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|Blanchard's Oriental Travel Journal|
...Special Christmas edition, where Blanchard scours South East Asia for the meaning of Christmas, only to find it in the most surprising place...
|For what does it benefit a man,... if he gains the whole world, but loses his very soul...?|
(Book of Matthew: Chap 12)
Though Blanchard has disappeared from sight, his Christmas Parable from many years back remains as delightful and relevant as it was in the old days - when Blanchard was the first columnist for an infant Asia Pacific Management Forum. Blanchard's Christmas Parable has been wheeled out every year in its original battleship grey background and bold font, but this year we just had to improve the format. To all our readers, and our new and casual visitors, regardless of faith, ethnicity or tribe, a very Happy Christmas, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, and later - Chinese New Year... (Eds...)|
Wednesday 11th December, Mandarin Oriental, Singapore
Flew in from Hong Kong last night as Hong Kong prepared itself for its last Christmas Bash under the mother country's rule. People were already starting to forget to return calls, and the slowdown for Christmas and Chinese New Year had already started.
In fact at my meeting the day before in one of those dingy eighth floor offices in Kowloon, accessed by a manual lift with wire grates and all and a view of the harbour through a grimy 1 foot square window in the shared men's room, I was starting to lose the plot with Mr Chew. With a beaming face, he was recounting the thrill of his latest business acquisition and his new apartment on Hong Kong Island, let alone the Mercedes he was buying his wife for Christmas. Though a "free thinker" as many of his ilk choose to describe themselves, he celebrated Christmas with impunity so it seemed. I felt a bit like Gene Kelly in that wonderful "Brigadoon" film, (panned by the critics, but a favourite of Hortense and me..in fact its the only video we have ever bought, the video machine a hand-me-down from my good-for-nothing Philosophy professor son) who started flashing back to a mystical mythical Scottish town while his fiancee jabbered on about society functions.. 'Cept in my case Brigadoon was Singapore, with all those Xmas lights and brightly lit shops..
.. And just at the moment it occurred to me.. I'll spend Xmas in Singapore! I had been working non-stop for 6 months and deserved the rest after all. I was losing contact with my soul since getting on the wrong bus in Kuala Lumpur and having it mended and some good Xmas cheer would restore it I was sure...
Besides, I was missing Hortense and sitting on my rocker near the fire. But alas, duty calls and an important meeting just before New Year and one after meant that a trip home was out of the question. So best to join the crowd, and arranging a few courtesy calls with some good clients in Singapore, I descended upon this increasingly tinsel town yet again. For surely, these guys know how to celebrate Christmas. The Christmas decorations in Orchard Road just get better every year, and the streets are filled with fellow Brits..
However the road to Damascus was rocky. First problem was that the Inn of the Sixth Happiness was booked out with school holidays. No room at the Inn...it seemed. So I checked my wallet and headed for the Duxton Hill, ..again no room. (Travellers tip.. reserve beforehand for Singapore at this time of year). But the guys here took pity on me and rung around for me. Yes.. a room at the Mandarin Oriental, and despite fingering my wallet nervously again, I was so desperate for sleep that I headed out to this amazing piece of metal and glass. Nobody can really not be impressed by the foyer in this place, and the elegance of its food and beverage outlets. However at this time of year the place is full of package tour tourists on room rates 1/3 of mine. It loses a bit of sparkle with this strange assortment of Australians wearing shorts, loud Americans in striped sweatshirts and half of the lower middle class of Europe.
The view from my room is spectacular. One would hope so considering the price. But forgetting that for the moment lest I contemplate suicide, I decided to join the throng at Orchard. I stepped onto the MRT train and was whisked to Orchard MRT station in no time. Yes!, I thought, the spirit of Christmas is here. The lights were just starting to come on, the shops were festooned with decorations, the hotel lobbies awash with fake snow and reindeers. In each shop, piped Christmas Carols echoed around the stalls.
I had to buy Hortense her Christmas present, and the kids of course, though God knows where the kids are. I just send them all to Hortense and she distributes when she finds them. The little bastards never ring me anyway. The Chinese have a much better idea. The kids look after the parents and never forget them. Something went wrong somewhere.....
