China's first trade exhibition in this country -- in San Francisco, Chicago and New York -- has wound up with unpaid claims of about $800,000 from suppliers and outstanding bank loans of about $2.5 million. In the three cities, the exhibition drew only 600,000 persons, against a projected attendance of 1 million.
Gilbert A. Robinson, chairman of the U.S.-China Development Council which promoted the exhibition, said yesterday that "everything will be cleaned up satisfactorily" as soon as all collections are made and an audit is completed.
But some others familiar with the operation anticpate that the exhibition will wind up in the red and that the Chinese government may be asked to pay off the debt. "There's no doubt," said one informed source, "that the Chinese drove a hard bargain in the first place." China put up no money for the exhibition, leaving all of the risk to the Robinson company.
The exhibition, which opened in San Francisco on Sept. 13 and then went on to Chicago and New York, ran into trouble from the very start when Robinson began to have difficulty in getting American corporations to make contributions. Coincidentally, a San Francisco bank withdrew a line of credit. But Robinson managed to open on time in San Francisco, with an inaugural dinner for leading businessmen that was successfully duplicated in Chicago and New York.
From then on, it was Murphy's Law -- everyting that could go wrong did go wrong.
In Chicago, the exhibition ran smack into competition from the Chicago-government-sponsored, Coca-Cola-financed display of Chinese bronzes. Even worse, the bronzes exhibit featured the famous Jade Suit that the Chinese had promised to Robinson as a centerpiece of the "cultural attractions" for the trade exhibit. The bronzes, which were on display when the Robinson show hit town, were still there when it left Chicago.
All told, the bonzes exhibition, complete with Jade Suit, outdrew the trade exhibition 258,000 to 150,000 -- which was less than half the attendance projected.
On ot the Big Apple in December, the trade exhibition found New Yorkers surfeited with things Chinese. Not onoy had the bronzes been to town but so has the Peking Opera and the Cantonese Acrobats. (Robinson had been promised, but didn't get, the acrobats as well as the Jade Suit.)
The New York scorecard: Attendance at the New York Coliseum for the Robinson exhibtion was only 200,000, against an expected 400,000 to 500,000.
Even worse, Robinson claims he was upstaged by Bloomingdale's with whom he had arranged a retail sales tie-in, comparable to deals with the Emporium Capwell Co. in San Francisco and Carson Pirie Scott & Co. in Chicago. The three department stores appeared to have done well, according to Robinson, despite the low attendance figures.
But Bloomingdale's, Robinson charges, duplicated an exhibit of ancient palace costumes that Robinson was featuring in the trade exhibition. Robinson said that Bloomingdale's, after negotiating with him for their sales operation at the New York Coliseum, "kept the secret [about the costumes] to themselves."
Asked for comment, a Bloomingdale's spokeman said there had been no effort to conceal plans to exhibit a collection of ceremonial robes from the Forbidden City, which had been on display at the New York department store beginning in September, well ahead of the December dates of the Robinson exhibition.
With its long experience in marketing Chinese goods and plenty of it to sell, explained an outsider, "Bloomingdale's always had a good attendance at the New York show, while the rest of the Coliseum, that you had to go through to get to Bloomingdale's part, looked like an empty barn." The Chinese, another expert added, are unskilled in sophisticated exhibition techniques.
Christopher Phillips, president of the National Council for U.S.-China Trade, said he and others had appealed to authorities in Peking not to set up competing attractions for the trade exhibition.Specifically, the Chinese were urged to make good on their promise to the Robinson company relating to the Jade Suit. These appeals were not successful.
Robinson feels he was misled into thinking his exhibition would be the first to offer mayh atractions. "I went in this on good faith," he said in a telephone interview. Despite various disappointments, he nonetheless feels that the exhibition successfully met two criteria China had established: laying the basis for an expansion of Chinese exports and introducing the American public at large to a diversity of Chinese commercial goods.