I had the opportunity to go to China to speak at a beauty trade fair and at a business school. It was my fifth trip to the country, after visits in 2002, 2012, 2014 and 2015.
The first stop was Guangzhou, to present at PCHi, the Personal Care and Homecare Ingredients trade fair. For the entire trip, I was indulged with VIP treatment, from my arrival in Guangzhou to my departure from China one week later.
Since my last visit in autumn 2015, three and a half years ago, one of the most visible differences was the number of new, shiny clean cars on the road, and fewer scooters. On my very first trip to China in 2002, I saw hoards of bicycles on the streets of Shanghai and Beijing. In 2015 there were quite a few scooters but now there are hardly any, and the remaining ones are mostly electric.
The cars are a mix of Western (Range Rover, Audi, Buick), Japanese (Honda) and Chinese (Trumpchi, Build Your Dream). The government changes emissions regulations every few years and is now pushing electric cars, so most cars are new. They are also kept spotlessly clean, partly with the help of rain which rinses them off and keeps the dust down.
There is something else zooming around: connectivity and data. The 4G connection was fast but access to platforms we take for granted, like Google and DropBox, is restricted. Generally if I used my roaming 4G data (£6 per day, for 500Mb) I could use my emails on the Google server, but syncing with DropBox would blow out my allowance. The hotel wifi in Guangzhou synced up my DropBox, but the hotel in Shenzhen didn’t. All of my Microsoft/Office-based emails and tools worked fine on the hotel wifi.
I didn’t see anyone without a smartphone, and there seemed to be more Androids than iPhones compared to the UK — not that there was a shortage of iPhones. Data plans are unlimited, and people on the TikTok video platform play the role of “YouTubers” in the West. In China, TikTok seems more influential than (restricted) Instagram. With such a huge population, it’s relatively easy for a TikTok video to get 100,000 views and start a new trend.
For each prohibited app or platform, China has its equivalent: Baidu instead of Google and TaoBao rather than Amazon. You can find anything on TaoBao and there’s quick delivery. Just like in the UK or in the US, people might receive multiple deliveries per week of their online shopping, from clothes to household goods and beauty supplies.
And much more than an equivalent to Facebook or WhatsApp is WeChat. This app from Shenzhen-based Tencent, with its bright green icon, combines messaging and a Facebook-type feed (called “Moments”) with a payment platform, ecommerce, company pages and “Mini Programs”. Many Chinese companies opt for a WeChat presence rather than a website on their own domain.
When you drive into a car park, a camera recognises your number plate. On the way out, you scan one of the QR codes posted all around the car park and payment is taken from your WeChat account. In the north, orange-branded, Hangzhou-based Alipay (part of the Alibaba Group) is more prevalent. Some car parks read your plate and simply take payment directly.
Which brings up the question of crime: what if someone steals your car…and gets free parking with it through the number plate recognition? In fact, there is very little crime. People hardly use cash at all — it’s practically extinct — so there aren’t any yuan to steal. Taxis have cameras recording inside and out to ensure passenger safety. Police check for drunk driving, with penalties ranging from fines, license suspension and even imprisonment depending on the blood alcohol level.
The general quality of life is high: everyone has a smartphone, a new car, tablets, laptops. The new oxygen is unlimited data and smartphone battery life. There are banks of phone chargers in every cafe, restaurant and hotel. You scan the QR code and pay about £1 to rent the charger, after paying a £10 deposit.
A few weeks before I left, my dear friend Kate put me in touch with Philip Mo, a Chinese entrepreneur who was in her Creative Industries course at Syracuse University London. He’s from Guangzhou and is launching his gin bar, Evening Standard, there in April. He showed me around the city, stopping at his business partner’s Italian bar (with historic liquor bottles personally transported from Switzerland, where another of the speakeasy-style bar partners is from), quaint and picturesque Ershadao Island (which feels very much like Shanghai’s French Concession area), and the TIT Creative Industry Zone, where WeChat has its headquarters. That creative zone has the highest commercial rents anywhere in Guangzhou.
Guangzhou has more than 2,000 years of history and has always been one of China’s most important ports. Today it is a centre of industry and has a population of about 15 million.