After 10 minutes in the shops I had worked up a thirst. So I ventured outside. "Outside", despite the heat, is not a bad place in Singapore. They've banned smoking from just about every place with a roof, and even banished most places where you can deposit your Borkum Riff butts outside. Still, its better than nothing. I took a seat on the promenade and rolled a thick Riff, and watched the street crowd performance. I once had a chat to an Indonesian guy from out of town, who told me in broken English that his one goal was to take his wife for a holiday in Singapore and stroll down this famous boulevard. ..And at that time.. it seemed like a noble goal. Men in a hurry, ties fluttering behind them as they strode down the street, women with strollers, kids, ...kids everywhere. Everyone seemed to have be burdened with the latest gifts. Plus the "free gift" which is fairly di rigeur in Singapore before any body buys anything. They really don't care what the gift is.. as long as its free... But God knows they aint gonna buy that TV to they get their bloody free gift...
I wondered down to the Hyatt, past probably the most famous shopping intersection in South East Asia (Scotts and Orchard), and sauntered down into the deep cavern at Brannigans. I remembered the old tradition in Singapore where you buy an over priced drink and you can take the mug it came in. Now that's a great tradition. All hotels have their own mug, and you can build up a good collection. Just the thing for Xmas presents.. you can get your pressies and scoff down a Scotch with ice at the same time..
Now Brannigans has its own "feel", as I'm sure I've diarised before. The place is full of European men and local gals. Yep, the "Sarong Party gals" (SPG's) are in their element here. The band is loud, very loud, but as it was still early they hadn't started. That's not to stop of course the crowd, which, tempted by cut price happy hour drinks looked like they had been there for ages. Had a quick exchange with a fellow Brit and wafted pleasantries with various "lonely guys" for the next hour (or was it two?). The bar tab certainly LOOKED like I had paid enough for about 6 hours.
Now for those who haven't caught up... there are 3 taxes in Singapore now. So prices always have a string of "+" signs after them. Mostly 3... One is for service, one is for one govt, tax and another is for GST. Never worked out what they all mean, but the end result is a hefty addition to what you thought the price was in the first place. The last introduced tax (the GST), the government insists you can redeem at the airport for non Singaporeans.. But it works out its only for purchases over a certain amount, and it doesn't count accommodation and meals/drinks. ...and it docent count Xmas mugs, even with the contents already consumed.
One comely lass started glancing my way as I straightened my Italian striped tie, and adopted a more erect rather than slumped attitude at the bar stool. Now here's a gal that could make my Xmas come alive, I thought. Lovely lass really, she came over and ordered a drink and brushed against me as she waited. One thing about these SPG's ... their stilettos are always too high and they are forever bumping against things. ..usually white males with bulging wallets for some reason. Mind you she had a lovely smile and we had a chat for a while.
When she asked me where I was staying, my answer broadened that smile and pearly whites even further. Funny, I never get that reaction when I'm staying at the Inn.... The conversation waned a bit, and to fill in the naked silence I bought the poor lass a drink. An expensive one in a Santa mug you could take with you. She looked so thin and in need of a drink I thought. Then I had a few more whiskys and soon was waxing eloquent about my Vauxhall at home, Hortense, and how I was having trouble with my house payments. I'm a great conversationalist after a few scotches. I rolled another Borkum Riff. It was around this time that her eyes started glazing over and started wandering the room. And then suddenly in mid sentence she wafted off into the now crowded room... Strange gal that.. never did come back...and left half her drink with not even a thankyou. .. hardly the Christmas spirit... I saw her draped around a couple of young Swedish guys 10 minutes later but this time there was no smile for old Blanchard...!
Taking her lead I wafted off too.., taking her Santa mug as a last thought and stuffing it into my inside pocket.... this time up to street level again, and fortified by a few Scotches pressed into the merry shopping crowd.. By this time I kept on hearing reindeer bells. But no, it was still a couple of weeks early. Maybe the ringing of cash registers.. But just to check I looked up into the night sky...
Now for Singapore, the night was pretty clear, and I contemplated the universe and what a small part of it I was in. On the ground, sounds of Christmas and government controlled gaiety. A certain amount of gaiety make those + signs fatter...
Looking at the sky however, I thought of Hortense again, and funnily enough started missing the old lady. Funny how you can feel more alone in a teeming crowd than sitting at home with just one and the cat. There was this bloody bright star in the North. It might have been the whisky or the tiredness of spending 10 minutes in a shop, but it was brighter than anything I'd seen before... Perhaps a comet, or some satellite, perhaps even Mahathirs MEASAT satellite...
