A friend of mine just turned me on to a British documentary that aired on Channel 4 back in May – Brits Get Rich In China.

For anyone contemplating exploring business opportunities in China, it should not be missed. An excellent primer, it shows exactly the amount of fortitude, patience and sheer luck you need to be successful here.

The film centers around three businessmen all looking to make their fortunes in the Middle Kingdom. The retired Territorial Army officer hocking his energy saving invention; the mild mannered cushion manufacturer praying just as hard for the concrete to dry at his factory as much as he is for scoring some big orders; and Vance.

With every word out of his mouth a four-letter one, Vance makes the film. He’s rough, tough and not afraid of anything – with the exception of a foot and a half of donkey penis. Meeting Vance on the street you’d be much more likely to assume he was some thug and not a major seller of kitchens and bathrooms.

If you’re not able to track down a copy at your local DVD shop, you can watch it in seven segments on YouTube.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7


  1. Hey, was just about to post on that one.
    Saw this yesterday, and it’s brilliant. Does shed some light on how we look in China, and it’s not a pretty picture. I felt uncomfortable throughout most of the show, especially when the Brits were looking down at and cursing the Chinese. But, as it turns out, Brits are doing a good job in you consider they have no clue about the local language and customs.

    A donkey dick… just perfect.

    (BTW – the videos are too small to watch on this post, might as well put links, or make those a bit bigger)

  2. @fiLi: It didn’t make me cringe, and now reflecting on it, I think the reason why is that I didn’t see it as “looking down on” as much as I saw it as a way for them to cope with the confusion surrounding them. When that young girl asked the guy “What do you sell?” and he just had to shake his head and point at the bazillion cushions behind her… I dunno… I felt his pain. I can’t imagine anyone at a job interview in the West and being that under-prepared.

    As for the size – I’ve bumped them up a tad, but when I had sized them smaller it was because I assumed YouTube’s embedded videos offered the full-screen option – which, apparently, they don’t.

    @Alec: Best of luck with the degree!

  3. Ryan – I have a hard time seeing the Brits’ pain. He’s in the middle of no-where where people earn 5US$ monthly and he’s looking for a self-motivated, fluent English speaker that he can put in charge. “Can I trust you? How do I know I can trust you?” he asks a girl as if asking himself, and you can see -her- pain in wanting to make a better life for her poor family with this wealthy arrogant foreigner. Not to mention the guy who’s cursing nonstop.
    It a sad sad image, which I even see in the wealthier more-modernized Taiwan. Foreigners’ attitude is just shameful. Pure exploitation in mind, colonization all over again.

    Whaoo… didn’t realize I had this much emotion built up in me. 😀

  4. @fiLi: $5/mo.? Bit of an exaggeration I think. Poor, undoubtedly, but it’d be tough to find someone who could live off 30 RMB/mo.

    Granted, I understand what you’re trying to say, and I don’t disagree with it in principle. However, I think that’s where my time in China has changed me.

    I don’t think expecting a certain standard of employee (or applicant even) is wrong in any way. You’re not starting a business as a favour to the people in the town. Business is business, and assuming that a person can figure out what they’ll be selling when there’s a store room full of pillows behind you… well…

    As for arrogance, it knows no borders, and asshole employers are not limited to people of white skin.

    He may be a bit rude, but it’s quite likely that employees in his factory are going to be treated a whole crapload better than they would in a Chinese-run one. Now I don’t know him, so can’t possibly say with any certainty what type of person he is, but the worst exploitation by foreigners in this country pales in comparison to what Chinese “business men” do to their fellow compatriots as standard practice.

    The Brits in this film may treat the Chinese they had to deal with with a certain amount of disdain, but disdain shows that they at least see them as human – I think you’d be hard pressed to find a fatcat Chinese boss that sees his employees as anything more than fuel for his money making machine.

    As for the colonization – the whole reason the cushion guy had to start his business in China was because he couldn’t compete in England and had to close his factory there because his competitors all made the move to China – something China’s policies fully endorse.

    Sorry for the long diatribe, but I get tired of hearing the whole “poor Chinese” thing. To me that’s the ultimate Western arrogance. That girl in the countryside, that guy shipping cracked marble counter tops, those workers at the factory making cheap cabinet doors in Heilongjiang – they all know what they’re doing. They might not have it as good as you or I, but they’re not kiddies in the hands of some pedophile being raped of their innocence due to naivety. They’re adults.

    Now, this isn’t to say that I can’t empathize with the poor in this country, and I’m not trying to make light of poverty. But that has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with foreign businesses in China. No matter how arrogant or opportunistic.