Personal Care and Homecare Ingredients (PCHi) trade fair
In the Frontier area of the PCHi trade fair, I tried out an Oculus Rift headset to virtually tour a factory, and could really see the appeal of VR: it’s immersive, interactive and with just a little suspension of disbelief, feels real.
Next to the VR headsets was a setup to track eye movement and brain waves in response to scents and imagery. Gynis Chong from Symrise in Singapore told me that the normal test would last for twenty minutes rather than five, and that Chinese subjects usually have a very short attention span. They also test Indonesian consumers, who are more patient. It made me think of our summer in Bali, where patience certainly helped us navigate our days.
I presented a talk comparing the brand stories, products and positioning of Chinese and Western beauty brands: Pechoin, KANS, Herborist, Kiehls, Olay and Lancôme. In skincare, like in many sectors, China has its own strong national brands which aren’t necessarily exported. However, over the past few years, some of the brands are starting to grow internationally. On the flip side, Western beauty brands have a longer track record of significant presence in China.
In general, the awareness and history of consumer-facing branding, marketing, advertising and product development are less mature in China, and thus look less refined to a Western eye. There is a lot of opportunity in those areas!
On the way back from the trade fair to my hotel, I passed a small shop full of homeware goods like brooms and plastic buckets. It was startling to realise that our usual rueful comment, “That stuff is probably all made in China,” must be assumed here, and if anyone does stop to think about it, may find it a source of pride. The shops here overflowing with things made in China are selling their own nationally-made products.
The hotel helped me buy a ticket for the high-speed train from Guangzhou to Shenzhen, a process which seemed less straightforward for foreigners. The ticket had my name and nationality printed on it. I don’t think that’s true for Chinese nationals, who can simply purchase tickets through an app.
I had arrived on a Tuesday evening, gave the talk at PCHi on Wednesday, and Philip showed me around on Thursday morning and early afternoon. Then it was time to take a taxi from the hotel to the train station.
The station was divided into two sides, with separate security checks. The departure board, all in Chinese of course, was a little too far away for my slightly blurry long-distance vision to differentiate the two trains which left at 16:47. And the destination didn’t match with the characters for Shenzhen because, as I later figured out, that wasn’t the final destination — Hong Kong was. Eventually I realised that the train number noted on the ticket was also shown on the departure board. I found the right platform and waited for the gates to open for hundreds of people with suitcases to find their carriages in a mad, 10-minute rush.
A former design intern of ours, Darren Cheng Yao, lives in Shenzhen and has his own design studio there now. He’s originally from Xi’an. His old schoolmate Eric is from Chengdu. Like at least three quarters of the metropolis’s 12.5 million population, their families arrived after Shenzhen officially became a city in 1979, and China’s first Special Economic Zone in 1980.
Some of the original Shenzhen residents who were farmers and fishermen struck gold with the government compensation money given to them to develop the land where they were living. They’re now millionaires and can spend all day playing Mahjong, or they have already frittered away their new riches. But they can’t move elsewhere, because then they’d lose the rights they have to the income from the land. I’m not sure of the technicalities of this, since most land in China is government-owned. I think it’s the Shenzhen situation which an exception.
Property prices have increased twentyfold in a decade. A 3-bedroom flat which cost £100,000 can now be sold for £2m.
Darren greeted me at the train station and (after paying for parking using the QR code and his WeChat account) drove me to the hotel. Not sure if it was a change in the weather or the geography, but Shenzhen felt warmer and more tropical than Guangzhou. It’s also greener and closer to the water, which helps with the air quality.
There’s probably invisible poverty — factory workers who are not driving and walking around during the day — but in the cities, it seems like everyone is well off. The basic salary, for a street sweeper, food delivery driver or even a graphic designer, is about 10,000 RMB per month, equivalent to £1,100 or $1,500.
Any type of government employee, including staff in the state-run education sector, earns particularly well and can afford to send their children to private universities, and to travel the world. The one-child policy was only relaxed in 2014, so most children are still part of the doted-upon 4-2-1 category: four grandparents, two parents, one child.
