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Eli Bildner senior contributor

How to Win in China: Reflecting on the Life of one of China’s Most Vivacious Expats

Henry Winter (Wen Hengli in Chinese) strikes a memorable pose in this undated image.

This article also appears on The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.

My favorite video of Henry Winter shows him strolling down the streets of Shanghai’s central business district wearing a wool poncho, a red-plumed cowboy hat, white wrap-around sunglasses, and knee-high leather boots.

It’s an outfit that would probably pass as unspectacular in Greenwich Village or in San Francisco. But in Shanghai, a tall white man promenading in a Zorro costume draws stares. Two girls in matching track suits (China’s take on the school uniform) point at Henry and giggle. The camera pans to show two men on electric bikes jolting to a stop as Henry walks by. They’re wearing black coats and shaded glasses, their faces as austere as the chalky Shanghai sky.

I first saw the video in late 2010, and forgot about it soon after. But when I heard of Henry’s death this past summer — at age 43, from a cerebral hemorrhage — I found the clip once more. The video is from a now-discontinued CCTV show called Wealth Story Forum. It tells the story of Henry’s life, touching on his schooling at Columbia and Wharton, work stints in France and Hong Kong, a stretch as a kung fu student in China, and, finally, his emergence as a Shanghai-based tech entrepreneur with an outré fashion sense.

But it’s the first part of the video — of Henry parading around in his Zorro outfit — that sticks with me. Part of what shocked me about Henry’s death was how lightly broadcasted it was. The only obituary I’d found of him was a seven-line piece appearing in the Lansing State Journal, a small daily in southern Michigan. That and a handful of posts on Chinese social networks: These were the only public tributes to a person that I’d considered an embodiment — and an inimitable one at that — of “making it” in China.

But in the months since Henry’s passing, I’ve thought less about the record of memorials and panegyrics, and more about the specific images that kick off the video clip. Those thirty seconds of Henry in full Zorro raiment constitute a scene of pure joy. It’s a scene that needs no context or commentary, a scene that is perfectly content to be where it is.

Which is, perhaps, Henry’s greatest lesson.

***

I first encountered Henry Winter through a “Business Mandarin” course I took while living in southwest China. Our class had spent most of the semester working through the canon of Chinese business case studies — KFC, Starbucks, China and the WTO. But with our workbook complete and a couple of sessions to go, our instructor rolled out a television set and popped in a pirated DVD: the third season of a reality TV show called Ying Zai Zhongguo, or Win in China.

I’ve had friends describe Win in China as a Sinocized version of The Apprentice (which I’ve never seen), and based on their explanation it does seem like a reasonable analogue. But unlike The Apprentice, in which participants contend for a job placement, the contestants on Win in China are all entrepreneurs vying for ten million RMB (US$1.5 million dollars) of venture capital. Over the course of a season, an initial cohort of thousands of contestants is winnowed down to 108 semifinalists, who then undergo a series of business simulations, debates, and nerve-wracking interrogations as they compete for the final prize.

Win in China ran for three years, from 2006 to 2008, and Henry Winter appeared as a contestant during the show’s third and final season. In the show, each semifinalist has two minutes to pitch his or her business to a panel of judges comprised of some of China’s most prominent entrepreneurs. By chance, the first clip we watched was of Henry’s presentation.

Later, I’d watch clips of some of the other pitches. And while the contestants vary widely in age and background — from American-born engineers to hardscrabble high-school dropouts — their presentations are largely similar: solemn, earnest, full of technical explanations of revenue models and competitive advantages. Each contestant on the stage — save Henry — wears a somber black suit.

Henry, on the other hand, gives his pitch attired in a flashy pink changshan robe. Speaking in flawless Mandarin, Henry cracks jokes, gesticulates frenetically, and manages to insert his company’s (rather long) domain name three times. When his two minutes expire, the audience erupts in applause. “It’s like we’re at a rock concert!” the show’s amused host ad-libs.

