China and the World

Just desserts

Tales of Dubai’s wealthy waiters pique interest in China

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Bellyful: Chinese visitors in Dubai

For the 2.4 million waiters and waitresses working in American restaurants last year, the average salary was just below $21,000 (including tips).

Waiters hoping for more might be advised to try Dubai, after a posting on China’s Twitter-equivalent weibo went viral. It described a Chinese man working in a hotel in the emirate who claims to have done well enough after three years in the job to buy four apartments back in China. “They were purchased with the tips he saved from customers,” the person telling the tale explained.

The case is lacking in details but it has coincided with a wider discussion about how Dubai has become a ‘tuhao paradise’ for the Chinese who go there.

Regular readers will be familiar with the meaning of tuhao, which translates loosely as nouveau riche (see WiC217). But in Dubai’s case it is being interpreted in two ways: one, that the city is a great place for fans of sports cars, glitzy hotels and luxury goods; and two, that for poorer Chinese, it offers a chance to get rich quick.

Dubai welcomed 275,675 Chinese visitors last year, an 11% increase, as local tourism bosses targeted China’s freer-spending visitors. Chinese New Year celebrations at the end of January included the Burj Al Arab hotel lighting up its famous sail with a red dragon, for instance, followed by a week of lion dances and calligraphy demonstrations.

China’s media has focused more on what it terms as the “grassroots migration” to Dubai – the Chinese nationals who make up about a tenth of the 2.1 million population.

According to CBN, there are three main types of Chinese expats working there. Firstly, there are traders who treat it as a hub for the Middle East and North Africa, and who concentrate around the vast DragonMart emporium that serves as the largest marketplace for Chinese goods in the region.

The second group is the expats who serve as middle managers for Chinese firms with contracts in Dubai.

Then there is the “have nothing to lose” brigade, says CBN. Many of these newer arrivals work in tourism and retail, serving the increasing numbers of Chinese who stay in Dubai’s hotels and shop at its malls.

This is the group that has been generating the buzz in the social media, because of the tales about its earning potential.

To back up Dubai’s “gold rush” reputation, CBN introduces a man from Shandong, who works as a waiter at the Burj Al Arab. “In China I could only be a construction worker with monthly wages of Rmb5,000 ($800) or so,” he explains. “But my monthly basic salary plus tips exceeds Rmb10,000 and the hotel provides accommodation and meals… Now my goal is to save the first pot of gold and run a small business here.”

The story then switches to another immigrant, this one from Chengdu. He also started out as a waiter in Dubai but now runs a firm renting sports cars to tourists. “If I were in China, this life would be unimaginable,” he explains.

All of the discussion about the wealthy waiters makes WiC wonder if a public relations campaign is under way, funded by Dubai’s hotel recruiters.

Nevertheless it has become such a hot topic that state news agency Xinhua weighed in with a dampener. The salaries for sales and hotel jobs in Dubai are generally higher than those in China, the news agency notes, but so too are the living expenses. It also points out that Chinese tuhao are not too generous in tipping their compatriots and that tourism-related incomes can be unstable, especially during Dubai’s summer low season.

“As long as one is capable and works hard, there is a gold-panning heaven everywhere,” Xinhua concludes, referring back to the nineteenth century gold rush when thousands of Chinese workers flocked to California.

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