Nuisance calls

Direct marketing: a euphemism for “spam” and “nuisance calls”. I had my own personal brush with “direct marketing” recently. A local company here in Hong Kong (VirtualTech Consultants, if you’re interested) got my e-mail address from somewhere (they wouldn’t tell me where) and I started receiving marketing e-mails on behalf of their customers.

(You may be receiving e-mails from VirtualTech too; the way to tell is to look at the unsubscribe link at the foot of the message; if it’s a link to a web page in the domain then it’s a VirtualTech message.)

Now, here’s why the VirtualTech e-mails started to get on my flabby man-tits. (1) They’re broadly untargeted, selling things that I am not interested in (baby supplies? magical healing herbs?); (2) they’re mostly in Chinese; and (3) the unsubscribe button only removes you from that one single e-mail campaign. Nowhere do they provide the option to have your e-mail address completely removed from their master list.

Last week I ran out of patience, and called the owner of the company on his personal mobile phone. (How did I get that number? It’s at the end of the whois record for… just in case anyone reading this also wants to give him a call; after all, his own business model shows that he’s all in favour of unsolicited communications.) He noted my e-mail address and agreed to remove it from his list. A few days later I had another e-mail from VirtualTech. I called him again. He promised to remove my address from his list. Later that same day, another e-mail, another phone call, another promise… Now, I’m happy to play this game; I will cheerfully telephone the man every time I receive an e-mail for as long as he wants to send me e-mails. Really, it’s no problem. I think he’s going to give up first.

But imagine if you don’t have this opportunity for sporting redress. A letter in today’s SCMP really spelled out the amount of cognitive dissonance and disdain for the consumer in the direct marketing industry. The letter is from a Mr Eugene R. Raitt (who claims to be the Chairman of the Hong Kong Direct Marketing Association; if you’re reading this, Mr Raitt, please click on your name for an important message). The letter is about the Octopus company selling off personal information about people who signed up for its reward scheme. But that’s not the bit that stands out. Mr Raitt says:

Additionally, Mr Cramb has the option any time he receives a call he does not want to inform the calling company that he wishes it to remove his name from its call list, and it will gladly do so.

And as I read this, my blood boiled. Here’s the reality of the situation: I receive an unwanted sales call. When I answer the phone, the caller – hearing my English – immediately hangs up. Or says, “Sorry, wrong number” and hangs up. Or asks, “Do you speak Chinese?” and when I say, “Please do not call this number again” repeats, “Do you speak Chinese?” How, Mr Raitt, am I supposed to “inform the calling company”? Any suggestions?

Mr Raitt goes on to say:

The last thing any company wants is to spend money needlessly contacting people who clearly do not wish to be contacted.

Then where is our do-not-call list, Mr Raitt? Why are the direct marketers not at the front of the queue of people lobbying for a do-not-call list? All we have right now is a list to register our objections to recorded-message sales calls. See, this is exactly the same situation as I have with the VirtualTech Consultants: even if I can get myself removed from one company’s call list, it’s not going to prevent the next company from calling me, or the one after that. I do not wish to receive unsolicited sales calls, and Mr Raitt’s disingenuous claims do not address that at all.

Contrast Mr Raitt’s cynical distortions with the nice guy who runs VirtualTech Consultants. Mr VirtualTech knows he’s in a dirty business that wins you no friends, and yet is unfailingly polite whenever I phone him up to tell him I’ve received another e-mail from his company. I almost feel bad about pestering him. Mr Raitt, on the other hand, tries to pretend that he represents fine, upstanding, honest businesses, and comes across either as someone for whom shameless lies are part of the daily round, or the only inhabitant of a happy fantasy-land populated by community-minded telemarketers.

What’s in a name?

Sino Land are working on a new residential development near my office. It’ll be six tightly-packed blocks of 40+ storeys each, with lots of tiny concrete-box apartments per floor. It’s on the edge of Mong Kok and Tai Kok Tsui, which is widely held to be one of the most densely-populated places on the face of the Earth.

And what have they decided to name this habitat? Human-hive? The Sardinecan? Pod City? No, they’ve opted for The Hermitage.

Perhaps it’s not standard apartments at all. Perhaps it’s over 40 floors of bijou columnettes, for the urban Stylite-about-town.

