At that time I only spoke Russian badly. So I used to ask questions directly of passers-by in the street or fellow passengers on public transport. People in Moscow are always hurrying somewhere, but they were always willing to stop and try to help me. Sometimes they would even take me across to a different metro line, and then go back and travel on about their business. Since then I have more than once been struck by how pleasant and sincere Russians are.
Li Zheng was born in Beijing in 1973. At school, he was in a special class for deep study of the Russian language, because in China there was and still is a tremendous interest in Russia, and specialists with a knowledge of Russian were in demand.
In 1995 he graduated from the Foreign Economic and Commercial University in Beijing in the speciality of Russian language, economics and commerce. He went to work for the company COFCO, which imported and exported foodstuffs. Eighteen months later, in February 1997, he was sent to Moscow, to head the company’s mission in the
In 2002, Li Zheng began working in the Chinese International Investment Corporation (CIIC) Huamin, where he is now deputy managing director.
— How close to your own did you find the Russian way of thinking?
— I have met many Europeans and Americans, but Russian people were closest to my heart. People from the West are excessively practical. They can greet you politely, discuss common ideas with you, but after dining with you, pay only for themselves and then leave. This is normal for them. But when I sit at the same table with Russian partners, after the meal we always argue about who will pay. Each side wants to take the cost on himself. I am impressed by this expansive Russian spirit. We have a lot in common.
For both Russians and Chinese, it is not only personal dreams that are important, but also the desire to do something for the whole people.
— Did you have difficulties when you started working in Moscow?
— There were only two of us in our company’s mission at that time, my secretary, a Russian girl, and myself. She tried to speak Russian with me, and at the end of the day she said: “Go home, Li Zheng. It will be very hard for you in Russia.” But I insisted: “I’ll master it! I can do anything!”. And I began to study Russian intensively.
The Russian language is very difficult for the Chinese. To help me understand spoken words, I was advised to see as much TV as possible, particularly the news. So every day after work I used to watch the news on ORT at 1800, on NTV at 1900 and on the Rossiya TV channel at 2000. The same events were being reported on all of them. For me it was a sort of triple repetition lesson.
I was also told that words can be memorized in sleep at the subconscious level. For a whole year, I went to sleep with the radio on next to my pillow. So I learned Russian partly in my sleep.
The language barrier was not the only one. There was also the law. Russia has its own laws and regulations, different from those that exist in China.
— What products did you supply to Russia?
— We imported pork and beef in the form of frozen carcasses from various Chinese provinces. They arrived in refrigerator rail cars. Sometimes, in Zabaykalsk, where the products passed through customs, the rail cars were shunted into sidings and we couldn’t find them for several days.
But the deliveries were soon sorted out. I had negotiations with the managers of the Tsaritsyn, Ostankino and Mikoyanovsk meat combines. The Soviet Union had just collapsed at that time, the combines were finding it difficult to survive financially. We agreed that they would take our meat at the beginning of the month and settle accounts at the end of the month. Actually we were taking a big risk. But somehow we came to agreement about everything after long amicable sessions. Furthermore, the contract was sometimes sealed not with a stamp, but by word of honour. I established good relations with the meat combine managers, and they never once let me down.
— Why did you decide to leave the company?
— I worked in COFCO for seven years, from 1995 to 2002. But I didn’t leave the company. It simply became a shareholder in the newly-formed Huamin Corporation, where I am now working as deputy managing director.
Our company was specially set up to implement a large-scale project. We are building a Chinese business centre. This is our state project in Moscow. We came to agreement on it in 2001. It is now nearing the end of 2016. We have put a lot of effort into this project.
Our business centre is on a 100,000 sq.m. site not far from the National Economy Exhibition. We are building three tower blocks there: a five-star hotel, an office block and an apartment block. A Chinese landscaped park will be laid out around them. Work is in progress. We plan to open our business centre in April 2018.
The Soluxe Club restaurant has been operating on the Kutuzovsky Prospekt in Moscow for two years now.
The restaurant has 130 seats, not counting the capacity of the summer veranda.
Fifteen chefs from China work in the kitchen. They are all very experienced professionals. Each one of them has worked in top-class restaurants in China for at least 10 years. There are also Russian chefs, because the restaurant also offers European cuisine.
Its 16 waiters are all Russians, apart from two Chinese girls who conduct a traditional tea ceremony in national costume for the customers.
