Cracker by Damian Christie


Johnny Foreigner & the Auckland Property Market

A few weeks ago, in the make-up room above the pub for Back Benches, I asked each of the three MPs there for the show – Louise Upston (Nat), Jacinda Ardern (Lab) and Holly Walker (Green) – what they thought of restricting the sale of residential property to foreign investors.

I’m not claiming any kind of credit – it’s hardly an original idea, and it’s already Green policy – but the point is that it’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a month or so, trying to find the upside, the downside, and most importantly, whether it would have any impact on the ever-escalating Auckland property prices.

I’m part of the problem.  Having bought a fairly modest house four years ago, which is now worth probably $200,000 more than we paid for it, there’s equity to spare. We’d been offered the option to purchase an investment property from relatives cashing out for retirement and we’d taken the opportunity to look at what else was out there for the same sort of money.

 A pre-approval from the bank had given us access to the QV site; a supposedly reliable tool based on recent sales data from the surrounding neighbourhood, factoring in house size, land size, sales history and so forth. It gives an expected sales price, and a lower and upper range. It's very different from the CV price, which we all know in Auckland is well removed from reality. 

We looked at three places. A brick and tile unit in Onehunga and a couple of small 3-bedroom places in New Lynn, both on half sites with some degree of cross-lease. They all returned approximately $400 in rent, the expected sales figure was around $380,000, the upper limit around $420,000.  Each went in excess of $460,000… one didn’t reach reserve at $470,000 and was re-listed for $499,000. The owner had bought it a year earlier for $330,000.

Were the new purchasers from overseas? In one case, no, another – hard to say. Because as a number of commentators have pointed out already, in a city where just under a third of residents are ‘Asian’, it’s very easy to get the impression that foreign ownership is a bigger issue than it actually is. No-one seems to have any accurate data on just how many houses are sold to, or owned by, overseas interests. Which you think might be a useful piece of information for a Government to know.

Notable exception to Labour’s new announcement - the biggest overseas group buying our houses, the Aussies. Can’t stop them doing it because it’s reciprocal, apparently. Which doesn’t seem to matter on issues like getting the benefit and other social services, where it’s not.

 Bill English’s reaction this morning was to say it wasn’t much of a problem, it’s a range of issues, building new houses was much more important, and yes, that might be so. But of course Labour has also announced a plan to build new houses (10,000 each year for 10 years, as David Parker repeatedly pointed out on the Nation), and has made the move on Capital Gains Tax – a move which one Government Minister told me made absolute sense, but was ‘political suicide’. So restricting foreign sales (or adding a stamp duty) is just another tool in the toolbox, along with LVR requirements, easing land restrictions and the like.

I must note Don Brash also on The Nation, clinging to the Productivity Commission’s recommendation on land restrictions. It’s a good one for the former Act leader – blame arbitrary council red tape for the problem, people should be able to build where they want, and Howard Roark should design whatever he wants. And yes, land inside the Auckland boundaries costs a great deal more than land immediately outside. But the answer – or at least the sole answer – to Auckland’s low-cost housing issues is not a series of disconnected ghettos out at the extremities.

I can’t see any downside to this announcement from Labour. We are not gaining anything from having overseas investors buying up existing housing stock and keeping out first home buyers. I realise the hypocrisy, coming from someone looking for a rental investment, and I’d happily look at other options if the returns were even in the same ballpark, and if I could leverage off my existing equity to do so – even commercial property is difficult to finance like that.

Also, I’m borrowing at the same rates, in the same market, as the other resident buyers – as compared with some foreign residents able to borrow at lower rates (I’m told this is the case in China, I’ve been unable to find any decent links to this, happy to be corrected or backed up).  What doesn’t make any sense as a rental property at 5%+ is far more manageable below that.

Is it xenophobic? Only in the same sense that all our border controls, immigration policy are xenophobic. Being a New Zealand resident or citizen gives you benefits in New Zealand over people who aren’t. That’s pretty much standard practice in every country in the world. And until we have a completely borderless world society, I’m okay with that.  Which is not to say there won't be some out there who respond to this announcement positively, for the wrong reasons. As we've seen just today thanks to that taxi footage, there are Dickheads Amongst Us.

