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CHANGING CURRENTS
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CYCLING TO XANADU
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1 Zola and Retail Marketing
2 Playing the Waiting Game
3 Beware the Ides of March
4 The county not on a map
5 Chinese Chess in Beijing
6 Build it and They'll Come
7 Riding the Water Dragon
8 The Best of Both Worlds
9 Storming the Great Wall
10 Welcome to the Wangba
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17 Rise of Yorkshire Puds
18 Harry Potter in Beijing
19 Standing Out in China
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22 Tea with the Brothers
23 Animated Guangzhou
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25 Christmas in Haerbin
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29 Rolls-Royce on a roll
30 The Great Exhibition
31 Spreading the Word
32 On Top of the World
33 Moonlight Madness
34 Beijing's Wild West
35 Avatar vs Confucius
36 Brand Ambassadors
37 Inspiring Adventure
38 China's Sweet Spot
39 Spinning the Wheel
40 Winter Wonderland
41 The End of the Sky
42 Ticket to Ride High
43 Turning the Corner
44 Trouble in Toytown
45 Watch with Mother
46 Red-crowned Alert
47 In a Barbie World
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49 Tale of Two Taxis
50 Land of Extremes
51 Of 'Mice' and Men
52 Tour of the South
53 Brooding Clouds?
54 The Nabang Test
55 Guanxi Building
56 Apple Blossoms
57 New Romantics
58 The Rose Seller
59 Rural Shanghai
60 Forbidden Fruit
61 Exotic Flavours
62 Picking up Pace
63 New Year, 2008
64 Shedding Tiers
65 Olympic Prince
66 London Calling
67 A Soulful Song
68 Paradise Lost?
69 Brandopolises
70 Red, red wine
71 Finding Nemo
72 Rogue Dealer
73 Juicy Carrots
74 Bad Air Days
75 Golden Week
76 Master Class
77 Noodle Wars
78 Yes We Can!
79 Mr Blue Sky
80 Keep Riding
81 Wise Words
82 Hair Today
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85 Bread vans
86 Pick a card
87 The 60th
88 Ox Tales
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Mr Fixit

There’s something a little bit special about Shantou, a city of about five million people that abuts the South China Sea in Guangdong province.  But it’s hard to put one’s finger on what it is.  The first impression of the city, gleaned on the ride from the airport to the downtown area, is that it is has just been taken out of the box.  Local governments try hard to make the ride from the airport as impressive as possible, but few manage to paper over all the cracks.  But in Shantou, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t spot any building that looked like it wasn’t freshly painted.  But then again it was dark. 


  The air of pristine order lasted all the way to the start of the downtown area when, at the first traffic lights, an ancient truck with bars at the back didn’t bother to stop at the red light.  The soulful stares of three men caught my eye, and in a split-second I jumped to the conclusion that this was a prison truck.  A second look showed just how wrong first impressions can be.  The truck was, in fact, a private truck and the men were, most probably, migrant workers on their way to or from their place of work.

 

  I would have loved to have stopped them for a few minutes to find out their story, but chasing after the truck wasn’t a sensible thing to do.  I didn’t have to wait long, however, before I was stopped by a migrant worker, who wanted to know more about me.

  

  Mr Zhang is from Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, and came to Shantou five years ago to make his fortune.  “Where are you from,” he asked.  I told him.  “What’s your favourite food,” was his second question.  I told him that too.  “Sorry, I don’t know of any Indian restaurants here, but I do know a good Italian.”  Mr Zhang pulled out a card from his pocket, and handed it to me.  “It’s five minutes away, I can take you there if you like,” he offered.  Mr Zhang gestured to his tricycle rickshaw that was parked some 20 yards away.  “Thanks, but I’m not hungry,” I said.

 

   “In that case, why don’t I take you to a really good tailor I know.  They make excellent European suits.”

 

  I wondered what a 'European suit' looks like.  A complete dog’s dinner of a 20-odd country compromise I mused.  “No thanks,” I smiled.

 

  Mr Zhang saw that I was looking down at the pavement at two telephone numbers, painted on to a paving slab that had caught my eye.  “Oh, if you want to buy some fapiaos, then I have a number.  They’ll give you a much better deal.”  I told him that I had no need for fapiaos – official receipts that are often traded on the black market (and bought by the unscrupulous who use them to claim imaginary expenses or to offset company tax liability).

 

  Undeterred, Mr Zhang tried another approach.  “You must be tired after your trip from Guangzhou, I reckon you could do with a massage.”  With a magician’s dexterity, Mr Zhang pulled yet another card from thin air.  This one showed a drawing of a scantily clad woman, the Chinese characters anmo [massage] and a mobile phone number. 

 

  “No thanks,” I said, “I don’t feel tired at all”.  But he didn’t hear me as he was answering his mobile phone.

 

  “Wei!” he shouted.  Dangren you  [“Of course I’ve got some!”]. 

 

  I didn’t like to ask “what”, but whatever they were, Mr Zhang would deliver them to the caller within an hour.

 

  Mr Zhang put away the N series Nokia – one of the more expensive ones – and turned his attention back to me.  I gave the card back to him and repeated, “No thanks”.  

  

  “In that case,” he said, “why not take a ride with me, “I’ll show you Shantou.”

 

  There’s no doubt that Mr Zhang could have taught me a lot about Shantou but, alas, I had some work to do.

  

  Maybe in a previous life Mr Zhang had been a top salesman, or an estate agent, or a psychologist, because I had an uncanny feeling that I was being profiled.  Every question he asked was related to something he could sell me either directly or indirectly.

  

  Shantou is able to provide Mr Zhang with something that Zhengzhou can’t:  An environment that is conducive to his entrepreneurship.

  

  Shantou has been attracting entrepreneurs for generations.  It was one of the Nineteenth century “treaty ports”, as well as one of the original special economic zones (SEZs).  Sons of Shantou include Huang Guangyu, one of the richest people in China, the founder and former head of the Chinese electrical retailing giant Gome (who is currently the subject of a criminal investigation related to alleged share-price manipulation); and Ma Huateng, another fabulously rich individual, who founded Tencent, an Internet services company that, among many offerings, runs QQ – the most popular instant messaging service on the planet (which has something in the order of a half-billion registered users).

 

I asked Mr Zheng if he could put his finger on what it is that makes Shantou such a special place.  He thought for a moment, before concluding that he had no idea.  Although he was able to offer one clue:  “People drink a lot of tea here”. 

 

  Perhaps, then, it’s something in the water. 

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