Field Report: Kuala Lumpur-Chengdu-Guizhou so far
It’s that time of the year to hit the road and see what people have been up to again!
Incidentally, this trip was also my first time in KL city centre despite having transited in its airport many times and I was instantly won over by Malaysian warmth. It’s that feeling where you know that you’ve always had this idyllic neighbour, but really all you remember about them are konfrontasi and 1MDB… So the friendliness and go-getting spirit of the people has provided further evidence for a pet theory of mine: the greater the degree of state involvement (or efficiency), the lesser the “role” of the citizen. i.e. in a nanny state people are more prone to complaining and waiting on authorities to solve problems for them than roll up their sleeves and do the work themselves.
Definitely not pointing any fingers here.
Starting Up is Like Falling in Love
Rajesh from the Asian School of Business had a metaphor for entrepreneurship that I think is very worth considering: It is a lot like falling in love. You have no idea what the outcome would be but you take the risk anyway. You plunge in without a care nor concern for what you would or would not walk away with. It is a leap of faith into the unknown. It is rather like sailing across the ocean at night and you can see only as far as your eyes could show you from wherever you are, at that point in time. Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s earlier hopes for Facebook and what he has evolved into. Let’s also consider the Ramp Theory of Learning. I am very fond of the idea that we should hire on the basis of trajectory rather than current state. No one is an overnight success, ever. You go out of your comfort zone little by little, you stretch yourself a little everyday, and as your boundary of maximal capacity expands outward day by day, you complete the turn from zero to hero.
Of course, most of us are lost in the trough of misery, sorrow, sadness, ultimate sh*t from the things that life throws at you. Hence entrepreneurship is a leap of faith. You just trudge on into the unknown, without a care nor concern for what you would or would not walk away with. Profit is of course a very strong incentive, but with early-entrepreneurship we are often talking about potential profit which is almost as good as wishful thinking so passion is absolutely necessary to complete the equation, I think. The insistent willingness to suffer for something – such is the proper definition of passion, and not a stroll by the beach sipping cocktails in the sun.
The best things in life are free. The best things in life do not come easy.
The Community Outreach team in MaGIC was very kind to show me around despite a university group that they had to entertain at the same time and then there was just 1 of me who ended up meeting close to 10 of their people?
The sprawling building aside, my favourite moment was actually just passing by a group of young people who were sitting around a desk, to our left was the co-working space and where they were sitting, there were pots of plants in the background and random mushrooms on the table itself. And they struck up a conversation. We talked about achieving complete self-sufficiency in MaGIC now that they can grow their own crops, and that perhaps the next step would be animal husbandry — to add on to their start-up work and for some reason, I just found this whole idea really, really awesome. I suspect that it’s the communality of it.
I may have heard about general Malaysian happiness and ran into the chill Malaysian overseas, but to see them where they are and how upbeat they are about it all – that does make me wonder about the things we lose along the way in our striving for ever greater efficiency.
So Southeast Asia is a 200 billion dollar digital opportunity… But seeing my Malaysian driver take out a dumb phone was the surest evidence to me that this digital gold would take some hardcore digging. Such hardcore digging would require would-be diggers to go deep into the natural habitats of the consumers that they would love to have and I wonder how many are prepared to actually really do that.
I shared a little about the work we are looking to do in Sparrow Village, Guizhou in December and met Quiz from the local Google Developers Group who brought us dinner at this place where locals eat at and the food is way better than what was had at Chunxi Road previously.
Eat like the locals do wherever you go appears to be a good rule of thumb to follow generally.
I feel very fortunate to have met with Quiz and connected with Yasic and Jian Jin — people who are changing my impressions of Chinese developers — and is hugely anticipating the Chinese Free Code Camp (which I am helping to translate too :p).
I am very stubborn about China though it has broken my heart time and again because you just don’t ignore one quarter of the world’s population. Imagine if the education system of one quarter of the world’s population is built around problem-solving! Just imagine that for a second.
A confluence of factors brought us to Guizhou. The initial inspiration was really this Guizhou kid I had run into in Chaozhou last summer. I cannot quite shake off that sense of loss? Regret? Even a little rage perhaps – at the knowledge of how her life circumstances has already circumscribed her possible options and opportunities after our little chat and that’s why we asked around for the right village to begin work in. Many steps and details have been left out of this process but my simple idea is that humanity is about to witness an age of unemployment of never before seen proportions and our best way out is to acquire the new literacy of code and collaborate with machines – and I want to do it in communities that are at the shortest end of the stick when it comes to tapping these opportunities. The community has to buy-in of course – and that is why Gray was sent to scout out around Guizhou previously, and this was going to be our second trip into said village.
Village Life Updates
I have heard about how bad this Chinese New Year was because migrants were getting laid off, but to hear it from Shengchao, to hear about how half of the village youths who were supposed to go work in coastal cities could not find jobs because the smaller factories had closed down and the bigger ones had automated really put things into perspective. The villagers rise with the sun, and rest when it sets, so we are talking constant labour that puts our daily grind to shame.
