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 layout 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, had been published in 20 languages, and I happened to have a copy in Mandarin. It was the reason I'd been hired.
My host had paid me in advance for a week's consulting on a potentially much larger 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 our office workspace. Better to contain the Gweilo, the Cantonese slang for foreigner -- "foreign devil"-- somewhere else than the office or god forbid, the home. 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. We hadn't even begun, and I felt as if there was no proper place to work.
The bell rang and in walked my host--with the fourth assistant I'd met so far. I greeted him and eagerly offered him my gifts, telling him that one was for his wife and family, (the glasses), and the other for him. It's not customary to open gifts in front of people in China, so I told him that the other gift was a book that related to our project.
"Giving a book during Chinese New Year is bad luck in Hong Kong," he stated matter-of-factly.
What a welcome! 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. 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.
I showed him a few of the pages in Mandarin, but he wasn't the least bit interested. He wanted to get started, which to my Western mind seemed nearly impossible. There was no room for us at this miniscule cocktail table, and because he required that we work in an apartment, there were none of the tools I'd normally use to brainstorm a new project, say a white board or a flip chart. After a couple of awkward hours where I took notes on my laptop, we had a traditional Chinese lunch, and my host led us around the neighborhood, buying a flip chart and pens and enough fruit for a soccer team. We'd barely gotten started when at 3 p.m. he abruptly announced that he was tired and wanted to give me a quick tour of his sprawling downtown office, before calling it quits for the day. As I walked around a massive office suite big enough for 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. I hung up and read. He wrote that he'd like me to help him on a project that's about a year out. "So, for the rest of this trip, you can take it easy," he wrote, asking that I spend three hours giving him my thoughts on a hundred pages of rough notes he'd sent me. 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 here as superstition. Fifteen minutes later he arrived--without his assistant. He told 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 and my friends. 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 till 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. The irony was that my host actually requested that I bring him several books for the project that are hard to buy in Hong Kong, and eagerly scooped them up on our first day. Those volumes apparently didn't violate the book superstition.
After my return 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' 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. 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, apparently carrying plague.
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. What was this American author thinking!
But that wasn't the end of the story.
Three weeks later, at 8 a.m., my host sent me an urgent e-mail asking for help on his writing project, saying "please let me know quickly when and how much so I can agree and you can get started."
This time I won't bear any gifts.
Jonathan Littman is the founder of the storytelling and branding studio, Snowball Narrative. He's the co-author of two bestsellers, The Ten Faces of Innovation and Art of Innovation, and seven other books, among them the Fugitive Game and Crashing Augusta, a collection of his stories as a Contributing Editor for Playboy.