Below the restaurant there are two VIP halls with a waterfall.
The average bill in the Soluxe Club is about 3,000 roubles.
— How did you become a restaurant manager?
— There are of course quite a few Chinese restaurants in Moscow. But they are often at a low level in terms of the interior and the quality of the food. We very much wanted to show Muscovites what real Chinese culinary culture is actually like. So this project was completed. Our Soluxe Club restaurant has been in operation for two years now. It has become quite popular with Muscovites and visitors to the Russian capital.
— Was it hard to find the staff you wanted?
— Yes. You have to have Chinese chefs working in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. But even in China itself, it isn’t easy to find good chefs now. And our candidates would be expected to work abroad and live without their families. Not everyone would agree to that. But we persuaded the best of those we found, and they came.
— Where does the produce delivered to your restaurant come from?
— From China, we only bring certain expensive raw materials not usually found in Russia, such as shark fins. We buy the meat and vegetables from local farmers. We buy the flavourings from a middleman who delivers them from all over the world.
— How was the interior designed?
— First we found Chinese artists, but their project was not suitable. Then local designers set to work. That was also not what we wanted. As a result, I and my comrades had to think it all up ourselves.
For the interior, we used expensive materials: marble and semi-precious stones: agate, onyx and emeralds. The Chinese believe that stones are alive, they have a certain vibration frequency, and can give people positive energy. We have two bronze Pichus in our hall. According to the Chinese legend, Pichu is the ninth son of a dragon. It is believed in China that he eats gold and silver, and brings an owner wealth and good luck. His head has to be facing water. That is why our bronze figures are turned towards the Moskva river.
— Who are your customers?
— Various kinds of people come to us. There are those who work in the “White House”, and also public figures, artists, and Chinese people studying or working in Moscow. We have a very varied menu. For the real connoisseurs, there is the Imperial cuisine, and there is also Chinese domestic cuisine. For example, noodle dishes at affordable prices. Students come to us, try them and like them.
— Which dish is the most popular?
— Peking duck. It takes us three days to prepare one fowl. We gut it, add flavourings and marinate it. Then we hang it on a hook and dry it in the wind, so that a crispy crust forms. And on the third day we stew it in a steamer.
The aim of our restaurant is to popularize Chinese gastronomy and our country’s culture. You might call it an image project. The ambassador of Japan to Russia comes to us regularly and invites his guests. And that means a lot, you will agree. After all, there are plenty of Japanese restaurants in Moscow, but the Ambassador brings his guests to us. This shows that our restaurant worthily represents the culinary culture of China.
— How high do you find the rent in Moscow?
— Compared with China, rent is of course very expensive. But due to the crisis, rates have fallen considerably recently. There used to be a lack of good high-quality offices in Moscow. Now it’s easy to find them. There are plenty on offer on the market.
— Did you manage to acquire a home of your own in Moscow?
I live in an apartment. Our company bought the building. My wife, son and daughter live in Beijing. My son is studying. The Chinese system of education is very like the one they had in the Soviet Union. It’s all very strict. Study must not be interrupted.
— You are building a business centre. What else is on the cards?
We want to open another restaurant near Sokolniki Park. It will be on the very top floor of the 25-storey “Holiday Inn Moscow Sokolniki”, which will provide a beautiful panorama of the greenery.
— Do you think it is worthwhile for a foreigner to come to Moscow to do business here?
— Now is the very time to do it! While sanctions are still in effect, the world market is unstable and oil prices are at a low level! This is a really great chance to work and do business in Russia. In two or three years. the economy will be rising again. This opportunity should be valued.
— How safe a city is Moscow?
— It is absolutely safe. I can walk in the city at any time of the day or night without fear. Moscow now feels like my home town to me. I have been living and working here for almost 20 years. I have devoted the greater part of my life to Russia. This is where I “got on my feet”, where I obtained a driving licence...
— Do you have favourite places in Moscow? Where do you like to spend your days off?
— I’ve played football ever since I was a child. I’ve continued to play sports in Moscow too. We have our own football team. We hold matches. We play against a team of bankers, various Russian teams, and diplomats. It is a sort of amateur league. On my day off I sometimes go out of town with Russian friends for a shashlyk. If I get an evening free, I go to the theatre or an exhibition. You have to come to Moscow to realize what an intense cultural life exists here.