How Pakistan is becoming China's land of opportunity

Pakistan is becoming a home away from home for many Chinese citizens looking for better business opportunities.
Published June 7, 2017

The new China towns

By Shazia Hasan

If you pass him by in his electronic parts and components shop in the Electronics Market in Karachi’s Saddar, Mohammad Ali Arabi would look like any other normal young Pakistani businessman.

There is nothing out of the ordinary about him until you hear him conversing on the phone with someone in Mandarin.  

“Seeing Ali Bhai speaking while making strange facial gestures by twisting his features to pronounce the words, at first we thought that maybe he was possessed or having some kind of a fit,” laughs another shop owner in the market.

“But now we are used to his speaking the language of our Chinese friends. He is often on the phone with someone or the other in China,” the shopowner adds.

“I learnt the language back in 2002 from a Chinese lady visiting Pakistan for her work,” says Arabi.

“Her work required her staying in Karachi for extended periods and I helped her get by in things such as helping her find office space, where to buy groceries from, etc. In return, I requested her to teach me her language,” he says.

“The Chinese don’t call their language ‘Chinese’ or ‘Mandarin’. They call it Putonghua,” Arabi explains. “They don’t even refer to their country as ‘China’. For them it is Zhonghua, meaning ‘central country’.

“Learning the language has helped me a lot in knowing our friends better. It has also helped me in expanding my own electronics business. I often travel to Mainland China where speaking the local language helps. Though everyone there is most kind on learning that I’m from Pakistan, when they find that I am fluent in their language, too, they sell me something they will sell you for 10 Yuan for just two or three Yuan,” says Arabi.

The spoken word

At the Axinstitute for Chinese Language, Asim Qadri says that his father had stressed the importance of learning Chinese 20 years ago.

“There was no talk of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC] back then,” he explains.

“But I believe my father was a great visionary and a very wise man indeed to have realised all those years ago that the old friendship between China and Pakistan would pave the way for further interaction between the two peoples.

He said it was going to be the language of the future in this region. He could speak German and Arabic himself and for us he predicted the importance of Chinese.”

Having acted on his father’s advice, Qadri now teaches the language at his institute in Karachi’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal along with also offering courses at some of the biggest and best universities of the city.  

Asim Qadri teaching Mandarin at the Axinstitute for Chinese Language
Asim Qadri teaching Mandarin at the Axinstitute for Chinese Language

“The language may seem difficult to you at first but not after I explain the fundamentals to you,” Qadri explains to his class.

“Speaking Chinese is all about tone. The language constitutes four basic syllables. The meaning of a word in Chinese may change according to the tone or syllable used in pronouncing it. It may be the same word though," he says.

Also,” he adds, “like we have alphabets in Urdu and English, there are no alphabets in Chinese. Maybe written Chinese may seem like a bunch of insects to you at first but after careful study you would notice that they are pictograms. Writing ‘tree’ will have you actually drawing a symbol that looks like a pine tree, writing ‘heart’ will have you draw the outline of a heart,” he demonstrates while writing on the board,” he says.

The majority of Qadri’s students are businessmen or professionals working in fields where they have plenty of interaction with the Chinese.

“So they want to learn functional or spoken Chinese. I have specially designed short courses for them.

After studying one module, those who already have some interaction with the native Chinese are able to build further on their language skills through practice,” he points out. 

Aftab is employed with the Hazara Motorway Project and the high-paying job he landed is because of his fluency in Mandarin.

He earns almost Rs200,000 as the main liaison person between the local workers and the Chinese technicians working with the company to build roads.

One of Qadri’s students, Maria Qayyum Farooqui, a project communications executive with an events management company, says that they get Chinese delegations that they are expected to communicate with all the time.

“Chinese people are very sharp. They understand a bit of Urdu and English, too. But we are at a disadvantage when trying to get our message across to them,” says Maria.

“My boss seemed to have no problem understanding our Chinese clients so when I asked him how he knew their language, he pointed me to this institute. And here I am,” she smiles.

Some years ago, Mohammad Aftab, a youth from Abbottabad working with the Indus Motor Company Limited found an opportunity to travel to Korea.

He wanted to work there but as things didn’t work out according to plan, he found himself travelling to China on a five-year visa.

During his stay there he got by doing small jobs. He also learnt the local language.

Aftab wanted to stay on in China as he couldn’t really envision making a life for himself in his native Abbottabad.

But after overstaying his welcome there — when his visa expired — the young man was unceremoniously deported to Pakistan.