 Happy to have the downsides explained, and my latent xenophobia unpacked… I for one hope that National comes around on this issue, sees the sense in it, not as a silver bullet, but as another tool in the box, and we can at least start to take some of the ridiculous heat out of the Auckland market without so much as lifting a hammer.


It's urs!

So there’s been something I’ve been wanting to tell you about for a while. But I couldn’t.

I’ve been hiding it for as long as I could. Hiding it as it swallowed up my life savings, hiding it as it began to affect my job, my family life. It’s overtaken my days, and I find my mind in overdrive when I try to sleep at night, obsessing, fretting. I didn’t really know when or if to tell people, whether I should wait a while longer, what people might say, how they might react.  I told Russell about it, and he was cool. But in the coming days it’s going to be all over the media, and I’m going to need your help, your support. So now it’s time:

It’s called “urs”.

It’s pronounced “yours”. I have the domain name for both, just in case.

It’s a website, but more than that, I hope. I hope it’ll be a community, a positive influence, a new way of doing things.

 Who's it for? To quote the Hudsucker Proxy, “you know, for kids.

It’s a site where youth –anyone enrolled in either a high school or a tertiary institution, aged 13-25, but more focused on senior high school and junior university – can submit content they’ve created.  Created in the classroom, or for the classroom, after hours, on the weekends – whatever.  From photos taken for art class or fashion school, documentaries made for media studies, skateboarding videos, music videos, reviews, features, new tunes, short stories, short films… you get the idea.  As long as it’s creative, as long as it’s yours.

We have competitions, big competitions, where we encourage the creation of new content - again, a range of media, a range of interests, a range of skill levels. Thanks to partnerships with the likes of APN Digital and TVNZ – say what you want about the MSM, but there are people in those organisations who really care about doing the right thing – we’re able to give a wider audience and greater recognition to the best of that content , and provide decent prizes as a result. How about a year’s free movies and a gig reporting from a film premiere in Hollywood as a prize for contributing the most creative film review? If that doesn’t seriously challenge the stereotypical teen ennui, I’m not sure what will.

Why am I doing this? I’d like to make a living from it, of course, but what I’m really saying is that I’d like to make a living from something that makes me feel good doing it. I am where I am today because of student media – it was while at law school I found the local student newspaper (Salient) and student radio station (Radio Active, then bFM). I can’t say they were exactly nurturing environments – the radio stations especially seemed intent on letting as few new people onto the airwaves as they could, least of all young students. In fact, long story short, if it wasn’t for a certain Programme Director at bFM telling me to sod off, I wouldn’t have gone and helped start George FM, turning it into a dance music station in the evenings. Still not sure how I feel about that particular legacy.

But I persevered, and student media gave me the experience and the profile that led to what I do now. And while student media still exists, thrives in some cases, it varies greatly from campus to campus, and the audience is largely limited to that campus. There’s little if any focus on video – which is now the favoured medium of the young – and almost nothing for secondary students. Nothing focusing on media created by them at least. If I’m wrong, please let me know. Um, quickly?

There’s YouTube of course. But for every Gangnam Style billion-hit-wonder, there’s a million videos with only a dozen views, and very little way for even a very good item to raise its head above the parapet. It’s not curated, at least not in any useful way for a New Zealand teenager trying to get noticed. And URS will be harnessing YouTube’s awesomeness in terms of dealing with video, not to mention bandwidth and various other legal niceties (I wasn’t aware until recently, for instance, that YouTube has a blanket agreement covering the use of copyright music, which will be handy). But greatness gets buried in YouTube. Check out this beautiful video from a Western Springs College Year 13 student of 2012. It’s fantastic, and has just a hundred-and-something views.

