Category Archives: India

Behaviour-shaping public signs

Public signs are good indicators of the prevalent behaviours, concerns, or ideal norms in the society. Here are a small collection of such public signs collected randomly during my travels in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Switzerland, India, China, Ghana, Vietnam, Denmark, and UK. I compiled these photos for THEME magazine article in 2008 (unfortunately the magazine is no longer in publication).

A few public signs are culturally unique. Most of them demonstrate the nuances of the expected norms of the public behaviours. One of my pet interests to write and dig more about in the future.

What entertains you?

If you go to a small town or relatively large village in India, you are likely to find a fair ground – provided that you are not out of luck. I stayed for a week in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh for a research work and the local fair at night was indeed like a cold, fresh air. I simply cannot tell whether I will enjoy visiting this place as much if I visited again. But it was the magical time. Reviewing the photos, I got to ponder on what really entertains people, or what makes people perceived that they are entertained. The rudimentary human nature does not vary much, while the representation may vary greatly.


Aspiration-inducing show
People want to see something amazing, to dream of, to be inspired from. In this case, featuring new technology, not easily attainable and decorated with female bodies that are perceived to be beautiful above norm (or following the known convention).


Food not available at home or should be eaten everyday
Rare fruits taste better. Entertainment venue foods can also be quite messy to make at home, or simply do not taste the same if made too healthy.


Things to buy, to make you feel good or achieving something


Strength measuring machine to let people entertain themselves


Fortune telling machine, which is not your usual human astrologer


Letting the memory last longer – Photobooth
Read more about the photobooth operator in this post on digital imaging entrepreneurs.


Getting exposed to useful information, however practically helpful it is
Pictured are advertisements for: Network & software engineering department of ‘Nice’ college with the slogan of ‘the preferred runway, to fly high’ / Call center training program.


Simple physical moves on the machines or a large man-made structure
Physical movements are particularly good and create a different dimension of shared activities as people are freed from the burden of verbally communicate or do something proactively. This fair appointed the mickey mouse – or its relative as the visually consistent host for these machines.


Reflection on the way home….
On the way back to the reality or everyday environment may be mixed with relief and longing for next time. If you had a very good time, you may not consider this as entertaining at all. In Bareilly, we came back to our hotel on a bicycle rickshaw. I was ridden with the guilt that I felt so heavy for the tiny, thin guy driving the bicycle.

Use of Multiple Mobile Phone Numbers (part 1)

2 SIM cards with chips punched out to make one integrated SIM card, Accra, Ghana, 2007

I recently visited a shanzai phone market in Shenzhen, China. Due to its proximity to the main production hub of mobile phones of all brands and manufacturers, it is a true showcase of all kinds of mobiles you ever imagined to exist. As with the timing, there were a lot of design copy products of Nokia’s recent model N8. On one visit to the market, I saw several versions of N8 design copies, with very different feature sets – which was a trend I did not witness when I visited the shanzai market in Chengdu a few years ago.

Various fake copies of Nokia N8 in Shenzhen shanzai phone market

The copies of N8 can be categorized as:
– Dual SIM with TV functionality
– Copy close to the real product
– Various chipset (price tag changes according to the CPU speed)

It is interesting to note the competition space even within fake phones of the same product. While these ‘enhanced’ unique selling points may be just a gimmick, you might also think that there is some level of genius in those features reflecting the market norms.

Fake N8 with the antenna out stresses that it has the TV functionality.
Shanzai phone market, Shenzhen, China, 2010

There are numerous mobile phone models designed to take more than one SIM card. Most of fake mobile phones or lesser-known brand names in the market now has the dual SIM feature as if it is as essential as having the mobile network radio itself. In fact, it is one of the big yet stealth changes in the basic feature set of mobile phones in the last 4 years – especially among the lesser-known brands, low-end of the price tags, and shanzai markets. Despite the popularity surrounding us in several large mobile phone markets including India, China and African countries – I have seen few buzz on the ‘dual SIM’ phenomenon. Thereby I put together a brief post, digging information from an internal research report I wrote for my employer in 2007.

Having multiple mobile phone numbers may be seen as an anti-trend when the mobile phone number portability is increasing becoming a part of the basic civil rights in several countries. But for the time being, the following circumstances drive people to use more than one mobile phone numbers:

1. Lowering the cost of communication
Many mobile network operators offer cheaper rates for inter-network calls, especially in markets where competition among network operators is high. Highly cost-conscious consumers naturally get multiple numbers for cheaper calls. While it may not take too much effort to acquire the new number itself, this comes at a cost of efforts and skill: Remembering, or identifying who in your social network has the number belonging to a specific network operator. People develop a tactic, such as indicating the network operator in the name stored on the phonebook. This is not an exclusive behavior only for the developing economies, however. When the 3G network was newly introduced in Japan several years ago, many Japanese consumers also owned two numbers, one from 3G for cheaper messaging & data connection, another from existing network for cheaper voice calls.

An ideal mobile phone idea hosting 4 SIM cards,
as ‘operators’ rates vary and everyone has more than one SIM card in his community’,
Camp Buduburam – Liberian refugee camp, Ghana, 2007

In the street surveys done in 2007 as part of our research project, the following percentage of users surveyed had two or more mobile phone numbers:
– Accra, Ghana (n=309): 30%
– Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (n=230): 28%
– Chongqing, China (n=150): 9%
– Mumbai, India (n=165): 16%

Considering the fast changing nature of the mobile market, this number probably have changed significantly especially with new players joining in the market.

