We may not understand it yet, but at this point we’ve all heard about the Metaverse. As the CTO of a tech company, Eric is helping to usher in a new world where reality will coexist alongside its digital twin.
EL: To be honest, sometimes I’m just like “You know what? I just wish I’d opened a coffee shop.”
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
This is the first full episode I’ve released in a long time, so it’s customary for me to start with a quick reminder about the format of these interviews. If you’re listening to this and thinking “I don’t need to hear about the format, I’ve been listening to this damn podcast since Season 01, you fool” then you really should at this point be subscribed to the PREMIUM version of the show on Patreon or Apple Podcasts Subscriptions internationally, or on 爱发电 [Àifādiàn] in China. If you were listening there, you wouldn’t be hearing any of this guff, you’d already be into the episode by now. But no, you’re here, so you have to endure listening to me going on and on about subscribing to the PREMIUM version for just US$2 per month; and how you get around 15 extra minutes of content in every interview; and how all you have to do is follow the simple instructions, and the PREMIUM show pops into your podcast feed exactly in the same way as this version.
Well you’re here at least, and that still makes me happy. So let me get on with explaining the format. The first part is a freestyle conversation, starting with the description of an object that the guest has brought in, which in some way exemplifies their life in China. In the second part, the guest answers 10 questions about their tastes and experiences in China. And the third part is where they nominate someone to appear in the next season of Mosaic of China. The show has been designed to have lots of visual content to follow alongside the audio, so make sure you’re checking out the Mosaic of China website; or following the story at @oscology on Instagram; or joining one of the listeners groups on WeChat by adding me on my ID: mosaicofchina.
And so today’s interview is with Eric Liu. Eric is a technology expert, so I have just two things to say about that. Firstly, we start off talking about Augmented Reality – which is often abbreviated to ‘AR’ – and then proceed to jump from one technical topic to another. If that makes you already feel like switching off, then don’t because the conversation should be enjoyable both to experts like Eric and to idiots like me. And secondly, Eric is quite a fast talker and I may have been over-caffeinated because I mirrored his talking speed in today’s interview. So for both of these reasons, it’s a good excuse to remind you there there’s a full transcript available at Eric’s page on the Mosaic of China website, or if you’re watching this as a video on YouTube then you can follow the captions there. PREMIUM subscribers have special access to the full transcript of the longer versions too.
One final reminder before we start, this time to wait until the end of the episode, where there’s a short catch-up interview with the person who referred today’s guest from the last season of Mosaic of China, which in Eric’s case is the fashion journalist Casey Hall from Season 02 Episode 22. Right that’s finally enough from me, let’s begin the show.
OF: Hi, Eric.
OF: Oh, it’s a cheery start. Actually, I am glad that I have a caffeinated coffee in front of me. Normally, I just drink decaf. But for this conversation, I feel like I need to have my wits about me. Not just because of your perkiness. It’s also because of the topic we’re talking about, which is going to be quite technical, I believe.
OF: Because… how would you describe your role right now?
EL: Oh, boy. So I am CTO and Co-Founder of DIGITWIN Technologies. We do digital twinning of the real world. So we bridge the physical with the digital world. And especially these days, there’s a lot of talk of ‘the metaverse’, right? The ‘digital twins’ makes it into an enterprise metaverse.
OF: OK. Well, before we dive into that, the first question that I ask you – and anyone in that chair – is, what object did you bring that in some way describes your life in China?
EL: I actually brought glasses. Because I think that, in the very near future, we’re going to see the world through a different lens. And it symbolises a way that we will see things with augmented reality in the very near future.
OF: You’ve already said the words ‘augmented reality’. And in the context of glasses, you’re making me immediately think of Google Glass.
OF: Was that the point as well?
EL: Well, it’s actually the first step. Because these days, everybody’s talking about the metaverse. So what does that even mean? Actually, it’s just the internet. But the way that you interact with it will change. So what if you wear AR and you can actually see around you, you can see the weather. Instead of looking at your phone, to see what what is the degrees, it actually shows you, right. Let’s say, in the next couple of years – next time I’m on the show, hopefully someday – I’ll wear some maybe Apple glasses, and I’ll look at you, and all of a sudden it’ll pull up all the information that we talked about previously.
EL: I mean, it’s a little scary, right? But the thing is, this is inevitable, because information is already there. It’s just the way it’s presented to us.
OF: This is the thing, right? Because the equivalent obviously would be the encyclopaedia. Where before the data was there, at least in some form.
OF: And if we wanted to know something, we just flicked through the encyclopaedia.
Then it’s on the phone, all at our fingertips. And then I guess this is just the next iteration of that. It’s going to be floating in the ether as we are walking through the world.
EL: Yes, absolutely. And it’s something that you experience, it’s called Spatial Experience. It’s very different, right? Because the way that we learn as well – when we read something, versus seeing it on YouTube, versus actually experiencing it live when it surrounds you – I think that’s going to change the way that we see the world, and also how we retain information.
