I never thought I would use my post graduate diploma in mandarin studies. Our Montreal based company, secured a partnership with a couple of Chinese government ministries to build a cellular infrastructure and operating company in the Hunan province, and I was on my way… or so I thought.
I was part of a team of 12 ex-pats, covering all the disciplines from engineering to customer care. Changsha, our future home, I connected via Hong Kong. Other than our small team in a province of some 62 million people, Changsha boasted 5 other ex-pats that I knew of!
Our priority was to find a place to stay, namely a hotel, and our second priority was to secure a more permanent residence and get out of that hotel. I forget how we ended up in one of the few hotels that would accommodate us in the area we needed to be, but I clearly recall the negotiations.
The general manager of the hotel was a young and very confident man who pretended that he spoke no English. After a few minutes of getting nowhere, Al turned to the GM and said, “I know you understand and speak English, so let’s cut a deal. We will need 12 rooms and a conference facility to use as a business centre and we will likely be here for many weeks!”
In retrospect, Al was a bit bold as this GM was in fact a senior official in the Red Army, which owned the hotel and had spy/surveillance equipment on the top floor where we never went near! Now we had our temporary accommodations and could start the process of hiring, selecting equipment suppliers.
In Canada I loved Chinese food. Sweet and sour chicken balls, BBQ pork, chicken fried rice, chop suey, egg rolls and so on. My great expectations were shattered at my first sitting in Changsha.
Their Chinese food is not our Chinese food. Most of the stuff was unrecognizable! You had chicken feet & becks, fisheyes, tiny minnows still alive and bouncing in a central bowl of hot water until they exploded and loads of other mushy mysterious stuff. None of it was appetizing to me.
Finally, one day I was told that there was sea cucumber on the menu. Yummy! I love vegetables. This stuff was pale, colourless and sliced in thin sections. I was ravaged by now, so I woofed down a fair amount.
One of the women I was with said “you know that this is not vegetables, right? It’s a large worm or slug that lives at the bottom of the ocean and eats God knows what garbage!” I gagged and headed for the washroom and resumed my diet of mostly not eating.
Before we could start to develop the mobile operations, we first had to equip our appointed local Chinese team members with basic needs. Scooters for some and a car for the local company President who was selected by the two ministry partners from Beijing.
We were now quasi-operational and hiring staff. The incumbent fixed line telecom company had been awarded the second mobile license and would not let us hire any of their staff or to even interconnect with their network, a clear violation of the license and international law, but hey it was their home and I figured our Beijing partners would resolve that impasse—yah right!
In case you didn’t know, the Triads in Hong Kong are a renowned and notorious organization you want to stay clear of. Well, one of my Chinese team members got involved and I had to bail her out! Our Changsha based mobile operations Marketing Rep. (Miss Shen) solicited bids from several firms to present their visions of our advertising strategy. Of the 5 companies, by far the worst was the one Ms. Shen was advocating. All were below my expectations but by far the weakest was her preferred supplier.
When I proposed selecting another supplier, the shit hit the fan! That evening, she told me that all 5 companies had to be paid for their pitches. I didn’t buy that at face value, and she confided that she had already accepted money from the Triad friends. The agent in question was an arrogant guy who had no qualms about imparting threats. It was certainly a nerve-wracking experience. I decided to pay all 5 companies a ‘presentation fee’ and not pick one. I was truly scared for a few days.
A few months later, I heard that this gentleman also ran a prostitution ring and had been exterminated! I rolled along assuming that it was the prostitution that had gotten him removed as opposed to his foray with Ms. Shen.
As months moved along, I developed a business strategy for launch, while the network was being built. Given the limited availability of media advertising, I settled on a campaign of billboards and large bus signs promoting our new cellular company, China Unicom. By decree, the same name was to be used by all the operators across China’s provinces to compete against the incumbent Ministry of Telecommunications.
Days before we launched our competitor employed that exact technique to promote their cell service. Damn it, I had a spy to vet out.
It took less than an hour when Miss. Shen explained that she had an obligation to share our strategy with our competitor because they were a government ministry! So much for understanding competition.
We asked our local President to fire her since she was his secretary and her interference had become unbearable. He smiled, nodded and the next day he promoted her to head of marketing! This is when I realized that we were living in a parallel universe. The business titles were insignificant. You see, Miss Shen was senior to Mr. Chiang within the communist party hierarchy, and so he took orders from her! It was at about this time that I realized…
our business was doomed!
It was a lonely existence for me in China. We only had a dialup connection. While I had my colleagues at work, we could not spend workdays and evenings, 24/7 always together.
One day while walking through the market, I did the sensible thing and bought a puppy. I named him after Lake of the Woods and chose the name “Lake”. It was not your usual fluffy small pup that the Chinese preferred. He was a caramel coloured Vizsla.
Of course, he was sickly and broke a leg when my Chinese colleague tried to teach him how to swim in a shallow river of rocks. We found a vet who would do house calls. Once he realized that he was visiting one of the very few Caucasian women in the city, it became quite comical. He would dress up in a tux and bring along different people every night who also arrived in gala attire. I wanted to be in my PJ’s, but that felt disrespectful so I wore my business attire. I think Lake only needed a few checkups, but lasted for 3 weeks.
In North America we had AMTS cellular standards and the mobile phones used e-proms as individual ID’s. Europe and Asia were GSM licenses using SIM cards. We arrived from Canada and did not know about SIM cards. To learn ASAP, a team of 4, Marie Sophie, Christian, Paul and I were dispatched to Thailand with Nokia to be educated about this newer way of programming phones. Of course, our Nokia guide insisted on a visit to the Phat Pong, red light district.
I am no prude, but this was exploitation of young women at it’s worst and felt sleezy. Paul acted as my protector. Thanks Paul! Now that I am educated on sex trafficking I wish I done more. I was a bystander hoping my memory would forget the experience.
I also met the GM, Traian S. of a local mobile operator in Bangkok and he was highly informative. He is a Romanian and unbelievably our paths would cross again a few years later in Romania-what a small world. And yes, we learned all about SIM cards. How they worked and how they had to be ordered from other non-mobile suppliers who had a very profitable, virtual duopoly on manufacturing cards. That led to another trip to Singapore to negotiate with Schlumberger for the highly sought SIM cards.
We had tried but failed to convince the China Board that advertising was essential; unbelievable. They finally relented and allowed us to do billboards. I had already conceived of doing billboards and their messages which, unlike Canada, would be hand painted! The large billboards were painted over the weekend and as we drove to work on Monday morning, we saw that the rain (and it rained a lot) was streaking the paint and all was for nothing.
This was the final Coup de Gras when I realized that for my own sanity, I had to leave China. And then we won a mobile license in Romania! Where? I didn’t care. I was ready to go. It was New Years Eve, 1996 and thankfully Al and I got to spend it in Hong Kong as the UK turned over Hong Kong to China. We were at the roof bar at the Peninsula hotel in Hong Kong at this momentous occasion.
It took a few years, but in each province they had selected a different operator. Bell South (a US firm) in Beijing, France Telecom in Guanghua and so on, 26 times. The foreign operators had purchased and installed the mobile exchanges and a sufficient number of cell sites, and trained the locals. They then had developed a management structure – the China Unicom which people basically made an offer that we could not refuse to buy us out at prices at best, equivalent to our investment.
It was a tough lesson to learn especially as our core team of 12 expats had lived under hardship conditions and believed that we had a tremendous opportunity to build a massive business. In time we were proven correct as China became the largest mobile business in the world utilizing the two-operator concept. This was a lesson hopefully we would not repeat except for Brazil and India but those are stories for another day!