Living in Beijing, we all take online finance – or Fintech – for granted these days. Cash is fast disappearing as a form of payment.
Nowadays when you line up in the supermarket, pay for airline tickets, pay your gas or electricity or water bills, go to a restaurant or the cinema … the chances are that you do it with your mobile phone, in the main using either WeChat Pay or AliPay. Online banking, as they say, is old hat these days.
It is no surprise that China has the first museum in the world devoted to Internet Finance. It was opened as long ago as May 2015 on World Museum Day. So it was high time your favourite blogger made his way to its hallowed portals. Only trouble is, the likes of China Daily make this a very difficult prospect.
“Internet Finance Museum opens in Zhongguancun” trumpeted the national daily. “Located in Zhongguancun Internet Financial Park” it added, pouring yet more oil on the fire.
I duly make my way to Zhoongguancun – known by all as Beijing’s very own Silicon Valley. Sure enough there is an internet financial centre there, but any mention of a museum leaves the locals looking totally perplexed. You mean, in the internet financial centre they have never heard of an internet finance museum? Nope. They surely haven’t.
Surfing the internet doesn’t help at all. Remember this is China where copy-n-paste is the norm when it comes to web sites. But eventually I find it – nowhere near Zhongguancun as it turns out; but 8 kms away in Sijiqingzhen. And it goes by the snazzy name of The Museum of Fintech.
It’s actually located inside another so-called ‘International Center’ which looks for all the world just like another very plain-looking office block.
According to Ernst & Young, China tops the globe when it comes to financial technology usage. The country's fintech adoption rate came in at 69 percent in an index that measures users’ activities in various areas, including money transfers, payments, investments, borrowing and insurance, the highest among 20 major markets around the world. The global average was 33 percent, which itself is more than double that of two years ago.
As you enter the building there is a long wall chart which shows ‘a brief history of internet civilisation and digital currency’. Enjoy it while you can as that is likely to be the last you’ll be seeing of practically anything in English from here on in.
I’m actually visiting with high expectations. The founder of the museum – Wang Wei – also set up three other financial museums, including the China Finance Museum in Tianjin which I thoroughly enjoyed. But here I am destined to be disappointed.
With a total exhibition area of 2,000 square metres, the Fintech Museum is apparently focused on financial innovation, the finance industry, its development history, important figures, historic milestones and products. Well, that’s what it claims at any rate.
Near the entrance, just as in the Tianjin museum, is a wall full of quotable quotes: “When money talks, few are deaf”; “When money speaks, truth keeps silence”; “Money’s a horrid thing to follow but a charming thing to meet”; “Business? It’s other people’s money”; and so on.
I walk in to the museum proper and take a photograph of a chart showing some kind of relationship between Baidu, AliPay and TenCent. What it says I have no idea, but almost immediately I hear a voice and turn round to see an arm waving frantically at me.
I walk over to an information desk I hadn’t even spotted up until now and am asked to sign in. “Name” says the smiling lady pointing at her visitors’ book and I duly offer up my prized signature. I notice that not only are there no other foreign names at all having been here over the past three months, but that the number of Chinese names is hardly something a proud museum owner would want to write home about.
I am given a badge, and asked to return it at the end of my visit.
I walk on in an anti-clockwise direction and soon come across a wall full of photos of the good and the great in the internet’s brief history. Yes, there is Tim Berners-Lee, known as the father of the internet…
You’ll remember, I’m sure, that Sir Tim invented the World Wide Web in 1989, while at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory. He wrote the first web client and server in 1990; and his specifications of URLs, HTTP and HTML were used as the basis, and then refined as Web technology spread. Currently he is the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a Web standards organization founded in 1994 which develops interoperable technologies.
info.cern.ch was the address of the world's first-ever web site and web server, running on a NeXT computer at CERN. The first web page address was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html, which centred on information regarding the WWW project.
Close by are the mug shots of Larry Page and Sergey Brin when they were both PhD students at Stanford University. Google began in January 1996 as a research project, though Page and Brin originally nicknamed their new search engine "BackRub", because the system checked backlinks to estimate the importance of a site.
