Tag living in china

My Townhouse Remodel part 2

Our house is finally finished (for the most part). I’m hard at work tweaking all the automation functions at this point. The pictures are some of the highlights of this house. I received a lot of interest in this project, so I wanted to showcase some of the finished product. Here is an exclusive (for now) preview.

This is a 3 story design 210 sqm, and actually 4 story if you count the roof space. I built in access to the roof where I will eventually add an outside dinning area.

My idea was to mix Chinese and American design throughout. All the infrastructure (electrical and plumbing) is built to commercial American specs. All material was personally purchased and sent to this location for our builder’s use. Very little material was actually used locally. I travelled to USA, HK, Shenzhen, Gaungzhou, Germany and Shanghai to aquire the materials used in this project. I was responsible to inspect and approve every phase of the construction. With over 4000 meters of data cable alone, I had to teach the builders the art of data wire routing and handling. This is just not done in China, well certainly not Kunming. In the end, all the time I spent was well spent.
The result is a solidly built home that should last trouble free for quite some time. You can see some home pictures. I didn’t take too many, but you get the idea.

I spent 3 years on the design and testing of the automation and security systems. The main challenge was integrating electronic systems from several countries so that they all communicated with each other. The systems are all commercial spec and designed as bullet proof as can be made. The breaker pic divides all the house electrical systems properly and everything protected via a custom made arrestor panel from Germany. You will find all houses in China will have a maximum of 5 or 6 CB’s. I have 44 CB’s including EFI’s. Everything is 3 wire, including lighting circuits. China normally uses 2 wire electrical.

I designed this to be a green house, and it’s using 40% of the energy consumed in a normal home. If I turn on every light in my home, it consumes 500 watts of power, about the same as a normal single dinning room light fixture. Water heating is solar and electric. A computer monitors the solar water temp and constantly pumps solar heated water back into my electric heater to maintain 60 C temperature 24/7. The HA picture shows a few screens on my iPad to illustrate the energy monitor. The upper left screen updates every 30 seconds giving me energy use for heating, lighting, appliances. With other software, I can graph this data year by year to monitor and adjust various configurations.

The whole house is controlled manually using iPads and iPhones. I can operate and monitor all the functions from anywhere in the world. Also the house functions automatically without the need for any intervention on my part. All the security and control systems are on an integrated UPS power system that will continue to function 100% for 6 hours should A/C fail. The house even follows my location and knows how far away I am from home. When I get within a certain distance from home, automation systems will react. If it is night time, certain lights will turn on. The security system will disarm and unlock the entry door. Of course the coffee machine will turn on. If a friend is trying to locate my place, I will have outside lights blink so he can find my location in the dark.

I will break down the HA systems by category next.

Security: The HA screens pic (lower right) and the Cams pic is my ipad monitor for security. Cameras are all IP, with PTZ function. Controllable from any location. They sense and record motion events, as well as sound. Via the HA screen, I know the state of all security devices, including main water and gas. The system will respond to any emergency much the same as any security system, but with a few differences. If a fire or burglery occures, I am notified by email and instant phone messages. Same is true with any house malfunctions. For example, if a water or gas leak occurs, the house will shut of the water or gas mains, then notify me of a problem. I can even call into the house and “listen in” to various areas of my house.
The reality of a police response to a home in China is non existant. Therefore I designed the house for “self protection”. The bad guy will find himself very uncomfortable should he gain access inside. I won’t elaborate on this specifically here, but suffice to say, he will want to leave as fast as possible. My experience as a security systems tech for US govt, military weapons facilities, prisons and banks came into play with my house project. The server room pictures show the various systems in operation.

Lighting: LED lights and even wall sockets are automaticaly controlled. The lights are all dimmable (see HA screens top right and bottom left). The house tracks the azimuth of the sun to determine when to activate light automation. Moving around the house will automatically turn lights on and off. The house also uses logic to control the lights functions. It knows when I want to watch the theator, and will close window curtains, drop down the screen, and adjust lights accordingly. If I arm the security system for away mode or sleep mode, it will turn off all lights and appliances. I create program routines the system can pick from based on sensor inputs for many different scenerios. For instance, when I wake up and disarm the security system, the system knows to turn on my coffee machine. It can also give me audio feedback for any given situation.

A/V system: I have whole house audio and video distribution controlled in the server room. I can Play movies or watch TV in different rooms, all controlled in a central location. HDTV is streamed via CAT6 to the various TV’s. Same for music. I use the iPad to select music to play, and which room to play it in. I have about 300 channels of worldwide TV via an IPTV box. Throw away the satellite dishes! This stuff works well here, and the HD is way cool!