Henry’s performance on the rest of that episode is just as spectacular. In a question-and-answer session following Henry’s pitch, one of the panel’s three judges, a software billionaire named Shi Zhuyu, asks Henry whether he is just a “floral piece” for his company. At first, Henry looks confused, and the show’s host — thinking that perhaps Henry had become lost in the rapid-fire Mandarin — interjects to clarify:

“Are you just one of those good-looking but useless CEOs?” she asks.

“I got it the first time,” Henry replies with a grin. “I was just waiting for him to ask a bit more tactfully.”

A moment later, another judge asks Henry whether he works overtime.

“There’s no glory in working overtime,” Henry responds. “I believe in doing quality work in the shortest time possible.”

“But does your CTO work overtime?” the judge presses. “If he works overtime, and you don’t, don’t you feel bad?”

“I got over those guilt feelings a long time ago,” Henry retorts.

The three judges continue to cross-examine Henry; Henry continues to unload his quiver of one-liners and ripostes. At one point, the host asks Henry to demonstrate his hobby of disco dancing, a request to which Henry gleefully accedes. At the episode’s end, Henry is declared the winner of the day’s pitches; given a final minute to make a speech, Henry kneels on the stage and proposes on-camera to his girlfriend.

Admittedly, I’m the type of person who’s moved to tears by most Disney movies and even some poignant car commercials. But even taking into account that low emotional threshold, watching Henry on Win in China transfixed me in a way that — since moving to China — few things had.

As a college senior, I’d decided to move to China after graduation. Or — perhaps more accurately — I’d ventured the idea of moving to China and allowed everyone I encountered that year to validate my hypothesis.

“I’m moving to China,” I’d tell anyone who asked — friends, parents, parents’ friends.

“How wonderful,” I’d invariably hear in return. “China is the future.” For a year I felt, as perhaps every college senior since the late ‘60s has felt, an uncomfortable affinity with Dustin Hoffman’s diving suit-clad character from The Graduate.

But my decision to move to China had less practical roots as well. As graduation neared, I’d realized that I’d spent my entire education attempting to discover the truth of “the good life.” Now, with senior year nearly at its end, I felt no closer to answering that question — and clueless as to how to make any life decision in the absence of that certainty. College had become my fortress, a vehicle for deferring any consideration of my place in what my classmates and I termed “the real world.”

Contestant Henry Winter making his unforgettable appearance on “Win in China.” (via Tudou.com)

The only way I could conceive of breaking out of this fortress was to go somewhere. I’d always believed in the alignment of mental and physical itineraries. Perhaps it was an intuition that stemmed from my Judaism, from the story of Abraham, whose path to holiness begins in the Book of Genesis with a simple command: Lech l’cha — “Go!” Perhaps it was a belief that I’d gleaned from my favorite Kafka parable: “When the sage says ‘Go over,’ he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place…he means some fabulous yonder…something that he too cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us in the very least.”

In a sense, I’d spent four years reading about “going over.” Moving beyond college required — almost literally — a leap of faith. I’d studied Mandarin in school, spent a summer in Beijing, and had a couple of contacts at Chinese universities. That was all I needed. It was decided: I’d “go over” — to China.

***

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I actually arrived in China in the late summer of 2010, both my practical and metaphysical rationales for moving there seemed hopelessly misconceived.

For one, while China may have been (and may still be) “the future,” it remained unclear to me what, exactly, my role in that “future” should be. Nominally, I’d come to China on a research grant, aiming to study microfinance and rural development. In practice, I ended up spending day after day in Mandarin classes, wondering why I’d come to China at all.

