More beautiful, insightful writing on China from Pete Hessler, author of Rivertown and Oracle Bones, in this month's issue of National Geographic. In this article, with excellent photography by Mark Leong. I joke with Mark that he's got the best eye for squalor of any photographer I've ever met: On a Time assignment in Inner Mongolia during the SARS epidemic, I swear he had the driver stop when he saw particularly squalid roadside scene so he could snap a few shots. Check out his book China Obscura if you can. Mark lives in Beijing with his wife Sharon and twin toddlers Boris and Oscar in a decidedly non-squalid part of Beijing--a development called, get this, "Upper East Side." But I digress.
Pete's NatGeo piece deals heavily with Wenzhou. I've always been fascinated by Wenzhou and how its entrepreneurial culture has just taken off. My wife has a Wenzhou friend Qingqing whose siblings are in the shoe business, and in the last few years she's watched her business grow from a humble retail stall in the Alien Street market in Beijing's Russian zone to a massive footware empire spanning several provinces. I remember how a few years ago we discovered that they were early adopters of camera phones and MMS: they'd snap pictures of shoes that were moving quickly in Beijing and order inventory from down South. They divided up foreign languages commonly spoken by their customers and suppliers among them--Cantonese, English, Russian, Mongolian--and each learned business rudiments of at least one of them.
From Pete's piece:
The Wenzhou airport bookstore stocks a volume titled, Actually, You Don't Understand the Wenzhou People. It shares a shelf with The Feared Wenzhou People, The Collected Secrets of How Wenzhou People Make Money, and The Jews of the East: The Commercial Stories of Fifty Wenzhou Businessmen. For the Chinese, this part of Zhejiang Province has become a source of fascination, and the local press contributes to the legend. Recently, Wenzhou's Fortune Weekly conducted a survey of local millionaires. One question was: If forced to choose between your business and your family, which would it be? Of the respondents, 60 percent chose business, and 20 percent chose family. The other 20 percent couldn't make up their minds.
At least in Qingqing's case, the business is the family.