2006 is the 25th Anniversary of Saga’s introduction of Cremona Violins to the Domestic and International Markets. Saga Musical Instruments was the first American Company to import musical instruments directly from Mainland China in the post-war era. Join me in 1981 in Shanghai for the fourth installment in this series, as I am about to leave the hotel for my first business meeting in China.
After the nerve-rattling shower and a quick breakfast I booked a taxi at the front desk of the hotel and headed toward an address on the Huqiu Road in downtown Shanghai I knew that the address must be wrong -when was the last time that you saw the letter “i” following a “q”? Probably you have not been to China lately and I hadn’t either…the address was correct! I was on my way to the China National Light Industrial Import and Export Corporation Shanghai Stationary and Sporting Goods Department. A company name of that length left little room on a business card for anything else, especially when it was written in both Chinese and English.
25 years ago all business in the People’s Republic of China was not only strictly regulated by the government but was, in fact, government owned. There was absolutely no private enterprise of any type anywhere in the country. If you were interested in importing musical instruments from China the above-mentioned Export Corporation was the only route.
China’s economic role model was the Soviet Union and so each province had its own version of this Export Corporation each of which reported to the main office in Beijing. Central planners set all production targets and the planning committee had abolished the law of supply and demand some years earlier.
I walked in the front door of the building that housed the Import and Export Corporation. The receptionist was nowhere to be found, but there was a guard so I presented my name card along with the card of the Chinese gentleman with whom I had met a few months earlier in Frankfurt. In a few minutes I was escorted to a conference room and was joined by staff members all of whom were dressed in the blue and gray suits which in 1981 constituted the national costume of China.
I was introduced to each member of the group. I had taken them by surprise, for not only was I the first visitor to their department from the United States but they did not know when, or even if, I was really coming. They had not received the itinerary that I had sent some days before my arrival. But they did their best to make me feel welcome and I did. Both of those things were quite remarkable given the background of the participants…none of us Chinese or American had any experience sitting on the other side of the table from a person who just a few years before was a sworn enemy!
Tea was served in tall cups with lids. As I concentrated on listening to the welcome speeches, I slide the lid aside and took a healthy chug. It was a big mistake. Tea bags are seldom used in Shanghai and the tea is just dumped into the cup before the hot water is added. If you are patient the tea will eventually sink to the bottom of the cup. I had not been patient enough and took in a good two or three tablespoons of oolong tea leaves. I choked a bit and tried unsuccessfully to get rid of the mouthful of tea leaves as casually and as unobtrusively as possible.