Small Towns Present Big Challenges

Consumers In Fourth-Tier Cities Also Aspire for Careers and Trendy Styles Says O&M's Kunal Sinha

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Motorcycle taxis in Heshan, China
Motorcycle taxis in Heshan, China Credit: Kunal Sinha
SHANGHAI ( -- It's fashionable to talk about China's huge population of web surfers in PowerPoint presentations.

After all, these folks are sharing pictures and videos and writing blogs. They are photoshopping images of a hapless chap from Shanghai named Qian Zhijun (better known in China as Little Fatty).
Kunal Sinha
Kunal Sinha
They are looking for and finding jobs. They are buying stuff and even setting up tuangou appointments, so online shoppers can approach a vendor of a specific product in order to haggle for discounts.

It's all happening online, which is phenomenal, since we're talking about 220 million surfers, the world's largest online population.

I like to follow up that stat with another question: What do you think is the most popular job site in Heshan? Now, Heshan is not on the tip of everyone's tongue. It is a rather average fourth-tier town, 75 km southwest of Guangzhou with a population hovering around 400,000. It has one McDonald's, one KFC, one Gome home appliance retailer, one Semir casual clothing store and a few cyber cafes.

If you think the answer is, one of China's leading online recruitment web're wrong.

The correct answer is a city wall located not far from a bus station, plastered with handwritten or sometimes printouts of 'Help Wanted' ads. The jobs on offer include technician at a car repair shop, seamstresses for a garment factory and masons and crane operators for a new construction project, always next to a mobile phone number.

What's makes this "advertising" so brilliant is that the ads are stuck around two public pay phones. Every now and then, a villager gets off a bus, looks on the "job wall" and dials a number. If you fit the bill, spend one kuai (15 cents) on a call and you'll probably be hired.

75 kilometers. That's all it takes to get away from the model of China's economic development. Here, as the natives balance the transition from rural to urban living, they make do with the resources they have.
Motorcycle taxis in Heshan
Motorcycle taxis in Heshan Credit: Kunal Sinha
Wide streets and new apartment blocks cannot take away the feeling of being somehow left out of the prosperity enjoyed by the residents of Guangzhou, a major city with over 10 million people, or even Foshan, a second-tier city also located in Guangdong province that is home to about five million.

But that doesn't mean China's lower-tier cities don't want to keep up. In the city center of Heshan, wishfully called Xintiandi (the name of one of Shanghai's swankiest dining and shopping areas), an imposing Gome store is flanked by a supermarket, a local shopping mall, and a 24-hour McDonald's.

From 3 pm in the afternoon, McDonald's fills up with school kids in tracksuits. The younger ones accompanied by their mums. A little later in the day, college students enter in pairs. Business is brisk, especially the 2 kuai ice cream.

When shoppers emerge from the supermarket or the mall, they don't bother waiting for a bus. A posse of motorcyclists, wearing purple-numbered jackets, waits on the street, ready to take them home for, again, 2 kuai. Across the street, there's a shop crammed with a thousand knickknacks, utilitarian and decorative, each for 2 kuai.

In the mall, I struck up a conversation with the owner of a trendy garment store. The 25-year-old explained she started her business with the help of an uncle, who knew folks in Guangzhou. She makes a trip to the wholesale markets of Guangzhou at least once every week to refresh her stock.
Fashion store in Heshan
Fashion store in Heshan Credit: Kunal Sinha
Chinese and regional chain stores like Samuel & Kevin, Baleno and 361 in Guangzhou and Shanghai usually change their styles once every three months by season, but this girl does it every week!

They may not live in Shanghai, but the teenyboppers who frequent her stores surely aren't fuddy-duddy in their style. When they drop by this mall almost every week, they expect something new, not the same old stuff, she said. I've seen the same phenomenon in dusty Lanzhou, which is a world away from Heshan and even farther from China's metropolitan centers. These are kids who have a sense of fashion, only they get it at half the price of their big-city counterparts.

Our next stop is a cyber café. The narrow entrance belies the cavernous interior housing around 250 terminals, blinking with the images of Tian Long Ba Bu, ZhuXian, World of Warcraft, Fantasy Westward Journey, and the ubiquitous QQ chat window.

There are separate sections for men and women. The girls are more interested in playing Jing Wu Tuan, in which they make their online avatar dance and rack up points. The boys opt for games involving shooting, killing or racing.

An endless stream of crisps and colas flows from a food counter to the young folks hunched over the computer terminals. The cyber café owner tells me they have an exclusivity arrangement with the local soft drink distributor. Cigarette smoke rises and gathers in a haze above the heads of hundreds of young Chinese. With scarcely an open space in the town for any kind of physical activity, these kids seem determined to die young.

The sense of being denied opportunity is palpable in Heshan. The urban and commercial infrastructure seems to mock its people. They need careers, but seem destined to hop from one business opportunity or part-time job to another. They are hungry for entertainment, but are compelled to being sedated by the screen.

The question remains though, what will it take for them to realize their ambition?

Kunal Sinha is the Shanghai-based executive director of discovery, Greater China at Ogilvy & Mather, where he oversees the consumer insight and knowledge management function across all divisions of the agency. He is also the author of China's Creative Imperative: How Creativity Is Transforming Society and Business in China.

Job-hunting wall in Heshan
Job-hunting wall in Heshan Credit: Kunal Sinha
Cyber café in Heshan Credit: Kunal Sinha

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