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.