I wandered back to the Mandarin, with the sounds of an Orchard Xmas behind me, prestige cars vying for road space, their drivers sneering at the lesser vehicular transport in their way, stilettoed secretaries with short black dresses, mothers with babies, lost Europeans with eyes widened with the tinsel in the windows of the rich man's house. Despite all the glitz, the spirit of Xmas just hadn't caught up with me yet....
Back in the glass lift at the Mandarin, one of my fellow lift travellers, a middle aged matron, laden down with gifts of goodwill, looked up her husband with the strain of too much good will reflected on her face... "its so hot" she murmured.... Her husband paused a moment for dramatic effect... and with carefully measured tones murmured..
"Well, YOU wanted to bloody well come here..."
I took a long leisurely bath in this wonderful brass bathroom and gave Hortense an afternoon call from he phone by the bath.. The dear old thing was knitting me a Christmas sweater. But she wouldn't tell me the colour. I reminded her it was blue last year..
Back to a meeting tomorrow. So I'll leave the diary for a moment and get to work...
.....But I cant get that bloody star out of my mind...
Friday 20th December, Rasa Sayang Resort, Ferringhi Beach, Penang|
Well I haven't filled in my journal for a few days and I note the last entry was for Singapore. Let me fill you in how I was transported from the Mandarin to my writing desk here at the Rasa Sayang resort in this "Jewel of the Orient".
Bill and Tony Shepherd, two brothers who are expats in the computer industry in Penang and who I've known for years had rung me in a jovial and convivial mood at the Mandarin.
"Heh! .. we've heard you're stuck in Asia for Christmas.. We've got a few free rooms at the Rasa Sayang,..... some free gift for a contract we completed.... Why don't you finish off your meetings in Singapore and come and join us", shouted Bill down the phone..
Now, while Bill and Tony are not my ideal idea of good company, I immediately accepted. The brothers were cockneys for God's sake, used to hang around with the Kray brother crowd many moons ago, and had started off a small computer business with their ill gotten gains. When that failed, they moved into consulting, which we all know is the refuge of the failed businessman. Then Tony fell in love with a Penang girl, and stayed in Penang, his brother following very fast afterwards. In demeanour, they were more like Americans or Australians than the types that I prefer to call my friends . However, they seemed to like my company, which I find strange, and the idea of getting out of Singapore was a gift out of the blue. One of my meetings was cancelled, I had been stared at by a pregnant mother when I attempted to light up a Borkum Riff, nobody seemed very friendly in Singapore, and some twurp at a meeting had laughed at my grey suit, suggesting that I buy a designer suit rather than an Indian tailored Kowloon suit next time.
I popped onto a plane, after waiting a few days for a seat, and took the night flight from Singapore. Malaysian Airlines took me.. a window seat... and I fell asleep most of the way... waking up at one stage to look out the window to see if I could see the lights of Georgetown as I felt the plane descending. .. it was a clear night, and that made me feel good. I could almost feel the sand and waves of an inviting beach down there. Memories of Brighton Beach, 'cept this water would be warm....
And there was that star again.. brighter than the rest... but much higher in the sky now...
The Shepherd's were there to greet me. They had had too much to drink, and the welcome was boisterous. As I should have guessed, two local girls stood nervously behind them, as they slapped me on the back and Bill ruffled his hands through what little hair I have left. I gave them my best Blanchard smile, which aint that good at the best of times. They were the same as always.. on top of the world, arrogant in their limited success and boasting the latest European garb to cover their widening stomachs..
The Penang airport is a fair way from the Ferringhi beach area where we were staying. The airport is fairly non descript. Old and soulless. So it was into Bill's old battered Toyota and off to the Resort, as I was introduced to Maria and Magdalena. Seemed they were new. Tony's old beau had been dumped, or she had dumped him a while ago. ..Though he didn't seem to care, as he precariously balanced Magdalena on his lap. Magdalena, it seemed, was visiting from Thailand for 2 weeks, another beneficiary of the brothers windfall, and Maria was full Penang Chinese. Most of the time on the trip was spent pulling down their dresses, which seemed far too short for my comfort anyway.
