400 million customers (back then)

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As many of you know, Jim McGregor’s book, “One Billion Customers, Lessons From the Front Lines of Doing Business in China, ” is one of the best `China books’ of the past couple of years. Jim’s a former reporter–WSJ Bureau Chief in Beijing–who went on to bigger and better things. His book paid implicit homage to a memoir written by one of his foreunners, Carl Crow, an American businessman whose “400 million customers,” is regarded as a minor classic by the commercial cognoscenti. Crow was Shanghai-based during the chaotic (and, for many foreign businesses, highly profitable) interwar years in the early 20th century, but portions of his account of that period remain startlingly fresh for those trying to sell to today’s `one billion customers’.
Attached is Jim’s entertaining review of a new biography of Crow–an early foreign China hand whose life and times are still pertinent to his present-day successors.

Carl Crow­A Tough Old China Hand: The Life, Times, and Adventures of
an American in Shanghai
by Paul French
Hong Kong University Press, 324 pages, $35
Reviewed by James McGregor
China hands, those long-time foreign residents of China, always come
in many varieties, but regardless of their origins and ambitions all
could benefit from this excellent book about their archetypal predecessor.
For Carl Crow’s experience offers valuable clues on how to be
successful in China­and just as importantly, how to remain sane.
Budding journalist Carl Crow, the 27-year-old son of a Missouri
country schoolteacher, arrived in Shanghai in the summer of 1911 with one
suitcase as the Qing Dynasty fell. Prosperous businessman Carl Crow left
China in 1937 with one suitcase as the Japanese invaded. In between, he
happily surfed atop the boiling cauldron of warlord-torn China, riding
the turbulence at various times as a journalist, advertising executive,
American propagandist, travel guide, hostage negotiator, government
advisor, explorer, historian and best-selling author. But the reason he is
remembered today­and is well worth a biography six decades after his
death­is that Mr. Crow was a fantastic raconteur, observer,
storyteller, humorist and even amateur anthropologist. He focused these talents on
figuring out and explaining what makes the Chinese tick­culturally,
psychologically, economically and emotionally.
Mr. Crow’s landmark accomplishment was his 1937 bestseller 400
Million Customers, a treasure trove of timeless insights and humorous
anecdotes that explains Chinese commercial and social behavior in his day as
well as today. But it is through his own life that Mr. Crow leaves
behind his major lesson for China hands. The fundamental lesson is that
long-time foreign residents of China can learn the language, understand
the culture and psychology, respect the government for what it does right
and even become a cheerleader for China’s progress without losing
their common sense and ethical and cultural grounding.
Mr. Crow started his China career as night editor of the China Press,
a start-up founded by a fellow Missourian as the first American
newspaper in China. At the time the dominant Shanghai British newspapers
focused on covering expatriate society parties, sporting events and
gathering news snippets from around the British Empire. Mr. Crow joined
Shanghai’s expatriate society, but he and his fellow Missourian were soon
dubbed “cowboy correspondents” because of their hayseed origins and
penchant for chasing real news.
The pace of China’s change suited Mr. Crow very well. He was a
curious man who moved very fast. Within 18 months of arriving in Shanghai,
Mr. Crow had married Mildred Powers, an American who was selling
Underwood typewriters in China. He also traveled widely in China and published
a guidebook, The Travellers’ Handbook for China (which became the
bible of China guidebooks as Mr. Crow updated and reprinted it for the
next two decades).
In 1913, Mr. Crow became curious about the rest of the world and took
Mildred on a round-the-world honeymoon trip, lingering for a few months
in the Philippines to research his second book, America and the
Philippines, an effort to explain the U.S. occupation of the Philippines to
perplexed Americans. After a short stint in Tokyo as business manager for
the American-owned Tokyo Advertiser newspaper, he published his third
book, Japan and America, in 1916 and used his self-promotion skills to
become a minor celebrity in New York literary circles.
With the birth of daughter Betty, Mr. Crow decided to stop
globetrotting and settle his family on a fruit farm in California. America’s
1917 entry into World War I ended that brief brush with solitude. At age
34, Mr. Crow was recruited by the U.S. wartime propaganda agency, the
Committee on Public Information, and posted to Shanghai. There Mr. Crow
found his calling as a marketer and promoter. His key wartime project
was turning a book of President Woodrow Wilson’s speeches into a
Chinese best seller that drew more than 10,000 letters from admiring Chinese
Business boomed in Shanghai when the war ended, and in 1918 Mr. Crow
joined in, founding Carl Crow Inc., “advertising and merchandising
agents.” For the next two decades, Mr. Crow built China’s pioneering
agency, tediously and successfully toiling to set up direct marketing
and advertising campaigns across the country. Mr. Crow himself became
fascinated with market research on Chinese living habits. His favorite
hobby was to walk the streets of Shanghai and observe Chinese people
living their lives. He read widely on Chinese history and culture.
