Sunday, September 18, 2005
A Simple Afternoon
I was having a writer’s block when Owen called right after lunch, “do you remember the bar TV company I mentioned to you once? The one backed by some Swedish investment?” “Oh yeah,” I answered, always embarrassed at my weak memory. “You should meet them. How about we meet in their lobby in an hour?” he said. Tired of browsing through New York Times online, I agreed.
I met Owen a month ago when I chanced upon his bar. I took my two Australian colleagues to a well-known pickup joint in Beijing. Owen’s bar was right across, with a bright blue poster of a half-naked guy on it. I found out later that the bar had just turned gay in order to attract new clientele. Having always wanted to do a documentary on the Beijing gay scene, I talked to Owen, part-owner and manager of the bar, about the possibility of following the transformation of his bar on camera. We hit it off quite well. He allowed me free access to tape the weekend male strip show (a Beijing first!), and introduced me to many of his gay friends.
“Why am I meeting this company?” was the first thing I asked when he arrived at the lobby. “Since you are also in the media business, it’s always helpful to meet others in the industry.” Owen’s insistent friendliness was convincing, even though I could not see the synergy between a tech company delivering video to bars and my documentary filmmaking. He was sporting a long spiky hairdo, wearing tight gray jeans, a pink T and a white embroidered blazer over it. He introduced me to a young Japanese French girl, a friend of his and a party/event planner who was also being chaperoned on this connection making tour. “After this, we will go to Metropolis and City Weekend (two popular expat magazines) to meet the publishers,” he looked at his watch, “it should be a fully packed afternoon.”
We met the Marketing Director in the conference room. Owen was apparently a good friend of the Swedish general manager and visited the office often. He introduced me as this guy who had lived in the US for a long time and who’s now back in China doing filmmaking and other media-related projects; with his own media company, he made a point to highlight. The Marketing Director, who was really sweet and patient, explained the business model – the company was installing TV screens in bars and restaurants as part of the platform to deliver entertainment content, advertising and interactive mobile phone applications to the moneyed class.
Before we left, Owen mentioned to the Director casually, “I think I’ll talk to Simon (the general manager) when he gets back. He can definitely fire two or three of the employees in the content group and hire Mr. Wu. Mr. Wu has a lot of experience with foreign media and would contribute greatly to the operation.” But since when I started looking for a job?
The next stop was Metropolis, an English-language magazine with an all-Chinese staff except for an American editor. The company also did event planning, brand promotion, book publisher and many other synergistic commercial activities. The publisher was a warm and talkative Beijing lady in her 40s.
“How about a book on the cultural dilemmas of overseas Chinese who live comfortable middleclass lives in America?” I proposed while we were discussing the hyper-competition in China’s publishing business. She had just proclaimed that “the competition is intense in China, much more intense than in the US. In fact, it’s brutal!”
“My instinct is,” she countered in that fast and emphatic style common among Beijingers, “it won’t work.”
“Why? Aren’t Chinese always interested in and aspire to the lifestyles of Chinese overseas? Parents are always sending their kids to foreign countries for education, hoping a much better life for the kids. It’s time for them to be told that the reality is not all rosy.”
“But you see,” she assumed this slightly condescending you-don’t-know-China air, “Chinese people don’t want realities. They want dreams and fantasies!” We shared a laugh at her exclamation, and she continued, “the more you tell them that the outside is wonderful, farther than they could reach, the better the book would sell.” She blew back a streak of air that had shifted over her forehead during the laughter, “I tell you what will sell in China. You go to America and interview some young and successful geniuses. Of course not famous ones like Bill Gates. Everyone knows his story already. Give a positive account how the geniuses came to be, and every parent in China will buy the book.”
I laughed hard at the familiarity of her observation, “yeah, I know, my parents were like that with me and they are doing that again to my niece.”
“See, this is China,” she chuckled as well, “everyone is scheming to better themselves, to associate themselves with better people. That’s why social clubs are so popular in China. People making one hundred thousands want to meet their likes so they can help each other make more. People making millions socialize with others making millions. It’s not just China though. I read the story of the British prince and his commoner girlfriend. The girl’s mother had started planning a long time ago for her daughter to get in high society. She moved her to the right neighborhood, the right school, and taught her the necessary social etiquettes. Now she’s dating a royal! If you could write a book on how to prepare kids for high society, that would definitely sell!”
We arrived at City Weekend, our last stop, close to 6pm. Late Friday afternoon, the open-cubicle office was still bustling with group meetings and people typing away at their computers. The English-language magazine had been acquired by a Swiss company and now the company was publishing many other consumer and trade magazines; Owen’s brand-manager friend explained to us while giving us a tour of the office.
We moved to a café downstairs and sat down. The Japanese French girl showed the brand manager photos of the parties she had organized. While they brainstormed about co-promotional event opportunities, Owen asked me about whether “Saint Borger” could be a good name for a marketing agency he’s starting.
“What marketing agency? I thought you were doing the gay bar.”
“I haven’t told you?” Owen replied casually while keying a text message on his mobile phone, “I have several businesses going on. I started a real estate agent business; my father is managing that. I just started a cosmetics distribution business for my mother so she doesn’t have to idle. This marketing agency was set up because I got two brand promotion deals, one worth ten million and the other five million Renminbi.”
His phone rang. He picked it up and talked for a while, on some “big” spa business in the suburb of Beijing. He then returned to me, “the bar TV company we visited in the afternoon wanted to borrow me for a month to train their sales staff. And this spa business,” he glanced at his phone, “is starting in November. But I always make a plan to set aside a couple of days a month to meet friends and business partners, like today.”
“How about the gay bar business? You will still work on that?”
“That one has been put on hiatus,” he lit a cigarette and shared a laugh with the other two on some acquaintance they all knew before continuing with me, “the three partners had some, let’s just say, different opinions on management control. Me, and another partner, are letting the one with the big ego to run the business. We’ll see how far he could go with it. That’ll teach him a lesson.”
“So no more strip dance? And no more PR?” My heart sank as the smoke from his cigarette rose up; it’s my third attempt of starting a new documentary and I hoped it wouldn’t fall through like the previous two.
“No. Nothing. I stopped all the promotional activities. In order for the bar to be successful, we have to be clear who’s in charge.” He covered his mouth while giving out a loud yawn. “But don’t you worry. I have yet another friend who wants to invest a few million to start an ultra-modern gay bar. It’ll be a lot better than any of the gay bars in town.”
It was getting dark and the street lights slowly came on. I felt dizzy after a whole afternoon of business ideas and connections. Beijing, as always, was brimming with new schemes and myriads of possibilities and the people tirelessly pursuing them. I finished my coffee and looked at the other three still discussing the state of publishing in Beijing, and I hoped among all the worthy pursuits, I could find one that’d be interesting enough and last long enough for me to follow.