Thor's China Diary

The Rag Trade

go to end / go to China Index

 LL has students from her Foreign Trade School all over China. Not the brilliant comets of Qinghua University, but workaday kids who are slogging it out in the world of factories and offices.

One group of them have gathered in a small, nondescript Hubei city called Tianman, and in particular at a conglomerate called the Tian Yu Group. This seems to have been reborn from a state-owned factory into some sort of local community-owned enterprise. Their guiding light is ZXL, a hard working man in his forties, whose daughter happens to be another of LL's students.

These folk are in what we call the rag trade, a tough business in any language. October 15 is a big date on their calendar, the start of the Guangzhou Trade Fair, when buyers from all over the world come to pick through the mass of small clothing stands looking for that magic combination of fashion and price that will make them a buck in the emporiums of the West. Although Chinese sellers are drawn like moths to a candle, the Fair is a hapless experience for many of them. The small exhibits that most of them can afford are lost in a maze of similar displays, so that real contacts are more accidental than planned. When a genuine live buyer arrives on the scene, as often as not their sales pitch is reduced to sign language, for it is an exceptional international buyer who speaks Chinese, and the exhibitors' English can rarely survive a formulaic "Hi".

Tian Yu's SOS call to LL is therefore a regular event. ZXL himself speaks no English, but the staff of his export office are young, recently employed, and can claim at least the kind of smattering delivered by Chinese English teachers. A few weeks ago she proposed that I go out there for a few days. It sounded like a more genuine insight into China that the alternative package tour to The Three Gorges on offer, so during the national day holiday I took it up.

The driver picked us up, late, at about 7.45 am and we headed west across the Changjiang (river), then out through the flat farmlands of Hubei. Slide show images flashed by the window. Stooks of rice stalks, a ponderous grey buffalo, built-up tracks across the swampy land, low brick houses in clusters, here and there an old man or woman carrying two buckets or baskets from a bamboo pole across their backs. The road for many kilometres was a concrete highway, then turned suddenly left onto narrow broken bitumen. Here the grimy, naked diesel engines of strange, tractor-like vehicles grunted, poised on two wheels and counterbalanced steel trailers loaded high with produce. Heavy blue and khaki trucks jostled like worried hippopotami, while chauffeurs in black Volkswagens and rebadged Japanese saloons did suicidal overtaking runs as they ferried provincial nomenklatura back from a weekend in the big city.

The outskirts of Tianman were suddenly with us, the ubiquitous concrete-plastered structures of a Chinese mainland settlement, grey, streaked with water stains and pock-marked with protruding pieces of rusty steel whose function had long since been forgotten. The TianYu buildings put a rust-belt factory face to the street, tarted up with a swathe of coloured banners, and hunched around a courtyard for loading trucks and stacking the bits & pieces that go with manufacture.

Someone turned on the lift that was used exclusively to sweep important visitors -- buyers, politicians, chiefs of police -- up past the warrens and sweat shops where things actually got made. We arrived at the fifth floor, a pair of glass doors, a carpeted reception area, and were quickly ushered into the board room. It was just wide enough to hold a long, narrow loop of dark, polished wood which, shoulder to shoulder might have seated fifteen people. Two or three expectant individuals had already sat down, but others came and went in busy ones and two's. Their attention was directed, not at the newly arrived foreign teacher, but at several racks of bulky coats and jackets that cluttered the far end of the room. These were samples and the buyers had to be pleased.

Divided attention was to be a feature of our stay. A working company is not about enriching the mind, it's about flogging a product, and that practicality never strayed far from people's minds here. I'd been given no blueprint for this gig; even LL was vague about what they actually wanted in terms of language training, and the selling game probably didn't enter into her calculations since she'd never stood on a street corner trying to catch the eye of the great unwashed public.

When in doubt, produce your own agenda, then let the punters fight over it. That's just what I did. I had a sneaking suspicion that they wouldn't mind a few clues on the great art of selling. There was no reason that this couldn't be the vehicle to carry language skills, so I roughed out the following as a scaffold upon which to build relevant dialogues:

"The Rag Trade" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved go to top  / go to end

Dialogue Themes for a Trade Fair

Thor May
A. Product description & information for study by buyers.

