Up Front: October 2006

Look away

Anniversaries come and go, sometimes coinciding and even colliding. We’re putting this, our 25th anniversary issue of Business North Carolina, to bed three days after the nation commemorated the fifth anniversary of 9/11. I had asked Alex McMillan, who was on our editorial staff from 1994 to 1999 and is now a freelance writer in Hong Kong, to do a piece on Chinese workers as part of the package. He filled me in on what he’s been up to.

A native of Bristol, England, Alex came to BNC right out of Carolina, where he was a Morehead Scholar. He left for a job with what’s now the CNN Money Web site. “I spent two years in New York, reporting on the dot-com boom and crash and writing personal-finance features. We also covered the Y2K nonevent and partied like it was 1999. I remember getting worried about tech stocks being overhyped when a Sikh cab driver asked me about Cisco, which he’d bought the week before.”

In 2001, CNN sent him to Hong Kong to cover business for the Web site’s Asian edition. “I had never been here before and was startled on the way in from the airport to see the Chinese flag hoisted above many buildings. Even though I knew that Hong Kong now belonged to China, it was a revelation to see that manifested.” He followed Asian markets and companies and got to know the city. “I was sitting in what we call Rat Alley, a favorite little Thai restaurant off the main fray of the bar district of Lan Kwai Fong, when a friend at CNN called me to say a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

“That didn’t surprise me much — I had often gone up on the roof of my building in the West Village when I lived in New York and been impressed by the volume of air traffic in the sky. But when my friend called to say the second tower had been hit, I realized I would need to go to work.” He wrote some of the first coverage posted on the site, his main contribution a story on the reaction of governments around the world. “The next day, I wrote a piece pointing out how many people worked in the Twin Towers and which main companies were affected.”

With distance often comes perspective, and that’s what we wanted for this special issue. Publications, especially magazines, are accused of using anniversaries as an excuse for throwing orgies of self-congratulatory excess. We didn’t want to do that. Rather than traipse down memory lane — which we did in detail upon our 15th anniversary — we opted to try to tell how our economy got where it is and predict where it’s going. For the latter, we turned to another alumnus, Philadelphia freelancer Tim Gray, BNC’s former editor.

Alex, who left CNN in 2003 for freelancing, married a Hong Kong woman last year and became a father in February. The city, he says, is now home. “It’s hard to compare North Carolina with China, which often seems like a big factory, ready to make the world’s goods. It has been going through a rapid industrial revolution. But it’s facing pressure from lower-cost nations, with jobs moving to Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, Sri Lanka and the like. So China is changing, too, and I suspect will soon not just be the world’s factory but also its office, performing a lot of white-collar functions and creating an increasing number of service jobs.”