New York, 22 December 2013

My wife and I have been trying for a while now to get our son to stop smoking. He’s the same age, give or take a year, that we were when we stopped but he’s still on 10 a day – more if the stress levels are high. With us cheering him on, he has tried various things: patches, gum, and I know not what. He even went cold turkey for a while.  All for naught. So when back in May he decided to try e-cigarettes, we redoubled our cheering.
I know, they’re not the miracle cure they are sometimes claimed to be, but on balance we think they are better than real cigarettes.

Almost immediately, though, our son’s experiment with e-cigarettes went awry. During a night out with the boys just after he started using it the body broke (for the uninitiated, I should explain that an e-cigarette is composed of a body and a head; the two are separable and can be purchased separately, an important detail in the unfolding drama). After much badgering – our son was very busy with his new business (which of course augmented the stress levels and thus the cigarette consumption) – he finally got around to purchasing a new body via internet and received said body through the post. My wife and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that he would imminently be throwing away his cigarette packs. But no. Our son discovered that he couldn’t remove the head from the old body despite the use of much brute strength and wrenches. So still no e-cigarette use.

Things stood thus for several months before we came to New York to spend Christmas with the children. We were determined to move things along. After more badgering, we got some guidance from our son as to where we might go to separate head from body. Our initial thought had been to find a repair shop of some sort. But who runs repair shops these days, especially for so arcane a product as e-cigarettes?

So our search shifted to so-called vapor stores. These are locales which are vigorously promoting e-cigarettes and the vapor lifestyle. Again, to make sure that the uninitiated are following, recall that the principle of e-cigarettes is that you inhale water vapor impregnated with nicotine, taste molecules (our son favors mint and watermelon), and a few other odds and ends. Thus, vapor is central to the e-cigarette experience, thus stores offering this new lifestyle are called vapor stores, and thus the devotees of this new lifestyle call themselves vapers (in contrast to smokers; cute, no?).
We located two vapor stores in Lower Manhattan. The precise location of the stores is already an indication of the life choices of the fans of the vapor lifestyle. Because when I say lower Manhattan, I don’t mean Wall Street or thereabouts, the hang-out of the Gods of Finance and their acolytes from New Jersey, I mean NoLiTa. This is an area north of Little Italy (whence the name NoLiTa; the serious New Yorker must keep up with the continuous creation of new locational acronyms). I am informed that NoLiTa is now a very cool area to live in for those into the more alternative lifestyles.
After some blundering around the small streets of NoLiTa, we finally found the first vapor store on our list. As we entered, we suddenly felt like dinosaurs, relics from a past era.
dinosaur skeletons
Everyone in the place could have been our son or daughter, and every single one of them was puffing on an e-cigarette. They looked at us rather surprised. Clearly, troglodytes like us did not enter the shop often, if at all.

We diffidently made our way to the counter where a young man served us, e-cigarette in hand. And as we explained the problem, he sucked on his e-cigarette and breathed out vapor from his nostrils in a fashion that was very reminiscent of angry bulls in cartoons – my wife and I checked notes afterwards and both agreed on this point
bull snorting
After this impressively taurine display, our young man managed to separate head from damaged body and sold us a bottle of mint-tasting e-cigarette liquid. At which point our son rolled in and took over, giving my wife and I the leisure to look the place over.

Calling this a store is clearly a misnomer. What we have here is an experience, an event. Other than the counter and the vitrines in one corner showing off e-cigarettes and related paraphernalia

vapor shop-1

our store had a bar in another corner where various high-end teas were being served – no tea bags here – and where clients could sit at the bar sipping their tea, chatting convivially, and of course puffing on their e-cigarettes together.
vapor shop-4
In yet another corner it had a nook where vapers could sit on smart but environmentally-friendly furniture made with discarded objects, and flip through high-end magazines like Monocle, all the while puffing meditatively on their e-cigarettes.

vapor shop-5

(these photos are not of the store we saw, but the fact that I found them, and many others like it, makes me think that this is the basic blueprint of all vapor stores)

It all rather reminded me of the more traditional smoking rooms of the 19th Century

smoking room victorian england

or more darkly of those high-end turn of the 19th Century Parisian brothels which Toulouse-Lautrec liked to paint
brothel Toulouse Lautrec
Like the French say, “plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, the more it changes and the more it’s the same thing. In every age, there’s always a part of society which wants to be exotic.