Eric has a younger sister. When she was born, his family had to pay a fine of about £20,000, which was equivalent to five years of an average salary.
It seems like every adult has at least one car. That means lots of slow-moving traffic. Like in most cities around the world, the road infrastructure just doesn’t support the sheer number of vehicles out there.
Many cars, few scooters, and many shared bicycles. There have been various bicycle sharing schemes. One of the early ones, Ofo, took users’ deposits and refused to refund them. There is an oversupply of these shared bicycles, making for some colourful photos of thousands of unused and dumped bicycles. The deposits are now regulated better and people do continue to use the bicycles widely. Each bicycle is GPS-tagged and users can report any damage. They can be left more or less anywhere.
The general vibe of Shenzhen feels closer to Hong Kong: more international, more stylish, more English spoken. English has been taught in primary schools since the 1980s, but the general level of conversational English is still low.
As far as the Chinese language goes, it’s more usual to hear Mandarin because most people in Shenzhen are not originally from the Guangdong province, where Cantonese is spoken (at home, not school).
There’s an ongoing rivalry with Hong Kong in terms of attracting business, and developing as a city. The cost of living and property is higher in Hong Kong than in Shenzhen, and in turn Shenzhen is much more expensive than Guangdong, Zhongshan and most other cities in China.
The ubiquitous QR code appears at cafes and restaurants. Scanning it opens a WeChat Mini Program with the menu. You order and pay on your phone and then a real, live human delivers it to your table. There’s no need to queue at a till, and there are fewer staff. Instead they might be out earning good money making food deliveries to people’s homes, which is becoming increasingly popular.
Twenty-five years ago, Artron started as a small printer with eight employees, specialising in art books and auction catalogues. Over the years, they began digitising the books and catalogues page by page, and artwork itself, so anything could be printed on demand.
In 2015, with funding from the Shenzhen city government, Artron opened a five-story, blue-tiled edifice to serve as an exhibition centre, meeting place, and facility to store one set of hard drives holding over 700,000 publications plus individual artworks. Two more sets of hard drive backups live elsewhere. Some of the digitised books are from private collections and are not available to the public without the owner’s permission.
The books on display are mostly for show and can all be purchased, with a couple of exceptions like a map of China from 1654 which is essentially priceless. There is a lifetime family membership available for about £30,000, which gives access to the fifth floor library, exhibition space and meeting rooms.
The Artron Art Centre is one example of how each city government invests in local development, in a rivalry with all the other Chinese cities. There is also government funding available for entrepreneurial ventures, as long as they benefit communities as well as the owner and staff.
Yellow Pencil Team
Darren’s design studio called Yellow Pencil Team is located in a residential area, in a villa set on a canal which is reminiscent of Suzhou, the “Venice of the East”. The team is twenty-strong including two illustrators and not counting the menagerie: dogs Adobe, Luca and Coco; cats, kittens, fish and an African tortoise.
Salary levels are less than half of London ones, and the rent is a small fraction of ours. The area is so safe that they leave the door unlocked at night.
Darren offers ten of his designers a place to live: two shared apartments. He said that it’s hard to find good, motivated employees and that the generational dynamics change every five years. So it’s not Gen Y (Millennials), Gen Z etc, but ’90-’95 born, ’95-’00 et cetera. It’s the employer who has to woo the employee. This young generation has more than enough money and their families have always encouraged them to do what makes them happy, rather than earning a living any way they can.
Peking University HSBC Business School (PHBS)
Another impressive new structure, this one even larger than Artron, is the Peking University HSBC Business School (PHBS) in Shenzhen’s University Town area. Half of the money for the building was provided by the Shenzhen government and half by HSBC, and eventually it will be fully owned by the Shenzhen government.
PHBS offers an MBA and an Executive MBA as well as Masters, PhDs and short courses for executives. In October 2018 in London, I had presented a talk, “Digital Marketing in Luxury”, to visiting EMBA students and at that time was offered an open invitation to speak at PHBS in Shenzhen.
My two-hour talk to a group of about 100 students and outside visitors was on “How to Build a Brand”, using the Button & Wilde case study from Leidar as a step-by-step example. The students asked pertinent and insightful questions and there was a nice write-up afterwards in The Nanyan Observer. The school even gave me a wonderful personalised plaque as a memento of the talk.
