China 1990: The Soul of an Entrepreneur

(Author’s Note: When the future seems uncertain, our natural tendency is to think about the past. For me, the past is a long and amazing career traveling all over the world. I cherish so many of my experiences, and this one is at the top of my memory list. This was a life-changing experience

 Most of all, I have had the rare privilege of seeing a country in Asia, with a longer tradition than any other, but which had “lagged” for a hundred years which went from world leader to barely modern to world leader. I hope that sharing these stories will give some perspective on the world we now share with those who were, as people, less than an afterthought to some in the past.

Background: I was attending Dominican College (now Dominican University of California) as a student in the Pacific Basin Studies Master’s Program. At that time, the college had an exchange program with the China Jiangsu Province Government to send students to the college to study for a newly created MBA program.

After the events of 1989 in China, the government decided that it was not going to let any more students travel abroad for this program. What they said was that, if the College was willing to continue the program, it would have to be done in China.

So, after all the tenured professors all refused to go, and, since I had overseas business experience, the college reached down the food chain to the students-  I was asked if I would consider going to teach 2 subjects for a period of 6 months in Wuxi, Jiangsu, China.

There was only a small stipend attached to this program; after weighing the nearly zero economic benefit against the experience, I decided that the experience would be once-in-a-lifetime, and I should do it. i had traveled to many other countries in Asia, but this would be my first experience in China.

So, armed with what I thought I would need to be comfortable for 6 months, I set off for Wuxi in January of 1990.

After a long and uncomfortable ride from San Francisco on a Chinese airline, I arrived in Nanjing, a city big enough to have an airport (there weren’t many).

This was like no airport I had ever seen; in fact, it did not look like an airport at all. A wide expanse of concrete, at the end of which was a building the size of most people’s bedroom- the terminal.

As I walked toward the building, I saw a lone man taking the luggage off the plane and placing (or, rather, tossing) the luggage onto a cart that looked like it should have been drawn by two mules.

Inside the building there was also concrete, one big room with nothing but a small, knee-high steel rail to separate the passengers from their luggage. When the man finished unloading, he pulled the cart into the room. Then he left.

Unaccustomed to this type of service, I waited for someone else to come to at least take the piled luggage off the cart. Nobody came. Now people had massed at the cart, unceremoniously yanking their stuff off the cart, with no regard to what happened to other luggage they displaced.

Not like any airport I ever saw. I soon realized that, if I didn’t get in there and elbow with the rest of the passengers, my luggage would be thrown around, stepped on or worse. So, I got into the fray and retrieved my stuff.

Fortunately, Dean Wang was there to meet me. After a rather long ride in a small van, we arrived at The Jiangsu Province Cadre Institute. It was a campus of 3 main buildings in a small section of Wuxi, outside the main “city” that bordered on a small finger of Tai Lake which was a home to small fish farming and near a tourist site called Turtle Head Park.

The buildings were: A dormitory, A dining facility, and a classroom building. I was to stay in the same dormitory as the students, except with the privilege of having my own room, on the 4th floor.

The room was furnished with a bed, desk and chair, small dresser and night table as well as the ubiquitous hot water bottle. The chair was a straight chair in typical Chinese pattern. The bedding was Chinese style, including a thick comforter that must have weighed 30 pounds.

On the floor was a carpet; it looked old, dirty and seedy. I was given the carpet as a “special privilege” as all the other rooms had a concrete floor. The carpet was not tacked down, and when I lifted a corner of it, I was greeted by dozens of little scurrying insects.

Since I had just arrived, I was the object of great attention from my students, who were with me when I made this discovery. So, I immediately asked them, help me. We extracted the rug from under the furniture, rolled it up and tossed it out the window! Then we mopped the concrete floor with hot water. (This was the first of several head-shaker acts during my tenure at the Institute)

Since I had just arrived, Dean Wang invited me to dinner at his home. I don’t remember all the dishes we had, but I do remember one of them vividly: Dean Wang asked me, “Do you like Turtle?” I answered yes, having tried it in Florida before. But what came was a sight that I will never forget: Two turtles, about 12 inches in length, lying belly up in a very large bowl of soup. Not what I expected!

