By Doug Barry
Jim Wu arrived in Houston from China not long after the 9/11 terror attacks. He was a stranger in a strange land but energized by the opportunities he spotted everywhere.
“I created a company in 2006 called US-China International Business Network, a company specializing in education, training, and business travel.” To support that company, he also started another company called Houston Business Travel Service.
In the early days, Wu benefited from a huge surge in Chinese travel to the United States. Chinese businesspeople in the oil industry were keen to visit the US oil giants based in Houston. “I arranged meetings with Dow Chemical, Shell, oil fields, gas companies,” said Wu, smiling wistfully. “One Chinese chemical company partnered with Dow Chemical to set up a plant in China as a result of the visit.”
In its heyday, the travel company had four full-time staff in Houston and three in Beijing. Wu also worked with over 20 partner companies in big cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and others. Each partner company had several permanent employees plus contractors, representing more than 100 jobs created from their work. “We had 12 Mercedes cars and were the number one buyer of visitor tickets to NASA—more than 7,000,” he exclaimed.
Wu also helped Chinese executives apply for short training courses at schools including MIT and Harvard. His service included everything from visa assistance to airport pickup to delivery to campus housing. Employees from Chinese state-owned enterprises were good customers, Wu said, because the government didn’t want some of them traveling around on their own. Wu also facilitated business-to-business meetings, which generated numerous deals.
Things fall apart
Then came the trade war. Then came COVID-19.
His travel businesses collapsed in much less time than they took to build. Most of his employees left for other jobs. The fleet of Mercedes was liquidated. “By the time the last two cars were sold, I made money on them because the stimulus, COVID, and the shortage of semiconductors pushed up the price of used cars,” Wu explained.
Maybe the unexpected cash was a talisman for better days ahead. “I have 10 to 20 business ideas at any one time,” he said. “I’m too busy to be depressed. I don’t have the time.”
“The rules are so complicated and change all the time,” he said. “Then there are the tariffs on imported goods from China that are really a tax on American businesses and consumers.”
He sold his stake in Houston Business Travel Service in 2020 and doesn’t think travel to and from China will resume anytime soon, at least not on his schedule. But that means he’s grounded for other purposes as well, including visiting China for business or pleasure. Now a US citizen, Wu finds it hard to get a visa. Chinese government policies related to COVID-19 and travel restrictions make it seem impossible to get a visa and buy a plane ticket.
Exasperated, he said: “There are no airplane tickets available for two months. If I get a ticket, I must quarantine in a hotel room for four weeks. I can do online meetings, but I can do that from the United States. Chinese business culture prefers face-to-face meetings in the beginning of a business relationship. If you can’t meet face-to-face, how do you do business?”
Wu finds a way. He now trades in medical devices and PPE through his Sunshine Easy Company, drawing on his degree and contacts from medical school in China. “Right now, I mostly import. But I just signed contracts with two companies to export lab equipment for animal studies.” He has also recently expanded the company into logistics and warehousing, with a warehouse in Houston where goods mostly from China are stored awaiting delivery to buyers.
Wu’s new ventures don’t free him from headaches though. Logistics has its own challenges, with shipping times from Asia taking more than a month to get the goods to the port now – more than twice as long as before the pandemic. The cost, he says, is ten times what it was two years ago.
Things will get somewhat better, he insists. “You can see troubles, or you can see opportunities.” He’s better at spotting the latter. “US-China business consulting will go down. But shipping and trading will have opportunities, because it is harder to do than before.”
“Don’t worry. I always have plan A, B, and C.”
To help businesspeople like him, Wu says the US federal government needs to set up clear rules for what small businesses can and can’t do regarding technology transfer. “The rules are so complicated and change all the time,” he said. “Then there are the tariffs on imported goods from China that are really a tax on American businesses and consumers.”
Wu says he’s “just a businessman and I cannot change anything.” Is he disappointed with bilateral relations at a low ebb and once thriving businesses obliterated by COVID-19? “I’m too busy trying to make money to be disappointed.”
Down a rabbit hole
He does have time to plan for an uncertain future, referring to it as the bottom line, in case things get really bad. He recalls the story of the Smart Rabbit, 狡兔三窟 jiaotusanku in Mandarin. The smart rabbit has three homes just in case she needs to move elsewhere. “If there’s a big economic or some other kind of disaster, I’ll go to another home, maybe Europe, and invest there.”
Wu worries about a possible backlash against Asian Americans. Has he felt discrimination because of his race? “It’s hard to say. Sometimes you can feel something, but you have no evidence. Some people are nice. Some are not nice. That is normal.”
The Zoom session ends, another meeting beckons. A globe sits on his desk, almost out of the camera frame. Many homes available for smart rabbits, though he prefers the one he’s in. He signs off warmly as if talking to himself: “Don’t worry. I always have plan A, B, and C.”