Banking Blues

A good friend who follows this blog but never comments, made an observation recently that over the years, my attitude to life in China has become more positive and I moan a lot less than I used to. Well Nicholas, all that’s about to end.

For some reason I can’t access my bank account from the internet anymore and I have lost my bank book which would provide a history of my earlier transactions, so this lunch time I headed to the bank to accomplish to very simple missions:

1. To get a replacement bank book.

2. To have my online banking password reset.

The branch of Industrial and Commercial Bank (ICBC) close to my office has a novel queuing system. Everyone sits – yes, sits – in a queue consisting of 4 rows of about 8 chairs. When one counter is free, the person at the front of the line goes to be served and everyone (yes, about 30 people) moves along one seat. Call me whacky, but I think a simpler system would be to issue tickets on entering the bank, then everyone could sit in the same seat till their number comes up.

After queuing for about 30 minutes (half my lunch hour) it was my turn to be served. Here’s the dialogue:

WoAi: Good afternoon kindly looking bank clerk, I would like to reset my internet password please.

Bank Clerk: We don’t do that here.

WoAi: Oh, where should I go for that?

Bank Clerk: That counter over there at the back.

WoAi: Oh, I see. Forgive my foolishness. There is one other small matter you can help me with. I have lost my bank book. Can I have a new one please?

Bank Clerk: No, sorry we don’t do that here.

WoAi: Oh I see. And which counter should I line up at to replace my bank book?

Bank Clerk [shouts across to another bank clerk]: Where do they issue bank books?

Bank Clerk #2: He Nan Road, by Ning Bo Rd.

Bank Clerk #1 [speaking to WoAi]: You have to go to He Nan Rd, by Ning Bo Rd. We can’t issue bank books here.

WoAi [looking surprised]: Oh, I see. You really can’t just give me a new bank book here and save me a taxi ride in the remaining 10 minutes of my lunch break?

Bank Clerk #1: Bu ke yi (meaning no, we can’t).

So, 100% failure at my first attempt. I head over to the counter for changing internet passwords.

WoAi: Hello, I’d like my online password reset please.

Clerk: Please fill out this form.

WoAi [after filling out said form]: There you go.

Clerk: Did you apply for online banking at this branch or did you apply online?

WoAi: I applied online.

Clerk: Oh, then we can’t reset your password, sorry.

WoAi: Oh I see, so what should I do?

Clerk: Well, we can cancel online banking and then you can apply again here.

WoAi: Ah, yes, well, okay that seems like a good idea, especially since it appears to be the only option.

In case you haven’t picked up on it, the issue isn’t just how difficult and long winded the procedures are (and trust me when I say they are long winded), it’s also the attitude of the staff who will only answer the specific questions you ask and will not offer a solution unless you specifically ask. Inexplicably, when I asked to get a new bank book, she simply said she can’t do it. She did not tell me where I can get this done until I asked. The fact that there is a special location for replacing lost bank books just adds to the misery.

Things in China are improving all the time and some things here are way better than they are in other parts of the world. Banking isn’t one of them!

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24 Responses to Banking Blues

  1. Swiss James says:

    Here’s what’s great about Chinese banks though- you can take some cash cash, use the automatic deposit machine to depost it in your account, then use the ATM to transfer the money to your landlord’s account – all without seeing his miserable fucking face.

    Also when I applied for an account, they gave me the bank card then and there, and my pin number in a little security envelope on the spot.

    The lesson here is that China rightly punishes people who are careless with their bankbook and passwords!

  2. Woaizhongguo says:

    James – You see, you’re a glass half full kind of guy, while I am a glass half empty person. Except when it comes to landlords, then we’re the opposite – I look forward every month to the landlord visits, I cook a 5 course meal, we discuss life, the arts, politics and then smoke a couple of Cuban cigars accompanied by a glass of single malt whisky.

    Whereas those bank tellers can all burn in hell!

  3. Rita says:

    i also hate those guys at banks sometimes… some of them(i didn’t say all,,u see Peter this is anger management) just look so priviledged and arrogant on the other side of the counter,,,but according to my experience,,among those China merchant bank’s service is the best.

  4. Woaizhongguo says:

    Rita, it’s no surprise to me that you are more in control of your anger – I’ve never seen you angry!

    Thanks for the tip about China Merchants. But that’s another stupid China banking problem. In England everyone chooses their bank. In China your employer chooses a bank and you have to use it!

