Saturday, April 14, 2007


DATELINE .. ON THE PLANE BACK FROM CAMBODIA TO HONG KONG

Spring has crept upon us in Hong Kong while friends and colleagues back in old Toronto tell me it's been a freaky week of snow and sub zero cold in April.

Personally I prefer the 30C + tempts of SE Asia and as the past 3 weeks in Hong Kong had been pretty grey and hazy I took off to check up on our plans at work to build up the capacity of goods we are exporting from Cambodia. It didn't hurt that the sun was shining, weather was hot and the beer was cold and cheap!

The apparel and textile industry in Cambodia is pretty much dominated by the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese with a few Hong Kong and Taiwanese groups and the odd Korean operation.
It is the single largest legal industry in Cambodia, aside from the NGO/international development assistance industries and yes , quite frankly, they have become just that, an industry unto themselves.

(In an indirect way IDA is how I also found my way to Asia and the work I do. Since I was a kid history and geography have always been keen interests and stuck with me through to university where I opted into an international relations/development focused degree.

The biggest benefit to Cambodia are the thousands of direct and additional thousands of indirect jobs the industry created. The wages are technically well above UN poverty levels of $US1.oo per day, but most of us from the West would be hard pressed to support ourselves and our families on the income of a sewing machine operator anywhere in Asia.

But things are all relative to their reality and a look back to Kampuchean times and the dark days of the Khmer Rouge would now see Cambodia as a vibrant, lively and intriguing culture.
You can take a look next door in Vietnam for some idea of the potential, future direction of the country. As the Vietnamese have found their own way to melt socialist ideals into a capitalist dominated world economy, they have climbed above the "lowest wage cost" scenario as high tech, automotive and engineering industries take hold. Not long ago apparel and footwear were key to the economy of Vietnam but are quickly loosing their place as the country modernizes and continues to open. Cambodia may be 10 years behind its neighbours but her potential is evident.

Key to its success are how corruption and a lack of political freedom will be dealt with as these provide the framework in which society and the economy must operate. The man in control of Cambodia today was a senior Khmer Rouge figure, later a leadership member handpicked by Vietnam during that country's occupation of Cambodia. No one truly believes the tiger has changed his stripes for democracy.

Having spent the past few years watching the growth and development of the country first hand I feel safe in placing my bets on the Cambodian people who are the ones day to day making the small changes and advances in their lives and society.

www.asiaexotica.com
www.shoppersguidetoasia.blip.tv/

Sunday, April 8, 2007

A little history on the long road to Asia...

DATELINE HONG KONG


February 1995 was, it's fair to say, a significant turning point in my life and even though I was half the globe away from Asia it was the first step I took towards getting here.

A year and a half earlier I had returned home to Toronto after bugging out to Mexico under dubious circumstances all of which I'll save for further postings somewhere down the road...and looking for a way to keep up the Spanish I found myself working in a small trade development office run by a slightly frenetic Spaniard my the name of Enrique Cosi.

While bumming around Enrique's office one day I happened upon a help wanted ad in the Globe and Mail newspaper which immediately caught my eye. The gist of the ad was that an Asia based trading company working on behalf of a major US retailer was looking for Country Managers to head up new sourcing operations across Asia. BAM ...Out went my CV which in those days still meant by fax. My head started swimming with images of exotic Asia, warm beaches, and hot women.

I had almost forgotten about the ad when weeks later I had a call from an elderly lady with a thick southern drawl...

"Our man Mr. Wong will be in Toronto next week and would like to interview you."
Little did I know at the time that "our man Mr. Wong", was in fact Charles Wong, Chief Operating Officer of Pacific Resources Export Limited. P.R.E.L., as those in the sourcing and merchandising industry across Asia and the Middle East would know, was the exclusive offshore buying office & agent for Wal-Mart Stores and Sam's Club Stores in the U.S.

Now in 1995 little was known in the Canadian marketplace about Wal-Mart so I wasn't sure what to expect when, having passed a somewhat intensive examination by Charles, I was invited to visit Bentonville, Arkansas for the next steps in the interview process. All I wanted to know was, where the hell is Bentonville.

Unfortunately for me or as it would turn out later, very fortunately for me, P.R.E.L. wasn't interested in sending me off to Bali or Bangkok. As I had some on the ground experience in Mexico and knew the language, they were looking for someone to head down to Mexico City and open a new office location for them, build up a merchandising team, recruit vendors and begin to build export programs to the US stores. Quite a challenge for a young trading manager, still under 30 and with next to no significant business experience managing a multi million dollar budget. But one I felt up to tackling, mainly because they paid in $US through their Hong Kong office tax free and I wasn't doing much back home in Toronto to speak of.

