Alaska mission to China kicks off with ceremony, trade talks…and speed dating

Ron Risher of Icicle Seafoods talk to Crescent Xuan, Manager of International Trade for the Sichuan Jinggong Flavor Co., during a “speed dating” event designed to bring companies with Alaska products to Chinese consumers on Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Chengdu, China. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Imagine flying all the way to China for a blind date. Or waiting for that Alaskan from halfway around the world to make the first move.

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That’s kind of what it was like Tuesday for David McCarthy, co-owner of the 49th State Brewing Company, a craft beer brand with brewpubs in Denali and Anchorage.

McCarthy is traveling with Alaska’s trade delegation to China. The mix of Alaska companies and officials, led by Gov. Bill Walker, began their official visit this week at the annual China-U.S. Governor’s Forum in Chengdu.

The meeting brings together U.S. governors and regional Chinese leaders to talk about trade and investment, and allows for face-to-face meetings between local businesses.

That’s where the speed-dating comes in. After a long day of ceremony and seminars, McCarthy sat down with several Chinese companies.

And, just like a real date, there were a lot of tentative ni hao’s (or hellos). There were glances toward the interpreters (don’t you wish you had one of those on a real date?). And then… there were some surprises.

Gov. Bill Walker watches a show during a banquet capping the day of the Fourth Annual China-U.S. Governors Forum on Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Chengdu, China. Walker is leading a 10-day trade mission with Alaska entities into China, hoping to deepen trade ties between the two. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Take one of McCarthy’s dates – a company from the northern part of China, interested in pairing McCarthy’s beer with Alaska seafood and selling it in mobile carts. The area, the translator noted, has a big population. Really big.

“50 million!” McCarthy marveled. “That’s a big market. ”

McCarthy asked the translator if she knew the population of Alaska. She didn’t.

“750,000,” McCarthy said, to laughter.

McCarthy and co-owner Jason Motyka are hoping to sell their beer directly into China. They talked about flying it into Beijing or Shanghai — anywhere Chinese consumers can drink Alaska beer, then hop on a plane and go see the state for themselves.

So, did the speed-dating work?

McCarthy said there were some promising exchanges.

“We did trade numbers with the last guys,” McCarthy said. “And maybe we’re going to go out for drinks later too!”

The short meetings were a chance for Alaska businesses to introduce themselves directly to what they hope will be a giant market of new customers. At the end of the day, it wasn’t immediately clear that anyone had landed that special someone. But several members of the delegation said they were astonished by the amount of interest in Alaska products, recipes and  brands.

Crescent Xuan is the head of the international trade department at Sichuan Jinggong Flavor Company. She spent a lot of time talking to the four seafood companies that are traveling with the Alaska delegation

Xuan said her company is interested in incorporating Alaska salmon into their food flavorings. And, she said, these short, fast meetings left her wanting to know more.

“Because I think the time is so short,” Xuan said. “If I had more time, more chance to communicate with the company and the people… We say, the more time for communication, more time for understanding.”

To that end, many of the companies traded numbers and promised to follow up. Just like a promising first date.

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Rashah McChesney is a photojournalist turned radio journalist who has been telling stories in Alaska since 2012. Before joining Alaska's Energy Desk , she worked at Kenai's Peninsula Clarion and the Juneau bureau of the Associated Press. She is a graduate of Iowa State University's Greenlee Journalism School and has worked in public television, newspapers and now radio, all in the quest to become the Swiss Army knife of storytellers.

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