Posts Tagged ‘Food’


The Biggest Restaurant in the World

December 4, 2008

Two nights ago SBS in Australia broadcast a programme about the West Lake Restaurant in China’s Hunan Province. The largest Chinese restaurant in the world.

Normally I avoid any television programme on China like the plague. They are usually dull, formulaic and made by someone who has spent the sum total of 2 days in China before making an opinion based on their own preconceptions of what it should be like.

However, this one was a little different. The narrator kept well out and pretty much just left the restaurant to tell its own story. One could take many different angles for a piece about this place but I wanted to dwell on a couple of issues; the Chinese obsession with food and that of pointless western bias.

Now, I know that the Chinese tend to get rather excited over ‘the biggest/ tallest/ longest/ widest’ whatever. There is a definite desire to catch up with the rest of the world and show them ‘strong China’ but the remarkable thing about the largest restaurant in the world is precisely that it is quite unremarkable if you have spent any time in China.

It is certainly larger than any other that I have been to but not greatly so. I can think of ten mega restaurants off hand that would be at least half as big. The Chinese take their food very seriously indeed and this is one area in which poor quality is never tolerated.

To see 300 chefs getting through 3 tons of vegetables, 2 tons of pork and nearly 1 ton of chilli peppers (this is Hunan after all) per week was quite an impressive sight, and this is replicated on a smaller scale in thousands of restaurants across every city in China.

The sheer logistics of growing that much food is mind boggling, that there are as few health scares as there are is frankly a miracle. I will not go into the issues surrounding the Chinese food chain in this post and save that for another day.

What I will say is that if you are doing business in China and you do not like, do not understand and do not get involved in food then you are going to have a very tough time indeed. The basic rules of human rapport suggest that if you do not value the same things you will find it hard to get along. If you want to get along with the Chinese then food is always going to be the simplest meeting point.

Get to know your way around a Chinese menu- learn some names, suggest some great dishes when asked if there is anything that you would like.

Try everything. Yes, even the weird stuff, it is unlikely to kill you.

It always amazes me how many experienced China travellers still cannot order a meal for 20 that is balanced in taste, correct in cost and impresses their guests. Get some lessons, ask questions and show interest- I can guarantee you that even when sitting next to the most important Chinese officials they will never tire of talking about food and they will like you for it.

To come to my second point, when doing a little research for this article I found this review on the British Independent newspaper which just shows some of the ridiculous bias of the western media towards China at times.

The article picks up on animal cruelty- deep fried live fish in particular. Personally i am a little squeamish about animal cruelty and am an ardent pet lover but i completely fail to see how dunking a live fish in boiling oil is in any way more cruel than dropping a live lobster in a pot of boiling water.

The article then turned to the Communist Party’s grip on money and power:

“Mrs Qin, naturally, was a member of good standing in the local Communist Party, along with most of Hunan’s other self-made millionaires. Eat your hearts out, Halliburton and Blackwater: when it comes to the profitable manipulation of government power, the Communist Party of China is the biggest cartel in the world, and Storyville’s fascinating film gave you a glimpse of just what it can be capable of when it gets going.”

I agree, the CCP is probably the biggest cartel in the world, they have a tremendous grip on China’s economy but the granting of licenses to open a restaurant on what was a piece of wasteland is hardly the same as drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness. In China connections matter, connections make things possible and clearly Mrs Qin has a lot of connections.

However, you could look at it another way, the Mayor would have known Mrs Qin’s character and believed in her vision thus entrusting the development of that area to someone who can get the job done. Mrs Qin then put in the hard work, implemented the vision and had the skill to manage that many people. That is in no way corrupt or detrimental to the people of China.

There is so much scope to bash China if you really want to do so. I’ll never understand why people pick such silly things to have a go at.

When it comes to advice on China The Independent is probably best left where it belongs. In the recycle bin.


Let’s get a few things straight about China consultants…

October 27, 2008

How on earth do you explain what you do when you are someone who primarily deals with China? China Hand? China Expert? China Consultant? I hate all of these terms. I suppose China consultant is the best of a bad bunch but really, it is still awful. Have you ever heard of a ‘Spain Consultant.’

The Middle Kingdom, China, Cathay has held an enormous fascination for westerners for hundreds of years. We’ve tried to trade since the times of George III and even gone to war for the right to trade, a subject that is still a pretty thorny issue in China today.

My livelihood and by extension, that of my family is inextricably linked to China. Over the years I have tried to escape from its clutches, to consider a change of direction but it always come back to me that China is ‘in my blood’ even though I have no Chinese blood in me.