    Foreign businesses, unlike their domestic counterparts, were largely reared in environments that had rules and laws that weren’t bypassable with a dinner and some KTV girls. China’s woes are China’s woes, and I refuse (even if just peripherally due to the colour of my skin and place of my birth) be blamed for them.

  5. oh, I guess we see things VERY different. :O

    I’m a lot more forgiving and accepting towards E-Asian woes – business and general life culture – than I am towards some of the foreigner attitudes regarding those, especially in E-Asia. Has little to do with them being poor (Taiwanese really aren’t), has more to do with respect to somebody else’s culture and ways of doing things.

    I would love to see a documentary about a Japanese going to the American and British countryside, looking for a local who can speak to him in Japanese to open his new Japanese Anime branch. Cushions in English in the Chinese countryside… I don’t know, somehow I have a feeling that the Japanese will behave a bit different.

    Oh well… :S

  6. @fiLi: Forgiving? What’s there to forgive? Don’t get me wrong, I love China. I love living here and I love Chinese people, culture and history. This isn’t about that. This is about Westerners inserting a “poor them” attitude on Chinese to abate some of their fabricated guilt on issues they had nothing to do with.

    In regards to the Japanese in America. Again, in principle I agree with you. And if it was any other language, but English, that this cushion guy was expecting his employees to speak, I think you’d have a very valid point.

    I touched on this a bit in another thread, but for better or worse, English is the interlanguage of choice in the business world. The Brit guy isn’t just expecting his employees to speak English because he wants to do business with other Brits, or Americans or whatnot… he’s expecting it because he knows it opens his showroom up to the whole world.

    The Chinese government recognizes this, which is why English is mandatory learning right from Grade 1 in all public schools. That means that even the most backwater Chinese person has a much better comprehension of English than the most sophisticated Ivy League American does about Japanese.

    The comparisons just don’t hold.

  7. I think your comparison is as in-valid. Comparing an international trained pilot to countryside girls looking for a job doesn’t hold as well.

    I come from a highly educated country that doesn’t use English as native language and I think that to expect fluent English in the countryside is like expecting cowboys to speak fluent Japanese. It is, as you put it, about their unrealistic expectations that English is the “international standard” and that it’s unheard of that anybody would be anything but fluent. They come to China without knowing a single thing about culture or language and expect to make it easier than in the UK. Unrealistic expectations that for 10% the price in the UK they’ll get the same quality assurance and service. Unrealistic, but the amazing thing about China, is that in China it’s sometimes made possible and miracles happen daily – despite all complains, which brings up even more unrealistic expectations.

  8. The point wasn’t to compare pilots to peasants, it was to make reference to the fact that English is the international standard by which nations of all languages communicate with each other – his need for an English-speaking employee is not an unrealistic expectation, no matter what country or what part of that country.

    Perhaps we’re assuming different things. I am assuming that he went through a hiring process similar to Western methodology. An ad was put out emphasizing the requirements of the position, the applicants were narrowed down by a gatekeeper, and he saw the best of the bunch.

    I’ve done interviews in China, and I’m sure anyone else that has will tell you the same. The frustration with applicants doesn’t come from arrogant expectations, they come from realistic expectations not being met.

    He’s not walking around the town and picking on random people’s English – he’s disappointed that these applicants with their flimsy English and overall inability to even discern simple things from their surroundings are the best he’s got to choose from. And he’s got to choose.

  9. Ryan, you make many good points, but in this case you have to climb down and accept what FiLi is telling you. English is not the lingua franca of this world; it is the biggest international language. There’s a difference, and those of us from English-speaking (especially Anglo-Celtic) countries need to grow up and accept that. Is it unreasonable to expect foreigners wanting to do business in China to learn at least something of the local language and culture? No. What is unreasonable is expecting people in China’s less developed regions to suddenly stump up international-level English-speaking business people. Sorry dude, FiLi wins this debate.

  10. @Chris: Perhaps unsurprisingly, I disagree.

    Fili’s point is that it was disgraceful for Mr. Cushion to act the way he did and that he had too high of expectations for some peeps in the countryside. These two things aren’t connected.

    Mr. Cushion didn’t have any expectations for the people in the countryside. He has expectations for his business, and his expectations were not off. He had a need and it wasn’t being met. It wasn’t that he was getting frustrated walking around town while taking in the culture.

    I’m sure he did all that. Did the goofy “knee hows” and “shay shays” and his darnedest to take in the country and its culture – treating all of the people he met with the utmost respect.

    But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about inside his business, hiring for his business.

    I don’t think anyone need apologize for having specific requirements and being frustrated when you’ve spent an afternoon entertaining people that just don’t make the grade.

    I think the point we’re getting twisted on is that we’re assuming Mr. Cushion just hopped off the airplane and expected everyone in China to speak English – I’m sure he didn’t.

    This is a very specific and isolated example, and one that someone had complete control over (I’m guessing his Chinese partner?). He was hiring employees. His expectations are whatever he’d like them to be. If he’d like them all to be able to play the pipa, then so be it.

    Now if he were to go around town and say, “hey, why the hell can’t you play the pipa?” Then fiLi would be absolutely correct in his judgment of this guy. However, people don’t do that – well they do, and they’re assholes… but Mr. Cushion wasn’t.

    People don’t just walk in for a job. They see an ad somewhere or hear about it from a friend. And I’m sure, absolutely certain, that strong English ability would have been on that ad.

    So, if people showed up for a pipa interview and didn’t know the first thing about playing a pipa, well, I don’t know about you, but I’d certainly be asking WTF they were wasting my time for.

    Additionally, how can you say that English isn’t the Lingua Franca of our time? It most definitely is. I’m not saying it should be, and I’m not saying it needs to be – but it definitely is.

    Need proof? Do a search for ESL programs versus every other first initial you can stick on that SL – they don’t even compare.

    Again, I’m not campaigning for it, and since June I’ve even stopped indirectly supporting it. But my opinions of it don’t change what it is.

  11. Ah, this discussion is going nowhere because of the major differences in our perception of the subject. Suffice to say that I disagree with most of what you wrote in that last comment.
    I honestly have a hard time understanding how someone living in China sees things the way you describe them here, but you’re actually saying you started seeing things like that after you got to China and I find that to be very interesting.

    I would be interested to get more from China and Taiwan expats on this issue, I’m just not sure how to ask them for their opinion…

  12. Hi fiLi,

    Let me add some observations. A friend and I started a business selling promotional products a couple of years back, and dealt with a bunch of shops, small Chinese factories, etc.

    Before coming to China, I had a very open mind, and expected things to go well, if different.

    But after coming to China, my view of things changed completely. In fact, if the old me looked at the new me and listened to what he had to say about China, he might say he were stereotyping, maybe even a little racist.

    But after listening to the problems one runs into by doing business in China, you are floored by the amount of shit that can go wrong, how stupid many, many of the people you will deal with are, and things that just blow your mind until you accept the “this is China, anything and everything can go wrong, and don’t expect anything” kind of mentality.

    I used to think this was contained to smaller manufacturers or shops – thinking the bigger companies that dealt with multinationals would be much better. Now, I know better – the quality of Chinese workers in multinationals is quite high, but the quality of Chinese workers at their suppliers is not necessarily so. I’ve encountered too much stuff that makes you wonder if these people want the business hanging in front of them to chalk it up to “cultural differences”.

    And I’ve talked to people who work with even bigger suppliers (and we represent suppliers to the second biggest automotive parts manufacturer in the world) who say they run into similar problems.

    Expecting someone to speak English when a very obvious job requirement is that the person you are hiring speak English is not a bad thing – maybe there is no one living in that area who has the skills this guy was looking for at the salary he was offering – if so you can only blame this guy. But someone who doesn’t know much English shouldn’t be applying for a job that calls for high-level conversational English or the like. They just shouldn’t go to the interview. If this means this business needs to open in a more modernized part of China, so be it.

    fIli – have you done much on the ground business in China? Worked with smaller suppliers? Dealt with all of the crazy things that can go wrong? Tried to start a business in China? Not attacking you here, just asking you to realize that once you do these things your perspective on doing business in China changes forever.

    The reality of the situation is that things are incredibly difficult, and often unfathomable (how could THAT happen? Kind of thing)… and you have no idea how bad it can be until you’ve truly worked in China. Most people sugar coat the reality. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of good suppliers in China – it means there is plenty of sub-standard suppliers to sort through before getting to the best that China has to offer.

    PS – Taiwan has reached a far higher standard of doing business, it’s not fair to directly compare today’s Taiwan and today’s China.


  13. @Ryan: Sorry, dude, I completely forgot I’d left a comment on this post. Alright, I may have misunderstood your point of view. From that last comment of yours, I’m inclined to say both you and FiLi are equally right.

    Oh, oops, I did say English is not the lingua franca of this world. Then I backed it up by saying it’s the biggest international language. I think that’s the key. Most of the world’s people do not speak English, that is a simple fact. English is the biggest and most useful of the international languages, that is also a simple fact. Looking back, I think my point was that those of us from the big Anglo-Celtic countries need to accept that although our native tongue is the most widely spoken, it is still only spoken by a (large) minority of people in this world and we need to drag ourselves out of our rigidly monolingual dreamland. But I don’t need to tell you that, you’re studying Chinese, and for many good reasons.

    To sum up, sorry for forgetting I left a comment here, and sorry for misunderstanding your point of view. But this bit I stand by:

    “Is it unreasonable to expect foreigners wanting to do business in China to learn at least something of the local language and culture? No. What is unreasonable is expecting people in China’s less developed regions to suddenly stump up international-level English-speaking business people.”

    It seems that comment would be more appropriate in a different discussion, though.

  14. @fili: I agree, this is a big topic and one that deserves some solid discussion. Don’t know exactly the best way to get that going – but I have moved this topic to the forums in hopes that it can grow a bit there.

    @Jeremy: All you said is the #1 reason I shiver to think about doing “real” business in China.

    @Chriswaugh_BJ: Was wondering if you were ever coming back 🙂 I agree absolutely that if you start a business in a country, you should by all reasonable standards, attempt to learn the language and culture. That said, business is business and only requires as much cultural understanding as the culture dictates. Fortunately for China (and unfortunately for everyone else) it has a super complicated culture to understand and generally only those that play by the Chinese rules (for better or worse) succeed – which I think the movie showed quite succinctly.

    NOTE: You’re all welcome to continue posting comments about this here – but again, I have moved the topic to the forums where it can grow and branch a bit more.

  15. There’s a lot that I have to say on all of what you wrote, but I think it would be fair to first admit that I haven’t done any business in China what so ever and that my only impression of the subject is through 3rd party discussions and observations, which make my attitude towards this whole subject a lot more distant and less involved, maybe somewhat qualitative academic research style.

    I think it’s tough to do business in any culture that isn’t your own. If you guys would come and try to do business in Israel, you might find a lot of the same difficulties that you’re mentioning here, and I don’t think it’s because anybody would be out to screw you guys intentionally and in specific, it’s just that business is done is a completely different way. Israeli business is very blunt, direct, now-now oriented, relationship-guanxi-based (isn’t that true for everywhere?), shortcut based, somewhat messy, etc. etc. I’ve personally seen British and Canadians go insane in those interactions. I’ve also seen some interesting interactions between Americans and East European countries, which were full of cultural misunderstandings and included a lot of what is mentioned here.
    But, I will try to not stereotype you and include you in the same group as those… I can see that you’ve been through alot.

    Reason I was mentioning Taiwan is because, as odd as that may seem with Taiwan being a very modern and well-developed country, foreigners here say the same thing about Taiwan you are saying about China, especially when it comes to southern-Taiwan where I’m at. Which brings me to believe that this isn’t only about living-standards and economy, but rather something inherent in the way things are done and culture is experienced. I will also admit that it troubles me to hear about this and that I have a hard time understanding it…

    This is a terrific discussion. It actually has a lot to do with what I plan to deal with in my PhD.

  16. FiLi,

    Right away, credit goes to you for admitting that you haven’t done business here. An important clarification, and one that explains why you feel the way you do about certain matters.

    There are 193 countries in the world, plus China. China IS different. And there is no way anyone can ever even begin to understand the how’s and why’s of it until after they have lived here, done business here, been fucked over repeatedly here, for quite some time. I have tried in vain to explain it to newly-arrived people, they always leave thinking I am a looney, only to come back to me after a year or two and say how much they wished they’d listened better.

    Anyway, good luck with your PhD, and if you are ever in this benighted corner of the universe, look me up. First drink is on me.

  17. I manage about 12 vendors in china and travel 3 or more times a year to manage problems and financials. I am an american and quite proud of my chinese vendors,many of whom i found and started up myself.

    I have had nothing but the hardest of work form them and excellent product. Yes issues have arisen on quality and cost an all the usuals, but I have not once been able to work them out.

    To go to China and take a bubble of your own world with you to live in is disastrous. I have not seen the show, but I did read all the above postings, and that is what it sounds like they were doing. Trying to fit thier own bubble of business understanding and lifestyle as a layover of protection from the chinese while getting them to do what he needs. Either go all the way in or stay out. Work on thier terms, in their country. Find a factory that fits your needs, do not try to fix a factory into what you want it to be. It cannot work.

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