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A bowl of soup

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Maybe as a consolation or because I had revealed my shock, Dean Wang told me that this type of turtle was Chinese Medicine food and could even cure cancer. Somewhat comforted, I set about eating the turtle, most of which was bony like a chicken neck- yet very delicious- best described as chicken with umami. Then, I was given the privilege, as the honored guest, to pick the small bits off the inside of the shell.

For drinks, I was introduced to the local baijiu (Chinese for “white wine). The only resemblance to white wine was its color; when the small bottle was opened, a small puff of alcohol fumes emerged, along with an indescribable aroma that can only be described as alcohol combined with a sweet, acrid herbal smell. This event later became endeared to me as “jet fuel.”

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The taste was no better than the smell. First you had to get it close to your nose before drinking, which it unceremoniously invaded. Then you needed to shoot the whole shot glass (this was not sipping wine!). (Mind you, there are “gourmet” Baijiu in China even to this day, as it is still the number one alcohol consumed in the country. What I tried was at the other end of the spectrum).

Nobody who has ever tried this stuff will ever forget the first swallow; not only is the first swallow memorable, but the taste can linger in your mouth and burps for days. It can only be described as a burn followed by a bigger burn. I am proud to say that, after that, I had the sacrificial fortitude to endure many tastes of the stuff and as many drinking bouts.

So, that was my first taste of real Chinese food and Chinese dinners. Many hundreds, even thousands (didn’t count), to come. As food is such an important part of my life even today, this memoir will be liberally peppered with food. Some of which was great, some of it just so-so, a little bit really bad.

I had 43 students under my care. All had to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) test to qualify for the Institute. That said, there were maximum 10 that could understand me well. My first teaching experience: MBA courses with a majority of students who couldn’t understand me. One thing that I learned quickly, which serves me to this day as a professor, is to distinguish by facial expression between those who understand and those who don’t; the former can be described as a blank stare or deer in the headlights; while the latter clearly display the opposite, as in I get it, yes.

Of course, there were no Powerpoints in those days- just mouth and blackboard; so, since all were ESL (English as a Second Language) I learned to speak Slowly and Carefully, and, as much as possible, in Simple English (there was a radio program on Voice of America, which was short wave  radio and the only outside communication possible, with that title).

The courses I was to teach were Macroeconomics and Political Science, in that order. Each was a 3-month intensive program and to be taught using the Chinese Text (imported materials not permitted) which, more often than not, got it wrong.

I don’t know how or why I thought of this, but on the first day of class, I asked my class to look up the definition of entrepreneur in their Chinese-English Dictionary. The only definition that could be found was manager. I promised my students that, by the end of my tenure, they would understand the correct definition.

It is ironic that China, starting about 10 years later, redefined and customized entrepreneurship to their political and social system,  and grew their economy at a record-breaking pace; I like to think that I played one small part in laying the groundwork for that. They didn’t really know it at the time, but many of my students had the soul of an entrepreneur; given the opportunity, they would seize the day and be very successful.

Classes took place 6 days a week from 8 a.m.-12 p.m. I had secured a consulting project from Swift Denim (my Levi’s background helped with that), so I had something to do in some of the afternoons. Part of that foray was usually a meal at a restaurant with good quality Wuxi Cuisine (more about this later).

But the meals at the Institute were not Cuisine, barely could be called food,  which as well as the cooking style could only be described as I-don’t-give-a-shit-what-this-tastes-like. Actually, I was forced to eat the same food as my students- which I didn’t mind, other than the horrible taste, but the taste of the food became even worse because I was forced to eat alone in a drab room which looked prison-ish. I was isolated because I was given more of whatever-it-was, and the administrators did not want the students to see that.

Poor students- not only did they have to eat this nasty stuff, but they didn’t get enough to fill their bellies. Poor me- as a contrast to what I had already eaten in my life, I was hypersensitive to how bad it was.