Bits and pieces of my time in Mexico are sure to come out in further postings but by the time I left Mexico three years later for Costa Rica, "I" had become "we" when I married my best buddy's sister and our first little rug rat Mikey came along.


Wednesday, April 4, 2007

"Copy watch? Copy handbag?"

DATELINE:HONG KONG

There's no doubting that counterfeit goods are still rampant in Hong Kong despite ongoing government press to the contrary. It's near impossible for anyone, resident or visitor alike, to walk through the core shopping or tourist areas of Tsim Shat Sui, Mongkok or Wan Chai without being offered fake Rolexes or Gucci bags.

The killer is every time buyers, designers or branded organization people are in town from the U.S. or Europe they tend to be the first ones heading to places like the infamous "ladies market" in the Mongkok area of Kowloon on the hunt for a discount handbag! This is not just here say. After a dozen years in the fashion and apparel business and many times as the local "go to guy", I'm pressed into service to either accompany or direct visitors to the site.

So it may be a good thing for the industry insiders to take a look at their own behaviour and set an example if they really wish people to respect their brands and pay through the nose for them. Personally, having been on the production side of the business and the lucky stiff responsible for ensuring factory compliance and in country production follow up, I don't feel obliged to fork out my salary for someone Else's name on anything...at least it's not my primary motivation for making a purchase.

I'm much more inclined to look at ways that the company's I've worked for can contribute more positively to the communities in which they make their goods. It's no secret, especially for the U.S. market that 90% of the focus in placing business to a give factory is driven by price. In short that means, find the lowest cost of labour possible to ensure the highest possible return to the buyer, retailer or brand...which leads me into the next paragraph and one of those uplifting moments during my travels in the region...

On a recent 2 day trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia who's only large scale and LEGAL export industry is apparel, I came across the photographic work of Deborah Groves.

Deborah is an Australian photographer who, according to the info I was provided when purchasing a few packets of her prints, first visited the country in 2004. She was so moved by the country and it's people, that she put her business back in Australia on hold to return in the spring of 2005 to dedicate her time and efforts to assisting a poor village just outside of Siem Reap.

I'm still trying to track her down for a chat and to get a better understanding of the projects she's been working on and hopefully, if lucky, can get her to post a few words back on this blog if she's not yet got her own up and running!

In the meantime please do visit her website at www.grovesphotography.com as well as that of the Rose Charities group at www.rosecharities.com They support the provision of free rehab surgery to thousands of Cambodian children through the Children's Surgical Center in Phnom Penh, focusing on ortho, reconstructive, eye and maxillofacial surgey.

I'm hoping Deborah will grant permission to post some of her work on this blog, featuring the beautiful children of Cambodia. As the father of a couple of little monkeys of my own, there's not a single trip I make in the region that I am not reminded of the incredible luck and grace they enjoy at having been born in a developed country where the basic requirements of a healthy, productive life are so taken for granted.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Kicking it off!

dateline: HONG KONG

Hong Kong! Pearl of the Orient and the gateway to China for most first time visitors to Asia...

It took 2 years of planning, cold calls, blasting headhunters with intro emails & my CV but finally we made it!

Not that Winston-Salem, North Carolina (where we had spent the past 4 years before our move out to Asia in July of 2005) was all that bad of a place to live...relatively safe & secure for our young family. It was definitely a warm and hospitable place full of old southern charm, great golf and low cost real estate.

But after a hectic 3 years of go-go travel throughout Central America, the AGOA region of Africa, the Middle East and SE Asia for my then employers, Sara Lee Branded Apparel, I was ready for a change..again!

The story of my life! anyhow...

From 2003 to 2005 I held the role of Director for Global Sourcing of the newly minted "C9 by Champion" athletic brand which was being launched exclusively with Target Stores in the U.S. This afforded me the great opportunity of focusing on the Gulf States of the Middle East and South East Asia and of course, to travel extensively on someone Else's ticket! A great gig if you can find it!

From Surabaya in Indonesia to Cebu in the Philippines with Bangkok, Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City throw in for good measure, my job was to ensure we had secured the best available, socially conscious and efficient apparel production partners in the region. Along the way, I fell in love with the many exotic sights, sounds and tastes of South Asian cultures.

This blog is a bit of a look back at the journey that led me here to Asia with family in tow, as well as an opportunity to share some opinions and observations as I continue to travel in the region. Food, design, politics, history and social affairs are all passions I hope to explore.

Everyone is welcome to comment or question, following some pretty simple and standard etiquette. I hope you'll join and enjoy!

Dharma-man