If China’s Alibaba Group IPOs, as many analysts think it will, in a few years’ time, it’ll be the world’s biggest ever tech IPO. But not too much is known about the e-commerce giant – which runs the country’s top online malls, Taobao and Tmall – outside of China. So a former employee of the company, Porter Erisman, decided to make a film about the rise of the company as it was powered by its founder, Jack Ma.
The result is Crocodile in the Yangtze: A Westerner Inside China’s Alibaba.com, which, Porter tells us, gives a “unique behind-the-scenes look at the eBay-Taobao battle” – the titanic tech tussle in which Jack Ma beat the American competition by better understanding the Chinese market. Taobao went on to become a wildly popular haven for amateur shopkeepers; eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) became irrelevant except for a few people trying to sell some junk. In the full documentary, of which I’ve seen segments, Porter at one point says in his narration:
To eBay’s western managers, Taobao probably seemed too cute and flashy, but Taobao appealed to a new generation in China, that used the internet with a certain innocence and optimism that eBay failed to appreciate.
And so Mr. Ma’s entreprenurial story (he’s a former English teacher) is one which mirrors the emergence of China as a business superpower. Check out the short trailer below. Crocodile in the Yangtze has not yet been released, but Peter says he’s about to begin a festival tour that will take in the likes of the Palm Beach International Film Festival.
Porter stresses that “the film was 100 percent self-financed with my own savings” and that Alibaba “didn’t help fund it.” He adds:
Before leaving Alibaba I told Jack Ma that I wanted to write an independent memoir (in book form) of my experience at the company, in my own words, warts and all. He let me know that he wouldn’t have any objections. So in my last week at the company I gathered about 100 hours of video archives from the company that I intended to use as a reference for my book’s accuracy.
When I looked at the amount of footage available, I told Jack that I may consider making a film rather than a book and I was fortunate that he gave no objections and the company let me take the footage with no preconditions. Other than that, I had no additional access to Jack Ma or the company because I wanted to preserve the film’s independence.
The film ended up “drawing on 200 hours of footage filmed by more than 30 sources.” While it doesn’t show some of Alibaba’s more recent challenges – because the film was already in the can – such as the protests against new rules for Tmall vendors, the documentary is a sort of China biz 101 for those fascinated with China’s tech scene. And seeing Jack Ma rise from a trapdoor dressed in a manga-punk outfit while thousands of supporters cheer sure does make a Steve Jobs keynote look more like a Catholic Sunday mass.
Here’s the Crocodile in the Yangtze trailer: