In the summer of 1990, I rode the subway from my workplace in Hong Kong to the transport hub of Central Station where I could catch a bus to my apartment complex. The station was a confusing multi-story labyrinth, but one set of escalators rose all the way up from the bottom level, through three or four stories, and disgorged you right next to the most efficient spot for connecting to alternate transportation.
After a week or two of riding the train, I noticed that there was particular breed of young Hong Kong businessmen who would congregate in the particular subway car that directly faced the bottom of this set of escalators. Nattily dressed and wearing dark sunglasses inside that reflected the gleam of their compatriots slicked back hair, as soon as the door opened, they would rush en masse to the (briefly) empty escalator and bound up the moving steps two or three at a time. Since I had spent a formative period of my life just a few years earlier copying the ultra-efficient habits of Taiwanese motorcycle drivers, I immediately imitated these men. I started hanging out in the same subway car, maneuvering to get the primo position near the door that would allow me to be one of the first to fling myself up the escalator.
But aside from our ethnicity, language, and the fact that I was an intern at a business magazine and they were actually businessmen, there was one other key difference between us. They all had cellphones, which they started using immediately as they climbed the escalators. They were the epitome of Asian hustle -- shaving every second off the transportation process possible, cutting deals all the while.
In 2006, the image of go-getting young men on cellphones is hardly jarring. But in 1990, you did not see similar scenarios in the U.S. Cellphones weren't yet a mainstream commodity. They were luxuries, or affectations. Most people did not realize the essential killer application of the cellphone: how it made your life a quantum leap more efficient. But that summer in Hong Kong, it was easy to see that that this had already been figured out. Hong Kong businessmen were at least one step ahead of the West, on the fastest escalator, headed towards the best exit.
I can never get enough of technological transition moments. Another such instance occurred around the same time, when I visited a Taiwanese acquaintance's apartment and noticed that she had a new CD player. I knew people in the U.S. who had CD players, though I had yet to purchase one. But what intrigued me was that this was a woman who had never owned a turntable, a device that just a decade earlier would have been prohibitively expensive for most Taiwanese families. Now, the affluent Taiwanese middle class was ready for consumer electronics, but the turntable was suddenly a prehistoric artifact. They just cut straight to the CD player, giving me my first visceral understanding of how developing nations could leapfrog the technological growth stages that the developed world progressed through.
These memories are emerging this morning, spurred by a couple of news articles on booming sales of LCD flat screen TVs. The Wall Street Journal has a story today about how price wars are killing profit margins at Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and Circuit City. LCD TV prices have plummeted 40 percent over the last year, which is fantastic news for consumers, but putting the crunch on retailers.
Ferocious downard pressure on prices exerted by cutthroat Chinese manufacturers is playing its expected role. And no one would be surprised that China is the world's biggest producer of color TVs. But did you know that it was also the biggest consumer?
LCD TVs are predicted to grab 56 percent of the global television market by 2010. In China, they'll have that much of the market next year. 50 percent of the biggest consumer TV market in the world will belong to LCD flat screens.
Most of us may already be past the point when we can be amazed, or even bemused, by the latest statistic coming out of China. Maybe you had to be there, as I was in 1985, searching for a place to eat in Shanghai that wasn't a state-run cafeteria where you would pick grit out of your rice before eating it. But it's worth contemplating those LCD TV numbers, if only to smash through the stereotype that sees China solely as a mercantilist export machine built on the backs of exploited workers. China is simultaneously a poor, developing country and an advanced consumer economy. Not a bad place to be, I bet, if you were an escalator manufacturer.