By Nivriti Butalia
Khaleej Times, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet “Li Dongzia”, the Chinese expat who owns a company with joint partnerships in 20 Dubai high-rise buildings. When she is not acting as a marketing consultant for several Chinese construction companies, this “tough as nails” entrepreneur is enjoying several artistic ventures including poetry and calligraphy.
Her story could be made into a movie. In fact, a Lebanese writer is writing a book on her, calling it High Heels and Concrete.
Li Dongxia (pronounced Zhonghua), a Chinese expat who’s lived in Dubai for 16 years, is something of a construction mogul.
She’s also the chairman of a private cultural centre for Chinese women in Dubai to meet and socialize every week. It’s open to all Chinese women.
Li also owns a company that has joint partnerships of 20 high-rise buildings in Dubai. Li describes herself as a “big person”, laughing at her own immodest comment about how she’s perceived in the Chinese community here.
Li studied to be a surgeon. But the medical university degree was not recognized outside China. So, for a while in Dubai, she did hospital administration. But that was before the construction boom.
She’s now a marketing consultant for several Chinese construction companies.
“Before, I had a lot of work dealing with hospitals,” Li says, citing Rashid Hospital, where if they ever had a Chinese patient who couldn’t understand English, they’d ring Li to translate.
“I am a charity-minded person,” she adds, clarifying that she played the role of a medical interpreter for seven years for free. “It wasn’t easy. Nothing is easy. But also nothing is impossible.”
She says of her returns from the construction biz: “Each penny is mixed with tears and sweat.” (telling me to, “say like that”.) She has a son, also in Dubai, who is the “the star of my eyes. I’m proud of him. He’s independent. I am oriental-minded. Our kids today are not. That’s the generation-gap.”
Excerpts from a conversation with Li:
Q. Are you on Facebook?
A: I am on Facebook. But I never use (it) because (I am) too busy.
Q. Busy doing what?
A. I spend a lot of time promoting Chinese culture and tradition in UAE. I have been outside of China for many years. I was in Bahrain before Dubai. For the last two years, I am the chairman of Zhonghua Culture & Language Communication & Training Center on Shaikh Zayed Road. I own a construction company. I monitor 3,000 people. When I started I didn’t know anything. I used to sit on the ground and ask the workers to tell me names of construction material. I could not spell concrete. I learned.
Q. So, what happens at the cultural centre?
A. Every Friday afternoon 50-80 Chinese ladies meet. It’s free. We socialize, we talk, we rehearse dance. Otherwise, we feel isolated. We need to promote ourselves.
Q. How come one doesn’t see too many Chinese people around? How many Chinese people are here even?
A. There are 150,000 Chinese people in Dubai. Half don’t speak English. Most Chinese in UAE live in Dubai; 80,000 live around International City, Dragon Mart and Deira.
Q. Where do you live?
A. I live in Marina.
Q. What does your husband do?
A. My husband is very good. He supports me. Outside, he’s a commander. Inside, I am commander. (laughs)
Q. How do you mean?
A. In our culture, husband is sky, wife is land.
Q. That’s very poetic.
A. I am also a poet. Married life is tough. We are (all) floating here- two people in a foreign land. And no matter what you have achieved and no matter what you have got, you have to go back. I am like water. Water has no color and no temper.
Q. Another great line. But what do you do for fun, Li?
A. I have a very special hobby — calligraphy. It’s a 5,000-year-old tradition. I use a brush and almost every day I will touch ink. In the beginning, our ancestors used tail of rabbit tied up with wood and did calligraphy on papyrus made of cotton and grass.
Q. What paper and tools do you use?
A. Xuan paper and an industrial brush. the amazing thing is even today our calligraphy letters are the same as they were 3,000 years ago during the Qing dynasty.
Q. Are you a big green tea drinker or do people just think Chinese are big green tea drinkers?
A. (Laughs). Yes, I drink green tea almost every day after lunch. Coffee and black tea — very rare; if we are invited for coffee, then we drink.