Interesting how many struggling foreign businesses, particularly in the service sector, have told me that the Expo is their "make-or-break" moment. Many of those who have tried, either with some or just a little success, to introduce Western-style food products or services to Shanghai think the Expo will give them a chance to see what the rest of China thinks of their products. Given that the overwhelming majority of visitors will be provincial Chinese, there is logic to this thinking. But what if hinterland China doesn’t like their products? Will we see a slew of small foreign businesses heading for Pudong airport, their dreams of 1.3 billion customers shattered?
It’s a Sunday night in Chengdu and the small bar I’m in is packed with a bunch of local teenagers listening attentively to a Sichuan rock band doing its set. The band isn’t bad, though the crowd is a little stilted. The set finishes at 8:50 p.m.; the band returns swiftly for an encore and then exits the stage for good at 9 p.m. on the dot. The bar stays open and the beer’s cheap, but the crowd heads for the exit en-masse. They’re pretty much all students and the college dormitories are locked promptly at 9:30 p.m. – not a college rule overly conducive to long-running and late-night gigs!
While in Sichuan I went to take a look at one of the many non-governmental organization (NGO) projects underway in the area devastated by the 2008 earthquake. The Guangji Kindergarten and Community Center is about a three-hour drive from Chengdu and close to the fault line. The kindergarten, which caters mostly to the children of locals who have left the area to be migrant workers around China, was almost totally destroyed in the quake. Now it is being rebuilt – the main building strengthened and the facility equipped with computers, educational tools, a playground and car park – by the NGO Sichuan Quake Relief. Money for the project has been raised by various expat groups in Chengdu and, after some rather time-consuming procedures to get the necessary permits, the kindergarten is now almost finished.
Every month another piece of "green tech" seems to be introduced to China – Beijing is extremely open to trialing new technologies in the energy and environment space. Some I understand and some are bit technical for my rather unscientific brain to handle. While in Chengdu I bumped into Nick Gerritsen, a very clever New Zealander who works for a company called Aquaflow. It has a technology that compresses algae – including the pollution discharge algae that infamously covered Lake Tai – to produce oil that you can just drop into your car’s gas tank. This means the company can clean China’s water, remove the pollutants and create another domestic source of energy. Unsurprisingly, Nick’s finding China most receptive to his science.
It’s official – nobody does subways quite like China and certainly not as fast! Shanghai has been adding lines at a crazy rate, but plenty of other cities are burrowing away frantically, too. I’ve just been on a tour of new retail projects that follow Chengdu’s soon-to-be-completed new subway lines, and a couple of weeks prior to that I was scouting locations near new lines in Suzhou. With Shanghai’s Line 9 now reaching out to Hongqiao and soon beyond, and Suzhou’s line stretching into Suzhou Industrial Park, they’ll probably soon be connected. This would make Suzhou Central the last stop on the line out of downtown Shanghai. Would-be commuters take note.