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Peter Fuhrman
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Chairman, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at China First Capital (www.chinafirstcapital.com) , China-based international investment bank and advisory firm for private capital markets and M&A transactions. See Linkedin profile here: cn.linkedin.com/in/peterfuhrman/ China First Capital... More
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China First Capital
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China Private Equity, by China First Capital
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  • Brothels into Beauty Parlors -- A Leading Indicator in China's Economy
     After 30 years of economic progress unparalleled in human history, China can rewrite the rules on which leading economic indicators are most important to track.  I want to nominate a new one: the rate at which brothels are converted to beauty parlors.

    At least in my Shenzhen neighborhood, this indicator is certainly at an all-time high. In the last four months, two rather seedy massage and KTV parlors have undergone very lavish renovation and reopened as large, expensive, multi-floored hair-dressing salons.

    The clear implication: you can make more money in China these days selling perms and dye jobs than selling sex. This is an economic change in China of historic, if under-appreciated, importance.

    Shenzhen has long had a reputation as one of the red light capitals of China. Some of the reasons: proximity to Hong Kong, a transient population made up largely of economic migrants, a local government with more of a laissez-faire attitude than elsewhere in China.

    I can’t imagine anyone but the local police are keeping count, but I’d guess there must be thousands of places in the city offering sex for cash. These range from tiny storefronts with five to ten girls in folding chairs, to all manner of sauna, massage and KTV joints, most, but not all of which, augment their more legitimate offerings with the paid option to take one of the hostesses home with you, or do a little groping on the premises.

    Or so I’m told. I know it may sound either prudish or disingenuous, but I’ve never been a customer of one of these places. I do, however, marvel at the variety and number of places selling sex here. The five-minute walk from my house to the local supermarket takes me past two big neon-lit places, called 会所, or “clubs” with touts out front and some heavily made-up ladies within. Down two smaller alleys are small storefront brothels.

    In the building where I live, one of the fancier ones in my neighborhood, business cards are slipped under my door most every night offering “home delivery services”. They stress the a variety of women available, including  nurses, college students, migrants, mistresses, foreigners.

    This is the part of Shenzhen’s sex trade I most deeply object to. The cards are put under every door. The photos on the card are of naked women.  My next-door neighbors include Chinese families with young kids. It’s unseemly, and I’ve complained numerous times to the doormen, but they claim not to know who is responsible for distributing the cards. My guess is they are paid to look the other way.

    The economics of hair-dressing are certainly more favorable than the economics of prostitution. It’s not unusual for a woman to spend Rmb200-300 or more on a haircut and shampoo. Get your hair colored and the price can double. Though there are already dozens of hair salons in my neighborhood, they all seem to be jam-packed at all hours of the day. That never looks to be the case of the places selling sex. They always seem empty, over-staffed and under-patronized.

    One thing hairdressers and brothels have in common,  the busiest time is 9pm-1am. Hairdressers, most of whom are men, earn a pretty good living, making around USD$1,000 a month. But, they work long hours, usually 12 hours a day. Most of the customers are women, but these places also cater to men. I pay Rmb 50 for a haircut and no shampoo. That’s a little less than the cost of a haircut at the joint I used to go to in LA’s Koreatown.

    Every new beauty parlor that opens is confirmation of some larger economic trends in China.  Women have more disposable income, and more of an inclination to spend it on fashion, cosmetics, or a new hairstyle.  Prices are quickly reaching levels similar to those in the US. In Shenzhen, a young woman can now easily earn as much every month sitting at a desk in an office as sitting in a storefront brothel. That is probably a change from a few years ago.

    China’s economy is changing quickly from export-dependence to a reliance on the domestic market, from dominance of manufacturing to the rise of the service sector. In my part of Shenzhen, what’s changing most quickly: who is serving what to whom for how much.




    Disclosure: None
    Oct 21 6:59 PM | Link | Comment!
  • Qinghai Province – The Biggest Small Place in China
    In most things to do with China, the “law of big numbers” applies. A population of 1.4 billion mandates that. So, whether it’s the fact there are over 50 cities larger than Rome, provinces with populations larger than any European country, or that more of just about everything is sold every year in China than anywhere else, the reality of China’s huge population is always a hulking presence.


    Except for Qinghai Province. Here, the numbers are so small Qinghai can seem like one of the Baltic States. The province is a little larger than France, yet has a population of only 5.2 million, or 0.3% of China’s total. The capital city, Xining, where I’m now writing this, has about one million residents. Tibet to the south and Xinjiang to the north are both autonomous regions, rather than provinces. Both are far more well-known and talked-about, both inside China and out, and benefit from much more investment from the central government.

