Volume 41, Issue 6 - June 2006

A China Glass Travelogue

by Chris Mammen

We’re going to China.” It sounded so surreal and exotic every time I mentioned it during the weeks leading up to China Glass 2006, April 25-28 in Beijing. Everyone had questions: “Why would you want to go to China?” “Are you manufacturing there?”

“Are you going on a mission trip?” “Are you afraid?” My answer seemed almost disappointing: “No, I am going to the China Glass trade show with my two partners, who are my father and my uncle.” Suddenly it was about glass and it was not so exciting to those who aren’t in the business.

The trip, however, was anything but boring! We ended up doing, seeing and experiencing much more than a trade show. We decided that a trip that far away should not be limited to just one city, so we saw three. Most of what we saw (including the trade show) was different from the United States, yet some things were the same. The number of westerners going to the China show, especially Americans, is growing every year, so perhaps some who are considering next year’s show (to be held in Shanghai), might find our experiences and observations interesting.

Getting There
Getting to China can be an exhausting adventure in itself. There are few U.S. cities with service to China, and Dallas is not one of them, so at least two flights are often required. We always travel on a budget, so we were in coach, as usual. We survived the 14-hour nonstop from Chicago to Shanghai, but next time we will start searching early for a business-class bargain. Arriving in a foreign country, especially your first time abroad, can be overwhelming, so it is best to have your ground transportation figured out in advance. Will you take a cab? Train? Bus? Read-up and make arrangements in advance.

The show was in Beijing, but we opted to visit other cities first. Upon arriving in Shanghai, we were greeted by a vendor and friend who was exhibiting at the show and had made the trip a few days before us. He had been there many times and was accompanied by a Chinese colleague, so we were in good hands. They had a special treat in store for us right away: a ride into Shanghai on the fastest railway system in commercial operation in the world, the Shanghai Maglev. The train covers 19 
miles in eight minutes, with a top speed of 267 miles per hour. 

We arrived in Shanghai on Thursday, five days before the start of the show. We had many tourist and business plans arranged for those days, but after traveling for nearly 24 hours we had no big plans for the rest of our first day. We heeded conventional wisdom and made ourselves stay awake until after dark, but not much later.

East Meets West
Friday morning we were ready to experience China. The breakfast buffet at the hotel is a melting pot of foods and people from around the world. This seems to be common to most of the hotels where westerners stay. Unless you are extraordinarily adventurous about food, breakfast is often the culinary highlight of the day; bulking up on foods you like at breakfast is your best bet, because you never know what you will be asked to eat later in the day.

Our first stop of the day was Shanghai’s famous Pearl of the Orient TV Tower. From the “Space Cabin” at 1,150 feet high, we were able to survey much of Shanghai (our view limited only by the severe pollution, referred to as “fog” by the locals). Next we went to another famous spot, the Hunan Gardens. Adjacent to the gardens are many restaurants and shops, and the entire area has a good mix of Chinese people and tourists. Here was our first instance of “East meets West.” In rapidly changing China, we saw a Chinese dumpling restaurant wedged between DQ and Starbucks in the traditional pagoda-type buildings. We found that the Chinese are fiercely proud of their culture, while at the same time embracing and consuming everything American.

In the afternoon we had our first business activity, a tour of a Shanghai glass fabrication plant. Along the way to the plant, we stopped for lunch at a Chinese restaurant, with their typical large round tables and lazy susans. Apparently menus are not common in China, as we didn’t see any during our entire stay. Our hosts ordered various foods, all of which were served family-style. Fish and shrimp dominated the offerings, but some chicken and vegetables were also served. One interesting similarity between all of our Chinese meals: when an unknown vegetable was served, we would ask what it was, and we were always told, “vegetable.” And everything served is “good for health.”

Glass in China
This might sound geeky, but touring a glass plant is one of my favorite things to do. We spend most of our waking hours inside our own businesses, and it is invaluable, interesting and fun to see how other people do things—especially on the other side of the world. And apparently it is interesting for them, too. 

During our tour we soon realized that we were also being watched by the workers, as about a dozen of them had gathered to see the Americans. So much was the same: the product, the machinery, the basics. But so much was different. For example, the plant was dark, with none of the lights on and only daylight to see by; lights were available and presumably used for night operations. Obviously power is more expensive than labor, as the plant had several times more workers than would be used for the same operations in the United States.

Saturday we had a special day planned: we flew to Xiamen to spend the day at Intex, manufacturers of float glass, mirror and fabricated glass. Xiamen is only an hour and a half from Shanghai by air. Here is another lesson we learned: on flights within China first class tickets are only about $100 more than coach. We were greeted in Xiamen and graciously led all day by Vivian Xie, Selina Lin, Helen Chang and Ron Chang of Intex. 

After a friendly introductory meeting, we toured the fabrication plant that is on the same site as their offices. This plant was quite impressive, with multiples (more than six) of almost every machine. Quality was emphasized throughout this plant. Our hosts then drove us across town to their brand new float plant, stopping for another Chinese lunch on the way. The float plant was impressive and was totally automated with robotic packers at the end of the line. Parallel to the line was the space and infrastructure for a second line that was to be built soon. In one end of the same building was a mirror silvering line. It was clean, modern and produced mirror for export. Across the parking lot was another 500,000-square-foot building. A fabrication facility takes up about 20 percent of this building, and the rest is empty for future expansion. At the end of the tour, it was time to go back to the airport for our flight to Shanghai. Next time, we would like to stay overnight in Xiamen to see more of the city.