For construction in the village, the villagers carried bricks from where the truck dropped them off and walked to and fro, to and fro…
When the cab driver we hired asked for 200 yuan to send us to Sparrow Village (the last public bus had already departed by 3pm) for a 39.2km journey, we bargained it down to 180 yuan. Once we started on the journey, I realised we scored ourselves a real bargain.
We had to “climb” over 3 mountains to get to Sparrow Village. On our way, we spotted people who were building up the road by working from the edge of the road, laying bricks down one by one with their bare hands, with no safety support whatsoever…
See that tiny footpath? The village is located behind those trees.
The Economics of Village Life
The thing about having an occupation as a farmer is that you may make enough for self-sustenance but beyond that, you are hard pressed for currency.
So when the country opened up its economy in the 70s and allowed people to move out of their hukou places, the village saw its first wave of migrant labour from the likes of Shengchao’s uncle. Shengchao himself learnt to cook when he was 10, worked in Dongguan for 7-8 years and another 1 at Ningbo. Apparently his family is perhaps the most well-to-do in the entire village, complete with a toilet and hot water.
Villagers eat what they grow and with whatever surplus that they have, they try to sell. I find the pork to be especially tasty – in general I have found meat of animals that grew up eating household food rather than industry feed to be so much tastier. The youth group has been trying to engage with e-commerce but sending out 2 packets of tea costs 50 yuan (usually it’s 8-12 yuan and the parcel man picks up stuff from where you are at)…
The teacher is paid 1300-1500 yuan per month, and village head 2700-2900 yuan-ish. All of which translates to not a whole lot of money.
The village traces its origins back to war and retreat. Their ancestors had settled here for the defensibility and abundance of water and natural resources. In the modern world, such defensibility by virtue of being hard to reach would turn out to be a drag on the village economy.
The Village Cultural Life
Because all youths went out to work at some point, they have lost touch with traditional Miao songs and dance. There are about 5 girls who can do embroidery but it is very haphazard because there is no real reason to do so.
Achievement Unlocked: Photo-Op with a Living “田福叔-like” Official
So my mission was to pose for a photo with the village chief and party secretary basically. At professor Donaldson’s recommendation, we wanted to be absolutely sure that the villagers are open to what we want to do. After all, we are talking about converting an empty room into space for play and computers for the kids, amongst others. Indeed they have a spare room right next to the classroom that is just as big as the classroom and is currently used as a storeroom.
But then they are going to have a village election this coming July so the guards are gonna change. But then knowing the general stability of Chinese villagers and having witnessed the influenced wielded by Shengchao’s family, I am not too worried about dramatic changes in this 300 years old village, if any.
Most importantly, the kids! My selfish reason for caring a great deal about work in these communities is because I see myself in these kids, I think. Except that I have been so lucky. They have new, roaring red school shirts and it was very interesting to see them in a cheery frame compared to the previous photos I’ve seen of them from Gray.
This is what I have seen prior to making the trip myself:
Now they look like this:
(Or perhaps she just takes really bad photos)…
We happened to be in time for Children’s Day and I was not entirely planning for it but I ended up giving a mini-lesson on where Singapore is and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”…
Correction: Guizhou is in the SOUTHWEST of China and not CENTRE.
When the class started, the teacher spent a good deal of time combing the girls’ hair because their grandparents are too busy with farm work for that.
So Gray gave her a little helping hand.
Also the class was made up of kids aged 3-6 so it was obvious that the younger kids could not exactly speak Mandarin yet, but the gang of eldest little boys were very outspoken, daring the teachers to race them, etc.
For our brief lesson and games on the basketball court, they wrote us letters before we go and it was then that I realised that many of them are unable to even write out their own Chinese names correctly!
I will be really looking forward to seeing these kids again. Which means we can’t do any double-blind procedures in the name of research objectivity anymore… But it would be good to track key metrics to make sure that we are making a measurable impact on these villagers’ lives. My two cents is that the most meaningful way to make a difference in someone’s life is to help them secure gainful employment. Rather than charity, rather than grants, put them in good jobs. So we shall see about this. The growth of big data clusters in Guizhou is a very interesting development to keep an eye out for.
I hope that they will not grow up only to be faced with a very limited set of life paths to follow, that they will not be saddled with debt only to complete a degree that is next to worthless in the job market, that they will not be edged out of competition simply because their families could not afford monthly F&B expenses to maintain relationships, …
Last but not least, did I mention that the sun rising over Sparrow Village is simply majestic? I actually walked away for a while because it seemed like the cloud will be covering the sun for a long time. Moments later, the sun had risen above the clouds. I feel like I learnt something in that instant. I learnt something about doing a little every time to make incremental advancements vs. keeping still.
And there’ll be more to follow from the road!