Eric, his wife, Darren and I went for a Sichuan hot pot after the PHBS talk, and finished around 1am.
The actual morning part of Saturday morning came around quickly. Darren had ordered a Didi car, the Chinese answer to Uber, for 10am and I expected to arrive in Zhongshan by noon. Instead, after sitting in gridlocked traffic for hours on Weiyuan Island just before the bridge to Zhongshan, I got to my friend Harry’s at 2:30pm. There is currently a second bridge being built close to that one in an attempt to relieve the traffic. I don’t think that even tripling the capacity would have much effect.
Zhongshan has over 3 million inhabitants, markedly fewer than Guangzhou’s 15 million and Shenzhen’s 12.5 million. Streets are wide and there’s a good amount of greenery. At the complex where Harry and his wife Yvonne live, 12-story-high, sand-colour buildings cluster around a central green walkway planted with palm trees.
Harry offered me a quick lunch of homemade dumplings, much appreciated after the long hours stuck in the car. That Saturday and Sunday, he showed me around villages near Zhongshan, and southeast down the coast to Zhuhai. People drive in slow-motion chaos, with little aggression and very few collisions. During my week in China I saw just one fender-bender.
Before Zhuhai, we stopped in an area full of clothing shops. Harry enthused about the low prices and good quality. Whether the badly-spelled brand names were real or not did not concern him. In the UK, if people want very low priced clothing, they would turn to Primark, H&M, or supermarket brands like F&F. The only place I could think of where a t-shirt saying “Weird but Adofe” may be available would be a street market. From my days in Italy I remember street markets selling inexpensive clothing with random English phrases.
After this shopping stop, as I observed people more closely it occurred to me that these knock-offs and completely unbranded clothes are not looked down upon as fakes; rather, they are the norm for many of the people I saw. It would be super interesting to compare which brands, or non-brands, are worn by people of various socio-economic levels in the West and in China.
Working in branding and fashion, I’m sure that I have a skewed perspective and am hyper aware of brands and the messages we convey with our choice of clothing. It seemed like wearing something that was almost a real brand was enough to gain some status, like rubbing shoulders with a celebrity. Brand perception must be so different in a country like China, where the concept of intellectual property is notoriously unappreciated and overlooked. Of course people buy and show off fakes in the West, but I suspect that consumers’ relationships to brands and authenticity differ markedly between China and the West.
We made our way down the coast and found parking. In Zhuhai is a picturesque lighthouse where we found a couple practicing ballroom dancing, making for a slightly surreal and incongruent scene. Nearby is the recently-completed longest sea bridge in the world, connecting Hong Kong to Macau and Zhuhai. People need a special permit to use it.
Being under the control of the Chinese government like this is the normal way of life for Chinese citizens. Some get around restrictions, for example by using VPNs (virtual private networks) to access Facebook and the like. But as Harry explained, the government looks after them and they’d rather live with some constraints than have more freedom and less state support. (My husband later pointed out to me that people could have personal liberty and government support.)
I didn’t hear about the Black-Mirror-style social credit system until I returned to the UK, but it verifies the impression I had that as long as people behave well, the government will make their lives easy. The reverse must be true but I didn’t witness it.
The general attitude toward the government (shared with me, at least) is one of gratefulness rather than repression. Like in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, in Zhongshan the quality of life I saw was high, comparable to any Western city. The costs for eighty percent of all healthcare, which encompasses Western and traditional Chinese medicine, are covered by the state. There is low personal income tax. Funding is readily available for new initiatives, with an emphasis on helping people and business — and if the pilot of the initiative happens to make substantial personal earnings while also benefitting the city and community, that’s fine.
Philip, Darren, Eric and Harry all knew their numbers inside out, like present and past rental and buying prices, for retail and residential property in every area. They backed up every anecdote with facts like population size and the years when certain policies changed.
I enjoyed many delicious meals with Harry and Yvonne, at restaurants and at their home. When eating out, it’s usual to first rinse all the dishes (teacup, chopsticks, bowl, plate) with tea. It’s a way to avoid getting stomach bugs from dirty dishes.
