AmCham China Legacy: Building a Community

Across its chapters, AmCham China fosters a welcoming spirit

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Members go all out for the 1776-themed American Ball in 2006, including Dinah Watkins (far right)
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At the Annual General Meeting, members put together a WTO-themed skit in 2000
Women's Mentor Walk Co-hosted by AmCham China in 2015 with Member Laurie O'Donnell, second from right.jpg
Women's Mentor Walk Co-hosted by AmCham China in 2015 with Member Laurie O'Donnell, second from right
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AmCham China's Inaugural 3x3 Basketball Tournament in 2016
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Northeast China Chapter 2015 Charity Golf Tournament

When one of the founding members of the American Chamber of Commerce in the People's Republic of China describes early chamber meetings, it sounds more like a group therapy session than a business association.

“We needed each other,” said Peter Lighte, Chairman of AmCham China from 1983-84, in a phone interview from his home in the US. “We needed to sit in a room and swap stories, to get a sanity check. The way Chinese did things was very different. If you stayed long enough without sharing these stories, you'd think you were mad. These meetings gave courage to ourselves. It was that rudimentary.”

From this rudimentary beginning, AmCham China built up a community where people doing business in China could come together, share frustrations and successes, and most of all find common ground between what now are the two largest economies in the world. That mission has persevered over the last 35 years and remains strong, whether at the annual HR Conference, where old friends unite and share the challenges of the day, or at a family-friendly American Independence Day celebration in Wuhan, where a watermelon eating contest gives the mostly-Chinese attendees a taste of the US. The AmCham China community has changed over the years, particularly the increase in Chinese nationals now representing foreign companies, but throughout the chamber's history, members have come together to work hard, play hard and create a more welcoming, inclusive organization.

Filling a void

When recalling his first posting in Beijing, Lighte said there were few foreigners. “We were all alone out there,” he says. “We all knew each other.” Additionally, there were few foreign businesses doing what they were doing. They were pioneers, but, Lighte says, “you can be commercially lonely, too.”

At the time of the chamber's formation, foreigners representing businesses in Beijing couldn't live in apartments. An exception was made for diplomats, journalists and airline employees; the rest had to live in places like the Jianguo Hotel, where Lighte resided, along with the likes of Clark T. (Sandy) Randt, Jr., who would later become the longest serving US Ambassador to China, serving 2001-08. Lighte's room had no kitchen, so he says foreigners at the time were like “a roaming pack of wolves” on the hunt for restaurants – a far-cry from today's Dianping-enabled foodies.

Hobnobbing with ambassadors was commonplace for AmCham China members, as embassies took turns hosting a weekly TGIF event for foreigners to get together and have a drink. The only embassy who didn't take part were the Russians – but they eventually joined in, too.

“Having a friendship with the ambassadors didn't do much for business, but gave an ability to not quid pro quo but access information and experiences,” Lighte said. “It gave us sanity checks because it was very difficult. If you only talked to yourself, you were in trouble.”

When Timothy Stratford (Chairman 2000-01) became a member in the 1990s, he recalled that the entire AmCham China membership could sit around one table and have lunch at the Jianguo Hotel.

As the 1990s rolled on, foreign companies began to flow in to China, AmCham China's membership – which has always included companies from all over the world – expanded rapidly, but the community remained tight knit.

Su Cheng Harris-Simpson, a former AmCham China Board Member and current Co-chair of the SME Forum and Women's Professional Committee, recalls how centralized the community was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Sanlitun's Bar Street was the epicenter for many, with popular watering holes such as Poachers and Miners, now both closed.

The American business community also came together after hours at the Capital Club, which still sits along the Liangma River with sweeping views of the city, albeit now as a dwarfed building rather than the bird's eye view it was in the 1990s. Harris-Simpson was the marketing director the Capital Club from 1997 to 1999, and recalls plenty of AmCham China events there: birthday parties, wine tastings – “good fun,” she says.

John Holden (Chairman in 1997) said the most memorable AmCham China event for him took place at the Capital Club, when he hosted Vice Premier Wu Yi, then head of what is now the Ministry of Commerce, for a dinner. “She was very charming, very witty,” he said. “It was just interesting to be able to have that time in a small group with a person who was so influential. The access we had was just incredible. It was just a different world, it really was.”

Work hard, play hard

Over the years, part of the reason the AmCham China community has remained strong is that the members volunteer hours of their own time, outside of family commitments, outside of their full-time jobs, working to improve the business environment in China.

“AmCham China was my community,” said former Chairman (2004) Jim Gradoville. “It combined professional and social life. The people I met through AmCham are still my closest friends.”

Gradoville put many hours into the Public Policy Committee (now the Policy Committee), which wrote the first editions of the White Paper in their entirety, rather than the current protocol of dividing chapters among specific working groups under the guidance of a staff member leading the project.

Harris-Simpson said a particularly galvanizing period came at the turn of the millennium, with the build up of focused action on the WTO (read more about the process here).

“During WTO, it was a time when everyone was really together,” Harris-Simpson said. “The community was so strong because it had a focus.”

The terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, also were a touchstone moment, uniting members across nationalities.

Community traditions, new and old

It's not just business interests that bring members together. In 2003, AmCham China found two members of the community to bring the “work hard, play hard” attitude to the chamber's corporate social responsibility efforts. Harris-Simpson and Dinah Watkins were the dynamic duo, putting together 12 editions of the American Ball, the chamber's signature charity event, which has raised more than $1.3 million over the last decade. The pair's over-the-top themes included 1776, Wild, Wild West, Men in Black (promoted with photos of members in dark suits and glasses, including long-time member Roberta Lipson of Chindex and previous President and Board Member Mark Duval).

