Pop quiz: how long does it take to visit a factory in China? One hour, three hours? Nope! How about 2 full days? Oh, and it included complimentary accommodation, meals, drinks and even a massage. Maybe my visit was an exception to the rule but hey, you don’t hear me complaining. Jump in the passenger’s seat and let me tell about doing business in China and the story of this extraordinary Shanghai factory visit.
As you might know, I’m quite the entrepreneurial type. In early 2013 I decided to set up an eCommerce website selling kettlebells, which are basically cannon balls with handles used for strength and cardio training. After a little research I found lots of steel factories in China who made them, and I decided to contact a few.
We fast-forward to mid 2013. I’m once again on the road, this time cruising through East and Central Asia. I have kept in touch with Bill, one of the kettlebell suppliers. It’s hard to explain why, but I find it adorable that some Chinese (and other Asian) people choose a common Western name next to their birth name. Since I plan to visit Shanghai and the factory isn’t far away, I reach out to Bill to arrange a visit. I receive a welcoming email the next day (grammar and formatting left in tact):
At our meeting point a big white Isuzu pickup truck is parked up. The doors open when I approach, and a young looking Bill steps out to greet me. One thing I immediately notice is his relatively good level of English. The minute I get in the car Bill drops a kettlebell in my lap. “This is our product”, he proudly says. I inspect the kettlebell and notice that the plastic handle is cracked at a crucial spot. “Oh. We can look into that together later”, Bill replies after I make a subtle remark about it. We start driving towards the factory.
After a couple of hours and a few (complimentary) food stops I start to worry a bit about about the time. I had expected the factory to be an hour away, but we were already a good 3 hours on the road. Then again I hadn’t checked the location of the factory on a map before. “How far is it?”, I ask Bill. “Only an hour away now”, he replies. I realize that he had just driven the same distance (300 km / 190 miles I now know) just to pick me up from downtown Shanghai and I get a bit anxious: does he think I’m going to sign the deal of the year today?
Bill is definitely a salesperson. His phone rings constantly, and even though he is driving he doesn’t leave a call unanswered. At one point he even held a second phone to his ear without using a bluetooth headset. All conversations are in Chinese, which gives me the comfort of switching off my thinking brain and enjoying the scenery outside. Which, in this case, is a 5 lane highway. Too bad.
Bill’s driving is very offensive. Remember the example I gave in a previous article about China where big cars honk their horns and flash their lights so that the cars in front will move over? That was mainly based on Bill. I learn that even though Bill is only 26 years old, his schedule of 7 x 12+ hours doesn’t allow him hardly any time off.
Suddenly Bill pulls over. “I have to pick up a client to discuss some business”, he tells me. A middle-age balding man takes a seat in the back and without any introduction (I later learn that he doesn’t speak a word of English) begins a long conversation with Bill in Mandarin.
Meanwhile, I have to remind myself that I’m on a business trip. On more than one occasion I want to recline my seat and put my feet on the dashboard. Then again, this isn’t your typical business trip.
The last remarkable event before we arrive at Bill’s boss’ office is a grandma fearlessly crossing the 5-lane highway. Ah, China…
Bill’s boss’ office doesn’t look like much except for a solid wooden table with built-in hot water tap, which I’m guessing is a symbol of status here. He welcomes me dearly and sits me down for a tea ceremony. I watch as he filters the tea over and over again, throwing the “dirty” water back into the sink. Once Mr. Bossman’s introduction speech is finished we get on the move again to (finally) see some factories. “Oh, and this is for later”, Mr. Boss tells Bill while handing him a bottle of Beijou (rice wine).
The first factory we visit is owned by Bill’s brother (age undisclosed, but I’d guess probably about the same as Bill). I meet him in his office together with his wife and child. Bill presents the (broken) dummy kettlebell he showed me at the start of this adventure, and both him and his brother take a good hard look. “We can fix it if we put a metal plate here instead of plastic”, Bill’s brother tells me. I nod sheepishly.
The factory is as grimy as I thought it would be. The lighting is dim, the floors are dirty and the machines make repetitive and mind-numbing thuds. Bill proudly takes me around every station of the process, showing me how the metal is crafted into dumbbells, olympic bars and wrist grips.
The second factory on our route is one that produces plastic and rubber and, to be honest, does look a lot cleaner than the first one. This is where they make the rubber grips for the steel bars, and where they craft the fitness accessories made from plastic. He gives me a brief tour and sits me down in an office.
I spend a lot of time waiting. Either Bill has to take care of some business, some personal matters or he is trying to find solutions to fix the broken kettlebell. He seems proud when he presents his solution which should make the kettlebell hold together. I get a little bit anxious, as it looks like he’s doing me a favor I have to return according to the rule of reciprocation.
The evening slowly creeps in and we leave the rubber factory’s office to get some dinner nearby. Well, better to call it a feast. We get ushered into a private room where we are sat at a large round table with a heavy-looking glass plate on top of it. As more dishes appear from the kitchen, I find out that the glass plate is meant to rotate. This way, you can try all the dishes in a buffet-like matter without ever getting up. The food is great and local; probably some of the best Chinese food I’ve eaten in China. Forget Kung Pao chicken for a second (the dish doesn’t even exist in China) and think of steamed vegetables, mushrooms and some assorted (edible pieces of) meat. Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures, as I had to still pretend to be a potential client and not a sightseeing backpacker.
As I’m reaching the point of near explosion, the bottle of Beijou that was given us by Bill’s boss is put on the table. I am expected to drink this pure, strong (40% alcohol) and not too tasty liquor. It seems that the aim is to finish the bottle. I have two (full) glasses and politely refuse a third one. Bill and his brother are having none of it, and peer-pressure me into a third one. Bill’s brother seems pleased and starts speaking to me in Chinese. Bill translates: “I only trust people who know how to handle a drink, well done”.
I start to worry a little bit since there isn’t any mention of a ride back, and it’s getting way too late to even consider driving home (also, my ride home was drunk). Luckily Bill had thought of everything, and we head to a nearby four-star hotel. To save some costs, Bill proposes to share a room. I immediately refuse the offer and call him out on skimping on my entitlements.
Just kidding, of course. I would have accepted sleeping in his car next to the highway.
Before we part with Bill’s brother, he decides to buy us an hour-long massage. So there we are, laying head-down next to each other while our ears are getting cleaned and awkward jokes are being made. At this point I’m not even that surprised any more. What’s next, bungee jumping? Sure! I feel utterly spoiled.
On day two we get up early to face the long drive home. As a parting gift, Bill gives me a pair of Batman socks. “A client gave these to me, you want ’em?”. It seems the perfect ending to a long and intense day and a half of ‘business’.
I end up not doing business with Bill, but it certainly wasn’t because of his extraordinary hospitality.