A bank sign board at the Gwadar airport in Mandarin and English. — Photo by Shazia Hasan
A bank sign board at the Gwadar airport in Mandarin and English. — Photo by Shazia Hasan

Aftab’s story doesn’t end just there. After coming back here, he worked as a part-time electrician for some time, earning around 500 rupees a day, when he could find work here, that is.

It was like this until he realised that he possessed a valuable skill — fluency in the Chinese language.

Today, he is employed with the Hazara Motorway Project and the high-paying job he landed is because of his fluency in Mandarin.

Aftab earns almost 200,000 rupees monthly as the main liaison person between the local workers and the Chinese technicians working with the company to build roads.

Knowledge is power

The news, two years ago, that Mandarin as a subject was to be made mandatory in schools in Sindh from Class Six to Class 10 was frowned upon by many who questioned the idea behind teaching of an alien language when kids here hadn’t even mastered the regional or official languages.

A copy of the Quran in Chinese with writing implements. — Photo by Shazia Hasan
A copy of the Quran in Chinese with writing implements. — Photo by Shazia Hasan

Under the MoU signed between the Sindh Government Education Department and Chinese Education Department, schools in Sindh are to teach Mandarin while imparting knowledge about Chinese culture and values with the help of China.

Under the scheme students learning Mandarin will be awarded extra marks, scholarships and be given opportunities for further education in China.

Though implementation of that decision is yet to be seen, there are some schools that have taken up the task of teaching Chinese to their pupils.

One such chain of schools that goes by the name of the Roots School System (which has branches across Pakistan) has started doing it already.

The written word

Communication also includes publishing periodicals for the Chinese readership in Pakistan.

The Chinese mean business and Huashang is the first business news magazine in Mandarin, which has been serving a readership of 25,000 for one year now.

“We have a team of Chinese journalists and Chinese translators working to bring out this fortnightly magazine, which comes out alternately with an English edition one week and a Chinese one the next,” says Umar Farooq Alvi, an editor, at the magazine’s head office in Islamabad.

“The Chinese edition has some translations of the business stories published in the English edition the week before as well as current news and updates about the business scene in Pakistan,” he says.

“The focus of the magazines is on business. We help Chinese companies looking to invest in Pakistan understand our market better,” Alvi explains.

The magazine only publishes 5,000 copies but to reach its wider readership an e-paper is available online and on Facebook, too.

“Our copies are free. We earn through advertisements,” he says. “We publish advertisements for Chinese multinational companies looking for mergers with local business houses, we carry government advertisements too,” he adds.

Getting a good response for the publication, the magazine’s management recently met to look into bringing out both their English and Chinese publications simultaneously instead of on alternate weeks.

“We are discussing it now. Let’s see what happens,” Alvi says.  

Banking on the Chinese

Of late, some banks here have also started attracting Chinese clients through their language. Habib Metropolitan Bank happens to be the trailblazer here.

One can see the bank’s name is written both in English and in Chinese on the green board above the main entrance of some of their branches, one of them being at Bilawal Chowrangi.

Sheeza Ahmed, a senior manager looking at marketing at HabibMetro says that they have Chinese business desks to look after their Chinese clientele at select branches.

“We have taken care to set up the Chinese business desks in branches where we happen to have Chinese clientele,” says Ms Ahmed.

“Currently, there are five to 10 such branches across Pakistan with at least two to three in Karachi and also in other big cities such as Lahore and Islamabad along with the one in Gilgit and Gwadar,” she says.     “We have specially-trained staff for these Chinese business desks who have received Chinese language training to help our Chinese friends feel comfortable dealing with our bank.

Hopefully we will also be building on our Chinese clientele in the near future because of more investment opportunities coming up here due to CPEC,” she says.

A page from Huashang, a weekly that focuses on Pakistan business news of interest to Chinese investors / Photo by Shazia Hasan
A page from Huashang, a weekly that focuses on Pakistan business news of interest to Chinese investors / Photo by Shazia Hasan

Another such Pakistani bank happens to be the United Bank Limited. During a recent trip to Gwadar, one could see big advertisements of the bank mounted on plaques at the airport lounge walls in both English and Chinese with pictures of the Great Wall of China. 

Grocery shopping — the Chinese way

It is not about Pakistanis and their love for Pakistani-Chinese cuisine as we have enjoyed chicken corn soup, egg fried rice, noodles, sweet and sour prawns from time immemorial.

It is more about whether our biryani, pulao, korma and nihari would suit the Chinese palate. In most cases it does not.

And that’s what grocery stores such as Z Mart, owned by the Food Supply Division of S. Zia-ul-Haq & Sons, does by offering Chinese groceries.