I also learned that everything is eaten from the bowl only, and the plate is intended as a mini rubbish area for things like bones or the bamboo leaves which wrap glutinous rice. Since my first trip to China in 2002, I have been aware that even in formal settings, everyone helps themselves to dishes with their own chopsticks, straight from the serving plates into their mouths. I can’t help myself from touching my food down to my plate momentarily before eating it, to feel polite in my own culture.
Long Tau Wan龙头环
My first visit to my great-grandfather Joe Shoong’s ancestral village on the outskirts of Zhongshan, Long Tau Wan, was with my brother in November 2015 (his write-up is here and the back story is here). Entirely blurry through my streaming tears, the visit lasted about two hours and turned out to be a key inspiration for me to research and write Sixteen Stories.
Of course, my brother and I knew that the maternal side of our family, in America for generations, was originally from China. We didn’t imagine that there was anything left to see of our ancestors’ homes there — much less a village of about 3,000 inhabitants, a third of whom share the surname Zhou 周. Joe Shoong’s original name was surname Zhou, given name Song.
The first visit to Long Tau Wan was the culmination of researching Joe Shoong at the end of 2014, meeting distant Zhou cousins in California through an online genealogy board, and then being invited to visit Zhongshan in the autumn of 2015.
I had seen photos of the school bearing Joe Shoong’s name which opened in 1928 thanks to his financial support. When my brother and I arrived in the village, complete with an entourage of officials, an interpreter and even a TV crew, the tsunami of emotion broke when I finally saw students from the school, playing during a break and curiously crowding around us.
A cousin wrote to me recently about how she could feel the presence of her grandfather (my great-great-grandfather in a different family branch) when she returned to his ancestral village in Taishan County, about two hours away from Long Tau Wan. She was also overwhelmed with unspeakable emotions, feeling that she had finally been welcomed home.
Chinese emigrants believed that they had to return to their homeland for their souls to be at rest. If they died somewhere away from their home village, their descendants or compatriots would send their bones back home. I have written about this phenomenon in Sixteen Stories in the chapter about Joe Shoong (surname Zhou 周, given name Song 崧) set in 1895 in Long Tau Wan.
The Chinese Six Companies, in particular the Kong Chow Company which serves emigrants from the Pearl River Delta, co-ordinates and supports the voyagers on their journeys to America, finding work there and sending back remittances. When the time comes, the Chinese Six Companies will even dig up emigrants’ bones and send them home to their final resting place, so they can be at peace and worshipped properly by their ancestors. Though they have traveled halfway around the world and back, their lives and souls were always entangled with the earth of Canton, entwined and inextricable.
As soon as they arrive in America, many people arrange for their bones to be returned home. That’s what Uncle has done. Other exhumations are covered by a collection of ten-dollar donations from people who have found success and have returned to China. Song has heard of representatives of the Chinese Six Companies making their way all the way across America to find graves of miners, railroad workers, factory workers and merchants, digging up the bones, and transporting them back to China through Hong Kong and Macau on a solemn journey which was the reverse of the hopeful one the emigrants had taken sometimes only a few years earlier. At least twenty thousand pounds of bones have been shipped back to China.
At their final resting place, these souls can finally be worshipped each April during the Qing Ming Festival. The name, meaning “bright and clear day,” usually rings true, and Song enjoys visiting his ancestors’ graves to clean them and pay his tributes. It’s one of the most important festivals of the year. At the Zhou family temple, he’ll light three sticks of incense for each ancestor, and will bow three times to honor each one. New red vertical banners with poems will adorn each side of the massive family temple doors: it’s like the ancestors’ new year.
This second visit to Long Tau Wan wasn’t to do any specific further research, and I had confirmed in the meantime that my other three Chinese great-grandparents were born in California so there wasn’t any ground to cover for them. My great-grandparents’ generation is the cut-off point for my book to avoid getting entrenched too many centuries in the past.