After two weeks straight of eating this stuff, I complained to Dean Wang. He kindly said he would talk to the kitchen about the taste and the dishes. The result of his talk, as would be expected, was nil. No improvement, not the fault of the cooks- they didn’t have anything better to offer, especially given their budget.

What was worse, the cooks were fermenting some doufu  (soy bean curd) outside in the sun, which took on an indescribable rotten smell after several days. The final dish was to be Chou Doufu, which I later learned some respect for, but at this time it was a smell that induced you to give up breathing.

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And then something happened which turned out to be my last straw in the Institute dining experience. On one restaurant trip, I was introduced to a dish called Ba Bou Fan, translated as Eight Jewels Rice. It was composed of different types of rice and grains, had a dark color due to the wild rice content, and was pleasantly sweet. I expressed my enjoyment of the dish. One of my students who accompanied me and who knew (everybody did) of my food concerns, related my enjoyment to Dean Wang. Immediately after that, I began to get a ‘hood version of Ba Bou Fan 3 times a day!

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Okay. Enough. What to do? I decided that the best solution to not eating bad food was not to eat it. So, the American Teacher went on a hunger strike. Dean Wang scolded me for doing so, and my answer to him was that, if he didn’t want me to starve and die on his watch, he better find me a decent place to eat.

So, the next day, I was given a new lease on life. Dean Wang informed me that I would be allowed to eat 2 meals a day at a local restaurant not far from the institute; I was even given a little old bicycle to get there, which became my own vehicle while at the Institute.

The restaurant name was Hong Bou Yuan. I was told by my students that the chef had worked for Chou En Lai in the past. It may have been true, because the food was amazing, as was the lesson in Chinese cuisine (yes, this qualified) and how to really eat with chopsticks (not just fool around with them, as most of us did at Chinese restaurants in the US).

I remember some of the dishes, which were never the same twice. One in particular that comes to mind was the fish ball soup- little quenelles of mild white fish in a gentle broth. Perfectly formed little balls of fishy goodness, with fresh tomato wedges floating along.

A bowl of soup

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Not so delicate was when I was given a half chicken with only chopsticks as tools. How to manage? I tried my best- one of my lessons, no doubt, but the real answer was to tear the mother apart with your hands.

The restaurant itself was one pretty large dining room. Every day I arrived there for lunch before noon to sit in my own little table near the kitchen- the only Lao Wai in the place, for sure. The balance of patrons were local factory workers and managers. They stormed in en masse at noontime and were solidly drunk from baijiu ten minutes later. I imagined they would all have productive afternoons.

My evenings were consumed with- nothing. No TV, and the only radio that was receivable on my boom box was Short Wave- In English only the Voice of America, for less than one hour. What did I do with the rest of my time? Become adept at typing on a computer keyboard (yes, they had those, not sure what their point was), ping pong, and Uno.

There was another teacher who overlapped with me in Wuxi- let’s call her Celia- She was a young student who was selected to teach English. We overlapped by about a month. This was great for me in the beginning, and, after I got my bicycle, was an excuse for some fun “prison breaks” as we were not supposed to leave the Institute. One flimsy no-speed bike for two adults was a challenge, but neither of us cared.

We started by crossing the bridge into the main town area to a local hotel called the Hubin (Lake View), which was exclusively for foreigners and even had some imported booze, which was not available in Wuxi otherwise. After a few weeks dry, I was down for that!

Another adventure that we both loved was to visit the local Peking Duck joint (Beijing Kao Ya). There we could order a whole duck for 30 RMB (which was less than four bucks, as I remember), with a complimentary soup made from the duck bones and cabbage). Delicious.

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A bowl of soup

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And at that restaurant, I was introduced to a dish that I know very few Westerners really like, but that I love to this day- duck Tongue. A little piece of delicate meat on top of the flat tongue cartilage is a great munch! My training in Coney Island provided me with a ready “yes” and appreciation of the weird-looking food. Would you eat this?