The mezzanine floor of their outlet in Clifton, Karachi, boasts of a variety of neatly packaged Chinese spices and ingredients such as red long mushrooms, pickled sweet garlic, pickled kelp, pickled vegetable mix, hot pot soup, chilli threads, sweet meat seasoning, pickled mustard, red bean paste, and what not.

Snacks on sale at Z Mart, an Asian grocery store in Karachi / Photo by Shazia Hasan
Snacks on sale at Z Mart, an Asian grocery store in Karachi / Photo by Shazia Hasan

Abdul Rasheed, the shopkeeper at Z Mart, says that their company provides items subject to the demand for them.

“We order containers full of Chinese food ingredients because our Chinese customers need them here,” Rasheed says.

“There are so many of our Chinese friends coming to Pakistan for work because of CPEC now.

We must provide them with what they want so that they can lead a comfortable life here.

They should not have any problem in Pakistan and for this we have liaison officers who meet with them to find out about their preference and choice in foods and where to avail these from in China. And we get it for them,” he says.

Acting up

We see the Chinese as wise, well-meaning hard-working people and our friends, so why not see them in the romantic lead of a love story, too? Chalay Thay Saath is a Pakistani movie with a local heroine and a Chinese hero.

Movies are the prime medium to help audiences become comfortable with change or perhaps plant a new idea in their minds.

“While drafting the story and script, the writer Atiya Zaidi, Umer Adil, the director and myself were skeptical initially, and particular later on about handling the Resham and Adam relationship very delicately,” says Beenish Umer, the producer of the movie.

“We realised as a nation and culture giving a daughter away to another culture might not be well perceived. I remember we even had a few debates about reversing the roles, and making the leading male role Pakistani.

But to be honest, after the film was released we felt the audience took very well to the story, to Adam’s character and to the Resham and Adam dynamics.

Despite Chalay Thay Saath’s intention of not following a formula/masala film solution, it became a bittersweet love story which the audience grew to love,” she adds.

A promotional image from the Pakistani film *Chalay Thay Saath*, a romantic story between Pakistani woman and a Chinese man — File
A promotional image from the Pakistani film Chalay Thay Saath, a romantic story between Pakistani woman and a Chinese man — File

“Films through time have always been used as tools to present new ideas, change and revolution. They have been used to further political or other agendas and now with this renaissance happening in Pakistan, we feel this medium can be used as a tool to further ideas for social and political change as well,” Beenish says.

“To be certain, I’m sure after Chalay Thay Saath, and also taking from the current dynamics of real life relationships, the Pakistani film producers might also look into unorthodox connections and cultural differences while telling their stories.

I can foresee other Pakistan-China stories as both the countries are trying to work together on co-productions,” the young producer predicts.

“We have already seen a brand (Shan) associate with Chinese people in Pakistan. In fact, one can see productions across the border delving into a similar direction. It is obviously not an aftermath of Chalay Thay Saath, but producers in general are looking at such connections,” she adds.

Of course, Resham, the heroine’s name in the movie is no coincidence. Shahrah-i-Resham or the Silk Road has served as the main artery for trade with China for a very long time now.

And with CPEC, the friendship between the two countries has grown stronger. How CPEC shapes Pak-China relations in the future depends on the two countries’ approach it but one thing is for sure: Pakistan will never be the same again.

The writer is a member of staff.

She tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 4th, 2017

Thank you for staying with us

By Ahmed Yusuf

The year was 2002, the city was Karachi, and militancy had just reared its head in the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan.

On the morning of May 8, around 8am, a car driver detonated himself next to a bus meant to transport French engineers from the Sheraton Hotel to a naval facility.

The explosion at the five-star hotel killed 11 Frenchmen and two Pakistanis, and left 40 others injured. The suspects were later linked to al-Qaeda by Pakistani officials.

In the 15 years since, the hotel industry in Karachi struggled to survive. With the city neither a tourist destination nor a vacation spot, the suicide attack changed international perceptions: Karachi was no longer a safe destination for investment or other business.

Fewer businessmen from abroad visited the city and international airlines began scaling down their Karachi operations.

With no visitors to speak of, hotels slowly began to wear deserted looks by 2005 and the industry began imploding.

And the industry was in dire straits — that is until recently when the Chinese started arriving in great numbers. Is the bad patch over for hotel businesses?

“I can’t share the exact numbers with you, they are confidential,” says Mövenpick’s Marketing and Communication Manager Amara Ashraf, “but what I can confirm for you is that a significant share of our yearly business comes from Chinese guests.

It is safe to say that the hotel industry’s revival in Karachi is tied to a greater Chinese presence in the city.”

