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San Francisco’s Economic Crush: will China be Courted?



San Francisco is a city known for its unorthodox way of doing things. So, how does this endlessly creative California city promote its initiative to improve business relationships with China? By throwing a Hollywood-style film premiere, of course.

According to the educational non-profit the Asia Society, California could reach $60 billion in Chinese business investments by 2020. However, it says, this number is only in reach if both the state and business community put forth a lot more effort to attract those investments.

The effort is well underway, reflected in events such as last week’s celebration of the new movie Shanghai Calling. It was a film premiere that meant business. Literally.Inside the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco, groups of American and Chinese people in suits intermingled before the show. It was a packed house. A big sign up on the screen read: “San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee and ChinaSF present the US premiere of Shanghai Calling.”

The movie is a romantic comedy that tells the story of Sam Chao, an up-and-coming Manhattan attorney who, despite his Chinese heritage, is as American as sliced bread. Looking to make partner, he reluctantly agrees to move to Shanghai and run his office’s satellite firm.

It’s a typical rom-com: clueless guy meets girls, has troubles, grows up, and gets the ... well, maybe gets the girl. I won’t give it away. But, what I can give away is that there is a whole other relationship being pursued here at the movie’s premiere, with its own series of courtships and its own set of stakes. It’s about getting Chinese businesses to invest in San Francisco.

Darlene Chiu Bryant is the executive director of ChinaSF. The office is a public-private initiative whose goal it to encourage Chinese businesses to set up shop in San Francisco. “Very simply put,” she said, “we’re business matchmakers.”

They are matchmakers in every way. Their bilingual staff provides all kinds of services and advice, from making connections in the real estate community to helping navigate tax exemptions.

“Because we are local,” she said, “we understand how business is being done here. As a result we are able to help Chinese companies navigate the system here, explain to them how things are being done, explain that you have to hire locally for example. And when we go to China, the same thing; we teach people about the politicians over there. We teach people how government operates. We teach them about how business is being done because we want to protect them but at the same time help them succeed.”

Before the movie premiere, Bryant had not seen Shanghai Calling. But she did make sure San Francisco’s top politicians showed up. Mayor Ed Lee was sitting in the front row, exchanging niceties with the Chinese Consul General, just like at an international business meeting. And there is a lot at stake business wise between the Bay Area and China. For example, a Beijing-controlled bank has agreed to loan two San Francisco housing developments – one in Treasure Island and one in Hunters Point – $1.7 billion to build new office buildings, 20,000 new homes, and an arena.

Chinese Consul General Gao Zhansheng announced that he felt so courted by the ChinaSF event that he called for a sequel to Shanghai Calling.

“I hope that after this visit, our producer, our director will make another film, which will be called San Francisco Answering,” he said.

Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans have been an integral part of San Francisco’s economy since the 1840s, often exploited during that time as a source of cheap labor. Nowadays, labor and talent outsourcing have made China part of national conversations about global economics.

Shanghai Calling director Daniel Hsai, a Stanford graduate, said, “I was very aware when writing the film that the majority of news we hear about China in the United States is pretty negative. I mean I think that these issues are very important. But at the same time, there is always room to tell stories about the individuals who are living in a particular place and actually dealing with something too.”

I asked him if, as a filmmaker, he was comfortable knowing that his film was being sponsored by an economic initiative that had it’s own perspective and goals.

“I think if I were a much more famous filmmaker,” he replied, “and this was a very well known, hundred million dollar film, I might have a little bit of a concern about that. But the fact of the matter is when you're an independent filmmaker, and you're out there, and you're beating the pavement, and you're e-mailing and Facebooking and Tweeting, anytime you can get any sort of exposure or attention it's welcome. And we are so appreciative of Mayor Lee and the city of San Francisco for hosting the event here at Lucas Film.”

What Hsai admits with both gratitude and honesty reflects the deeper link between the premiere of Shanghai Calling and ChinaSF. When large amounts of money are involved, cultural exchange takes on new meaning.

At the end of the movie, a fair amount of business ends up going to China instead of staying in the U.S. That’s not quite the conclusion Darlene Chiu Bryant and ChinaSF are hoping for. So their courtship, of business interests anyway, will continue long after this show is over.

Shanghai Calling is now playing at the Presidio Theater, located at 2340 Chestnut Street, in San Francisco.