So the guts of it is, I want to offer a modern version of what I got from student media. But more supportive. A site where the entire goal is about giving young creatives a hand, giving them guidance (we have Masterclasses from a range of experts across the industry and academia), encouragement, pathways to academia, industry, and in time, for some, an income. Ultimately, I’d like to think it will raise the level of creativity of the coming generations, and give them confidence to seek out and tell their stories, the ones that matter to them, in the way they see fit. If that fails I’ll become old and bitter, set up a media training agency and start a grumpy blog about all these young people who aren’t as good as I once was.

What I’d really like to do – not immediately, but soon, is set up an aspect of the business, the sole purpose of which is to give a voice to those not well represented in traditional media. Those whose background, economic situation, geographical location, whose language, accent or culture mean they’re less likely to appear on our screens in primetime. I hope URS will do that naturally anyway, but where resourcing or encouragement is needed, then I want to make that happen.

 I’ve had overwhelming support from teachers, lecturers, media partners, sponsors and the like. It’s an attractive demographic for certain sponsors, clearly, but what seems to attract the people I’ve been meeting with these past months is that underlying idea – encouraging and nurturing young people to make great content.

The only question mark at this stage is the audience. Will they engage, will they contribute, will they make URS… well, theirs? I hope so. Of some reassurance is the fact these young people are already out there doing it, already making content.

A bit of final bug-testing, a bit of content loading, a deep breath, and URS will be good to go next week. It’s been a couple of years in my brain, six months taking shape, and the last couple of months trying to tie down a thousand or so ever-shifting loose ends. And I’m very aware that once the site goes live, that’s when the real work begins.

I mentioned your help and support above. I’ve taken care of the money side of things (for now), so I’m not asking for crowd-source-funding or the like – I haven’t exactly been a very attentive blogger of late, and now you have some idea why. But I would appreciate your brains. Your ideas, advice, other projects I should be aware of, things to watch out, suggestions for competitions, themes, people to talk to, companies or organisations who might want to come on board, teachers… and of course, those creative young minds.

The site will be heavily moderated, certainly to begin with, and I make no apology for that. By not offering comments for a time, by accident or by design, Russell very cleverly avoided PAS becoming as nasty as most other corners of the blogosphere. I’m going to take the same approach. And of course, at least until my audience can be trusted, EVERY SINGLE PIECE of content will be moderated to ensure it’s age appropriate. YouTube helps in that regard, but I don’t need to tell you what an explicit photo getting past the gatekeepers could mean for a site like this. So while I’m not expecting it, I’m happy to take names of anyone who might find appealing the idea of flicking through a bunch of teenagers’ photos/videos from time to time/every night.

 Anyway, it’s all very exciting, and I hope you can share in that with me, at least in spirit. I’ll post the address of the site once it’s up and running next week, but in the meantime, hit me with your thoughts, suggestions and kind offers.

Special thanks to those who have had the smarts and/or courage to get behind the project from the get-go - AUT, APN Digital, TVNZ, Adidas, Sony, Paramount Pictures and STA Travel. More to come...

(Oh also, Back Benches return date was officially announced today, April 10, 10.30pm on PRIME. For those in the 04, feel free to come in for the taping from 6ish to 7ish that evening. Perfect for an after work beer...)


Review: The Oyster Inn, Waiheke Island.

One of the things Metro always does when reviewing restaurants is go there twice – and it makes sense – it halves the chance (stand down, Keith Ng, if this not literally true) that you’ve just struck the waiter or chef on an off night, or conversely, you’re the only person that night whose order wasn’t screwed up.

Of course, at an amazing restaurant the chef doesn't have off nights. Consistency is probably the most important trait in a restaurant (assuming it’s not consistently awful). But I would rather go to a restaurant that is consistently Very Good – Prego is probably the best example I can think of here – where the food will never amaze, but like a high class Cobb ‘n’ Co, you know what you’re getting, every time.

People have been raving about The Oyster Inn on Waiheke, a lovely fit-out on the top story of an old wooden colonial style building with a covered veranda overlooking the Oneroa shops and across the bay.

