From bamboo cages to website pages

It’s always nice when reality rhymes like that.

I met up with Ben last week, after summer break. This time he came over to Tsinghua University, my new campus – twice as big as Beida, and with half as many girls. It’s all male engineers here, in China’s equivalent to MIT: my morning bike ride north into the heart of campus is a terrifying upstream against the current of hundreds of earnest-faced cyclists heading south for their science classes.

When I first met Ben a year ago, he wasn’t the easiest person to talk with, in either Chinese or English. Our respective unfamiliarities in the languages no doubt contributed, but even then his manner was too over polite at first, his laugh too nervous, to feel comfortable. It was an overeager friendliness which, combined with the slight hamster pouch of his cheeks, reminded me of Barney.

We’ve gotten to know each other much better now, and I’ve come to realise that one of the reasons for his initial ill-ease was that I am the first foreign friend he’s had – coming as he did to Beijing two years ago, from the countryside province of Shanxi. In fact, the solar ecplise of last July 22nd marked the two year anniversary of the founding of his online ladies clothes store on TaoBao, the Chinese eBay.

Ben was telling me in Tsinghua about his ambitions for the years to come, now that his online shop is reasonably well established – enough so that he’s currently advertising for a full-time assistant. Besides expanding his current business (a physical store, two physical stores, other Chinese cities, the world…), Ben has another bright idea. He hopes to start a ‘guide’ website for the best buys on TaoBao – renting advertising space for retailers like him, and offering advice to buyers. It wouldn’t be the first of its kind (there’s even an English language one here). But it’s potentially lucrative, and Ben surely has the most directly-to-the-point URL address, which he’s already nabbed: www.taogoodbao.com

Besides the ‘Chinese dream’ of business opportunity – move over America – Ben enjoys his schemes for their own sake. “I like to make new things”, he says. From what age? When he was a kid, six or seven, his father would buy bamboo to shore up the roof of his house with. One time, out of the left-overs, Ben made a bamboo birdcage, and caught two birds to live in it. (They died.) Then he made a bamboo gun with a weak firing mechanism to shoot little steel balls. (At birds.)

Passing over his intentional and unintentional sadism towards our flying friends, Ben describes this moment as the beginning of his wanting to go it alone: to be not a face in an office job but an entrepreneur (even if he’s never heard of the word) who makes his own things, takes his own risks and may wait a long time for those risks to pay off.

Ben, in a photo I took last year at Beida