Special market for American expats in China

The World

Shanghai street at night. (Image: Flickr user http2007 (cc: by-nc-sa))

In China, there’s a special market for white, native-English speaking Americans. "The World" correspondent Bill Marcus explains how, in China, you can make good money simply by being a white westerner. Marcus is based in Shanghai.

Philip Tang is a regional manger for Cotik, a Hong Kong based architectural design firm. "Having a white face in my company is very important for us, " said Tang. "It’s kind of impression. Okay, say impression whether you are internationalized or not.

"So we need somebody ... who can speak very good, English, and also who can demonstrate a very good ... business mind, or marketing sense. Because ... this is the critical chance, or the one and only one opportunity for us ... to sell ourself."

Tang hired Marcus, a white guy from suburban New York, for the day.

Marcus went into a room in downtown Shanghai, shook the hands of a wall of blue-suited Japanese, sat behind a table as big as Montana and said, "I’m Bill Marcus, Business Development Director for Cotik, let me tell you about our company." He then narrated a power point. Tang had written the script.

"They are not looking for a local company. They’re looking for an internationalized company, " said Tang.

Cotik won the contract to design the office layout for a Japanese firm moving into Shanghai’s new World Finance Center. 

In America, this is fraud, but in China, it’s marketing. Marcus earned the equivalent of $300 dollars for the day.

White foreign experts in China are routinely approached to sell everything. Christy Shapiro, an actress from New York City, was a famous Italian home designer for the day. Christy doesn’t speak Italian and can’t fake an Italian accent, but that didn’t matter. The Chinese she was talking to in English didn’t understand English anyway. When a man tried to question her on a matter of substance, her employers whisked her away promising the questioner that he would be provided with a detailed written response at a future date.

"We’re selling our faces. We’re selling our ancestry. The fact that we’re white people, that’s what we’re selling," said John Van Fleet.

Van Fleet is another Western expat for hire. He used to fill in as a priest at weddings: "The weddings that I have participated in, have all been in English, at least, my role as the faux priest, precisely because they wanted that foreign aspect."

But all that may be changing. Daniela Barrera of the marketing consultancy Publicist in Hong Kong says a survey last winter of more that 1,500 Mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong consumers, showed demand is falling for the promise of quality that John and Christy have been selling.

"This economic crisis is actually making them understand that some of their, you know, traditional values are actually better than some Western values that they’ve been considering as inspirational in the past," said Barrera.

Barrera says Wall Street might have blown it for some whites-for-hire in China, "Technically for the white in finance, [LAUGHS] not necessarily as much for other sectors, say for instance, luxury.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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