The online entrepeneur

Adieu to Six

UPDATE: [January 2011] After much umming and erring about whether to resurrect this blog from London, I’ve decided that I am too far away from China to be writing about it. But I will be blogging again when I’m back in the Orient, before too long a wait …

First things first: a couple of links. Here you can read my column in this month’s issue of Prospect magazine, on the influx of foreign students who – like me – go to Beijing to learn Mandarin. While here you can see my photo essay on ‘young China’ – the theme of this blog – for the China Beat. I took those pictures over the two years I lived and travelled in China.

“Past tense!” I hear you cry. “-ed?” Yes, I’m writing from London, where I will be based for two years before returning East. I thought I wouldn’t leave Beijing for love nor money, but one of those reasons is indeed why I’m back in Britain (you can guess which).


Next, here is where we leave the six young Chinese who I’ve been following on this blog – stories from the generation that will change China.

Ben is going strong in his online clothes shop. His bedroom business has expanded from just him and a leaky roof to a staff of three and booming sales. He still can’t pronounce the word ‘entrepreneur’.

Leonidas is back on “my island”, as he calls it, off the coast of Shanghai. “No TV, no internet, no noise, no traffic jam,” he writes me. A perfect summer break before his final year at Peking University.

Marie has finally ended her torturous job hunt, choosing a teaching position in Beijing. But she still dreams of working in Hong Kong, travelling to Japan, studying in America – depending on the day.

Matilda has just finished her novel, Summer Fruit in Autumn. She posted in online, and got some encouraging comments from Chinese netizens. She still doesn’t know what to do with her life, though.

Tony will be joining me in England next academic year. He has an offer from Cambridge and a provisional offer from Oxford, to read an MPhil in International Relations. I hope to see him before long.

William dropped out of university for the second time last spring. His lifeless subject and doctrine-heavy classes simply weren’t for him. He’s now decided to give his all to environmental activism.


Finally, a few quick stats and thanks. I launched this blog on the final day of the Beijing Olympics, August 24th 2008. Since then, I’ve had over 15,000 unique visitors. And 40,000 page views. My most read posts include a video interview with Chris Patten, commentary on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, a translation of a wronged student’s petition, and my essay in Chinese on China’s ‘New Youth’.

My thanks go first to all my friends, most of all to those I follow here, who have helped me understand the nuanced and changing story of young Chinese in a new China. In the English language Chinese ‘blogosphere’, an especial thanks to: Jeff, Kate and Maura at the China Beat; Jeremy and Joel at Danwei; Elliot at CNReviews; Charlie at China Geeks; Evan Osnos at The New Yorker. And everyone else!

Adieu to å…­ (liu – six). Cheers, Alec

Over a plate of spicy, crisp Sichuanese potato slices, Ben was telling me about a favourite song of his. It’s called ‘I want to go to Guilin’ (a famously beautiful southern province of China – think the scenery in The Painted Veil). Listen to it here. He was reminded of the tune when talking (over instant messaging) with a customer who had just been there. The chorus of the song goes like this:

I want to go to Guilin, I want to go to Guilin, but when I have the time I have no money.

I want to go to Guilin, I want to go to Guilin, but when I have the money I have no time.

(That scans much better in Chinese.)

Ben hasn’t been to Guilin. At first, during university in Shanxi, the problem was line one. Now, running his own online business in Beijing, it’s line two which is the rub: “I think the money might be enough, but now I have no time”. Two years after opening his clothes store on the Chinese eBay, Taobao, Ben still works from sunrise to sunset. Guilin, for him, is still just a song and a photo search on Baidu (a Google knock-off).

His business is growing: “actually … it’s not doing too badly”, he puts it with an abashed modesty which can only mean his shop doing very well. He has hired two assistants (in addition to his sister who also works for him), and just placed a big order with a new factory in Guangzhou, where he gets his clothes cheap. Not bad, considering that – according to Ben’s estimate – 70% of Taobao shops flop.

I saw the progress for myself after our tongue-numbing meal, when I went back to his office for the second time. The first time (which I wrote about here), the room – not far from Beida – was filled with plastic-wrapped clothes, and a single grotty computer in the back. Now, the heaps of clothes are as higher*:

And there are three new computers in a row along one wall:

Here, his assistant takes an order from a customer (using a QQ like instant messaging system):

And continues to tackle with a customer complaint:

Fingers crossed that Ben will find that long sought-after combination of time and money, and make it to Guilin. And as for me – I haven’t been there either, but will be travelling in Qinghai and Xinjiang over the next fortnight. On which note, I really must run to catch my train.

Update from Xining 6.14: caught it, in the closest shave of more nearly-missed trains in China than I can remember.


