Selling to people in cashless China? There’s an app for that

Young Asian woman

Queueing at the Post Office for renminbi? You might want to pack a spare power bank instead. China is becoming a cashless society, thanks to the phenomenal rise of digital wallets Alipay and WeChat Pay linked to Chinese bank cards.

Hardly a week goes by without an account emerging somewhere online of a Chinese taxi driver / noodle vendor / street artist / landlord accepting payments through the phone. It’s ubiquitous. A Shanghai friend tells me no one carries cash in her city anymore, and even her granny is a convert. There’s also a “Cashless Day” on 8 August to perhaps convince remaining luddites, though quite what’s in store for that is anyone’s guess (bonfires of paper currency?). 

The numbers are eye-watering, as you might expect of the world’s most populous nation. WeChat Pay, the payment wallet inside the WeChat app, is used by 600 million people (equivalent to 10 United Kingdoms). Alipay is just behind with more than 450 million users.

Considering that many of us in 2017 are still scribbling in chequebooks, and digging out coins from the back of the sofa (although there are signs of change – no pun intended), China’s advances are impressive.

It also means that if you’re looking to visit China’s big cities, or selling goods and services to people, it’s best to keep in mind their preference for mobile.

In the UK, high-street shops have been catering for Chinese visitors for some time, with the likes of Selfridges, Holland & Barrett, The Body Shop and Harrods all accepting Alipay in their stores.

Tourism organisations are also getting in the act: in July, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo joined WeChat Pay as part of its goal to offer online ticketing for Chinese visitors, and later take the military showcase to China in 2020.

If you’re a running an online store, meanwhile, selling afternoon tea products (and why not – they’re in demand in China!), you might want to consider the online payments platform provided by Stripe.

The fintech startup recently announced a deal to help online retailers worldwide sell more easily to people in China. Users may reportedly now activate Alipay and WeChat Pay on their dashboard and accept payments from either system.

Amidst much talk about  the “Belt and Road” initiative – or a new Silk Road forged across land and sea – it seems as if the biggest trade routes between China and the rest of the world are being developed through mobile technology, something we can all relate to.

Hack Horizon seeking applicants for hackathon in the air

If the usual hackathon doesn’t get you excited, how about one that takes place  11 miles up in the stratosphere (meaning, yes, you might have to talk to the stranger whose knee is touching yours)?

As lofty as it sounds, this is what the organisers of Hack Horizon are offering. Over 3 days, 32 successful applicants will be invited to build new products that can make travel simple, safer, cheaper and fun – and the highlight of this “journey” is a 12 hour flight from Hong Kong to London. It’s digital nomadism on steroids, passing through the air space of China, Mongolia and Russia, among other states.

Of course, there is an underlying purpose to all of this. Through experiencing a journey end to end, participants will be able to test their  assumptions on other customers, while presumably proceeding with caution in the air, as few people would like to be interrupted by a wide-eyed product designer while watching Iron Man vs King Kong Part II.

As Hack Horizon explains on their website:

Hack Horizon will completely immerse you in the travel experience and give you access to real life customers to test your assumptions right off the bat. What’s more is, that you will be granted special access to some of the best travel technologies and APIs out there as well as have the support and mentorship of leading industry experts.

The trip furthermore continues beyond touchdown. From arrival at Heathrow, Hack Horizon participants will spend the afternoon and evening working from TravelTech Lab in London, once they have discovered the joys of the capital’s transport system. They will then spend another day of hacking and final preparations before pitching before entrepreneurs and the media at the London Transport Museum.

If you are reading this far and have applied successfully for Hack Horizon, here are my gripes thoughts as a regular traveller – these are problems that simply won’t go away, no matter how many times you flush:

  • Airline websites. Many are incredibly frustrating to use
  • Airline food. It was bad before. It still is bad, irrespective of class
  • Reclining seats in Economy. No longer a good idea
  • Manners. Passenger etiquette seems to have been sucked out of the window in recent years
  • Retail. Would airports please stop treating me as a shopper? I’m a passenger trying to find my gate, sometimes as quickly as possible
  • Gimmicks – travel is full of them, from priority boarding to the mobile boarding pass
  • Airport security, a borderline humiliating experience. This has to improve

And here are things we don’t need –  so don’t even think about it:

  • Another novelty in-flight safety video featuring hobbits, football players, or whatever else springs to mind after a caffeine-fuelled sleepless night
  • An in-flight social network
  • An in-flight messaging app
  • People yabbering on their phone in the air

Good luck to all applying. It sounds completely bonkers – but whatever it takes to make flying an experience we can all look forward to again.

Ringy001 removes language confusion for expats in China


In my last post, I wrote of Pilot, a new device from Waverly Labs that would allow the wearer to receive an instant translation of a foreign voice in their ear. At the time of writing, Chinese (in any form), was not included among translatable languages.

But there is another way for those who need Mandarin or Cantonese translated while in China, and it’s an eminently sensible one. It’s the old way – simply asking someone – brought to the 21st century through WeChat, China’s current digital obsession.

While living in China, I often struggled with the language. I have more than one story of sheer linguistic frustration, from being stuck in a cab outside Suzhou and making choo-choo sounds to the driver, to having to deal with someone from a utility company knocking on my door at around 7am on a Saturday morning.

The only solution, I found, was to call a very understanding friend – rather like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? And so, my friend very patiently spoke to the taxi driver / utility lady / handyman, and kindly translated my washing machine for me.

Interestingly, I wasn’t the only foreigner doing it this way. A young speaker I met last month at a WeChat conference in Hong Kong, Swan Huang, told that me she started her business Ringy001 as a result of expats asking her for urgent translation support.

Through finding and following “Ringy001” on WeChat – the most comprehensive and sophisticated messaging app in the world, that does everything apart from make toast – non Chinese-speakers can request a free translation or instant communication from a native speaker, by sending a message.

Of course, there is a better solution still: learn the lingo. If you have any intention of moving to China and staying in China, do the right thing and take language and cultural orientation classes. An app can only take you so far.