When I met Xu Xingfang nearly thirty years ago he was a penniless young assistant English professor called in to translate. Like most such small jobs in China in 1991, he did it as a favor for a friend, one to be banked in the invisible ledger of favors and relationships known in China as “guanxi.”
In the early 90’s there were few cars in China and we would bicycle through the streets and sit in the famous ancient gardens discussing how to circumvent the many obstacles to doing small business in China. We became close friends, and over the years Xu became my agent in China. In the style of many miraculous Chinese lives, I’ve seen him go from penniless to wealthy in a fairly short time.
Owned by . . . . Suzhou University Location . . . . Suzhou, China
What he Helps With . . . . Silk, Cashmere, Everything else
Super Power . . . . Picking Blueberries
If you took a Confucian scholar of the Song Dynasty, dressed him in a sports jacket and dropped him into the 21st Century, that person would be Xu Xingfang. He is slow to speak, thoughtful, patient, insightful and unfailingly honest. He earned a Master’s degree in Australia, then he came back and was soon running a painting factory for a French designer. Like many Chinese businesspeople, he had numerous small businesses at the same time: leasing a taxi, buying a storefront and renting it out, starting and selling an English school, swooping in on condo properties just before the big runup in real estate. Now he has more money than I do, but he still teaches English at the University, translates books into Chinese, lives simply, drives a modest car, and probably helps me more out of a sense of loyalty than need.
The Victor Chang character in Invisible World is loosely based on Xu. He only told me twenty years after publication that he didn’t really like the characterization. That’s how tactful he is. When we visited us in Alaska he amazed us with his lightning fast blueberry picking. “You see, it’s because I am Chinese,” he explained. He had grown up picking tea.
Stuff we talked about on my last visit: The Chinese E-commerce landscape. A designer we met in Shanghai. His rowdy but perfect little boy. Lao Tzu. Mencius. Where to find a good yum cha (Cantonese breakfast) in Suzhou. (Answer: you can’t)
China is a labyrinth. Communication is often oblique, and people often imply rather than stating things straight out. It can be bewildering for a foreigner. Xu does everything, from printing Care Cards in Japanese to finding digital printing factories or tailors. He works with our silk painter and coordinates our exports from China.
Xu is somewhere between an ambassador and a consigliere. In China, the first person you turn to for information or help is not internet: it’s a friend of a friend. Xu is an expert at doing favors and calling them in, which he does with easygoing delicacy. He can talk about anything, is interested in everything and is genuinely kind. He is masterful at ordering food for banquets.
Without him, we would not be doing business in China.