Planes Trains and Automobiles (and bicycles)
“David,” I said. “I’ve booked the trip to attend the RemaxWorld Expo in Zhuhai, China.”
“Great!” replied David. “What route are you taking?”
“Manchester to Beijing,” I began. “Then an internal flight to Guangzhou. Followed by an underground train to South Guangzhou train station. Finishing with a bullet train to Zhuhai.”
“Good luck with that,” came David Gibbons’ swift reply. “You’re doing something alone that I would never attempt alone, even after living in Zhuhai for the past 8 years.”
I love an adventure. But had I bitten off more than I could chew this time?
Although long, the flight to Beijing went without a hitch and I even managed to bumble my way onto the internal flight, once I’d worked out that my luggage needed to be checked back in again.
The fun started at Guangzhou airport
First, it was trying to find the underground. Then working out how and which ticket to buy. It took a good 15 minutes studying how others were doing it before I plucked up the courage to purchase a ticket.
Boarding the train I got lucky, sitting next to an American who’s extended family lived northeast of Guangzhou. He was catching the bullet train too, although in the opposite direction.
It turned out Brad lived in San Francisco and worked for Google. He was head of properties in AsiaPacific, and spent half his life on the road, making sure costs and facilities were in check.
Brad said it was a great job, but the travelling and hours could be gruelling. On the upside, he could visit his extended family at least a couple of times a year, whilst passing through.
I learned something too. San Francisco is reported to be the most expensive city in the world for housing. According to Brad.
Between him and his partner (she works for Google too), they earn good money but can only afford to live in a 2-bed condo, as property prices are so expensive. There’s cost a cool US$1.2 million.
We arrived at South Guangzhou train station and said our goodbyes. I’d pre-purchased a return bullet train ticket online, so all I had to do was find the right platform.
As you can imagine. Everything was in Chinese. Why would I think it would be any different? I’m not kidding I spent 25 minutes walking round in circles before stumbling upon the right platform with just minutes to spare. In fact, the train doors shut just after I boarded. It was squeaky bum time!
On the inside. First impressions. It was just like a Virgin train. Full! With nowhere to sit. So I had to stand for the journey of an hour or so.
I came to the realisation that Bullet trains are funny. No, I don’t mean funny haha. I mean they’re so smooth it feels like you’re just meandering along. Not hurtling down the track at 300 km/h.
With the bullet train ticked off the bucket list, it was time to engage a local taxi driver with a spot of international language, miming and figure pointing. In the end, he ignored me and just phoned the hotel.
Me being me, I had not booked a hotel near the conference centre as most sane people would.
No, I’d booked one that was miles away, slap bang in the middle of where most of the locals live and work. Zhuhai’s a long way from home, I was only here three days and I wanted to get to know the place from the inside.
The hotel wasn’t a palace and I was squashed between a variety of small shops and apartments. It probably just about measured up to its 3 stars. The reception was small but nicely decorated and the hotel team seemed friendly. Laughing while I mimed and figure pointed again.
My room was small but clean and nicely decorated. Yes. I was pleased as punch with my choice.
Now. Here’s the thing.
I’d made a promise: on all three nights, I would leave the hotel for at least an hour walk in a different direction and choose a different restaurant to eat at each time, on the way back.
The time was coming up to 6pm and sweat beads of worry started to form on my forehead. “Come on, Darren. Get a grip,” I remonstrated with myself. “You’re only in China. You’ve got this.”
I’m not sure if you’ve ever been to Zhuhai. It’s across the water from Hong Kong. My god, it’s big. New buildings, cars, bikes and people everywhere. Apparently, it has a population of 1.6 million and is small by Chinese standards. It’s hard to believe it was a small fishing village right up until the 1980s.
It was a decent first walk. The weather was warm, and the people seemed friendly enough. Even though I was definitely the only westerner in this part of town and attracted some strange looks.
I was somewhere north of my accommodation and came across a good-looking restaurant, which seemed quite full, giving me confidence that the food must be good. So I entered nervously.