That is a pretty fair overview of my home in Kunming. The reaction of visitors to my house is quite positive. In fact, I’m already doing designs for 2 villas in Kunming. I think Chinese people really embrace this style of living and security. The HA market here has a huge potential. Not to mention the fact the savings in energy resources.


dining table


It all started with me needing a dining table. I spent a long time going to furniture stores, but I couldn’t find the right table anywhere. I thought that the only way to get the perfect table would be to have it made. After a few months of searching, I found this wood factory buried deep in the outskirts of Kunming. This fellow has been building tables and wood carving for many years. He strictly uses traditional Chinese building techniques passed down a few thousand years. All wood is joined without the use dowels or fasteners of any kind. It is a painstaking process of precision wood cutting and fitting. Everything is cut and built by hand using hand tools. They don’t use any machinery during building. Everything is hand sanded and finished.

In the process of preparing my table order, I became friends with the owner, Mr. Zou. He told me that his wood comes from Burma and all his tables are made from solid wood, never several pieces joined. The tables have to be several inches thick so they do not warp or crack with age. My table is 6’9″  X  3’5″ and is 5″ thick. It is a single piece of solid walnut that weighs 550 lbs. The base is made from solid Cyprus. The two bench seats are made from Namu, a very rare exotic hardwood, which is very hard to find in Asia now. It was traditionally only used for royalty to build the emperor’s palaces and furniture. It was against the law for it to be used for any other purpose. It is a very strong and heavy wood resistant to rotting or bending. Most of the Forbidden City was built with this wood and stands in perfect condition after centuries. Needless to say, this work cannot be found in most of the world and I was lucky to own such a rare and beautiful work of art. Total cost for building and delivery $1250.00!

I became fascinated by all the beautiful things they produced. The wood carvings were some of the best pieces I have ever seen, all carved from single blocks of wood. Mr. Zou’s trademark is his ability to carve delicate long stemmed pieces like flowers that move with the breeze. The detail and design of these pieces are without a doubt museum quality. Today there are not too many artisans with the skills to produce such artworks. He has pieces that range from several inches in size, to huge pieces dozens of feet in height and width. He uses only the wood’s natural color to enhance his carvings. Nothing is painted or stained. Only clear oil is used to protect the wood’s natural grains and colors.

Please enjoy some of the pictures of this master’s work. Note the details in each piece and I think you will be as amazed as I was to see this work. In my video section, I made a video of some finished carvings.



A 40 minute train ride from Shanghai brings you to Suzhou, the city of gardens. I expected a small to medium size city, but found this city of 6 million surprisingly more of a larger city. I would guess it to be about the size of Kunming.

Many rivers and canals run through the old city where you find hutongs and garden compounds. It is also the city that produces much of the silk in China. No doubt it is a city geared for the tourist and everyone seems quite aggressive to get you into their shops. One a plus side, this leaves for a lot of competition so you can bargain down prices quite a bit. I found the silk products here of very high quality and workmanship very good. Be sure to look closely at what you want to buy and bargain hard. I found a beautiful silk thread picture about 2 ft X 2 ft that was priced at 23,000 RMB. The colors and quality were outstanding and made by a famous artist here. I found it in an art gallery, not a tourist shop. It took the artist 5 weeks to make. I bargained it down to 5,300 RMB, and this was in an art gallery. The silk museum also has a store with some good quality silks, but they will not lower their rather high prices. Many of the items there could be found elsewhere for a lot less.

Tiger Hill Park is a must see. The 1600 year old pagoda there is the “Leaning Tower of China” as it looks ready to fall over any minute. I was assured it has been retrofitted with internal supports and it will not fall down. The public is not allowed inside, but it is quite interesting to see. One of my pictures shows it’s doorway and gives you a good idea of how much it is leaning.

Walking around Suzhou is like a mix between Lijiang and Beijing. Many interesting alleys and river views can be found everywhere. The gardens are quite nice, but a visit to one or two is all you really need to see. They all have about the same design utilizing rocks and water which is a traditional stlye for Suzhou.

The local food is fish and a special crab, but I didn’t find it all that special. Worth a try, but I liked the local noodles more. Taxi’s are very cheap and the best way to get around. You can use the 3 wheeled bike taxis as well, best for running around inside the old town area. I recommend the Holiday Inn Hotel for it’s location and room quality. It is a 5 star hotel that deserves it’s rating. 50 RMB for a full buffet breakfast including western foods and great coffee. I think 2 nights would allow one to see everything Suzhou has to offer.

Another Shanghai

I just returned from another trip to Shanghai. This time I went up to the top of the new World Trade Center. This building is 495m and 125 stories. It is the tallest building in Asia now. The Jin Mao tower held the record for 1 year before they built the WTC beside it. I also saw the Shanghai acrobatic show this time. It is amazing how they can bend and balance their bodies.

Shanghai is quite a beautiful citywhere the building never seems to end. I would have to label it as the New York city of Asia.



