30 years ago!

The first time I came to China was in 1985. I was Sales and Marketing Manager for a division of Alcan, manufacturing heat exchangers used in refrigerators. As a Japanese company was trying to steal our customers in North-America, which was a market we dominated, I took the market “war” to Asia.

China was our prime target as the country was restructuring. It was progressively moving away from a purely communist system, and into a mixed economy. The death of Mao in 1976 allowed a change in leadership. China began to reopen to the rest of the world looking for technology and funds to develop its economy.

In parallel, the restructuring of the economy allowed the Chinese people to save as their revenues were progressively exceeding the cost of living. Families were able to buy a few basic luxury items, including a refrigerator. And this is where we came in.

The technical requirements for a refrigerator are quite advanced. No company in China had the capability to manufacture the key components. While the compressor was sourced in Korea, the heat exchanger came from the Japanese company that was trying to penetrate our market in North-America. We decided to go after their customers with the assistance of agents in Hong Kong.

refrigerator-systemAssembly line for the heat-exchanger and compressor used in a refrigerator. Source: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

The manufacturers of refrigerators were located in the larger cities near the coast: Guangzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou and Beijing. All where state owned enterprises (SOE). So over the course of three years (1985-1987), I visited these cities at interval of 6 months

I recall the plants were dark, antiquated and overstaff. I remember the streets of the cities were full of bicycle and buses, with few private cars. I remember the people, the majority dressed in a Mao suit, or a grey or dark blue suit. There were few stores, no modern skyscrapers and definitely no subways. No one spoke English. All signs were in Chinese with no point of reference in English. The currency was dual; one for locals, one for visitors, and as a visitor we could not use the local currency. I remember a taxi driver refusing to be paid in local currency as I was required to use currency that foreigners were assigned. I could not pay with the currency another taxi driver had given me as change.

the-nanjing-road-in-shanghai-china-1986-e014bdNanjing Road, Shanghai, 1986. Source: Alami.

The process of applying to visit China was even more cumbersome than it is today. Not only did we have to present a request to visit China, but we had to provide the details on where we were going, the number of days in each city and the travel arrangements. We stayed in hotels that were quite antiquated. One time in Shanghai we stayed in a residence that had been built by foreigners in the 1930s. The infrastructure for tourism had not kept up with the rapidly increasing demand.

Now as I walk in Shanghai, I see modern office and residential towers everywhere. The city has expanded way beyond anyone would have dreamt of in the mid-80’s. The subway crisscrosses the city reaching far into the suburbs. Manufacturing facilities are modern and supply the world, using up-to-date technologies.

So many changes in the last 30 years. Where will China be 30 years from now?