Monday, March 20, 2006

Understanding Business Mentality In China, Taiwan & HK - The Zhang Zhiyi Experience



Boy, I am so happy to be able to talk about Zhang Zhiyi in my blog on Asian business. Can you imagine that? Zhang had a wonderful 12 months thanks to Memoirs of A Geisha, but suffered enormous criticism over her role, which involved being involved with a Japanese man... in a movie role. I am not even going to go into how low-brow and uneducated an opinion it is to be offended by that MOVIE ROLE. You'd think things would die down..., NO... Zhang appeared magnificently in the recent Oscars, and even presented and she spoke surprisingly well in English. Was that good enough for the media? Apparently not. The media in China, HK and Taiwan have plenty to say about Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi and most of it is downright vicious. Below are excerpts from an article in The Straits Times in Singapore today.

Hollywood was enthralled with Zhang's beauty in Memoirs Of A Geisha, but it was her turn in House of Flying Daggers that captivated my attention. After her role as a presenter in the Oscars, this was what the HK papers had to say, and her gown was magnificent by the way. 'Zhang Ziyi's Armani evening gown made her look so flat-chested it was scary' said HK's Sing Tao Daily said in a headline. She has said previously the venom has to do with Hong Kongers' deeply entrenched bias against mainland Chinese, who are viewed as bumpkins and gold diggers. 'They think, 'How can you be an international movie star? You are only from China.' For them, China is like the countryside,' Zhang said in an interview with The Sunday Times of London in 2004.

Such evidence is found in a 2004 article in HK's Next magazine, a popular weekly known for its hard-charging paparazzi. It printed a photo allegedly showing Zhang squatting down to check out the bottom shelf in a store. A caption read: 'Miss Zhang displays the special trait of our motherland's compatriots: spreading her legs wide and squatting down.' People can often be seen squatting in China in crowded places - such as railroad stations - where the ground is too dirty for sitting and there is limited public seating. Zhang's rapid rise and ongoing success may also have bred envy. Many Hong Kong publications made sure their knives were extra-sharp for the Oscars, where she presented the award for best editing. A headline in Apple Daily ripped into her English: 'She still can't change her English with a Beijing country accent. She didn't pronounce the 'r' in the winning movie Crash properly.' This one really irked me, when do you find an average HK person speaking English well?? So what if she's got a Beijing accent, she's from Beijing isn't she? Nobody faults Antonio Banderas for speaking English with a Spanish accent!!! Or Gerard Depardieu for speaking English with the clipped French accent?? Does Apple Daily's editor even understand what is good English and what is accent? I mean, seriously, Zhang's intonation and pronounciation are so much better than Jackie Chan - do we see any HK papers savaging Jackie's English??

Sing Tao Daily said she read her cue card with 'quivering lips' and her pronunciation of Crash sounded more like that for the toothpaste Crest. The Ming Pao Daily noted that she forgot to hug or shake hands with the award winner, though it conceded that her English was improving. Hong Kong writers also savaged her Giorgio Armani outfit, a black beaded bustier with a crystal-encrusted grey skirt. 'Lacking in youthful vigour,' read a photo caption in the Oriental Daily News. Apple Daily hissed: 'Zhang Ziyi two decades behind the times.'

'Zhang Ziyi's English rolls off her tongue,' said Taiwan's Liberty Times. Another Taiwanese newspaper, the Min Sheng Daily, said 'Zhang Ziyi's English is no longer poor'. In China, there is still a strong undercurrent that they cannot accept that she has to "sleep" with a Japanese man, even though it was in a movie. Playing a Japanese woman already stirred open some wounds which have not healed properly for many years. China found it hard to "celebrate" with Zhang's new found international stardom but have toned down the viciousness of late.

Business Lessons

1) Though most HKers would not like to admit it, deep down there is a feeling of resentment against how fast some of the Chinese from mainland have gotten rich. HKers feel that they have progressed much faster economically and up the developed country curve, and to make less money than them is an insult. This mentality prevails even when certain HK companies go to the mainland to expand - beware and be aware.

2) HKers not only begrudge the rich ones from mainland but also abhorrs how crudely they spend their money in HK especially - no class as they say. But most HKers also know they needed cash from China to fund the down trodden economy in HK for the past few years. HKers can't wait for the good times to roll again so that they can pass crass remarks and shoo the mainlanders back to where they belong.

3) When doing business in China, you are either with them or against them. If you fallout with the Chinese, well its not going to be a "agree to disagree" mantra. You cannot afford to have a fallout as some entrepreneurs have found out the hard way. Many would want to hedge their fortunes by parking funds elsewhere whenever possible. There is an under current of uncertainty that you could find yourself in the wrong side of the turning tide of political sentiments too swiftly in China.

4) Taiwan politicians will fight like mad with politicians in China in the media, but business wise, China has been quite open in welcoming Taiwanese investors. Much of the open war of words is to appease the masses of both sides for championing nationalistic interests. But business has been going to and fro, especially from Taiwan to China in a big way for a very long time. Thus, you will usually find that anything China says will find the Taiwanese going the opposite way, mainly to spite the other party. You don't like Zhang Zhiyi, I think she is adorable. Hence when doing business with either Taiwan and China, you do not go extolling the virtues of Taiwan to China or China to Taiwan. Just do the business, even though they may actually agree with you opinions about the other country, its best not to say them out loud.

As the above are generalisations, they are bound to be exceptions. Generalisations applied harshly on everything will lead to prejudice and unjust discrimination. Generalisations are just tools for use to learn a bit more about something, not a divining rod.

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