I have been living in China three years now. During this time I have had the opportunity to observe the Chinese people going about their daily lives. I am struggling with the fact that I don’t yet speak Chinese. For some people, learning a language is like learning any subject. Unfortunately for me, learning Chinese is a frustrating procedure. But in my defense it is also a frustrating language to learn. When I go out and try some words, people don’t understand me. While pronouncing words is difficult in itself, there is also the fact that the local dialog spoken in Kunming is different from Mandarin. I expect at some point I will reach a threshold where I can say enough words where they will be able to understand me. My American friends tell me patience is the key to grasping Chinese.

In any case I have been here long enough to see things I am trying to understand. From my observations, I came up with the theory that the Chinese in general are in a new era, what I call, “de-evolution”. Let me explain.

The Chinese gave the world the most amazing technologies history has ever seen. They invented the compass, gunpowder, kites, paper, printing press, seismograph, ink, chopsticks, umbrellas, astrology, the planetarium, fans, hot air balloon, animal harness, rockets, bombs, books, medicines, the abacus, the mechanical clock, the crossbow, playing cards, silk, Porcelain, wheelbarrow, ice cream, suspension bridge, pasta, paddlewheel boats, natural gas deep drilling, the blast furnace, toilet paper, the newspaper, parachutes, zoos, decimal system, binomial mathematics, and they even invented the “zero” for Christ’s sake!

These things have changed the entire course of history in the world. They are also one of the oldest civilizations in history. Going strong after 5000 years. One could say that the Chinese must be very smart people. With all the great things China has given the world, I can only ask, “What the hell is going on here now?” So herein lies the source of my confusion.

As I observe the Chinese going about their daily lives, logic and common sense are nowhere to be found. At first I just thought Chinese are just a vastly different culture than us Westerners. While this is true to some extent, there appears to be more to it. They do things that fly in the face of everyday common sense. There are some examples.


Crossing the street Most often they simply do not bother look for oncoming cars, or, they will only look right when they cross. They never look left which is the primary direction of oncoming traffic. The result being that they step right in front of a car! Instead of jumping out of the way, they just freeze and do not move. Same reaction as a deer caught in your headlights. This happens all the time. It is more the norm than the exception. I think that in their minds they believe that if they don’t see a car, it is not there. So, how could one see a car if he never looks in the first place? You see…..very different logic used here. Sidewalks are rarely used. They usually walk in the street, no matter how busy the traffic. Children, babies, old people all walking in the street. Most of the time they walk in the middle or in a car lane, not even to one side. Mind you, there is a sidewalk empty along the street. At night this is very dangerous.You never know when they will just decide to just cross the street without warning.


Driving There is a reason why countries of the free world do not recognize a Chinese driver’s license for car rentals or for any other function. It is very simple….they can’t drive. Oh, they sure try hard enough. So far in the first six months of 2008, they’ve managed to kill over 100,000 in traffic fatalities alone trying to drive. You can’t fault the Chinese for not trying. So what is the deal anyway? I’ve realized it is two basic genetic things going on that will naturally put the Chinese behind the eight ball with driving. First is the inability for them to process incoming data fast enough to react to it. Really, as smart as the Chinese are, their brain waves just simply run at 50% of normal speed. So fast moving objects, or situations, will have already happened before they realize a problem even exists. This makes crash avoidance impossible. The second missing piece of genetics is “depth perception”. I don’t think there is even a Chinese word in for it! In any case, they don’t have it. They do not have any idea about the space they occupy and how it relates to others. They will see a bicycle rider on the curb of the road. As they approach in their car , they will move all the way into the next lane, while braking, thinking they are about to hit it. They shouldn’t have a reverse gear on any car in China. I will give 1000 RMB to the first person who can back in a straight line for 30 meters! Hell, make that 15 meters. It will never happen. They can’t do it. Usually when a car must be backed up, a family member will exit the car, go stand in the street with the other traffic, and direct the driver as he backs up. Talk about the blind leading the blind! Besides the genetic flaws of Chinese drivers, there is the complete and utter disregard for traffic lights, signs, laws, right of ways, people, whatever. They really believe that the entire road system was built solely for their own private use. There is never a fleeting thought to using indicators to change lanes or make a turn. No, the only time you see an indicator light is when they are passing another car on the highway. NOT changing lanes, just passing a car. Then they turn on the left indicator as they approach to make a pass. Doesn’t matter that he is going to change into the right lane after passing, he still uses the left turn indicator. They are taught to always turn on the signal while passing a car. It has nothing to do about lane change. Ah yes, and how about those horns. Noise is in their blood. I think they buy a car just because it has a horn. No need to light firecrackers when you got an electronic horn! I don’t even pay attention to horns anymore. It is no different to engine and road noise. Horns never stop. Every car is honking, moving or not. It doesn’t matter what the reason. They got one and by damn they will use it! I actually read that there is a traffic law that states, if you honk your horn before an accident, then it is not your fault. So they drive down the street always honking at nothing. Kind of scary huh?