He worked day and night, he said, only to keep up with his diligent
Chinese staff: “If it is true the devil can only find work for idle
hands, then China must be a place of limited satanic opportunities.” And
he came to loath corrupt officials: “The Chinese learned many
centuries ago that crooked officials can’t be reformed and that the only
practical thing is to kill them.”
He admitted that he became hard-hearted “out of self-protection”
in witnessing the terrible poverty and disease in China, but also joked
that the mob-backed beggars of Shanghai were as talented actors as
anybody in Hollywood. Mr. Crow learned to speak passable Chinese but had a
unique skill among foreigners in China, memorizing 30 obscene Chinese
hand gestures learned from a railway porter. Along the way, he got
divorced and remarried, settled into the Shanghai expatriate life of
suburban estates, gardeners, personal valets, drivers, chefs, houseboys,
weekends at the racetrack or house-boating on canals. But he appears to have
spent as much time psychologically analyzing this retinue as he did
telling them what to do.
As he became a pillar of the foreign business establishment in China,
Mr. Crow was often called on to brief visiting politicians. In one
episode in 1919, Mr. Crow was asked to escort a group of American
congressmen on a China tour. His compatriot in this endeavor was fellow Shanghai
resident Roy Anderson, a 300-pound China-born raconteur who spoke eight
Chinese dialects and fancied pith helmets and riding boots. Once in
China, however, the congressmen were more interested in a drinking binge
than a cultural exchange since they had imposed Prohibition on their
constituents with the Volstead Act that year.
The party was interrupted when Chinese officials, to show respect,
extended extraterritoriality (the application of U.S. laws) to the train
carrying them from Shanghai to Beijing, forcing closure of the bar car.
After the enraged lawmakers went to sleep, Mr. Crow and Mr. Anderson
talked the bartender into opening up and were happily guzzling down
bottles of champagne when a local magistrate boarded to the train to pay his
respects. Instead of waking the lawmakers, Mr. Crow pretended he was
the congressional group leader and Mr. Anderson his interpreter. They
held forth for an hour about China issues before retiring back to the bar
Another mission came in 1923 when warlord Swen Miao derailed a new
Shanghai-Beijing express train near the Jiangsu-Shandong border and took
25 foreign hostages, including the sister-in-law of John D. Rockefeller.
The Red Cross sent Mr. Crow to negotiate. The warlord and Mr. Crow
became quite friendly, with the Robin Hood-like warlord calling Mr. Crow da
ge (big brother) and issuing receipts for food and medical supplies so
that Mr. Crow could properly bill the Red Cross. Mr. Crow was incensed
when the $100,000 settlement he arranged was never paid. The warlord
trusted Mr. Crow so he released the hostages before the money was
delivered, and the government quickly moved in to behead Swen Miao and
machine-gun his 600 men.
Mr. Crow’s China career ended suddenly on Black Saturday­Aug. 14,
1937­just as he was writing his clients at Colgate that toothpaste
sales were up and that he was bullish on China business. Mr. Crow’s
office window exploded as Japanese gunboats shelled Shanghai. Within days,
he fled China with a suitcase, an overcoat and the suit he was wearing.
Seeking to rebuild his economic base, Mr. Crow started churning out
books. Within three years he published: 400 Million Customers; Master
Kung: The Story of Confucius; and The Chinese are Like That. He made one
final visit to China in 1939 on a magazine assignment, a harrowing
journey along the Burma Road from Rangoon to Kunming before flying on a
military transport to Chongqing where he spent two hours with Zhou Enlai.
After Pearl Harbor, Mr. Crow went to work for the China section of the
Office of War Information. In his spare time he wrote the 1943 book The
Great American Customer, which chronicled the development of
manufacturing and marketing in the U.S. Mr. Crow had another half dozen books in
the works when he died in June 1945 of esophageal cancer. It was
fitting tribute months later when U.S. soldiers arriving in Shanghai after
the Japanese defeat were issued a pocket-sized printing of 400 Million
Customers to help them understand China.
Author Paul French isn’t a great storyteller, but he is an excellent
researcher, serious historian and journeyman writer with a keen eye for
telling anecdote and an obvious fascination with his subject. This is
much more than a book about Mr. Crow, it is a book about China’s
commercial opening to the modern Western world and the interactions between
foreigners and Chinese who played important roles in that drama. I love
this book and I own and have read almost all of Mr. Crow’s books.
After nearly 20 years of living in greater China, I was delighted by the
sumptuous buffet of fact, fable, profiles and insights. And getting to
know Mr. Crow better helped remind me that maintaining a strong sense of
adventure, keen sense of humor and remembering where you come from are
the keys to staying sane as a China hand.
Mr. McGregor is a businessman, former China bureau chief for The Wall
Street Journal, and author of One Billion Customers: Lessons from the
Front Lines of Doing Business in China (Free Press, 2005).