OF: OK well these are the basics, I’m sure many people listening are aware and familiar with these terms. Let’s jump to what you are doing now. So what is it that your company does?
EL: So we create digital twins, like I was saying earlier. so we…
OF: No, I don’t understand that.
EL: So let’s say right now we’re in a studio. Right here, right? So it took me a while to get here, because of traffic. But the thing is, I actually can scan this room to digitise this physical place. And then I can actually add the digital elements, like this microphone or anything that’s connected, like the AC unit over there. So we can actually put this into a 3D virtual world, but which is connected to the physical world.
OF: OK, what you’re saying is, it exists in real life, and I have this twin version of it.
EL: Right, exactly, exactly.
OF: So in that example, what would be the point?
EL: So then you can actually access it, and interact with it wherever you are in the world. It’s something that you can just fly down into, sort of like a video game. You experience it, versus the 2D thing, where you pull it up, and you’ve got to wait for it to stream in, and then you say, “OK, which cameras this? Oh, yeah, it’s in my living room. Or is it my kitchen?” That takes a lot of time for you to process. I have about 10 cameras around my house. The problem is, as soon as you access the app, it actually has a grid list of all the cameras. Every single time I open it, I have to think about it. I have to think about which room do I need to look at?
EL: And how do I access it? And I have to scroll through, and try to process it. And that wastes a lot of time every single day.
OF: Yes, you’re giving me the image of the archetypal security guard in a mall.
OF: You can see the monitor with all the different blocks of videos.
OF: OK. What you’re talking about, then, is the human interaction between you and the image, right?
EL: Yes. So we call it Human Computer Interaction, HCI.
EL: Yeah. And that’s the thing, right? Where basically, we see the entire world – the physical world – spatially. Or in 3D. So why can’t we experience all of our data in 3D? Recently, we did something in Singapore, where it actually captured the entire water treatment plant – right, the PUB – for the government. It’s such a large site, somebody can wear a personal tracker. In case they fall or get stuck, they just press an SOS button. And on our 3D digital twin that looks like a video game, it’ll show up exactly where they are. When you click on their name, it’ll fly down and show the live CCTV directly where he is. And then the security guard can say “OK, quick, let’s dispatch somebody over here”.
OF: OK, so in that example, it’s not for security, it’s for something else.
EL: For safety.
OF: For safety, right.
EL: Right, it could be for security, it could be for safety, it could be for entertainment. Let’s say sports. You can actually run outside, and there’s a shadow, there’s an avatar of somebody who already did it – physically, in the physical world – but it’s just an overlay, an avatar that’s replaying the exact steps, the exact speed that they did previously.
OF: Which helps you compete with that avatar.
OF: I mean, yeah, you’re painting a very optimistic picture. It must be who I am as a person, but I always go to negative.
OF: But I’m sure actually most people, when they heard this idea of metaverse, they used the word that you said before, it’s an inevitability.
OF: But it’s one of those things where, is it actually going to be an improvement in our lives? Or is this going to have all kinds of weird, unintended consequences? Your example of the person working in the plant in Singapore…
OF: He or she presses a button, and it works. That’s the benign example.
OF: The malignant example would be that there are cameras tracing all employees, at all times…
OF: Where we can’t possibly step out for one second to do a wee, because there’s someone… You know, there’ll be an alarm. And they’ll count how many wees we do.
OF: That’s obviously going to happen, isn’t it?
EL: It’s already happening. We just don’t know about it, or we don’t see it. Because I talk to a lot of factory owners about these things, and they actually want that. The operators, the management, they want to understand the big data. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to act on it.
OF: I think you’re again taking the optimistic route. Because what you’re thinking of is the anonymised version. Where you look at the big data, and then you can extrapolate, and work out what’s going wrong. Then it’s useful. What worries me is when you personalise it.
EL: Yeah. Let’s take another example actually. Retail stores, right?
OF: Retail stores.
EL: Yeah. You step into a retail store, right? It could be any brand. They already have all this data on you. For them. It’s not anonymised, because you’re in their property. They have access to all your information, saying ‘You bought these sweatpants last season.’ She’s gonna be like “Hey, would you like this new thing?” Right? I mean, there’s so much that they can capitalise.
OF: In that example with the retail store, I see only a small window where that’s going to work. It’s when it’s a new technology, and the customer walking in doesn’t necessarily know that the sales rep has this information. And they feel like “Oh!” You know, they feel like they have some genuine memory.
OF: And then they’re like “Yes, I feel some engagement with this brand. I’m gonna buy that. How the hell did you know that I wanted the sweatshirts?” Right?
OF: And so I can see it working in that area. But then… You know where I’m going, right?
OF: As we all get used to it, it’s gonna become so inauthentic. Because of course, we know that the sales rep has our data. “Just **** leave me alone, sales rep.” How do you see that extrapolating into the future? If not what I’ve just said.
EL: I think it’s the way that we utilise our, for example Google services or WeChat. It makes our lives easier, it’s more convenient. And we know we’re giving up our data, we’ve already agreed to their licencing agreement or whatever, right? So the thing is, you already know that you’re giving data to make your life easier and more efficient. So in a way, I think there’s going to be two types of stores in the future, right? The ones that are fully connected, that have your access to information, you go in, you get out. Right, you know exactly what you want.