Mövenpick was infact once the Sheraton Hotel but Sheraton choose to exit Karachi on December 31, 2013 due to the financial losses they were sustaining.

In came Mövenpick, owned by the Kuwait Investment Authority, who saw Karachi as a lucrative opportunity.

They pledged to retain over 600 staff operating the 407 rooms of the hotel as well as the various in-house restaurants and coffee shop. The gamble seems to have paid off.

“There is always a balance that we maintain between local and international clientele, their respective preferences, as well as their needs and requirements,” says Ashraf.

“But of course international business, which is consistent, carries great monetary significance.”

The Chinese presence in Karachi predates the signing of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Chinese engineers and executives have been working with the Sindh government on various projects, including the Thar Coal Project, throughout the last decade.

But the inking of the CPEC agreement has changed the nature of cooperation: from a distanced, consultative role, their presence has become more proactive and hands-on.

Today, more and more Chinese executives have started visiting Karachi as Chinese partnerships have expanded to other services such as electric power generation and garbage collection.

“They are simple people, not very demanding, but very detail-oriented,” says Avari Towers Karachi’s General Manager, Erik Huyer.

“They [like other Asians] prefer bath tubs to showers, for example. They also like quick room and restaurant services and are very particular about time.”

Indeed, in the lobbies of almost all five-star hotels in Karachi, a Chinese national or two can always be spotted pacing the lobby with a laptop in tow.

In one corner of the Marriott in Karachi, an officer finalises travel arrangements for Chinese clients to the airport.

In another hotel, a senior security officer issues final instructions to the guards accompanying guests to the airport — some will be in the bus carrying the passengers and the others will be in two cars flanking the bus.

It is almost impossible to shake the feeling that the hotel industry in Karachi is gearing its services towards the needs of Chinese guests.

But Huyers rebuffs that perception. “The revival [of hotels] is connected with the overall economy and the improved security situation here, not just the Chinese,” he argues.

“But it is important to note that not all Chinese visitors to Karachi become guests at five-star hotels. Only five percent or so do.”

The others, according to him, rent apartments or bungalows in elite localities if their job means they have to stay in Pakistan for long periods.

Then there is a separate segment of visitors that rent guest houses — these are cheaper options in the middle to long term.

Ashraf agrees that apartments and guest houses pose a great challenge to established hotels, but explains how Mövenpick went about finding a solution to the problem.

“We realised that the Chinese were bringing in great business, throughout the year, and therefore not only were our rooms occupied but associated restaurants and services were also being utilised,” she narrates.

“What we did then was to create different packages, offering different corporate rates and services. So if they were occupying our rooms for say six months, they’d be entitled to those rates.”

But did such a pricing policy impact local business?

“We had already constructed new business halls, meeting rooms and workspaces to cater to local demand. We have been offering uninterrupted electricity and high-speed internet. So they have incentive to do business with us,” she explains.

“But if a local company were to occupy our rooms and therefore utilise our services for longer periods, they too would be entitled to subsidised corporate packages.”

In the lobby of Karachi’s Pearl Continental, a young Chinese man paces around waiting for a colleague to take him to an Iftar party — a unique experience in Karachi for this young tech executive.

When asked if he had heard of Shan Masala and its biryani, he answered in the negative.

As executives at Avari and Mövenpick explained, the Chinese are “a proud people with a deep relationship with their food. All they want is authentic Chinese cuisine.”

At both hotels, the signature Chinese restaurants are run by Chinese chefs: Chef Yu at Dynasty, Avari Towers and Chef Yang at the Lotus Court, Mövenpick.

“Chinese guests don’t have to speak English,” explains Huyers, “they can converse with the chef directly in Chinese.

Sometimes we have groups of eight to ten people coming over. Chef Yu would ask them if they want any particular regional dishes on the menu and he specially prepares them for the guests.

In this way, we have a community building around the restaurant where Chinese nationals as well as staff working at the Chinese Embassy congregate.”

Then there are other cultural peculiarities that Pakistanis hotels are now catering to: “The Chinese don’t like to shake your hand at the outset, they like to get to know you first,” explains Huyers.

For this reason, the staff at Avari is routinely trained in cultural sensitivity.

Over at Mövenpick, Ashraf explains that the hotel hired a guest relations officer — a Chinese woman — to ensure that their guests from China have a flavour of home on foreign territory.

“They feel very proud of seeing one of their own do well in a foreign land,” she explains.

“Since the guest relations officer is often their first point of contact, we decided to hire someone who could speak their language and make them comfortable at the outset. It was a very successful move.”

The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 4th, 2017