Anybody who has flown internationally knows that between the airplane door and the gangway is a small gap, exposing you to your first whopping whiff of fresh air since you boarded. And so it was that the first thing that struck me, stepping off the plane in Shanghai’s PVG airport, was a putrid smell: a nasty, vaguely-sinister mix of hot-concrete, exhaust fumes, jet fuel, and burning rubber. This miasma is not unique; however, it does a decent job of summing up my experience in Shanghai.
I am writing this blog post in an office that has been under-construction (noisily and filthily) for at least 9 weeks, situated on a road that has been 'under repair' for far longer. The tables are all coated in a slight grime, with hastily applied duct tape and pins holding my desk together. White-collar workers freely smoke in the shared office space, frequently throwing their spent cigarettes on the tile floor and stomping them out. Blue-collar workers, remodeling the landscape outside, precariously balance on rusty iron scaffolds, without harnesses or helmets. Brown-shirted maintenance staff, maybe once a day, come through and make a show of tidying up, which means the languid dragging of an ever-dry mop vaguely between the cubicles. The near dead-silence emanating from these workers (of all collars) allows the sound of the overworked air-conditioning, rattling away, to fill the space.
The startup I am working for is located on the second floor of the “China (Shanghai) Public Practicing Base for Entrepreneurs Building #4”, whose name, in itself, reveals something of the stiff, unsmiling nature of business here. The second floor, I've been told, houses many of the less-than-successful startups that operate in Shanghai’s unglamorous underbelly, a motley collection that nobody really wants to talk about.
And the business practices, as I’ve seen and experienced them, match the environment well.
There’s an expression commonly used in Shanghai which about sums it up: the negotiation begins after the contract is signed. I was introduced to this phrase by a seasoned Shanghai entrepreneur, who, in the white light of a local restaurant, looked noticeably tired merely mentioning it. Surreptitious deals, fraud, graft, forfeited payments, and neglected contracts are near-daily occurrences, and a kind of ‘business-as-usual’ attitude surrounds these practices. As far as I can tell, the only certainty while conducting business here is uncertainty, which merely contributes to the realpolitik of the Shanghai startup environment.
In an email correspondence with my grandfather, I was invited to list the three things that impressed me most about Shanghai. It didn’t take me long to produce my answer. They are as follows:
- How quickly things are built
- How shoddily things are built
- How quickly things built crumble
And ‘things built’ are not limited to physical constructions.
If these descriptions make me sound bitter, miserable, or exceptionally cynical, let me assure you- I’m not. By no means did I dislike my time here- the startup's staff, my host family, and the locals have all been extraordinarily kind to me. The food has been amazing, and some of the scenery quite beautiful. This internship, which began as a business development role, has evolved into the opportunity to serve as the company's financial advisor, and I am incredibly grateful to Vincent for trusting me with the responsibility. And by no means are things destined to continue this way in perpetuity. I merely feel that this side of the Shanghai startup scene is rarely given the air time or column inches it deserves.
And with that, I hope to have given you at least some sense of what it’s like here. I could keep writing about it for much longer, but then I run the risk of becoming boring, so let me quickly wrap it up with this.
For two months, I was a regular at one of Shanghai's famous malls just off Wujiaochang, and I discovered something by the miss-click of an elevator button. Within each and every one of the glistening shopping malls that populate Shanghai, with their faultless faux-marble, off-white walls, spotless floors, and sleek design, there is a maze of filthy (and I mean shockingly filthy), dimly-lit corridors that keep the whole thing going. And these, once stumbled upon, yield an absolute disillusionment and, I must add, the absolute yearning for a one-way ticket home.