The Rasa Sayang is perhaps one of the nicest resorts on this island, nestled next to the most popular beach area, though the beach is sadly polluted these days. Before, I had always stayed in Georgetown when I was in Penang. The old E&O hotel, built by the same group as the Raffles Singapore had a certain colonial charm, and rumour had it that the same 3 piece Chinese band had played there every night for many decades. The piano player was a co-owner I think, and a legend in town. But the band has gone, along with it some of the E&O's charm, possibly replaced by a Filipino lounge band playing hits of the 70's. I've said it before and I'll say it again... the worst decade for pop music ever..
Penang Food is legendary. Its cheap and fresh, and the dinner we all shared tonight was out of this world. Many people go to Penang just for its food. The legendary Penang Laksa can be had at the hawker stalls here.. a hot curry broth with noodles and various accompainments. Now I just cant remember the name of this eaterie but you go West along the shorefront road, through most of Ferringhi Beach, and on the left higher up is an old hut which serves some of Penang's legendary seafood. The night was hot and steamy. A Garden area with odd looking gnome statues, and fish ponds is out the front, and mosquitoes are only kept at bay by numerous mossie curls. The ubiquitous fairy lights were strung around what looked like an old Hills Hoist washing line, for those who have ever lived in Australia. We sat outside, savouring some delicious prawns, crabs, and Chinese stir fried beef, not to mention several bottles of good French Riesling, and the cost was so low I couldn't believe it, even though our companions were light eaters. I offered to pay the check, but Bill demurred uncharacteristically gracefully saying I could pay for dinner at the hotel some other night.. They still have the Cockney style, the Shepherds...
After dinner we strolled down to the beach hawker centres, and drank beers ordered by the bottle, the girls walking along the beach, the Shepherds and me sitting around the plastic white table on plastic white chairs. Still the staff were fun and friendly and the bargaining good natured...
The hotel had a Xmas tree, but the designer had not gone as over the top here as in Singapore. After all, we are in a Muslim country... "Proselytising " to Bumiputras is actually a felony, so there is a grey line with going too enthusiastic about Christmas... Then again, Penang is mainly Chinese, with a rich Chinese and nautical heritage... And the commercial centre of Georgetown will be sure to have all the Xmas thingos I was missing when we get down there soon.
Saturday 21st December, Rasa Sayang Resort, Ferringhi Beach, Penang|
Well today which I expected to be a relaxed day in Paradise, turned into disaster. Bill and Tony kept on waking me last night phoning up and inviting me to a party in one of their rooms which seemed to go all night. However in the morning I was able to sample all the delights of the buffet table while the quite ill looking Shepherds stuck to Orange juice and the tired looking Maria and Magdalena took the toast but passed on the sausages. Somehow Magadalena and Maria minus makeup, like the E & O, had lost some of their allure.
All 5 of us ventured down to Georgetown to do our Christmas shopping, stopping into the Botanic Gardens to watch he monkeys. Despite the signs saying in effect "Thou shalt not feed the monkeys", shabby entrepreneurs were selling bags of peanuts outside the park for 50 sens to "feed to the monkeys".
I departed from the group at this stage to have a look at the old E&O and relive past memories of musical trios in the lounge bar. First of all the cab driver refused to go by the meter. I did my usual bargaining trick but to no avail. The cab driver was muttering ferociously abut the meter not working and getting more agitated by the minute. At the end of the trip I emptied my pockets and gave him the smallest change I could. Scowling, he muttered "No tip!". As I alighted he wished me a "Merry Christmas"....
Secondly, after hunting high and low for a money changer I found one who insisted on paying a low rate for my Sing dollars. I complained about the rate and mentioned about going somewhere else. In a gesture of mock empathy he held his hands in front of him, palms upward, saying.. "Where, Mr.....?"... I looked around and took his crappy rate. Supply and Demand is the most potent economic force anywhere in the world, and the further East you go the more so!
Lastly, the shop assistants at the department store where I attempted to but a present for the family and a few friends around the place were enormously unhelpful. Time was running out for posting parcels and I was getting angrier by the moment. With Christmas decorations all around, their surly attitude contrasted markedly...
Back at the hotel, things are better, the staff all smile, and it is a fine place this resort, especially good cause this is all free... The food is exceptional, especially the seafood, and even the buffets are of extremely high standard.
