Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale

I just happened to read the book this week. I am impressed by Yang's power of telling a story using her graphic talent. 

When Belle Yang was forced to take refuge in her parents’ home after an abusive boyfriend began stalking her, her father entertained her with stories of old China. The history she’d ignored while growing up became a source of comfort and inspiration, and narrowed the gap separating her—an independent, Chinese-American woman—from her Old World Chinese parents.

In Forget Sorrow, Yang makes her debut into the graphic form with the story of her father’s family, reunited under the House of Yang in Manchuria during the Second World War and struggling—both together and individually—to weather poverty, famine, and, later, Communist oppression. The parallels between Belle Yang’s journey of self-discovery and the lives and choices of her grandfather, his brothers, and their father (the Patriarch) speak powerfully of the conflicts between generations—and of possibilities for reconciliation.

Forget Sorrow demonstrates the power of storytelling and remembrance, as Belle—in telling this story—finds the strength to honor both her father and herself.

Friday, April 10, 2015

At Pearl River, Four Decades of Helping New Arrivals From Asia

Every morning, Ming Yi Chen walks down to the basement of Pearl River Mart, the Chinese department store he opened in 1971, and burns incense. Then he walks back to the first floor to light more incense. He breathes in the sandalwood, to him a calming scent. And the day can begin.

With the news this week that Pearl River Mart, at 477 Broadway in SoHo, would close in December because of a significant rent increase and an unsustainable business model, it became clear that Mr. Chen’s routine — and those of his 40 employees — would soon disappear into the capitalist cloud.

“There are people waiting for this space,” Mr. Chen, 76, said from the tea balcony, overlooking a floor that stretches from Broadway to Mercer Street, 30,000 square feet in all. “Maybe H & M, one of those big chains — with big pockets.”

It is fair to say that those big-pocketed stores do not offer the soundtrack of traditional Chinese music and tweeting birds, nor do they display lanterns, gongs and 60-foot-long paper dragons amid waterfalls. From the soy sauce and Chinese underwear that were lifelines for homesick Chinese immigrants to the slippers and qipao dresses that became staples for New York fashionistas, Pearl River Mart tells a lesser-known tale that is more than the sum of its dry goods.

Run with a strong, nurturing hand by Mr. Chen’s wife, Ching Yeh Chen, 68, Pearl River has provided a life for its immigrant workers for four decades. It has been a welcome alternative to restaurant and supermarket jobs for new immigrants, a place where Cantonese and Mandarin were spoken and employee banquets were held every year. The store, overseen by a board of trustees and 30 shareholders, has helped some workers apply for green cards, once had a matching 401(k) plan and still offers health insurance.

“We are probably one of the few pioneer companies that does that in Chinatown — I’m proud to say that,” Mrs. Chen, the president, said of the insurance plan. “Most of Chinatown, everything is in cash. In that sense, we are pretty fair, and people will stay here long enough.” (The store has been in four locations, including Canal Street.)

Often, two generations have worked side by side, and some employees have turned a job stocking shelves into a lifelong career.

“I’ve been with the Chens since I immigrated to the United States, as a part-time worker,” Wilkie Wong, 50, said. He had just arrived from Burma in 1982 and was attending Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side. Mrs. Chen knew a school counselor and asked her for part-time employees. Mr. Wong showed up with two of his classmates; now he is the company’s vice president.
Asked about the store’s closing, Mr. Wong said, “I have mixed feelings.” He just got an office with a window two years ago, he explained. A graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo with a degree in economics and international trade, he had been doing the accounting in a separate basement office on Wooster Street.

But the future concerns him. Mrs. Chen said she would like to move to smaller quarters, downsize the inventory and, to better compete with Amazon, boost the online business, which Mr. Wong directs. “If we continue, he’s still with us,” she said.

But Mr. Wong’s 16-year-old son will not be joining him. “As an immigrant to the United States, it’s the same as my parents and every parent who wants their kids to have a high education, be a lawyer, doctor,” Mr. Wong said. “Even though I enjoy working here, I want him to have better than what I had.”

For some longtime employees, it might be time to move on. Lapyan Ng, 63, from Hong Kong, has worked at Pearl River for over 20 years. “Maybe I need to retire and take care of my granddaughter,”   >>

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Not Loving It

Salon magazine asked this month whether McDonald’s has developed a “self-hating complex” in China. The reason for its question was the local translation of its slogan – “I’m lovin’ it”.

The Chinese version is Wo jiu xihuan which, as Salon points out, can have pretty negative connotations because the second character in the phrase is used to contradict something emphatically. “The natural implication is that the speaker is responding to someone who has just insulted McDonald’s food,” writes Salon. “While there is no perfect translation for the phrase, it has the same essential spirit as ‘I like it no matter what you say!’”

Hence you might use the phrase in a defensive retort when someone asks: “Why do you eat that garbage?” Salon went to the experts to confirm its analysis and Professor Liu Lening, head of Columbia University’s Chinese language programme, said the publication’s interpretation was correct. He advised that a better translation of ‘I’m lovin’ it’ would have been Wo hen xihua and also suggested Wo hao xihuan, which means “I really like it”.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Chocoholics? Ferrero to Open First Chocolate Plant in China

The first record of chocolate in China is from the court of the Kangxi Emperor in 1706. A papal legate by the name of Charles-Thomas Maillard De Tournon brought some with him in order to charm the Chinese monarch. Unfortunately the cocoa-based product, which at that time was served as a drink, failed to impress. One account of the imperial tasting holds that Kangxi took a sip and declared he would much rather have a cup of longjing tea (a specialty from Hangzhou in Zhejiang province).

