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Big Dragon finds his China niche and success

Source: Shanghai Daily  [2009-03-09 15:10:23]

When Andrew Ballen dropped out of law school in the US, he wanted to prove that he could be a success - so he started from scratch in China and spotted a hip-hop niche.

To most Shanghainese people, one of the most familiar foreign faces on TV is that of Jamaican-American Andrew Ballen, more often known as Da Long, or Big Dragon.

Ballen has appeared on hundreds of TV episodes for "Getaway," a popular travel adventure series hosted by Ballen, a native English speaker. It appeared on Dragon TV and was later aired nationally on CCTV-9.

"I've seen much more of China than I've seen of America," says 35-year-old Ballen, who was born in New York to Jamaican parents.

"I believe I have also seen much more of China than most Chinese people," he adds with pride.

In "Getaway," Ballen toured the country by car and chatted with locals from north to south, east to west.

However, when Ballen arrived in Shanghai around eight years ago, he barely knew anything about the country, and couldn't speak a word of Chinese. He was a dropout from prestigious Duke University Law School in North Carolina.

He came to China because he wanted to prove to his surgeon father, who was disappointed at his decision to leave school, that he could find a way to become more successful, even on the other side of the world.

His first job in Shanghai was teaching English at the Wall Street Institute. A long time hip-hop lover, Ballen frequented night spots, only to find there was no big hip-hop scene at that time.

"I never knew I was a businessman until I found this out by accident," he recalls. "Hip-hop is huge everywhere else in the world, yet Shanghai had none of it - no good hip-hop party for 17 million people."

He felt certain he could make money out of the music that he loves.

Together with friends, Ballen came up with the idea of "Hip-hop on Thursday Night" at Pegasus, a popular house/techno club back then that targeted a younger student crowd.

The weekly party took off and became the standard for other clubs like Guandii and Bonbon.

"We made money in the first week and soon the place became so packed every Thursday that we had to charge at door," he says.

It was his first attempt to do business.

"I realized from then on that business is just about finding a gap in the market and trying to fill it," he says.

Charmed by his silky-smooth voice and perfect pronunciation, one of his students at the Wall Street Institute recommended him to a local radio show "Live It Up Shanghai."

That's where Ballen started in the media industry. At first there was no sponsor or advertising for his show - the same would be true later for his TV show "Getaway."

"The shows went on air simply because there had to be English programs. I had no competition," he acknowledges.

Once again, Ballen seized the opportunity. He started his own company, BallenWest Events Media, while looking for sponsors who wanted to attract a white-collar bilingual audience.

The ambitious businessman compares today's China to America back in the 1850s: "There are so many 'holes' people haven't yet got into, so many simple ideas that just weren't touched yet."

He wasn't a TV/radio expert at first but he pulled it off. "Call it luck," he says. "I just didn't have competition at the time."

His next step is to launch China's first online video program together with tudou.com, one of the country's largest video-sharing Websites.

He and his team will create content to be broadcast primarily on tudou.com, attracting millions of its daily users to watch while inviting them to interact.

"There are millions of things you can do with online video that you can't do on TV," he says. Viewers can create and direct their own stories, for example.

Meanwhile, the company is also working with partners in Hong Kong to design and launch new travel routes between China and the Middle East.

His proudest moment, says Ballen, was when his company helped carry out a series of successful events for Jamaica. They highlighted his home country's rich culture and sporting excellence during last year's Beijing Olympic Games.

"As a Jamaican-American living in China," he says, "I felt very proud and happy to be able to help my country at that special occasion."

Andrew Ballen

Nationality: American

Age:35

Profession: Party planner, TV host and businessman

Q&A

Description of self:

Moody, playful, childish, gently aggressive.

Favorite place in Shanghai:

YY coffee shop with good friends, a Tanqueray gin and tonic and a slow game of chess.

Strangest thing seen in Shanghai:

Two lao taitai (old ladies) wrestling for a codfish at the wet market.

Worst experience: Being scolded by the traffic guard for jaywalking, in front of my mom and dad.

Motto for life:

The only time you absolutely cannot afford to fail is the last time you try.

Things that could improve Shanghai:

More Jamaican food!

Advice to newcomers:

You are an invited guest. Act accordingly.


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