Wuhan man’s rags to riches story in Dubai

Estimated read time 9 min read

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Consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum. Sed ut perspiciatis unde omnis iste natus error sit voluptatem accusantium doloremque laudantium, totam rem aperiam, eaque ipsa quae ab illo inventore veritatis.” byline=”Zhang Weina & Fan Tingting” caption=”Zheng Dixiang at his Zhongbai Supermarket in International City, Dubai.” credits=”FAN TINGTING/EXPAT MEDIA”]

Wuhan man’s rags to riches story in Dubai

Carrying only one piece of luggage and a family photo, Wuhan chemical plant worker Zheng Dixiang left for Dubai in 2004 to pursue his dream. He didn’t speak English. He only knew that at 43, he wanted to make it big in Dubai.

Now, 19 years later, the 62-year-old Chinese businessman has achieved his rags to riches story in Dubai. Uncle Zheng, as he is fondly called, runs Zhongbai Supermarket, a thriving Chinese supermarket in International City. He plans to expand his business in Saudi Arabia through the Belt & Road Initiative, China’s global infrastructure development strategy to increase trade.

“I went to Dubai because of a piece of news published on Changjiang Daily,” Zheng recalled. It was about a new China mall being constructed in Dubai. After dinner that day, Zheng, called his family for a meeting. At that time, he had quit his job at the chemical factory to sell hotel supplies in Wuhan, and his business was not doing well. He wanted to try his luck in a bigger market.

“Where is Dubai?” asked his wife, Hu Yinhua. The family of four had never been abroad, neither did they know anything about Dubai. “Do you speak English? How can you go abroad if you don’t know English?” his teenage son, Zheng Guo, asked. Although Zheng had studied at a local education institute, he struggled to speak English.

To relieve his family’s anxiety, Zheng picked up the newspaper again and pointed out that the China mall in Dubai would surely have many Chinese entrepreneurs who would take care of each other.

Developing business on his feet

In May 2004, Zheng boarded the plane to Dubai with some Chinese travelers from Hubei province. He visited the China mall as soon as he landed in Dubai. Because it looks like a giant dragon, the mall is called Dragon Mart by locals.

Finding clients was on top of Zheng’s tasks. He hired a Chinese interpreter who went with him as he visited hotels to pitch his samples of towels, soap and slippers. In his first two years in Dubai, Zheng could not afford a car, so he had to walk from one hotel to another.

Once, he and the interpreter were walking on the road when a police car suddenly stopped. The policeman was quite surprised to see two Chinese men who were sweating profusely under the scorching sun. Knowing that they were doing business in Dubai, the policeman invited them to get in the police car and gave them a ride to their destination.

In order to find customers, Zheng found a local telephone directory and called hotel suppliers one by one. After making a lot of phone calls, an Indian businessman became interested in the products Zheng was promoting. “Finally, he ordered a batch of goods from me.” This was Zheng’s first order in two months after moving to Dubai.

From that day on, orders started coming in. However, they were only in small quantities. Zheng felt frustrated but decided to carry on.

Life in Dubai

Zheng missed his family a lot, particularly his young son and daughter. It was expensive to make international calls, so Zheng could only afford one call every half a month and he talked only good news on the phone. His wife, Hu, could only guess the difficulties he faced abroad.

It was only when she visited Zheng in Dubai in 2006 that she saw that her husband’s life was more difficult than she had imagined.

Zheng shared a two-bedroom house with more than 20 people, and even the living room was filled with bunk beds. Every weekend, to save money, he would go across a desert to a vegetable wholesale market to buy all the daily necessities for a week. He also survived on Arabic bread.

Many times, Hu considered asking her husband to go back to Wuhan, but changed her mind. She thought, “We two are typical Wuhan people. Since we are already here, we must make a name for ourselves.” They never talked about returning to Wuhan. Zheng believed in persistence.

Then, his business hit a turning point. He passed by a construction site and the workers there asked if he could install ceramic tiles. Through their conversation, he learned that there were so many construction sites in the UAE and that workers were badly needed. He thought, “If they need so many workers, I think that means they also need many ceramic tiles.” Zheng suddenly found a business opportunity.

Soon, Zheng opened a store in Abu Dhabi to sell high-quality ceramic tiles from Hubei, Fujian and other provinces in China. On the first day of opening, an Emirati passed by his store and talked to his staff. “I don’t know any English and couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I just stood there and watched them from a distance. Later, when I saw the man walking in, I was relieved and knew that the business was basically done,” he said.

As Zheng expected, the UAE’s demand for building materials kept growing, which boosted his business. Now, he sells more than 500 kinds of ceramic tiles in his store.

In 2017, Zheng opened Zhongbai Supermarket, a Chinese supermarket in International City’s China cluster. The supermarket has more than 6,000 kinds of Chinese products, as well as fruits and vegetables, and even iron pots.

With business thriving, Zheng’s son quit his job in Guangzhou and moved to Dubai to help his father. Last year, his daughter also moved to Dubai after graduating from university. Now the Zhengs all live and work in Dubai.

At 62, Zheng has no plans of stopping. He wants to introduce more products from his hometown of Hubei to sell in his supermarket. He also plans to open a farm in Dubai to supply fresh vegetables to his supermarket. He has also set his sights on Saudi Arabia, and plans to open a business there. ZW/FT/Expat Media

This story also appears in the Expat Media Special Edition magazine

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