I had never heard about Seattle until the first American movie I watched in China over 10 years ago. As you might expect, it was “Sleepless in Seattle.” Rainy, quiet, small and far away from New York City is the way I would describe Seattle back then. And frankly, I would have never come to Seattle without a generous scholarship from the University of Washington Law School, because except for the movie, I knew almost nothing about Seattle. Like hundreds of professionals and business people in China, my eyes had been focused on larger American cities, i.e. New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and L.A.
You may ask why a region that has nurtured thousands of great start-up companies and is the home to some of the greatest multinationals in the world could remain so obscure in China compared to other major cities. One possible answer is that the exposure of the region has been relatively weak here in China for years. For example, I find that all of my local Chinese contacts know about Starbucks, Boeing, Amazon and Ambassador Gary Locke, but none of them is able to associate Seattle with any of these more familiar names. It’s sadly true, even for myself (the man who now considers Seattle as his hometown in America): only until I settled down, read about and experienced Seattle, was I able to appreciate the beauty of the city and eventually associate great companies with this location.
Is there any solution to the problem of obscurity? Absolutely. If we continue to invest in China by more effectively leveraging our government support, China business expertise and academic connections at home and abroad, with a focus on building up our reputation and image in China, we will be able to receive more attention from Chinese tourists and eventually Chinese investors and companies.
I would like to introduce two movies to illustrate the possibilities.
“Late Autumn”（“晚秋”) and “Finding Mr. Right”（“北京遇上西雅图”）are both recent films that are set in Seattle and feature the popular actress Tang Wei（汤唯), whose star power has brought millions of Chinese into theaters. If “Sleepless in Seattle” is an American movie that has planted a seed in the hearts of many American dream pursuers like myself in China, these two Chinese movies have probably influenced millions of ordinary Chinese who might have never heard of Seattle. Because of these movies and stars like Tang Wei, they finally managed to learn that there is a city in America called Seattle. Now that we see the opportunity, we should then ask ourselves: how can Seattle respond and take advantage of this positive trend?
Is there going to be a follow up by the Washington State Department of Commerce, or any other appropriate government agencies? Shall we think about seizing this invaluable opportunity to further build our reputation by educating more Chinese people on the good quality of our academic institutions, key industries, perfect living conditions and great investment atmosphere?
Assuming the answer is yes, the question is how we can do it? Doing things with China, or in China, requires relationships and local China expertise. Our business people and academics are invaluable resources that are available both at home and abroad. At home, we have numerous business associations, such as the Washington State China Relations Council. Abroad, unfortunately, it seems that we have long ignored the importance of our strong forces on the ground in China, especially the thousands of “ambassadors” who have lived in the Seattle region but have returned to China for either personal or business reasons. Many of these people are very well connected in China, and they’re well trained professionals who understand China, Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. For example, one of the groups that I founded two years ago, the Greater China Law Society of UW, has over 70 members, most of whom are UW Law School alums taking key positions in Chinese government agencies, local or international law firms and giant multinational companies. The same goes for all of our other “ambassadors” in China — the connections of this network may eventually extend to the Chinese movie industry and key players in that circle. In addition, the set of skills that “ambassadors” have may facilitate goals that Seattle would like to pursue. Why not, for example, think about a potential collaboration with Tang Wei or Chinese filmmakers that can boost the image of Seattle? A memorable movie can make a big impact, as the town of Forks has witnessed with the “Twilight” saga. With a little imagination and boldness, Seattle can rise to the occasion.
Because of two blockbuster Chinese movies, Tang Wei has already become a de facto symbol for the Seattle area in China, which is only one example of hundreds of opportunities there may be for Seattle in China. Possibilities for collaboration abound in fields such as renewable energy, tourism, media and more. But, are we flexible and nimble enough to pursue opportunities like these quickly? If we can actively and fully make use of our government support, appreciate our China experts’ knowledge, and leverage our “ambassadors” and their connections and expertise in China, we can build a much stronger brand name for the Seattle area, and eventually bring in more tourists and investment, strengthening our international ties and our economy in the process.
Published April 11th, 2013