But still there was something missing..
Sunday 22nd December, Rasa Sayang Resort, Ferringhi Beach, Penang|
Today was one of the most surprising of my life... and I've had a lot of surprises....
So let's start at the beginning..
Tony popped his head into my room after I finished my journal last night and invited me down to the bar for "something important". The idea had little appeal. It had been a hard day and the bed was looking inviting. Then again, they were paying for all of this... so down I headed..
Seated down at the bar, scotch in hand, Bill started talking..
"Well Blanchard", he started, "the free room was not the only reason we invited you down"...
I leaned forward, interested..
"...You remember a guy called Mat Sulaiman... used to work for a trading company in KL..."
Yep of course I remembered him. He was one of the first guys I really got to know well when I first started working in Asia. When I first met him, he was a bright young Malay entrepreneur, and with the government subsidies to Bumi businesses and a fast growing Malaysian economy he had achieved much in business in a matter of years, being referred to in "Business Times" and "Malaysian Business" as a future business leader. Somehow however, I had lost contact over the years.
"...Well, he's here", said Bill,.."in fact just down the road a piece.. and he asked us to search you out because he wanted to meet you again.."
I was overjoyed. It would be great to meet Mat again. I thought he had forgotten me, even though we had some early business deals. I knew his kampung was somewhere up here...
"Great", I said, "...how could you keep this a secret .... are we meeting here?"
"Well no.. actually..", interrupted Tony, "were going to see him at his house near Alor Setar"
Alor Setar is a city not far from Penang Island, and towards the Thai border. I was a bit surprised that Mat was now living up here, as it was a long way from the business centre..
" He moved up here from KL only about 6 months ago, seems he got tired of the business..."
Bill and Tony exchanged glances..
"We could never understand the guy anyway.. Besides we hardly knew him...another talent wasted!".
Tony exhaled on his cigarette and watched the smoke curl to the ceiling... Bill sighed...
"What, just resigned?... what happened?..."
Not answering directly Tony said.. "you've got nothing on tomorrow?..Well'd have breakfast and drive out mid morning..."
And that was it. We did indeed drive out to Alor Setar, and had a Chinese lunch in town, a very pretty Malaysian town, very different from the KL metropolis. Maria and Magdalena were again in on the ride. We took off again, past a few kampungs, and a lot of countryside. I was still feeling apprehensive. Bill had explained that indeed Mat had gone back "upstation", and had left the high life, the Selangor Club, and his Bangsar apartment behind him.
We bumped over the last bit of bitumen and onto a dirt track, and at last pulled up at a an old wooden kampung house, clothes hanging out on the line. But a beautifully kept house. No doubt it was Mat's kids running around outside.
As we pulled up, there was Mat, much older after 10 years, but still very very recognisable.. He walked out and greeted Bill and Tony warmly, and then shook my hand.. The girls had decided to stay in the car. "Too muddy for my shoes!", exclaimed Maria...
"Ah Blanchard!...same grey suit from Kowloon I see!" .... Mat said with a sparkle in his eyes..
Kowloon! .. How far away it seemed now... as I surveyed the swaying palm trees and chickens running around... the home made swing swung from a Rubber trees, and the wooden veranda.
We followed his beckoning inside his house, removing our shoes as is the custom in Malaysian houses, feeling a bit uncomfortable about the hole in one of my socks. I've really got to stop buying cheap socks in Chinatown...
Suddenly the Shepherds were offering small gifts. I'm so unorganised that even though I always know the Malay custom of bringing gifts, no matter how small, when you visit someone's house, I invariably forget. Starting to panic, I suddenly remembered when I last wore the suit, and rummaging in the deep recesses of my inside pocket, produced the Xmas Santa mug from Brannigans...
"Ah... 3 kings from the Orient bearing gifts!".. laughed Mat, as he accepted my mug with not even a hint of a raised eyebrow. Mat, being Muslim of course, didn't touch a drop... "It's Xmas time for you guys isn't it..?", he said smiling....
We sat down, and we heard the whole story. Seemed Mat had enjoyed the high life for a while but then became despondent with the way he was heading..