Beijing Bound
On Sunday we traveled to Beijing. After arriving and checking into our hotel, we met our other travel companions, Mike Wilkins and Ashley Wilkie from Carolina Glass. Ashley speaks Chinese, and this was a huge help for our group. 

We spent Sunday as tourists. With Ashley’s help, we rode the subway and walked through much of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Two more friends joined us for dinner; they are active missionaries serving in China. We treated them to a Western dinner at Outback Steakhouse, as they treated us to some fascinating information about religious freedom in China. Like other missionaries there, they must have a secular job or status as a student in order to get a visa, and their real work must be kept somewhat covert. 

Monday was a rare clear, sunny day in Beijing, perfect for our trip to the Great Wall. There are at least two sections of the wall open to the public that are less than an hour and a half from central Beijing. The more popular is called Badaling and the other Ju Yong Guan. Badaling is easier to walk and there is a gondola to take you up the mountain to the wall, but it is very crowded. Ju Yong Guan is far less crowded, but you access the wall at the bottom of a valley pass and walk on the wall up a very steep mountain. It was a strange treat to be able to call home on my cell phone from atop the Great Wall of China! After a few hours at Ju Yong Guan, we left for another Beijing must-see—the silk market.

The silk market used to be an outdoors bazaar, the place to go for great prices on knock-offs and maybe even real designer merchandise. Several years ago it was “legitimized” and moved inside a 6-story building. This is still the place to go for souvenir and gift shopping, they have everything imaginable, including clothes, sunglasses, watches, electronics, purses and, of course, silk. Bring a calculator and be ready to bargain (hint: don’t pay more than 20 percent of the asking price, and often less than that).

Show Time
The China Glass show finally opened Tuesday morning. The show occupied five buildings, some of which were two floors. If you have never been to an international show, it is hard to comprehend the size and scope of this show. While this show is not as large as glasstec in Germany, it certainly rivals Milan’s Vitrum in size. The machinery on display is most impressive. Several full-size tempering furnaces were set up, and countless double-edgers, washers, polishers, bevellers, drills and cutting tables were also on display. If you are in the market for machinery, this show will not disappoint you. 

Many exhibitors were quite anxious to do business with American companies. Most spoke at least some English, and they were eager to sit down with you in their booth for a conversation. If you express any interest at all, you should expect a quick and friendly follow-up email when you return home, along with an invitation to visit them in China.

When we wanted a familiar accent, there was an area set aside as the American Pavilion for the U.S. exhibitors. Several firms had booths in this area. Nearby was the Italian contingent, which was also very familiar to Americans in the glass business. 

One major difference from the shows with which we are familiar was the lack of concessions. Attendees should bring along some snacks or plan to walk down the street for something to eat, as there is very little available in the exhibit halls. Another difference was their attitude on photography. When asked, exhibitors would say “no” to photos, but many people were taking pictures throughout the show without any hassle. So bring your camera.

One entire exhibit hall was filled with small companies that seemed to be targeting the local market. While most of what we saw in this hall would hold little opportunity for import to the United States, it was still interesting to see. Art glass, glazing supplies and other local suppliers attracted larger crowds here than the machinery halls. In this area, the flavor was more unique than the rest of the show.

The End of a Journey
After two full days at the show, we had seen just about everything we wanted to see. We decided to spend about two hours at the show Thursday morning, and then spend our last afternoon at the Pearl Market. It was not what we expected at all. It was just like the silk market, except all the vendors (hundreds) seemed to have exactly the same thing: bags and bags of cheap pearls. However, the fourth floor housed several stores that were as nice as jewelry stores in American malls. The nicest store had walls adorned with photos of famous people, including American and European politicians, buying their pearls.

After asking many questions, we decided on some saltwater pearls as a gift for a 22-year employee who just retired. We felt confident that we got quality at a great price. And, in case you are concerned, we did take care of our wives while there, as well.

For our last night in China, we had another special treat: Peking duck. There are several restaurants that are famous for this traditional Beijing meal, and you should make sure you get to one during your stay. We had a private dining room for our party of eight, and were hosted by Landglass, the manufacturer of our tempering furnace. The entire meal is a production, with course after course of dishes. Some were appealing to an American palette, and others were definitely a stretch (like fried scorpion). Every dish had a special significance in Chinese culture, which our hosts explained to us. This was a memorable way to wrap-up our visit to China.

Final Thoughts
In the end, the show is what you make of it. If your measure of success is what you bought, or if you judge the show by its sameness to American trade shows, then a trip to China Glass might disappoint. But if you place value in seeing something new and learning how things are done in other places, then the trip is worth your time and expense. Are you open to seeing how business is done in China? Your vendors and your customers are, or soon will be. 

Chris Mammen is the president of Mammen Glass & Mirror Inc. in Irving, Texas.

Copyright 2006 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.