The Big Mac(Donald’s) Update

Since I last did a McDonald’s update, I’ve gained a lot of readers. For those who are new, I try to eat at a McDonald’s restaurant in every country I visit. McDonald’s in every country are just a little bit different as they adjust the menu to fit local tastes. Eating at McDonald’s is an attempt to try and see how each country is different through the lens of something which is very familiar. I do not usually go out of my way to eat fast food, but I do eat at least this one meal at each place.

My last update was in Taiwan, so I have Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong/Macau to fill everyone in on . Brunei didn’t have a McDonald’s that I could see (but they did have Pizza Hut and Jollibee’s) and I’ll wait till I pass through KL to talk about Malaysia.


You think Japan you think seafood. It should come as no surprise that Japan’s contribution to the global McDonald’s menu should come from the sea. They have given us the Fliet-o-Ebi, or the shrimp sandwich. What was interesting was that the Japanese McDonald’s all had cheaper seafood sandwiches than beef sandwiches. This is opposite (outside of Lent) as it is almost anywhere else. The filet-o-fish was the cheapest thing on the menu and the Quarter Pounder was the most expensive.

I had a helluva time finding Diet Coke in Japan and South Korea. I guess they aren’t that fat so don’t feel the need to drink diet coke that often. I’d usually get a Grape Fanta when I ate in Japan.

In the Asian McDonald’s I’ve visited (except for Hong Kong) they had a very clever system for getting rid of your garbage. Each garbage bin had a drain attached for dumping your ice and extra beverages. You were then expected to stack your cups. Also, hard plastic like forks, drink tops and straws were usually put in a separate bin. It was very efficient. Very Japanese. The drain on the garbage is one of those simple ideas that really should be adapted everywhere. It reduces the weight and potential mess of the garbage by removing the liquids from the bag. It also reduces the volume by stacking the cups. It would be very simple to implement and I think everyone would use it immediately.

South Korea

South Korea has one of the more boring menus I’ve seen so far. The only really unique thing I saw was the pumpkin pie, which sounds like something that is probably on the menu in North America in the fall, but I don’t recall ever actually seeing it.

The one thing which sets South Korean McDonald’s apart from Japan was something you could see all over the country: space. Most of the Japanese McDonald’s I saw were very crowded. Many had spaces for eating while standing up against the wall. There were very few booths or large tables. This is sort of a reflection of everything in Japan. Everything is tiny and crowded.

In South Korea, even though the country has a higher population density than Japan, you don’t see the same amount of crowding. I noticed this the moment I arrived in Busan. The apartments were bigger, almost American sized. Likewise, the McDonald’s were more roomy and less seafood oriented. Even though South Korea is heavily into pork, I didn’t see a lot of pork on the menu.

They also had corn soup on the menu, which is something I also saw in other Asian countries. I don’t get why corn is so popular. It certainly isn’t a traditional Asian food.

Hong Kong/Macau

I noticed that Hong Kong and Taipei had way more fast food restaurants than I saw anywhere in Japan and South Korea. You’d see them around in Seoul and Tokyo, but not in the same degree as in Taipei or Hong Kong. I have no clue if it is a Chinese thing.

That being said, the two places I’ve eaten the most fast food were in Taipei and Hong Kong. I think that is more a function of me staying there far longer than I had originally planned, having a screwed up sleep schedule, and McDonald’s being open 24/7. If you recall from my report on Taipei, they had great fried chicken. The Hong Kong chicken wings were also really good. Probably not very good for me, but they taste good. The only unique thing I saw was the Prosperity burger, which was available in beef and pork. I think it might have been a seasonal thing like the Shamrock Shake, but for Chinese New Year. I also saw the Prosperity Burger in Malaysian Borneo, which has a sizable Chinese population.

I plan on doing a special McDonald’s update from Bali. From what I’ve heard, the menu is very different there.

The Ecology of Urban Hong Kong

The car stereo district in Hong Kong
The car stereo district in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is to small businesses as the rainforest is to plants.

