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LAST WORD: Entrepreneurs and Streetfood
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Entrepreneurs and Streetfood

The best and worst of China, in one evening

By Mike Cormack

BT 201506 03 Last word o INDIA STREET FOOD facebookWhen former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao warned in March 2013 that China's development was "unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable", he certainly had a point. In fact, it might be the unbalanced nature of China's great development that is the most baffling and frustrating aspect to the poor waiguoren who try to understand the country. It's a cliche to point out that China is a land of great contrasts and contradictions (the latter term having those great Marxist connotations about it), but sometimes the disparities and juxtapositions are so incredible as to seem Oz-like. The truth of this strikes home from time to time with such force that it stops you in your tracks and leaves you breathless at such dissonance.


BT 201506 01 Last word HLOne time I had the good fortune to be invited to attend a Startup Weekend event at Tsinghua University. The campus is beautifully laid out, with its pagodas, pavilions, lotus flower pond, bridges and hills reminiscent of the Qing Dynasty imperial gardens. The buildings, though appearing functional, contain cutting-edge facilities that made my British alma mater look shabby in comparison. A Startup Weekend is where teams of budding student entrepreneurs work on a business idea over a weekend and then present their ideas and business plans to experienced startup founders, investors and venture capitalists. This is no idle pastime: the example of Jack Ma in leading Alibaba to such enormous success, and the mentorship of Kaifu Lee and his Innovation Works in bringing Beijing startups to fruition, are clear inspirations. There are fortunes to be made and futures to be conquered, and everyone knows it. Here then, is some of China's best and brightest working to create the innovative products which China needs to develop away from low margin manufacturing and into the top economic leagues.

BT 201506 02 Last word hong kong street foodHere, too, I saw clear proof against the lazy supposition that Chinese education does not foster innovation or originality. Some of the ideas were outstanding and deserved to be funded into a viable business. They included a phone app that would serve as a digital name card, allowing people to instantly exchange details and social media profiles, and a corporate social media package that enables employees to learn who they work with and find what training and mentorship is available. The energy and ideas of the young teams was inspiring. (It was also note-worthy that, out of deference to the non-Chinese speaking venture capitalist, the teams presented in English -€“ can you imagine teams of British or American students working on a project to present to investors and then doing so in a foreign language?) I came away deeply impressed, feeling that the future of China is in safe hands.


BT 201506 04 Last word street food klI then taxied home. Outside the my apartment block, there were a number of small stalls either side of a pathway selling fruit, jianbing, noodles, fried chicken, Tsingtao beer, cigarettes and ice cream. These mom-and-pop stalls are probably within fifty meters of every apartment block in the country, and their convenience, proximity and friendliness are part of what makes Chinese urban life so livable. There's none of the McDonalds, Tesco Express and alienation you get in Britain, where you are just another data point. I got back about 10pm, and went to check if any stalls were still open. They were all closed up for the night. But somehow no-one had ever thought to place a few rubbish bins nearby for the vendors to clear up their area. Instead they simply swept their rubbish out onto the pathway, as though none of it was their concern.


Quite apart from the health concerns (once, at a nearby chuanr restaurant, I was sitting happily eating a few sticks of barbecued mutton when a rat ran across the tiled courtyard, between my legs and under my chair -€“ I nearly had a heart attack), it was the lack of thought which intrigued me. Here was a situation where stall holders had probably been operating there since the apartment blocks had first been inhabited. And yet in all that time it seemed like the idea of putting bins nearby had not occurred to anyone. Maybe only official, on-the-books food vendors could have bins nearby.


Who knows? I didn't, and still don't. All I know is that I tiptoed my way through the broken eggshells and cabbage leaves, kept an eye out for any rats, and made my way to KFC.


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