[Wall Street Journal, China] Chinese Culture Clash on Yap
- Alex Frangos/The Wall Street Journal
When executives from Chinese megadeveloper Exhibition and Travel Group landed on the remote Pacific island of Yap in 2011, they arrived to find a population already deeply skeptical.
ETG is striving to fit in as it moves forward on plans to build a massive resort on the sleepy island, as documented in a recent Wall Street Journal story. It has promised to make Yapese culture a selling point to Chinese tourists, and has said that in addition to paying for infrastructure such as a hospital and roads, it will fund a foundation run by locals to promote Yapese traditions.
“We didn’t think it would be complicated because we thought we were going to bring all these good things,” said ETG’s representative on Yap, Yang Gang.
But ETG is finding it hard to undo the effects of a previous Chinese-Yapese encounter.
In 1989, a Taiwanese apparel manufacturer opened a factory and brought several hundred workers from mainland China to Yap, population 11,000. The workers gained a reputation for caring little for the local culture, which prizes privacy and deference.
As many Yapese tell it, the workers lived in dormitories and on days off would venture into villages without invitation, a taboo in local culture, where villages are sacred and tied closely to identity. The Yapese say the workers would cause havoc, stealing bananas, fish and crab, sometimes turning over remnants of sacred buildings’ stone foundations in the hunt.
“These people would see a land crab run into the pile of rocks, they tear it down, and even though the people say, ‘Stop! Stop! That’s not right,’ they tear it down,” says Carmen Mutnguy, member of Concerned Citizens of Yap and the wife of a former governor. “They look at us like animals or lower than they are. So I don’t think we can get along with those kind of people.”
The Chinese workers “didn’t give a damn about our culture,” declared Henry Falan, speaker of Yap’s legislature and an ETG opponent. “Yapese would give you the last banana on their land if you ask. If you don’t ask, it becomes totally offensive.”
The workers aren’t around to tell their side; the factory shut down in 2005 and they went home. But the impression remains. Nine Yapese people, both supporters and opponents of the Chinese resort plan, mentioned the trespassing and theft.
ETG has sought to demonstrate good intentions and appreciation of Yapese culture, giving money to the local canoe festival and incorporating elements of local architecture into the designs of the resort buildings. ETG’s chairman, Deng Hong, gave $20,000 to Yap when there was an outbreak of dengue fever.
Yapese have close ties with and respect for the U.S., and ETG brought in several American consultants on the project, including lawyers and architects.
Yet people say there’s been a culture clash nonetheless.
“ETG hasn’t done a great deal of business outside China. They are encountering a representative democracy. It’s been a learning experience for both camps,” says Jeremiah Luther, a 32-year-old Tennessee attorney hired by Yap as its acting attorney general and representative in the negotiations with ETG.
“In [the Chinese city of] Chengdu, you can smooth things over,” says Mr. Luther, who describes himself as impartial on ETG’s proposed project. “That type of culture isn’t the basis of politics here.”
His predecessor, Michael Nigrey, an American lawyer who left Yap in early 2012, said ETG was dismissive of Yap’s laws, especially those that could stop the planned casino. “Gambling is illegal, but that didn’t seem to be a concern…I got the sense, well, laws can be changed.”
Mr. Yang, ETG’s representative on Yap, said the company has followed all laws and is sensitive to local concerns.
“We do all business legally, with permits,” he said. “We show good faith” in all company dealings.
Vincent Figir, a former governor and a strong proponent of the ETG plan, admits his Chinese friends don’t always mesh with the Yapese.
“Sometimes they are a little bit too aggressive, but the ones here have learned a lot,” he says.
Louis Lukan, a member of Yap’s Council of Pilung, a fourth branch of government made up of tribal officials, says ETG tried to bribe him. According to Mr. Lukan, ETG’s Mr. Yang approached him while he was eating lunch in his office one day, saying “I have small gift, a little present from [ETG] Chairman Deng Hong.”
It was a pack of $100 bills—$3,000 in all.
“I’ve only heard of people doing bribery,” Mr. Lukan says, stuffing a betel nut into his cheek. “I’ve only see it in the movies.” Mr. Lukan, who is undecided on the project, says he reported the money to his villagers, who live on a nearby island where people have chosen to go without electricity and running water.
They voted to return the money. One of the villagers confirms the vote and says he saw and counted the money, though he didn’t see the alleged act of bribery.
In an October interview, Mr. Yang denied any bribe. “We’ve never given money to any chief,” he says. “We are ordinary Chinese businessmen.”
Reached Tuesday, Mr. Yang declined to discuss the matter.
A spokesman for Mr. Deng, ETG’s chairman, said he isn’t aware of the case and declined to comment further.
The attorney general, Mr. Luther, and a representative of Yap’s public-auditor office, which handle legal inquiries, both declined to say whether the incident is under investigation.
– Alex Frangos, with contributions from Olivia Geng and Aries Poon. Follow Alex Frangos on Twitter @alexfrangos
2:43 Trouble is brewing in the Micronesian state of Yap. The U.S. is scaling back aid next year, so Yapese officials are turning to Chinese investors who plan to boost tourism. This could change the face of the tiny set of islands. WSJ’s Alex Frangos reports.
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