But all my wife and I want is for our son to quit smoking.


e-cigarette: [in
smoking e-cigarette: [in
NoLiTa: [in
Dinosaur skeletons: [in
Bull snorting: [in
Vapor shop-1: [in
Vapor shop-2: [in
Vapor shop-3: [in
Smoking parlour Victorian England: [in
Brothel Toulouse Lautrec: [in


Beijing, 13 September 2013

Last week, I was up in Xinjiang (or the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, to give it its full title), where I and some colleagues were discussing possible projects and visiting some industrial plants. The most intriguing of these visits was to a plant where this welcomed you when you arrived.
tomato waste-4
Readers would be excused if, like me when I got out of the car and like my wife when I showed her this picture, they scratch their heads and ask themselves what on earth this stuff is.

Tomato waste, that’s what it is.

Yes, these are the left-overs from the process to make tomato paste, a significant industry in Xinjiang, which grows some 4 million tons of tomatoes a year. As you might imagine, with a process that basically squeezes the juice out of tomatoes for further concentration the waste consists primarily of tomato seeds and skins.

Mr. Liu, a spry septuagenarian and founder of the company, met us as we got out of the cars and led us to the exhibition room. He started by explaining that he was on the rebound with this company; he set it up after going bankrupt in a previous foray into capitalism. The business model Mr. Liu adopted in this new venture is simple but ingenious. He takes the tomato wastes off the hands of the tomato paste makers, who are glad to offload them at no cost since they don’t know what to do with them. So far so good. But he doesn’t just dump them in a convenient hole somewhere as most waste dealers still do in this part of the world. No, he works his magic on the wastes to make a whole series of new products with them.

The most important of these is tomato seed oil. Yes, you can press all those little seeds in a tomato

tomato seeds

and make this lovely orange-colored oil
tomato seed oil
No doubt the colour comes from a combination of the gold of oil with the red of lycopene, the chemical which gives tomatoes their red colour. The oil commands premium prices from restaurateurs and others who have refined culinary tastes.

But Mr. Liu is not satisfied with just this one product. He also makes a skin tonifier from the juice squeezed out of the waste.
tomato tonifier
He told us it contains high levels of anti-oxidants, so is excellent for slowing down the aging process.  As proof of this assertion, he said he was made aware of the juice’s beneficial effects by his workers who, it seems, were padding around in the juice with only sandals on and discovered that the skin of their feet was rejuvenated. I pass on this nugget of information without in any way suggesting that I believe it.

Mr. Liu also makes pills from this same juice, no doubt to encourage digestion or some such (I can’t believe the skin of our stomachs and intestines need rejuvenation).

And with everything that is left over Mr. Liu makes cattle feed. Apparently, cattle quite like tomato waste once the seeds have been removed. They clearly have refined palates.

Despite his 70 years, Mr. Liu is bubbling over with new ideas. He showed us a new silo where he will start storing the tomato left-overs so that he can process the stuff more regularly throughout the year – right now, he is forced to do a lot of processing at harvest time and to stand idle the rest of the year. I didn’t quite understand how he planned to avoid the waste from rotting; something about adopting a system used for centuries by farmers in Xinjiang to preserve their cattle feed (the translation got a bit tangled at this point). He is also planning to start processing the small, green tomatoes which are left behind in the fields at harvest time and which actually represent some 20% of the tomatoes grown. And no doubt he has other ideas up his capacious sleeves.

I really admire people like Mr. Liu. He is the embodiment of that phrase much loved in certain environmental circles, “from waste to profits”. I don’t pretend that Mr. Liu invented the process of extracting oil from tomato seeds – a rapid surf of the web after the visit showed me this (although the lotion may be his idea).  But he had the courage, after a ruinous bankruptcy which left him more or less only with the clothes on his back, to set up a new business, seeing an opportunity where others would only turn up their noses. And he keeps on coming up with new products to squeeze out of his tomato wastes.

I feel duty bound, however, to report a slight hiccup in all this. A few mornings ago, my wife tersely informed me by text that the skin tonifier which I gave her to try made her smell like a tomato.  For a tomato lover like myself this may actually be a plus, but for others with a more measured relationship to the tomato this news may give them pause.


Tomato waste: my picture
Tomato seeds:
Tomato seed oil:
Tomato tonifier: my picture