Not knowing what to say, I just looked at the ladies on the front desk with puppy dog eyes, hoping they’d be able to read my mind. They said something to me, which I obviously didn’t understand, then laughed between themselves, before taking my hand and leading me to an empty table.
With notepad at the ready, they waited to take my drinks order. The only 2 words I’d memorised were Pijiu (beer) and Qing (brand name). Now was my time to shine. “Pijiu Qing,” I said confidently in my best Rossendalian accent. They looked at each other blankly, clearly not understanding a word.
A red flush came over me. Sweat was forming on my brow. I could feel the embarrassment growing within. Then I spotted it. A beer arrived at the next table. A wide grin appeared on my face as I pointed to the bottle and said the words again, “Pijiu Qing.” They both smiled and nodded.
“Bloody hell! That was just to order a beer,” I thought to myself. “How the hell am I going to manage to order some food?”
I’m not religious, but at that moment my prayers were answered. Along with the beer, the ladies brought picture menus. Yes. Picture menus. Never had I been so pleased to see what looked like a book full of pictures for toddlers learning to speak. Yes. That was exactly what it felt like.
Listen. At that very moment, those pictures saved me from starvation. Well, maybe not starvation. Just a night feeling hungry until it was time for the hotel breakfast.
With the help of the ladies (miming & figure pointing again), I choose three different dishes. All were very tasty, although I couldn’t really tell what they were, except one was chicken, the other pork and the final one vegetarian. Including two beers it came to £10. I was in heaven and couldn’t wait to do it again.
Next morning I was down at reception at 8am sharp to figure out the best way to order a taxi to the RemaxWorld Expo.
I had the address on my ticket but it was in English and they couldn’t read it. Then a guy came with a translator app that scanned and swapped the English to Chinese. Bingo!
At this point, I should tell you why I’m in Zhuhai.
I’ve been involved in office and printer technology most of my life and I’ve known David Gibbons for years. He even came to the UK in 2015 to report on a new vehicle MOT printing solution we’d developed.
David had watched from afar, as we transformed from a cartridge-only retail business into an office technology solutions company, now focusing on service and guaranteed fixed price plans.
We’d been having discussions about the rise of Chinese printer technology manufacturers, with David believing it won’t be long until Chinese manufacturers are competing directly against the likes of HP, Canon, Epson and Xerox. He challenged me to come to see for myself.
RemaxWorld Expo 2019 was the first time David had seen some of these young Chinese printer technology manufacturers book onto an event like this, to exhibit their technologies. He suggested it would be a good idea for me to attend the expo to understand and to watch this market develop.
The taxi ride was a good 8 kilometres away and there was no way I’d be able to walk back, which was my plan if not too far away. But I did work out, the train station was less than a mile from the hotel, so I’d be able to walk to catch the train back to Guangzhou on my last morning.
The exhibition centre was enormous. I knew the Chinese built things on a massive scale, but this was on another level. I estimated the exhibiting area was the size of about four football fields side by side.
I had scheduled two days for the exhibition. My plan was to spend the first day skirting round the whole exhibition, making a note of the companies of interest, and with whom I would then spend more time exploring on the second day. There was also a series of presentations I wanted to catch on the second day.
It was rammed with exhibitors and visitors. David was right, there were quite a few printer manufacturers exhibiting, and several others who refurbished existing brands and exported them around the world. There were hundreds of component cartridge and accessory manufacturers. It was an Aladdin’s cave.
By 4pm I’d compiled my shortlist and was ready to get back to the hotel. Then it dawned on me. How was I going to get back? There was no taxi rank, and it seemed people had pre-booked taxis to pick them up. No-one seemed to speak English, so I was a bit stuck.
A taxi driver then dropped someone off and shouted over to me. I gave him the hotel’s address card and he held his fingers up to agree to a price. Then the weirdest thing happened. He drove around the corner saw someone else struggling for a taxi, agreed to a price with them and got them into the cab too.
This happened until he’d filled his cab with 4 strangers, all paying him a full fare to get back to the centre of Zhuhai. He’d just quadrupled his takings for the trip. The taxi driver acted like a true entrepreneur, and I wasn’t bothered, as it would have cost the same had I booked a taxi in advance.