Chef Cristian Hossack was by all accounts poached from, or at least had previously been employed at, Peter Gordon’s Providores in London. The style will be very familiar to anyone who’s been to Al Brown’s Depot at Sky City – a variety of oysters and other shellfish offered on the menu along with small sharing plates (sliders, calamari and the like) but departs from Depot by offering meals designed to be eaten by one rather than larger plates to share. Perhaps also conscious of the difficulty in being too niche on an island where half the year is a wasteland, Oyster Inn opens at 8am offering a small but appetising breakfast menu.

Two visits found the food without fault. The spaghetti alle vongole (with Cloud Bay clams) was delicious, the octopus barley salad bright and fresh, and the tempura oyster ‘po boy’ roll – the item that enticed me to return for our second visit a wonderful soft, juicy treat with wasabi tobiko mayonnaise. It’s a shame they don’t unbundle the fish ‘n’ chips, because while a bit of battered whatever will never tempt me with other delights on offer, the triple-cooked fries were calling to me from the neighbour’s table. I asked, but it is impossible apparently, the chips can only be sold with the fish. The shoestring fries didn’t have similar appeal. The wine list is well populated, with the inclusion of some of Waiheke’s finest, including Man O’ War vineyards and Cable Bay.

(the second half of my oyster roll - please note, this is not food photography, but a photo of my food)

I’d popped in for a drink on a previous visit to the island and found the place overrun with staff literally bumping into each other– it seemed more like NZ Railways in the 70s than the sort of lean operation one expects these days. Our subsequent visits didn’t show the same problem, but adverts in the local paper indicated they were looking for more staff, so it’s hard to know where it’ll settle.

The front of house staff were very friendly – our phone request for a highchair hadn’t made it to the booking sheet but that was easily remedied. (Parental note – at 14 months, and still wearing much smaller clothes than his age, Harry only just squeezed into the chair, the frame of which doesn’t adjust). And the service was good – with one exception which ended up clouding our second visit a bit.

A simple enough mistake – a forgotten drinks order. But while we waited, and waited, our waiter didn’t notice either that we were waiting, or that we had no drinks. I asked another waiter – ours was busy elsewhere – and she dismissed our query with a “they’ll be coming”. Finally, after asking again, our waiter realised her mistake – but rather than being remedied with all due haste, the order seemed to go to the back of the queue.  So there we were, 40 minutes after arriving, midway through our meals, without a drink. “So how is everything?” asked our waiter, a question that perhaps should have waited until we had a glass of wine in our hands.

It’s probably quite hard to get good staff on Waiheke – it seems hard enough in town. And while a forgotten order is totally forgivable, not noticing for more than half an hour – and then failing to sort it quickly, if not make that round on the house, is far less so. I guess I’m a bit OCD or something, but when I’m waiting for something to turn up that is long overdue, I find it impossible to relax. It basically ruins things for me.

Much of the problem comes down to a lack of simple observation by staff. When you have just four or five tables to manage, you should be constantly scanning those tables when you walk past. Who is going to need a drink soon, whose plates need clearing, who’s rocking in the corner because you’ve forgotten his wine for half an hour. Our waiter also failed to notice a small pile of Harry’s own lunch rubbish, a banana skin and empty yoghurt container sitting on our table – we’d brought it in, but a decent waiter would spot it and take it away.

Running a restaurant on Waiheke is an incredibly difficult business, even if everything is just right, and this place is so close. Locals are more interested in somewhere cheap to eat or drink, and townies will have to be convinced to spend their limited time in Oneroa rather than eating at a winery somewhere. Then there’s the six months of the year when tourism virtually shuts down. With the amount of investment the owners have put in (I’ve heard figures with lots of zeroes) for a fit out including a separate shop, private dining room and apartments, it’d be a shame to be let down by a few simple skills. I wish them all the best - I'll certainly be back.


Martin Bosley's Ika Mata and Scott Kelly's Reindeer Poo.


Christmas time, and a time for sharing - in this case a couple of recipes guaranteed to delight the family, in quite different ways.  These are from my Sunday evening show on Radio Live:

Martin Bosley's Ika Mata

Martin is one of my favourite chefs, and a bloody nice guy to boot. His eponymous restaurant on Oriental Parade in Wellington is an award-winning treat, amazing cuisine - but Martin assures me this recipe is simple - and with the white, green and red colouring - a perfect kiwi Christmas dish.

