Simon Carr: The Kitchen Capitalist

Chinese whispers have given me a nasty jolt
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The Independent Online

My trip to China was time and money well spent. You can't beat actually going there. Though it raises as many questions as it answers. Why aren't Chinese people yellow, for instance? They always used to be yellow, when I was young. We hear about the pace of change. China makes all Gucci's handbags, and Armani's suits and Zegna's ties - maybe that's why it's acquired an Italian colouring?

Generalisations of this sort are no longer in favour but we ignore them at our peril. There's that one about only doing business with people they've had lunch with. I took that to heart and went to meet Warren, the sales director of the factory in Guan Dong City. It's miles away from anywhere and feels further than it is. Broad boulevards are lined with nondescript concrete buildings.

Through an interpreter our driver said he earnt $50US a month. He's been doing this job for five years and hopes never to leave it. He knows he ought to do a course but the money's so good as it is. Too good in fact; manufacturing is moving to Vietnam, where costs are lower.

Two conflicting thoughts occur to me almost at once. 1) Why don't I tip this fellow a week's wage? And 2) Shouldn't I be getting my product manufactured in Vietnam?

They work all the time. So would you. There's nothing else to do in Guan Dong. There's just time for lunch. Then after our bonding, as we call it these days, I came home. Warren is a nice young man with 10 years of life in Canada. Nonetheless, he has a funny way of greeting you on the phone. His voice is low with surprised respectfulness. It's as if he'd heard you were dead and you've rung him from the other side. It's flattering but faintly alarming as well (you haven't been informed about being dead, after all).

It was this voice that really did alarm me when I got back. Warren had confirmed they were on track to make the second prototype for 19 September. Everything had been assembled. The foam model they had to copy; the chips; the integrated circuit (because it's not a toilet brush I'm making here)... it was something in his last e-mail that just niggled. After three follow-up e-mails I had to ring him and got the full force of the "You're Not Dead?" tone. It's all been a terrible misunderstanding. They have been working on re-doing the first prototype (but why? I didn't ask). The engineers are very busy. It's the peak season. My job is very small. I keep changing my mind. The freight costs more than the prototype. They're out of pocket on the job. I'm a nuisance.

But you see, I've had lunch with Warren so he is powerless to deny me anything. Is that how it works in China? Or has that changed as well?