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When Wragge & Co announced it was opening an office in Guangzhou, within minutes I’d tapped out a speculative email volunteering for any future secondments.
I’d visited 10 years before on a shoestring tour of China and it had struck me as a fun, if slightly worn, city and I was keen to explore it in greater depth and on a bigger budget.
There was only one major hurdle to overcome: explaining to my wife why I had put our names down for a secondment 9,513km from home without speaking to her first. One apology and nine months later, we’d packed our bags, rented out our flat and headed-off.
Also known as Canton – a name derived from the Portuguese Romanisation of the Cantonese pronunciation of Guangdong – Guangzhou boasts some impressive figures: an urban population of around 12 million; an urban land area of nearly 8,000 sq km; a gross domestic product of over $118bn. It is also home to the largest Japanese restaurant in China.
In many ways Guangzhou is a city which epitomises China. With an average of 10 per cent gross domestic product growth per year and as the host of the Asian games in November, it’s in a state of flux. The worn city of my memories is receiving a nip-and-tuck: the older part is being spruced-up, new parks are being planted and a completely new business district is being built.
There’s a sense of ambition and optimism about the city – a collective bounce in the stride of the young Chinese professional. Of course, with such growth there are downsides: the smog is all-enveloping, blocking out the sunshine for days and most of the taxi drivers appear to be navigating the city for the first time.
The mainstay of the social scene in Guangzhou is food – for which it is renowned. It’s the birth place of dim sum and sweet and sour pork - always safe ‘go-tos’– as well as other more exotic delicacies such as century eggs, steamed frog legs on lotus leaves and lou mei (dishes made out of internal organs, entrails and left-over parts of animals).
An evening will often involve finding a cool terrace, starting with some good food and then drinking into the small hours. There’s also a terrific ex-pat community in Guangzhou – a group of innovative, entrepreneurial and often young people doing everything from working with multi-nationals to starting their own business manufacturing high-end furniture.
Should the city become too much, there’s always the opportunity to escape the countryside. Yangshuo – home to the archetypal Chinese karst mountain – is a hop, skip and short flight away. Otherwise, for a more Western experience, Hong Kong is just 75 miles to the south.
Wragge & Co’s office specialises in intellectual property - an astute move given that Guangdong is China’s manufacturing and research and development hub – and the majority of my work is managing enforcement strategies. A significant element of any enforcement strategy is investigation, so a large part of my day is now spent donning the figurative deer-stalker and finding the location of at times ingenious infringers. This serves as an opportunity to see the more ‘colourful’ side to Chinese life.
We are now coming to the end of our stint in China. Looking back, it’s been a terrific experience. The city has been fascinating, the people fun and the work very interesting. On reflection, a hasty email volunteering for a far-flung secondment now seems to us to have been a wise move.
Antony Craggs is an associate in Wragge & Co’s Guangzhou office