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An entrepreneurial ocean view in the heart of landlocked Beijing

By 8 June 2009 No Comment
Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

Hutong Ho Down: Patrons enjoy the Ho brothers' street-side restaurant in Beijing | Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

I’ve been in Beijing for less than a week, but already I have a favorite place to sit and watch the world go by: Jin Hai Restaurant, just outside the old neighborhoods in the original city. My Chinese vocabulary doesn’t stretch far beyond “ni hao” (hello) and “xie xie” (thank you), but my translator explained that Jin means “landscape” and Hai means “ocean”.

And here, on any given day, you can sit on the patio and observe waves of sweaty blue uniformed workers, gossiping grandmothers and egg-delivering scooters pass by, as this fishing net of a restaurant lures neighborhood denizens and visitors alike to its plastic patio furniture and the sound of hearty greetings from owners Ho Pin and Ho Kon.

The Ho brothers epitomize a changing China, a nation in which capitalism has taken hold and the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well.  Together they left their home in Harbin, a city in the northeast province of Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River) in 1985, and moved to the big city to try their luck in a booming economy spurred on by the governmental reforms of the early 1980’s.

“In the beginning, we just wanted to see the world outside,” Ho Pin said. “China was very closed up to that point, so when it opened we left.  There wasn’t a specific dream. We just wanted to go out and earn some money.”

Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in the late 1970s brought with it an unprecedented economic transformation. The new liberal market policy known as gaige kaifang opened China to previously unexplored global markets, giving its citizens more freedom to pursue their own professional interests in lieu of accepting state-assigned careers. Much like the California Gold Rush, millions of Chinese left their homes and headed to the bright lights of the big cities, particularly of eastern China, to chase opportunities and wealth. Today, it is estimated that there are some 300 million such economic migrants living in urban centers like Beijing.

Born and raised in Harbin, the brothers left their home when they were just teenagers. In Beijing, they worked odd jobs as laborers and retail merchants, eventually saving enough money to open karaoke lounges that Ho Pin referred to as “less than legal” but a good place to start. “Of course [the transition] was difficult,” he said. “Money was a problem. But it’s not about how much money you have, it’s about how much passion you have.”

The entrepreneurial business model is one of the mainstays of Chinese culture, said Jim Stepanek, founder of the consulting firm Open China, LLC.  “[Business] revolves around the family.”

Jin Hai Restaurant is no exception. The brothers opened the cafe’s doors in June 2008 and work there with Ho Kon’s wife, Yang Rui.  In Inside Chinese Business:  A Guide for Managers Worldwide, author Ming-Jer Chin, Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia, notes that this is a typical arrangement in which a patriarchal figure like Ho Pin heads the business and the other family members take on key roles.

Does success breed a desire to take it easy? Not for Ho Pin. “I have a nice apartment and a car, but I’m not satisfied yet,” he said.  “I want to open a restaurant in [a] Chinatown in the States.”

Ho Pin admits that he knows very little about Americans and their culture. He is optimistic, however, that he can bring something new to the table and find enough common ground to be successful in an American market.   “We all have different cultures,” he said, “but in the end, we are all human beings.”

Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

Urban oasis: Restaurant owner Ho Pin (r) dishes up lively conversation | Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

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