SHANGHAI, CHINA – She had to be older than 60. A Chinese business woman named Wang Jin Ming had answered his newspaper advertisement about one of his restaurants being for sale. They had met a few times to discuss the sale, but this time, something was different.
She sat across from him at Starbucks in Chongqing, where Mike Shane had been working on a student visa for more than four years. Mike was 25. It was early 2012, and he needed to sell his business interests in China and get home to the United States because he didn’t feel safe anymore.
Ming ordered coffee. He remembers trying to read her face to see if she was going to agree to the deal, but she was expressionless. Then she popped a question he never expected.
“Are you single?” she said.
Shane turned as red as the Chinese flag.
“No thank you,” he stammered. “I’d prefer to find someone my age.”
She looked him straight in the eye.
“I have a daughter,” she said.
• • •
Mike Shane, who lived until recently in Anaheim Hills, is the senior manager at The Cheesecake Factory in Shanghai’s Disneytown. He’s 29 now, and works in the shadow of the world’s newest Disneyland.
“I learned capitalism in a communist country,” he said. “I don’t know what communism is. You can feel the excitement here. Shanghai is the economic center of China. I’m part of something big.”
He sees huge crowds flocking to Disneytown every day – even before Disneyland opened. His store is the first Cheesecake Factory in Asia, and 14 more are planned. The menu is exactly the same as it is at the Cheesecake Factory at the Garden Walk in Anaheim, where Shane worked.
“I’ve seen thousands of people who wanted to see a park that wasn’t even open,” Shane said. “I don’t think Chinese people think of Disney as American. To them, Disney music means a good mood.”
Still, Shane has declined to go inside Disneyland despite months of opportunities.
He doesn’t want to go alone.
• • •
In 2008, Shane was at the University of Cincinnati studying operations management. He had also been studying the Chinese language since high school. So he entered a program in which he could go to Chongqing on a student visa.
He remembers the day he walked into a local restaurant called The Beer Garden. The owner asked him what he thought of the place, and Shane answered honestly.
“I told him it wasn’t good,” Shane said. “The beer. The food. The ambiance. None of it was good. He asked me to take over his restaurant.”
Shane changed The Beer Garden, offering craft beer, improved service, an outdoor grill and a big-screen TV for sports events. Soon he was bringing home the equivalent of $10,000 per month.
He was 20.
That’s when he got his big idea: Mexican food. Well, not exactly Mexican food.
He suggested a menu of traditional Chinese stir fry recipes wrapped in tortillas. It was a huge hit. He opened four restaurants called “Amigos.”
He was rolling in dough.
• • •
One of his customers at The Beer Garden in 2011 was a guy named Neil. He was a Brit who had come to Chongqing to teach English. Shane loved to hear him tell stories about how he got to know the first family of communist politics – Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai, the husband and wife team who ran Chongqing.
“They were like the Kennedys of China,” Shane said.
Neil Heywood began teaching English to Bo Xilai’s son. And he began laundering money for the family, Shane said.
Heywood went from English teacher to high roller in Chongqing. He drove a sports car, had a huge apartment and hung out occasionally at Mike Shane’s place. They were two of the very few white-skinned people in Chongqing.
In November of 2011, Heywood was found dead in a motel room.
One picture of Heywood used in the international press was a shot of him drinking at Mike Shane’s Beer Garden.
“All of us foreigners were terrified,” Shane said.
The original police report said Heywood had died from drinking too much alcohol. A court later found that he had been poisoned by Kailai, who was Chongqing’s first lady and a powerful attorney.
It was the Chinese trial of the century. Apparently, Heywood had threatened to expose corruption in Bo Xilai’s family, and Kailai got rid of him.
Bo Xilai was sentenced to life in prison for corruption. Gu Kailai got life for murder.
In 2012, Shane decided it was time to head back to America. But first he had to sell his businesses. He had tried to start a pizza joint called “Little Caesar’s,” but it had failed.
He put Little Caesar’s up for sale.
That’s when Wang Jin Ming answered his ad and asked him if he was single.
A Chinese proverb says: One more friend equals one more road that you haven’t traveled. Shane remembers thinking of that proverb in Starbucks that day.
With just a few weeks until he wanted to leave the country, Mike Shane agreed to meet Wang Jin Ming’s daughter.
• • •
April Zhang, the daughter in question, did not want to be set up by her mother.
She was a 24-year-old student finishing up a finance degree in Sydney, Australia. She was home for a break, and didn’t want to meet a guy.
She really didn’t want to meet a guy.
Before their first date, she argued for two hours with her mother. Ming finally convinced her to go.
Eight friends and family went with her. They left the seat next to Mike Shane open at an all-you-can-eat buffet. She reluctantly sat next to him. Everyone kept asking her to show off her near-perfect English skills.
She didn’t want to talk, but she did. Just a little.
Zhang refused to wear make-up. She wore sweats with her hair in a ponytail.
“She was beautiful,” Shane said. “On my end, it was love at first sight.”
She thought he needed a haircut.
Shane could tell she didn’t want to be there. But he ended the awkward night by asking for her phone number.
He reminded her of the Chinese proverb: “One more friend … ”
She gave him her phone number.
• • •
They met for coffee five times without a single romantic spark.
They couldn’t find a taxi. They had to walk a long way to a bus stop. It was a beautiful night along the Yangtze River. And it started to rain.
He took off his sweater and covered her head, a move neither of them will ever forget. They ran under a giant tree.
And they kissed for the first time.
• • •
Mike Shane is a creative guy.
In February of 2014, he asked April Zhang to marry him quietly, and without fanfare. And she said yes immediately. They were married in a secret ceremony by a local judge in Cincinnati.
He had another idea.
He told both families that he was going to propose to April, and he wanted them to witness it.
So his Chinese in-laws flew to Cincinnati thinking they were all going to participate in a surprise proposal.
On Feb. 16, 2013, both sides of the family joined Mike and April at a fancy restaurant. During the middle of dinner, a cop came in to tell everyone that a car was parked illegally outside.
That cop was the judge who had married them.
With their families shocked, they re-performed the wedding in front of everyone.
“My mom screamed,” Shane said.
• • •
Somewhere in the transition from China to the United States, Shane invested in Tesla.
He sold when the stock tripled.
He was a young husband with more than a million dollars.
So he and April, in 2013, moved to a place he had always wanted to live.
Specifically, they moved to Anaheim Hills, where he had a relative and had vacationed as a child. They bought a house and Zhang got a job as a cashier at TJ Maxx.
Shane didn’t have a job for two years. And he didn’t like that lifestyle. “Why get up in the morning?” he said.
So he put out his resume and waited for the right opportunity.
Their daughter, Summer Lin, was born Feb. 17, 2014.
In March of 2015, he got a call from The Cheesecake Factory. They were opening a new restaurant in Shanghai, and wanted to know if he would be interested.
“Heck yeah,” he said. “It’s the only place I know how to do business.”
He trained in Rancho Cucamonga, Cerritos, Newport Beach and Anaheim before he came to Shanghai in April of 2016.
• • •
Mike Shane has avoided Disneyland on purpose.
April and Summer are scheduled to arrive in Shanghai during the third week of June, and he wants to be just as excited about seeing the park as they are.
He wants to share the experience with them.
“My daughter is going to love it,” Shane said. “My wife is going to think ‘Holy crap! That’s a lot of people.’”