Eventually, they changed the name to Google – a misspelling of the word "googol" (the number 1 followed by 100 zeros) which was picked to signify that the search engine was intended to provide large quantities of information.
Of course, the internet came about as a result of ARPANET – or Advanced Research Projects Agency Network – which was an early packet switching network and the first network to implement TCP/IP as its protocol (in 1982). Access to the ARPANET was expanded in 1981 when the National Science Foundation funded the Computer Science Network and the establishment of national supercomputing centres at several universities. ARPANET was decommissioned in 1990.
On one of the walls is a rolling video describing how ARPANET worked.
And on another wall is a logical diagram of ARPANET from 1977.
It takes me straight back to my time at university when we played with PDP8s and PDP12s and I remember wondering if I would ever get to understand them.
And what have we here? Another panel referring to the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, no less. It was amongst the earliest electronic general-purpose computers made and was designed and primarily used to calculate artillery firing tables for the United States Army's Ballistic Research Laboratory. ENIAC was formally dedicated at the University of Pennsylvania on February 15, 1946 and was heralded as a "Giant Brain" by the press. ENIAC calculated a trajectory that took a human 20 hours in ‘just’ 30 seconds – a 2400× increase in speed.
I enter another room which takes me back further along memory lane. Wow! An Olympia typewriter of 1950s vintage. These are the exact same model that we used in the BBC World Service when I joined in 1971!
And slide rules. Oh joy! I still have mine that I bought in the mid 1960s…
I never had a calculating machine like one of these, though I did use one once and we thought in those days they were fabulous!
This mini computer, complete with its own triple floppy disk drive from the early 1980s, brings back happy memories too!
As for this QDI based on a 386 chip architecture from 1993, well we used to switch on our 386 computers and then go off to breakfast while they went through an intensive boot-up procedure. A bit like ‘Windoze’ 10 today... so nothing much changed on that front!
And as for a Palm Pilot – yes I also had one of these, though I remember getting it because I just had to have one … and then wondering what on earth I was going to do with it. A fun toy, but I think in the end I used it primarily to jot down notes for myself that could just as easily have been entered into my Filofax.
Brick phones? Pagers? Yes, they have them all here. This cabinet of delights takes me back to my Heathrow Airport days when I used to have to carry a ‘brick’ phone, so I could communicate with the office, having been sent a text message on my pager (eg ‘Call office immediately’) while also carrying a two-way radio so I could call up the control tower. How thrilled we were when Nokia brought out their mini portable cell phones (regardless of the fact that Japanese girls were reported by Computer Weekly to be using them as vibrators!).
And Intel Pentium chips? OMG they were the latest in computer chic when they first appeared. Could you have ever imagined running Windows 95 without them?
This being a museum about FinTech, it would be strange if there wasn’t mention of BitCoin – a digital currency created in 2009 that uses decentralised technology for secure payments and storing money that doesn't require banks or people's names. There are currently 15 million in circulation, each of which is worth more than about $4,000 at the time of writing.
Here are two FinTech museum BitCoins, but whether these are legal currency, or just demo coins I have no idea. I rather like the slogan “In Cryptography We Trust”!
Finally, for those who like to dream, we have the opportunity to feel what a million RMB feels like in our hot and stickies. Well, I guess these aren’t real 100RMB notes as there are no security guards anywhere in sight. And it doesn’t feel that heavy, to be honest, either.
Compare that to the weight of 900 million RMB in gold bars – well, 21 of them to be exact which is what it was worth about six years ago. Again, though, I’m guessing these aren’t for real.
And that’s that.
I hand in my badge to the receptionist girl on the way out and wonder what I have learned, if anything. Very little, if the truth be known; but it was nice to revive memories long past of how the real world used to be.
I don’t know. Kids don’t know they’re born these days, if you ask me.
To get to the museum, take subway Line 6 to Haidian Wuluju and leave from exit A. Take the 981 bus three stops to ChangQingYuanXiMen and the museum is straight in front of you.