Monthly Archives: February 2008

One Night in Taipei: Business Entertainment, Chinese Style

For those unsuspecting businesspersons heading to Taiwan or China from the West, you need to know what you’re in for once the day’s work is done and your hosts take you out for a night of fun.

First of all, some of your suppliers will understand that for most Westerners, business entertainment centers around providing your guests with a fine meal at a nice restaurant. One or two glasses of wine or a beer or two may be consumed. Conversation will be largely centered on matters not related to business. If your hosts understand this, then you can expect to go to a nice Western or Chinese style restaurant and enjoy a few quiet drinks. You’ll discuss a bit more business than you would back home–the Chinese can’t escape their own culture, which teaches them that a business deal is not finalized until you’ve socialized and patted each other on the back a few times. However, you’ll be safely back in your hotel at 10pm, in time to call your spouse and kids back home if they are haven’t already left for school or work.

If your hosts don’t understand that most Westerners prefer this sort of evening–I have had clients who will get back to the hotel, change into party attire, and head out to drink and have fun until the wee hours, but most are content to eat and get back to the hotel–well, then you’re very likely in for a wild evening. You can of course request an evening of entertainment, local style, if you prefer this. Just say “I’m here to do business, and to have fun. Let’s do what you normally do for fun on a night out on the town.”

If you are entertained local-style, here’s what will probably happen:

7 to 10pm-The Dinner

Still dressed in business attire, the factory boss will drive you in his BMW or Benz to his favorite eatery. Key managers will be invited, some of whom will likely be female. Friends who owners of other factories will be called out to put on a good show and to keep things lively. The dinner will start quietly, but soon the beer and whiskey will start to flow and predictably, the conversation will become more free-ranging as inhibitions drop. The noise volume will rise steadily until it’s at a low roar.

You will often find that as people are eating their fill and knocking back drinks, the boss will open up of his own accord. If he puts his arm around your shoulder and starts talking, listen carefully. He’s about to tell you what he really thinks about the business you are discussing, something he won’t do during the daytime when you’re at the office.

You are in danger of becoming very drunk at this point because (a) you probably don’t normally drink more than one or two servings of alcohol at a dinner (b) you’re likely to be jet-lagged and (c) everyone at the table will want to drink with you. In Taiwan and China, you don’t nurse a drink. You drain your glass as soon as it is filled and another person’s glass is raised to indicate that he wants to drink with you. Thank heavens beer and whiskey glasses in Taiwan and China are designed to accommodate local drinking culture: they are small enough that you can do a shot without feeling sick.

One way to preserve your liver and at least a semblance of sobriety is to insist that where you come from, whiskey is always taken with Coca-Cola, and order a couple of cans right away. That way, if ten or twelve people each want to drink two or three glasses with you (the women most likely will not drink), you’ll survive the evening by diluting the whiskey with Coke.

If you don’t drink, just explain politely and firmly that you don’t drink, but that they are welcome to proceed as they normally would. You’ll be happy with a Coke or some tea. The boss will likely not drink, though he will be in a good mood, and that will help you when it comes time to talk business.

As people get happier and happier, they will become touchy. Not sensitive, but tactile. They’ll put their arms around you, hold your hands, rub your leg, all sorts of things. Men in Taiwan and China are generally quite repressed and only let loose when they are drinking in the company of friends.

Another important point: In Taiwan and China, deals are not really finalized–indeed, the real issues are often not even discussed–until you’ve been out to dinner and had some drinks. The best thing you can do is to relax, get into the spirit of things, tell some jokes, drink with your group, but hold on to your faculties as best you can so that when either your or the boss brings up the real issues, you are able to function.

Negotiation Tip: If you’re trying to get the boss to agree to a lower cost or make some other concession, hit him up between drink #4 and drink #6. If you try him before then, he won’t yet be in the “Mr. Generous” personae that Chinese businessmen love to adopt. If you try him after he’s had six drinks, he’ll be too drunk to remember what he promised.

Once everyone is stuffed, and most of the party is completed soused, the female managers will be dismissed. If you are willing to continue with the evening at this point, you are now in for one of the wildest evenings of your life.

10:30pm to After Midnight: The Entertainment

Now, dear reader, I must confess to a bit of hesitation on my part. I’ve got the next part written, but I am not sure if I’ll post it in its current form, which pulls no punches.

It is not that I’m ashamed of anything I’ve done, but I’m not sure if it is a good idea to publish the next part without a bit of whitewash. Give me a few days to think about it, and I’ll post Part Deux either unvarnished, or a bit more sanitized.

What do you think? Comments welcome.

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US Consumer Concerns About Chinese Food Safety

This is too juicy to pass up writing about. Trader Joe’s, a very successful retail food chain based in California, has pulled all Chinese-made food products from its shelves.

Click here for a brief news item from AFP: US store chain cuts sales of food from China

From the article:

US grocery chain Trader Joe’s said Monday it would stop selling food imported from China due to customers’ concerns about the products’ safety.

“Our customers have voiced concerns about products from this region and we have listened,” Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki said in a statement.

“All single ingredient food items sourced from mainland China sre scheduled to be out of our stores by April 1,” she said.

What this means is that (1) if an ingredient for a food product is sourced from China, that food product may still be sold in Trader Joe’s and (2) Trader Joe’s may eventually sell foods that are made entirely in China sometime in the future.

This is the very definition of “growing pains,” folks. The same sort of process occurred in Taiwan, thirty or forty years ago. Here’s how it works:

Stage One: A developing country offers competitive advantages in labor costs and manufacturing speed. Many first world countries switch their manufacturing to this country.