    Qinghai is unlike anywhere I’ve been in China. It is so empty as to be almost desolate. Xining is in the midst of a very rapid transformation from a dusty low-rise backwater to a more obviously modern Chinese city, with high rises, two new expressways, broad boulevards and shiny new shops selling brands familiar in other parts of the country. It sits alongside a tributary of the Yellow River, wedged like a sliver between low barren brown mountains.

    Xining is also the most conspicuously multi-cultural city I’ve been to in China, with a Han majority sharing the city with a large contingent of Tibetans, and a very significant population of Hui Moslems. The Dongguan mosque, on the city’s main street, is one of the largest in China. As many as 30,000 people can worship there. Every twenty paces or so you’ll pass a small brazier with a Hui cook barbecuing lamb kebabs.  Most also sell yak milk yogurt. It’s delicious, in case you’re wondering.

    The Tibetans are more concentrated outside Xining. Qinghai makes up most of the Tibetan region of Amdo, and much of the province’s landmass is inhabited by Tibetan herdsmen. The current Dalai Lama was born not far from Xining, and had some of his first schooling atKumbum Monastery, a 450 year-old establishment that has long been among the most important sites of religious worship and study for Tibetan Buddhists.

    Kumbum is a half-hour drive from Xining.  I’ve wanted to go there for about 30 years, and finally got the chance on this trip. I always felt a pull towards Kumbum because it was established to venerate Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. I’ve lived for the last 15 years with a beautiful thangka of Tsongkhapa, and hang it near where I sleep. Here it is:


    Tsongkhapa

    If I had a patron saint, it would be him. Tsongkhapa was born where the Monastery now sits, in a small mountain village. The Monastery spreads lengthwise about one mile up a hillside. At its height, it was home to 3,600 monks. Now there are said to be about 500. A lot of the more ancient buildings were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and have since been rebuilt. There are also some newer structures in traditional Tibetan monastic style, including one built with a donation from Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing.

    Tibetan pilgrims circumambulate the important buildings, do their prostrations, and leave offerings of money and butter. They share Kumbum with Chinese tour groups, who are for the most part respectful, attentive.

    After visiting the Monastery in a steady drizzle, I went to see a doctor at the nearby hospital. I was feeling just fine, but for a little sleepiness from the high altitude.  I’ve had a long, intense interest in Tibetan medicine, and the hospital here is staffed by lamas educated at Kumbum and graduated with the equivalent of a PhD in Tibetan medicine.

    I saw a physician named Lopsang Chunpai, dressed in maroon and yellow monastic robes. He took my pulse, pronounced me healthy, and prescribed a Tibetan herbal medicine called Ratna Sampil, a combination of 70 herbs that is compounded at the hospital. According to the package, it’s used “clearing and activating the channels and collaterals”.

    Though I saw only a very small part of it, Qinghai struck me as an especially lovely place:  a wide, open and arid plateau not unlike parts of the American West. Even accepting the cold winter (with temperatures of 20 to 30 degrees below zero centigrade), it’s hard to understand the high vacancy rate here. It’s population density, at 7 people per square kilometer, is 0.3% of Shanghai’s.

    It’s empty, of course, because comparatively few Chinese have emigrated here. That seems likely to change. The air is clean, the economy is booming and the infrastructure improvements of recent years have made integrated the province much more closely with the highly-settled parts of China to the east.

    Neighboring Tibet and Xinjiang have experienced large Han Chinese migration over the last 60 years. Not so Qinghai. Geography is destiny.  Qinghai, unlike Xinjiang and Tibet, does not border any other country. It has far less military and strategic importance. Xinjiang borders Russia and Tibet borders India. China has fought border wars with both.

    Xinjiang and Tibet have also both recently had some serious ethnic conflicts, including anti-Chinese riots in both places in the last two years.  Although its population is about 20% Moslem and 20% Tibetan, Qinghai has stayed peaceful. It is China’s melting pot.

    Qinghai is rich in mineral resources, including large seams of high-grade coal. As the transport system improves, more Chinese will migrate there to work in mines. Xining, as small as it is, is the only proper city in all of Qinghai.

    The ostensible reason for my visit was to speak at a conference on private equity. The provincial government has a target to increase the number of Qinghai companies going public. The mayor of Xining, who I met briefly, was until recently a successful businessman, running one of the province’s largest state-run companies.