I think that analogy not only captures the idea that economic and regulatory conditions in Hong Kong are favorable to business, but it also captures a very real sense of how and where businesses spring up. They pop up like plants wherever conditions will support life.

A Quiz

First let me start with a quiz which was given back in my introductory Microeconomics class: Assume you selling lemonade on a beach. On that beach there is another vendor of lemonade. The lemonade is exactly the same as yours and the same price. The only reason why someone would choose one vendor over another is the distance they have to walk. Also, assume that the people are spread out along the beach evenly and the beach is of finite length. (Think 100m if you want)

The question is, where will both lemonade vendors end up?

The first answer everyone thinks is they will divide the beach up. One would be at the 1/3 point and the other at the 2/3 point. However, you can always steal the market share between you and the other guy by inching towards him, without losing what is on the other side. The correct answer is, they will both end up in the middle.

Nathan street is the main commercial artery in Kowloon
Nathan street is the main commercial artery in Kowloon
If you think about it, it makes perfect sense, and it also explains why you see gas stations on the same corner, car dealerships on the same street, and fast food restaurants lumped together. In larger cities like Hong Kong, you see districts where similar small shops all converge. New York has the fashion district, the financial district, the diamond district, etc. In Hong Kong, I’ve noticed even smaller subdivisions in shops. In my previous post, I mentioned the floor tile district. Literally, there were tons of home improvement stores all clumped around the same street. I’ve seen clumps of car stereo stores, shoe stores, book stores, and certainly on Nathan Street, electronics stores.

I’ve noticed in Hong Kong a serious lack of large stores. Almost every store is a small mom and pop operation. I think this is a function of the regulatory environment in Hong Kong. It is very easy to open up a business in Hong Kong. Probably the easiest in the world. The lower the barrier, the small the size of the businesses that compete. The larger the barrier, the larger the size of the businesses that can compete. With so many businesses competing, it would be very hard to become a huge store. A small player with lower overhead could always come in and take business away from the area you are expanding into to.

The shopping districts are in effect Hong Kong’s answer to the the superstore. Rather than have a Home Depot, you have a block of stores selling home improvement products. Some sell tile. Some sell bathroom fixtures. Some sell paint. Together, they are pretty close to what you find in a Home Depot…minus the lumber.

A River Of People

So in addition to behaving like pack animals, you can also see businesses spring up like plants. Plants need water. Businesses need people. The primary arteries of people are the streets, with smaller tributaries going down alleys. Likewise, there is vertical component to people as well. Most are on the ground, but some can go up via elevators and escalators. The farther up you are, the farther away you are from people. Just like plants in a rainforest.

The home improvement district in Kowloon
The home improvement district in Kowloon
The fact that you find shops on busy streets isn’t really Earth shattering. What is interesting in Hong Kong is how you see shops set up in alleys on the second floor of buildings…but only near the escalators. These second floor malls are basically just permanent kiosks. All of the ones I’ve seen had a lot of empty units, with the only open units being at the very top of the escalator, usually visible from the bottom street level.

Once again, you see growth where you see people. No people, no business. The few businesses you would see are ones which don’t rely on foot traffic. Likewise in the alleys, you would see stands down primary alleys off of major streets, but then in the alleys off of the alleys, you’d see fewer stalls or nothing at all. All a function of human traffic.


Every ecosystem has its parasites. In Hong Kong it is the copy watch and hand bag vendors. They cluster where tourists are and just walk up to people asking them if they want a copy watch. They literally say “boss, want copy watch?”. I guess they got busted selling fake watches, so now they just tell people up front they are copies. I usually couldn’t walk a block without getting approached by several of these guys. Everyone of them I encountered was Indian.

While not parasites per se, you will also get accosted by guys with cutom tailor shops. They will stand outside their shop and target the tourists for custom suits. Unlike the copy watch guys, they run legitimate businesses with storefronts. You can get a custom tailored men’s suit for about US$150, including 2 shirts. Had I needed a suit, I probably would have gotten one. Like the copy watch guys, they were also all Indian.

