I was in China on New Year’s Eve this year when 36 people died in Shanghai during the terrible stampede by the Bund. According to one report on the BBC, the stampede was triggered by some partygoers who tossed money off of a high balcony onto the crowded streets below. It was not clear to the reporter whether the money was real or fake. As tragic as this loss of life is, I could think of no better metaphor for a part of China in 2015 than large masses of human beings surging towards real or perceived financial gain, regardless of the dangers involved.
I was not in Shanghai on New Year’s Eve, however. I was in the northern city of Harbin, which, at this very cold time of the year, is a big shrine to ice. There are gigantic ice sculptures of the Buddha, iced fruit snacks, and ice slides that you can ride onto the frozen Songhua River. Ironically, the only place you cannot get ice is in the restaurants where all beverages, from Coke to juice, are served at body temperature because, I am told, Chinese medicine discourages the ingestion of cold liquids. (As an American who must have lots of ice in everything, from my water to my coffee, this was not an easy adjustment.)
Another unique feature of this city is the strong Russian influence. Due to Harbin’s close proximity to the Russian border, there are Russian sausages served on the streets, Russian vodka served in the hot-pot restaurants, and Russian singers and dancers who entertain the locals. I had the privilege of attending one such show that was held at “Ice and Snow World,” which is an eye-popping collection of ads and edifices comprised largely of neon infused ice.
The show there can best be described as the Ice Capades meets Fiddler on the Roof. The extravaganza (for there is no other word to describe it) was performed by six-foot tall Russians in sequined bikinis and feather boas for five-foot tall Chinese families in furry parkas and snow boots. My friend Chenchen explained to me that Russians are routinely trucked in for such shows, sometimes in the very same convoys that carry the vodka and the sausages.
There were many fascinating things about this show, but perhaps the most fascinating thing was the complete silence that followed the ending of each act. It seems that the Chinese do not have the same tradition so common in the West of applauding when something is over. And so, the tall Russians would finish juggling or flipping or sawing each other in half, and then they would skate right up to the edge of the stage in their sequins and take a very big Russian bow and there would be absolute dead silence.
I must say, I rarely feel sympathy for the talent–after all, this is the life they’ve signed up for–but, in this case, I did feel very badly for the Russians. It’s not as if it sucks enough to have to travel from Russia to the North of China with your ice skates on New Year’s Eve, but to perform in Spandex in a freezing cold auditorium and not even get any applause, well, that’s brutal even by the notoriously brutal standards of show business. At the very end of the show, one guy in the back did stand up, applaud, and shout “Bravo! Bravo!” but he was drunk and I’m pretty sure he was the Russians’ lighting and sound technician.
Right about now, you’re probably wondering what, if anything, does this blog post have to do with kid’s media? Well, if you’ll bear with me, I’ll get to the substance of this post, but please understand that this is not a substance driven blog. Rather, it is a character driven blog and I, for better or worse, am the main character. So, to satisfy those of you who prefer substance over me (and I’m told there are quite a few of you), below are five things that I’ve learned in China that have helped me grow my business here over the past few years. (And you are welcome to use them without having to spend your New Year’s Eve in Harbin wearing long underwear and thermal socks.)
1. Be Patient. In the West, it’s not uncommon to meet someone at MIPCOM for half an hour, exchange a few e-mails, and then do some kind of business together. Not so in mainland China. Doing business in China is more like making a cheese soufflé than microwaving popcorn. The process is very delicate and time consuming, and even when you get all the ingredients right and set the oven to the perfect temperature, your soufflé could collapse at any moment (and for no discernable reason.) Therefore, patience is absolutely necessary. China has a very long history. Stone tools have been found in China that date back over 1.36 million years. So, do you really think the Chinese care if it takes a few more months to sign your deal?
2. Return Often. It’s not uncommon for “foreigners” to take a trip to China in the hopes of doing some business and then heading home like a prospector with a little bag of gold nuggets. It just doesn’t work that way. The Chinese are, at best, skeptical during any first meeting. They figure you’ve just come over to try and sell them something that they do not need. So, the first meeting (or two or three) is typically just the “getting-to-know-you” phase of a courtship that can last months or even years. If you really want to do business in China, you must return often and spend as much time as necessary to build trust.
3. Meetings Run Long. In New York, an hour is considered a healthy length for a meeting. You make small talk. You cover the topics on your agenda. You say goodbye. Not so in China. If you meet someone at 3:00pm in China, it’s a very good idea to leave your whole evening free. Why? Because if the meeting goes well, you will invariably be asked to dinner and, if you have made other plans, it can be perceived as a slight to your host. The decision to go to dinner (or not) will be made by the most senior person at the meeting and it will largely be based on whether they liked you enough to eat with you. (It’s not a guarantee that you’ll work together, but it is a step in the right direction.) Very little business will be discussed at the dinner but great attention will be paid to what you say and eat. Periodically, you will all stand up and drink alcohol.
4. Look Beyond The Deal. A signed contract does not carry the same weight in China as it does in other countries. One colleague here even joked that the longer the deal memo is, the less likely the Chinese are to read it before signing it. I don’t believe this is true, but it is true that contracts don’t offer the same protections as they do in the West. The real contract in China is the value that the work itself brings to both parties. That’s what binds partners together in China, not what’s on the paper.
5. Enjoy The Ride. China is unpredictable. Deals you felt quite certain would be signed fall through. Deals you did not expect to get jump into your lap like house cats. It’s quite thrilling in China–there’s so much energy and enthusiasm in the entertainment and internet sectors–but if you are the kind of person who likes order and predictability in your life and your work, China will make you absolutely crazy and you’ll wish you had stayed home.
When I returned to New York, I met up with an American who had lived in China for 14 years and he said something very interesting: “You can learn a lot about China from watching the relationship between the cars and the pedestrians. In New York, the pedestrians have the right of way so the cars will slow down or even stop for them. Not so in China. The cars have the right of way in China for the simple reason that cars are stronger than people. Power always dictates the right of way in Chinese society.”