8 Questions for Anna Tsui, Health Entrepreneur

Although she has no professional fitness background, Anna Tsui is passionate about helping China get fit and healthy. She’s the co-founder of Wokaishi, a start-up that aims to make fitness available to everyone, anywhere and anytime. Here, she shares her thoughts on health and entrepreneurship in China.

When and why did you first come to China?

Actually, I was born in Guangzhou in 1985 on a sugarcane plantation. My family left for the US shortly after and I didn’t return until I was about 16, to family in Guangzhou and Hong Kong. As a teenager I remember being enamored by the history, culture and cuisine of southern China—it was just so different from what I had experienced in the States. I wanted to really understand what it meant to be Chinese. Another nine years passed before I made the jump that lead me to the nation’s capital where I would learn the language and be immersed in its dynamic metropolis. I arrived in Beijing on July 25, 2010 and have been here ever since.

What projects are you working on right now?

I am doing a start-up! My Chinese partners and I are building an online platform for health and fitness in Chinacalled Wokaishi, meaning “I start” in Chinese. It provides health, fitness and nutrition information and workout plans to users who are interested in building a healthier lifestyle. Compared to the US, China’s fitness market is in its infancy, so we want to be the ones growing the market and helping Chinese people broaden their knowledge about health. We went live this summer and are currently working on an more interactive version of the original plan.

I am also a fellow in the Beijing chapter of the Startup Leadership Program (SLP), a training and mentorship program for entrepreneurs. It’s a great network of creative and innovative people who are changing the world, one startup at a time.

What advice do you have for people who want to build a start-up in China?

1. Don’t do it.

2. If you really insist on doing it. Forget everything you know and just jump in! Don’t make any assumptions, such as, “I already know how this works because I did it before in the US” or even, “The law will protect me because I have it in writing.”

3. Enjoy the process. Although the chances of you creating the next Weibo are slim, the chances of you having an experience of a lifetime are absolutely guaranteed. For a fraction of a price it would cost you to do a start-up back home, you can build one here. You’ll learn more in 6 months than most people do in business school. Even if you don’t become hugely successful, see it as an investment. Good luck!

What’s one of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced in China?

I thought I had good soft skills before I came, but China requires a whole new level of nuanced communication. You can’t always believe what you hear, or even what you see and read. This is a country of many faces and how people treat you depends a lot on your education level, social status, connections, occupation and the money in your bank account. Also, rules don’t always apply and there are always exceptions to the rules. There is a certain dance that you have to do during meetings and greetings to show respect, humility and power. I’ve found that professional and personal communication is quite difficult for me here—and I’m Chinese! I have definitely offended my fair share of people and am doing my best to mitigate this by having my business partner act as a cultural filter and by saving my real opinions for when they are called for. There is an appropriate, designated time for honesty, which is usually not in public.

How has living here influenced your work, career, or personal development?

China is a time warp. The speed of things here is four times that of any other place. This is true with construction, business, and personal development. Living in Beijing has enabled me to connect with a diverse local and international community. I have surprisingly been able to build a good network of friends and acquaintances in a relatively short period of time. I am also constantly challenged on a personal and intellectual level, being forced to face situations that just don’t exist in the US: “What do you mean we have to take them to karaoke?” In this way, I think I am becoming more adaptive as an individual and more comfortable with the unknown.

Based on your experience, what do you think is the biggest misconception about China?

I am fortunate to be able to see this city from many perspectives: as an American, a returning Chinese, a university student, an entrepreneur and a professional. China is a very, very large amalgamation of very different markets. If someone had only encountered southern Chinese people, they would be shocked if they came to Beijing. I was. “Where’s the Dim Sum? This food tastes weird. I can’t understand a word anyone is saying. Why are people here so tall?”

Anyone who has travelled through China will attest to the stark differences in people, landscape, culture and language. There is such a wide range of preferences and ideas. Also, even though things seem chaotic and disorderly, there is an underlying system here that works. As soon as you realize that things are predictably unpredictable and that nothing is set in stone, then you are better equipped to deal with the inevitable.

Can you describe one of your favorite or “most memorable” China experiences?

This summer my friends and I travelled through breathtaking Yunnan Province and hiked the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. We stayed at Naxi Family Guesthouse and drank their homemade rice wine while sitting in their open courtyard facing snow-tipped mountains. I think Li Bai would have been jealous. We dined with other travelers, hiked up misty bends and let the big tiger transport our woes across the rocky gorge.

What are your favorite hangout spots in China?

My house, Kaldi Coffee, East Shore Jazz Cafe and a wonderful health-conscious place called Backyard Café.

Photo courtesy of Anna Tsui.