Serves a crowd of 8 -10 people

1 kg very fresh snapper fillet, skinned
10 limes and 3 lemons, for the juice
2 medium-sized onions, finely diced
3 red chillies, seeded and finely chopped
4 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
1 bunch of several spring onions, finely sliced
a few stems of coriander leaves
1 litre coconut milk
lime wedges and tortillas to serve

Cut the fish into 1 cm dice, discarding any bloody tissue.

In a bowl, mix the fish and the citrus juices and chill to marinate for two to three hours, or until the fish is opaque.

Drain the juices from the fish and add the onion, chilli, tomato, spring onion, coriander, coconut milk and a good tablespoon of sea salt.

Mix well, chill well and serve with lime wedges and crisp tortillas

Scott Kelly's Reindeer Poo

Former host of the inimitable Friday Night Allan, bFM ad genius and now an advertising creative, it will surprise few who know Scott that he spends Christmas Eve making faux reindeer poo to keep the magic alive for his son on Christmas morning.  When combined with cornflour 'shoe prints' from the fireplace to the Christmas tree, a knocked over bowl of water outside from those klutzy reindeer, and a few hoof prints from the back of an axe on the grass, Scott's reindeer poo go down a treat.  And they're edible too, apparently, although I think that might be overstating things given the ingredients:

Glitter (or those edible silver ball things) for a bit of magic
Peanuts or some kind of nut for added realism

Combine ingredients - the coffee and cocoa are to colour the weetbix - go easy on the water, you want it to retain shape.  If you add too much water you can balance it out with some cornflour.

Pipe into "brown frosty boy icecream shapes" using a piping bag, onto the doorstep outside, or around where the reindeers' water bowl is.  



Weapons of Mass Production

The following story appeared in the July-August issue of Metro Magazine. As Metro has no online archive of its articles, they have kindly granted permission for me to reproduce my story here. 

Guangzhou is the biggest city you never knew existed. Even if you do know it exists, you might not know it’s one of the biggest – 9th in the world, with a population of nearly 12 million people. Including the greater city area along the Pearl River Delta, and the number is more than double that. In those terms, it is second only to Tokyo as the world’s biggest agglomeration.

It’s not the sexiest city in the world. It doesn’t have the romance of Paris, the history of Rome, the spirit of Rio or the dirty credibility of New York. It’s not even the sexiest city in China; that title goes to Shanghai, which fancies itself the New York of the East. Shanghai, by the way, is the world’s biggest city proper, and has the skyline to match. Not that Guangzhou isn’t trying – the massive Pearl River flows through the heart of the city, and after sunset the buildings shine with more multi-coloured lights than a Nissan Skyline cruising down K’ Road on a Friday night. Even so, you’d struggle to say it’s a pretty city. The streets are kept remarkably clean of litter, while the sky is hazy with pollution.

Pearl River

But you don’t come to Guangzhou for the sights, you come to trade; to buy, to sell, to produce. Guangzhou is the economic powerhouse of the People’s Republic. If decisions are made in Beijing, and the money banked in Shanghai, then Guangzhou is where things get made. Formerly known as Canton, it’s been a major manufacturing and trading hub of China for hundreds of years, and it’s showing no sign of slowing down. In 2005 its GDP was roughly the same as New Zealand’s. Today it’s twice that.

Jeremy Maclaurin has been coming to Guangzhou for the past six years to oversee his fashion manufacturing business, including local labels NVAH and neverblack. Living in Havelock North but making the journey half a dozen times a year, in February Maclaurin decided to stop being a visitor from the Hawkes Bay, and relocate permanently.

As we drive towards his 3 bedroom/2 bathroom apartment – worth a million or more to buy, but a steal at just NZ$1100 or so a month to rent – Maclaurin points to the huge residential buildings surrounding his. There are, he says, some 200,000 people living within a couple of city blocks, and by the end of the year, 5.2 million people will be living in the ‘suburb’ of Zhujiang New Town. Just seven years ago, those buildings weren’t there.

