Did you know that English is rarely spoken in Shenzhen and locals generally conduct business in Mandarin? British businessman Richard Topping (39), Asia-Pacific Director at Draeger Medical Southeast Asia, shares his tips for doing business in Shenzhen, China, as well as hotel, restaurant and bar recommendations.
1. How often do you travel to Shenzhen and who do you fly with?
I travel there about two to three times a year for one or two nights on average, except during the annual medical congress where I stay for four nights.
Because of its proximity to Hong Kong, I usually fly into Hong Kong for meetings before going to Shenzhen by road, which takes about one and a half hours. Alternatively, if I’m coming from Shanghai, I’ll take China Eastern. On the rare occasion that I fly direct to Shenzhen, I take SilkAir.
2. One thing everyone ought to know about Shenzhen:
Shenzhen is known as a city of migrants. Migrants from all over China outnumber the number of people who are actually from Shenzhen, resulting in an interesting mix of food, languages and dialects. Locals usually speak Cantonese but business is generally conducted in Mandarin. Unlike doing business in Shanghai or Beijing, English is rarely spoken; you have to speak Mandarin or bring a colleague who does.
3. How quickly can you get a visa?
I have a Chinese business visa which allows multiple entry into China for one year. The prerequisite for getting this business visa is at least eight entries into China the previous year. Interestingly, it took me only a day or two to obtain this visa from the Chinese Embassy in London but it took two weeks in Singapore after much paperwork. For other nationalities it’s best to visit the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China for more information.
4. Fastest way to get into the city?
I don’t always stay in the city centre so I usually take a taxi. Taxis go by the meter, you will always get a printed receipt and they’re relatively cheap. At the airport, there is a taxi dispatcher who speaks English well enough to direct your driver where to go. Likewise, when taking a taxi from the hotel, the concierge can help. The challenge is the return trips; I recommend printing out a map, address and directions in Mandarin. Like the rest of China, the driving can be a little crazy so those of a nervous disposition may wish to buckle up and close their eyes.
5. When are the good and bad times to visit Shenzhen?
They have a long summer from May to October, which also coincides with the typhoon season. December and January are the coolest months, so it is a good time to go. I’ve never been there during a festive season like Chinese New Year because most Chinese don’t work then.
6. Hotels you recommend:
My favourite hotel to stay in is the Baolilai International Hotel (+86 755 2738 8888). It’s a business hotel but has extremely nice facilities. It’s in the Bao’an district and is 10 minutes by taxi from the airport.
When I’m visiting for the medical congress, I stay in the Grand Skylight Garden Hotel (+86 755 8281 6666) in the Futian district. This hotel is very convenient if you’re attending conferences or exhibitions at the Shenzhen Convention & Exhibition Center. It’s just opposite Shenzhen Central Park, which is great if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the main city for a while. Another hotel to consider is the Best Western Shenzhen Felicity Hotel (+86 755 2558 6333) in the Luohu district.
7. What’s the dress code for meetings?
I always wear a suit and nearly always a tie though it’s not an absolute must. A jacket, trousers and open-necked shirt might suffice but I would wear a tie just to be on the safe side. I think dressing well shows that you respect your customers.
8. Any cultural or business etiquette to be aware of?
The concept of “giving face” is very important. When a meeting is not going particularly well, you never show that you’re upset, or worse, angry. Always remain calm.
It’s also good to acknowledge seniority. Before a meeting, find out who is the most senior person present and make sure you acknowledge them by presenting them with your business card first. Also, get help on seating formalities if you’re not familiar with it. I usually take my cue from my Chinese colleagues regarding where to sit as it depends on the seniority of the people in the meeting.
9. You are taking a client to lunch or dinner, where do you go?
I always go for local food when I’m in China. I particularly like Dongmen Pedestrian Street in the Luohu district. You can find local Cantonese food as expected, spicy Szechuan food that I really like and many different styles of food from around China. A good place to look for Cantonese food is along Huanggang Street. With my customers, I tend to choose more upscale Cantonese banquet-style places like Celebrity Club on Nongyuan Road (+86 755 8370 1003).
10. Casual bars to go for a drink with clients where you won’t get hassled?
Unlike Western cultures where you try to not drink too much alcohol in front of your customers, it is expected of you in China. Drinks will most probably be served with dinner. For post-dinner drinks, we usually head to Coco Park in the Futian district, as it has many live bars. The bands cover lots of famous international hits and are usually very good. I particularly enjoy going to Plush Bar and La Casa (+86 755 8290 3279) but there are plenty others to choose from.
Shekou, where there are lots of bars, is quite notorious for ladies of the night though there are also some in the vicinity of international hotels.
11. Any unsafe areas to avoid?
Although Shenzhen has had a bad reputation for crime in the past, I think things have improved. Nevertheless, I would advise being vigilant and aware of what’s going on around you. I have not seen beggars, but I’m told there are some around underpasses. Don’t give them money, as they are sometimes associated with criminal gangs.
12. You’ve got some spare time, what’s the must-see?
There are quite a number of theme parks in the city and supposedly the must-see one is Window of the World. Hundreds of famous landmarks around the world are reconstructed and showcased there. I’ve never had the time to visit. If you stay at the Grand Skylight Garden Hotel, the Shenzhen Central Park is a good place to unwind.
Otherwise, consider fitting in a short trip to Hong Kong. It’s convenient by car and the only possible delay is clearing customs and immigration. If you already hold a Chinese visa, there are no visa requirements for most passport holders to enter Hong Kong. Specialised cars that can drive in both countries because they have two license plates can be booked through your hotel. The road at the border is very clever; when you’re in Shenzhen you drive on the right side of the road and by the time you go over into Hong Kong, it automatically takes you to the left hand side.
13. Gifts to take home for family and friends?
I usually get gifts that represent the local culture for my two young daughters, like cheongsams (traditional Chinese dresses) and little Chinese dolls. Shenzhen is very famous for its mooncakes so during the Mid-Autumn Festival, I bring home a box of traditional mooncakes with yolks. I’m usually quite rushed for time so while eating at Dongmen Pedestrian Street I’ll also pick up some gifts.
14. How long before your flight do you really need to be at the Shenzhen Bao’an International airport?
For international flights, I always aim to be there two hours before; I don’t like the stress of rushing for a flight. I usually wait in one of the executive lounges.
I always find immigration fantastic in China. Immigration officers in other airports can be quite surly and unfriendly but in China they’re extremely courteous and friendly.