Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Letter I Never Sent

Last week I took part in Letters You Never Sent III: Letters to Corporations at Mason & Taylor in Shoreditch. We were asked to write to a corporation. Rather than complain about malfeasance or praise a product, I wanted to think of the most corporation-y corporation I could, one which I felt entirely neutral about. And when I tried to think of a generic, corporation-y corporation, I found one name lodged in my mind - and the fact it was lodged there was interesting to me.

To: Hutchison Whampoa
Hutchison House,
10 Harcourt Road,
Hong Kong

Dear Hutchison Whampoa,

Why you? Why write to you? It's the name, I think. In this country, I'm afraid to say, most people won't have heard of you. Even if they use the mobile phone network or pharmacy chain you own here, they will mostly believe they are customers of companies called 3 or Superdrug, not a corporation called Hutchison Whampoa. But that name, it works a kind of magic – it did for me, anyway. I can't remember when or where I first heard it, but I've always remembered it. Hutchison Whampoa. It's the perfect name for a corporation. There's the Hutchison. That's a name you can trust. Solid, Anglo-Saxon, Familiar. And then there's the Whampoa. Whampoa! What a beautiful word. Faraway, even exotic, but with confident, declarative edge. I assumed it was a person, the business partner to Mr Hutchison – that's a great strength of your name, it suggests an alliance between east and west, global scope, a Eurasian colossus. However Wikipedia tells me it's the archaic English transliteration of Huangpu, the dock area of the city of Guangzhou, a gateway for European trade to China from the 18th Century. All the better. That transnational, cyberpunky edge is given a romantic historical anchor.

Yes, Wikipedia – sorry about that. As I say, you're an enigma, Hutchison Whampoa. I knew your name, but that doesn't reveal anything about what you do. That's the other great strength of the name – it's abstract, it doesn't point the mind in any particular direction, you could be be doing anything anywhere. Everywhere, in fact. That mobile phone company you own – you don't own the phones themselves. You own an infrastructure or transmitting masts, but even that's not the most important part of the business – you own a section of electromagnetic spectrum, a slice of bandwidth, a portion of the air itself. The masts are just a way of modulating your ethereal empire, making it accessible, packaging morsels of it for sale. Owning part of the air – that's ubiquity, that's proper corporate reach. And you own a chain of cut-price perfume shops, too: owning the air, the technology to broadcast across it and the means to scent it. That's comprehensive service.

Maybe you should buy a kite factory, and cover that atmospheric niche too. Maybe you already own one – is there anything you don't do? You say you have five core businesses – I like that, core businesses, one day you must tell me about all your less important flesh and pith businesses. Five core businesses, then. There's ports and related services – nice to see you're still keeping your hand in. And there's retail; telecoms; property and hotels; and my favourite, energy, infrastructure, investments and others. Are you sure that last one is just one business, because it sounds like at least three. “And others.” So modest, Hutchison Whampoa.

I hope you're not sensitive about your size – you're a $42 billion dollar corporation, have a bit of confidence. Don't infer any criticism. I like the polymathic generosity of your endeavours. It feels properly corporate – the sum of many efforts. Forgive my intrusion. Can you forgive? I am sure you can forget. Corporations are good at forgetting, and unseeing, and not being seen, and moving on. You are not your holdings. You own, you operate, you merge and demerge. It's tempting to think of you as the apex of a pyramid, but you're less substantial and more far-reaching than that. You are a grand transaction, one that has been in process for centuries, a current, a trade wind. Even surrounded by you, we don't see you. I thought you might like to be noticed, Hutchison Whampoa, this once.

Cordially, etc.

1 comment:

Randall Horton said...

I really enjoyed your poetic treatment of corporate pervasiveness.