Paying a visit to the 'Jews of the East'

A clerk at Haya's Mediterranean Restaurant in Shanghai displays a bag of bagels.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Hannukah begins tonight. Jewish families all over the world...including those in China...will be celebrating the Festival of Lights for the next eight evenings. I mentioned China because many in the world's hottest economy have a soft spot for Jews and their perceived success in business. Yes, that's a horrible stereotype. But the point of our next story is that perceptions Americans find completely unacceptable exist and even thrive in China.


BILL MARCUS: This is Bill Marcus.

SCOTT TONG: And I'm Scott Tong. Bill and I joke a lot about how similar our cultures can be. See, I'm Chinese ...

MARCUS: And I'm Jewish. We talk food, guilt ...

TONG: We talk about our mothers ...

MARCUS: Have you called your mother?

TONG: Now, obviously we're talking stereotypes here. In China, there's one broad generalization that a lot of people buy.

Shaun Rein: Chinese really love Jews. They think that Jews are the smartest people in the world. And they're the best at business.

MARCUS: That's market researcher Shaun Rein. This is a touchy subject, but he's ethnically qualified to talk about it.

REIN: Chinese often say "Wow! You're half-Jewish. That must means you're great at making money. And your other half is Chinese, which means you're very hard working. So, you're the best of both worlds."

TONG: Jewish, the best. That's the perception anyway.

MARCUS: In part that's because Jewish traders have been in China for a thousand years, ever since the Silk Road.

TONG: Today, some of China's toughest entrepreneurs are actually called the "Jews of the East" -- by their friends and their rivals. These Chinese businessmen all hail from the same city, Wenzhou.

TONG: First stop: the Wenzhou airport bookstore.

MARCUS: Look at this: "The Collected Secrets of How Wenzhou People Make Money."

TONG: And over here there's "The Jews of the Orient: The Stories of 50 Wenzhou Businessmen."

MARCUS: That's five minyans.

TONG: Five what?

MARCUS: Never mind.

MARCUS: Lots of money in this town: BMWs, Mercedes, Porsche SUVs.

TONG: This is a success story that folks here compare to the Jews.

MARCUS: Have they ever met a Jewish person?

TONG: No. Again this is perception. Here's the cab driver.

CAB DRIVER [translation]: Wenzhou people can endure suffering. A lot of suffering.

TONG: In the 1960s, this was one of China's poorest places: mountains on three sides, water on the other. That forced the Wenzhou people to get creative. They started manufacturing simple items like shoes and trinkets: mass producing before anyone else here.

MARCUS: Birthplace of capitalism in China.

MARCUS: Let's head to the open market.

MAN IN MARKET [translation]: We Wenzhou people always knew how to do business. Why? Because we had to. We had no land, no infrastructure.

TONG: In just one generation, Wenzhou turned itself into a global manufacturing powerhouse.

TONG: Bill, you know those buttons on your shirt?

MARCUS: Yeah.

TONG: Most likely made in Wenzhou. And your tie.

MARCUS: My tie?

TONG: And your socks. Wenzhou businessmen are now doing their thing around the world. In Southeast Asia, in Europe, and America.

MARCUS: OK, one last stop -- the park. Oy, hundreds of people doing aerobics -- together.

TONG: That's the other piece of the so-called Wenzhou magic.
They're tight-knit. They pool their money to invest. And Wenzhou folks own a lot of Shanghai property.

DANCER IN PARK [translation]: Wenzhou people are very, very able. It's all family. We primarily work together within the broader family.

MARCUS: Family financing, the immigrant way. So they're the Jews of the East.

TONG: I wonder what the real Jews think of that label?

MARCUS: Let's ask them. They're at the Shanghai Jewish Center.

MARCUS: Prayers have just finished, and it's time for breakfast. Matt Trusch doesn't like the term "Jews of the East" -- it's just about money, no mention of Jewish ethics or values.

Matt Trusch: We have enough negative stereotypes with stories like "Merchant of Venice" that don't need to be perpetuated. The Chinese people, all they are getting now is some stereotypes, books that you find in the airport about "I want to become a rich Jewish millionaire."

Bela Grunwald: I like people who come up the hard way.

MARCUS: On the other hand, Bela Grunwald appreciates Wenzhou businessmen.

GRUNWALD: I enjoy their shrewdness. I enjoy what they do. Yeah.

TONG: Two totally different points of view.

MARCUS: That's our tradition ... We disagree.

MARCUS: In Shanghai, I'm Bill Marcus...

TONG: ... and I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.


Linda Lin contributed to this report.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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