Been itching to visit China for a couple of years now. But back then it seemed too expensive and was not practical since no one could handle day to day business in my absence. Finally threw down the few thousand dollars needed for the travel. Got a new Armani suit and off I went. I'm certain the trip has paid for itself in new products discovered, better relationships formed, and understanding of the Chinese culture.
First of all, the reality was far different from what I expected. Hong Kong was just like I expected, but I'd been there many years before. Mainland China was quite different. Crossing the border into China, I expected something like that out of a 1980's Jackie Chan movie - dirt roads packed with bicycles and chickens.
But China has experienced tremendous grown over the past 25 years. There are endless sky scrapers, clean streets, and fancy cars. I saw just as many fancy cars as I do back home in California. Lexus, BMW, Benz, etc. Even saw a Ferrari dealership. After driving up to a supplier's office after lunch, we saw a black Ferrari parked outside. I thought hmmm maybe they are making too much money!
The drivers were all very bad and each one used their horn literally hundreds of times per day. Customized cars were virtually nonexistent in China. I saw a few in Hong Kong though! The Chinese government prohibits most modifications to vehicles, and the people just don't embrace uniqueness like we do in the US.
But they do "pimp out" their buildings with incredible color changing light shows and lasers. The US certainly loses in this regard. Not even Las Vegas comes close. And San Francisco city lights are like a black hole compared to Hong Kong or Shanghai.
Originally I thought I'd do OK traveling throughout China on my own. A few weeks before my trip, someone suggested an interpreter. I found an interpreter somewhere on the Internet, solicited him to meet me at my first stop in Shenzhen, and travel around with me for the next 12 days. It is not possible to communicate in English in mainland China, and I do not speak Chinese. I'd be very lost, and in a big mess if I did not have an interpreter with me. I paid him $100 per day, plus I paid meals, transportation, accommodation, plus a generous $200 tip.
Tipping was nonexistent in China, and the taxi drivers would sometimes be confused when I'd tell them to keep the few dollars in change. I noticed a weird phenomenon with the police cars - they'd always drive with their red and blue lights flashing even if they were not pulling someone over. I suppose to pull someone over, they'd turn on their siren. There were police "booths" scattered across the city, like a little information booth where people could go if there were in trouble. These too, had red and blue lights constantly strobing.
The subways were clean and modern - much better than those in the US. There were huge shopping malls with luxury brands. I went into many clothing stores trying to find a shirt or jacket. They'd all look nice from the outside with bright colors and loud "fast heart rate" techno music blasting out. But once inside, I'd find all the styles were different than I was accustomed to. Everything was so small, and the Large in China was about the size of a Small in the US. One Chinese friend suggested it is because the western race evolved with more money, and therefore got more nutrition to grow taller.
The food was interesting. Chinese food in China is nothing like the Chinese food I've had in the US. I certainly didn't go hungry, but at times I was really craving something other than Chinese food. The food was just so different than what I'm used to, it seemed like a chore to eat rather than a second-nature and relaxing time. For the Chinese, a meal is a very big deal. It would all begin by entering the room in order of rank. The most important person, which would usually be me, would enter first. Then, the most important person would sit facing the door. There'd be some strange process of pouring hot water into your soup bowl, dipping your chop sticks in to clean them, then pouring the hot water into a "garbage" bowl. The napkin wouldn't be placed on your lap, but rather part of it set under the plate or bowl, with the rest hanging down the side of the table. Sometimes there were no napkins, but rather a small bag of tissues which the host would dispense to the guests as needed.
The host would order an abundance of dishes - way more than needed - so as to not make you feel you didn't eat enough. If you ate all you were served, the host would feel they didn't provide enough, and they would feel ashamed. The dishes would usually have bones still in the meat, and some Szechuan dishes were incredibly hot. I had taste of cow stomach but I didn't care for the texture. I didn't eat anything too crazy. I ate a "swallows nest" which was quite good. It is the only edible birds nest, prepared by soaking it for a long time, and then put into a mango type fruit with some honey. What they'd call "western" food was pretty much anything other than Chinese food. This included Italian, French, Indian, etc.
I traveled around mainland China with a combination of taxi, private car, bus, train, and airplane. The taxi's were very inexpensive - about $10 for a 40 minute drive. Most of the time, suppliers would arrange a driver to pick us up and take us around. The suppliers would sometimes pay for our hotel rooms, our lunch, our dinner, and sometimes even our breakfast. Most suppliers, generally the ones I'd done lots of business with, were very gracious in "wining and dining".
We took one 4 hour bus ride from Shanghai to Ningbo. On this rainy day, I saw some country-side consisting of shacks, rice plantations, and billboards. I was the only white person on the bus full of Chinese people. Oddly, they played a children's Disney movie on the big screen up front. When they played a Chinese movie and cranked up the volume, I was lucky to have my iPod and BOSE noise canceling headphones.