The guy next to me in the taxi was Indonesian and spoke good English. He’d also been visiting the exhibition and was stopping in my hotel. He’d been here for a few days already and was leaving that same evening. Still I managed to grab some time with him, and he gave me a list of great contacts.
A bit later I wandered out for my evening walk.
I was a lot more relaxed this time and headed south. Something I didn’t take in the previous evening, was the number of bicycles available for hire on pretty much every street corner. There were hundreds if not thousands of them.
After doing a bit of research, it seems they work on a subscription- type service via an app on your smartphone. Pay US$3 a month and you can use a bike whenever you want. You never have to own or maintain one. Simply scan a QR code when in the app to release and to park back up again.
It really got me thinking. We’d been operating monthly subscriptions for home and small organisation printer technology for a few years. But what else could we extend it to? Could we do fix priced subscriptions for desktop lasers, MFD’s, photocopiers and even IT technology?
All that thinking and walking had built up an appetite, and I had my eye on a restaurant south of the hotel, it was on my planned route back. It was up some wide stone steps and was above a row of local shops on a large street corner. I looked at the business from the outside and it seemed popular.
Confidence brimming from the previous night, and with my two Chinese word vocabulary at the ready, I strolled in. My goodness, it was much posher than the previous night. There were large round tables (with lazy waiters in the centre) and tables for four at the sides with other doors leading to private dining pods.
I was quickly ushered (with a smile) to a table at the side, and probably asked what I’d like to drink. “Pijiu Qing” came my confident reply. Which was again met by a blank face. Rossendalian accent strikes again (I thought) while quickly ad-libbing and pointing to a bottle of beer on a nearby table.
My prayers were answered again with toddler-friendly picture menus. The food again was excellent and the price was unbelievably good value.
Something strange happened. Some of the guys took their tops off. Yes. It was warm. But I’ve never seen a bare man’s chest in a Chinese restaurant before.
I was up early sorting clothes and paperwork ready for packing later that day.
Bugger. I couldn’t find my return bullet train ticket. Another challenge. Walk down to the train station with my confirmation number and try and get a replacement ticket. Oh, what situations I get myself into too.
The ticket office was jammed full of people and I had no idea which was the right queue. Picking one I waited patiently. Just before my turn, I took out my phone to translate “please can I have a replacement ticket” showing the attendant the translation ‘qǐng gěi wǒ yì zhāng tì huàn piào ma’. They pointed to the other queue.
Another 20 minutes later I was standing in front of attendant No. 2 showing the translation ‘‘qǐng gěi wǒ yì zhāng tì huàn piào ma’. She must have understood and taken pity on me because she printed me a fresh ticket and didn’t charge me the extra cost required. I thanked her and we both smiled knowingly.
Trying to get a taxi to the expo for the day was another matter. As soon as they realised I couldn’t speak Chinese they got scared and took off. It took the intervention of a nice police officer to break the deadlock. I showed him the exhibition address and he demanded the next taxi to take me. I couldn’t thank him enough.
Day 2 at the exhibition was much more targeted. First on my agenda was to visit each of the printer manufacturers I had briefly seen the previous day. The majority were only focussed on the Chinese market, except for Pantum, who had limited models already released in Europe, including the UK.
It wasn’t disappointing to learn Chinese printer technology was not widely available for export. As I didn’t come with this immediate intention. I came to understand the market, to get an idea of the technology being developed, and to understand likely timescales of products being ready for export.
In the UK we use a selection of suppliers who refurbish used printers, photocopiers and MFD’s, which we use to provide to small organisations free, only charging for what the customer prints. The day before I’d seen two or three companies who provided this service with worldwide export.
It was interesting to understand how thorough refurbishment is taken in China. Whole factories are dedicated to the process, completely stripping back the machines, replacing most of the parts and any blemished panels. In the end, you are left with a spotless, virtually new machine.
Obviously, there’s a price tag attached to getting hold of a refurbished machine at this standard. By the time I’d added delivery and import charges it becomes unviable for us and doesn’t fit within our business model of providing equipment to small and medium organisations for free.
