London's Panda man
Updated: 2012-02-05 08:24
By Zhang Haizhou (China Daily)
A one-time teenage terror turns over new leaf to bring China's national emblem to the masses, Zhang Haizhou reports from London.
Xie Jinbiao remembers one of the defining moments of his secondary school days. "I wasn't a good student. I was OK in year one and two, but then I took up smoking, drinking and playing up," Xie says.
Xie Jinbiao, the owner of a panda-themed shop in London, takes Hello Kitty as a role model for his Ho-Panda. [Zhang Chunyan / China Daily]
"I caused the biggest melee in the history of my school - dozens of boys and girls from four classes ended up fighting each other just outside the dormitories. It was total chaos."
Xie, 26, is originally from Southwest China's Sichuan province.
Sipping a bottle of beer and wearing a luxury Longines watch, Xie recalls how he found many of his schoolmates either having gone to prison or "getting on the way there" when he went back to China last year.
He might have been one of them if his father had not insisted on sending him abroad after just one year in high school.
Instead, Xie is now a prominent post-1980s Chinese businessman who runs what is considered the only panda-themed toy and souvenir store of its kind in London. He has become the proverbial prodigal son, someone the Chinese describe as "more precious than gold".
Xie's Ho-Panda store is in London Trocadero, an entertainment complex and shopping center in London's Piccadilly Circus area.
Opened in November 2010, the 40-square-meter store now sells more than 900 items, including mobile phone accessories, key rings, notebooks, mugs, T-shirts and, mainly, plush toy pandas of different sizes. It is possibly the only panda-themed shop run by a Chinese in Britain.
Xie is not just the boss, but also the oldest staff member. He employs eight other people - two are locals and the rest are Chinese students working part time. The youngest is 17.
"Our customers are mainly tourists, especially those from the Middle East," Xie says as he packs a small plush toy panda for a little girl.
Christmas was a great time for Xie. Apart from the sales season and holidays, there has also been a panda fever across Britain generated by the arrival of two pandas at the Edinburgh Zoo, on a 10-year loan from the Chinese government.
Tian Tian and Yang Guang are receiving hundreds of visitors every day at the zoo. A total of 10,000 tickets have already been reserved until the end of this month to see the pandas, according to the zoo.
The BBC even included Tian Tian as its "female face" for December nationwide in an online feature, causing some controversy across the country.
But this is all good news for Xie, who says the panda fever has boosted sales at his shop. He has also received quite a few interview requests from local media to feature stories on his business.
But Xie says his shop, which cost him about 2 million yuan ($317,000) to launch, isn't yet in the black.
"We make some profit in good months, but lose money in bad ones," Xie says, adding that a short-term profit is not the most important thing for him as he cares more about the future. He points to Hello Kitty, a Japanese cartoon character many will recognize as a white bobtail cat with a red ribbon from the 1970s, as a role model and target for Ho-Panda.
"I have my shop and logo now. Next, I hope to make it a famous panda brand, a name card for Sichuan (where pandas are originally from), and China," Xie says.
Ho-Panda started out with some difficulties. When it opened last fall it was not even in a proper shop - selling a little over 100 items from a stall. "The size of the stall was only one-seventh of my shop today," Xie says.
He had no employees at that time. So he and his wife did everything from decorating the shop to cleaning up after closing time, with the help of one friend. Xie says none of them had seen a real panda.
At the start, sales were disastrous. Feeling the pinch, Xie went back to China last April, five months after his shop opened. During the trip, he spent most of the time traveling, visiting successful panda-themed toy and souvenir shops and manufacturers in East China.
Into its third year, Ho-Panda has become a well-known brand, at least in London's Chinatown area, five minutes' walk from the shop.
He says he had never imagined he would be doing all this today, since he could hardly speak English when he first arrived in Britain more than eight years ago.
Now the master's graduate from Brunel University faces more difficult situations and tougher questions from the occasional "unfriendly shopper".
One of the toughest questions posed to him was: "Were your products made by child labor?"
Xie says all the items in his shop are carefully selected from quality manufacturers. Xie got one of his local employees, a British girl, to answer the question.
"It won't work if I, as a Chinese, explain. But if I have a local person do it, once is enough," Xie says.
Profit is also not his only or top priority. He says, joking, that he is a "civilian" promoter of Chinese soft power. "It took Hello Kitty decades to reach its influence today," he says. "How long do you think it will take me?"
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