And, frankly, by the fall of 2010 even China’s status as “the future” seemed precarious. I’d last been in China in 2008, as a summer language student in Beijing. That summer, the reality of China’s rise felt palpable; anyone could perceive it in the ubiquitous construction, the packed streets, the endless Olympic banners proclaiming One world, one dream! This is the zeitgeist captured in Win in China, which filmed its final episodes in the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics. With its soaring orchestral theme music, its frequent panoramic shots of Beijing’s swelling skyline, its lofty tagline (“Inspiration illuminates human life, entrepreneurship can change destiny!”) — Win in China plays like a constant reminder of the magnitude of China’s epochal ascent.

The reality in 2010 seemed more complicated. Within weeks of my arrival, the entire country was rocked by anti-Japanese protests stemming from the capture of a Chinese fishing boat in the disputed Diaoyu Islands. A month later, netizens cried foul after the son of a provincial official ran over a 20-year-old university student and then shouted, while speeding away, “Sue me if you dare! My father is Li Gang!” Even the nation’s economic indicators seemed to warn of a less blithe future. In November 2010, China’s consumer price index hit a two-year high of 5.1%. Exports had slowed — a casualty of the global recession — and financial analysts within China and abroad warned of an impending real estate bubble.

Since arriving in China, I’d felt bogged down by these statistics, felt defeated by the sense that I’d “gone over” and ended up in the wrong place. But, for some reason, watching Henry Winter — successful, uninhibited, ebullient — on Win in China lifted me from this despair. I didn’t know what “winning in China” would mean for me, but I believed again in its possibility.

***

In January 2012, after a year and a half of living in China, I decided to return to the States. I’d left my language studies in southwest China at the start of 2011, and quickly worked my way through three jobs and three cities. Shanghai was a fitting last stop — sprawling, glitzy, Starbucks cafés everywhere. I felt halfway home to New York without even leaving.

I made my decision a day before the arrival of chunjie, the Chinese New Year. This would be my second chunjie in China; a year earlier I’d spent the holiday with a close friend in his ancestral hometown of Sanming, a fourth-tier city of two-and-a-half million people in western Fujian province. In Sanming, I’d reveled in the vibrancy of the New Year experience: the drum roll of firecrackers that began at dawn; the cluster of uncles and aunts and cousins crowding the dining room table; my friend’s diminutive grandmother (who’d worked repairing power lines during the Great Leap Forward) force-feeding piece after piece of chicken into my friend’s mouth; the fusillade of midnight fireworks spurting color into the dark night.

My plans for a second chunjie in China involved stockpiling a week’s worth of noodles, Vitamin Water, and Kindle books and waiting out the holiday from my 14th-floor apartment in downtown Shanghai. On New Year’s Eve, I sat in my living room drinking tea and watching fireworks explode into shards five feet from my apartment. In the morning, I saw that the blasts had left smoke rings on all the windows.

The official New Year holiday lasts seven days; during that time I left my apartment maybe four or five times. I didn’t really have anywhere to go. Though I’d decided to leave China only a few days before, for months I’d felt myself slowly pull away — I worked late, cancelled dinner dates, dreamt of home.

It was after one of my rare ventures out of the apartment that I saw Henry Winter. I’d just returned from an aimless evening walk around the neighborhood, and I was standing in the foyer of the apartment building, waiting for the elevator. The doors opened, and there he was, clad in a crisp white suit and a matching fedora.

Since moving to Shanghai a few months earlier, I’d run into Henry a handful of times. We’d first met at a demo day for tech start-ups; I’d been working for a small investment firm and had come to take in a few of the presentations. I’d had a hunch that Henry might be there; I knew from his LinkedIn profile that he still lived in Shanghai and that he was active in the start-up world. And, sure enough, just as the pitches began I spotted Henry across the room.

Later, I asked Henry if he’d sit down with me for coffee and, while arranging to meet, we realized that we lived in the same apartment building, separated by just three floors. When we did meet for coffee, I was amazed to discover how similar Henry felt in person to the character I’d come to know on Win in China. Henry’s life trajectory, it was clear, had taken shape out of the same cheerful iconoclasm I’d witnessed on the TV show.

