China Confidential

China Confidential

The development’s purported website.

It’s not easy to detect a scam when none of the most basic ground rules are understood. So discovered a handful of New York architects when they were contacted six months ago by the Haoshun Investment Company about building an office tower and housing project in Henan province, China. Or so they now believe.

In recent conversations with several of the architects involved—including 1100 Architect, Della Valle Bernheimer, Eisner Design, Belmont Freeman Architects, Elmslie Osler Architect, and others—a picture emerges of a vast mixed-use development project. These designers were contacted by email or by phone, signed contracts, and bought tickets to fly to China, some even going so far as to visit the site, before discovering that they had been signing on for identical work. Yet mystery surrounds the stakes involved, as relatively little money was lost by any of the architects, apart from a few translation and lawyer fees, frequent-flier miles, some gifts and hotel expenses, and banquet costs not exceeding about $80. No one turned over any design work.

The scam began for most in March or April, upon receipt of an RFQ email signed by “Peter (Project Assistant),” who appeared to be both point-man and translator. The project consisted of 90 sustainable villas and an office tower with a retail base. There was a PowerPoint and a website; both were plausible. Indeed one architect, who had previously been told to use an independent translator, hired an American-educated Chinese woman working in a Beijing gallery. She vetted the materials and conducted several phone conversations with the clients, but found nothing awry.

The speed with which contract details were agreed upon, followed by encouragement to come to China quickly for a signing, was disturbing, said the architects interviewed. It seemed too easy to iron out relatively generous fees, but as none of the designers had worked in China before, that was not a deal-breaker. Many had paid their airfare to contract signings in the past, and were prepared to fly to China to visit the site. Two did, and others had tickets to go.

The site, between Zhengzhou and Kaifeng, is busy with construction, and seemed a likely enough location for a housing and business complex. The chairman or chief client, though not elegantly dressed and working out of a shoddy office, maintained a confident air through translator “Peter.”

But New York architects constitute a close-knit community. Word got around when one spoke to an engineer who had already been contacted about the very same project from another architect. In another case, two architects sought advice from a more experienced colleague, who then put them in touch with each other.

When contacted about business rituals in China, Calvin Tsao of Tsao & McKown Architects, who has worked extensively in Asia, reacted in astonishment when he heard that the supposed clients did not pay for a banquet that had been arranged for the New York visitors. “I have never heard of a guest paying for the banquet, even in the smallest backward village,” he said. “Airfare, yes. They will try to stick you with that; but if you say no, they usually will cover it. Never do anything out of pocket.”

Tracing the story, most of the architects said they had heard from numerous advisers that working in China is so unpredictable that practically nothing is out of the ordinary—even being told, after giving the clients a new iPhone, that more gifts were required and could be purchased immediately at a nearby mall.

To this day, “Peter” sends out occasional emails, saying that reimbursements are on their way, and that there’s plenty of work for all. “Everyone is so eager to work in China,” said Tsao. “The country is so vast, there are so many opportunities, but also so much desperation. This is a cautionary tale for everyone.”