Fooled by AI on a scenic journey to Guangxi in China

A view of the mountain village of Ping’an, with the rice terraces all lit up in fairy lights.

My first encounter with Artificial Intelligence was both hilarious and hugely embarrassing. It happened in China recently, while on a tour of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

My wife and I checked into a hotel in a little-known city called Hezhou on the scenic journey to Guilin covering five cities: Hezhou, Liuzhou, Loong Shan, Guilin and Yangshuo, each famous for its unique and dramatic landscapes.

After collecting my room key, I was told that all electrical gadgets and components in the room were AI-operated. “Just call Xiao Tu to do it and it will respond,” the front desk girl told me cheerfully.

Trundling our luggage to our room with great anticipation, I intended to ask AI’s help to first turn on the air-conditioner, and then to open the window curtains to get the view outside.

After inserting the room card in its slot, I went to the air-conditioner controller on the wall and, in my best Malaysian Mandarin, commanded, “Xiao Tu, turn on the air-conditioner.” No response.

I repeated the instructions several times without getting any result. I thought perhaps I needed to establish some sort of rapport with Xiao Tu first, or even with some pleading for help. But then, it was just a robot, not human, so I perished the thought.

I tried again. “Xiao Tu, draw open the curtains.” Nothing happened.

In desperation, I went to the four corners of the room calling out to Xiao Tu with the same commands.

Only once, by sheer chance, she responded. She told me to re-phrase my sentence as she could not understand my “brand” of Mandarin. It was hugely embarrassing to say the least. By that time, my wife was already rolling on the bed splitting her sides laughing at the comedy before her.

I finally admitted defeat and called the front desk for help. When the handyman came, I realised that I had been calling out the wrong name. The AI’s name was “Xiao Du”. I called out again and it worked! A very sweet voice responded, “Wo zai” meaning, “I am here”.

I also learned that the AI device was a black circular thing sitting next to the TV set.

My friends who were more tech-savvy were having a whale of a time interacting with the sweet voice in that black box (yes, I know I sound like sour grapes), so much so that they actually missed Xiao Du when they returned to Kuala Lumpur.

The writer and his wife Maureen at the Ping’an village. — Photos: HOO BAN KHEEThe writer and his wife Maureen at the Ping’an village. — Photos: HOO BAN KHEE

Later, I realised that in Mandarin, Xiao Tu means little rabbit while Xiao Du means little navigator. Obviously, I did not need a rabbit then.

But back to our travels. Guangxi, to the west of Guang-dong Province, is famous for its rivers and mountains – a journey to Guilin and nearby Yangshuo is like walking into a Chinese landscape painting.

The most memorable part of our tour was the two days we spent in a homestay in Ping’an, a Zhuang mountain village in Loong Sheng County famous for its rice terraces on Loongji Shan, which means “spine of the dragon”.

It was a pity that we went in late spring. In winter, we would be able to see snow covering the rice terraces while in autumn, the padi fields would look like a blanket of gold.

Nevertheless, what we missed out on was compensated by our very hospitable and friendly lady host who guided us around and whose husband cooked for us during our stay.

They are from the Zhuang tribe, a minority in Guangxi. They shared with us stories of their lifestyle, livelihood and living environment. They seemed to be a happy lot, very positive and very helpful.

They reared their own chicken, bought fish from a neighbour who owned a pond, harvested vegetables from their own yards and grew “luo han guo”, a fruit well known to many Malaysians. It is a self-sufficient community indeed.

The rice terraces were carved into the hill slopes during the Yuan Dynasty and completed in the Qing Dynasty about 700 to 800 years ago by the Zhuang people, who were driven uphill by the fearsome Miao tribe.

The place has become a huge tourist attraction in the region. Our lady host took some of our younger friends up the hill to savour the panoramic view of the landscape. My wife and I, who were lacking the leg power, were contented just soaking up the view at mid-hill level.

When the sun set and skies turned a midnight blue, the terraces became somewhat magical when small lights were turned on all over the hills. It was amazing!

Of course, any tourist to Guangxi would not want to skip Guilin which is more famous than the capital city of Nanning because of its unique and picturesque landscapes.

Guilin is surrounded by mountains and rivers but the draw is the two lakes on which the twin Sun and Moon pagodas stand. Also known as the Gold and Silver pagodas, they cast a dreamy spell with their reflections teasing the rippling water.

We saw huge crowds gathered on the lake side jostling for the best spot to shoot pictures and make videos, and it was not even peak tourist season yet.

We covered five cities during our tour. In those cities we noticed that besides cars, the streets were jam-packed with e-bikes. There were hardly any bicycles seen, unlike about a decade ago when they were still the top mode of transportation.

The city skylines were dominated by high-rise apartments and office buildings, while the morning and night markets were crowded and vibrant.

The streets are clean and orderly, too, lined with all sorts of eateries offering local cuisine and shops well stocked with daily necessities.

Inter-city expressways are dotted with modern highway stops with stalls selling pancakes, tea-leaf eggs and snacks such as stewed duck necks, duck tongues and feet, which are local favourites.

Toilets are very clean and I dare say it is a gigantic improvement over the days when umbrellas were a handy tool.

To me, these are concrete evidence of China’s success story of poverty-eradication, bringing progress and modernisation to what used to be a poor and backward region.

Hoo Ban Khee is a former Beijing, China correspondent for The Star. He can be contacted at

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