  5. shopgirl says:

    bureacracy dude

  6. I had a similar experience with Citic Bank in Beijing. My employer opened the account for me, but it’s only used for expense reimbursement, which for me is an infrequent thing. I hadn’t used the account for six months or so, and managed to forget the password. Coworkers told me I had to visit a branch in person to do this, so I went to the one closest to the office (there aren’t a lot of Citic branches here) on a lunch break. A Chinese coworker accompanied me, since she also had business to do with Citic. We took our numbers and waited, and when I got to the window, I was told I had to go to the branch where the account was opened. Where was that? Haidian, on the far side of town towards the Summer Palace. That would have to wait for another day. Out of kindness, my coworker went with me on that day too, since my Chinese skills are not up to this kind of detailed task. It was almost for nothing, as the signature on my form didn’t match the one on the paperwork to start the account. Of course it didn’t: my employer opened the account without my knowledge! We explained the situation a couple of times, and finally the teller agreed to find the manager, who could approve my password reset. She listened to the explanation and signed the form. Then I entered my new password into the keypad something like four times. He helpfully asked if I would like to withdraw any money at this time.

    In my work, I’ve had dealings with a couple of Chinese companies that deal with customer service, one of them a bank (not Citic), and I’ve learned some things about why things are the way they are. But I’m running late at the moment, and that will have to wait. I’ll get back and post about that a little later. The short version is that the tellers are doing exactly what they are trained to do when they only answer specific questions.

  7. Woaizhongguo says:

    Shopgirl – Thanks for stopping by with that gem of insight.

    RocketShipX41 – I could write a book on my banking tales, I kid you not! When I left Beijing I wanted to close my account there. I went to the nearest branch but they said I had to go to the branch where the account was opened. My office was in Chaoyang, the company bank branch was at Wangfujing so it’s a taxi ride away at lunch time. I had to fill all sorts of paperwork then they said I had to wait a week to get my money (which means ANOTHER trip). I was extremely dumb. I should have simply withdrawn all the money and not bother closing the account, but where I am from, closing the account means exactly that – withdrawing all your money and closing the account on the spot!

    They must think customers have nothing else to do all day long but to make multiple trips, queue up in multiple lines, fill in multiple forms. I shudder to think how many forests would be saved if banks in China cut down on the mass of paperwork and forms.

    Looking forward to the inside scoop on the banking industry.

  8. Lei says:

    there are many horror stories of banking experience in china.

    let me offer one of my own too.

    I was in china summer of 06. I stayed in beijing most of that summer, so i opened an account while i was there (bank of china). Couple weeks later, i was traveling in china with a friend. I needed some cash out of my account, so i headed to the nearest bank of china branch i could find in lijiang (i was traveling). I didnt go to an ATM, because i had left the note with that password for the ATM card in my apartment. So i went to bank, asked the clerk behind the counter if i can get some cash. She asked for me bank book, and i gave it to her, and then i was told, i can’t withdraw money from this branch, because i didn’t open a bank of china account in this city. And then i asked her if i can withdraw money using ATM card, she said yes, but of course i didn’t have my password, i can’t, even tho i showed her my passport and everything to identify myself.

    at the end of that adventure to bank of china, i just left, and went to a restaurant with my friend, to smoke and drink.

  9. remind me to never open a bank account in china . . .

    it must be sooo frustrating!

  10. Woaizhongguo says:

    Lei – One of the scariest experiences of my life happened when I visited Suzhou not long after moving to China and was down to my last 100 rmb, not realising that at that time, my Shanghai ATM card would not work in Suzhou even in the same bank. I finally found an ATM which accepted international cards and got some money from there. The relief on seeing the notes coming out of that ATM …. well there are no words to describe it. If not I might still be there trying to find some money to pay for the train fare back.

    Angie – I’ll be your personal banker when you come to Shanghai!

  11. Lukas says:

    I just had to pay 9000 kuai in university fees. You know what that means in terms of chinese ATM, right?

    buttonbuttonbuttonbutton-2000-buttonbuttonbuttonbutton-2000-buttonbuttonbuttonbutton-2000-buttonbuttonbuttonbutton-2000-buttonbuttonbuttonbutton-1000 ;-)

  12. Woaizhongguo says:

    Lukas – I’ve had to take out much more than that before, but here’s a tip: you can actually take your ATM card to the counter and they will give you 9000 rmb in one go, but obviously it has to be during opening hours and you have to hope there isn’t a long line.

