The open arms of Liuzhou

Updated: 2012-12-28 14:26

By Wang Chao and Huo Yan (China Daily)

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 The open arms of Liuzhou

Christine O'Sullivan, who supervises engine plants for SGMW, says Liuzhou treats her like a family member. Lan Lin / for China Daily

 The open arms of Liuzhou

Claude Servant, general manager of Liuzhou Tech Machinery Co, has helped bring Western standards and processes to the old industrial city. Huo Yan / China Daily

Expatriates find warmth and joy in a consistently welcoming city

In 2002, Christine O'Sullivan came to Shanghai for her first trip to China on a business trip for General Motors and "fell in love" with the country.

Four years later, GM stationed the senior director of its engine manufacturing department for SAIC GM Wuling Automobile Co in Liuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, to help establish an engine plant. Though Liuzhou, a city of no more than 200 expats, is the first Chinese city that the Toronto-born Canadian has ever lived in for a long period of time in the Middle Kingdom, she says she couldn't be more grateful for the opportunity.

And it's obvious that Liuzhou residents love O'Sullivan. In 2010, the central government awarded her the Friendship Award, the highest honor for expats in China. She also volunteers to teach English to a group of Chinese children and is the godmother of a 3-year-old Liuzhou girl. She said the city of approximately 3.8 million has welcomed her with open arms and treats her like a family member.

When O'Sullivan came here six years ago - after first working in GM's office in Canada, then New York City and Detroit - nobody knew about automobile engines. In establishing GM's engine plant, she brought over many of its technologies and standards to Liuzhou. As she began training the local people to work in the factory, she says they caught on fast, even to the point of feeding her with new ideas about efficiency and other improvements.

At the engine plant, in between the huge roaring machines assembling parts together, it is not easy to spot workers. O'Sullivan says it is one of the most-automated lines in the world. With machines performing the most routine of jobs, O'Sullivan directs the engineers and workers to solve problems along the automated lines. She walks briskly around the factory, auditing and checking for quality.

Currently O'Sullivan supervises two engine plants for SGMW, one in Liuzhou and another in Qingdao, Shandong province. She will lead another plant in Chongqing next year.

The engine plant in Liuzhou produces 14 models of engines, a leap from just one model back in 2006. The plant also exports engines to Egypt. Next year, it will ship engines to India.

She says the company vibe at SGMW is similar to the charm of Liuzhou. Whether people are speaking English or Chinese, everyone treats her as family. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the SGMW joint venture, the fleet of 2,000 workers at the engine plant is putting on a dance show with a little Gangnam Style flavor. O'Sullivan and the workers have been practicing all week.

"(The family atmosphere) has nothing to do with the language," she says, grinning.

Like O'Sullivan, Claude Servant, general manager of Liuzhou Tech Machinery Co, has felt the warm embrace of Liuzhou.

"Liuzhou people are nice and welcoming. There are not too many foreigners in Liuzhou. When I walk on the street, people will smile to me and say hello, but in metropolis areas like Shanghai, people don't care," he says.

Servant began his career as a nuclear energy engineer in France 30 years ago and came to Liuzhou five years ago as a process manager for Liuzhou Tech.

Servant trains workers on standardization processes to ensure that its products (mostly air compressors) are up to standards.

O'Sullivan and Servant share one thing in common: They have both brought Western standards and processes to the old Chinese industrial city.

Although Liuzhou is an auto town, it is nothing like Detroit, or any other old heavy-industrial bases in the Western world, O'Sullivan says.

"It constantly changes and it is getting nicer and nicer with more trees and flowers," she says.

The city just opened a night cruise along the Liujiang River that sweeps around the city.

"The glittering lights and music fountains make me feel like I'm in Las Vegas," says O'Sullivan, who recently brought several friends from Canada to visit.

O'Sullivan's husband lives with her in Liuzhou and their son recently graduated from college. She says that her son proposed to his girlfriend at Rockefeller Center in New York City. O'Sullivan captured the moment on her phone and couldn't hold her glee when she showed it. "Isn't that romantic?" she asks.

With a scant number of foreigners in the city, there aren't a great deal of facilities designated for foreigners: few bars, few imported ingredients and no international schools.

Servant had to put his 14-year-old son into international schools in Guangzhou and Chengdu.

"It's a pity that we don't have an international school in Guangxi. If the government wants to attract good people to work in Liuzhou, it is important that it have such schools for their children," he says.

But O'Sullivan has a more open mind toward this issue. She says if she came here when her children were young enough, she would like to put them into Chinese schools.

"I wish I had the opportunity to do that. I coach a couple of young Chinese girls in English at weekends and I found the education system is fantastic."

In her spare time, O'Sullivan travels to nearby countries and dives.

"Asia is the best place in the world to dive. We didn't know how to dive until 2008, but now we have had about 200 dives in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia."

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Huang Feifei contributed to this story.

(China Daily 12/28/2012 page18)