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“I want to go to Guilin”

Over a plate of spicy, crisp Sichuanese potato slices, Ben was telling me about a favourite song of his. It’s called ’I want to go to Guilin’ (a famously beautiful southern province of China - think the scenery in The Painted Veil). Listen to it here. He was reminded of the tune when talking (over instant messaging) with a customer who had just been there. The chorus of the song goes like this:

I want to go to Guilin, I want to go to Guilin, but when I have the time I have no money.

I want to go to Guilin, I want to go to Guilin, but when I have the money I have no time.

(That scans much better in Chinese.)

Ben hasn’t been to Guilin. At first, during university in Shanxi, the problem was line one. Now, running his own online business in Beijing, it’s line two which is the rub: “I think the money might be enough, but now I have no time”. Two years after opening his clothes store on the Chinese eBay, Taobao, Ben still works from sunrise to sunset. Guilin, for him, is still just a song and a photo search on Baidu (a Google knock-off).

His business is growing: “actually … it’s not doing too badly”, he puts it with an abashed modesty which can only mean his shop doing very well. He has hired two assistants (in addition to his sister who also works for him), and just placed a big order with a new factory in Guangzhou, where he gets his clothes cheap. Not bad, considering that - according to Ben’s estimate - 70% of Taobao shops flop.

I saw the progress for myself after our tongue-numbing meal, when I went back to his office for the second time. The first time (which I wrote about here), the room - not far from Beida - was filled with plastic-wrapped clothes, and a single grotty computer in the back. Now, the heaps of clothes are as higher*:

And there are three new computers in a row along one wall:

Here, his assistant takes an order from a customer (using a QQ like instant messaging system):

And continues to tackle with a customer complaint:

Fingers crossed that Ben will find that long sought-after combination of time and money, and make it to Guilin. And as for me - I haven’t been there either, but will be travelling in Qinghai and Xinjiang over the next fortnight. On which note, I really must run to catch my train.

Update from Xining 6.14: caught it, in the closest shave of more nearly-missed trains in China than I can remember.

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*The picture on the wall in this picture is Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and one of Ben’s heroes, along with Huang Guangyu - recently imprisoned for dodgy practice (bribes blah blah). I asked Ben if this weakened his admiration of Huang. “Not really,” he replied, “Huang Gungyu is like Chairman Mao. 70% of what he did was good, and 30% bad.”

  1. Yijung’s avatar

    This is my first to know this singer and his music. I like the song!