After being in China for a year I have to say I sorely missed Jews, especially their sarcasm and irony and a specific, sardonic type of humor seemingly nonexistent in China. And then I met Guri at Lost Angel Café in Southern China’s Yunnan Province. “You have real Yunnan coffee, right?” he asked the barista. “Not Nescafe?” And then he turned to me and asked where I’m from. I told him New York and he said, “Crown Heights?” What? “The organization I’m involved in is based in Crown Heights,” he said. “Chabad.” And he pulled a Star of David amulet out from his shirt. I was vaguely aware of Chabad, and was more than a bit taken aback to find a one of their members in this ancient small city under Cangshan Mountain.
Guri Katz: No, no. I just attend their meetings, and I did once make applesauce for Hanukkah, you know, at least I think it was applesauce. Yes, it was, three years ago, Hanukkah on the Great Wall, lighting the menorah. We got a lot of press for that, two different television networks covered it, and people were telling me from around the globe that they’d seen me celebrating Hanukkah on the Great Wall. The next year they set us up in a princely palace near Houhai, and the next year at Chinese Ethnic Culture Park, with police stationed all around us. You know that joke, right? What are the two biggest lies of all time? The check’s in the mail and some of my best friends are Jews. Jews tell the best Jewish jokes, of course. I’ve got a lot of good ones from the Rabbi in Beijing, but he seems to have stopped telling any, which is too bad really.
What’s the situation with being Jewish in China?
The problem is Judaism isn’t one of the officially recognized religions in China [those would be Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism], so you can’t open a synagogue. There were three in Shanghai, dating from the early 20th century, but two were demolished, one in the 80s, and one as recently as the early 90s, if you can believe that, and the third we can’t even go into and hold services because it’s been turned into a museum that’s entirely under Chinese control. But generally we have a lot to be thankful for here, in that Jews have never been really oppressed in China and it’s been a haven.
How far back does Judaism go here?
Well, Jewish traders came here as early as the Han Dynasty, from 206 BCE--if you’re quoting a Jew on dates you can’t use BC--to 220 CE. In the Tang Dynasty they were also here. Then in 1096 the Crusades were started by a man named Godefroy de Bouillon, for whom beef bouillon is named, and ever since I’ve found out what he was responsible for I will never have beef broth again. When he made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem in July 1099, he had the city's Jews burnt alive in their Synagogue, and he was supposedly frolicking, singing and dancing outside. At the time of the Crusades in Europe, 30 to 50 percent of the Jews were murdered in the most brutal fashion. The ones that were left were afraid and scared, and the Jews in a town named Bodrun on the eastern shore of Mediterranean asked themselves, “Where do we go?” The only way to go was to the east, and the leaders of the community said our ancestors did it, we can do it, so they went east and settled in Kaifeng, the capital of the Song Dynasty. There they intermarried, as happens, and also brought cotton, which was not produced in China at the time, so they’re responsible for bringing cotton to China. The last synagogue burned down there in the 1860s.
When did you first come to China?
I came to Guangzhou in 1980, just for one week. I loved Cantonese food, which I’d eaten a lot of in Sydney. Later, in 1987, I was working for a merchant bank in Sydney that got bought by a bank called Westpac. The people in power at the new parent bank (Westpac) started interfering, so two hundred of us left and they even paid us to leave. And maybe it’s related, but Westpac went from being the leading bank and number one to the taillight among the former big four. So I went looking for a job in Frankfurt, and the man asked, “What do you do?” I said capital markets but the capital markets guy wasn’t there at the time, so the man asked me, “Well, what else do you do?” And I said, I’ve been taking Chinese evening classes for three weeks at Sydney University. Then he asked if I wanted to go to Beijing.
So you came here to live at that time?
That was 1988. There was an office with four people on the Committee of General Managers---me being one of them--in Beijing, a joint venture leasing company that was a Chinese-Japanese-German joint venture.
That’s early; I assume that it wasn’t independent in the sense that there must have been a majority Chinese involvement? Of course, it was a Chinese-Japanese-German joint venture that had to be 54 percent Chinese. So I get there to this bank, which shall remain unnamed, and there’s been no risk assessment at all, no financial records had been kept, it was a total mess. My predecessor had been in charge of processing systems--but there were no systems. And there was no maturity schedule of the leases, which meant you didn’t know which payments were due when. I asked to see the records and was shown two file cabinets that had a couple of hundred brown envelopes in them--so much for record keeping!
So things weren’t going very well?
No, they weren’t.
What happened after that?
I’d been offered a position with a law firm in Sydney and had married a Chinese lady, but that didn’t last, so I decided to come back in 1995 to set up a consulting company with offices in Sydney, Zurich, and Beijing, consulting for foreign companies doing business in China. My first partner got cancer, and my second partner never asked for a retainer, so nobody paid.
Sounds complicated. So when did you learn Chinese?
Well I started learning the Chinese writing system in 1976, from the Japanese.
You speak Japanese too?
