Expat does healthy trade in face masks in Beijing

Concerned by the pollution in Beijing, former telecom engineer pursues a healthy trade

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 7:14am

Kelvin Lau Kam-wai, 33, is a Chinese-Canadian who moved to Beijing two years ago from Vancouver, first working as an engineer at a multinational telecommunications firm on an expat package. Like other Beijingers and expatriates, Lau has struggled to cope with food-safety concerns and worsening air pollution, and he has spent a lot of money on water and air purifiers to stay healthy. While the pollution has driven some expats out of Beijing, Lau opted to stay, but he also quit his job - giving up the expat package that came with it, from accommodation to a car. In May, he started an online shop that sells face masks made out of carbon fabric with replaceable activated carbon filters inside.

Why did you come to Beijing two years ago?

I felt like I was going through a midlife crisis two years ago, and I was different from my friends who had just entered different stages of their lives. I started looking for an international assignment in my company because I knew it would give me new experiences but I could continue with my job. China seemed to be a good choice, because I am also Chinese.

Do you find the living environment in Beijing worse than in Vancouver?

When I came, I was aware that food safety and the environment were serious issues in Beijing, and that my health might be affected. I keep reminding myself that I have to be health-conscious, and I have bought water and air purifiers at home. For food, I eat organic if I can.

Why didn't you go back to Vancouver after quitting your job?

I did pray for direction when I again wanted to explore something new after two years as an engineer here. I have been doing technical stuff for too long, and I wanted to gain some management and business experience. I started looking around again.

I just felt it was not the right time to go back to Vancouver, because Beijing is an exciting city that has a lot of opportunities. Many people are frustrated with the problems facing Beijing, but I find the city interesting. It is under such circumstances that many unpredictable things can happen, and opportunities may arise. Here, you have more opportunities to make things dramatically better, whereas in North America, many things have already been properly developed.

Why are you selling face masks? And why do it on a full-time basis?

The idea of selling these face masks came as Beijing's air pollution has been worsening. I have used the masks for about two years, and some of my friends asked me where they can buy them. Then I started thinking about selling them in China. I believe it is a good business opportunity, and it is something meaningful. I decided to do it full-time instead of getting a job with a stable income, because it is important to do things right instead of trying to do too many things at the same time, which will distract you.

What's the difference between life as an expat in a multinational company and as an online businessman?

Life as an expat is very comfortable because you have all your problems resolved by helpers. But it is very different when you are on your own. When I needed to get some documents for my apartment for filing a tax submission, different people gave different versions of what documents were needed, and I needed to spend a lot of time sorting things out.

What are your guiding principles for conducting business?

I want to do business right, and prove that it is possible to do that in China. In the online shopping community, some shop owners will pay internet users for posting positive comments about their shops and products. I am against such practices because the comments are fake. When I went to apply for a temporary resident's permit, I was asked to provide a document proving that I have settled the tax on the apartment I rent. That meant I suddenly had to pay tax of more than 5,000 yuan [HK$6,275], when my bank account on the mainland only had about 15,000 yuan. Some people suggested that I lie and say the apartment is owned by my friend and that I don't need to pay rent. I struggled about whether I really had to lie to save money. I decided not to, but I was reduced to tears [during the struggle] because I felt weak, forgetting the principles I believe in.

What did you learn from the struggle?

It was really a miracle - what happened after I decided to be honest. Usually, landlords in China are not obliged to help get property documents for tax registration. But my landlord respected my integrity, and we became friends. He spent days going to the bank and to the property developer to get the documents I needed. I believe that when one chooses to do the right thing and be honest, people appreciate it and miracles happen.

How is your business doing now?

I sold only 30 masks in the first month, but I sold 50 in the second month and about 80 last month. About 70 per cent of the customers are local people, including pregnant women and cyclists. To my surprise, some expats in Shanghai also bought the masks, and they told me they wanted to take some for their family members and friends in Singapore, where smog was serious in June because of forest fires on Indonesia's Sumatra island.

What have you learned from your business?

It is like taking an MBA [Master of Business Administration] course, and I can try different ideas, but I don't have to pay tuition fees. For example, I made the website on my own. My style of writing Chinese is just different from that of many mainlanders. The material on the website may not be very legible, but it represents my identity and uniqueness, which no one can copy.