In person, for instance, Henry told me of how when he first began work as a consultant in Hong Kong, he discovered that he could complete his daily tasks within the first few hours of the day. And so, after a few days of goofing around in the office, Henry realized that by strategically positioning his suit jacket on the back of a desk chair, he could furtively slip away from work to spend his afternoons sailing, hiking, and horseback riding.

Henry also told me how he’d grown sick of management consulting, and decided to strike out as an entrepreneur. He told me how he’d moved to Shanghai to launch a marketing agency, and how he’d ended up creating China’s first text-message promotional campaign. He told me about how he’d decided to audition for Win in China — how he’d shown up at the casting call wearing a red blazer, red pants, and a giant blue Superman buckle.

All these details confirmed for me what I’d already suspected from a few hours of watching him on TV — that Henry was a worthy seamark for success in China. And they confirmed for me that by Henry’s standard, my own time in China had been a failure. I’d followed my intuition. I’d left home, “gone over”, opened myself up to the world. But I’d never arrived.

Henry paused as he exited the elevator. I wished him a happy new year. He reiterated an earlier invitation to join him for dinner sometime. And then he was off, strolling into the charcoal night.

***

At the end of our coffee date in Shanghai — the only time that Henry and I actually sat down together — Henry handed me a thin book called Made it in China. The book compiled the experiences of a handful of China-based foreign entrepreneurs, and Henry had authored one of the chapters. Taking out a pen, Henry added a short inscription on the page before his chapter: “To Eli,” Henry wrote, “with best wishes for true success.” Reading his inscription at the time, I didn’t feel much — or if I felt anything at all, it was perhaps even a slight disappointment at the generic nature of the tidings.

It wasn’t until after Henry’s death that I returned to Made it in China, and actually read through Henry’s chapter. And while the facts of Henry’s story, as recounted in the book, fit perfectly with what I’d already learned, the framing of the chapter felt entirely foreign.

Henry’s contribution to Made it in China is titled “Resilience and Persistence.” His essay is less a chronicle of a series of successes, and more a record of a succession of setbacks — of failed projects, lost sales, barely averted bankruptcies. Even Henry’s appearance on Win in China, I was reminded, was hardly an unvarnished success: Despite making it into the final round of the show, Henry ended up placing 12th, six slots away from the prize money.

Of course, by almost any measure, Henry did achieve real success in China: He built profitable companies, garnered awards, lived comfortably. But what I hadn’t grasped earlier was that I admired Henry not so much for how successful he’d been in China, but for how successful he’d been in being himself — unconventional, uninhibited, playful, alive.

I’d overlooked that critical modifier that Henry had added in his inscription to me, that Henry had wished me not “success” but “true success.” And that for Henry, “true success” had little to do with winning or “making it in China” — had little to do with succeeding by “going over” — and everything to do with succeeding by being exactly where he was.

Although Henry is gone, I feel fortunate in knowing that he left his particular prescription for the good life in our hands, in the short biography that accompanies his chapter in Made it in China:

After a grueling day of telling other people what to do, Henry enjoys recovering with a glass of red wine and a foot massage, while watching Star Trek in his home theater. He is a firm believer in enjoying each day, and pursuing passions now rather than later. After all, if aliens blow up the Earth tonight, what was the point of sacrificing everything for tomorrow?

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Eli Bildner

Since moving to China after graduating from college, Eli Bildner has lived in Yunnan, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. You can read more of his essays and poetry at www.elibildner.com.
  • http://www.miaogisteas.co.nz William La Mont

    Glad to see he lived his life on his own terms – living the dream in China the opposite way around to most people. But it’s also a sad reminder that we will always be nothing more than a passing amusement to the Chinese, who comment on our dedication and hard work the way we might when talking about a trained dog.

    • Rachel_W

      Hey William! Thank you for pointing this out. Sorry if you had any uncomfortable experience in China. I guess that’s why we need more this type of articles. In fact, before you mentioning the stereotypes towards “Lao Wai” in China, I (a Chinese and have lived in China for a long time) have never realized its existence. Your words are def a reminder, letting me examine things through a different lens and try to understand how “the others” think and feel. So thank you!

