Saturday, February 24, 2007

Money Money Money

Before getting to the views of the US of A, I wanted to first discuss the beauty of Hong Kong.

Before I left for the US on Feb. 23rd, I was fortunate enough to spend a day-trip with my grandparents in Hong Kong. My grandfather is almost 80 years old and going strong (he plays tennis 3x a week). My grandmother is approaching 76 and destroys me at pingpong every time. I wanted them to get a glimpse of Hong Kong before it was all done and over with. It had been many years since they had been to the US to visit my family and a little western life would be new and cool.

I had originally planned to take them around by myself on a two-day excursion, preparing everything and staying overnight at my company apartment. However, realizing that that would completely stress and overwhelm me with planning during my vacation, I decided against it. Instead I spent money for the 3 of us to do a day trip through an agency. 250 RMB a person for 2 meals, tour guide, a Victoria harbor boat ride, and most importantly, no planning to worry about. Good deal.

Since I had traveled in Hong Kong a few times (and I work there sometimes) I was prepared for a pretty boring day of sightseeing. However, I was pleasantly surprised by experience and most especially, the tour guide.

Our tour guide was a Hong Kong guy in his mid-30s. He was very social and engaging in his monologue on the bus. With his crude humor, knowledgeable factoids and decent 普通话 (putonghua), he entertained everyone on the bus, especially my grandparents.

Here are some of the highlights of the his tour:

  • A description of Hong Konger’s love and admiration of 邓小平 (dengxiaoping) and the economic reforms he introduced. It was his visionary look on the future that helped make the new Hong Kong happen.
  • A simple, yet interesting description of the difference between HK’s Capitalist society versus China’s Socialist society.
  • Interesting stories about Jackie Chan, and bus rides past his house and office. Hot.
  • An accurate and informing history of Hong Kong and the various waves of immigration with respect to Chinese influence (ie. Cultural Revolution = Rich people coming to Hong Kong)
  • Honest care and advice for his tour.
  • Money, Money, Money.

In the presentation, I noticed that the tour guide always talked about money. With this, I had to count how many times the he referred to money. It could have been how much something was, making money, how to make money, how much a house was, how much the value of the house has grown, ect. (I usually count the amount of “umms” or “likes” people say while they’re talking if they do it a lot. Just one of those things).

It turned out that he referred to money more than 120 times during the trip.


From how much Jackie Chan bought Bruce Lee’s house for to how much the going rate for a box for your cremated remains, from the taxes on alcohol and cigarettes to how much money he lost during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, he didnt leave anything out.

This vast and consuming discussion about money brought me back to the different conversations I had with my cousin TT during Chinese New Year’s Eve. That night she discussed how much she disliked Shenzhen and its lack of culture. The city was based around finance and didn't have any semblance of culture. Money and how to make it was what everyone talked about.

When I started thinking about it, I realized that this was dead on. I rarely talked about anything with my friend Simon other than which stocks are good, what business models would be successful in China, how to make money, ect. That’s what Shenzhen revolved around (and I guess, that’s what it was built for).

My cousin Ding, who works for the Shenzhen municipal cultural department agreed as well. It seemed that people were brought up differently here. Here’s what he described:

In the north, kids are brought up with the importance of education (me included). The goal that the kid are pushed to strive for is good grades and going to a good college. True merchants were looked down upon and an entrepreneurial mind was discouraged.

In the south, however, school is very seldom stressed. Instead, the goal that the kids know is financial based. Through experience and hard work, maybe you can do something to make a lot of money. Simon, who has lived in Shenzhen all his life, described the various business ventures he did when he was a kid. He and his friends formed at least 2 different small businesses each year based on the timing starting when he was 9. They would go into selling flowers, shoes, book bags, basically anything to make a profit. This is how they grew up. They believed that “learning by doing” was the way to go. If they ended up losing money in the venture, they would just look at that loss as the price of their education.

In my experience, his Ding's statements were dead on. A friend of mine made almost 1 million RMB in a year by doing the arbitrage game with shoes from Shenzhen to the north. He was only 19. Instead of his parents supporting him in his successful business venture, they were disappointed that he didn't go to college and tried to do anything and everything to get him to go. Currently he's at a random university in Australia, fulfilling his parent's wishes. Typical northern family.

