Small Business

The Bright, Gleaming Promise of Shanghai


By Lisa Bergson I don't recall so much light. Last November, when I visited Shanghai for the first time, the air was too thick to see beyond the next block (see BW Online, 11/22/02, The Great Pall of China) Now, the rain and winter winds have cleared the sky, and the city is aglitter, Day-Glo bright, its mad spiral and conical capped skyscrapers shining green, purple, and pink. My first night, Tom Mallon, our executive vice-president for sales, leads me just outside our hotel to see the view from the Huangpu River.

"It's beautiful," I say in amazement, travel-weary eyes glowing at the sight of the Bund district's rainbow colors reflecting on the water. One building looks like a bubble encased in iridescent turquoise gift wrap. Festively lit tourist boats, churlish tugboats, and heavily laden cargo ships pass by. Alone, but for a souvenir vendor, I lean on a newly built wall overlooking the river while Tom busies himself taking pictures.

FAITH, HOPE, AND CLARITY . At a time when China is the only beacon of light for our industry, I am here with Tom, Dr. Wen-Bin Yan, our chief scientist and a mainland native, to exhibit at Semicon China at the New Expo Center. Multibillion-dollar semiconductor fabs abound in Pudong, Suzhou, and further afield, where the Chinese have cleared farms to create vast new industrial parks, attracting investment from around the world. If you've been in this business as long as me, it's easy to be cynical about the prospects for the latest heavily hyped phenomenon.

The show-sponsored daylong Microelectronic Market Forum at the exquisite Grand Hyatt starts with a full house. (Shanghai's tallest building, the Hyatt bears an eerie resemblance to the skeleton of a giant pagoda.) David N.K. Wang, executive vice-president of Applied Material, the leading semiconductor equipment maker, recounts the industry's trail, starting in the U.S. in the Eighties, wending its way to Japan and Europe in the Nineties, and on to the "Little Tigers" -- particularly Taiwan -- where the still-active foundries closed out the decade. I think of scorched earth -- the mothballed fabs, lost jobs, wasted tax breaks, and plundered resources -- left in its wake.

Now China promises to become the world's second-largest maker and leading consumer of semiconductor chips. With 200 million users, it already ranks tops in cell-phone subscribers. One after another, as the room rapidly drains, speakers recite variations of the same compelling statistics. By lunch, only a stalwart few remain when a local lawyer covers some of the hazards of doing business here, including scant protection for intellectual property. I guess a lot of folks must be going on faith. I know I am.

TWINKLING FACADES. That night, H.T. Tan, our independent sales rep from Singapore takes us to a restaurant specializing in fish-head soup. He's made a major investment in China, purchasing office space and quickly adding staff to serve its burgeoning semiconductor industry. With traffic, the short drive across town takes close to two hours. Along the way, Mr. Tan points with pride at the new construction and vivid, elaborate lights, some resembling neon fireworks. "It's so playful and festive," I say.

"It looks like they have a lot of power, but they don't," he notes. "In their houses, look at the windows. How dim the lights are." According to Mr. Tan, people are strongly discouraged from using high-wattage bulbs at home. Even at my hotel, where the lobby is dazzling, almost blindingly bright, the key powers your room lights.

"Then why do they waste so much power outside?"

"They want to show their beautiful city," he replies.

MILLION-DOLLAR VIEW. Our last night, with Tom already gone, Wen-Bin and I splurge for dinner at M, a chic continental restaurant with a terrace overlooking the Bund, an esplanade that curves along the Huangpu River facing the delirious newly built horizon of Pudong. In the mist, the view is magical. "When we get to $10 million, let's have a party here and invite our reps and customers," I exclaim as we step out on the terrace.

"Yes," he smiles, "when we get to $10 million."

We walk among the sparse crowds lining the Bund and enjoy the view before boarding the special sightseeing train, a kind of psychedelic subway, that runs under the river. "Have you been to Disney World?" asks Wen-Bin. I shake my head. "It is like this," he says. From our pristine, little compartment, we pass through swirls of light and glittery color, accompanied by whooshy ambient sound. It's more like the United Airlines terminal interconnect at O'Hare than any given night at the Fillmore West. Still, I am enchanted. Like a child, I want to believe. Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, she worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com


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