In Guangzhou, most numbers quoted seem to have a bunch of zeroes after them, and they’re thrown around with impunity. At Zuru Toys, Anna Mowbray has orders for millions of tiny, water-activated robotic fish, destined to be the impulse craze of Christmas 2012. On another floor, an order of 500,000 boomerangs is being cut from blue foam; outside, a massive skip is piled with the foam outlines of where boomerangs once stood. You don’t exactly have to be Captain Planet to realise this is less than ideal, but somtimes I guess the world just needs more blue foam boomerangs.

Anna Mowbray says her friends at home share a common misconception: “I do believe they think we’re all running sweatshops.” But touring Zuru Toys HQ, an hour from central Guangzhou, while I’m doing a great impression of the incredible melting man in the 35 degree heat with what feels like 110% humidity, I don’t see any evidence of that.

“There’s a huge distance between people’s perceptions of China and the reality,” says Maclaurin. “Those days [of sweatshops] are far gone. A big part of that was factories had to start meeting standards for their export markets, then new labour laws were introduced a few years ago, and so there’s minimum wages, social security, health insurance and things like that.”

Yes, China has minimum wages – in Guangzhou it’s about NZ$220 a month. But factories over a certain size (25-30 workers) are also expected to be responsible for food and accommodation. The latter is particularly important as most of the factory workers don’t live down the road with their families, they come from remote villages, hundreds or thousands of miles away, and live in accommodation which is usually part of the factory complex. They send most of their wages back home, and twice a year make the long arduous journey back to their villages. It’s as often as Mowbray returns to her family home in Cambridge, which she left seven years ago.

Sure, the factory jobs are repetitive, menial. No-one seems to be having a great time working the machinery, but I’ve seen a few production lines in New Zealand, even worked on a couple, and never thought anyone was having a ball. However I couldn’t help thinking that the guy whose job it was to test-fire a volley from each massive fluorescent green foam pellet gun didn’t realise he had the best job on the whole conveyor belt.

Production line, Zuru Toys

The irony of Guangzhou is that while many major multinationals use it as a production base, it is also a primary source of one of their biggest headaches – knockoffs. At the Hu Mai markets, just one example of hundreds, canny shoppers can experience an entire street of multi-storey buildings and bustling alleys, each crammed with stall after stall of such merchandise. Forget cheap imitation Lacoste and Ralph Lauren polo shirts; what’s on offer here are high quality replicas of the latest season fashions, from all the usual big brands, but also niche, high-fashion labels – even Karen Walker sunglasses make an appearance. Worringly, at least for those hoping to protect their IP, this isn’t a consumer market – most stalls won’t sell you a single pair of Adidas limited edition trainers – you’ll have to take a hundred, minimum. Easily spotted among the Chinese, a large number of Africans populate the markets, deep in negotiation with the stallholders, ordering 500 of this, a thousand of that, destined mostly for South Africa.

Jeremy Maclaurin tells me of a woman he met with a Louis Vuitton store, who admitted one in every four bags she sold was from these markets – her way of keeping the margins up. If the customers can’t tell the replica from the real deal, it does start to raise some big picture questions about the value we place on a brand, but that’s another story. I wonder, as a designer himself, whether Maclaurin is bothered by the knowledge that his designs, or those of his clients, might end up on these shelves alongside the Paul Smith shirts, the Nudie Jeans. However he seems to have taken to heart the old adage about having the serenity to know when he can’t change something. It’s just one more cost of doing business in China.

Corruption is an obvious question from a Western journalist, but again, it seems more of an accepted - if officially frowned upon - cost of doing business. “It’s more about building relationships,” says Maclaurin, “so if you know the right people then things can happen a lot quicker than if you don’t go down that channel. But when you’re doing due dilligence on a business, you always factor in a certain amount for that.”

Logan Komoroski, a furniture designer who made the move from Auckland about the same time as Anna Mowbray, points out it’s perfectly acceptable to include these under-the-table payments as a business expense in the monthly accounts, and that as soon as the necessary backhanders are made, things happen very quickly indeed.