More supermarket shenanigans

Apropos of the previous blog post, something else I’ve noticed that they do in Taste/Park’n’shop is to leave the “This product is out of stock” label covering the shelf prices of products that are clearly in stock and piled up right there in front of you.

Why else would they do this, except to prevent you seeing the unreasonably high prices they charge? The individual items are not marked with prices, so the shopper relies on the shelf price. I have started confiscating “out of stock” tags that are untrue, so the prices are visible once again. I have quite a few already.

Truly, I wish there was somewhere else I could shop. There is a Wellcome in Tung Chung, but it’s woefully local and sells very little of any use.

Whine tasting

My local supermarket, Taste (part of the Park’n’Shop empire), pulled a neat bait and switch on me this evening. Many times on other blogs, or the estimable Not the South China Morning Post web site, I’ve seen articles about Park’n’Shop’s dubious product labelling practices. Today, they got me.

I was in the wine section. They had Banrock Station Unwooded Chardonnay.

(Wine tasting sidebar: Yes, I know Banrock Station isn’t elite or special, but the unwooded chardonnay is a nice quaffing wine, versatile for cooking, and it’s generally reliable. Suggestions for other wines to try are always massively welcomed, but lectures about my poor taste in Aussie whites will force me to open a Leeuwin Estate and not share it with anyone.)

The wine was labelled at $59 each or $100 for two. I took two.

At the cash desk, the special offer did not materialise. I got charged full price. I complained, and they said there was no special offer on the wine. I went back to check, and this is what I found:

  • The special offer price tag was for “Banrock Station Sem. Char.” You may safely assume the use of tiny print.
  • There was no Banrock Station Semillon Chardonnay anywhere in the wine section
  • There was no price tag anywhere for the Banrock Station Unwooded Chardonnay
  • The price tag for the Semillon Chardonnay was directly under the Unwooded Chardonnay bottles, up at one edge of the shelving.

Bah, humbug, Park’n’shop. You may be technically in the right, but I have no doubt that this little stunt was deliberate. You do know, Mr Li, that this is a shabby way to treat customers? You do know that this is a cunt’s trick?

So, what’s the big deal? It’s $18 difference. It’s nice wine. I’d probably have bought two bottles anyway, as I have a risotto to cook tomorrow. It’s simple enough: when I shop for food, I don’t want to be on tenterhooks looking for scams all the time like I’m in some crazy grocery-related find-the-lady game. Food-shopping is one of our most basic needs; one would expect it to be accompanied by some basic decencies. Now I know better; it’s time to learn some Cantonese and start shopping at the wet market.

Landlord of the flies

Getting a deposit on an apartment refunded should be pretty easy, no? Once the landlords have checked that you haven’t stolen the air-conditioner or smeared faeces over the walls, they just need to subtract some routine costs and send you a cheque. You’d think.

I have been trying to recover the deposit from Emily’s apartment (see this posting) for a ridiculously long time. I allowed the statutory fifteen days to pass and then contacted the landlords to ask how much was forthcoming and what deductions there would be. Oh no, said the landlords, you’re not getting any deposit back, because you didn’t pay all the rent.

“Did so.”


“I’ll show you the receipts.”

“You have receipts?”

The fact that I had every single payment documented changed their attitude entirely. I know from conversations I had with them last year before we signed the lease that they were resigned to the fact that nearly all tenants break the lease and run off with rent unpaid. It seems this is so routine that refunding a deposit is something they’ve never done before.

Moreover, it turned out they hadn’t even been keeping track of the incoming rental payments. “We need to see the receipts,” they told me, “so we know which payments were yours.”

“You mean, you don’t already know?”

Well. If I’d known that, I’d have stopped paying the rent eight months ago and just sacrificed the deposit money. What kind of a way is that to run a business? I’m glad I’m not their accountants! “We received a lot of money this year, but we don’t know where from. Then we spent most of it, but we don’t know why. Did we pass the audit?”

Having established that I wanted money from them, they deducted a massive amount for unpaid utility bills. By pure luck, in the detritus that Emily left behind in her apartment, I found a bank receipt showing that she’d paid a big slab of money to the landlords for precisely this reason. Yes, you guessed it, they hadn’t kept a record of that either. I sent them a copy of the receipt. They scolded me for keeping this information from them, and then revised their estimate to a more reasonable level.

