David Wolf – remembering a China hand

David Wolf, in his natural environment.
David in his natural environment. From his Instagram.

In June 2004, I quit a perfectly good job at a little PR firm in Singapore and went to Beijing to do a three month language program. Eight years in Singapore had made me a bit stir crazy and China, freshly through WTO accession, seemed like the place to be. Astoundingly enough, Mrs. Imagethief, who had been my wife for all of two years, blessed this batshit scheme. To this day, I think her willingness to say, “Yes, by all means, fuck off to China for a while,” explains the healthy state of our marriage.

I had done a couple of years with a Mandarin tutor in Singapore but I needed a forcing function to get me to Beijing. I signed up for a summer program with a fairly bullshit and now defunct language program that was near the famous Beijing Language and Culture University without, you know, being actually affiliated with it. The language instruction was mediocre, but the program got me a visa and put a roof over my head for three months. I’ll never forget the orientation speech. “Don’t eat the roadside chuans. You have no idea what they’re made from.” I ate a lot of roadside chuans because I reject authority.

At the end of the summer, I lined up some job interviews. I had only been in PR for a couple of years (after two imploded Internet startups in Singapore) and was still learning the trade. It says something about that go-go era that a PR newbie with zero China skills could even dream of landing work beyond the evergreen English teaching gig.

As it often is, the secret was a connection. The then head of Burson Marsteller Singapore had tried to recruit me that spring. Over coffee I told him my China scheme and he said he would make an introduction when I was ready. I got the introduction and the interview. Four years later, during the 2008 melamine crisis, he and I would spend a National Day golden week miserably locked in the Beijing office of a global food corporation with a big dairy business. Good times.

On a hot August day, I flagged a cheap Xiali taxi in Wudaokou and took the forty minute ride to China World Trade Center, at the intersection of Jianguomen Wai and the Third Ring Road. When you see aerial shots of traffic in meltdown in Beijing, it’s often that intersection, which looks like a freeway cloverleaf imagined by Heironymous Bosch. During the ride I sweated through my white dress shirt. The sweat leached years of accumulated grime out of the seatbelt and I walked into Burson China for the first time with a greasy, diagonal black stripe across my chest. Roger, the head of HR, yanked me aside and said, “Next time take an air conditioned taxi. We’ll pay for it.”

I had four interviews that day, black stripe and all. In three of them, I was acutely aware of, and perhaps slightly defensive of, my ignorance of all things China. But David did what he was so good at; he put me at ease and drew me into a thoughtful conversation. He radiated enthusiasm and curiosity and it was easy to feel comfortable and engaged. I forgot about my Xiali tattoo. Later, David would tell me, “you aced that interview,” so I’ve always assumed he was an advocate for my hiring. Regardless, Burson hired me and David and I started working on technology accounts together.

David was large in body, personality and voice – a head taller than me and, in those days, quite a bit wider. If my career in China were a bad movie, he would have been the grizzled veteran who showed me, the green-ass rookie, the ropes.

And, man, I was as green as a shamrock shake. China was incomprehensibly huge. Beijing was incomprehensibly huge. The district I lived in had the same population as Singapore. My language skills were crappy. I was elated every time I managed some aspect of normal life, like shopping (I’m sorry – where do I weigh the vegetables?), buying bed linens or taking the subway. The biggest press event I’d ever run in Singapore had been eighteen reporters (the local launch of Microsoft Office XP), and I thought I’d belted that shit out of the park like Barry Bonds. In China we’d have hundreds.

As I was staggering around, punch drunk and ignorant, David was my guide and coach. He taught me the craft and showed me how we, as foreigners, could be useful to our mostly international clients and our very talented Chinese colleagues. He showed me how to navigate the murky ethics of China’s media environment and instilled in me the value that one of our essential roles as PR counselors is to be the conscience of the organizations we work for, a lesson that has been a touchstone of my career. He was also a connector of people. Breakfast or lunch with David and [this person you gotta meet!] was a staple of my life in Beijing.

I admired David’s experience and connections in China. I admired his rainmaking talent (the same talent had put me at ease in my interview) and the trust he inspired in clients and prospects. I admired David’s command of the language. He would joke in Mandarin with our Chinese colleagues and banter effortlessly with taxi drivers. When they complimented his Mandarin, he would tell them, “It’s good enough to fool the Japanese.” This line killed.

David wasn’t the only person I learned from. I was absorbing lessons from our boss and from my Chinese colleagues, who rescued me on several occasions. In those days we could hire the absolute best and brightest; young professionals who had propelled themselves through China’s brutal educational system and into the most elite universities. They were a huge amount of fun to work with. But David was who I returned to discuss and process the torrent of stuff that I was absorbing.