OF: There actually won’t even be a salesperson, there’ll be a computer.
EL: Exactly, yeah.
OF: It’s inevitable. But that’s… You see, this is where I think about Darwin, you know. I think that we all have a misconception of Darwin, because we all think “Oh, it’s all about progress for the better”. But actually Darwin himself, he did see species that either flatlined or they retrograded. You know, it’s not always about progress for the right reasons. This is where we don’t understand Darwinism properly. We can go backwards, you know.
EL: Yeah, we can.
OF: And for some reason, this technology is where I get really scared. I’ll give you an example. So out and about in the city in Shanghai, there was a time – I’m not even sure if it’s still happening, I haven’t seen it for a while – that if you, as a pedestrian, walked across a crossing and it was a red light, then it would have your picture…
OF: …It would ping up your name, because it has your photo ID and knows who you are…
EL: Oh, yeah.
OF: And it gives you a scare saying, “Hey, you’ve just crossed the road, and you shouldn’t have.” Is that ‘twin world?’ Is that a good example, or is it something else?
EL: That is twin world, exactly.
OF: That is twin world, right?
EL: Because all this data already exists, right? And it’s just how you interact with it, or how we or how businesses or governments interact, and see it and visualise it.
OF: Well then let’s zoom out then. Because the examples you’ve given so far have gone from home, to factory, to retail mall. But then now we can talk about society as well.
OF: As a company, are you working with cities?
EL: Absolutely, yeah.
EL: We worked on smart cities, various ones in China. It’s for different departments, right. So we see ourselves as potentially almost like an operating system. So let’s say it could be for fire emergency response. We did a project where basically it was geo-locating a lot of their fire stations on a 3D map. As soon as one of the fire departments would get a call, it would actually pop up on the map, on the 3D map. So all of the fire departments’ information linked together, and they can see exactly what’s going on. They can try to optimise it as well. They see Firetruck 1 in 古北 [Gǔběi]: “It hasn’t been maintained, maybe we need to stop sending it out. At the same time, maybe we can dispatch this car in 静安 [Jìng’ān], that’s a little bit further away, but maybe won’t break down.” One of the projects was actually with this shopping mall called ‘Global Harbor’. I think it’s one of the largest malls in the world, from my understanding.
OF: Oh. It’s here in Shanghai, is it?
EL: Yeah. Yeah, it’s huge.
EL: We’re about to scan the entire mall, so that they if something happens at H&M for example, and there’s an emergency that happens, they can say “What’s the closest path to get out? As well as for the fire people to get in?” Outside of the mall, there are these fire hydrants, that are actually also on this 3D plan, right? So they can say “OK, well, if there’s a fire happening at H&M, how many rolls of the fire hose do I need to bring?” So all of this can be calculated.
OF: And which hydrant to use…
OF: …How many fire trucks, from which station, should be deployed…
EL: Yeah. If it’s actually the fire commander, they have access to the whole Smart City region. Then you zoom into the fire brigade, right, the team that actually is dispatched to go to the mall, for example. Maybe they have an iPad, where they can actually access that information like the fire hydrants. And then when the actual firefighters get in – so this is something that we haven’t actually done, because this is for the future – one day firefighters can actually have AR, so then they actually know exactly where their colleagues are, where their other firemen are. Because they can actually see through walls almost, right?
OF: Yes. Or if it’s smokey…
OF: …They have full visibility, as though it’s just the mall in normal times.
EL: Exactly. So I mean, using technology, this is where the two-sided things happen, right? I would like to actually see our technologies help the world, save lives.
OF: Yeah. This is it, when I talk about technology to people like you, at some point we always end up talking about morality and ethics.
OF: Like, do you think about it? Or do you just have this ‘inevitability mantra’ in your head? Where you’re like “Oh look, if I wasn’t doing it, somebody else would. So I absolve myself.”
EL: Yeah, you know, that’s the thing, like I try to do good with the technologies that I work with. And I try to be the thought leader in these new industries, and show people that “Hey, you know what? We can gamify things, we can make it better, we can improve people’s lives.” You know, the younger generation, – especially in China, that grew up with WeChat – they don’t really care about privacy that much. Because they just grew up with it, this is all they know. So the thing is, what I try to tend to do is saying “OK, well, maybe in the future – maybe – maybe that’s something that they can choose to do, or not.” I think when it comes down to it, if we’re actually the thought leaders, if we’re in the lead, we can actually try to dictate where it can potentially be going, right?
OF: In some way, influence.
EL: Yes, in some way influence. As long as there’s influence. Because – like you’re saying – there’s always going to be a dark side. But if I’m still in power, and I see that this is happening, I will try to remedy that. Right, because this is who I am. There are other companies that I don’t know about, maybe they want to say “OK, I just want information, I want to sell it,” etc. That’s a business model, because they want money, right?