*The picture on the wall in this picture is Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and one of Ben’s heroes, along with Huang Guangyu – recently imprisoned for dodgy practice (bribes blah blah). I asked Ben if this weakened his admiration of Huang. “Not really,” he replied, “Huang Gungyu is like Chairman Mao. 70% of what he did was good, and 30% bad.”

Does Ben have fun?

A friend wrote to me recently:

Would be great to see some video of the Chinese students partying … not sure people here [England] know that Chinese people have fun in quite the same way as here! Don’t they just stay at home and do maths homework?

Obviously, it’s not all about the math. I’ll admit the image I’ve been presenting on this blog of the young Chinese of my generation is more homework, less partying. There’s a whole other face of China’s ‘new new youth’ out there: in clubs like D22, enjoying more freedoms than any Chinese generation before them. Just last night, I met at a party a group of 20-something Chinese hip-hop DJs and dancers (“the hip hop scene is only just beginning in China, rock has been around for longer”) – one of whom said he carried around his neck at all times a 剑玉 or ‘kendama‘, a gaming craze I’ll be keeping my eye on.

This said, the young China I’m in and around – the campuses of Peking and Tsinghua Universities – isn’t that young China. When I asked my friends on campus what they did for fun, or to relax on a Friday night, the same responses did a loop-the-loop: go out for a meal with friends; stay in the dormitory with friends; stay in the dormitory watching Youku; weekend trips to grasslands or other sights in China, a cheap train ticket away. Not discos. Not drugs. Drinking, but not drinking.

So what about Ben? He’s not a student, he’s a working guy who came to Beijing from the countryside to strike it lucky. Now his online clothes shop – one of the thousands (more?) on the Chinese eBay, Taobao – has two employees and recently got ranked in a top hundred list on Taobao. Ben himself is working so hard he’s only getting 5 to 6 hours sleep at night (“I work until midnight”).

So how does Ben relax, when he has the time? He thinks, allows himself a little smile, and says “I like to go to the zoo.” (It’s the tigers.) Sure, he drinks, and smokes, but he never drinks and smokes the night away. Doesn’t he reward himself for all his hard work with a little more than that? The day, he tells me, when he can really reward himself for accomplishing what he set out to do, is precisely what he’s working for. He takes a sip of his beer. “That day will come.”

Speaking of leisure, I am now going to run to catch my train to Inner Mongolia – where I will be too full of milk to post for a week. Happy Easter and grave-sweeping festivals…

Ben’s odd jobs

“Where you this entrepreneurial in college?”, I once asked Ben. In response, he forwarded me a text he keeps saved from back in the day – a run-down of all the odd jobs he did at university in Shanxi. For a snapshot of where a budding young businessman in China starts from, here it is in English:

Picking mineral water bottles [not certain if this means full ones, to sell on, or empty ones to recycle – AA]; fuduji sales [a Chinese online marketplace]; heaters; cassette tapes; event tickets; dictionaries; mobile cards; old phone cards; telephone ‘reading lamps’ [whatever that is]; seashells; collecting steel bars; distributing flyers; [arranging – I assume] home tutoring; mail order books; TaoBao startups; selling second hand books; ‘ring chains’; ‘magic poker’ [both literal translations which likely miss the mark]

How’s that for a definition of ‘miscellania’? Or indeed, ‘anything for a buck or two’. None of the above business, Ben assures me, was against the rules of his college – it’s all legit (i.e. he wasn’t hawking event tickets, he was selling them for the organisers). And no, I’ve no idea where the hell he gets his seashells from in landlocked Shanxi.

Here’s a snap of the original text, sorry for the terrible focus:


The other day, over too much food, Ben was telling me about two friends from his hometown who just got married. (I find Chinese invariably over-order when treating, for fear of appearing stingy, but Ben wins the grand prize. I put it down to some knee-jerk instinct which Chinese businessman-to-be seem to develop at the age of four.)  As yet another egg dish appeared in front of me – despite my having protested I’d already eaten a bowl of noodles that night – I was curious to hear more.

Both of these friends come from poor families, like Ben’s, and have also moved away to try their luck in bigger cities. But how Ben related their different fortunes is telling. The first (I didn’t catch any names, unless Ben mentioned them while my face was drowning in egg soup) is an old story: college sweethearts wait five or six years before marrying, moving to the nearest big city near their littler hometown, and begin the struggle of earning their new rent with sales jobs. Ben went to see their wedding and came back full of smiles but with no comments besides: they would have married earlier if they had more money, and maybe now it is still too early.

Ben didn’t witness the wedding of his second friend (too busy with the winter rush), but had more to say about it. This guy works as a TV host for local news (“he is very handsome”, Ben interjects in careful English, as is his habit) and does pretty OK for it. What’s more, he married into money: his bride inherited her parents’ business. “I have seen pictures of their apartment”, Ben offers, and launches into a considered inventory of its square-footage and cost (500,000 kuai for the flat, another half million to furnish and decorate). I got though a whole plate of egg and tomato before he wrapped it by lowering his voice and confiding: “actually, most is paid by his wife”.