B. Manufacturing Processes

- supply; labour; capacity; quality control; stock control; transportation

C. Design & Implementation

- design range; steady lines; innovation; lead times; making to foreign specifications; design philosophy

D. Commercial Negotiation

- minimum & maximum orders - pricing; discounting; supplementary charges (e.g. customs inspection; CIF; FOB - methods of payment - letters of credit; advance payments; authorizations; guarantees; insurance - delivery times; air & sea transport; - packaging; alternatives; standards - damaged goods; delays; rejects; credits or refunds on returns - contract details; good faith; interpretation of Chinese & English texts; validity; enforceability in law; cancellation clauses; dispute mediation; jurisdictions

E. Networking (guanxi)

- social openings; personal naming customs; formality; gifts; entertainment; humour; avoiding hyperbole; confidence building; interpreting wishes, plans & intentions; establishing a climate of mutual respect & honesty without hypocrisy; clarity of purpose; consistency & coordination of messages to clients by all team members;

"The Rag Trade" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved go to top  / go to end

I solemnly presented a copy of this to the managing director. He didn't speak English, but the unspoken message was that I knew what I was doing (even if I didn't!). They were deeply impressed, and I sensed a quick promotion from curiosity-foreigner to someone-they-could-learn-from. That was important. Salesmanship and teaching have more than passing similarities. Both depend crucially on having the customer's confidence. If the customer thinks you are credible, the product -- garments, ideas, you-name-it -- almost sells itself. That's not a smart habit for the consumer (they buy any number of junk garments and junk ideas out of misplaced faith), but it's the way of the world.

Having gotten ourselves a framework, I set out to coax people into actually building spoken language from it. You can't hold a text book while you are selling a woolly jacket to a man from Chicago. So we had to generate some dialogues, and speak them in a manner that sounded passably like English. Training in the use of intonation was a wholly new experience for them, rather exhausting, but very valuable. I could see that LL was learning quite a lot too; (in fact, the three days became pretty much a teacher-training exercise for her). Written dialogues are dead meat until you put some breath and irreverent acting into them, so I gave them permission to lose their dignity by kicking this sort of thing to pieces:

"The Rag Trade" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved go to top  / go to end

SELL IT! -- English for the Marketplace                                              Thor May

A. Openings

1. They're nice aren't they? [salesman posing as another customer comments to a browser]

2. Enjoying the fair?

3. Hi, how do you like them? [salesman gestures at goods]

4. Mm, that's a nice coat (you're wearing). Did it come from Guangzhou too? [salesman to customer]

5. Ah, hot isn't it. So many people. Can I offer you a glass of water? [have a water cooler strategically placed in your premises. You'll attract grateful visitors]

6. Have a rest for a couple of minutes [offering a chair]. This is a big place to walk around, isn't it.

7. Hi... Take your time. Let me know when you need my help.

8. Hello. Is this your first time at the fair? ... No? Ha, ha. You can probably teach me a few things then. ... The Tianyu Group has been exhibiting here for quite a few years now, but it's the first time here for me personally. It's all pretty interesting ....

9. [.. salesman takes careful note of a visitor's dress style] Mm.. [selecting a garment] .. now this looks like your style [joking voice] .. what do you think? ... No? Oh well [smile!].., there's bound to be something here for you..

B. Negotiating a Price

Buyer: Well Mr. Zhang, I might be interested in a few of these items, but the pricing must be competitive.

Seller: Yes of course. What items interest you?

Buyer: Well, for example, can you give me a rough price on this child's coat?

Seller: Ah.., it varies somewhat with quantity, you'll understand. Our basic price is $10 per item.

Buyer: Oh dear, that's one of the more expensive quotes I've received today. It's not really in the ballpark, I'm afraid.

Seller: You surprise me. I thought it was very well priced. There would be some discount on quantity of course. ... Be a little careful by the way. Some of the very cheap quotations you receive can become expensive if inferior goods are actually shipped. Our Tian Yu group takes great care with quality control and reliable delivery. Also, our materials are the very best available ..

Buyer: Those are fair arguments, Mr. Zhang. I certainly have to consider them.