EL: But for me, right, it’s really not about becoming a millionaire, and doing all these things. Look at Elon Musk. He is almost guiding humanity towards Mars! It’s ridiculous.
OF: I understand. I understand what you’re saying. I’d rather have people who are thinking about it, than people who are not.
OF: People who are just selling technology to everyone.
OF: And I know that you’re thinking about it, at least. But then at the same time, I’m thinking about you in the situation of Mark Zuckerberg, let’s say 10 years ago, when he was saying the same thing. Like “It’s all about good, it’s all about connecting people at university.” And then suddenly, you know, he’s in a situation where he’s got a lot more power. And has he asked himself these moral questions or not? And I don’t think we really know. All of these tech giants, you see the genius, and you see the ambiguity when it comes to morality as well.
OF: In your situation, have you had an example where you could have sold your technology to any kind of organisation, and you decided not to?
EL: Yes. Yes, absolutely. Let’s just say it was for defence.
OF: Yeah. And then, what about risks on a day-to-day basis? How do you mitigate risks when it comes to you dealing with big data, and dealing with very high-profile clients?
EL: So this is the thing where, it’s not like we’re collecting the data. We’re not Facebook, the data doesn’t actually come from us. The data is actually theirs, our customers. We’re just giving them tools to access it and visualise it better. To just be more effective at their daily jobs.
OF: Uh-huh. Well, I’ve been quite mean to you, because I want to talk about your technology, and I’ve made you talk about all these bigger topics. But you’ve been very kind to humour me in my questions.
EL: But it’s super important, right?
EL: Because you’re absolutely right, Oscar. As we move towards the next generation of the metaverse – or information, right – we should be talking about this. And we need to educate people to say “This is potentially the right path forward”.
OF: Let me take a shift in the conversation and play you the recording of the person who invited you onto Mosaic of China, which was Casey Hall.
OF: Let’s hear what she had to say.
[Start of Audio Clip]
Casey HALL: I would recommend you interview Eric Liu, who is the CTO of a Chinese tech company. His company does a lot with technology, big data. I should also say that my husband works there, so that’s how I know about them.
[End of Audio Clip]
OF: Hello to Casey.
OF: Tell me then, how much interaction do you have with her? What’s your connection? I guess through her husband, as she said.
EL: Yeah, yeah, through her husband, Mike. What’s really interesting is that Mike told me last night that for the first time in his life, Casey understands what he’s doing, which is the metaverse
OF: Oh, because now it’s becoming more known.
OF: And suddenly we have the vocabulary to talk about it.
EL: But apparently, even in the fashion industry, the metaverse is huge. So this is the thing, where the Metaverse is spanning across every single industry now.
OF: The reason I wanted to play that was because, she described your company as a Chinese company.
OF: And she described you as a CTO. So I just want to find out about that story.
OF: So would you say that this company could be run just the same elsewhere? Or is it a very Chinese company?
EL: I would say it’s half/half, right. And that’s the the pros and cons of being over here in China. Because I come from Silicon Valley. So I tried to bring a lot of the management style, as well as the way that I see things, how things should happen. So you know, we heard the whole ‘996’, right? 9am to 9pm, six days a week. I mean, that work ethic is pretty crazy. Like we all heard with Huawei etc, these Chinese companies. I don’t see that as a requirement, right? We should actually make employees enjoy what they do. And if they enjoy what they do – and they see the vision in the future, and the potential for the technologies that we work on – they should be happy to work extra hours themselves. It could be at home, it could be anywhere in the world.
OF: Which sounds like what a Silicon Valley company would be…
EL: Oh, yeah.
OF: …In terms of the culture. Is that the culture that you have?
EL: At least for the engineering staff, yes.
OF: A-ha. You’re a CTO, you’re a Co-Founder. So why are you CTO, not CEO?
EL: So in 2015, actually I started a company called UNISOL Technologies. And I was CEO at the time. It was just me, actually. And it was really interesting. I got up to about 50 employees, and then the trade war hit. And I realised real quick in China, that – especially being a U.S. citizen – if I want to work in smart cities, that’s going to be harder.
EL: So that’s why I partnered with a with a Chinese partner.
EL: Yeah, so this is why DIGITWIN Technologies is today what it is.
OF: Is that why you didn’t continue with your previous company, because you realised there was a certain limit that you could reach as a CEO from America?
OF: That’s smart.
EL: So I think for me, moving forward, I’m going to be helping more with our international approach as well. We actually have a Singapore hub called Virspatial Technologies. It’s different branding. That is the company that will actually start making this technology more realistic for outside of China as well.
EL: And then we’re gonna see where else we can actually expand it to.
OF: Yeah. You did say that you worked in Silicon Valley. What’s your back-story?
EL: Oh, wow. So originally I worked in the mortgage industry, right out of college. The key turning-point for my career was working for the video game industry.
OF: Ah well this all makes sense now.
EL: Right. So then I went to NVIDIA.
OF: NVIDIA, they did virtualization, right?
EL: Yeah. They so they have these graphics cards, right?
