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How to do business in China: be nice and be there

21st Jul '16

Being respectful, having an opinion and making yourself known will win you work, says award-winning architect Will Alsop OBE

Company: aLL Design Trading in: China Sector: Architecture

The first thing to say about working in China is: it’s great fun. There’s a freedom and a readiness to consider any proposal –however “out there” – which you rarely get in the UK.

In a sense, the country itself is a project. There’s now an abundance of money, of land, of space, of people – and a desire to embrace the future, uninhibited by risk. It really has been a rapid progress from under-development to development – to what in some cases you might call over-development.

“The worst thing you can do as a foreigner is give the impression you’re in town to take advantage of China, as if it were a blank canvas and open chequebook”

Shanghai led the way – and you could say the work in that city is now largely done. Many of the buildings that Western architects are invited to build in China are shopping malls or plazas – and Shanghai surely has all the Gucci bags it can possibly handle.

I’ve been working in China since the early 2000s and a lot has changed in those 15 years. Back in the early days, certain US architects who took up commissions would essentially recreate buildings they had constructed back home, in the belief the Chinese would never travel beyond their borders to spot the originals.

Testbed2 CQ aLL HQ Alsop exhibition

That situation couldn’t last, of course, and as the Chinese grew more worldly and confident, they started to demand more than mere copies.

The European architects who arrived in the Americans’ wake were the first to respond properly to the surroundings and construct buildings that were unique.

There’s a theory that anything goes in China, architecturally speaking; that because the Chinese are so open to new ideas, they’ll allow any sort of building to be constructed to any sort of crazy design.

Some commentators have even used my Gao Yang International Cruise Terminal in Shanghai, which features a four-storey hanging restaurant, as an example. It was, in fact, designed to provide a visually arresting gateway to the city to wow ferry passengers.

So the “anything goes” theory isn’t quite correct. Outlandish vanity projects aren’t accepted without question. Rather, there’s a debate being had in the country as to what exactly Chinese architecture means today.

Alongside Gao Yang, the other building I’m proudest of there is the Raffles City apartment hotel in Beijing. I’m also working on a number of projects now in Chongqing, which is fast becoming one of the world’s biggest cities – and where there really are a lot of buildings to be built.Gao Yang, Shanghai

They’ve just introduced a high-speed rail link connecting it to Sichuan, which they opened within a few years of the project getting a green light. Compare that with the endless brouhaha in the UK over HS2. Refreshingly, in China things get done.

It’s also a very different way of working. In my experience, the Chinese aren’t particularly big on contracts. It’s more a case of “I like you, you like me, let’s do business”. It’s about personal relationships rather than paper ones. “Mr Will, over here a contract really doesn’t mean very much,” an associate told me on one of my first visits.

So how do you do business in China? I know a lot of people participate in trade fairs, but I’ve not found them too helpful over the years.

What you do need to do is make your presence felt. You have to go there in person and become part of the political life, the social life. Be a nice person, develop relationships. You also need to have an opinion and get it out there, so make sure you have a Chinese speaker with you. Find time to make friends and give talks. Get yourself invited to speak at universities, at Tongji in Shanghai or a similar institution.

In China you don’t tend to get decisions when you expect them, much less when you want them. My advice is to employ a Chinese contingent in your practice, who understand the local scene. The ideal is to have a Western office and a Chinese office in constant contact, making things happen.

I go out to China every five to six weeks. The worst thing you can do as a foreigner is give the impression you’re in town to take advantage of China, as if it were a blank canvas and open chequebook. Be present and be respectful is the advice I’d give any Western architect or, indeed, any Western businessperson looking to set up in that remarkable country.



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