An American Innocent Doing Business in Taipei, Taiwan

In 1988 I was working as a commodity futures broker in New York City when I received a phone call that would change my life. The call came just as I was bundling up to finally leave the office near the end of a cold, dreary, stressful, February, standard New York 12-hour working day to brave the snowy, freezing weather on the commute home.

For Openers How Does Working in Honolulu, Hawaii Sound?

The call was from a Chinese-American friend that I had met a few years earlier while vacationing in Honolulu, Hawaii. He owned a small futures commission merchant firm and was looking for a vice president who would manage the Honolulu office.

About a week later I received another call. My friend is a clever fellow and must have been watching the New York City weather reports. The call came near the end of another dreary, cold, and very windy New York day. He started out by telling me what a pleasant day it was in Honolulu; bright sun, gentle sea breezes, and a temperature of 81°. He revealed his plans to open an office in Taipei, Taiwan. If I would agree to manage the Honolulu office for a year he promised to send me to Taiwan.

A couple of months later I found myself working in a Honolulu office with an amazing view of the Aloha Tower. I had taken the bait, so far with no regrets. I really don’t like a Winter of cold, icy, snowy weather. It was a real treat to be able to swim outdoors year-round.

The Taipei Office Was Under Construction

About 15 months later my friend kept his promise and flew me to Taipei. The office was still under construction. I soon learned that it was a joint venture between my friend and a group of nine Taiwanese partners. The partners seemed to be competing with each other by hosting ever more elaborate luncheon and dinner parties with potential clients and the new American manager as guests of honor. In a very real way, I had become bait.

Never had I witnessed such drinking. Toast after toast was offered by the hosts and guests. The Taiwanese and Chinese custom of “gan bei”, which literally means dry glass in English, was enthusiastically observed by downing copious amounts of Hennessy XO cognac. Cognac drinking began before the meal, continued during the meal, and for those still conscious really got going after the meal. I thought that premium cognac was for sipping, not tossing down all-in-one gulp. Obviously, I had a lot to learn about doing business in Taiwan.

My first three months in Taipei consisted primarily of an endless round of heavy eating and drinking sessions at Taiwanese restaurants followed by late-night sessions at karaoke bars , private clubs, piano bars, and nightclubs. I barely survived the pleasant but tiring routine of celebration and promotion for the partnership’s office. The cost of the pre-office opening orgy must have exceeded the cost of constructing the office.

To Conduct Successful Business in Taiwan or China There Are Things to Learn

Anyone planning to do business in Taiwan or China should first seriously study the local way of doing business. In Taiwan and China business is built first by developing personal relationships. This involves a lot of face-to-face contact. Since most of this contact takes place in restaurants, piano bars, private clubs, karaokes, and nightclubs the entertainment cost of doing business is considerable.

For example, one club that my boss liked to frequent is named “The Millionaires Club”. When Hennessy XO cognac is priced at $400-$500 per 750ml bottle and there is a minimum of one beautiful, sexy, and thirsty hostess sitting next to each member of the party, each encouraging frequent rounds of gan bei, the bill for one night out can become outrageous.

As an American innocent in Taipei I was looked after, educated, fascinated, amazed, and exhausted by my Taiwanese friends. Never have I witnessed a group of businessmen who could work and play so hard and sleep so little. I have many fond memories of my time in Taipei but wonder how I managed to survive the experience.

My advice to those planning to conduct business in Taiwan or China: First get a doctor’s examination and see if your liver is up to the task.