And there’s certainly no lack of opportunities. Talking with the three early thirty-something expats, the number of side-projects and potential new businesses is as overwhelming as it is inspiring. All speak of the lack of red-tape compared with doing business back home. “It was just becoming harder and harder,” says Komoroski, who now produces furniture for countries worldwide, and increasingly, the Chinese domestic market. He also has side projects transforming shipping containers into retail and living spaces, and waterfront property development in the nearby Philippines, both from contacts made in Guangzhou. Business is never far from the mind in Guangzhou, neatly illustrated as Komoroski, with an impressive grasp of Mandarin, tries to poach the waitress delivering our drinks. “It’s getting hard to find salespeople who speak good English,” he explains. The waitress takes his card, laughing nervously, not sure whether she is the butt of some expat joke.

 “I think China sees any new business as a good thing for the country as a whole, so they try and make it as easy as possible,” says Maclaurin. “Here nothing seems to be a problem, so you can look at a number of projects within a year – some eventuate, some don’t – but at least you have that opportunity.”

And therein lies the paradox, at least from the outsiders’ point of view. It’s the last giant bastion of Communism, and yet Komoroski says he’s “never lived in a place as free.” Which is not to say the Communist Party does not make its presence occasionally felt. Sitting in my hotel room, I’m unable to access Facebook or Twitter. Yet as I’m being blocked, Anderson Cooper is on CNN, broadcasting the first major interview with the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, who escaped house arrest and is now living in the US. As the broadcast goes out, Cooper points to the CNN feed as it appears in China, almost goading the authorities to shut it down. They don’t.

Central planning certainly works when it comes to getting things done. Guangzhou hosted the 16th Asian Games in 2010, and saw more than NZ$3 billion invested in beautification, new sports venues, and improving the transport network, including high speed rail. The architecturally impressive Leide Bridge and Canton Tower were also opened for the Games – at 600 metres, the latter is the third tallest structure in the world, although this is the sort of fact that’s almost out of date as soon as it’s written down.

Even failed developments in Guangzhou are on a massive scale. Across the road from my hotel sits a the massive hulking shell of a skyscraper, easily 50 storeys high, started but destined to never be finished. Meanwhile new buildings go up, and old buildings come down, the replacements always bigger, bolder, and more luminous than their predecessors. For an ancient trading city – Guangzhou had direct routes to the Middle East as far back as the 8th Century – there is little sign of its heritage.

An abandoned skyscraper

But this is not peculiar to Guangzhou, nor is it a remnant of the cleansing of Mao’s Cultural Revolution – the Chinese culture simply places no value on old buildings. Or more correctly, as the French explorer and poet Victor Seaglen noted upon visiting China a century ago, rather than adopting the futile Western approach of battling the erosion of its architecture, the Chinese positively embrace it, with built-in obsolescence. How Zen.

But it’s not just Guangzhou’s facade that’s changing. As much as it might seem like a bold new frontier town of capitalism and opportunity to me, Jeremy Maclaurin says he and his fellow expats feel like they’ve almost arrived too late – “if we’d been here five or ten years earlier, we’d have really been on the ball.” While the rise of the Chinese middle class has meant an exponential boom in domestic demand, and it’s harder to find people willing to work in factories.

China’s one-child policy also means many young Chinese are the sole beneficiary of two parents’ and four grandparents’ hard work, further relieving the urge to toil themselves. In Guangzhou, living costs, labour costs and real estate prices are all rising, driving manufacturing further away. Maclaurin is already beginning to invest in factories in Cambodia and Vietnam.

As unlikely as it might seem in the midst of still massive growth, if this trend continues it’s possible Guangzhou will one day lose its industrial foundations. The factories will empty, and without a purpose, the city will grind slowly to a halt, a victim of its own success. And just like every building that once stood there, the city of Guangzhou will embrace its own obsolescence. But not anytime soon.

Damian Christie travelled to Guangzhou with the help of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.