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POWER ON THE PACIFIC RIM : Culture : How to Make It Big in Business: Coastal Chinese Point the Way : From Shanghai to Taipei, entrepreneurs are reasserting their people's ancient savvy.

May 21, 1991|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Rock music blaring from the F-ONE clothing store gave the balmy evening a festive air, but the man out front on a low red stool was working hard.

Standing on his precarious perch, the barker gestured at swarms of passing shoppers, alternately shouting, blasting on a silver whistle and gyrating in dance to the beat of "Surfin' USA." He seemed almost to be enjoying himself. But it looked like a tough job, and probably one that didn't pay very well. A college student with a part-time job? He seemed a bit too old for that.

"You here every night?" a passerby asked.

"No, not always," the man replied. "I'm the owner."

Tseng Chin-feng, 35, the gyrating storekeeper, also owns a factory that makes most of the jackets and trousers he sells. If he wanted to, he said, he could "just sit inside and manage things and keep the accounts."

"But I think I should get out here and work hard," he said. "Then my employees try harder too."

Tseng's hustle hints at the human factors that have made Taiwan an economic powerhouse. The same raw energy can be found in Hong Kong and Singapore, or among overseas Chinese throughout Southeast Asia.

Across Hong Kong's border, in southeastern China, economic reforms and outside influence also are unleashing an energizing drive for money and a better life. Most of China, enervated by decades of Communist rule, still moves at a leisurely pace, often mindless of waste and inefficiency. But from Shanghai to Canton, the people of the southern coast are reasserting ancient business savvy.

Beijing decided in the late 1970s to allow parts of this region--especially Guangdong and Fujian provinces--to go "one step ahead" in economic reforms. But the strengths of the southern coast come not just from special favors. The people of the south have always been different. The new rules simply allow what has been suppressed inside to come bursting out again.

In the decade ahead, it will be these coastal and overseas Chinese, much more than the vast peasant masses of the Chinese interior, who are positioned to be powerful economic players on the Pacific Rim.

"Guangdong people give very strong support to the ideas of economic reform and opening to the outside world--this is their way of thinking, their demand, their dream," said Chen Changuang, a spokesman for Wanbao Electrical Appliance Cooperative, China's largest refrigerator exporter, which is based in the provincial capital at Canton. "So when the central government launched this policy, Guangdong people acted on it very quickly."

The southern coast has long been a land populated by seekers of a better life. For centuries, southerners have tried to ignore the capital's brutal politics, as they do today. They have been happy to escape the conservatism and grinding poverty of the rural north. The south has been a frontier--a land populated by newcomers from the north, a land looking out to uncertain but beckoning opportunities across the sea.

"Canton opened to the outside relatively early," said Xu Zhi, director of the Canton Economic Structural Reform Commission. A reporter assumed--mistakenly--that he was referring to changes that began in 1979.

Then Xu continued in a matter-of-fact manner flavored with a Chinese sense of time and history: "Its opening has a history of about 2,000 years. At first it was with Southeast Asia. Later there was trade with Europe and Africa. This history of opening to the outside world is comparatively long."

The ancestors of most southern Chinese came from the north, gradually overwhelming the original inhabitants or driving them further south into what is now Vietnam. During the last few hundred years, large numbers of southern Chinese moved on again. Taiwan was populated largely by people from Fujian province, while Cantonese moved from Guangdong to Hong Kong, Macao, Southeast Asia and the United States.

Much as the Western frontier and a history of immigration shaped the American personality, the character of the coastal and overseas Chinese has been shaped by this centuries-old history of movement and foreign contact.

"Northern Chinese are bound by the traditional culture, by the political center and by the weather too, so they are very rigid," said Ting Tin-yu, a professor of sociology at Taiwan National University.

"If you go to northern China, including Beijing and other provinces, everybody's very rigid, very conservative, bound to the land, bound to the culture. But in southeast China (and) Taiwan, flexibility is always there. Everybody's an immigrant. You can stay here or you can move somewhere else. To move overseas is not a particularly strange event. Having relatives overseas is normal."

A Cantonese resident of Beijing said that the philosophy of Guangdong and Fujian people is, " 'Let's go to whatever place is comfortable and happy.' I don't know who my ancestors were," he added. "But I'm sure that they thought the north was unattractive. It was too poor and there was too much fighting. They said, 'Let's go south.'

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