A Gweilo In 1980s China Pt. 4

Amazingedit Lantern Festival - China

Written by Tai Pan

First of all happy Chinese New Year to all of you, let the Horse run as fast as it can!



Waking up every morning in the same way as I described in the previous chapter, with the fascinating sunrise and the people reuniting in the big square to practise Tai Chi Chuan, definitely put me in a good mood even thou I was still exhausted from the jetlag. On that day, the people from the China National Textiles Import Export Corporation come to pick me up at 8am. We drove all the way down to Nanking road until we reached Bund; a small road that was built right next to the Huangpu River and that was actually called Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu, which means first road Zhongshan east. We stopped right in front of a very peculiar building that followed an 1800 English colonial style. The people in the car told me then that the amazing building was the headquarter of the National Textiles Import Export Corporation Shanghai branch, and that was the place were I would have had my first ever business negotiation in China.

1980s Shanghai Bund
1980s Shanghai Bund

Since I was only 27 at that time, and some people in Italy did not take me seriously when I had to discuss business because they thought I was too young and inexperienced, I let my beard grow. As soon as I reached the entrance I realised that men with beard were extremely rare in China, and so I became a sort of an attraction for the people from the NTIEC, especially because both my hair and my beard were blond! In addition to this, my blue eyes also had a considerable impression on the Chinese people, who never really met or seen anyone with light coloured eyes before then. I felt like, and, indeed, I was, a real Gweilo.

1980s Shanghai Bund
1980s Shanghai Bund

I am not going to bored you with all the details about the negotiation, however, I will only tell you the most crucial and important aspect of it: the Chinese cultural approach to business, a concept that I never experienced before then; and that made me fall in love with the country and with its people. Indeed, even today, 30 years later, I can still feel the flow of emotions running through my veins whenever I think, or in this case re-live my first business transaction day. What I mean by Chinese cultural approach to business will soon be explained.

Shanghai manifesto 2

The so important negotiation began whilst I was sipping a cup of tea. The person in charge of the knitwear department was sitting right in front of me with other two young officials, who were constantly following every single word the man was saying with a look of admiration, posited at the man’s side. The main supervisor examined the samples I brought from Italy, and after a long discussion, the he agreed to produce the same pieces of clothing as the items I had just showed him. “This is the best price I can do” said the man with an innocent smile. Indeed, the price he proposed was pretty good compared to the usual production price in Italy, so I smiled back, shacked his hand and thanked him for his hospitality.

1930s Shanghai Bund
1930s Shanghai Bund
Today's Shanghai Bund
Today’s Shanghai Bund

It was right on that moment that something that I never experienced before happened: the person in charge transformed the kind smile he had on his face, into a horrified expression, and the other two young officials began to whisper in his ear. I couldn’t really understand what they were saying because they were speaking Chinese, but suddenly the man stopped the two officials with his hand and said something back. The other two immediately burst out laughing so hard that I began to feel a little bit uncomfortable…At that time, on my first negotiation, I did not know that for Chinese people a business transaction is like a sacred rite that has to develop throughout a certain amount of time, and more important, once a person declares a price, even if it’s a good one, it is a must to start bargain it down. In other words, I should have bargain the price down, because the fact that I didn’t do it, meant that the man placed an offer that was too low, and that he could have actually asked for a much higher price. For Chinese it was a matter of pride and reputation, and what I didn’t realise at that time, is that I killed that man’s pride. It was only later on, that I realised that the ‘negotiation rite’ was happening everyday in every single aspect of my life there: in the shops, in the restaurants, in the little street markets…seriously everywhere!

View of Shanghai buildings in the 1980s
View of Shanghai buildings in the 1980s

On my first ever business transaction in China I made a very big mistake, but I must say that I am glad I made it, because I learnt from it, and thanks to that funny day in Shanghai I managed to build my own negotiation skills, which then allowed me to develop very strong and efficient business relations with China, that lasted for over 12 years.

Shanghai bimbo 1

I began to study Chinese people and learning their way of thinking and acting in a business transaction. I learnt how to live like a local and how to think like one. I completely plunged my self in the amazing and incomparable Chinese culture, just like Dirk Struan did in James Clavell’s Tai Pan, which I told you about in the first chapter. Being in contact with a completely different culture, and learning about it, made me fall in love with that country and it also allowed me to build personal relations with some of the people I worked with.
However, my first negotiation day did not end with that cup of tea, but something absolutely unexpected happened! The tea I was offered made me want to go to the toilet, and right there something funny and really embarrassing happened…but you will have to wait to hear about this, because I will write about it in the next coming chapter!

Shanghai capodanno 1

As I said in the previous chapters, if you haven’t read the first bit of the story, I suggest you do so:

Part I – http://thegoldenscope.com/2013/12/13/story-of-my-life-a-gweilo-in-1980s-china/

Part II – http://thegoldenscope.com/2014/01/11/story-of-my-life-a-gweilo-in-1980s-china-pt-ii/

Part III – http://thegoldenscope.com/2014/01/17/story-of-my-life-a-gweilo-in-1980s-china-pt-iii/

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