Only Dongguan: Life of Pie

0514_Only dongguanAfter traveling around the world and learning how to speak eight different languages, I was convinced to come to Dongguan. All I heard at the time about Dongguan, was that it was the “world producer,” with factories, wall to wall KTV’s to entertain those businessmen, and more factories.

When I arrived in 2002 to Dongguan via Hong Kong, visas were pretty easy and inexpensive. I had only told a few friends that I was coming to China, because I wasn’t sure myself how long this mystery adventure trip would last. Some of them said “You’re going to China? Sure. Good luck!”

With arrangements made by a Brazilian friend in Dongguan, a car took me from Shekou Port to Dongguan’s East Town Center, where I still live today. But in getting to where I am today not everything was as simple, and life has run along the city’s economy, matching its sprints and a few of its stumbles.

Ready to get back into the food and beverage industry, I went to the Post office and asked for the Yellow Pages to search for hotels to submit resumes. Guess what? Yes. No one spoke English. Mandarin would become my ninth language, but not at this point.

Well, I was here already, and surely I wasn’t going back. At least, I had no intentions then. I made a few Brazilian friends, who I played football and barbecued with. It was a good start, but the language barrier began to peck at my sanity. I mean I could speak eight languages, but none helped.

After tracking down an interview with the assistance of a friend’s 1MB-slow Great Wall Internet access, I sat down with the boss of the Cinese Hotel, known today as the Grand Mercure Houjie Hotel, for a position as the Director of F&B. The interview was not easy, he only spoke Chinese, but he hired me and I was on my way.

Then SARS hit China. Guangdong was most heavily affected. Business was down, factories and hotels were laying off. With the hotel occupancy down 9 percent, my boss could not afford me, saying that my wage was higher than 40 other Chinese workers. The job had only lasted two months and was victim to the first stumble.

The next position ended with a little less help from the economy and a bit more from differences in culture and management styles. Three months passed very fast and I started to look into a possible promotion. The former GM, from Hong Kong, had left the hotel due to “unknown reasons” and they still needed a “white guy” to be the face of the hotel. Unfortunately, disputes with several department heads, because of the facts I would bring to the morning meetings, led to everyone hating me.

The job ended in a law suit, a situation that would send many running out of a foreign environment. But, as it turned out, I was the first foreigner to ever win a labor suit in Dongguan’s courts. It finally gave me some hope that actually China wasn’t that bad.

But another two to three weeks looking for another job, my outlook began to dwindle. Then, over an afternoon beer drinking session after our usual Saturday football match, my teammates asked me what I used to do before I came to China. With a little shame, I said, “pizza.” And after they all laughed, I proclaimed more loudly, “Yes. I used to be a pizza boy. So what?!”

“Great,” one guy said. “Why don’t you open a pizza place here in Dongguan?” The thought had crossed my mind, but that evening it took over my thoughts.

It was the right time to start a business. There wasn’t a single foreign owned/managed restaurant in the entirety of Dongguan, and my little pizza joint was “The Place” where the majority of foreigners would hang out for a slice of pizza, a cold beer and to meet up with friends. The first five years, business boomed and I opened a second branch across town in Nancheng.

Less than two months after we’d opened the second store, a Korean gentleman came in to the Dongcheng branch and offered RMB 2.5 million for the brand. It was a very busy day; I was short staffed, but I respectfully said that the business was not for sale. The Korean gentleman came back 10 days later and offered 3 million for me to hand over my entire business and the reputation I had built for the last five years. I thought about it for a few seconds, and with a smile on my face I again relpied, “Sorry, this business is not for sale.”

Two weeks later, the biggest economic recession of my life hit. The stock markets shot out big red numbers, people were selling their homes, losing their jobs, companies were shutting everything down. “Oh my God.” I could have sold my business for RMB 3 million just two weeks ago.

Several restaurants in Dongguan shut down, and many companies were having to lay off staff due to the decrease in orders and business. We did have to lay off some staff as well, but with some promotions we carried on, and we made it.

And so, when the latest hit on the local economy a few months ago, this one from the central government, took out nightclubs, KTVs and massage parlors, thousands and thousands of people have lost their jobs. Taxis and hotels complain of lost revenues, but we are riding the wave. It is business as usual, only in Dongguan.