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A couple of years later, I went back to find this restaurant, and found that it had been replaced by- a highway. 1990 was the beginning of the jumping off point for China. Modernization without pity continues even to this day.

I was generally impressed with the smarts and maturity of my students- the ones I could easily communicate with- as well as their open minds. I am not sure the government would have approved of what I was telling them all the time, but- as it turned out- I was preparing them for what would be the future of China, which was pretty much a known unknown at that time. We knew that changes were coming, but the nature and extent was something we knew we didn’t know.

Here’s how smart and pragmatic they were: The first exam I did was typed onto a mimeograph sheet (duplicated over an inked and stenciled roller drum). I didn’t collect the original from the drum, and was surprised the next day to find out that everyone got all the answers right; The next time I threw away the carbon, but they extracted the answers from the roller drum; Finally, I figured out that the only safe harbor for the test was in my head.

In addition to the classroom time, we lived in the same dorm, so we had lots of time to chat at night. The insight I gained during that time into the heart and soul of Chinese people was and still is invaluable to me. Even as an American who grew up in Brooklyn and later moved to San Francisco, to me Chinese folks were primarily restaurants and laundries; beyond that, I never had the chance to see. Now I did, living with my students.

One student in particular and I became fast friends. His name was Tan Qiliang, a Shanghainese who was to become, after I finished the teaching assignment, my business partner and a great friend. Along with his fiancee Miss Rong (never did know her first name), he, I later learned because of his upbringing, reached a level of sophistication that was rare in China at that time, and her bloodline was one of the leading political families in China in the early years of the Deng Xiao Ping “to get rich is glorious” era- one of her relatives became Mayor of Shanghai and later rose to some key posts in Beijing.

This friendship led the way to many experiences and adventures in the three years after I finished my teaching, at which time I started a company with my uncle in Florida, a retired man who made a small fortune in the printing business.

But the China of 1990 is unimaginable to those who travel to China in the present day, and even to those Chinese who are too young to remember (some of my present students at NYU).

What was the China of 1990 like?

To begin with, a country in the throes of modernization, by government fiat, but without the money and investment, as well as outside learning, to really break out. The typical scene in downtown Wuxi was of myriad bicycles and almost no cars. Old people wearing their Maoist uniforms (no chance to buy anything different even if they were inclined to), sitting in the sun discussing who-knows-what-old-people-discuss, children going to school with their cute uniforms, and excited because learning English was becoming a requisite.

(At the time, I was, for many of the residents of Wuxi, which is only a few hundred km from Shanghai, the first foreigner they had ever seen). When I waited at the train station, for example, I drew crowds of 50-100 people who all wanted to get a close look at a foreign face. And they did get close. Like what we NYers would call in your face.

But the youth of China knew something important was happening, and they were thrilled to be part of it. The framework for business was in their DNA, and they were passionate about the opportunities that their parents had never been given; through infrastructure and policy change, a new China was created.

Wuxi itself was small shops, small roads, and happy people, which was later erased in an instant of road or rail building. Sometime later, I returned to the same locations I had gone to as a teacher, only to discover that they were now a Highway.

Lest I forget- the food- marvelous. Beyond Peking Duck, the local specialties were;

          Wuxi Paigu- Succulent and sweet pork ribs- not your Cantonese style, much richer;

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          “Eel mountain”- Eel (yes, eel, delicious) fillets arranged and pasted together with a sweet glaze until they form the shape of a volcano;

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          Silverfish- Tiny white fish that look at you with both eyes and are lovely in soup;

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          Drunken Shrimp- live shrimp that are immersed in baijiu and get so drunk they are jumping for joy, right out of the bowl. Eat them with soy sauce dip, still live as they continue to wriggle in your mouth.

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          There are lots more, and it is mouthwatering to remember every single one of them.

Let’s talk about infrastructure for a minute. Wuxi is about 135 kilometers (about 84 miles) from Shanghai. IF I took the train from Wuxi train station to Shanghai, it took 3 hours. If I had a car, it might not be much better (today the high-speed rail can reach Wuxi from Shanghai Hongqiao Station in less than 45 minutes). My only choice of transportation was hard seat or soft seat, which were just like what they sounded like.