Three hundred years later and there are still many Chinese who would agree with Kangxi. The sweet, creamy taste  and texture of chocolate – now mainly consumed in solid form – is too rich for many Chinese who grew up with little or no dairy in their lives.

But that is changing rapidly. The Chinese confectionary market is growing between 10% to 20% annually, depending on who you ask, and the big players are all jostling for sales.

Cue another Italian from Piedmont – Giovanni Ferrero, the head of the family-run business that produces Nutella and the gold-wrapped Ferrero Rocher balls. He sees Asia as the main source of his candy company’s growth in the coming years and this summer he will open a Rmb5 billion ($800 million) factory in Zhejiang, reports China Business Journal.

In 2013 the notoriously private CEO told the Wall Street Journal that “the strength of the Rocher brand [in Asia] is an early indicator of the route to follow”.

Four companies currently dominate the Chinese chocolate market – Mars, Nestle, Ferrero and local brand Le Conté. Mars, which has the biggest market share, has two factories in China, producing Snickers and Dove bars, and M&Ms. Mars also makes a locally available rice-infused chocolate called Cui Xiang Mi.

Hershey’s, the world’s fifth largest chocolate maker, has also launched a major offensive: buying Shanghai candy maker Golden Monkey last year and opening a research centre in the city in 2013.

The feeling is that urbanisation, rising wealth and an increasing interest in non-Chinese foods will keep the market growing. Annual Chinese chocolate consumption is currently only 200 grams a year per person. If the average Chinese were to consume even a quarter of the 11kg of chocolate the British munch annually, it would result in more than $20 billion in additional sales for the confectionary industry.

Last month Hershey’s predicted the Chinese market as a whole would be worth $3.4 billion by 2019, up from $2.7 billion today (the global chocolate market will next year grow to $98 billion according to research by the consultancy Markets and Markets).

Ferrero, which had revenues of $8.7 billion last year, is the only one of the major players not to have some kind of Chinese facility.

This, however, is very characteristic of the privately-held company which began life as a pastry shop in Alba. In the years following the Second World War, Giovanni’s grandfather Pietro began mixing cocoa with ground up hazelnut. The result was a solid, chocolatey block. His son Michele – who died last month at the age of 89 –  then came up with the idea of mixing it with vegetable oil to make it spreadable. As Nutella sales surged, an empire was born.

Michele insisted on growing the company naturally and resisted making any acquisitions bar one – a small hazelnut company in Turkey. His son Giovanni, who has been running the company since 1997 shares his father’s business philosophies.

“We’re not interested in maximising revenue in the short term, like everyone else. If we were listed, we would be under short-term pressure to deliver dividends and profits,” the WSJ quoted him as saying in 2013. Indeed, while other multinationals have moved production away from China recently, Ferrero’s long-term mindset has led him to make a major investment instead.

In the short term it may hurt its margins in China. That’s because some Chinese have been heard to moan about the price of imported Ferrero Rocher chocolates. As the Beijing Commercial Daily pointed out, after Ferrero opens its 30,000 tonne a year plant it will be harder for the company to justify the price tag for the locally-made versions. “Ferrero’s price has always been higher than other brands, but Chinese customers won’t accept this once the company reduces their transportation cost.” >>

Friday, March 27, 2015

Disney’s Cinderella Tale Woos China’s Grown-up Audience

Charles Perrault’s folk tale about Cinderella was written around the seventeenth century. But a Chinese legend bearing a striking resemblance to its plot seems to have appeared in the Tang Dynasty, almost a millennium earlier.

It is the story of a very bright girl named Ye Xian. Not only is she beautiful she also has a very kind heart. But her father dies so she is forced to live with her stepmother. One day when drawing water Ye catches a fish with red fins and golden eyes. She takes the fish home and places it in the pond, taking every scrap of food she can find to feed the fish.
Unfortunately her stepmother snatches and kills (then eats) the fish while Ye is out running errands.

When Ye discovers her fish is gone she becomes terribly upset. A little old man (the fairy god father?) magically appears and instructs her to retrieve the fish bones, put them in a bowl in her room and it will grant any wish she wants.

One day, during the annual festival for young maidens to meet potential husbands, her stepmother and stepsister set off for the dating fair. Ye wants to go too and prays to her fish bones. Suddenly Ye finds herself clad in the most beautiful green silk robe with jade and other fine jewellery adorning her. More importantly, she is also given a pair of gold embroidered slippers.

In her new outfit, Ye rushes to join the celebrations. She is so beautiful that men and women – including her stepmother and stepsister – start wondering who she is. Worried that her identity could be compromised, Ye runs back home but leaves one of her slippers. The Emperor later finds the slipper and becomes determined to find its owner… (Presumably, you can predict the ending.)
That helps explain why many Chinese are familiar with the Cinderella story – even if they didn’t grow up watching the famed Disney cartoon. And last week, Disney’s live-action film Cinderella became the biggest box office winner, taking in over Rmb200 million ($32 million) during its opening weekend. >>