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[Ed's Note: SmSh talked to John Edwards at last week's Food Hospitality China Exhibition, putting him through the Shanghai Famous rigamarole about his thoughts on life in the city right on the spot. His thoughts have been edited for readerly clarity.]
My name is John Edwards. I’m the British Consul General in Shanghai. I first came to the city during Spring Festival in 1999, worked for three years until 2003, and then came back in 2012. When I first came, I went to a bar called the Zoo Bar, run by Pete Mackey, who is still here. I toured around at that time because I was trying to persuade my wife to come to Shanghai and at one point took her to the end of Line 2 to see what life was like way outside the city center — and she still decided to come. My first run was as the British Consul for Politics, Economics, and Press.
Shanghai back then... I don’t know if I’ve changed or if Shanghai has changed. I thought perhaps that Shanghai has changed, and that now it has become a bit more steady — a bit more like Hong Kong was back in the day before that city lost a bit of its edge. I do think that with Shanghai, like with many people who have been here for a long period time, you have a changing relationship with the city. I fell in love with Shanghai as a city in 1999, had three amazing years and loved everything about it.
Over the last two years or so, I’ve fallen back in love with this city, especially with what they are doing with some of the public spaces around the river, the modern art scene, and the music in the city. The theater shows. And now this sounds like a plug, but it’s not — Sleep No More, which is a British show, is truly cutting edge. I mean it’s cutting edge for London and New York, never mind for Asia. For Shanghai to be pushing ahead in that direction makes me love the city even more.
The truth is my life is very different from the last time I was here. The last time I had a lot of time going out seeing Shanghai and seeing the nightlife. Now, a lot of my work is evening work, and I have a family now including a little boy. There is less, “seeing the city” going on, but there are still some things that I still very much enjoy. I know this sounds a little cliché, but when you come off the gaojia and see Lujiazui, particularly at night with a full moon looming, it is still breathtaking. As is the golden-lit Bund. If you find the place where you can see the curve of the river — I think that's the best vantage point — it's amazing, particularly because Shanghai still has a working river. It’s unbeatable anywhere in the world.
Xuhui also remains an amazing place. When I am coming back from someplace, and cycling through the tree-lined streets late at night, seeing the trees, and the nature and parks, it is quiet and calm and just beautiful, and to have that in the heart of a major city the size of Shanghai is really unusual. An area where I feel where I go to little bit quiet, the Shanghai Zoo — not so much to see the animals but because there are some very nice green spaces there.
The new areas as well, running along the river, the southern developments — it is an amazing public space, the best in China, and I suspect that the city’s public spaces will come to define the city in the future, much more than her tall buildings. This is definitely going to bring Shanghai into a truly international standard city. It shows real vision in how the government is transforming the city.
Now where I like to go to eat personally, depends on who is paying (laughs). If somebody else is paying I like to go to Villa Le Bec, or Tai’An Table. Now, if I am paying, and if it’s a treat for the wife, I’ll take her to Mercato she loves that place. On a more economical scale, very near to me, there is a very nice Yunnanese restaurant called Gathering Clouds which I go to quite a lot. Another place I like to go to for a treat is The Commune Social. And if I am doing something, that requires I just treat myself with a taste of home as it were, Pie Society, again which is just around the corner from me and have mash and a British pie.
I am often asked, “what does a day at the consulate look like for me?” The reality is that it is rarely a day, at the consulate, it is normally a day outside. About 70% or 80% of my time is out on the road, for example here at the Food and Hospitality China Exhibition because we have 70 British companies here. Last week, we were doing China International Industrial Fair, and it meant every night, I have to put my “out of office” notification for up to 10 days. My job is mostly external facing, it is either facing media, or meeting British businesses, or British Chinese that are based here, or it’s meeting visiting British dignitaries. One thing the British consulate can do that no one else can do is GOVERNMENT. And government still really matters in China. We spend a lot of time working with the Chinese government. We see ourselves as the Consulate to East China, as we spend a lot of time engaging with surrounding governments of Hangzhou, Suzhou, and others.
For the average British citizen that’s here, we provide consulate services, and the focus is and priority are people in need — people who have found themselves in difficult situations. It might be medical cases, or people who have gotten into trouble with the Shanghai authorities. That is the focus of our consular services, helping the most vulnerable and in the most need. We also provide notarial services to help people get married. All that’s on our website.
The Consulate also does a lot of work for British businesses.
The businesses that are coming into china for the first time, we support them through things like FCH China. We also work with the China-Britian Business Council and with the British Chamber, both of which have support services for British businesses coming in. There is a launch pad scheme. The CBBC for example have a launch pad scheme where you can come in, take a desk in their offices to start your business. The British Chamber also has its Mentorship Scheme, where the British Chamber will basically act as your agent in your initial set-up phase.
Another group that we are working with are the increasing number of British people who are wanting to set up businesses here in China themselves. They are young people, they speak Chinese, they're living here, they probably studied in China, they are on the two-year post-study work visa, and they want to create businesses here. There are some very successful examples British citizens who have done this.
In fact, I am furious. Furiously jealous a few of them whom I have been friends with such as Rupert Hoogewerf who built up Hurun Report Hurun Report. He gave up a job with one of the big four consulting firms, and now he’s massively famous and has a big brand. You have William Vanbergen who set up British Education, and then there was also Fraser White who setup Dulwich College and the Dulwich Franchise here in Asia.
They are now successful, big businesses, and we want to support the next generation of businesses and social entrepreneurs emerging here.
The younger generation out here in their 20s are very entrepreneurial both commercially and socially and understand China and business here much better than I do, and so we are also looking for their guidance, to understand what they need. It is a new group that we want to engage. I do meet often meet a lot of wealthy Chinese or venture capitalists who want to fund exciting new businesses. I guess there a lot of young British people here who are doing exciting stuff, but don’t hang out in the circles of ultra-high net worth individuals who are looking to match up. So, there may be ways we can help connect the money with the ideas.
We’ve started a British entrepreneurs club, called The City Club if they are interested people can get in touch. Stephen Baron, at the Consulate, is working with this new group. If you are an entrepreneur, and you want to do something with the consulate get in touch.
The City Club is the British Consulate’s network for UK-China financial professionals. For more details and to join the network, contact Stephen.Baron@fco.gov.uk