“The Turtles” – The star couple of Chinese real estate

This week’s New Yorker has an interesting article in “Letter from Beijing” section: “The Turtles — The star couple of Chinese real estate.” by Jianying Zha.

Too bad newyorker.com doesn’t have an on-line version.

The title comes from the slang people gave to the husband and wife team. The wife, Zhang Xin, was a Cambridge educated Wall Street investment banker. Her moving back to China earned her the local title “hai gui”, which means literarily Sea Turtle. It is used to refer to Chinese returning from Overseas. The husband, Pan Shiyi, was a self-made, hundred percent made in China entrepreneur. His title is “tu bie”, it basically means the earthy/native turtle.

Both of them had humble beginnings. Pan was born and raised in a little village in Gansu, and his family was constantly under the threat of starvation. Zhang used to work in the sweat shop of HongKong when she was a teenager, in order to help her divorced mother make ends meet.

Now they are almost the only celebrity businesspeople in mainland China.

“It’s an odd but telling phenomenon,” a Hong Kong business man now living in Beijing said to me. “In Hong Kong, business tycoons are the true celebrities. At a glamorous gathering, tycoons get front seats, while movie stars are a bit on the sidelines. But Beijing’s celebrities are almost all movie stars and artists. Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin are practically the only businesspeople.” His explanation was simple. “Most super-rich people in mainland China cannot publicly explain their fortune, “ he said, “Lai lu bu ming: ‘the origin is unclear.’ They have to keep a low profile.”

What made Zhang and Pan’s firm SOHO stand out was not only their incredible sense of timing and luck to always land in the next hottest development district one step ahead of the herd, but also because their buildings always exhibit a strong sense of style.

For their very first project SOHO New Town,

Zhang sought out young local designers and urged them to be bold. This resulted in a series of features for which the complex eventually became famous. The apartments had large living rooms, but small bedrooms and no balconies –the opposite of traditional Beijing apartments. They had floor-to-ceiling windows, which traditionalists considered unsafe, and fine-finish wood-work, rather than the usual unfinished “white box” surfaces. Instead of the traditional gra, the color scheme was vibrant; red, yellow, green, and purple were used on the façade of every tower. At the same time, there were no costly, showy materials like granite and stainless steel. Some apartments had sliding walls, so that they could easily be adapted as office spaces. The concept of “SOHO” – Small Office-Home Office—was adopted with an eye to the growing number of small private companies in Beijing.

“In the tide of globalization, it’s hopeless to stress a particular regional character, “Zhang said to me in one of our conversations. “But I feel that we should at least stop for a minute and think about our own contemporary character, our modern identity. All past dynasties left something special in Beijing: the Great Wall, the Summer Palace. We are so eager to build our big cities, but ten years from now we might be shocked by what we build and it’ll be too late. What we are doing in Beijing is an effort to leave something that we won’t be ashamed of.”

There are more interesting facts of how they each started on their own. Pan in Hai Nan “Stir-fry Buildings”, and Zhang in New York working for a six digit salary. How Pan had the shrewd intuition of what personal mortgage bill Chinese government would pass next and where would be a good place to build next and who would be the best audience. How Zhang insisted on her western way of running their company at the beginning and hit wall after wall after wall.

Fascinating, really. Try to pick up a copy if you haven’t. 🙂

A Small Piece of Sunlight

Every afternoon, starting around 3 or 4pm, a small piece of sunlight will magically appear on the carpet next to my chair. Often when I come back to my desk, I would notice this little rectangular light on the dark colored carpet. At the very beginning, I often mistook it for a piece of paper, cuz it was so much lighter than the rest of the floor.

Little things like this always make me happy.

Even though, there are really so much more delight in everyday life, the warm sunshine, the dark green mountains surrounded our campus, the shiny building, cheerful crowd milling around me at work, the optimistic air is everywhere.

But I treasure this little piece of sunlight the most. Because it is mine, and mine alone. I noticed it, I love it.

Maybe that is what made weblog such a phenomenon. Our lives are commoditized so much that any individualistic observations delight our hearts.