Earlier that day, I’d written my Chinese homework on 白毛女 – ‘the white haired girl‘, a peasant heroine from an old story who is forced to marry a rich, evil landlord – and how it became a hot topic online when Chinese netizens suggested the girl should willingly marry the villian for his money, rather than her poor sweetheart. (A fuller and better summary here at ESWN, well worth a read.)

Given that Ben’s description of his friend’s marriage was so speedily hijacked by analysis of their financial situation, I showed Ben my homework (so many grammar mistakes) and asked what he thought: should the white haired girl marry the rich landlord? He shrugged it off with a laugh. “Of course not.” But, he added, maybe she can’t marry her impoverished true love either unless he has earnt some more first. I thought that was quite a telling response.

Happy Mooncake day all … how fast these festivals come and go. The PRC’s 60th birthday was only two days ago and already the nation has moved onto the excessive gifting of odd-tasting pastry. There’s probably a relevant Chinese saying which I could quote here – but I won’t.

On national day, I took a morning bus  (on gloriously empty streets) to Peking University or ‘Beida’ to watch the televised celebrations with students. If you’re after the parade itself, have a look at this wonderful 4 minute time-lapse and slow-mo version by Dan Chung of the Guardian.

As a Brit I have a inborn loathing of jingoism, which was rife in the parade itself. Patriotism is OK, however, and it was this that the Beida students were displaying – more than I had ever seen them show, including in the aftermath of a successful Olympics (the ping pong was all in Beida’s gym).

Below I’ll split up what I witnessed into a few liberally captioned photos. First, I asked each of the six characters I follow on this blog what they were doing and how they felt on this big day (as we know, any number like ‘6’ or 60′ is auspicious in China, so this national day was particulary special).

Tony … was watching the parade with me. He’d been one of the school kids in the 1999 fifty year anniversary parade, and seemed a little cynical of the eerily similar pomp and circumstance this time around. As ever he took pleasure in pointing out the politically significant bits, like how outside the limelight Xi Jinping was in the whole affair – a potential sign of his guessed-at leadership of China from 2012 being postponed, possibly forever.

Leonidas … got into Beida’s auditorium for the showing there (more below). When I then met up with him for noodles, he was clutching a Chinese flag and said he was almost moved to tears by the parade. This from a guy who’s head, in my experience, generally tends to be off in the clouds of classical Chinese literature more than it is on the ground of contemporary China.

Marie … was watching the internet stream in her dorm with her flatmates – one of whom was still sleeping from all the homework she was up late last night doing, even in this week-long national holiday. Earlier, I’d read a corny line in a Chinese paper: “today is your birthday too”. I’d sent Marie a text jokingly asking if this was true. I felt bad at my whimsy when she seriously replied “yes, today is also like my birthday”.

Matilda … was at a friend’s wedding, who’d evidently chosen this day as a lucky one to start a marriage on (modern China: unified until death do us part?). She texted me: “China is five thousand years old, new China is sixty years old. Let’s together wish new China prosperity!”

William … reinforced the message: “today is new China’s birthday”. New China (xin zhongguo) is a term much bandied about, claimed by the May Fourth movement as well as Sun Yatsen or the CCP (potentially by the reform and opening up era too). Normally, I’m never quite sure ‘new China’ is whose. Today, for young Chinese, new China was all Hu’s.

[groan] And finally,

Ben … was sleeping in, but with the TV on in the background.

Now for the day itself:

This guy far-right had sold forty or so flags by 9am. Behind them, Beida students line up for the screening of the parade on the big cinema screen in campus. They’d got their free tickets three days ago by queuing for (hear-say alert!) nearly 2km. Leonidas told me all of the students at this screening  stood up to give Hu Jintao an ovation.

Tony and I most certainly did not queue for 2km, and so we watched the event in a neighbouring canteen – on a decidedly inferior screen with a fuzzy top-left panel which made Jiang Zemin look like a gremlin. There was a big laugh when Hu smiled upon seeing the troupe of female soldiers in high red skirts goose-step by. I got the impression here that most students were enjoying the fun of a big parade more than being overwhelmed with love of their country. And when the canteen started serving food – an hour before the parade was over – everyone was suddenly much more interested in lunch.

Zhongguo jiayou! Go China! If this were England, by the way, this picture could only mean one thing: these students had been watching a football or rugby game, not a military parade.

A contingent of Beida students took part in the parade, wafting symbolic pink wind fans (you can see them at 3:10 in the video I link to near the top of this post). Here they are, having been shipped back to their campus by giant buses, still pumped – despite having got out of bed at 2:30am to head down to Tiananmen square, and after a summer of compulsory training sessions two or three times a week.

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