EL: GPUs. They invented the term ‘GPU’.
OF: Which is basically, faster processing.
EL: Exactly. Exactly, so I worked there, actually doing a lot of product management, as well as business development. I met with a lot of video game executives. When we would party, we go to Vegas. You know, we would get the best tables, and the best nightclubs.
OF: I don’t think I would have liked Eric Liu back then. You would have been, like, this alpha ****.
EL: Well, I mean, maybe. I don’t know, you can ask my friends back then. But the thing is, I try to bring humanity back, right. I mean, this is who I am, as a human being.
OF: OK. And so, you were on a roll, obviously, at that point. But then here you are in China.
OF: So what happened?
EL: Well, so I was on my honeymoon. And I was doing quit a bit of international travel. I quit NVIDIA, and I did a two month backpacking tour of Europe. And I realised the world is actually a lot bigger, you know. Utilising this 3D technology, I can actually do better for different industries, not just in the video game space. And this is where I started going back and forth between the U.S. and China, and realised that a lot of industries needed this technology to help them improve the way that they do business, or access information. So on the honeymoon, I remember I said “Hey, honey, do you want to give up your district attorney job, and let’s go to China?”
OF: Wow. And did you have any family connection to China at that point?
EL: So I was actually born in China, in 南京 [Nánjīng], but I moved to the States when I was five.
OF: I see, OK. So you speak Chinese?
EL: I do. Growing up, I spoke with my parents in Chinese. So when I first got here, 2015, my Chinese was pretty much at elementary level, right? Like…
OF: “Yes mother, no mother”.
EL: Yeah, exactly. But over time, I started talking more, being more confident with myself, with business Chinese, etc.
EL: So these days, I can actually… Like, my whole launch event – the past weekend – I did in Chinese.
OF: Well this is why it’s hard for me to research your company. Because a lot of your PR is done in Chinese.
OF: And my Chinese is OK. But it’s a lot of language that I don’t understand. So it’s very hard for me to connect with what you’re doing, unless I talk to you personally in English.
EL: Well that’s hopefully changing soon, because I’m gonna start making it bilingual as well.
OF: Ah there you go. That’s so funny, because most people who start their own companies who come from the States – or anywhere around the world – that I talk to on this show, they always start by being very much focused on the expat community. That’s who they know, that’s their network. They see the niche in their community, and then they go bilingual. Meaning they go more Chinese language.
OF: But you’ve gone the other way around.
OF: Yeah, I can see why you’ve got a long runway ahead. This is not a quick ‘make-money-and-run’ kind of project.
EL: No. But to be honest, sometimes I’m just like “You know what? I just wish I’d opened a coffee shop.” Oh my goodness.
OF: Right. No well that’s why I’m impressed with someone like you. Because – I’ve said it before on this podcast – my company, when I was a headhunter, was just me, a phone, a laptop.
OF: That was basically all I needed. So when I think about you, and the engineering skill and talent you need, then the connections with government, and then some kind of plan for how to embrace this ever-changing technology… You haven’t made life easy for yourself?
EL: Yeah. But, you know, we’re still here, still surviving, and actually really enjoying it, to be honest.
OF: Well, please continue. Because as we’ve talked about, I would rather have the likes of you doing what you’re doing. Pushing us forward in this direction – in this inevitable direction – than anyone else, you know. And I’ve really enjoyed not just hearing about the technology, but how you interface with it on a personal basis. So thank you very much, Eric.
EL: Sure, thank you so much Oscar.
OF: And we’re gonna move on to Part 2.
EL: All right, let’s do it.
OF: All right, Eric.
EL: All right.
OF: It’s the 10 questions. I have high expectations.
EL: Let’s do it.
OF: Question one, which comes from Shanghai Daily: What is your favourite China-related fact?
EL: In 2011, 25% of all construction cranes in the world were in Shanghai. So I thought this is really interesting, right? Because this basically shows the development of China ten years ago. I mean, this is how fast things move over here. And this is another reason why I’m here.
OF: Mmm. I wonder what it would be now? I don’t know how much construction is happening right now in COVID World.
EL: Yeah, that’s true. But I feel like it’s still happening. I mean, did you know that there are only two countries in the entire world that are starting cities from scratch? China and Saudi Arabia, and that’s it.
OF: Is Saudi Arabia going to be one of your clients, then?
EL: Yeah actually, I’m scheduled to go over there.
EL: Some time in the new year. And we’re potentially working with some major enterprises over there.
OF: There you go. Funnily enough, there’s a connection. Because there is one person from Mosaic of China Season 01 who is now in Saudi Arabia.
OF: And that is ex-CEO of Disneyland Shanghai.
EL: Oh, wow.
OF: He’s now helping to build one of their big entertainment parks, in Saudi Arabia. So, Mosaic of Saudi Arabia coming right up. Question 2, which comes from Rosetta Stone: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
EL: 是这样的 [Shì zhèyàng de].
OF: Oh, 是这样的 [shì zhèyàng de].
OF: So that means?
EL: So that means basically saying, like “It’s actually like this”, right?