Stage Two: The developing country’s factory owners achieve some success, and then through a combination of penny-pinching greed, lack of foresight and vision, and general lack of understanding of what the foreign market demands, start sending product with quality problems. In the case of products like foods, toys, and tires, this is downright dangerous. Consumers in the first world country react, the media plays up the problems, and the flow of orders starts to dry up as buyers look elsewhere, maybe paying a bit more.

Stage Three: The government of the developing country realizes that if something isn’t done to reign in these factory bosses, the country’s export manufacturing business is going to go to hell in a handbasket. They clamp down on dangerous practices, enforcing compliance with safety regulations.

Stage Four: The developing country recovers its export market, and continues to develop its technology and safety measures.

The interesting question here is, with enforcement in China so haphazard and hit-and-miss, will China successfully get through Stage Three to Stage Four? Several efforts have already been made to crack down on abusers, but in China, where the emperor is far away, the subjects often do what they want.

Bottom Line: If you are sourcing your products from China, you’d damned well better be on the ground, or hire someone trustworthy to be on the ground, watching your suppliers like a hawk. There are many fantastic suppliers in China, but many are still learning how to deal with your standards.

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Filed under Business, China, Sourcing

Happy Year of the Rat!

鼠年行大運!

From the wikipedia entry on Chinese New Year:

First day of the new year

The first day is for the welcoming of the deities of the heavens and earth.

Most importantly, the first day of Chinese New Year is a time when families visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended family, usually their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.

Indeed, my extended family members are all out doing their religious duty. They will repair to our home later this evening for an American meal I have prepared for them: Potato and bacon pie; lamb in mustard sauce, glazed carrots, salad, chicken corn soup, and apple pie. That sort of meal is decidedly not traditional, but such is the life of a multi-cultural family.

We had our traditional meal last night, on Chu Xi (New Year’s Eve), and I ate my lucky chicken, fish, soup, and sticky rice cake. We handed out red envelopes full of cash to the kids and to my father-in-law, and performed the traditional ancestral remembrances.

Here’s an article on what makes the Year of the Rat special:  It’s the Year of the Rat

Best Wishes for a wonderful new year!


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Culture Shock: “Look at the foreigner!”

For those of you wondering what it might be like for an American to live in Taiwan, here’s a snapshot of a typical day:

After conducting a morning training seminar, I repaired to the wedding reception of a close friend. The reception was attended by nearly 400 people, and I was the only non-Taiwanese person in the banquet room. The groom is a professional educator and a graduate of both the #1 high school and the #1 university in Taiwan. His wife works for Cathay Life Insurance. So the crowd, comprised of educators and business people, was well-heeled and well-educated. I felt completely at home, not at all like a foreigner, because nobody treated me like a foreigner. I love to meet people like that, who view me as a person rather than an exotic breed of non-Taiwanese, and who don’t care enough about my nationality to make it an issue.

After the reception, I went to an afternoon meeting that ran until about 5pm. After 45 minutes on the subway, I got off and started walking toward home. Waiting at a stoplight, I heard a man standing behind me say, in Mandarin “The foreigner is going to cross the road,” followed by a woman’s response that was too soft to make out.

I was indeed planning to cross the road, but that was hardly worth commenting on, except for the fact that I am a tall white person in a land of people who don’t look much like me.

I turned to look at this pair and saw an older man, about 60, with a woman in her 20s. They were about two feet away from me.

The man made another comment: “Now he is looking right at you!”

I nodded my head and said, in Mandarin, “He can understand what you are saying.”

The woman then said. “I told you he could understand Mandarin.” I have no idea how she knew I could understand Mandarin, as I don’t wear a t-shirt proclaiming such, and most people who use the third person to discuss a foreigner standing directly in front of them, as if the foreigner is some kind of zoo animal, typically assume that the vagaries of the Mandarin language are beyond the comprehension of the descendants of hairy barbarians.

At this point, I just shook my head, turned back around, and waited for the light to change. They continued to discuss me in the third person, apparently still unable to grasp the concept that I fully understood what they were saying or, more likely, not caring. As much as I enjoy my relationships with well-educated, open-minded Taiwanese people, these sorts of encounters are discouraging. It is quite strange and discomfiting to be made out to be something not quite human by narrow-minded dolts.

Living in Taiwan, this sort of thing happens to me on a nearly daily basis. There is an incident or two per week on the MRT, where I either have to ask people to stop discussing me while I am standing next to them, or I have to change seats to get away from a group of idiots. When I go to China, it is the same, or worse. It actually happened again at the grocery store later today, when I caught a family by surprise, pushing my cart down the aisle they were parked in the middle of. I guess they haven’t seen too many foreigners, because there was a big, loud discussion about various aspects of my foreignness (including the very astute observation that “foreigners also go shopping at Carrefour!”) , and about foreigners in general, even after I had called across the central aisle to my wife, in Mandarin.

What can one do in such situations? Not much, actually. You aren’t going to be able to educate people like that, who are so lacking in any sort of understanding of the larger world that they simply couldn’t wrap their brains around the idea that I am actually just another human, rather than a bloody foreigner. At times like these, you remind yourself that if you lived in the US somewhere, you’d be just another American, which would be nice, but you wouldn’t get to deal with being an outsider, or a zoo monkey, all of the time. Comforting but boring in the end.

Sometimes living in Taiwan is an exercise in dealing with contrasts that can challenge the sanity of even the most easy-going person, but it is that challenge that makes life interesting.

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