A chance encounter with my father’s Chinese colleague at the age of 12 led to this point. I told him I wanted to be able to read Chinese like he could, only to be told that no gwailo could ever really master the language. Degrees in Oriental Studies from Oxford University, several years as a translator and negotiator in China and an accreditation in Chinese translation from the Australian government followed. It is a magical language and the classical form of ancient Chinese even more so.

But back to China Hands. To understand how ridiculous the concept of a China Consultant is, one has to really first consider China as a concept.

Nearly 1/4 of the world’s population is Chinese, 75 times the population of Australia in a place roughly the same size. China spans from Mohe on the Siberian border to Hainan and Yunnan in the tropics and the cultures of these places are far from similar. Yes, China has a strong central government but is governed in a very decentralised manner. Dealing with bureaucracy in Guangzhou is very different to dealing with bureaucracy in Harbin, for example. Banqueting culture literally means the difference between some nice food under palm trees in Guangzhou right through to the total destruction of your liver and brain due to the local liquor in Harbin.

So to claim that you consult on 1/4 of the world’s population spanning an area similar in size to and about as diverse as Western Europe seems a touch arrogant to me.

Anybody who claims to ‘Help Western companies enter the China market’ worries me greatly. Which markets? Which areas? Do you really understand PCB manufacture as well as you understand setting up a language school or selling luxury goods? I doubt it.

There is no doubt, however, that when a company wishes to be successful in China they really do need assistance from people who understand the culture and the business environment.

So what makes a good China Consultant? I humbly suggest the following criteria be applied?

1) Would you work with this person in a territory other than China?

Don’t compromise on who you deal with just because you perceive China to be different.

2) Do they have focus and direction?

It is quite acceptable to have worked across a number of different industries in China. However, someone who claims to be all things to all people is unlikely to be good at any of them.

3) Do they have a solid track record in China?

You want someone who has run their own businesses in China or at least has an impressive list of satisfied clients. An expat worker who has decided to stay on after recently getting fired from a multinational is unlikely to be of much help to you unless they really know your industry inside out.

4) Do they speak fluent Chinese? I know some disagree with me, but if someone can’t even tell what their own staff are saying to each other or speak to the 98% of Chinese who don’t speak English then how can they possibly know the real China?

5) Is their experience recent?

Emerging economies change fast, 10 years in China in the 80’s isn’t much use in 2008.

5) Do not make the mistake that all Chinese know their own country. Just being Chinese does not mean someone is going to be of help to you. There are many excellent Chinese consultants but the same rules apply; credibility, experience and knowledge count for everything.

Above all, make sure the person you are dealing with is willing to work WITH YOU to EMPOWER YOU to be successful in China.

No one knows your business like you do. You need a guide, someone who can decode the complex cultural and political landscape. Someone who can explain it to you and aid you to work with, not against the business culture in order to smoothly get on with the business you do so well in other countries.


Surviving in China- Food

October 5, 2008

For many foreigners visiting China for the first time, eating can be the most disturbing and disorientating of prospects. Aside from concerns (often unwarranted) about freshness and hygiene, or a pathological terror of using chopsticks, Chinese food can be pretty weird by our standards, and a far cry from the Kung Po chicken and sizzling beef with which we are bombarded at home. The mere names of dishes such as ‘Thousand Year Old Eggs’, ‘Husband and Wife Lung Slices’ or ‘Dog and Dofu Soup’ may well be enough to turn your stomach, but the good news is that Chinese cuisine is as varied as European, so you need not starve during your time in Asia.

As for table etiquette, this can be an immensely complicated matter, as one might expect in a country with such a long and rich cultural history. The good news is that as an outsider really can get away with just about anything; Chinese people will be very forgiving of your blundering foreignness, and so long as you try to copy what others around you do you are unlikely to cause great offence. The flip side of this is of course that you must forgive habits that to you may seem unusual or rude. Speaking with your mouth full, smoking at the table and even spitting out food are widely considered acceptable behaviour, all practices likely to horrify the western visitor.

The key point to remember is to keep an open mind and be prepared to try dishes that may seem completely alien. One facet of the famous Chinese hospitality is to treat guests to as lavish a reception as can be managed. To this end you may well find your host plying you with every strange creature that ever crept or flew upon the earth. Do not be down heartened! The best approach in such circumstances is to smile, laugh about the contrast with your typical meat-and-two-veg, and try to enjoy as much of the meal as possible. How better to win friends among your Chinese hosts?