      • http://blog.michaelmichelini.com Michael Michelini

        Ya, its really sad how Chinese never accept foreigners as a local….. I have seen many awesome foreigners in China learn chinese, be local – but still get people amazed they can spaek chinese – and never accept the fact…

        • sup

          same logic when a 3rd generation chinese american show up in texas and people ask “where are you from?” and praises the kid for his english

          • 21tigermike

            Being complimented by a Texan on your English, … does that really qualify as a compliment?

    • 21tigermike

      You’re right, even this guy, who effectively mastered Chinese… when he made genuinely funny remark, the Chinese were always laughing at the notion that a 老外 could speak Chinese, rather than his actual clever joke. I know the feeling all too well.

  • Zachary Prong

    Where can we see the video of Henry in his Zorro outfit?

  • Y

    Thanks for the article Eli. Emotional. Great stuff.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com/ Dan Harris

    Great article. I didn’t know Henry, but your article made me wish that I had.

  • Caspar

    Great article, thank you!

  • B

    I feel guilty, Eli, when I heard about your feeling of being fooled by the China is the future mirage. I think the antidote could be to not keep thinking about your banker or consultant alumni, instead,focusing on what you still have and how to start a new career after return, I guess that is also what you are doing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jwheatle Jonathan Wheatley

    Well put, many expats can relate from a few or more of your experiences. I am glad you were able to meet the man. Your words about Henry were more insightful than the bland management books that are so called “must reads”.

    I struggled to make sense of my place in China and ended up returning to the states. I plan on returning but I see a very large opportunity for a change in the work styles of not just lao wai but Chinese as well. The life has become stress filled and lacking a few key things.

    Love your writing though.

  • Andrew Bull

    Henry was a kindred spirit that it was my pleasure to know and to work with. Thanks Eli for this entirely fitting tribute. What a loss.

  • Charles S.

    Great article . . . moving and superbly written. Actually gleaned a number of insights that will help me in teaching a course in entrepreneurship.

  • Willie Brent

    Thanks Eli. Henry was a friend and former business partner. Reading your tribute reminded me how much I miss him. Live long and prosper

  • http://www.facebook.com/minami.funakoshi Minami Funakoshi

    Great article–thank you for writing this!

  • Jeff

    Very touching and inspiring, and beautifully written. Thanks, ELi.

  • Eddie

    Where can i get a copy of the book “Made it in China”?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mars.diane Diane Mars

    Very moving, Eli. I’d be interested in knowing to what extent “winning in China” is possible for expat women. I imagine such eccentricity from an American female entrepreneur would be seen as unbecoming and greeted with suspicion. Still, a great lesson in joie de vivre, risk-taking, and writing your own narrative.

  • Mary Winter

    A moving tribute to a great guy. I’m glad to have read it and to have been able to see the video.
    Mary Winter

  • Michelle

    Thank you for writing this. For those we know Henry, we are carrying on his spirit:Live life to the fullest!

  • David Winter

    There’s a video of photos at various times of Henry’s life. It was made by Jim Feldkamp shortly after Henry’s death.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3RjX-dxlwk&feature=youtu.be

    • http://twitter.com/elibildner Eli Bildner

      Thank you so much for sharing, David. I’m very grateful. -Eli

  • bruno

    good one Eli. I knew Henry. I think one of the explanations about why very little was written about him was probably because we were all so stunned and shaken that we did not even think about doing so. I am discussing with his wife and some friends about either a scholarship or some donations in his name to schools in China’s remote areas.

  • Candy Smith

    Nice posting! Thanks a lot for sharing something like this. This is really interesting.

    SmithTea.com

  • 21tigermike

    One of the best pieces on being an Expat in China I’ve ever read. Masterful. Thank you for sharing this, Eli.