Seller: I can see that you are very professional sir. I am sure that we can come to some agreement.

Buyer: I'll tell you what I'll do, Mr. Zhang. You quote me on a notional shipment of 10,000 items. Then I'll take it away and analyze your bid.

Seller: No problem. Just give me a moment to do some calculation...

C. Objections, Reservations, Persuaders

1. Just Looking...

Seller: Can I interest you in something sir?

Buyer: Um, not at the moment. I'd like to look around (the fair) for a while first.

Seller: No problem. There's lots to see here, isn't there. Um.. Maybe you could do us a favour though. We are looking for feedback.. What do you think are the strongest and weakest points in our display here? [.. gives an immediate insight into the potential customer's hidden agenda and tastes]

2. Once Burnt, Twice Shy

Buyer: We've had some trouble in the past with Chinese suppliers...

Seller: Ah yes. I can sympathize. But China is a big place you know. Some of us do offer very good quality and reliable service. We'd expect you to check us out thoroughly before committing to a major order. If you like I can offer you the names of a few business referees.

3. Can I Trust You?

Buyer: Reliability of quality and supply is really important to us ...

Seller: You are right. Reliability is a top priority. We insist on that with our own suppliers too. The Tian Yu group has grown steadily, and that is exactly because our old customers keep coming back. They have found us to be very reliable ...

4. Calling HQ

Buyer: I'll have to talk it over with my Head Office.

Seller: Yes of course. We both have to follow up with the main office. Can I send you a fax detailing our offer and sales terms? You've nothing to lose by that, after all ...

5. Wavering

Buyer: I'm not sure if these garments really meet our requirements...

Seller: Oh, that's very interesting. You know, our productions runs are extremely flexible. Perhaps we could talk a little about your particular requirements. We can probably find a solution ...

6. The Client Begs to be Persuaded

Buyer: The design is fine, but I'd really prefer a different kind of fabric ...

Seller: I'm really pleased that you like our designs. We think they are something special. The fabric? Well, it's very fine fabric, but if you really need a different kind, for your order we can easily change it. What kind of fabric were you looking for sir?

7. Helping the Client to Sell

Buyer: Our market is a bit over-supplied with this kind of garment ...

Seller: Mm, that's always difficult, isn't it. Tell me a bit about your market ... . [.. after talking ..] Yes, I can see your problem. But have you thought of niche markets? For example, with these products, some direct marketing to outdoor clubs & sporting groups can work wonders ...

8. It's an Uncertain World Out There

Buyer: It's common knowledge that the Yuan is likely to devalue in the New Year. I'd prefer to hold off until then.

Seller: Good heavens sir! I'm no oracle, but there's a Christmas season between now and the New Year. That's the year's biggest selling time, isn't it? Maybe it's smart to play safe for next year - new orders can be written at any time. But surely you need bridging stock for the holiday season...

D. Getting Goods to Market

Buyer: Well, now that we have some agreement about price, we need to work through a few other details..

Seller: You are right. You will want to know about shipping and so on.

Buyer: Yes, that and some other things. Firstly, let's suppose I place an order for 5,000 of those outdoor jackets. What kind of lead time are we looking at on delivery?

Seller: Well actually, we can supply those particular jackets from stock. It's just a matter of shipping arrangements, and clearing the goods through the China Export Inspection Bureau. I'd say, about eight weeks.

Buyer: Mm. Now let us suppose that I give you a specification for a modified version of the jacket. For example, I don't much like those elasticized cuffs.

Seller: Um, of course that would take a little longer, and might cost a little more, depending upon the modifications. I'd have to check our current production commitments, but I'd guess we could deliver them within three to four months.

Buyer: Ah, yeah ... I could live with that, so long as three months really means three months, not six months!

E. Establishing Bona Fides

Buyer: Well sir, I'm interested in your products. However, I'm really not at all familiar with your company. Would you mind if I ask for a bit of backgrounding?

Seller: Not at all. The Tian Yu Group is quite large, you know. We're based in Hubei. That's about here [.. pointing to a map of China]. Look, here's one of our brochures ... As you can see from this, we have twenty-two factories, and we've been around since 1979.

