From an office overlooking Beijing's crowded streets, former Beverly Hills businessman Jian Lin plots what he hopes will become China's next cultural revolution: family entertainment, American style.
"We found a lot of young Chinese are doing well in business. They are starving for entertainment," Jian said.Along with big corporations such as Microsoft and Motorola, small business entrepreneurs from the United States are starting to launch their own businesses and joint ventures across China.
The obstacles to success can be daunting. Language is a barrier for most Americans. They also must deal with bureaucratic corruption and an unfamiliar business culture based on "guanxi," the contacts needed to cut through governmental red tape.
"A lot of Americans come here with a lot of hope, a lot of money, but they are killed by doing business with the wrong people," said Jian.
There are no reliable statistics for the number of American entrepreneurs doing business in China. U.S. observers say uncertainty probably has kept the number low.
"American investors, especially small investors, have not gotten much off the ground in China as far as I can see," said James Dorn, vice president for academic affairs at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, and editor of a book on China's economic reforms.
For those who succeed, the potential rewards are great. As the world's most populous country, with 1.2 billion people, China represents a vast, largely untapped market.
Which is exactly how Jian and his Chinese partner, Liu Tie, see it.
The joint venture launched by Liu's Beijing Dazhong Trading Group and Jian's Innovation Capital Corp. includes a traveling carnival, complete with cotton candy, corn dogs and midway games, that played through the summer in Chinese coastal cities.
They are renovating space in Beijing's main railroad station to house a motion simulation theater and two bars, one with a theme of outer space and the other Bourbon Street. And the pair won rights to turn a quiet park into a family-fun center with rides, arcades and a cowboy-themed restaurant.
Eventually, Jian and Liu want to create an entertainment empire of similar ventures in cities across China.
A Chinese native who immigrated to the United States as a child, Jian speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and knows China's culture. But in Liu, chairman of a $5 million-a-year real estate and food services company, Jian gained a partner with money to invest and connections needed to secure permits and leases.
Jian brings American connections to the deal. He bought equipment for the traveling carnival and hired an American carnival company to run it. He also negotiated the purchase of a $700,000, 45-seat motion simulation theater from Los Angeles-based Showscan Entertainment.
Younger Chinese business people, such as Liu, 30, understand capitalism and are eager to reap its rewards, said Jian, who is 44.
"The easiest way to do business in China is to find a young entrepreneur," he said. "They will take command of the problem. All that you have to do is assist them in the way a normal American does business. They love that."
Finding the right partner can be difficult.
Dan Rebecca came to the southern city of Guangzhou from Port Reading, N.J., in 1993 to manufacture glass bottles for sale to U.S. cosmetics companies, but he lost money when Chinese producers were unable to match the quality his customers demanded.
Then Rebecca hit on the unlikely idea of opening a bagel bakery to cater to American ex-pat-ri-ates.
He searched for months to find a Chinese partner. Most asked for money up front without showing any real interest in the venture's long-term prospects.
"They didn't know anything about the business. All they cared about was the money," he said.
Frustrated, Rebecca decided to go it alone.
After six months of operation, Danny's Bagels sells between 12,000 and 16,000 bagels a month to Chinese and American buyers throughout the country, and he's thinking of opening a second bakery in Shanghai.
Rebecca, 38, said he's never been asked to pay a bribe, and believes that some tales of Chinese corruption are a result of American ignorance of China's laws and bureaucracy.
"A lot of foreigners we talk to don't trust the locals that much," he said. "When someone walks in and says you need to get another license, the American thinks he's being robbed. Then he starts to argue. The official thinks he's going to lose face, so he's going to do everything in his power to make you look bad."
"Americans need to do their homework."
Jian believes he has, and that the time is right for his American-style entertainment venture.
Young Chinese, he says, "have a lot of money and they didn't know what to do with it."