happily to feign some work, calling her back on my mobile phone in the midst of a distracted day. She tells me that Dominic Barton is now properly playing the role of chairman of McKinsey Asia Pacific and that we should hook up. Yes, I told her that he should do what chairmans do best – just travel and network and stay out of the way of work so that the rest of the organisation can get on with their life… much like, well, me. We agreed that I should either (a) take a night flight from Shanghai to Singapore and enter a snoring competition with him (b) take a day flight out of Shanghai and chat with him all the way (c) meet at a decent time that works for both of us. Phyrric planning as neither of us have any clue what our schedules would be.

Phone call over, I could focus on the two most important reasons why anyone visits Harbin. The Snow Carvings on Sun Island, and the World of Ice show at night not far away. Now, one of the reasons I made this escapade to Harbin was because in my quest to see everything Chinese as soon as possible, I have to work within the limitation that many of the famous places in China are best visited in their season.

In other words, there is no reason in the world to visit Harbin in the heat of summer. Juzhaiguo national park is best visited in autumn or spring, Ulan Bator in summer, Beijing in May and so on. We are on a timetable here, and if I missed Harbin this trip, the next time I could have visited was one year hence.

But boy, was I lucky. The snow was already melting. At the snow carvings on Sun Isand, some of the huge sculptures were already melting and I took pictures of bulldozers tearing down the ones of the great horsemen. The lady Virgo or one of the Zodiac signs was dripping in the nose. Not a pretty sight for a lovely sculpture. But much of the rest of the sculptures were very much intact and I was there in good time.

The night version – the World of Ice exhibition, where the sculptures were of buildings made in ice rather than snow with lights inside them – was still spectacular. The Ice show is not something that you would want to go alone. You would want to go with a loved one or a large number of loved ones, including children. By night fall, the temperature had fallen to say, minus 5, but it was a winter wonderland to be enjoyed by riding all the ice slopes and running around the castles and so on. Great fun.

So, I survived Harbin without having to suffer minus 15 or 30 degrees celcius. But hey, I wanted cold. Real cold.

I am writing all this at a time when all of us are intensely focused on global warming. My “buddy”, Al Gore has found his calling. When I hosted him at the Asian Banker Summit in 2005, he was still reeling from losing the presidential race. He moaned that he was “the former future president of the United States”. But look at him now, more relevant than he would have ever been as president of that, well, strange country. I am so proud of him. I actually enjoyed the two days I spent hosting him, bringing him around in the car and showing him around Singapore. I actually invited him because he had then started a fund called Generation Fund, which was focused on investing in any projects directed at building a sustainable economy, and I wanted to tie in that message with our own, which is that banks should be businesses run on a long-term sustainable proposition. He did a great job and many people enjoyed his speech, but Singaporean bankers could not connect the themes and so some of the ideas were a little bit too far ahead for them. But it was worth the effort.

In one of our conversations in the car, he asked me “what was the burning issues in Singapore” to which I answered that “they are thinking of introducing casinos” to which his honest answer was that “it is a pity, they will be selling themselves short if they do, because that is not what they built Singapore to become over all these year”. Anyway, that is not my problem, someone else can speak to power if they want to.

On CNN, that funny guy, Richard Quest, who is hosting a programme on business travel, said that for a return flight from London to Toronto, you would have to plant six trees to make up for the expenditure in carbon credit by the new EU laws kicking in. By his calculations, I am a carbon credit criminal. Now that I am still a travel junkie, I have an addiction problem. I need counselling. (By the way, everybody should watch, “Thank you for smoking” – will discus that some other time).

Right now, I want to kick snow!!!! I will do almost anything to kick snow before the season is out for this year.


  1. Interesting stories, youre one lucky bloke, Al-Gore the come back kid, he won an oscar, bring him down this time and the singaporeans will listen to him

  2. Interesting stories, youre one lucky bloke, Al-Gore the come back kid, he won an oscar, bring him down this time and the singaporeans will listen to him

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