Drinking Westerners go out to the a bar with friends to enjoy a few drinks. During the course of the evening, maybe they drink too much. It happens all the time. However, the Chinese have a different approach to it. To the Chinese, drinking is not a social function, it is a national competitive sport. It is a competition that is taken seriously. You buy beer by the bucket. When you order a beer, they bring 15 at once to the table. You have to make a special order if you only want one beer, and you pay a much bigger cost to do this. Before you take a drink, you must toast every time so everyone will drink at the same time. It is bad manners to take a drink by yourself. Then soon the table begins playing a vast selection of drinking games to speed up the drinking process. Conversations are basically about who will pass out first, or fall off the chair. If you prefer to drink liqueur, it is usually sold by the full bottle only. Then it is usually mixed at the table with 7-Up. The beer is also mixed and served in shot glasses so that during the drinking everyone can verify how much you are drinking. The whole process is designed to make sure everyone is consuming at the same volumes and rates. After a while, people begin to spew to the others delight and taunts. Later people simply pass out and are dragged away by their buddies, and this usually marks the end of the evening. By the way, there is no drinking age in China. You can be 8 ~ 80. Funny enough you rarely see very young people drinking. By nature people are 18 and up. I think this is more due to affordability than anything else. I think they tried to enter drinking as a competition in the Olympic games this year. China gold is a shoe-in.


Health and safety This one is a little complicated to put a finger on. Granted, China is an emerging 3rd world country with a boatload of people jammed into a little space. You really have to see it for yourself because reading numbers does not give you a picture of just how many people are here. The sheer density of urban populations is staggering. My city, Kunming, is smaller than Seattle. Seattle has 1.5 million people. Kunming has over 5.5 million. Imagine 4 times the people walking and driving around Seattle alone. Apparently human life holds little value here. If someone gets killed on the job, he is quickly replaced so work can continue without interruption. There is no such thing as company safety programs, OSHA, or safety equipment for use by the worker. Construction workers do not wear helmets, eye protection or safety shoes. They wouldn’t have a clue about such things. They grind away at steel and hammer rocks without a thought to eye protection. They work high up on bamboo scaffolds and iron beams wearing sandals. Forget about safety straps. Many fall and are killed. There is always someone else ready to take their place. Children run around and play alongside working large cranes and steam shovels. Construction sites are simply open for people to walk or drive through during construction.

As far as health goes, China seems to be stepping up with implementing some sort of national food safety programs. In light of the recent problems with tainted food exports, there is a direct economic benefit to inspecting food production in China. So the government has starting to implement inspections.  I read in local newspapers on several occasions where numerous schoolchildren were sent to hospitals because the school lunch food was contaminated. The open markets, where you buy all your food, have no sanitary standards. Meats are put on open tables in the sun until they are sold. Vegetables lay in the street or on small dirty tables in the open. Who knows how many chemicals or tainted water was used to grow them. One learns to spend a time carefully washing everything before using it. I average food poisoning about once a month, even being careful. Everything looks great and is fresh picked daily, but you must pay attention from where you buy it. Still, somehow it all seems to work out ok. However, I tend to believe the western approach leans too much in the other direction now. I have been eating this stuff for 3 years, and I’m not dead yet. Smoking is just short of being encouraged here. The billions the government takes in taxes from the factories cannot be overlooked. Cigarettes are very cheap and plentiful. Packs sell for less than one dollar. You can smoke almost everywhere. Many smoke and eat at the same time in restaurants. I have not seen anti smoking material anywhere.  Public toilets are nothing more than open sewers, only the brave can muster a trip inside. Most children simply stand on the public sidewalk and do their business like a dog would do. You can see this everyday. I don’t care about the openness of public bathroom activities as much as I don’t wish to see it done a few feet from me where I am sitting eating a bowl of noodles.

China is a remains beautiful country despite the fact that people throw trash everywhere. It is thrown from the cars and dropped to the street. Nobody gives it a second thought. Finish a can of soda and simply drop it or throw it out of the window. There are armies of people wearing orange vests that are stationed every few blocks. Their function is to sweep the street clean and monitor their assigned block to keep it clear of debris. Maybe this is what you call job security. Still it is annoying to see people throwing rubbish everywhere.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I am frustrated mostly by the apparent lack of citizens respecting their own country and city. Something needs to be done to instill pride in the population and start teaching their children the same. As I said, China is an amazing country filled with beauty and history. I don’t believe these habits were this way in the past. But as China opens it’s doors to the world, these problems seem to be getting worse. Maybe as more and more Chinese travel outside China, they will bring back better habits to show their communities.