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What a Difference a Train Ride Makes in China

Hong Kong

Sonia and I had to traipse off to Hong Kong last week for a few days. To make a very long story short, she wanted to amend her passport to include her married name and doing so required that we first register the marriage with the Philippines embassy in Hong Kong. Actually, she was supposed to register the marriage within one year after the ceremony but neither one of us knew that—so that oversight cost us a few more Hong Kong dollars when the time came to pay for the registration.

The train ride to Hong Kong from Guangzhou is quite a pleasant one: just about two hours from the east train station (Dong Guan) to the Hung Hom train station in Hong Kong. We rode in the standard car on the way there and then, out of curiosity, I spent the additional HK$50 per person, for a total of $240 per ticket, to ride back in one of their first-class coaches. The first-class coaches offer much wider and plusher seats, carpeted flooring, and a bigger bathroom.

We stayed at the Ibis hotel just within a few yards of the North Point MTR station. The Ibis is what I would refer to as a decent economy hotel: small but clean rooms, a twin-size mattress that was actually far more comfortable than I expected with a functional restaurant that offered decent cafeteria-like food at reasonable prices. Their buffet breakfast featured warm croissants, butter, scrambled eggs, bacon, Chinese sausage (which I never touch), fried potato wedges and freshly brewed coffee—all for HK$55 (including tax). The cost of the room was just as reasonable at HK$418 per night, including tax. The only other hotel I’ve stayed at in Hong Kong is the 4-star Panda hotel in Tsuen Wan and, at more than twice the price per night, I can’t say that it is necessarily worth it. Their buffet breakfast, for example, is also more than double what the Ibis charges but, of course, the variety is considerably better as is presentation. I can highly recommend the Ibis if you need to stay in Hong Kong overnight for a visa run or to visit your consulate.

Our first night in Hong Kong, we made a beeline to Dan Ryan of Chicago’s steakhouse (the one located in the Pacific Place shopping mall, just a 15-minute train ride from the hotel to the Admiralty MTR station). The last time we had visited Hong Kong we ate lunch there and fell in love with their Reuben sandwich, so we made a mental note to try their steaks the next time we were in town. Sonia insisted on having the Reuben again and, this time, I had the 16oz Ribeye steak, medium rare. I can honestly say that it was one of the best steaks I have ever eaten (and not just in mainland China, as that wouldn’t be saying very much). It was certainly as good as the steak I had eaten last time at Morton's of Chicago, also in Hong Kong, at about 60% of the price. It is served with a huge baked potato and side dishes of butter, sour cream, chives and bacon bits. I was so impressed with it that I made a point of mentioning my satisfaction to our waiter at the end of the meal. Later on, when he returned with the bill, he informed me that the restaurant manager had deducted the cost of my drink as soon as he learned of my compliment, as a way of saying thanks. I almost fell off my chair as I had momentarily forgotten that I was no longer in mainland China. Then I wondered for a moment if I had somehow been magically transported back to the states: No, I remembered, I was in Hong Kong, a land of law, civility and common courtesy.

That incident caused me to reflect back on a very unpleasant experience I recently had at a favorite restaurant of mine in Guangzhou: Taiwan’s Shabu Shabu. They serve a pair of tenderloin medallions sautéed in red wine that I am addicted to and so I am a regular there. One night, the kitchen was particularly busy so two orders that should have been served as our appetizers were actually brought to the table cold, about 20 minutes after we had finished eating. I have certainly lived in mainland China long enough to know better but I was annoyed, so I refused the dishes, explaining in my broken Chinese that not only were the dishes (two different types of tempura) ice cold but about 50 minutes too late. For our readers who are not familiar with life in China, customer care essentially does not exist here and with a look of despair, the waitress explained that I had no choice but to pay for these belated, cold and soggy dishes of fried shrimp and vegetables.

I then asked to speak with the manager. I explained that I was a regular and very good customer of his restaurant and that it was unreasonable for him to expect me to eat and pay for cold appetizers that should have been served at the beginning of the meal, not as we were walking out the door. He managed a meager halfhearted apology and then proceeded to blame the waitress. He explained that if I insisted on not paying for the dishes, he would simply deduct the retail value of each appetizer from the waitress’s salary. I suspected he may have been bluffing but I wasn’t positive, so I didn’t risk it. I parried that I would pay for both dishes if he insisted but never return to his restaurant again (and I was most definitely bluffing because I can't find their steaks just anywhere). He just shrugged and returned to whatever he was doing before I disturbed him.

My ultimatum caused a team of waitresses (I was all familiar with) to approach my table apologizing profusely and imploring me to change my mind. Within a minute, four adjacent diners had joined the discussion, with surprising support for my cause, which in turn led to several other patrons leaving the salad bar to surround my table, also in support. After five minutes of this, when two Chinese patrons started to raise their voices in protest about how "terrible" the manager is, I promised that I would return just to put an end to it all. Just as I was getting up to leave, the manager came out of hiding from the kitchen and instructed one of the waitresses to inform me that he had finally decided to deduct the cost of one of the dishes in question. For a mainland Chinese, it was a major concession and intended at the 11th hour to give a good customer some face. The consensus among the other patrons was that I had negotiated a good deal and received a fair result.

This 20-minute “negotiation” accurately reflects the very best of what you can expect in terms of customer service in mainland China.

What a difference a two-hour train ride makes.


# RE: What a Difference a Train Ride Makes in ChinaBen 2010-02-18 17:44
My first month in China a friend brought me to an upscale beef hot pot restaurant. Although it was primarily a beef place, they also served Salmon sashimi which I ordered as an appetizer.

Just as I lifted up the second piece of fish off the platter, I noticed a dead bug on the plate which disgusted me. I called the waitress over, showed her the unwelcome addition while my Chinese friend was chatting away with her in Chinese.

The waitress took the plate from me and I just assumed she was going to bring me a new order. Instead, she walked over to the waiter’s station, removed the dead bug with a pair of chopsticks, wiped the edge of the plate with a piece of toilet paper, and then returned the dish of sashimi to me with a big smile.

I thought I was going to explode. Do Chinese really accept this type of gross disservice? I guess they must, otherwise it wouldn’t persist.

Great site by the way. Thanks for all the effort.

# RE: What a Difference a Train Ride Makes in ChinaAndy 2010-02-18 17:44
A great story of comparison.

I have lived in China for 2 years now and I can certainly relate to this story with many of my own experiences. I try to be as open minded and unjudgemental as I can. This is not my country nor the culture I grew up with. However every man has his threshold. 1 time out of 50 I will question things here and make a fuss. Thats pretty good stats I reckon…for the Chinese and for me.

Thanks for the recommendation of the Ibis hotel, I will check it out the next time I’m there.
# RE: What a Difference a Train Ride Makes in ChinaThomas Rippel 2010-02-18 17:45
I lived in China for over a year and though I sympathize with with anyone complaining about customer care, I would tell those people that thats just how it is and telling the stories afterwards is part of the fun.

Personally I didn’t expect any service, and here and there I was even positively surprised.

Once over here in Melbourne though I ended up in just about the exact situation that you describe above. I ended up paying the full bill and never going back and telling everyone i know to avoid the place.

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