  • Be aware of seating plans. At banquets and business dinners there will be a clear hierarchy of seats with the most important person, usually the host, facing the door. As a foreign guest you will probably be steered firmly to the place at which you belong, but you should certainly never barge in and seat yourself wherever you please.
  • Be wary of the heat! When you are asked if you can eat spicy food it is wise to tone down your response, regardless of your capacity for curry. Chinese chilli is qualitatively different to that found in Indian cuisine and can catch visitors by surprise.
  • If you really can’t stomach something that is offered you it is best to say “I am allergic” or “My doctor says I can’t” rather than that you don’t like it, as that way you may well just be forced to try it anyway. Always be consistent in your dislikes; saying you can’t touch seafood at one banquet and then wolfing it down the next day will make you seem dishonest.
  • Spit your food out on the table! This tip should not be taken too literally, but the table is the place where inedible remains like bones, fish skin and lumps of ginger ought to be deposited. The key point is that to be polite, food should always be removed from the mouth with your chopsticks, not your fingers.
  • Know when to waste. You should never finish off every last bit of food on the table; this embarrasses the host as he appears mean for not having ordered enough. Many westerners find it hard to come to terms with the sheer volume of food wasted at Chinese banquets. However, you should not leave any food in your individual bowl as this is seen as wasteful. In childhood Chinese girls are often warned that if they do not empty their rice bowls they will get an ugly husband!
  • If you are a vegetarian it is best to say you cannot eat meat for religious reasons. There is a long history of Buddhist vegetarianism in China, and this excuse is the most likely way to avoid any extra mince or lard. Chinese chefs often use a little bit of meat to add flavour to vegetable dishes and objecting to eating meat for humanitarian reasons is still not widely understood.
  • Try to use your chopsticks. When tackling particularly slippery or unwieldy foods, such as tofu or large bones, it is often acceptable to use your spoon or your hands, but at other times you will need to get the hang of your kuaizi. Individual pieces of food should be taken from the communal plates in the middle and put straight in the mouth or briefly into your individual bowl; food is not spooned into your bowl as in the West. Don’t worry too much about making a mess with your chopsticks – eating is not a tidy business in China and you will make friends everywhere simply for having a go.
  • One last thing- a chopstick is an eating implement. It is not, repeat NOT a drumstick, plaything, pointer, tool for emphasising a point or anything else. You use them to put food in your mouth. I have lost count of how many times I have seen westerners playing the drums with their chopsticks or pointing them at people. Not not do it, don’t even think about it and if you can’t resist, please imagine if you took a Chinese guest to Petrus and they drummed their knife and fork on the table constantly, how would you feel?

What’s In a Name?

September 10, 2008

Talking about Hollywood film stars with Chinese friends can be a bit of a trial at times. Maybe it is because of laziness, but I like to think that there are more deep rooted cultural reasons why I find calling Tom Cruise tangmu kelusi faintly ridiculous and therefore refuse to learn their Chinese forms. Poor Julia Roberts has her name mangled in Chinese into something that when pronounced without full care actually sounds like Chinese for ‘radish strips.’ Whether you sell cars or movies, in this world, brand recognition is everything and being recognized as Miss Radish Strip is hardly going to help your career. Admittedly Brittany Spears fares a little better in Chinese as xiao tiantian or ‘little sweetie’ and our very own Beckham has recently become xiaobei or ‘little treasure’ after being known as beikehamu for many years. If all of this matters so much for celebrities, then how much more important is it to get your naming right when entering the Chinese market for a product that doesn’t have its picture plastered over every counterfeit DVD cover in China?

We have already touched on the importance of the written word in a previous article, talking about the way that the written language binds China together and how people are used to the sight of slogans everywhere. Given that the Chinese language is a thing of such beauty with hidden meanings and cultural associations going back thousands of years, the naming of your brand in Chinese is an extremely important and yet incredibly difficult process that may just help to make the difference between success and failure in such a large market.