"I'm not sure that all the riches we are being offered is worth it...In fact I'm sure its not!... We move into white plaster houses all the same, get the television, chickens don't wander in the front door and the roof doesn't leak.. We sit in stuffy English style clubs, and talk about how to make money. Sure its helping many get richer, and yes poverty is decreasing... but the rich are getting very rich. For people who work with their hands and with honest labour the wage rates are still poor. I built this house myself, with my own hands... My Bangsar apartment, was all built by others, and I don't even know their names...."
"I know Malaysia is developing fantastically well, but who can beat the sense of community and kampung culture we have here.. where everybody helps each other? Why is it that to develop means to lose contact with humanity, to encourage greed, to see our roadside fried chicken vendors belted out of business by the KFC up the road? In KL you bargain and compete.. and the guys that are benefiting the most shift money and influence around.. many have never worked by the sweat of their hands ever. How can we possibly justify the paper shufflers and talkers earning 500 more times than a padi farmer toiling 12 hours a day. Is this the new world we were really promised? Yes we have to keep up economically with the rest of the world, but are we moving too fast.. I think so.. It's just not sustainable. Lets not forget that I am a Malaysian first. Look at the traffic jams, the pollution, the social dislocation, the drop in morals.."
Tony and Bill shifted uncomfortably in their seat... (and me a tiny bit..)
Mat then turned to me...
"..So Blanchard, you are one of the first Mat Salleh's I did business with. I became rich, very quick, and never returned your calls 'cause I was so busy. Only after I stopped to think for a bit did I move back to the soul place of my ancestors. We learnt some things from you and they have been useful, but I think there is a chance that we can develop as a country and still keep our traditions and culture...I'm thinking how to do it.. And soon I will have an answer... I didn't really bring you here for any reason, just to share the idea that there is more than one way to happiness"
"And what would you want to be when you leave this mortal coil for whatever Paradise we believe in, or not believe in, no matter what religion..? Rich... or happy?...", Mat half asked, half pondered....
We were all silent for a while. Cicadas chirped outside..
"Still the Chinese bury their possessions with them!" said Mat with a smile, interrupting the silence..
"Lets eat". He clapped his hands and the family of 5 came in and we shared a generous Malay meal, laughing at jokes about what we all had been doing and Mat's anecdotes about shady business in KL. Mat's wife was very pregnant, obviously a new addition was coming very soon.
Mat, noticing my interest, said.."Yes,... not sure how that happened... we took all the precautions! Must be anak of God!". He winked at me. "Should be due any day now..."
"So what of the apartment Mat?, I said, "your car...?"
Mat just smiled at his wife and I never got an answer to that one...
As the night wore on we laughed a lot more, the two sleepy looking girls wandering in attracted by the sounds of fun. Bill and Tony lost most of their arrogance and distanceness and started joining in the merriment. Though I could see Tony was hanging out for a "proper" drink, he graciously slurped up the local tea and fruit juice. Just a dozen simple souls, from very different cultures, sitting around a common table.. There was no false merriment or words around this table as I thought back to the moneylender, the taxi driver, Mr Chew in Hong Kong, the face saving luxury car drivers in Orchard Road, the crowd at Brannigans, the sour faces in the lift at the Mandarin, ...the shopkeepers back in Penang... the false snow and bad Santa imitations...
As we bade our fond farewells, I suddenly felt bad about my Santa mug from Brannigans... As if he was reading my mind, Mat took the mug, to his shelf and placed it with some other ornaments. "I will treasure this Blanchard..... it will inspire me while I'm thinking what my next action steps are ..... and what I believe in!"
Ah.. Mat was saying those words I usually always finished a meeting with in the early days.. But nowadays I've been forgetting to say the last bit... Santa looked a bit sad on the mantle piece...
We walked back to the Toyota, Bill and Tony strangely silent, the girls smiling contentedly from the kampung food and company. The same mysterious star that I first noticed in Orchard Road now shone directly above us illuminating the scene quite brilliantly. I looked back to Mathew, standing proudly in front of his modest kampung house, his family standing behind him, the chickens scurrying around his feet, the cows looking on through sleepy eyes.
...And in a part of the world that the tourist brochures say is a land of generous smiles, I saw the broadest smile I have ever seen.
|For what does it benefit a man,... if he gains the whole world, but loses his very soul...?|
(Book of Matthew: Chap 12)
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