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Returning to China

I never thought it would take me this long to get back to China. When we left in ’97 my wife and I were sure we’d be back here living and working within a couple of years. But life and kids and jobs and…stuff…got in the way – you know how it goes. So when I landed last Monday, it had been eight years since I’d been back. Eight years for me, maybe, but somehow way more than that for Beijing and the rest of China. And maybe the best way explain why Marketplace is going to China is to talk about that first morning of my trip back.

We lived in a neighborhood called Sanlitun. Back in the mid-90’s it was just getting started as a place where ex-pats could get a taste of home. There were one or two places where you could get a passable cup of coffee. I managed to find a dry-cleaners to take care of my suits. There was an open-air market where you could by everything from a wok to toilet paper. And there was a fruit and vegetable stand we used to go to called Jenny Lou’s. Bare floor, a tarp for a roof, single lightbulbs so you could see the produce, but a clean and well-stocked supply of pretty much anything we’d like.

It’s not there anymore. Any of it. And I don’t mean in a the-dry-cleaner-moved-out-to-another-building-and-the-coffee-shops-found-better-locations kind of way. I mean in an it’s-all-been-bulldozed kind of way.

The old 1950’s era concrete apartment blocks that were behind the fruit stands have been demolished. I asked around and someone told me they’re putting a five-star hotel in there. The open-air market and the crowded alleys and homes that surrounded it are halfway gone. My favorite little noodle shop has been replaced by a five story steel and glass Volkswagen dealership. And I couldn’t find any sign of Jenny Lou’s old fruit and vegetable stand. 

VW Dealership.jpg

But then I walked around the corner from the VW place and down the road a bit. And I found the new Jenny Lou’s. There’s a huge yellow and green banner hanging out front on a shining new building.  Inside, it’s brightly lit, well organized, and staffed by a dozen or so Chinese workers busy stocking shelves and ringing customers up at the check-out stand. Westerners and Chinese customers were lined up to buy laundry detergent, cheese and beer, fresh fruit, of course, but French wine and dried fish, too. A consultant I talked to later that Monday said he figured she’s grossing millions of U.S. dollars a year between the eight or nine stores she has around town.  The ‘Trader Joe's’ of China, he called her. 

JennyLous.jpg

In just eight years. A 26-year-old woman from the countryside in Hebei province, with no formal higher education and darned-sure no management courses under her belt, has turned a dirt-floored shack into a multi-million dollar business.  

To find out how is just one of the reasons Marketplace is going to China. Stay tuned.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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