Buyer: Mm. That's quite a long time. Could you give me some idea of turnover... ?

Seller: Sure. Well, to give you a rough indication, last year the gross earnings of our Group were around RMB 5,000,000 .

Buyer: I see. Quite substantial. Very well Mr. Zhang, since you are quite familiar with this trade, you will understand my professional caution. Could you give me the names of a few business referees?

Seller: Yes, of course. I understand your concern. I can put you in touch with a banking referee. Also a couple of our long-term clients have agreed to be referees when necessary. Naturally, the Tian Yu Group will want to know something about your operation also.

Buyer: That's understandable Mr. Zhang. I'll be happy to supply details. Now perhaps we can talk about an actual order ...

Seller: Yes, that would be a good idea. Which items interest you commercially, and what kind of quantities?

"The Rag Trade" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved   go to top  / go to end

Well, there's no end to dialogues like this. You can make them up forever with a bit of imagination. But those poor buggers had to get something into to their heads that they could use, as formulas, in fragments, whatever ... I ran them ragged, made them model the rhythms of speech, got them in pairs, paraded them in a make-believe sales stand with their samples ... .. for three days. They reckoned it was value for money. I started to get wild ideas of running English language sales courses all over the country; (every propagandist is his own first victim).

Our extra-curricular activity was important for my private agenda. This was where I could learn how folks in a small Chinese city lived and saw the world. The first English-language phrase I notice built into their lexicon was "we factory people". These young men and women were the elite of their own community, its lifeline with the outside world. It was through them that the factories would stay solvent and the common folk at their sewing machines downstairs would keep getting wages to pay their children's school fees, buy mianbao and blow a yuan or two in a card game. Yet even this elite saw themselves as a social caste apart from, and implicitly (though defiantly) "inferior" to the high rollers in the big cities like Wuhan and Shanghai. Like all such castes (my own origins are from a "working class" mentality caste), they cultivated a communal mythology of redeeming values: they were to be seen as straightforward and honest; they would care for each other; they would be hospitable; they would do an honest day's work, and then more; they would know how to have a good time in wholesome ways ....

Three days is not long to know anyone. Clinging to the margins of a new language and culture, I could not help but miss crucial ingredients in its dynamic. But to my untutored eye, the Tian Yu Group seemed to be a relatively hopeful operation. It was the good fortune of this particular group to have a managing director who lived up to most of these values. He was respected, he led from the front and he cared for the rear, and he had managed to capture their loyalty in surroundings that could easily have sunk into the self-destructive corruption of a small, dirty, decaying rural city (of which there are legions in mainland China).

In the two hour meal breaks, part of life in China, we would troop down to the executive dining room, which was really a kind of restaurant half a block away, and constructed from the gutted ground floor of an apartment block. Some of the small rooms had been opened up with bricked arches, and the walls white-washed. We sat around a revolving table on slender black-lacquered chairs with high backs. It was a rather nice effect. Their first instinct to hospitality was to drink me under the table with clear, deadly spirits that came in a stone jar; my first and surviving instinct was to resist on the grounds that we had some hard yakka to do after lunch, and I would be useless propped up dead drunk. That was OK. We were learning each other's operating rules. Anyway, the real social interest was in one of their group who was on the edge of committing to courtship. One day he brought her along to meet "the family", a shy, flushed girl who seemed a bit out of her depth. This happy couple were fair game, and relentlessly plied with fire water, until the boy began to make loud, rather reckless proclamations of devotion to his love, whom he'd rescued in the nick of time from a dastardly competitor...

A factory is a factory, and we worked past the languid hours expected in universities and suchlike palaces of degenerate culture. As dusk fell, LL and I were taken by the managing director and a handsome youth who spoke some English to the best hotel in town. Set back from the street in a courtyard, where nowadays they stabled the black limousines of the local party hacks and mafia, it had the usual lobby with clocks in "world times", a standard issue surly receptionist, and the usual arrangement of middle-aged lady guardians on each floor who actually let you in and out of your room. I had made some rash assumptions, such as expecting a bath towel to be available, and hot water that worked. My mild enquiry rather embarrassed the managing director, who sat down on my bed, turned on the television, and dispatched the handsome young man in search of linen. Meanwhile, we turned on the bathroom tap to see if something luke-warm water would eventually come through it.

