Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Opening Ceremonies

My wife really enjoyed the London Olympic Games opening ceremony. I enjoyed the Queen and James Bond bit and the making of the Olympic rings but otherwise caught up on my sleep during the long, soporific  extravaganza. In between my napping last night, I thought about the concept of “opening ceremonies” and “ground breakings”.  
In America, we have “grand openings” and “ground breaking” ceremonies as many countries do but generally speaking these events are perfunctory and utterly lacking in the kind of creativity American is known for. The Chinese, on the other hand, as they proved in Beijing four years ago are the masters of the opening ceremony universe. I guess you could expect that from the country that invented fireworks.
I have a lot of “China bashing” friends and relatives who, for the most part, have forgiven me for the transgression of enjoying my 5 plus years living in the middle kingdom. Only a few people I know who blame China for everything from US economic woes to global warming have ever visited China.  Those who have visited usually went for less than two weeks and came home loaded up with pirated DVDs, knock-off North Face ski jackets and a set of $120 “Callaway” golf clubs complete with a touring pro sized bag. Most see no conflict between their purchases and the unfair economic activity they accuse China of. But as usual, I digress.
One of my assignments in China was to get a lithium plant built in a foreign trade zone about 2 hours drive from Shanghai. Our company had unrealistic expectations about how quickly and inexpensively we could get the project done. They were unaware of certain items we were expected to spend time and money on – like our ground breaking and opening ceremonies…….
The head of the FTZ (Free Trade Zone) rarely met with our team. Our $15 million project was small by local standards so I was curious when I was summoned to FTZ headquarters for an “important” meeting. We had been following the local rules to the letter, paying people more than the local market and hadn’t had any injuries or failed inspections. As we drove to HQ, I pondered what critical issue could merit a meeting. “We want to discuss your opening ceremony” the big man said through his translator. I gave our senior Chinese staff member a quizzical look (as often was the case in China I was clueless about certain things deemed important by the locals) and he jumped in to assure the powers that be that we were “working on our plan”.  I played (and was) the ignorant foreigner and asked exactly what the FTZ expected. I was thinking a few of the local leaders, some gold painted shovels, a video camera and 20 minutes. He was thinking a couple hundred guests, Texas (or should I say Chinese) sized decorations, fireworks, a dragon dance and TV cameras. And, of course, afterward a big party at the local fake 5 star hotel. How much does one of these events usually cost?, I asked. “Oh a small one like yours about 40,000”. “RMB?”, I asked. “No, dollars” was the response and “that doesn’t include the banquet”. In response to my look of surprise, he said “don’t  worry, my ‘friend’ has a company that can help you”. “Of course” I replied.
So a few weeks later I got to make the welcoming speech in Chinese at our opening ceremony. As I finished my 2 minute foray into uncharted mandarin waters, sweat soaked through my suit on the 42 degree C  July day. The mayor slapped me on the back as I returned to my seat; he claimed he understood every memorized word of my 120 second discourse on how glad we were to be in “good ole Zhangjiagang”. Just as I started to relax and the dragon dance began, someone from the local opening ceremony production company lost track of time and set the fireworks off early. Let’s just say our ceremony ended with a premature bang.