In the late 1970s, after years of suspicion and distrust, China slowly eased the tension between East and the West by lifting its Iron Curtain through a handful of joint venture projects with U.S. firms. The largest of these was the design and construction of the first international standard, five-star hotel in its capital, Beijing.
The Great Wall Hotel, currently known as The Great Wall Sheraton Hotel Beijing, was designed by Welton Becket’s New York office and its construction was managed by Becket International, located in Santa Monica, California. This then alien-looking 22-story, 2007-room hotel was clad in a reflective glass curtain wall, the first of its kind in China, and designed with reinforced concrete in accordance with the Western (California) seismic standards. Its Grand Ball Room was used by President Reagan to reciprocate the state banquet hosted by Deng Xiaoping during Reagan’s first visit to China in 1984.
As a member of the Joint Procurement Team (JPT) formed of Chinese and U.S. partners, my involvement included preparing bid packages that listed rebar from South Korea and linen and silverware from France. This project was an eye-opening experience that was invaluable for a young, 24-year-old architect. The international solicitation went out to 86 countries and everything except sand and cement had to be imported and shipped to Beijing. Carrying all the bid packages, I embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to China, joining the on-site construction management team in 1982 as the building was completing its subterranean structure and emerging out of the ground.
As the only technical member of the U.S. team fluent in Chinese, I was involved in duties far beyond those of a field engineer. Sitting in senior management level meetings, negotiating contracts with international vendors with our Chinese counterpart, plus visiting factories and fabrication sites abroad, gave me the rare opportunity to understand the intricacies of high-finance and negotiation techniques.
The challenges in managing the construction was magnified by unskilled labor, language and cultural differences, lack of trust and transparency from both parties and differences in management systems and style. There were six U.S. construction management team members on-site working with over a hundred Chinese counterparts, mostly engineers.
The project had two and sometimes three around-the-clock shifts with over 1,000 laborers per shift. Going from the top deck to the bottom of the six-story underground parking/bomb shelters, using a clicker to take a headcount, was part of my daily tasks. Taking off my shirt and playing ping-pong with the Chinese engineers was my highlight of the day.
In addition to the Great Wall Hotel construction being part of my work history, it is part of my personal history, as well. While on my honeymoon in 1984, I participated in the “final punch list” inspection prior to the hotel’s Grand Opening.
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