    I met a few local entrepreneurs and visited one factory making wine from buckthorn berries, using technology developed by Tsinghua University. It’s a healthier, lower-proof alternative to China’s lethal “baijiu”, the highly alcoholic spirit, mainly distilled from sorghum,  that is widely consumed across China.

    Up to now, as far as I can tell,  there’s been no private equity investment in Qinghai. I’d like to change that. It’s a special part of China. Though it’s statistically one of the poorest provinces, Qinghai will continue every year to close the gap. More capital, more opportunity, more prosperity — and more inhabitants. This is Qinghai’s certain future.




    Disclosure: none
    Sep 29 11:43 PM | Link | Comment!
  • China’s Booming Mobile Phone Market Is Maxxing Out on Growth
    During the first eight months of this year, 547 million mobile phones were sold in China, a 36% increase over the same period last year. At the current rate, more mobile phones will be sold in China this year than there are mobile users. In other words, on average, everyone of China’s 780 million mobile subscribers will buy a new mobile phone this year.

    Can this possibly be true? Outside of China, mobile phone sales are basically flat, with most of the growth now coming from sales of smartphones like those made by Apple and HTC. Based on the current sales pattern, China will account for over 60% of all new mobile phone sales in 2010.

    What is happening in China that could account for phenomenally high growth rate? I’m at a loss to explain it. Anecdotally, I can’t find much evidence of this remarkably high rate of new phone sales.

    Most Chinese I know are using phones that are at least a year old. Nokia phones are particularly common in my circle. Overall, Nokia is still the biggest selling mobile phone brand in China. But, its sales in China are not doing very well, and the company is losing market share. One reason is that the phones are well-made and tend to last a long time.

    China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology compiles the statistics on Chinese mobile phone sales. They do a professional job gathering and transmitting data on China’s mobile market. So, I have no reason to doubt the basic accuracy of the numbers. The absolute number may possibly be off, but the 36% growth rate is probably correct.

    If so, the larger question may not be one of accuracy, but of sustainability. In other words, if mobile phone sales are growing by 36% a year, is there any way that rate of year-on-year growth could continue into 2011 and beyond? I have severe doubts about this. For one thing, if the 36% annual growth rates continued through 2012, overall annual sales will double from the current high level. If so, every Chinese mobile subscriber on average would end up buying two new mobile phones a year. That, as the British like to say, “beggars belief”.

    It may well be that the fantastically high growth rate we now see in China will begin to plateau very soon. If so, the overall market dynamic will change from one of rampant growth, in which even the weakest players register growth every year, to one where a company’s ability to generate sales growth will comes mainly from increasing market share.

    In other words, from a manufacturer’s standpoint, the market changes from one of absolute growth to one of relative growth – or loss. It will happen soonest for products like mobile phones, where the market is reaching saturation.

    There is still plenty of organic growth left for other fast-growing items like new cars, computers, white goods, and a full range of brand name products, from laundry detergent to Italian suits.

    I bought a new phone recently,  an HTC Legend, running on Google’s Android operating system. But, it didn’t register on the Ministry’s figures.

    Like a lot of people living in Shenzhen, I bought my new phone in Hong Kong, where prices are as much as 35% cheaper, and there’s far more certainty of getting a phone with all its original circuitry intact. It’s not all that uncommon for brand name phones in China to be doctored before sale. They look authentic on the outside, but have some cheaper, replacement parts within.

    HTC is still a niche brand in China, though with very ambitious plans for growth over the next year. I bought the HTC in large part because the company is an investor and partner of one of my clients.  I like the phone, and like the fact it’s not an iPhone.

    I have nothing against the Apple product. I just prefer, in phones and most other things, to choose brands that aren’t already dominant in their market.

    Apple phones, either genuine or knockoff, are far more common in China than anywhere else in the world, as far as I can tell. Apple just announced plans finally to begin selling its new iPhone4 in China, months after it went on sale in the US, Europe and much of Asia. The price is still well above the level in Hong Kong, but I have no doubt the phone will sell well.

    Apple computers are still very rare in China. There are very few places to buy one. This is a major untapped opportunity for the California company, since anything with the Apple brand is going to sell well in China. Apple has begun opening retail stores in China, but as of now, there are only two, one each in Beijing and Shanghai.

    Apple is certainly one of the companies that should continue to thrive in China’s mobile market, even as it shifts from absolute to relative growth. HTC too. As for the others, both global and domestic brands, it’s going to be a dogfight.



    Disclosure: None
    Sep 23 10:22 AM | Link | Comment!
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