EL: I don’t know if that’s the actual translation.
OF: Yeah, yeah.
EL: But every single time I ask something, I hear somebody say “是这样的 [Shì zhèyàng de]”. It’s as if, you know “You’re wrong, and I’m gonna tell you what’s right.”
EL: And I hear this everywhere.
OF: Especially with ‘know-it-all’ engineers, I guess.
EL: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
OF: Question 3, which comes from Naked Retreats. What is your favourite destination within China?
EL: So, because I haven’t been to too many places in China, unfortunately.
OF: Too busy?
EL: Too busy. I haven’t even been to the Great Wall. I mean, I think I went a long time ago when I was younger. So today’s answer is actually Oriental Spring. It’s in 闵行 [Mǐnháng] District.
OF: It’s here within Shanghai.
EL: Yeah, sadly.
OF: 闵行 [Mǐnháng] is about as far out as you can go.
EL: Yeah, I don’t consider it Shanghai any more. But the thing is – let me try to paint a picture here – have you ever heard of MGM in Vegas, where they have pool parties?
OF: OK. This is going back to your Nvidia days.
EL: Yes. Yes, my party days. Basically people during the day party in a pool, like a shallow pool.
EL: And they’ll be drinking alcohol. And then all of a sudden, there’s a foam party.
OF: Yes, OK.
OF: I’ve seen those movies with, like, frat boys.
EL: Yeah. So I go with family now. And there are a lot of kids there. It’s a shallow pool. Everybody’s having fun. There’s these blow-up whales, or whatever. And then at four o’clock, all of a sudden, “Oh, foam!” Boom. And then there’s music going on. It’s like a Vegas club.
EL: For family.
EL: And the cool thing is it’s unlimited beer.
OF: Oh god.
EL: There’s a there’s a tap for you just to pour yourself.
OF: I hope there’s a good lifeguard.
EL: Yeah, yeah. I mean, this place is ridiculous.
OF: Yeah. Oriental Spring.
OF: Well, shout-out to Oriental Spring.
OF: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
EL: So the most is actually the late-night 饿了么 [Èleme] deliveries.
OF: Uh huh.
OF: I mean, we’re talking like, any time of night.
EL: Any time of night. You know, I’m working, I’m drinking a little bit, and I’m like “You know what, I need some Korean fried chicken”. This is like comfort food, right?
OF: Yes. And then what would you miss the least?
EL: Every single day I step outside, there are smells.
EL: Like “Wait, that’s smoke. OK, now it’s garbage. And now that’s… Oh, it’s a bakery”. It literally just… it just hits you in the face.
OF: You didn’t say poo.
EL: I wanted to be a little more PC here, Oscar.
OF: That’s definitely in this rainbow mix.
EL: Oh yeah.
OF: You’re right. And smoke is an interesting one. Because the amount of times I’m walking down the street, and I have to walk through a cloud of smoke, right?
EL: Yeah, every day.
OF: OK, is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
EL: Yeah. So, new places popping up left and right all the time. Because every single time I go around the corner, every month, there’s something new. Or something old that just disappeared, right? It’s amazing how they’re gonna keep rebuilding. I mean, how much of that is actually real – versus, if you peel back the layers of the ‘marble’ and see foam inside – that’s beside the point. But the point is, every single time I go outside I see something new. And it’s incredible.
OF: Mmm. Next question, which is from SmartShanghai: What’s your favourite place to go out, to eat or drink or just hang out?
EL: So this is where – my wife and I – we escape to this place called Bar Centrale.
OF: Oh yeah.
EL: Yeah. I think it’s owned by the same people as Alimentari.
EL: So we usually sit at the bar, and we drink our ‘Popolo Spritzes’, and try to reminisce about the days when we were in Italy. Getting wasted.
OF: That’s right, because actually, the other person who has said the group Alimentari was an Australian/Italian called Simon Manetti. He said the same thing in Season One.
EL: Oh, wow.
OF: Because it does have good produce, when it comes to cheeses and salamis.
EL: Right, exactly.
OF: You can kind of squint and you’re in Italy-ish.
EL: Yeah, a little bit. I mean, it is close to where we live these days. So it’s a little bit more convenient. But yeah, it’s an escape for us.
OF: That’s the thing. And I think it’s not just for foreigners, but it’s for the Shanghainese themselves who can’t travel to Italy.
EL: Yeah, exactly.
OF: All of these places that have some real authenticity – when it comes to the food, at least – they’re the ones that people flock to. To get this experience of ‘kind-of-being-outside-of-China-when-not-being’.
EL: Yes, yes.
OF: I totally get it. All right, what is the best or worst purchase you’ve made in China?
EL: The worst purchase is actually a TV stand.
EL: Why is it so bad? Because first of all, it was a cheap thing, right? And my wife and I thought “Hey, we can just buy any cheap old TV stand”. And the chemical smell. Literally for weeks, we couldn’t get rid of it. And I actually got headaches.
OF: What the hell was that?
EL: I don’t know. This cheap stuff, right.
OF: Oh my word.