Well I did learn a lot of Japanese songs, and was very popular in many karaoke bars. And I learned the Japanese characters, and the Chinese characters can be quite similar, though often they’re not. Sometimes it’s the same; sometimes it’s two versions, sometimes three.
And you wrote more than one book, about doing business in China?
People tell you things; you learn things, being here so long. I wrote them for people who were new to China, but they didn’t buy the book, it was the people who had been here for a while who bought the books. And hotels did too--the Kempinski, for example--as training manuals. The thing is, I don’t write “how-to” books, I write “as-is” books. What does work is stories that are applicable and you can remember.
[At this point the little dog that lives at the café, Whitey, started chewing on Guri’s shoelaces.]
Damn dog! Don’t take my shoelaces, you can’t get shoelaces here. Once in Guangzhou, I went into a store trying to find laces, asked the girl, she sent me to the second floor. Then on the second floor another girl sent me to the third floor. Still no laces. Then they called the manager, and he took me to the first floor, where there were two pairs of shoes on display, and those were my choices, the black laces or the brown laces from the display shoes, and he took the laces out of one pair for me, as a gift. It’s very hard to find shoelaces here.
You live in Dali now, permanently?
I live here. It’s pleasant. I tried to move here six years ago but there was no way to get access to the internet. It would take hours, so I moved back to Beijing. But now you can get on the internet here. I’d been coming here for 12 years, once a year, but now I live here.
Where did you live in Beijing?
I got kicked out of many places, you know, and at first you had to live in special foreigner zones, but about seven years ago they started opening things up. I lived for a while on Guanghua Lu, near what is now the World Trade Center. I had a neighbor there that killed my kitten. Little Bacio jumped onto his windowsill, and you know, not everyone in China likes having cats around. I didn’t think it was a big deal, thought I’d take a shower first and then go get the kitten, and by the time I went to get him my neighbor had killed Bacio.
That’s terrible. Would you describe yourself as a Sinophile?
No. I studied English law and Russian civil law. In 1972 I was working in London and we had some Japanese clients. And there were always misunderstandings and errors on both sides, so I started studying Japanese on the Underground in London. For some stupid reason I thought I could build bridges, though by trying to do that you don’t make yourself popular. You often fall between two barstools, if you know what I mean. But as far as the Chinese, I’ve seen lousy behavior on their part, but also just as much lousy behavior on the part of Americans, Australians, and Germans. The Germans are the worst. Common tactics in business meetings here include getting red in the face, yelling, and pounding the table. Bloody-mindedness.
For some reason that phrase, the concept of “bloody-mindedness,” seems to come up a lot when talking about China.
It goes both ways. When people are up against what they’re not used to they get angry and frustrated. But I’ve met a lot of wonderful people here, and the average level of stupidity is not any higher than anywhere else, and in fact I think it’s probably less.
Back to the Jews, can you tell me more about Chabad in China?
Chabad came to China seven yeas ago, and now there are seven Chabad houses, in Beijing, Shanghai, Pudong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Kowloon, and a new one is starting in some big industrial city I’d never heard of before, one of those huge unknown cities in China, Yiwu. They are based in Crown Heights, and are also called Lubavitchers.
Are they ultra-orthodox?
No, not all, they are very tolerant and accept all Jews who want to come together, at any level of observance. They are a uniting force, they accept even people who don’t go to Shul or Synagogue. Of course they’re Eastern European Jews, Ashkenazis, but they are very inclusive.
What about the Jews in Tianjin? Wasn’t there a Jewish colony there?
Yes, in the early 20th century, though there’s nothing really left of it. I was there once and saw one of the buildings, and all the ironwork was in the shape of the Star of David. But let’s have some words of praise here for the Chinese. In most countries Jews have been hounded, but that hasn’t been the case here.
When and where were you born?
In 1944, in Germany, where I’d prefer not to say. Let’s just say my upbringing had nothing to do with the high bourgeoisie of Thomas Mann, it was as far away from that as you can imagine. Brutal, just survival and hunger, and the anti-Semitism was unbelievable. Twelve years after the war some people would still say about a Jew, or indeed anyone they didn’t like, “Für den hätten se auch noch en Kubikmeter uebrig gehabt!” That means, “They might have been able to spare a cubic meter (of gas) for him!” I don’t have any particular connection to Germany, except for the language. Ever since high school I’ve lived my life in England, Australia and Asia.
Are there any other Jews in Dali?
There was one, 12 years ago. He set up a pizzeria but now he lives in Beijing. I ran into him at Chabad a few years ago purely by chance. On the subject of the possible Chinese takeover of the world, with the U.S. in decline and their overburdened military spending funded by the Bank of China, I don’t believe there’s much to worry about. Case in point, when I had dinner tonight I had to ask for salt six times, and then ordered something with mushrooms, but they put all kinds of peppers in and killed the taste of the mushrooms. Or another example, there’s a fellow here named Jack, with a bar called the Cat’s Whiskers. He asked me to help with the English, so I did, but then they set up the lights so what you read at night is Cat Whiz.