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 My favorite little noodle shop has been replaced by a five story steel and glass Volkswagen dealership.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. 


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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Wow!...look at Jenny Lou's. San Li Tun was my old stumping ground in Bejing from 1996 to 2002. I too thought I'd be back in Bejing pursuing prosperous business ventures by now. But life does have its curves and its been almost four years since I've last traveled to China for business...my own of course. Actually I am 29 now and have been traveling to China sinc the tender age of 18 Jenny Lou's story is very impressive and I am so excited for her. I remember Jenny Lou's as the miniture foreign grocery store, where diplomats, expats, and foreign students alike would cram inside to buy little foods and snacks just to get a taste of home.

I've recently read about another Beijing merchant, who I remember vividly, that have turned a small stall business at a market into the Best Buy of China. He use to sell electronics on the first floor at the Hong Qiao Market back in the 90's.

Wo tebie xiang Zhongguo (I really miss China). So please continue to post more photos of the New Bejing.

Xie xie.

"Mei Gui"

...by the way, I am not Chinese, just an old China hand.

My wife and I were in China in October 2005. Having grown up in the 1950's & 60's I went to China with the thought in mind of the "Sleeping Communist Giant" we were led to believe was our enemy.

What I found was a "giant" that had learned to do business from Americans. The people every place we went were friendly and eager to learn more about us, and we about them.

Enjoy yourselves in China.

P.S. We should get together and exchange pictures of China. (I shot 103 rolls of film)

I currently live in Nanjing, China (about three hours inland from Shanghai) with my husband while he attends Nanjing University for the semester. I have listened to Marketplace almost everyday since arriving in China nearly four months ago. I love listening to it because it makes me feel more connected to home.

It is always interesting to hear Marketplace stories from China while living here. China is a buzzword in business today, it seems like everyone is looking for a piece of the action. Even last night while I was at "English Corner" with my church group I was approached about business opportunities. In rather broken English, a man that I hardly knew asked me if I knew anyone in the import/export business because he was in exports and wanted more contacts. I really don't know anyone in that line of business, and told him so, but he wanted my email address just in case.

I am an MFA candidate in Modern Dance back in the States, and am working on writing my thesis while I am here. I really have no connections in Chinese or American business, but from the outside, just because I am American, I looked like a good business contact. I find it very facinating.

I look forward to listening to the Marketplace specials on China in January.

I worked in 1999 about 2 blocks from San Li Tun and loved having lunch in the little bistros and sandwich shops, now long gone. There was also a club on the south side of San Li Tun with a Chinese country-western band that played "Alabama" songs.

I returned to Beijing in 2000 and again last summer, 2005. One thing that hadn't much changed on either recent visit was the brown haze of pollution over the city. I wonder if that will be gone before the 2008 Olympics. Supposedly, the air will be clean for the athletes. ---Sandi Bean, former "English language polisher" for Beijing Review and China Central TV.

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