22-YEAR OLD Latin dance studio co-owner Lisa Wang is an old timer here by Shenzhen standards.
By that I mean she has been here for nearly four years.
That makes her practically a “local” in a city famous for its ability to attract fortune seekers from all parts of China, and the world.
In this installment of our ongoing series of stories focusing on professionals (expats and locals) based in this bustling southern Chinese metropolis, we learn that it takes more than two to tango.
In Ms. Wang's case, who moved from the countryside not long ago, it also takes more than a village.
Shenzhen is China's most crowded city, and depending on which taxi driver you ask, it could also be the country's biggest as it has the highest percentage of migrant laborers and non-local professionals than any other city nationwide.
It also happens to have China's second biggest stock exchange and port.
NextInsight recently met up with Ms. Wang in Shenzhen.
NextInsight: When did you first arrive in Shenzhen and why?
Ms. Wang: I arrived here in March of 2007 after my sister first came to get the lay of the land. I had just finished school and was pretty much clueless on what to do or where to go at that point. Little did I know at the time that I was just one of many from my hometown in Jiangxi that was making the big move to Shenzhen.
Tell us a bit about your initial impressions of this city three and a half years ago the moment you got off the train, and how have those impressions been altered over time?
Ms. Wang: When I first arrived, I was basically one of those wide-eyed gaping tourists from some far flung village with too much cheap luggage, an antique cell phone and wearing what could only be considered fashionable in a town with no traffic lights.
Now when I see these types, I often think about my arrival not too long ago and I sometimes see myself in them.
I found Shenzhen to be immediately attractive because as an outsider I was in the majority here, everything seemed so fresh and new in the city, I could meet Chinese from all four corners of the country, I could also seek anonymity in the sprawling city if I so chose, and I never felt discriminated against for being a migrant from the countryside.
That is much better a situation than exists in other cities across China, so I hear.
Therefore, I think I found the perfect market to tap the Latin dance studio with my friend, first targeting Hong Kong and now with our eyes firmly fixed on Shenzhen. There is definitely a solid and growing middle class here with a lot of disposable income on their hands.
While back home in Jiangxi extra cash would immediately be used to pay off loans, fund a relative’s education or hospital bills, or maybe invest in more seeds for the upcoming harvest, here is Shenzhen it might just as well go into a second car or laptop... or perhaps some beginner tango lessons.
It’s this latter group that provides my livelihood and I am very grateful for their curiosity about alternative forms of art and exercise.
You are still very young, just 22, so you are allowed to get homesick now and then. What have you found to be the most effective remedy?
Ms. Wang: My situation is quite unique, if not a bit sad. Since I was very small I don’t remember seeing my parents much as they were far away making money in the city and ending it home to my grandmother who basically raised me.
However, I know my parents made that sacrifice to give me a better life, and I am grateful to them of course.
Due to this upbringing, I have always been very independent and strong-willed, because I had to fend for myself a lot growing up as my grandmother couldn’t keep an eye on me round the clock.
Therefore, my parents were not surprised at all to learn a couple years ago that I had decided to open up the dance studio with my friend. Perhaps they knew that I would much rather call the shots than work for a company and follow their codes and schedules.
These days, my parents are living and working in Hangzhou, and I keep in touch two or three times a week by phone or computer chat, and things are fine.
Shenzhen probably gives people like me, the free-spirited types, more leeway and opportunities than any other city in China.
I can’t speak for cities outside of China, but I think that there is always room in Shenzhen for people with well planned-out business ideas, the willingness to work hard, and yes – a little bit of good luck – to make it big.
And that is my goal... to make it big. I still know the names of all my current students, and I don’t have a particularly sharp memory, so you can imagine we are still small.
But we are growing and we don’t spend a penny on advertising save for the sign out front of our studio. So word of mouth and referrals must be positive and we feel that is proof we are doing something right.
Yes, we could aggressively market ourselves online or in the traditional media, but that takes a lot of money, something we are still working on.
Besides, what if hundreds replied? Where would we put them? We still only have the one studio and a crowded dance floor might work for a disco, but it’s a big turnoff in our business for potential students.
You’ve been in Shenzhen for a fair spell and can look at the city with a more trained eye. What transformations have you seen on the infrastructure construction, architecture, business operating and lifestyle fronts?
Ms. Wang: Things are always moving up here, life seems to be getting better for the majority of people and I am always making new friends.
How about the commercial climate here? Do you find many obstacles to running a business?
Ms. Wang: I think it all depends on what line of work you are in. Like in any city, some sectors see much fiercer competition than others. If you open a noodle shop or “used” cell phone store here, you are likely to see identical shops to yours on every street corner.
However, there aren’t nearly as many Latin dance studios in either Hong Kong or Shenzhen.
The difference is, everyone needs to eat every day and most people would argue they can’t do without a cell phone, so shops offering these things mushroom up everywhere.
However, Latin dance is not necessarily for everyone, and therefore our studio doesn’t have hundreds of competitors fighting for the mass market.
As for obstacles to doing business, I would say they are not government generated but market generated. The government just does its best to make sure everyone plays by the rules and this makes for a survival of the fittest scenario, which though perhaps sometimes brutal at times, is also probably the most efficient and effective commercial setting.
However, the only problem I sometimes encounter is that people are seldom aware of all the rules of the market and enforcement is sometimes erratic and quite often hit-and-miss.
Shenzhen and Shanghai are China’s two main financial hubs, with bourses and brokerages galore to reinforce this status. Have you dabbled in A shares?
Ms. Wang: Last year I put a lot of money in stocks but lost nearly half overnight.
I openly admit I am no financial wizard and should probably best stick to running the dance studio.
Shenzhen’s economy and population have both expanded dramatically this past decade, and the cost of living has unfortunately not lagged behind. How have you coped with inflation?
Ms. Wang: Rent hikes are the most striking thing for me because we have two landlords – one for the apartment and another for the studio.
If things keep improving business-wise, then the goal is of course to cut out the landlord and own property outright.
As for other expenses, to be honest I haven’t felt that food, transportation and entertainment costs have gone up to much, despite the fact that everyone else seems to complain about it.
Maybe I have simpler tastes, but inflation is hardly perceptible in my everyday life.
You are still single, but if you settle down and have a child or two down the road, would you be happy to school them here, or would you have your eyes on another city – or country?
Ms. Wang: If I had the means, I would send them to Hong Kong or elsewhere. Despite my appreciation of all that China and especially Shenzhen have provided me, I still think that the education system here is overly reliant on testing and thus too competitive. This is not healthy for a child’s intellectual and social development.
And especially for an independent-minded person like me, I don’t think I would last a day in Shenzhen’s test and homework-crazy school system!
In summary, what are the best things about doing business here and which areas need improvement?
Ms. Wang: The openness of the society and the large middle class are the best things.
However, with so many different people from all walks of life crammed into one city, things can get a bit hectic sometimes.
Let’s just say that sanitation and social interchange practices of the countryside do not always mimic those of the sophisticated big city, so inevitably some latent frictions still might exist under the surface.
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