EL: But the worst part is – and I’ll show you a little bit later – when we tried to get rid of it, it scratched my leg. And it’s been over a year, and it has left a mark on me. Possibly for the rest of my life. So that’s almost symbolic of coming to China, experiencing the good and the bad. But sometimes the bad will definitely leave a scar for you.
OF: Oh yeah. OK, and how big is the scar? Are you gonna show me now?
EL: I can show you now, if you want.
OF: Go on, let’s have a look.
OF: Oh, there it is. It’s not too big. So at least it’s cool enough that you can see it.
EL: Yeah, the cheap TV stand. Never forget.
OF: Because you’ve said it had a chemical coating.
OF: Now I’m worried that it poisoned you when it ripped the skin.
EL: Exactly. Maybe, maybe.
OF: What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
EL: So, this is exceptionally hard. I think, Oscar, quite possibly the hardest question anyone’s ever asked me.
OF: All right, well, send me your favourite.
EL: “Noice”. You know, when I talk to friends and it’s like “Oh, that’s great”, I like to send that. Because it’s hilarious. The other one… I forgot what her name is.
OF: Oh yes, the actress. Rebel Wilson? Is that her name?
EL: I don’t know. But basically it says “My body is ready” and she’s ripping apart her blouse, exposing – not all the way – her chest, with clothes on. But she’s so expressive, as well.
OF: Which means you would use this when?
EL: Every day. Somebody says “Are you are you ready for coffee?”, “My body is ready”.
EL: And then the last one. It’s a very awkward stare that zooms in to a very burly man.
OF: I know this one, yeah.
EL: And he just nods at you. The thing is, I like to make people uncomfortable sometimes. Especially when in China they’re getting a little too close. You know, they’re already staring at me. And I like to stare back.
OF: Oh, you do that?
EL: Oh I do that.
OF: I do that too.
OF: Oh, that’s me being quite passive-aggressive though.
EL: Yeah, exactly.
OF: And do you usually win the staring competition?
EL: I’ve won most of the time. But I’ve had some worthy opponents.
OF: That’s true, right?
OF: They do not get embarrassed if you stare back.
EL: And then you have an expression, right? And then it depends on if you go dark or light. You can smile really big, or you can be like just “Open your eyes” more and more. But yeah…
OF: Wait, “Open your eyes”… ‘Total Recall’!
EL: ‘Total Recall’, yeah.
OF: Ah, it’s a good movie. What is your go-to song to thing at KTV?
EL: Usually I would sing sort of old-school ’90s stuff. So…
OF: You’re showing your age right now.
EL: Yeah. So usually I go with Oasis, like ‘Wonderwall’.
OF: Oh hello, you’re speaking my language.
EL: Yeah I love Oasis, I grew up with that. The other one is actually ‘Circle of Life’ by Elton John.
EL: I love Disney. Obviously, these days with kids. But even without kids, I love Disney stuff. Actually, my proposal song to my wife was Elton John, ‘Your Song’.
OF: There’s a link between Disney, Elton…
OF: And where was this?
EL: San Francisco. At a KTV.
OF: It was at a KTV!
OF: Good for you, man. As a fan of KTV, I am very happy that you managed to merge this into such an important part of your life. I salute you. And the last question, which comes from JustPod, which is the studio we’re in right now: What or who is your biggest source of inspiration in China?
EL: So this is a ‘What’. So actually it’s how fast things move here. It’s really inspiring. It’s actually a lot more challenging as well, because we have more competitors. But at the same time, competition is important for innovation. It’s actually making us more aware. And we want to just be better.
OF: Thank you so much, Eric.
EL: Thank you so much, Oscar. I’m so happy to be here.
OF: Absolutely. And before you leave, tell me who – out of everyone you know in China – would you recommend that I interview in the next season of Mosaic of China?
EL: I would recommend interviewing another Eric. So he’s actually in charge of this amazing place called Planet One. It’s VR eSports location-based entertainment. They have VR headsets that you can use to experience many different types of games. It’s like a restaurant plus eSports and VR combined, I would say.
OF: Right. Well thank you for that, I look forward to meeting Eric. You know what, I don’t think I knew many Erics before. But there was an Eric in Season 01 of this podcast, you’re an Eric in Season 03. Now there’ll be one in Season 04…
EL: You gotta have Erics, right?
OF: All right. Well I can’t wait to meet him. Tell me, if there was one question you would ask Eric, what would you ask him?
EL: I would ask him “Is there going to be a Planet Two?”
OF: Oh, with the twin aspect? Is that what you’re going for?
OF: All right, thanks so much Eric.
EL: Great, thank you so much Oscar.
OF: So there we have a classic example of what an episode of Mosaic of China is all about. We talked about big concepts, and we talked about everyday experiences. We were intellectual and lofty in places, and yet we still managed to drop the words ‘wee’ and ‘poo’ into our conversation. We talked about China, but we also very much discussed the outside world. And all of this was done through the stories and experiences of the guest. So I want to say another big thanks to Eric for kicking off the season, and letting us view the world through his 3D lens.
