Chinese Business Voodoo

Jonathan Littman, the co-author of the Art of Innovation, Thinktopia® collaborator and founder of Snowball Narrative, just returned from a business trip to Hong Kong and China, where he delved into branding, brand counterfeits — and superstition. This is Part 3 of a series.

Doing business in Hong Kong is not the same as doing business in New York, Paris or Rome. The biggest lesson for those planning to introduce a brand here or strike a deal is that superstition matters. Most know that the number 8 is considered a lucky number in Asia (remember how the Beijing Olympics opened on the eighth day of the eighth month at 8:08 and 8 seconds?). A Chinese company bought an all-eight telephone number for more than a quarter million dollars. Meanwhile, buildings here often skip the 4th floor. Why? Becomes when spoken, the number sounds like the word for “death.”

Businesses in China sometimes consult fortune-tellers to pick company names, when to open, and how to lay out floor plans. Superstition is no joke.  Voodoo dolls became such a hit a few years back that authorities rushed to ban them when young Chinese buyers became obsessed with pin-sticking black magic.

I knew that I couldn’t arrive in Hong Kong empty-handed, so I took care to bring two thoughtful gifts for my host. The first was a pair of beautifully designed glasses, considered an ideal gift, along the lines of a vase. I was sure my second gift would impress: One of my books, The Art of Innovation –the reason I’d been hired, had been published in 20 languages, and I happened to have a copy in Mandarin.

My host had paid me in advance for a week’s consulting on a potentially large writing project. What better gift than a Chinese edition of my bestselling book, proof of my credentials?

We met at his guest apartment, the location that this week would double as my sleeping quarters and office workspace. Strangely, his assistants had placed what resembled a tiny cocktail table precisely where the front door opened (so much for Feng Shui). There was scarcely room for my laptop and gifts, let alone a proper place to work.

The doorbell rang and in walked my host—with the fourth assistant I’d met so far. I greeted him eagerly and offered my gifts, telling him that one (the glasses) was for his wife and family, and the other (the book) was for him.

“Giving a book during Chinese New Year is bad luck in Hong Kong,” he stated matter-of-factly.

This was the first time I’d ever been told that a gift would bring bad juju.

“O.K.” I said, thinking fast. “How about you don’t open it. But, since it’s related to our work together, I’ll open it.”

As I tore off the wrapping paper he took a half step back. I held up my book proudly and saw that he didn’t dare touch it.

After an embarrassed silence, I gently placed the book and its wrappings on a side table.

My client wanted to start work immediately, which seemed nearly impossible. There was no room for us at this miniscule cocktail table, and none of the tools I’d normally use to brainstorm a new project: say a white board or flip chart.

After a couple of awkward hours during which I took feverish notes on my laptop, we ate a traditional Chinese lunch. Then my host led us around the neighborhood, buying a flip chart and pens and enough fruit to feed a soccer team. We’d barely gotten started again back in the cramped apartment, when he abruptly announced that he was tired and wanted to show me his office. So, off we went. As I walked around his sprawling office suite–accommodations regal enough to suit Donald Trump–I wondered, why in the world hadn’t we worked here?

The next morning he phoned just before our scheduled 9:30 a.m. meeting. In a cheery voice, he instructed me to read my e-mail. His message stated that he’d like me to help him on a project that’s about a year out. “So, for the rest of this trip,” he wrote, “you can take it easy.” He encouraged me to see the sights and “take a side trip to Macau.”

Translation: this friendly e-mail was an elaborate effort to put a positive spin on events. Direct confrontation or saying “no” is not in the Chinese psyche. This is called Saving Face, nearly as important as superstition.

Fifteen minutes later he arrived by himself—without one of his ever-present assistants.  He informed me his secretary would buy me boat tickets to Macau, and his driver would take me to his private club one night for a dinner with his wife. He was smiling, which in China is often what you do when you’re uncomfortable. After he left, I couldn’t help noticing that my gift to him, the Chinese edition of my book, was still on the table.

Since I was paid in advance, it turned out to be a rewarding assignment for a day’s work plus the international travel and accommodations. My week was mostly a vacation in Hong Kong and Macau, and yes, an incredible dinner at my host’s posh club. But my Western mind couldn’t wrap around what happened.

After my return home to San Francisco, I scoured the Internet for answers. Wikipedia promptly informed me that the word for a book in Mandarin sounds like the word for “loss.” People investing in stocks or gambling who are “carrying or looking at a book,” may be inviting “bad luck and loss,” wrote Wikipedia. In other words, gambling and reading don’t mix.

The voodoo from book giving would be especially perilous in Hong Kong for anyone who bets on horses or the lottery game Mark Six, common recreation for wealthy locals like my host.  Don’t give a book, advised another article, “because ‘giving a book’ in Mandarin sounds like ‘delivering defeat.’”

Of course books are not the only gifts off limits. Green gifts would be seen as a symbol of cuckoldry (don’t even think of giving greenbacks!). The color white recalls funerals and death. Clocks may also symbolize death or the end of a relationship.

According to Wikipedia, I could have easily given my host fruit, a widely accepted gift. As long as I gave an even number, as odd numbers would bring bad luck, and as long as I avoided the dreaded, deadly-sounding four.

The day before my return flight to the U.S., my host came to the apartment bearing a gift. Before he left he made sure to gather up a few voodoo-free books I’d brought him from San Francisco. Yet there sat my gift book all alone on the table, signed and untouched.

He ordered me to open my gift, violating the Chinese prohibition against opening a gift in front of the gift-giver. The bright red wrapping paper revealed a large red silk-covered box. Nestled in felt sat two elegant gold leafed teacups. My host showed me the accompanying official paperwork, stating that the “National Emblem Pottery Collection are supervised by the Office of National Pottery Use.”

The papers proclaimed that the cups were exclusively used for dinners and banquets in “The People’s Hall and in major overseas Chinese Embassies.”  Attached was my host’s imperial over-sized calling card.

Red is the luckiest color in China. The gesture sunk in. He was sending me home with a box full of good fortune!

Or was he?

“You can’t buy these in China,” he said bluntly. “If you get stopped without the papers, they will assume you stole these.”

“Thank you,” I said as I pondered a trip to a Hong Kong jail.

All I can say is that on my next visit I will think three times (not 4, maybe 8) before giving a gift. Nothing white, no number four, and definitely, most definitely I will abstain from something as dangerous as a book.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Four weeks later, at 4 p.m., my host sent me an urgent e-mail asking for help on taking his writing “to a higher level,” saying “please let me know quickly when and how much so I can agree and you can get started.”

This time I won’t come bearing gifts.