Around the world – M&Ms, ABCs and Bananas

Hong Kong: It’s two years since I was last in this bastion of capitalism. A period that has seen a tow-haired little chap give it back to the Chinese in an emotional – and poorly reported handover. All those mad media stories of Chinese tanks rumbling through the streets at midnight and hundreds of troops everywhere. To all intents and purposes they came in at midnight to avoid causing traffic chaos; as for the troops they marched into their barracks and haven’t been seen since.

All the one-sided reporting of the yellow perils’ take-over produced was a 50 per cent drop in tourism – which means that the casual stroller now gets dragged into shops rather than being conned into as heretofore.

But go down to the Central District on Hong Kong island and business is just booming, everyone is wheeling and dealing – although how they don’t sweat in a Daks suit, heavy cotton shirt and smart tie is more of a mystery to me than many others in the mystic East.

One thing that has always fascinated me about Hong Kong and the like as far as business is concerned is that few of us living in the West have any idea what is going on. Sure we can read the FT or the Journal and see the numbers, but that doesn’t show or report on the sheer energy.

What it also doesn’t seem to show is that there is still a huge shortage of decent managers.

Once upon a time (at least until a few months ago, when they went the way of all things colonial) the Royal Hong Kong Police was a refuge for failed Brits.

One ‘O’ level in London might not get you very far, but in the RHKP if you were white and had clean finger nails it got you to the level of inspector as of right.

I was reminded of that by a local Chinese business woman-known here as one of the Dragon Ladies – who was tut-tutting about the quality of managers.

“We used to call these arrivals from England FILTH,” she said. “Failed in London, try Hong Kong,” she spat out gently at me, “but you know there are still a lot of them around.

“And,” she dropped her voice about three levels as only Asian women who look like Suzy Wong can do, “there are even some who I have to admit are Asian – at least at their ethnic roots.”

And there we have it chaps. The loonies and the brain dead may not be making it too big out here anymore but others are. Here are two of them.

And if, as I suspect, they are both very non-PC down in old Honkers, gosh, I’m most awfully sorry, don’t you know.

First whacko (and there are lots and lots of these) are what the locals call M&Ms, and they are not the little multi-coloured chocolate sweets that Americans give to their children as protein substitute.

No, M&M stands for Mediocre and Mandarin. This translates into: not very bright manager who is lucky enough to know enough Chinese to fool the personnel office.

Conversations with M&Ms go like this:

British interviewer : “I say, do you speak the old Chinese stuff old lad?”

Interviewee: “Of course,” (rattling off a sentence in Chinese).

British interviewer: “Jolly good; there’s a nice little number just come up selling toothpaste in Shanghai.”

Or a different world :

American interviewer: “So tell me Fred are you socially culturally aware to the point of being able to communicate language-wise to the ethnic population?”

Interviewee : “Yes Chuck; would you like me to say something in Chinese?”

American interviewer: “That won’t be necessary Fred, the manager at the Hilton told me you were a real good guy.”

Does this sound like a conversation held in the 1920s? Well it’s not.

Sit in any hotel lobby and you’ll hear these conversations day in, day out. Sometimes it even gets better than that. The story on the street when I was in Shanghai was that an American VP for Asia arrived in town and hired the entire front desk staff of the hotel he was staying in the second day he was there. Be Western speak a little Mandarin, be Chinese and speak a little English. Same thing, slightly different salary levels that’s all.

Then, just as you think you are getting somewhere, you slip on a banana.

Actually you don’t slip, you come upon them. Bananas are the graphical – Chinese created term – for ABCs. ABCs are American (or conceivably Australian) Born Chinese. A few of these are very good as managers – they speak the Chinese like momma used to do and they are vaguely culturally aware.

The others are most certainly not.

Why bananas? What it means is “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” It is regarded as the ultimate insult.

But then again, who can blame Billy the head-hunter in Detroit when he meets the late ’90s version of Charlie Chan. He just knows the guy speaks something other than English. He looks right. And the company he is working for agrees. “Hey, we got our own ethnic-type person down there in China running things. Anything he says must be right. Staff are stupid, don’t work, have no respect. Hell, it must be a tough job, but he is doing his best. Let’s make him vice president of Everything Outside America and Europe AND we’ll give him a bonus.”

In reality, he’s hired a couple of dumb M&Ms because he doesn’t know any better – and he hates the locals, the life and himself as well.

Once upon a time the Hong Kong officer classes were FILTH, now the managerial classes are all BANANAS. How little’s changed.

Mike Johnson is president of Johnson & Associates, a corporate communications consultancy based in Brussels, and the author of Getting a GRIP on Tomorrow and Managing in the Next Millennium. He is working on a new book on great corporate secrets discussed in hotel lobbies.

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