There are three main ways in which brands have gone about naming their products in China. You can opt for transliteration of your brand name, i.e. choosing Chinese characters that sound like the original English name. Famous examples of companies that have chosen this method include MacDonald’s maidanglao and Sony’s suoni, names that are instantly identifiable even in Chinese. Another option is to choose a name with a similar meaning to the name in English. Apple Computers becomes pingguo diannao, and many of the Japanese brands simply leave the Japanese kanji characters when naming products in Chinese, leading to the slightly odd fengtian meaning ‘abundant field’ for Toyota in Chinese. Some companies use a name with a more Chinese meaning like that of Marriott Hotels who become wanhao in Chinese which loosely translated means ‘infinitely luxurious.’ Certainly not a bad name for a hotel, but this leads to huge confusion for first time visitors to Shanghai when trying to explain to a taxi driver that you wish to go to the Marriott The third option is to change nothing and leave the product in English. This is by far and away the least popular option and can lead to problems with brand recognition; LG have managed to get away with it well and are a popular brand on the mainland, Calvin Klein seem to have been less lucky with this strategy.

There are some products that when you hear the Chinese name you instantly think, ‘wow, that’s clever!’ It may be no surprise to hear that many of the companies that fit into this category are the large fast food and beverage companies with huge marketing budgets and access to experts all over the world. No article on clever naming of products would be complete without mention of Coca-Cola’s kekoukele in Chinese which not only sounds almost identical to the original English but also means ‘tasty and delightful’. Pepsi cola have also managed to come up with baishikele which roughly means ‘100 loveable things.’. To this day I have never worked out what these hundred things are but until then I shall stick with Evian on health grounds. Sprite is called xuebi which although sounding less like Sprite combines the characters for ‘snow’ and ‘emerald jade’ which sounds rather cold and refreshing. Whilst the duller transliterations of MacDonald’s and KFC have seemingly done little to slow their mission to create a Chinese addiction to fast food, Pizza Hut has gone further with bishengke which can be translated as ‘cannot fail to win over customers.’ Judging from their long lunch queues and their sky-high prices, they certainly weren’t wrong.

The Japanese firm Canon have done very well with jianeng, jia meaning ‘fine’ or ‘distinguished’ and neng ‘capabilities’. Clearly this is not the only factor in their huge market share over their boringly transliterated rivals Epson aipusheng and HP huipu but the name has surely not done them any harm. Chinese firms are now catching on themselves with Legend rebranding themselves Lenovo on the international stage and the ‘Higher and Higher’ campaign by white goods manufacturer Haier.

Car companies have not escaped the need for clever branding in China either. BMW is called baoma, taken from the American habit of calling them ‘Beemers’ but the fact that the name was used to describe the best horses in ancient China will also not be lost on the Chinese. Mercedes Benz has had a more difficult job on their hands as the word ‘Benz’ when pronounced in Chinese could either mean ‘rushing to death’ or ‘stupid to the point of death’, a common way to insult someone. Neither of the names would be ideal for a luxury car manufacturer so they have come up with benchi on the mainland which gives the idea of speed and agility that they would rather conjure up in the minds of potential buyers.

Any regular visitor to the Far East will be quite used to seeing some hilarious English brand names, many quite unprintable in a respectable publication; one of my personal favourites is Pocari Sweat. As a drink it doesn’t sound great but in hot climates is quite a life saver. Some Chinese brands clearly need to put a little more thought into their English branding- the electronics store called ‘Go Home!’ sends a mixed message to their customers and baoxiniao (bow she neeow) who make the best men’s suits in China has probably embarrassed some foreign customers when they try to explain to friends where they bought their suit and then fail miserably to pronounce the name. Among western brands, Calvin Klein took a gamble that may not have paid off when leaving their name untranslated- the sounds of CK ‘cee kay’ don’t exist in Chinese and probably has a similar effect on the Chinese as that of baoxiniao on westerners.

So how has The Sino Group faired in the name game? Rather than outsource the naming of our Chinese arm to a major London consultancy we decided to brainstorm it with our Chinese staff and friends and came up with shinuo, loosely translated as ‘world promise’ and a transliteration of Sino. Earlier suggestions to mirror the Sino name had been put down as the sound si is the same as ‘death’ in Chinese- ‘death promise’ whilst great for a company in the contract killing business would probably not be ideal for a company offering business services. Changing the si to shi made all the difference to the name and it was put forward. However, this was not the end of the process as the name had to be checked against various company details to check if it was auspicious. It was certainly lucky for the Taoist monk who did the check as he ended up fifty dollars richer and following his complicated calculations it was declared that shinuo would be a lucky name for us.

Even in this day and age it seems that in China, there really is so much in a name. Apart from brand recognition, ease of remembering the name and the similarity with the English form, you also have to consider the thousands of years of culture that may be associated with your company name. Nobody would ever suggest that your company’s success depends solely on a name, but getting it right first time certainly won’t hurt!