David and I only worked together at Burson for a bit over a year, but we stayed in touch after he left to set up his own shop. In 2010, I left Burson and joined Motorola Mobility to lead their regional comms, a job I came to through a David connection. I became David’s client. He and I flew to Hong Kong together for a meeting. We landed in the teeth of a typhoon and suppressed our nervousness by talking so loudly that a guy in the row in front of us had to tell us to STFU. We went to Seoul and the head of Motorola Korea took us out for a cracking traditional meal where I, always up for a culinary challenge, tried fermented stingray. The next morning, my innards melted as we were stuck in a town car in a traffic jam over one of the bridges across the Han River. David talked me through it like I was having a bad LSD trip. We made it to our destination before I [choose one] comprehensively defiled the town car or made social media history as the foreigner relieving himself on the Mapo Bridge in front of the aghast commuters of Seoul.

David would not eat fermented stingray. He was an observant Jew, and kept kosher. Fermented stingray did not meet the rabbinical bar. I am from a non-observant family, so I am eating the damned fermented stingray wrapped in fatty pork, or the mystery chuans they warned us about in language school, because I have the freedom to and because I am also an idiot who can’t back down from a culinary challenge.

As long as we both lived in Beijing, David and I would meet for lunch every month or so. No stingray. Wherever we went, it had to serve something that, even if not technically kosher, wasn’t obviously transgressive. That ruled out a lot of Chinese food, so our usual maneuver was Pete’s Tex Mex, in northeast Beijing. After a while, the waitresses knew both our orders, which was kind of tragic. The food was adequate, but the conversation was always excellent. I would walk in and, invariably, Dave would already be there, at his usual table, colossal 17” Macbook open, greeting me with a huge grin. Often, he would have been holding court for a while, with appointments before and after. But, just as in the job interview years before, he had the ability to make me feel like the center of the world when it was my turn.

A decade ago, David and I both moved back to the US, me to the Bay Area and him to Southern California. We’d still get together when he was in the Valley. China receded, slowly at first, and then, during covid, rapidly. The last time I saw David was shortly before the pandemic. In a pleasing bit of symmetry (or, depending on how you look at it, an act of blistering unoriginality), our last meal together was at a mediocre Tex Mex place near my office in Santa Clara. Old habits. He was much thinner, but he still towered over me, and his voice still vibrated the windows. And he still made me feel like the center of the world.

I didn’t have much contact with him after that, other than the occasional text message or back and forth on Twitter. I could blame covid, I guess. But covid didn’t stop email and my life is full of people I should be keeping in better touch with, especially as the actuarial funnel begins to narrow to Keynesian inevitability. David was only three years older than me. There’s a lesson there, if I grope for it.

David was a connector of people. In China in the mid-2000s, he was the node at the center of a generation of comms pros, foreign and Chinese alike. After his son shared news of his death, the old network emerged to remember him. David had the ability to make you feel special when you were with him. But he was expansive with his friendship and support, in the best way, and you could see that in the threads. You could also see how much of his network had moved on from China in the last ten or twelve years. Some are still there, but many are now in California, Washington, DC, Singapore, London…

Times change. When I think back on the most intense period of my friendship and work with David, it was very much a product of those go-go post-WTO years. China was growing 10 percent a year. The technocrats were ascendant and the Olympics were coming. One could be unapologetically optimistic about engagement. And a doofus like me could appear in Beijing and, with the help of someone like David, build a meaningful career and some lasting friendships.

That time is over, I guess. I tell people that I miss China, but I don’t regret leaving. I feel like there was an arc to my life there and it ended when it was supposed to. But I am nostalgic. David was a huge part of that experience, and a connection back to those days of adventure. Now he’s gone, and it’s a different world.

See also: PRovoke’s obituary of David with comment from me and many others who knew and worked with him.

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3 Responses to David Wolf – remembering a China hand

  1. Shannon Roy says:

    This is a perfect way to honor David, Will. Thanks for writing it, and thanks for making it so beautiful. He is enormously missed.


  2. Alan Kahn says:

    So well done Will. Thank you. I miss Dave, miss you, and miss those “old days” when we were all together.


  3. Joseph Lemien says:

    I’ve followed your blog since around 2009 or so, when I was a student in Beijing for a year. I feel a LOT of nostalgia for the “old days” when the China watcher blogosphere was fertile with great writing and thought-provoking reflections, and when there seemed to be so much hope for positive changes in the couple of years right after the Olympics. I remember PR people, startup techies, English teachers, scholars, and more sharing their ideas and simple-looking little blogs. This post of yours brought me back to the old days, when we could get 1 RMB chuan and before Facebook was censored.

    I never knew David Wolf. I had heard or seen his name a few times, maybe in podcasts or in blog posts or at some event in Beijing. But I really appreciated you writing this post about him. I’m sad that I missed him.


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