One important update, I’ve been in touch with Eric, and he can confirm that the scar on his leg from the cheap TV stand is still there. You can see a photo of that on social media, along with all the other visuals accompanying the conversation, including his object the glasses, his favourite WeChat stickers, visual representations of his Digital Twin technology, and lots more besides. And while you’re online, click the link at the top of the Mosaic of China website to subscribe to the extended version of the show. Here are a few clips from today’s PREMIUM episode…
EL: It could be an enterprise, it could be a business…
OF: It could be a government…
EL: It could be… Yes.
EL: People who actually wore it, they were called ‘Glass-holes.’
EL: This is how society works. We always power through, right.
OF: Until the day we don’t.
EL: Oh my god, how am I going to communicate? Literally, I went ape-****.
OF: How do you know that the information isn’t being shared with the police department?
EL: Unfortunately, we don’t.
EL: Helicopter simulators with real cockpits, so that you can fly and learn.
OF: Oh, yeah.
OF: Haven’t they got enough cities? Why do they need to make new ones?”
EL: Too many people!
EL: Rice cookers. Because I actually haven’t searched for rice cookers!
[End of Audio Clips]
Apart from sharing a first name with Eric Olander, the American journalist from Season 01 Episode 03, the biggest overlap with a previous episode was with the FinTech Philosopher himself, Srinivas Yanamandra, from Season 01 Episode 15. If you’re interested in the intersection between technology and ethics, then you’ve got to go back and listen to that one. And another more unexpected connection is with the Fire Engineer Michael Kinsey, from Season 02 Episode 25. Listening to that episode along with today’s really tells a story about how building design, computer modelling, and now smart cities will combine to transform the world of fire safety in the future.
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. Speaking of connections, there follows a catch-up conversation with Eric’s connective tile in the Mosaic, Casey Hall from Season 02. So stick around for that, and we’ll be back with another episode next week.
OF: Hello Casey, it’s great to see you in person again.
CH: Yeah, it’s been a while.
OF: It has been a while. You and I did our recording originally about 18 months ago, believe it or not.
CH: I actually don’t believe that that. Time just has no meaning anymore.
OF: Totally. Well let’s talk about what has happened to you since our original recording. And I should tell people who didn’t listen to that, that you were the Asia correspondent for Business of Fashion, right. So your key journalistic focus was in things like fashion and consumerism. So what has changed since then?
CH: Well, I’m still in the same area, but I have changed jobs. During lockdown, I started a new job, which was quite surreal.
CH: But I started a new job as China Consumer Correspondent at the Reuters news agency. Still fashion, luxury, beauty… that part of China consumer life. It’s been really interesting. And a really interesting time, obviously, because so much has changed very quickly in terms of people’s consumption and attitudes, and economic confidence, all those things. But, you know, I don’t think a lot of the fundamentals of the China market, long term, have gone away.
CH: And I think that once we are through this pandemic period, things will change again and people will regain confidence. But the fact that we don’t have an endpoint at this stage just plays into it even more.
OF: Well I remember in our original chat, we talked about the object which you brought, which was the original Lonely Planet book for China. And you had a few things that you wanted to still tick off. You have ticked off a few more places, right?
CH: Yeah, I have. So I finally went to Tibet.
OF: Ah, I’m so jealous.
CH: It’s not easy. It’s not a straightforward process. Like, you can’t just hop on a plane and fly to Lhasa. There are a lot of permits and things that are involved. Because of COVID, there are a lot of added complications in getting permits, a lot of the paperwork changes. So I had booked this trip in May 2021, and I didn’t end up going until the end of September. And my permits came through two days before the trip started. And so I had to make this decision very quickly. Like, my first instinct was “No, it’s too hard. I have to book flights, I have to take time off work, I have to organise stuff for the rest of the family, and I can’t possibly get it done”. And then about one minute after that, I thought “But I really have to”.
OF: Yeah, screw it.
CH: “I don’t really have a choice, I have to. I’ve been waiting to do this for 14 years”.
CH: So, I mean, I hope also that you get to make it.
OF: Thank you. Well, if anyone who’s listening did not hear your original episode, I do want them to go back and listen. I’ve stolen a lot of the words that you said, and I use them now in general conversation. Foreign press focus on…?
CH: “The big, the bad, and the weird”.
OF: Exactly. So now I always – in my mind – have a mantra: “Oscar, don’t do the big bad weird China,” but try and do the other side of China that people don’t know about. And I think about you all the time because of that.
CH: Oh, if that is what you remember from me, that makes me very happy. I feel like in so much of my career over the last 15 years, that has been my personal mantra.
OF: Oh right.
CH: Like, when I’m writing – or when I’m pitching stories, or when I’m thinking about what I want an audience to know about – that is also often at front of mind for me. So I’m really, really glad that that’s something that you’ve taken away from it too.
OF: Good. Please continue what you’re doing. It’s awesome that you are part of this project. I’m very grateful, Casey, and please stay in touch.
CH: I will Oscar, thank you so much.