Navigating China as a Singaporean

Ms Mae Ng was 23 when she first moved to China to work. During the 10 years when she was formerly with The Ascott Limited (Ascott), she lived in four different cities across the country. Mae, who currently oversees operations for faculties and student accommodation with one of Singapore’s top tertiary institutions, shares the lessons she has learnt from her stay in China.

24 February 2020 / By SGN

Growing up, Mae Ng had two personal passions. She loved the Chinese language and is effectively bilingual. In Junior College, she was part of the Chinese Language Elective Programme, which nurtures students in the language and builds up their appreciation for Chinese literature.

Mae’s other passion was the hospitality industry, so after her GCE “A” Levels, she signed up for a Bachelor’s programme in Business and Tourism & Hospitality Management at the Nanyang Business School of NTU.

When the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) launched the Asian Business Fellowship programme (ABF) and offered Singaporeans an opportunity to work in the hospitality industry in China, Mae jumped at the chance.

“The objective of the ABF is to create an additional pool of manpower talent with in-depth market expertise, business operational knowledge and links to the emerging Asian markets, particularly China, so as to enable Singapore and our companies to better engage the Chinese economy.”

Mae as a young ABF trainee in Shanghai

The ABF partnered with The Ascott Limited (Ascott) to offer the two-year training programme, so it was a natural progression for Mae to join Ascott in China after the conclusion of the ABF.

“Ascott was embarking on a growth strategy in China and needed trained manpower in all fields – it was a case of good timing and available opportunities,” she shared. What followed was another eight years with Ascott in China, living and working in multiple cities across the country.

These are Mae’s three lessons from her decade in China.

1) Be open to networking

Mae’s time in China started in Shanghai.

“I was 23 years old when I first moved to China to work. I remember feeling super excited; yet apprehensive at the same time. Navigating the sprawling city without getting lost and speaking Chinese in a way that the locals can understand were two of the initial hurdles that I had to quickly overcome.”

It also helps to be willing to reach out for help.

“Network extensively and set up a mini support system so that you can adjust to life in China in the shortest possible time.”

Mae and colleagues at the opening of Ascott Maillen Shenzhen.

What really helped Mae in the beginning was having opportunities to meet and interact with her seniors in the ABF programme.

“I must commend MTI for taking great efforts to connect us with the senior batches of ABF trainees through frequent get-together sessions and inviting seniors to speak to us candidly during orientation briefing. The greatest learning nugget for me through all these interactions was this – It won’t be easy, but we each have the power to make it as positive as we can. Just roll with the punches and remember to laugh along the way.”

2) Be positive in adversity

Mae’s consistent positivity and her ability to inspire her team often became a valuable trait in the very unpredictable hospitality industry. She shared one extremely memorable incident.

“It was during the pre-opening days of one of my properties. The furniture for our back office was scheduled to arrive, following which the desktop computers and printers would be next. Alas, the IT equipment arrived on schedule, but the furniture would be delayed by a week – imagine just an empty space with no tables, chairs or cabinets. Inwardly I was pretty upset, but I knew there was no time to waste as we had a strict deadline to complete the rest of the pre-opening work and open on time.

“So, I turned it into a challenge for the team to create a most unique pre-opening office in the entire Ascott history. The team gamely accepted the challenge by using the cardboard boxes as their writing desks, and somebody borrowed chairs from the cafeteria next door. This became the talking point every time we reminisce about the pre-opening days!”

3) Be quick to adapt to local practices

Another very important skill that Mae learnt in her 10 years was the need to adapt to new situations. For example, just knowing the language isn’t good enough when you’re working in China. You also must make sure the locals understand you.

Mae shared an anecdote about how a fruit store owner guessed she was Singaporean because she used the collective word “粒” instead of “个” when buying apples. In China, the former is used to refer to smaller items like grains of rice!

Mae enjoying a light-hearted moment with her young residents in Shanghai

Adapting quickly to local informal speech is also crucial when moving from city to city.

“For example, it is common to hear the word “揿” in Shanghai. It means “press”. So “click the mouse” would be “揿一下”. After having spent two years in Shanghai, I naturally thought everyone in China used this expression.

One day in Beijing, I was going through an Excel document with a colleague and needed her to click a cell so that we can review the formula. I repeated “揿一下” but only received a blank stare in response. In the end my colleague gave me a puzzled expression and asked “你在说啥呢?”, “What are you saying?”

I then realize how culturally diverse China is – every city, province has their own local phrases and slang.”

Mae’s work with Ascott in China took her from Shanghai to Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Each city had something to offer.

“I love all the four cities as each city presented me with different set of learning opportunities, friends, and food! I love local food and am game to try most stuff. In Shanghai, Jia Jia Tang Bao on Huanghe Road is a must-visit for its delicious xiaolongbao. It’s within a 15-minute walk from Raffles City Shanghai.”

Mae (in green) with the Somerset Liang Court Singapore team

However, the Singaporean did get homesick, especially for the food.

“As soon as I came back from China, I had Yuguo Curry Rice at ABC Brickworks Market as I love the flavourful Hainanese pork chops from this stall. I also highly recommend the rojak from Soon Heng Rojak stall in the basement of the Toa Payoh HDB Hub. Be prepared to wait for 10 to 15 minutes but it is definitely worth the wait as the rojak is full of fresh and crunchy ingredients!”

Yet, the one thing she missed most about Singapore?

“My mum’s cooking!”