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 â€œtu bieâ€, 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.
â€œItâ€™s an odd but telling phenomenon,â€ a Hong Kong business man now living in Beijing said to me. â€œIn 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 Beijingâ€™s celebrities are almost all movie stars and artists. Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin are practically the only businesspeople.â€ His explanation was simple. â€œMost super-rich people in mainland China cannot publicly explain their fortune, â€œ he said, â€œLai lu bu ming: â€˜the origin is unclear.â€™ They have to keep a low profile.â€
What made Zhang and Panâ€™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 â€“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 â€œwhite boxâ€ surfaces. Instead of the traditional gra, the color scheme was vibrant; red, yellow, green, and purple were used on the faÃ§ade 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 â€œSOHOâ€ â€“ Small Office-Home Officeâ€”was adopted with an eye to the growing number of small private companies in Beijing.
â€œIn the tide of globalization, itâ€™s hopeless to stress a particular regional character, â€œZhang said to me in one of our conversations. â€œBut 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 itâ€™ll be too late. What we are doing in Beijing is an effort to leave something that we wonâ€™t be ashamed of.â€
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. 🙂