Next, I focused on the component, accessory and cartridge manufacturers. Some, we were already using through our UK supply partners. As a small business ourselves, the volumes we’d need to purchase for a direct relationship with a Chinese manufacturer seemed unachievable.
Our refurbished photocopier and MFD side of the business was growing rapidly, though, and sourcing components, accessories and spare parts were becoming harder and expensive. Attending the Zhuhai exhibition has hugely benefited us in this area, improved our customer service and saved us £1,000s.
My final act was to listen to the guest speakers including industry experts, research specialists and business leaders within the manufacturers and a Q&A session with a panel of global CEOs from the industry.
David and his team had a very professional setup with a small team providing a translation service for the audience. From Chinese to English and in reverse, from English to Chinese. I learned so much from these sessions it was mind-blowing. Also making a couple of new friends along the way too.
I bet you’re dying to find out how my last night went down?
Well. I’d earmarked a local café style restaurant in a busy area that seemed very popular with the younger generation. So after my final very pleasant stroll on Zhuhai’s promenade, I went to see what all the fuss was about.
Entering, I found it to be quite busy but I managed to get a small table by the window. I sat for a while trying to understand what was happening. There was no order taking at tables and no toddler-style picture menus. This meant I couldn’t even use the only two words I’d memorised ‘Pijiu Qing’ (a Ching-Dao branded beer).
It seemed to be a buffet with a difference. When I say ‘difference’, I mean none of the food was cooked. You had to hand-pick what you wanted (including the Pijiu), take it to a cashier, pay for it and tell them how you wanted it cooked. “Holy cow!” I sighed. “This was too extreme. Even for me.”
Keeping my head down, I made a bolt for the door. No one batted an eyelid though; they were all too busy choosing their greens. But I was starving and couldn’t go back to the places I’d already eaten. Even in my darkest hour I was unwilling to break my promise of not eating in the same place twice.
It wasn’t until I got close to the hotel and thinking I’m going hungry tonight, I spotted what looked like a cross between a restaurant and a bar. It looked interesting. So I thought, why not, let’s give it a go.
There was music playing, TV screens and a couple of pool tables. They had a huge bar stretching the whole length of the place. Some people just having drinks and others were eating. Hell, there was even an old couple feeding their leftover bones to their dog. It was my kind of place.
I sat in a booth, and a young lady brought me, yes, picture-menus. Hallelujah. Here we go again. “Pijiu Qing” I blurted out smiling. The tumbleweed rolled in again and the poor lady just stared blankly, not knowing what to do next. It was a stand-off because I didn’t know what to do next either.
George saved the day. It turned out George spoke excellent English and was the manager. I could understand him better than if I’d recorded and listened back to my own thick Rossendalian accent.
I had a great last night with George and his team. They got me trying all sorts of great local food. George wasn’t Chinese, he was from South Korea, and came over for a life and work experience years ago. He liked it so much, he never left and now considers Zhuhai and China his home.
The trip home was a breeze.
All I had to do is retrace my steps. Even not being able to climb the steps to the train platform until the train arrived didn’t worry me this time. In fact, there was an American guy worrying about it at the Zhuhai station so I calmed him down and educated him.
In retrospect, I had a fantastic three days in Zhuhai. Experienced some amazing things. Ate some great food and met some wonderful people. I’d highly recommend anyone in the printer or MFD technology industry to give it a visit.
RemaxWorld 2019 has made a huge material difference to our business.
Darren Turner’s imaging business success story began in 2003 when he opened a retail store in the UK selling printer supplies to home users & small organisations. Since then he has moved into a business unit, grown his team and continued to adapt to match his customers’ changing needs. He has developed a ‘fit for purpose’ office products and solutions business model that provides certainty of cost and service for small business, charities and schools—thus providing them complete peace of mind.
He has become a trusted advisor for small organisations across the world. Turner invites you to chat with him about your business, reaching out to him on LinkedIn, email or on the phone +44-7887-548523
Read his other posts and logs:
- Planes Trains and Automobiles (and bicycles)
- Why Procrastinate Today When You Can Put it off Until Tomorrow
- Planting Trees as an Office Solution