I simply wanted to repeat the first visit, going back to the same places in the village — the school, the family temple and Joe Shoong’s house — with more time at hand and hopefully with clearer vision. Harry had kindly arranged the visit with the school and had contacted officials from Shaxi, the larger town nearby which governs Long Tau Wan, so they could accompany us. Also joining in was a local historian who Harry called “Autumn Auntie”.
Almost an exact replay of our first visit, we had trouble finding the turnoff to Long Tau Wan from the main road and asked a man on a scooter for directions. Once we reached the school after a few turns down narrow lanes, the first thing I noticed was the missing dragon slide. My brother and I had taken special note of the slide because among Joe Shoong’s many enduring philanthropic projects is the Dragon Slide at Fairyland in Oakland, California.
The original primary school building from 1928 is long gone and is now a pink-and-white-tiled, three-story structure welcoming around 600 pupils. When we arrived, all of the students were outside doing their daily exercises with a hint of military formation and precision.
We had a full tour of the school and I had the opportunity to tell a sixth-grade English class about Joe Shoong. They seemed to have a rudimentary grasp of what I was saying and Harry jumped in to interpret in Mandarin.
The next stop was the Zhou family temple. There were a couple of dozen Zhous who had been preparing food all morning and the colourful spread, covered in cling film, waited for us on two large round tables. But first I paid my respects to my ancestors. A woman handed me three sticks of incense for each ancestor and I bowed in their honour, three times each. The first two revered were Joe Shoong and his wife, Rose. Against another wall were three plaques for more honours, and upstairs in a newer section of the temple were ancestral deities to respect.
Our homemade lunch was abundant and delicious. There were a few different types of glutinous rice dim sum, plus fresh oranges, mandarins and bananas.
After our quick meal, we leafed through the Zhou family name books. Joe Shoong is the seventeenth generation tracked in the books, which are kept up to date to include the current generations.
Our final stop in Long Tau Wan was Joe Shoong’s house. My 80-year-old distant cousin, Zhou Nai Wen 周乃文, lives there now. From what I can gather, she’s my second cousin twice removed. Nai Wen remembered our previous visit and was just as joyful and enthusiastic as the first time we met, when she kept slapping and pinching my brother with what seemed like a mix of affection and disbelief. She speaks the local dialect, Long Du.
Nai Wen spends her time mostly in the front room, which now features a new, plumbed-in toilet standing proudly on a pedestal. Its surprising location struck me as evidence that she lives alone. Unmarried, childless, and with no close relatives, she depends on people in the village dropping in and looking after her.
After Nai Wei indicated for me to pay homage at her small domestic shrine, she asked if we wanted to see the rest of the house. It is simple and cavernous, built in light grey bricks with the ceiling about five or six metres high. The middle section is a storage area, and the back room, a rudimentary kitchen. I imagined my great-grandfather there as a boy.
Back in the front room, nearly on our way out, Harry fished out a red envelope from his bag and told me that it’s customary for visiting relatives to give money or candy. I put in 300 RMB (about £35) and gave it to Nai Wen, who received it with a beaming smile.
We said goodbye to Nai Wen and I wondered when I would be back again. As we stepped over the threshold separating the paved front courtyard and the slightly higher street level, Harry explained that houses are set lower to allow the flow in of water, symbolising fortune. His comment made me reflect on the enormous fortune I have had to retrace the steps of my ancestors, creating my own experiences and connections to today’s places and people.
In the car driving back to Harry’s place, he told me stories of his own school days, when he only had one pair of leather shoes and one change of school uniform. If his shoes got wet, which happened for most of summer’s monsoon season, they wouldn’t dry overnight and he would have to wear them damp. It also wasn’t unusual for him to go hungry.
Harry is about my age. It’s hard to imagine such a stark change in circumstances over a few decades. Contrasts of time, places and customs turned out to be the theme of this short trip. The week itself, stuffed with experiences, felt stretched over a longer period.
This write-up of the trip is longer than a chapter in Sixteen Stories! I started researching and writing the book at the beginning of 2017, and have almost finished writing chapter six. The book continues to be an incredible journey of discoveries and family connections. It is giving me a deep appreciation of my ancestors’ adventures, challenges and accomplishments, which parallel those of millions of other immigrants around the world.