The last parasitic group are the old Chinese women who hand out fliers for massages. Unlike Saipan, I think most of the massage places are legit. Most offer services like ear candleing and manacures. It is just a very low cost business to open. Nonetheless, they are very annoying deal with. Being a caucasian walking down the street alone, I screemed “tourist” and I was approached by everyone. At least they weren’t as bad as the scam artists I met in Manila.

Hong Kong probably has the most vibrant urban economy in the world, which is really suprising given that it is now technically under the control of the communist government.

Last Day in Hong Kong (for real this time)

Hong Kong, I barely knew ya
Hong Kong, I barely knew ya
I got my tickets and everything is booked. Tomorrow evening I’ll be flying Royal Brunei Airlines to Bandar Darussalam and I’ll finally be out of Hong Kong. I’ve stayed here waaaay longer than I ever anticipated. Granted, I got a lot done and I probably needed to stay put for a few weeks, but I’m getting antsy and it is time to get moving.

I’m currently planning on three days in Brunei, then I’ll be off to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia and Kinabalu National Park. From there I’ll try to visit Gunung Mulu National Park then hop a flight to Jakarta.

I’m on a bit of a schedule. I need to get some documents sent from the states. I’m going to take my planned vacation from my vacation in Australia, where I’ll sit and wait for stuff to get sent and for my passport to get renewed at the US Embassy.

I’m sort of looking forward to Malaysia and Indonesia because I honestly don’t know what to expect. I’m sort of expecting it to be on a par with the Philippines. (Actually, Malaysian per capita GDP is well above the Philippines and Indonesia is below. I have no idea how East/West Malaysia differ, however).

I’ll experience my first land border crossing of the trip this week and my first trip to a predominately Muslim country. Once again, I have no idea what sort of Internet connection I’ll have. Updates might come in bunches when I can find bandwidth.

I don’t know if I want to climb Mount Kinabalu. I have the clothing and shoes but not the pack. I’m sure I’ll find out more in the coming days.

Merry Kiritimati

Christmas in Hong Kong
Christmas in Hong Kong
Well, once again I didn’t get to Macau. Christmas day, however, it is going to happen. I know this because I have tickets booked. Today, by the time I got to the ferry terminal (I slept late. my room has no sunlight) the ferries were booked for several hours. I said screw it and just made sure I had tickets for tomorrow.

This marks the first time in my life that I have not been home for Christmas. It was one of those things that were bound to happen eventually, but it is still sort of weird. They have Christmas in Hong Kong, but it isn’t quite the same thing. I’m sure it is even less of a big deal outside of Hong Kong.

I hope everyone back home has a good Christmas. It’s the days like today when traveling alone can be rough.

I’ll be celebrating the birth of Jesus by visiting Portuguese ruins and Asian casinos. I hope to turn around the photos from Macau right away. I don’t want to get too far behind again. Perhaps I’ll have something tomorrow.

* The title of this post is the word “Christmas” in the Gilbert language. It is pronounced “Christmas” just like you would say it normally, they just use “ti” for the letter “s”.

Everytime I try to get out, they just keep pulling me back in

Not only am I still in Hong Kong, but I’m going to be here over Christmas.

Macau is booked solid. At least all the cheap places are. My lack of planning around Christmas is really the proximate problem here.

The place I’m staying in HK I had to check out today and I packed up and went to drop off the key. I had asked them earlier if I could stay a bit longer, but they said they were full. When I checked out and produced my receipts to get my key deposit, he realized I was a good customer, didn’t cause problems, and “suddenly” a room appeared. In fact, my very same room appeared. Cash does that I guess.

So the plan now is on the 24 and 25 I’ll just take day trips into Macau on the jet boat. Macau is a small place so it shouldn’t be too big of a deal. The plan then is to get a flight to Borneo on the 26th. I just need to decide on flying into Kota Kinablau or Brunei. That should be my last big long flight for quite a while.

Yesterday I tried to find the bird market and instead found the kitchen and bath tile market. I think all the bird markets have been shut down due to the bird flu. Strike one.

Then I went to the Todai Seafood Buffet. They had one in Honolulu I frequented so I thought I’d check the one in Hong Kong out. Turns out it is a 90 minute wait if you don’t have a reservation. Strike two.