Then they told me, “now we need originals of all these receipts before we can pay you.”

“Show me where it says that in the lease,” I suggested.

“We need proof that we’re refunding the money to the person who paid it in the first place.”

“I have an ID card. Or, you could pay it back into the same bank account that paid it to you. Oh wait, that would assume some degree of record keeping on your part. Silly me.”

In the end, though, despite the hoops that must be jumped through, it all worked out. The final deductions were small and reasonable. Now we just wait and see if the cheque bounces…

Winnie the flu (and piglet too)

I just love this. With H1N1 now a declared epidemic, and cases popping up all over Hong Kong, the government has taken the sensible step of closing all the kindergartens, infant and junior schools for two weeks. The summer holidays start in two weeks, so actually <alicecooper>school’s out for summer</alicecooper>. Not a bad idea, really. Keep the kids at home, stop them from congregating, and limit the H1N1 spread vectors.

So how has Hong Kong Disneyland reacted to this? Well, they’ve launched a “bring your bored kids to Disneyland” promotion, selling tickets that allow unlimited entry during the school-closure period.

Do you get the feeling that somebody has missed the point? Or worse, is so desperate for revenue that they’ll ignore government advice and endanger children? Good old Disney!

Ghost town

Officially there are only three days of vacation for Chinese New Year. Banks and businesses have been back at work yesterday and today. But the shops… well, most of those are still closed.

I just went out to do some errands: I wanted some envelopes, and a bite to eat. The local stationery shop was closed and shuttered. The second choice: closed and shuttered. In fact, that was the norm all the way down the street. Giving up (I can always send the letter on Monday) I went to get some of my favourite siu mei. Closed and shuttered. Fortunately, I didn’t have to walk all that far to find a barbecue counter that was open for business, but it wasn’t as good as our local one. The siu yook had no crunch to it.

On a positive note, my little jaunt was livened up by a loony encounter. While waiting to cross Argyle Street, standing with my hands in my pockets (because if you’ve got any sense you’ll keep one hand on your wallet in the Mongkers crowds), I felt a repeated nudge to my wrist. It was a little old lady, grey-haired, liver-spotted and bent. And she was furious that I had my hands in my pockets. Did she think I was playing pocket billiards or something? I de-pocketed my hands and, although I couldn’t understand her Cantonese scolding, her expression clearly said, “and I should think so too”.

Well, that’s a bitch

I’m not a dog person. In my whole life, which has seen a dazzling procession of larger-than-life cats, I’ve enjoyed the company of only two dogs – both white German shepherds – who were sufficiently well-trained and well-kept to dispel my long-held convictions that dogs were smelly, servile morons.

mumu1.jpgSo it’s come as something of a surprise to discover that a certain small, malodorous, intellectually stunted animal, loosely descended from wolves, has me wrapped around her little finger. Ladies and gentlemen – meet Mumu. Mumu is not my dog, I should hasten to add. She belongs to a young lady who has the dubious and somewhat complicated honour of being simultaneously my ex-girlfriend, my terrific drinking buddy, and one of my employees. This young lady (I’ll call her Emily, because that’s her name) likes to slope off to the Mainland at weekends to drink inexpensive baijiu and eat delicious Xinjiang lamb-toothpicks, and during these times, it is incumbent upon me to take care of Mumu.

Mumu is actually an ideal starter dog for a cat-lover. She’d certainly disappoint any real dog lovers. Like cats, she sleeps almost all the time. In common with the felines, she is generally silent and reserved. And a final comparison to the cat – Mumu is completely untrainable (although cats are this way because they choose to exercise their veto in all matters, whereas Mumu is powered by a vestigial ganglion and two double-A batteries, and is – genetically – 70% tuber). Moreover, Mumu is old, emits gas, is blind in one eye, and has a tongue like a piece of crispy bacon because she forgets to put it back in her mouth after using it, and so it dries out. And yet she sits, sans eye, sans taste, sans gorm, spilling white hair onto my black couch, and I can’t help but feel a pang of affection for the creature.

I can draw my own conclusions as to why, but I leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out what they are. Suffice it to say, I’m starting to see the point of dogs. But it’s going to be a long road before I invest in my first rottweiler.