2. Controlling points of contacts
Another motivation to have more than one number is for the user to control how one is contacted and contactable. Naturally users typically have a strategy on handing out the right number to the right person for future contactability. Our research participants most commonly report separating private and business contacts by having separate numbers. Being able to switch one number completely offline is a way of switching the mental mode, such as “I am turning my work phone off as I am not working anymore”. Small business owners and those who deal with a large number of people can identify the type of contacts easily by differentiating which phone number they use. One Chinese electronic shop owner gave out one of his mobile phone number for his best customers, ensuring that he is always reachable for them. The ease of having another mobile phone number also provides the exclusive communication channel for some, like those in early or secret relationships.

3. Ensuring reliable connectivity
Unreliable network availability or unavailability of the particular network in the area where you live or work may drive users to be ready with multiple numbers from different network operators. In Ghana, people had the perception that the quality of the connection can not be ensured with one network alone hence multiple numbers were essential to prevent disrupted communication. For many prepaid mobile subscribers, having multiple phone numbers means that user can minimize the risk of getting disconnected because of running out of prepaid credit in critical situation.

To be continued in part 2 of the post….

Guns allowed

I only learned a couple of months ago that there are two states in India where the sales of firearms are legal. I found it a bit uneasy. Coming from a country that is still technically at war, I wish other countries to be free from man-made weapons of any sort as much as possible: Destruction and protection are separate concepts only from a matter of perspective. I personally prefer living in a country where majority of citizens do not own firearm, as they do not need to. However I am aware that the sentiments around this topic certain vary a lot especially when it comes to connecting the ownership of firearms to power and personal freedom.

Gun shops lined up on one street I came across right outside of our hotel in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. At the local fair ground, the toy gun looked scarily realistic. I never touched a gun myself – except the plastic guns at arcade game centers. But holding a wooden toy gun and aiming at the colorful dolls and balloons is not my idea of an entertainment. Perhaps in the name of education, making you a more complete, independent and rounded individual.

Being prepared : Service mindset

Preparing small notes and changes often becomes the responsibility of consumers in India – based on what I have experienced so far, which is different mentality compared to Japan or Korea especially. If you only have 100 or 500 rupee notes, be prepared for delays in getting your changes back, or even the risk of not being able to buy what you want. I cannot yet find a pattern with which this happens. It just happens. I experienced it so far at: office canteen, food court at the flower show, street vendors, high-end grocery, or entrance fee to an exhibition. If this happens at general stores, I might be offered to buy more products that would fit the corresponding amount of the lacking change.

It so happened when we were driving to Tamil Nadu. One of the highway tollbooths gave a piece of chocolate instead of one rupee coin. It is a witty solution, but I consider it a misdirected effort: getting candies ready instead of one rupee coints. Other more fair and sustainable solutions are abound, however perhaps they might be just slightly out of reach to those who work at the tollbooths.

Blue is (the leading color to) white

While the perception of color is culturally dependent, blue and white are known to be one of the most popular for logos and national flags. In India, the color white is particularly important for clothing. It is typical for male politicians or authoritative figures to wear all whites. Dhotis, always white in color, are essential for formal ceremonies and events too.

India is probably one of the most difficult countries to keep clothes white: colorful food, red pan (chewing tabaco/mouth refreshner), general dust along with the red soil mixed with sweat and body fat and what not. Perhaps this is why putting on spotless white clothes has extra significance.

The fabric whitener bottles are blue. Furthermore I heard that the whitener actually makes the white fabric slightly blue to create the visual effect of looking whiter. Blue seems to be the common color choice for soaps as well. Hand washing stations in restaurants and around toilets I encountered outside of Bangalore often had blue soaps.

Digital imaging entrepreneurs

Affordable digital photography equipments have given birth to numerous street entrepreneurs. It is surprising how many applications of photographs people can come up with, when I recall the use of photographs merely 20 years ago. While I still hear the occasional question of “why do you take the photo of that?” – a habit from the past where photographs were reserved for special occasion only – it seems clear that we are marching towards the creative world of photography in our everyday lives.

In India, digital imaging entrepreneurs are still taking advantage of the fact that they can set up the business cheaply and majority of the population still do not own cameras of their own. Heavily decorated photograph booths, with the essential prop of a motorcycle or printouts of bollywood stars are the basic requirement – to create the special occasion for the customers. Below images were taken at a local fair ground in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.

More advanced photo studios may offer digitally re-touched imaging options, thanks to the development of easy-to-use photo editing software. This reduces the physical space burden of setting up a photo studio, as the owner is able to photoshop in a “desirable” background to the photo. Below photos were taken & photoshopped by a photo studio owner near Erode, Tamil Nadu.

In South Korea where the rate of digital camera ownership is relatively much higher, local entrepreneurs have to bring something more than a camera and a printer can do. He was selling a mobile phone strap personalized with your photograph. He took the photo, edited immediately on a computer with custom-made photoshop template reflecting the customer’s opinion, printed it, and used the hair dryer to fit the printout onto a little trinket that the customer has chosen. The whole process took about 20min, which is still a long time – I am not sure how scalable his business will be.

One sure fact is that our own images semi-eternalized by the photographs are increasingly influencing our memory, attitude to real-time experiences, and relationship with others.

HIV prevention awareness signage in UP

HIV prevention awareness

HIV prevention awareness signage in UP

A signage for warning the danger of HIV and promoting the use of condoms, found across in Uttar Pradesh.

Rural health center in west Karnataka

Getting condoms however may not be an openly accepted behavior. In rural health centers, they try to distribute condoms for free, but people may not visit the center while others can see. One solution to the problem is to place the condom dispenser outside so that people can take them whenever they feel comfortable.

Condom dispenser outside the health center in west Karnataka

condom dispenser in a health center in west Karnataka

a rural health center waiting room in west Karnataka

I wish smart bollywood stars could do more on sexual education in India, given their influence and what they are selling, even though the reality in India is still quite harsh.

an instructional poster at a rural health center in west Karnataka