From addressing roomfuls of escorts to throwing back whole bottles of fine Scotch, life in China’s beverage industry is never dull.
Wine and whisky importer
Oliver Marks is Managing Director of consultancy firm Tangram Holdings and an importer of Scotch whisky and French wine into China.
As I was being led into a lavish banquet hall thronging with whirling acrobats, buxom escorts clinging to the arms of suited-and-booted businessmen, and around 250 expectant guests, it occurred to me that my preparations for a simple client meeting had been slightly on the tame side.
As the representative for an importer of Scotch whisky and French wine in Shanghai, I work at the cultural interface between Europe and China. It’s a job that has taken me around the country, introduced me to dozens of fascinating individuals, and brought me face to face with a young yet thirsty industry that is scrambling to catch up with Western markets. None of my experiences, however, had prepared me for last October’s meeting in Taizhou, a city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, in terms of illustrating the contrast between the booming value of the country’s imported alcohol market and the lack of finesse with which its agents go about their business.
I came to Taizhou to finally close the whisky deal I’d been working on for the last few months. All that was required was to talk through our whisky over dinner with about 20 of my client’s friends and customers, then hopefully get the contract signed. Or so I thought.
My suspicions were first aroused when I was collected by my client’s brother in a Jaguar sports car. Rather than heading for the office, we sped toward a five-star hotel. I asked him how many people would be attending the meeting. “Oh, I’m not sure, anywhere between 200 and 250 people,” he answered nonchalantly. “How well have you prepared your speech?”
Sure enough, I was ushered to the front of a vast hall filled with people. My convivial client, already a few drinks ahead, had reserved me a seat of honor to his right. I sat back, trying not to panic, and watched the spectacle unfold, as exotic dancers, acrobats, magicians, and orators took to the stage. Soon it was my turn. Just before I was ushered up, my client whispered that he’d specially paid for 10 escorts to sit and watch my performance. What a treat, I thought sarcastically as a spotlight centered on me. Perhaps because of the absurdity of the situation, I managed to deliver my speech calmly enough and quickly ducked offstage.
“There is an obvious discrepancy between my industry’s flashy image and the way in which certain Chinese individuals seek to be a part of it.- Oliver Marks, importer”
But the festivities didn’t end there. Throughout the evening, I was accompanied everywhere by sashaying karaoke girls in tight dresses and high heels. Three of them even accompanied my client and me into an office to oversee the contract signing. At the inevitable post-dinner karaoke party, I was urged to pick my own girl from a lineup and down glass after glass of beer. Not wishing to make an awkward situation even more unbearable, I obliged. After an evening playing dice and making small talk with my equally reluctant companion, highlighted by an enforced rendition of Celine Dion — “My Heart Will Go On,” if you must know — I headed for the hotel, but not before my client offered to pay for the girls to spend the night with me. I politely declined.
It was just one of many times I have had to delicately eschew the crude offers of eager clients in my line of work. Having worked in the beverage industry for several years, I have witnessed behavior like this from a number of clients. To me, there is an obvious discrepancy between my industry’s flashy image and the way in which certain Chinese individuals seek to be a part of it.
Another experience at the Chengdu Wine Fair last year illustrates the gulf in standards of good taste. I was halfway through a conversation with a serious-looking Chinese client, whom I shall call Zhang. Everything was going well and a deal appeared to be forthcoming until an elderly man wearing nothing more than shorts and a white string vest clumsily staggered up to our booth. He demanded one of our most expensive wines, which he promptly gulped down. On one of his last mouthfuls, he wrinkled his nose and spat into Zhang’s glass, which was still in his hand, before stumbling off toward the Spanish wine section.
I remember feeling mostly shocked and slightly annoyed at the time, but experience now tells me that this sitcom-esque episode was an embodiment of China's appetite for expensive, status-granting alcohol. It also highlights the different kind of people we deal with in the industry, as well as the multitude of factors that contribute to such an eclectic market — namely, the rapid growth, development, and Westernization occurring in China of late, but also the fact that the sheer size of the country gives rise to inherently diverse tastes.
The rapidly expanding Chinese wine and spirits industry has attracted hordes of status-conscious people to the business. The flip side to this, however, is that such vast, unregulated growth has also given rise to a huge amount of opportunism and illegal activity. This is highlighted by the fact that according to reports from 2015, some 30 percent of all alcohol sold in China is fake. To counter this, it is common practice for all exhibitors at the fair to smash their bottles after emptying them to prevent refilling or copying.
The dramatic variance in business savoir faire and industry-wide standards of acceptability affect the ways in which Chinese clients go about soaking up some of the perceived prestige and status of high-end wine and spirits. Indeed, certain Chinese business practices that I have experienced range from the unsavory to the downright bizarre. Rarely do I actually meet clients who work in the industry simply because they enjoy and appreciate the fine wines and spirits they peddle, as I duly discovered on an early business trip down south.
One Friday evening in Foshan, in the southeastern province of Guangdong, my colleague Shunde and I found ourselves in a whisky bar. The owner was a wealthy individual who had apparently one day decided he wanted somewhere to drink with friends, and so opened his own watering hole. No effort whatsoever was expended to attract customers. The few other punters there were either staring down at their phones or playing dice games in near silence. It was hard to imagine how this place managed to sell anything.
The client we were with bought a bottle of Macallan 12 Years Old and pack of cigars from the bar, sat down with us, and obliged us to down shot after shot of whisky. A rather harrowing 45 minutes later, the bottle was finished. It was one of my first client meetings, and as I attempted to simultaneously throw back the heady nectar and enjoy the fake Cubans, I remember being amazed at how someone working in this industry could lack basic appreciation for such a fine Scotch. As I have learned more about the industry, however, I have come to realize that the rate at which alcohol is consumed still seems to be a reflection of bravado to some Chinese clients, even if this means glugging down an $85 bottle of one of the Scottish Highlands’ finest tipples with little relish whatsoever.
It frustrates me that my job demands that I play along with such debauchery, but as ambassadors of a highly Western industry, it is important to remain sensitive to differences in business practices. As the importer, the only way to successfully engage with Chinese clients is to be sensitive to their needs, even when that means giving “face” and stroking their egos. Not to do so would risk damaging business relationships and flouting social convention. For young importers like me, you just have to learn to deal with it — even if that means unexpectedly giving speeches to roomfuls of escorts.