Paul Midler

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 January, 2010, 12:00am

STRIKING A TONE The first time I was taught any Chinese was on a field trip to the Tomb of Patriarchs [in Hebron]. It was down to a friend I spent a year abroad in Jerusalem with; he was Chinese-American. I was dragging him around Israel [where Midler's parents are from]. He went through the rote recitation of the four tones and I figured my musical background would give me a head start.

Unlike some people, I started studying Chinese history and language before I came to Asia. This was in 1989 and 1990 but let's put it this way; when I was in college, nobody at that time was thinking, 'I'm going to invest years of my life [studying Chinese] with the possibility of economic return.' I was just interested in the culture, in the history. Today, the typical college student comes with dreams of entrepreneurship but in 1990, the outlook wasn't as positive because Tiananmen had just happened and people were thinking that it might be taking us back to the drawing board.

DODGING DISASTER I picked up my bags and moved to Taiwan without having seen the place and I stayed for four years. I did a number of things; I was a journalist reporting on hi-tech companies, which was a very interesting window into the 'Asian economic miracle'. From there, I went to business school at the University of Pennsylvania, where I continued to study Chinese - it was still an unpopular subject. The decision [to leave Taiwan] was controversial since it was at the height of the boom; the Taiwan stock exchange index had just passed 10,000 points; there were pictures of people in the media uncorking champagne; and the mood was one of elation. But that spring, the Asian economic crisis hit.

ACTION FIGURE After I graduated, I did a small stint in private equity in Chengdu and realised after a few short months that I wanted to be where it was all happening, which was southern China. So I went there, again without any idea of what I wanted to do, and luckily for me there were importers streaming in that needed help. All you had to do in those days was sit in the lobby of a hotel and strike up a conversation with importers; it was an enormous centre of commerce.

[Once] I was in a hotel lobby, someone asked what I do and I said, 'Outsource supply-chain management'. He said, 'I don't get what that means.' I told him, 'Well, you know how when something goes wrong you call and try to yell at the factory? I do that for you.' He then asked for my card; I guess I bridged the communication gap.

MR FIX-IT A lot of people were trying to get things done at arm's length and yet you would have issues that only someone on the ground could look into, like a factory that simply would not call you back. My clients tended to call me very late in the game, often after things had gone badly. Calls tended to come late at night - their time - because they were at their wits' end. You'd fix a few things and the company would realise that there was some value in having someone like that on the ground to bridge linguistic, cultural and time-zone chasms. People think manufacturing is a dry science but personal relationships have [a big] effect on how things get made and brought over to the West.

RIPPING YARNS At first there was no book idea at all. I was giving my clients counsel and realised that I was telling the same stories over and over again, like a broken record. So, I thought of putting some together in a form that I could hand to them. Then I started to take notes at project sites and during meetings, and then I had what I realised would make for a better book, for a more general audience.

The export phenomenon in China has got to be one of the most interesting things to have happened in global history and I just didn't think that anyone was getting it right. There's denial on this topic, of quality scandals in particular. A number of people, even today, are concerned for me regarding China; there's an amount of self-censorship that goes on there. Bookshop owners have told me point blank that they need to check with authorities before [stocking the book]. Even in Hong Kong I was asked to change the title of a talk because to name it 'Poorly Made in China' might offend members [of the venue].

I do believe we have problems within the industry and that they should be identified and discussed, but we have to tiptoe around the issue. When I asked some people who helped me with the book if they wanted to be thanked, they said, 'We're good - but I don't want you to mention my name, ever.' Others say, 'I'm glad you wrote it but if you want to do a kamikaze run it's going to be solo.' The book has cost me a couple of good friendships and I wrote it without consideration for my career; it needed to be written in a way that didn't limit it. Fortunately, it has been received very positively; it was at the very least true to itself. I don't think the book reads like a goodbye letter.

Paul Midler will give the talk 'Poorly Made in China' at a Foreign Correspondents' Club lunch on Thursday (lunch: 12.45pm; address: 1.15pm). Tickets cost HK$150 (members) and HK$180 (non-members). For reservations, call 2521 1511.