Then I crossed the harbor to get to the top of Victoria Peak at night to take some night time shots of the skyline. The fog was so thick you couldn’t see a single light on any building. Strike three.

Well, its not the plan I wanted, but at least I have a plan now and an exit strategy from Hong Kong.

Not in Macau

So, I’m not in Macau after all.

I decided to stay a bit longer so I can get new glasses here. Its cheap and I’d rather not wait until I get to Australia. Also, the impending Christmas season is making it hard to get rooms and flights. I’ll make the best of it. I need to find a store that sells sandals here too. I went to, what I can only call, the shoe district last night to find a pair. The only store I could find with sandals only had Men’s sandals in a size 11. Chinese just don’t wear sandals I guess.

I’m off to the 10,000 Buddhas Temple today. I’m going to take a photo of everyone so I have daily photo material for the next 30 years.

Last Day in Hong Kong

Tomorrow I’m off to Macau. I’m sure I’ll be back to Hong Kong just to get a flight out, but that’s about it.

Last night I had the best Mongolian BBQ I’ve ever had and got to see a street performer escape from a straight jacket. Can’t beat that.

If nothing else, Hong Kong has been very productive for me. I’ve had a big surge in new readers the last week. Some housekeeping issues and things I’ve been working on:

  • The page should be loading faster. I created a static version of the site to take care of traffic spikes I was getting. I’ve been getting a lot of people from StumbleUpon, so thanks to everyone who as been Stumbling my photos and posts.
  • I fixed the RSS feed. The RSS feed should now have full text and images. Before it was truncating everything and leaving the photos out. If you don’t use RSS or know what an RSS reader is, you can click on the email icon in the upper left and have new updates sent to your mailbox.
  • If you are new, check out my map. I use Google Earth to mark where I’ve been and embed photos and links to the website for each place. It is a continual work in progress. It is best to view the file directly in Google Earth if you have it installed.
  • I am currently #1 in the Travel Category at the Bloggers Choice Awards. The contest is running through most of 2008, so it is far from over. If you like the site, take 30 seconds to toss me some pity a vote.

Random Thoughts on Hong Kong

A canopy of street signs
A canopy of street signs
Here are various observations on Hong Kong that are probably too short to justify their own posts:

  • Street signage in Hong Kong for stores are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They not only extend into the road, but often will cross the meridian and overlap signs from the other side of the street. The effect it to almost cover some streets. At night almost makes Nathan Street (the main shopping street in Kowloon) look like downtown Las Vegas.
  • There was a great deal of concern over what would happen to Hong Kong after the hand over from the British to China back in 1997. With the exception of a PRC flag flying over a few governmental buildings, I can see nothing that would indicate that this is part of the PRC. In fact, I was very surprised yesterday to see an informational table set up by members of Falun Gong. I saw a similar table in Taiwan, but that’s Taiwan.
  • Hong Kong has a separate currency from China and Macau. The Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the US Dollar at about HK$7.79 = US$1. The bank notes here are actually issued by private banks. The HK$20 note sitting in front of me say “The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited Promises to pay the bearer on demand at its Offices here TWENTY HONG KONG DOLLARS. By order of the Board of Directors.” There are four banks that issue HK notes. This is actually what currency in the US used to be like in the 19th Century, except you could redeem the notes in gold or silver.
  • I was expecting Hong Kong to be expensive. It is rather cheap. You can get a value meal at McDonald’s for a little over US$3. There are shops for cheap custom tailored suits all over. You can’t walk down the street without someone trying to get you to buy a suit.
  • You also can’t walk down the street without an Indian trying to sell you a copy Rolex watch. They literally will say it is a copy. My guess is that the police probably cracked down on fraud and counterfeit goods and the peddlers got around that by just admitting that their stuff was fake.
  • You can still see a British influence all over the place. The street signs look like they could be from the UK. Many Anglican churches still exist and many British schools. English is widely spoken.
  • It is a good thing that English is widely spoken because this place wouldn’t work without it. This is easily the most cosmopolitan city I’ve seen outside of New York or LA. I hear so many different languages on a daily basis, I can’t recognize most of them. English is the tread that holds it all together. It has a lot in common with Singapore in that respect.
  • The Territory of Hong Kong is much bigger than I thought it would be. It isn’t all dense and urban. There are actually some villages farther out and some areas you can’t even see a single building.
  • You can find ANYTHING to eat here.
  • I’m surprised at the number of Latin American tourists I’ve seen here. I’ve met few few people from Latin America on my trip so far.
  • You can see tenement buildings like the Chungking Mansion right next door to sleek modern high rise buildings. There doesn’t seem to be as much segregation by economics here as in other places (but it does exist. Houses on Victoria Peak are very expensive).