    Also, some banks, like China Construction Bank, will dispense 2500 rmb each time.

  13. Swiss James says:

    I always try to withdraw money from my UK bank account to pay for my rent. The daily limit (imposed from the UK) is about 4,600 RMB so I have to go several on several different days.

    To get around it I’ve been into the branches of about 6 different banks and had the same conversation each time
    “I want to withdraw X amount of money”
    “Just use the ATM”
    “I can’t withdraw that much money from the ATM in one day and I need it today”
    “Just keep repeating how much you want on the ATM”
    “I can’t there’s a daily limit on my card”
    “Oh well then take the card out, blow on it and put it back in the ATM again”

    it’s like banging your head against a wall.

  14. Woaizhongguo says:

    Local cards allow up to 20,000 rmb per day which makes things a bit easier. They also allow direct transfer to landlord’s account if that’s what you want to do.

    No surprise the local bank clerks don’t understand the daily limit thing. They don’t understand that UK banks have computers that monitor how much you withdraw so it’s not easy to fool them buy doing multiple transactions!

  15. OK, here goes. Sorry, there are no big revelations here, just a little learning experience I can share. I work for an American company that deals with both in-person and telephone customer service, and our basic plan is to train the agents as well as possible and (once they’ve proven themselves) allow them to handle situations.

    But when we came to China, we found that our retail and phone center partners insisted on having a set script for every possible situation (like that’s even possible!). Whatever came up, they said, the agent would just go to that part of the script. The concept of giving general training and allowing the agents to think of the solution was completely foreign to them.

    My take on it is that they are petrified of getting something wrong, and would rather provide no answers than risk giving a wrong one. The agents apparently feel less pressure because they don’t have to think, just read the scripts, and the managers don’t have to worry about agents getting something wrong. Plus there’s less training involved this way, which keeps labor costs down.

    The other thing is that many business practices here were devised in the pre-electronic age and just haven’t been updated to take advantage of computers and other technology. There might very well be no technical reason that Branch A can’t reset a Branch B account password, but the procedures date from the days before networking, and no one has taken the initiative to do anything about it. It’s like buying something at Gome. You have to take the purchase order to the cashier, pay, get the triplicate form, take it back to the merchandise department, have them get the item out and take one of the forms, and finally get your toaster. Obviously the technology exists to streamline the process, but the procedures were set up long ago and never changed. In some cases there are even government regulations about what kind of paperwork has to be kept for certain transactions.

    And you know, 20,000 RMB is a heck of a lot of 100′s.

  16. CP says:

    My take on this is a diary entry from a visit to Xian with a friend back in 1996. The story starts just after we checked in to a hotel:

    “To make matters worse, we were told to leave our passports at the hotel desk since we didn’t have enough money. Sadly, we needed them to cash our travellers cheques. Once we’d come to a compromise of leaving one passport behind, we went round the corner to the Bank of China for our money. Five branches later, we finally found someone who would give us some money. One of the branches didn’t even resemble a bank.

    Two days later we needed some more money. By this stage, we were not surprised to discover that we needed to use a completely different branch of Bank of China this time.”

  17. Woaizhongguo says:

    RocketShipX41 (is there something else I can call you?) – That’s truly insightful and is the sort of inside information that just explains so much of what is a mystery to most of us. But the bigger mystery is how SOME things have really changed and enjoyed significant advances, while others (eg banking) have not.

    CP – And 12 years later, things are almost exactly the same. On the other hand, if you knew what you know now about China, you wouldn’t dream of coming to China armed only with travellers cheques. I am amazed they knew what they were back then!

  18. Sue says:

    OMG all i can say is, by the comments that everyone has made (but i have not read through all) it must be very frustrating! No wonder u are not the same woai i know! But anyway, peace out dude, cos we’re not getting any younger and u don;t want high blood pressure get to you!

  19. Woaizhongguo says:

    Sue – Thanks for the advice although I’ve read through the entire post again and nowhere do I indicate I lost my temper or even got upset. How does it feel to be 3 months away from 40 by the way?

  20. Sue says:

    but other blogs u get upset! (although i didnt comment)
    I feel FAT

  21. Sue says:

    I just wanna know, did u seriously say all that in mandarin?

  22. Woaizhongguo says:

    Sue I’ve been living in China for 12 years. I’ve picked up the language!

  23. Sue says:

    when can you teach me?

  24. Woaizhongguo says:


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