On October 10 2003, Ed Dean stood by the airconditioning unit at Shanghai airport desperately trying to cool down. He had just parted with family and friends in London to start a new life in China, and was now being refused entry at immigration because of the Sars virus. After the failure of his first temperature test, it seemed for a moment that his hopes of a new life in Shanghai might be over. “Fortunately the air-conditioning trick worked,” says Dean, 39, who is now married and raising a child in the country.
But why Shanghai? “Asia back in 2003 was the exciting place to be,” says Dean. “I had quit my job in London the day after my 30th birthday, and despite having a good life there, I thought to myself ‘there has to be more’.” Dean, a former advertising executive, planned to find a business idea that made use of his marketing skills. “I felt China in general had a real buzz to it. If you have a good idea in London, it’s a much more mature market, so you’ll always be competing against people with more money and connections.”
What Dean hadn’t bargained for was how hard it would be to learn Mandarin Chinese. “I was staying in a hotel for the first few weeks, paying £4 a night, and doing a language course at the Tongji University – four hours a day, five days a week. I was trying to just immerse myself in the language, but it took three months before I could make myself understood.”
It wasn’t until he met up with his friend and now business partner Justin Barrow that the inspiration for a company came about. The two of them were sitting in a restaurant, watching a spat between a western customer and a Chinese waitress over the bill “when this light bulb moment happened”. “Because we had lived in Shanghai for a while, we could read the situation and see that there was a cultural issue going on: the more nervous the waitress became, the more she smiled, and the worse the situation became.”
Barrow and Dean decided to create training material for waiters and waitresses called “Meet 2 Sweet”, a 30-hour course involving service industry tips. “It was tough going because there seemed to be a viewpoint that training was a cost, not an investment, and selling something abstract, rather than tangible, was not worth anything.” Nevertheless, four restaurants took the course and, after two years in Shanghai, Dean was finally making progress.
In November 2006, Dean met his wife Wing at a networking event. Born in Hong Kong, Wing had lived in Maine on the east coast of the US since the age of six, and considered herself an “ABC”, or American Born Chinese.
Dean and Wing were married in 2009, and by the time their son Louie was born in March the following year his company Jett-Asia (developed from Meet 2 Sweet) had 40 full-time employees. Their quality of life was also improving. “After nine years, I’d had my fill of the expat party scene,” says Dean, who now prefers to take weekend trips with the family to the bamboo forest in the nearby town of Moganshan, where they ride horses. “Often we join friends for picnics in the park or swim at hotel pools. Or sometimes we’ll spend Sunday at Sheshan, where there are golf courses and a country club.”
Despite the healthy growth of the business in the past year, Dean only plans to stay a few more years in his adopted country. “The plan is to move back to the UK to educate Louie,” he says. “Most people will tell you they plan to leave some day – it’s difficult to become accepted here as a foreigner. The Chinese often remind you that they have a culture that is 5,000 years old. This informs their world view so that even after living here for many years, marrying and settling down, you are still considered a foreigner.”
Will the family miss the lifestyle if they decide to leave? “It may seem silly because China is such a big country, but everywhere you go, there are crowds, noise and, in the cities, pollution,” says Dean. “It’s rarely peaceful here. If you’ve grown up in the US or Europe, you know what you’re missing when it comes to a peaceful, idyllic countryside in which to live.”
●A great business buzz and dynamism among the people of the city
●Excellent and inexpensive public transport
●Childcare is affordable
●Pollution. While better than most other large cities in China, the air quality is generally poor
●International schooling is very expensive
●A general lack of outdoor activities and facilities
What you can buy for ...
£100,000 A 30 sq m studio in central Shanghai in a low-rise apartment block. Or a larger 35 sq m – 40 sq m studio apartment in an older building outside the city
£1m A modern complex in downtown Shanghai with two to four bedrooms (125 sq m – 200 sq m). Or a small, renovated home in the French Concession with two to three bedrooms (125 sq m – 155 sq m)
●CB Richard Ellis, www.cbre.co.in