Shanghai itself was, as it has always been, the most sophisticated city in China; but not even a close resemblance to what one sees today. What remained from China’s Golden Time before WWII was the Bund; other than that, Shanghai was a village of small and unremarkable structures.

Here’s a picture of Nanjing Road in 1990, which is now the Fifth Avenue of Shanghai (notice the absence of cars)

Nanjing Road today, much of which is a pedestrian mall with hundreds of shops:

A view of a city street

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And the nearby People’s Square Park, which was formerly a racecourse:

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And, the controlled impoverishment of Maoist governments in the past had taken Shanghai, from one of the world’s great cities (which it, to the credit of its citizens and the government, it is again today) to a suburban village with little or no difference from other outlying cities.

Why did I want to travel to Shanghai?

For one, to escape from the confined environment at the Institute; second, in a desperate attempt to find some small semblance of the sophistication and choice I was used to; but, most important, because if I wanted to drink water  other than the nasty boiled water I was provided, which must be drunk hot (something it took me many years to get used to), as opposed to cold, as in the West, and to drink any other kind of booze than the local baijiu, I had to visit the Shanghai Friendship Store, which was the only place (that and Beijing) which was allowed to sell imported goods to foreigners- only foreigners.

In my restaurant meals with factories, I was cruelly pushed to drink entire bottles of the nasty baiju (they thought they could get me drunk, but it was fruitless, considering my extra weight and Russian/East European heritage)So one time I decided to pull a small prank (revenge?) on the locals by offering them free Stoly at dinner. Because it tasted like water compared to Baijiu, all of them proceeded to become dead drunk in a few minutes. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed their discomfort, and that this wasn’t the last prank of my career:-)

So this procurement ended up as a weekly pilgrimage of more than six hours total duration to visit Shanghai for “supplies.” This became more urgent and desperate as my comfortable American lifestyle was further upturned. For example, I understood that I could not take a coffee maker with me; so how to drink coffee? My solution, which I thought was brilliantly insightful at the time, was to bring Italian coffee, and a coffee pot which could be turned upside down to produce drip coffee from hot water. Great idea, right? No. First, the only water available was boiled water, which tasted nasty; second, what I brought was not enough for six months. Stupid, right? Yes.

And so developed my life in Wuxi- weekdays teaching enthusiastic and genuine students (which I loved from day 1), and weekends trying to salvage some semblance of my lifestyle with Stolichnaya vodka and French (Evian) water. 6 hours to find booze and water. Worth it? Abso-frickin-lutely.

Of course, I could not just turn around once I got there. So I booked a one-night stay in the Huating Sheraton Hotel (which is still there today and in Xujiahui, a very populated and crowded area of Shanghai, near IKEA (who? at that time), so I could have the opportunity to see one of the world’s most famous cities.

So what did I discover? With Mr. Tan’s (I always called him this) help, I was able to travel around Shanghai and see what I had no idea existed- The Bund, People’s Square, Nanjing Road, the Shanghai no. 1 department store, my first experience with Pandas, and his parent’s home which including my first experience with Gong Fu Tea.

Nanjing Road is of particular interest to me. Years later, I lived on Nanjing Road, and it is a marketplace for the world’s best watch brands, designers and top-end retail with high office buildings and multi-story malls. Then, it was a country bumpkin place to gather and buy something like frozen chicken feet from the US (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and go home to your walkup apartment.

Mr. Tan’s family lived on Nanjing Road in a walkup apartment whose stairs were barely long enough for me to climb. But, once there, the warmth of his parents made the place seem luxurious. His father worked for China Customs and, when retired, spent his days in People’s Park at the English Corner to help the youth that would be the future of China to learn to speak English by practicing it with each other.