The managing director was actually feeling rather expansive, and began to tell a long story in quite expressive ways. This seemed a bit out of character with his unassertive public manner; here was a man of parts. Of course, the rapid flow of Chinese didn't mean a thing to me. Afterwards LL told me that he'd talked about a novel he'd just read.. Many minutes later the minion returned triumphant with a large, off-coloured towel that might once have been white. LL and the managing director both made a face, and the young man was again dispatched, this time to actually buy a towel in the market around the corner. I was instructed in a bit of Chinese-hotel wisdom: "they carry disease", whispered LL, "I never ever use the towels in hotels..; I bring my own". Ah. Well, a new bit of cultural knowledge...

Looking around this particular version of the hotel genre, I could begin to appreciate her doubts. There had been some attempt in the near past to model this room along the ubiquitous lines of modern hotels everywhere. Things hadn't quite worked out though. The wallpaper was streaked with water marks from a leaky ceiling, the finishes didn't quite finish. The aluminium framed window didn't lock at all, and a low pitched roof half a metre below the window offered a walk-in invitation to thieves. LL seemed to be worried about something worse coming through this window, maybe knowing the proclivities of small provincial cities, and said afterwards that she had left her light on all night, every night. She also instructed me earnestly to hang up on any ladies who happened to ring and who seemed to know my name .. (I must have looked unpromising, because the compliment was never paid).

The morning of the day we were to leave, the beau who had been basted in spirits with his lady-love came to pick us up at 7.30 am. He would take us to breakfast in the town. He walked with me, very close, the girl behind with LL. Early morning and early evening are the best times in Chinese towns. The evenings are painted in black with the flares of lanterns, people strolling, steaming sidewalk food, bicycles looming out of nowhere (none of them have lights)... The mornings are grey and misty, crisp, still with hope. My companion had been an accountancy teacher, and taken the leap into private enterprise. He was still weighing the consequences and, he confided, had not really found the niche he was comfortable with yet. He was enthusiastic about our new acquaintance, and as we walked, progressed to inviting me to his wedding in the New Year. I graciously accepted, not sure how this would translate into practicalities but intrigued by the possibility of meeting China in yet another of her moods.

We eventually turned into a kind of cafeteria on one of the main streets. A man near the door in a glass booth sold tickets; customers were thinly scattered about varnished tables that lined the gloomy interior. Restaurant hospitality is perilous thing: you can be guaranteed to be faced with more food than you can ever eat. I made a hapless attempt to limit the offering to a couple of baoze, but still would up with bowls of two different kinds of soup, one very sweet with bits of egg floating on top. In real money in a humble place like this, a filling breakfast costs next to nothing.

The journey home came late in the afternoon. We left an hour early at LL's insistence, and I noticed later, counting the hoot in the envelope I'd been discreetly given by one of the director's lieutenants as we left, a hundred yuan had been studiously deducted. It was a gesture that the director himself would have forgone; he'd actually promised to "show us around the town", but had been called away urgently to Wuhan. Even so, by the standards of my university stipend, the time had paid very nicely: about Y1700. Or so it seemed. As we chatted, LL told me about her childhood in Xinjiang, as the daughter of a military officer, and their poverty-stricken struggle for survival after his demobilization and repatriation back to Hubei. Somehow her father had managed to cajole a whole truckload of furniture, all their worldly possessions, in a torturous odyssey through thousands of kilometers of broken roads and embankments of obstructive bureaucracy all the way from that far-flung stretch of the empire. Her earliest memory, said LL, was of the dust storms in Xinjiang, with sand piling up against the windows, burying the huts they lived in. At some point I asked her what she'd been paid for the time at Tian Yu. She sadly showed me two boxed shirts. "You did everything", she said, "how could I take any of it?" There was only one reasonable answer to that. She had a family to feed. I bought a boxed shirt off her for Y800.

"The Rag Trade" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved

  • return to Thor's China Diary index
  • Links to China-related Sites
  • go to top
  • To e-mail the editor, Thor May: press here