I have two more days in Hong Kong before I’m off to Macau for a bit. Macau is the Vegas of Asia (literally. The same big hotels in Vegas are in Macau). I am liking my new video camera so far. I hope to start churning out podcasts soon. I got a haircut yesterday. First time I’ve gotten a real haircut since I was in Fiji back in July.

The Pinoy Dispora

Filipino kids in Vigan, Philippines. They begged me to take their picture
Filipino kids in Vigan, Philippines. They begged me to take their picture
I don’t just like to write about what I see in certain places and then drop the country as I move on to the next. There are some subjects that deserve revisiting, and one that sort of jumps out at you in Hong Kong is the Philippines. Why the Philippines? You’ll notice it if you spend a little bit of time here. You’ll not only run into a lot of Filipinos but you’ll find many money wire stores that advertise sending remittances back to the Philippines. Some have Philippine flags on the front of the store.  If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that Filipinos constitute the largest group of foreign workers in Hong Kong.

Why? Not hard to figure out. The Philippines is relatively close, English is widely spoken in Hong Kong and almost universal in the Philippines, you can visit Hong Kong without a visa, where as most places require an application process. While I was in the Philippines, the most popular Filipino movie was Apat Dapat, Dapat Apat whose plot involved several female friends who go to Hong Kong to work as domestic servants. (When I was in the Philippines I was watching a TV show when some ads for foreign work opportunities flashed across the screen. I was taken aback at one which was for Hong Kong domestic help, and the position required a college degree. Kind of reflects poorly on job opportunities in the Philippines when they can demand a college degree to get a job as a maid.) As I write this, I’m in a pub eating lunch and the entire wait staff here is Filipino.

Filipinos have become the modern day versions of Jews and Chinese. In every European and Middle Eastern country you used find a population of Jews who filled an economic niche. Likewise, Chinese and Chinatowns can be found all over Asia which they often owned many businesses and were brought in originally as laborers. The same was also true of Indians during the British Empire who went to work in Guyana, Fiji, or Africa. Filipinos are filling that role today. Not only can you find Filipinos in Hong Kong, but also in Saudi Arabia, and throughout Asia. If I were a betting man, based on what I saw in the Philippines, I would bet that you see Filipinos follow the same course in these countries over the next several decades. They come in as laborers and end up owning businesses and having a higher standard of living than the local population. And, like the Jews and Chinese before them, they will probably end up getting the short end of the stick by locals if they become too successful.

You see a lot of signs like this in Kowloon
You see a lot of signs like this in Kowloon
Filipino Hong Kong laborers aren’t the only thing that was the impetus for me writing this. I’ve noticed in the last few weeks that there has been an explosion in the number of Filipino bloggers and websites. As a percentage of the population, they seem far more represented online than you would expect. While I wasn’t something I had considered, in hindsight it makes perfect sense. Working online is basically the same thing as working overseas, without the overseas part. You can have an international audience, earn US Dollars, take advantage of technical training, and do it all under the radar of local officials and not have to leave your family. Based on the small sample of nerds I saw in the internet cafes and game rooms in the Philippines, they have a core of an internet culture on a par or better than other countries in the region.

The Philippines has been slower than most of SE Asia in developing, but I think it probably holds more potential then other countries in the region, in the long run. People however, have been saying that since Marcos fell. If they can overcome their political problems and corruption, I think they might be the next Asian tiger.