For the 1776 theme, Watkins says she shared the names of a few shops where members could buy ready-made attire from the era. But the community went above and beyond her expectations, showing up in tailor-made red-white-and blue period gowns and powdered wigs.

Watkins acknowledges that there was a high potential for awkwardness and boredom at the balls since guests were often invited by their bosses to sit at a company table, making it harder for them to cut loose and enjoy the event. But she turned that potential negative into a positive by adding loads of extra entertainment to the evenings, such as live skits, pre-recorded jokey films featuring members and others from the expat community, haunted houses and more. She utilized every expat talent resource at her disposal – choirs, singers, editors – and reached beyond the AmCham China membership to the whole American community in Beijing. She directed spoof films using UFH and ISB as sets. She says staff would then start asking the bosses, “Are we buying a table this year?”

Looking forward, Watkins thinks she's still got a few more productions in her. She's planning to pitch her idea as a potential vendor for next year's ball, and is toying with the a Game of Thrones theme.

The Northeast China Chapter also adds some glamor and giving to the local scene with an annual charity ball. The 2015, Gatsby-themed ball hosted 650 guests and raised RMB 350,000.

Many AmCham China events put a focus on the family. That's the main reason why the AmCham Community Club started up, to cater to the family joining an expat during their stay in China. “If the family wasn't happy, you're not going to have a successful 2,3,4,5 years here,” Gradoville says.

The club hosted huge July 4 bashes, with memorable water balloon fights and even a performance by the Godfather of Chinese rock, Cui Jian. But like anything AmCham China does, the Community Club depended on the spirit of the people – and when some people left, the club fizzled out a few years after forming.

Some community elements of AmCham China will naturally come and go, and this is actually what motivated Harris-Simpson to establish the Women's Professional Committee within the working group structure of AmCham China. During her years in Beijing, Harris-Simpson noticed that women's professional groups often survived only with the help of a hardworking, charismatic leader, and when that woman left, the organization died out, too. In fact, one such group also aiming to unite professional women started at AmCham China in 1994 by Jenifer Sullivan and Karen Kiely lasted for about two years. Harris-Simpson saw AmCham China as an institution where the group could survive despite transience with the right measures. “I wanted something sustainable, with a succession plan,” she says.

The group formed because of women's needs that weren't being addressed in the workplace and a need for gender diversity on AmCham China's board. “We needed a home for these discussions,” Harris-Simpson says. The group started out with brown-bag lunches where the group would share education and support. Now, the committee co-sponsors monthly mentor walks that connect professional women looking for advice to women in prominent positions in the Beijing business community.

As interest continues to be strong for the committee, Harris-Simpson sees a need to professionalize it further, with perhaps a White Paper chapter, conference and advocacy goals. Other ideas include working with female government officials to help them advance. “It's not political,” she says. “It's about leadership. Hiring more women is good for China and good for the world.”

Rock out, tee off and shoot hoops

Thumbing through the listing of 40+ active working groups in the chamber, one stands out among the policy and industry-focused forums: the Golf Programs Committee. Sure, it doesn't have a White Paper chapter, but the committee serves an important role in facilitating good relationships across industries and chambers.

For example, the Japanese and American chambers in Beijing have been coming together for a friendly tournament for more than 20 years now. Beijing members also play with the European Union Chamber, Tianjin hosts a cross-chamber tourney and Dalian and Tianjin both regularly hold charity tournaments. At the chamber's many tournaments across China, the value of the Golf Programs Committee becomes clear: friendly competition, great cross-chamber or cross-industry networking – and a boisterous club house reception. As AmCham China board member Jie Lin says, “Good beer, friends, golf – what more do you want?”

In the same spirit of the friendly golf competitions, the chamber has also launched fun runs and basketball tournaments in 2016 to help members network while getting in a work out. During the inaugural 3 on 3 tourney, NBA China and Nike battled it out, but NBA China prevailed. "Our favorite moment was before the start of the 3rd-4th place game," says Tian Ai from Carlyle and Goldman Sachs. "Both our team and our opponent JLL were greeting each other warmly and shaking hands, cracking jokes while we got ready to start the game. This is what sport is all about – exercise our bodies, meet new friends and challenge ourselves both physically and mentally for excellence."

It's not just the Beijing headquarters that's forging new traditions, as the Dalian Summer Music Festival is one of the most-attended events for all the chamber. Dalian became the first city of the Northeast China Chapter in 2010, with a Shenyang office opening in 2014. The music festival started as a rock'n'roll-fueled July 4th celebration, and developed into its own standalone event, taking place in June. The first year welcomed 500 people. The next year, attendance doubled. In short time, it's become a tremendous event. Rain or shine, Dalian and Shenyang residents, expats and government officials come out for the full day of music, food and fun.

American in spirit if not passport

AmCham China's “American” brand speaks more to its inclusiveness than the number of US passports in its membership. Today, 50 percent of members are Chinese nationals. The second most common nationality is American, comprising 20 percent. The last third is a vibrant mix of other nationalities, from South Africa to the Philippines. A melting pot of companies and cultures, the chamber accepts companies with non-PRC headquarters, but the increasing number of Chinese nationals reflects the move in multinationals to hire in China, for China.

The shift in demographics has benefited AmCham China's mission in the US, too. “We found that a lot of people in Washington were really interested in talking to  Chinese employees who could talk from their personal experience about how China has changed, and who were themselves great examples of the benefits of engagement with American business,” Holden says.

Looking back at the founding years of the chamber, Lighte recalls that making friends with local residents wasn't always easy. Socializing with expats could be “dangerous” for locals. The AmCham China community reflects how far from that period 35 years ago China has come.

“That's the big difference – Chinese are now with us,” Lighte says.