This recent understanding of the importance of money in the regional culture of Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Guangdong province in general, has made me feel many different things. I had seen glimpses before but had never quantified it entirely. Now, after this realization, here are my thoughts:

  • I have had off and on feelings of something missing from life in Shenzhen and I think this is it. It’s difficult to talk to people about anything other than money. After 6 months of this, a person thats previously had not focused on money (me) can go crazy.
  • At the same time, this is good for me. I grew up in a strict-academically based home (my mom is a professor and her parents were also professors) and I need to add the entrepreneurial spirit that’s so strong in this area. Learning through experience is definitely apparent.
  • I often try and think/develop business ideas. Moreover, I have a few possibly successful ideas that I’m working on.
  • Where did this focus on money come from? Was it the influence on Guangdong province from Hong Kong or was it formed a long time ago?
  • This is why Guangdong province is so incredibly successful in the world stage. This is not only where Chinese people who want to make money (whether it’s migrant labor trying to get ahead, HK businessmen with capital, ect.), but it is where the world is coming as well. Of course it’s location and proximity to HK has something to do with it as well.
  • I wonder if the culture is similar in the Shanghai region as well. Can anyone who know about Shanghai add their 2 cents?
  • This entrueural spirit feels like pure excitement. There are so many oportunities in China for anyone with a good idea. It is the ability as a person to take advantage of these opportunties. This is a big difference from the seemingly repetitive life of the US and even NYC.

In terms of my experiences, I am most definitely excited about being able to be apart of this. I feel incredibly fortunate. Simultaneously, however, I wonder how my views, observations and insights about Chinese culture is skewed by living in this area where there is only 1 focus. For example, how can I talk about the Chinese worker where the Chinese worker here might be completely money oriented where people in northern China might be totally different in their focus? You just never know.

As much as this lifestyle is different from what I'm used to, its absolutely pure and enjoyable. Who knows what come of my living here... but ultimately, I guess its most immediate effect is that it’s going to make writing this blog that much more interesting and challenging.


Chris Carr said...

Good post!

Kaiser Kuo said...

Alas, the money focus in South China, I'm forced to conclude, is indigenous. And it's also spreading north mighty fast, even up here in the land of the literati elites, Beijing.

Hong Kong didn't infect Guangdong (or Fujian, or Zhejiang and Jiangsu) province with it: the shang ren mentality has been part of the culture for a mighty long time--salt merchants of Yangzhou, the traders of the Fujian coast, the compradores in the treaty ports.

Was a time not long ago where we in Beijing could look down our noses at the philistines further south. But now it's barely possible to hold so much as a casual chat where real estate prices don't creep into conversation. I remember once walking through Shanghai restaurant on the way to my table--must have been in 2001 or 2002--and hearing the phrase "Yi bai wan! come up from at least four or five tables I walked past. Wouldn't surprise me if I heard it in Beijing now.

But if you ask me, it's a necessary stage, if an unpleasant one, that China has to go through. It's not like the wealth of the West can be traced back to Croesus: there've always been arrivistes, the nouveaux riches. Hell, I'm plenty yuppy myself. I've even let my wife talk me into buying an SUV when what I really wanted was a Prius. Ugh.

Mike said...

Yea, that's the thing. It is definitely creeping up from the South up up and away. Being from Harbin in the Northeast originally, I see it everyday. It isnt as much as Shenzhen as I talked about in the post, but it is definitely disconcerting when my 75 year old grandmother is talking about making money soo much. You add the north with it coming into the west and you'll have a country of 商人 and no culture.

Dezza said...

i think a lot of it has to do with the political centre being up north in beijing. guangdong has had a history of being a renegade province oblivious/ignoring what the leadership in the north is saying. its proximity and cultural ties to free-wheeling hong kong definitely helps. there are no hong kongs in the north..

related to this is the fact that places like the northeast relied on the iron rice bowl for all those years...why innovate, work hard and go after the mighty yuan when you can do nothing at your danwei and be taken care of for life?

great observations, mike.

Mike said...

deeza, i completely agree with your view d of guangdong and the north. They are most definitely important contributors to those regions.

In my post, i briefly mentioned Shanghai and other areas. In retrospect, I dont think that's correct. I would argue that the strong focus on money and the lack of culture in shenzhen is so much different than any other place in China (including Shanghai) that a comparison is unfair and inaccurate. It is truly a unique place, in China and the world.

Please check out the discussion of this issue back on

Duncan said...

The culture usually comes as the nouveau riche try and buy credibility with the established aristocracy. What's odd about places like Hong Kong (and this may apply to Shenzhen too) is that the aristocracy is still defined by money/success rather than their elite pursuits. Why hasn't Hong Kong developed a closed circle elite like other places? I'd suggest three reasons: 1) It's still quite young as cities go 2) The past dominance of expats who'd make their money and go 3) That good old confucian tradition of granddaddy making the money, daddy managing it and the third generation squandering it all. Schumpeterian creative destruction in action!

Jeremy said...

Hey Mike,

Shanghai is somewhat similar, but the more I think about it the more it seems to be stronger among Guangdong people.

Know this post is a bit old, but am now writing an article about China and the fire it lights under the ass of your inner entrepreneur and will link to this.

Maybe it's because most of my Chinese friends, even in Shanghai, are from the South that it seemed all of China is this way.

Thinking about ethical ways to make money is capitalism at its finest, nothing wrong with it as long as it doesn't consume you.

So are you leaving or sticking around like you mentioned in your most recent post? I'll probably be back in Shenzhen soon.