There was a “new” phenomenon in Shanghai in those days- it was called the Free Market. This meant that people could sell their own product- not the product conferred on them by the government or required to sell TO the government. What we in the US call a Farmer’s Market-local sellers presenting their own product- a perversion of the Communist Doctrine? Selling your OWN product and collecting your OWN profits?

This was a harbinger of things to come; from the doctrine of growing communal product and sharing it, even with those who did or contributed nothing, to realizing the fruits of your own labor.

It was (no surprise) celebrated by the people who had access to it. Beautiful vegetables, live chickens, fresh killed meat, and a variety of creatures still alive and dangling for their lives- like snakes, eels and turtles.

Wow, what an opportunity, we thought. Take a live turtle home to Mr. Tan’s apartment and make a fresh turtle soup. So, we bought one of these dudes, which to this day I still feel sorry for.

Before you can cook one of these, you have to kill it and extract the entrails from the belly. Is killing a turtle easy? We all understood that the method of execution was beheading. Wait- where is the head? Oh. Inside the shell. Can’t cut it off that way.

Then, after some time, the the turtle was sitting in the middle of Mr. Tan’s floor, head and appendages drawn inside. Dinner time is coming, and this turtle needs to cook for a while. What can we do? If you are squeamish, don’t read the next paragraph.

Should we have left the turtle to wander around the apartment and eaten something else for dinner? We decided it was time for urgent measures. Mr. Tan had a needle nose plier, so we hatched the strategy that one of us would grab the turtle’s nose and the other would guillotine him (or her OMG did we kill a mother?).

This worked, as terrible as it was. The turtle tasted great.

The Shanghai No. 1 Department Store (not sure there was ever a No. 2) was a mob scene of people loving the opportunity to shop in something bigger than them.

The Bund was an aging relic of days gone by where Shanghai was a sophisticated and global, exotic destination. Beautiful buildings with European architecture, directly in front of the Huangpu River, mouth of the Yangtze to the Pacific.

Today it is a gleaming example of the Sophistication of Shanghai, renovated and glittering at night, and fronted by a walkway along the Huangpu River, which is walked by millions yearly.

And, across from Puxi and the Bund was Pudong- farmland. Today it is an integral part of the vast skyline of Shanghai, and the area is home to millions of people, offices, malls and homes.

So, here I come, back from Shanghai with bottles of Stoly and Evian in tow, as many as I can carry. A small consolation to make me think less about what I left and what I am deprived of now.

Back to the Institute- teaching in the a.m., factory visiting in the afternoon, home with my students in the evening.

Eventually, I taught my students about Poli Sci and Macroeconomics despite the deliberate misstatements in their text. But, more than that, I hope I taught them to think for themselves.

At the end of the course, we revisited the term “entrepreneur” and I am sure I saw the light in their eyes. And I asked them, based on Marx’ prediction that Communism would be measured by a dictatorship of the proletariat, which country was more Communist- China, Taiwan, or Korea? No answer was necessary. What I hoped for, more than an answer, was a realistic look at where China was and where it was going- which was good, as long as you didn’t label it.

I left Wuxi at the end of my tenure, traveled to Zhuhai, and walked across to Macau. Freedom? Yes, but I was at that time, as I am now, painfully aware that I had seen a moment in time and history which would never reoccur.

So, to capture this precious moment is why, after 30 years, I am writing this story.

While this was not the beginning of Travels with Mikey, it is without doubt an experience that shaped my personal and business life from then until now. While my view of life, culture, people and food until this point was enthusiastic and open-minded, you never understand your own lifestyle until it is taken away. Living in a dorm, in a third-world country, not a five star hotel, was in retrospect a privilege of understanding.

That is why I tell this story first.

Michael Correia was born in Sydney, Australia, just after WWII to an Australian mum & a Portuguese American dad, Manual Correia, from New Bedford, MA.  He taught English Composition & Reading for over 30 years in Tampa Bay & now, in Gainesville, have taught Creative Writing for the past 8 years. He published two books of poetry, Some of America Traversed, w./ Xlibris, 2009, Philadelphia, PA & Little City New Century, Cawing Crow Press, Dunlo, PA.