We flew from Guangzhou to Ningbo. But we missed the flight because from a combination of our own tardiness and a group of crazy Chinese tourists in front of us having trouble checking their oversized baggage. So unfortunately I had to buy first class tickets on the next flight out in a few hours. But it was OK. We ate a nice meal at the ultra modern airport, and relaxed in the first class lounge for a while.
On the whole two week trip, I only saw the sun once, barely through the haze. The pollution was very bad, and every day was a white sky with no shadows.
Meeting with the factories was very rewarding. I'd been doing business with some for over 3 years, and it was great to meet them. Some were much larger than I'd imagined. Most spoke some english, and some spoke no english at all. I only met one with exceptional english, actually with a British accent. It was funny seeing a Chinese man speaking with a British accent. Other times, I'd swear the Chinese were speaking to me just like Borat would. Without the interpreter to help translate in meetings, it would have been bad. I met some new factories which I haven't done business with yet. And I worked out some details for new developments with current factories. I saw some new LED products too.
Coming back to sunny California was great. I ate a nice breakfast at the Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco, enjoyed the amazing blue sky, green mountains, and t-shirt weather. The time change sure has my sleep schedule messed up though. And I got sick from the airplane ride back. Perhaps next time it would be worth it to fly in business class.
Upon returning, I received a DHL package with this wonderful gift from one supplier:
E-mail from Mr. Chan, the Interpreter
Actually I like the design of your camera better. It's so impressive that I just want to have one myself. I bought the Sony simply I feel that it has richer colors in the camera. It was a hard decision to make and I went back and forth among Sony, Cannon and Nikon's stores for a few times.
Here are some comments for your website of this China Venture.
- I am not sure if you sent the link of your website to the suppliers or not. If not, I would suggest you share it with your friend rather than the suppliers. You have uploaded all the photos you took, including new products, which some suppliers may not be happy to see them duplicated by their competitors. You were allowing you to take the pictures simply because you are their buyer, but not competitors.
- I could not understand why people from western world still know so little about China. There is so much information from internet, magazine, TV, Movies etc. You may even get some pictures from google or google earth as I searched Manhattan before. Maybe people are reluctant or too lazy to see what the China is?!
- Waiter/waitress always a fixed salary in restaurant, which they can use to make a living. I heard that US waiter/waitress make little money with their salary so they have to rely on tips. The other point may be that Chinese people are really concerned their face: they don't want to look bad by tipping little, so they even don't tip.
- Yes, our subways are modern and clean, but not our roads or streets. Some streets in GZ/SZ have quite a lot scrap, but we rarely see any in HK streets. People have to be better educated and our government should work harder to make the general public care more abouth their environment.
- Food is not a big deal as you thought. We basically have fast food everyday, to save some time and trouble. At lunch, I just ordered some simple rice with meat and vegetable and I do believe many people do the same. We have such a big meal like you had only in some festivals or gatherings among closed friends and relatives. It's also our customs to make the guests feel at home and respect so you may find that some people will put some food in your bowl to encourage you to eat more. Regarding the garbage bowl, I think it only exists in South China, like Guangzhou, Shenzhen (Cantonese restaurant) and Hong Kong.
- We are paying like $0.35/km for taxi and $0.50/km after it runs more than 30kms in Guangzhou. Each city may change slightly.
- Yes, the tourists did waste us a lot of time. But remember that we were 10mins later to the airport than required and spend some time waiting for security inspection and running like 400 meters in such a big international airport in Guangzhou (it's new one, which was launched in August, 2005), with a combination of all these problems, we missed our flight.
- I think you can see more sunshine day if you are not coming to China at this time of year because of climate here. Of course, our sky is in no comparison with yours because there are so many industries here.
- I also agreed that Johnson speaks best English in all the suppliers we met. Frankly speaking, I am really surprised when he start speaking English, it was much better than expected. What surprised me most is not his British accent (we were taught British English when we were in school), but a middle aged owner, usually they didn't have good education in university, can speak fluent English. I would imagine that he has been abroad before, or at least used to work a foreign company which requires daily communication in English. I am also interested in your comments to my English. I want some straightforward comments, instead of expressing in an indirect way if I didn't do well, for future improvements.
- Don Leo is a smart guy and he knows exactly how to make his customers happy! Good to work with them!
- Finally and sincerely, I am really pleasant of meeting you. We didn't have much word at the first few days but we got more compatible as time went by. To me it's unimaginable to you are running your business on your own at such a young age, what's more amazing is that you are doing a good job at what you are doing. I would have to say I did underestimate you earlier, but with the communications we made (you are so business minded that you have some sharp ideas which are beyond my expectation. The point is that they are so great.), I realized that it was a big mistake and you do deserve what you have.
PS. You may post my comments online so your friends or someone else can see opinions from a native Chinese. Also can I forward this website to someone else to use as my reference?
Are you planning a trip to China? Be sure to contact my translator Wesley Chan, if you need translation or guide services.