China's calling - and we need some chutzpah to go with wine and cheese

In the famous 1975 "Thrilla In Manilla", Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier slugged it out in the greatest boxing match of all time for a cash purse of $6 million each.

In the famous 1975 "Thrilla In Manilla", Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier slugged it out in the greatest boxing match of all time for a cash purse of $6 million each.

It seems that Filipinos still like to deal in cash, as Charlie, Louise and I found out at about midnight last Wednesday when we landed in Charlie's second-hand jet, looking for some nav gas so we could get Louise to the shops in Shanghai by mid-morning.

We found the bowser OK at the state-of-the-art Ninoy Aquino International Airport, where the fuel rolls out in a customised Merc that looks like the space shuttle.

However, when Charlie flashed his Black Amex card, said to be the world's most acknowledged black hole for unlimited spending of any kind anywhere, our smiling runway attendant put the nozzle and hose back in its slot, saying "efectivo, efectivo".

Charlie and I were totally confused until our clever linguist Louise said: "That's Spanish for cash!" When you have cornered the supply and the demand just ain't gonna go away, cash is king, fancy credit cards notwithstanding. Economics 101.

So after a quick whip-around and a hurried visit to the closest ATM, which was far away, we were off on the final leg to Shanghai.

Louise was a reluctant passenger. Her last visit to this great commercial city and international trading gateway for centuries was in the early 1980s. So when we said she could do some shopping while we had a meeting or two, she looked sceptical. "Last time I was there, they all wore exactly the same clothes."

Despite all the commentary on China in our media, including this column, it takes a visit to begin to really understand the mind-boggling changes that have occurred since Deng Xiaoping saw the international trading light.

Within two hours of arriving, Louise was back at the hotel with arms full of European label clothes plus a bottle of Jacobs Creek as a thank you gift for Charlie for giving her a lift.

"Wow - I'll never have to go to Europe to shop again ... but I am sorry about the wine. Have you seen the price of a Penfolds Bin 620 - $1000!"

There's a lesson here for all of us, and Penfolds is doing a great job in showing the way. The future for trade with China is moving quickly from unprocessed raw materials to the most refined and sophisticated products on earth.

So while we have been making some headway with sales of reasonably high-end food and wine to the booming middle classes, Penfolds is targeting the super-rich. Its most elite drop is the Penfolds Ampoule and it sells to the Chinese for $168,000 a bottle.

This is a country that has gone from being universally dressed in Mao suits to becoming the biggest jewellery market in the world in 30 years. Right now it's the world's second-biggest market for luxury cosmetics and the world's third-largest red wine-consuming country on the globe.

China is already our second-largest cheese export market, but if we are to really take advantage of our unique position of being part of the same region, then we need to ramp up our products into the super premium category and beat the old European countries at their own game.

And cheese is a good example. The clever young grocer at the European in Spring Street, Melbourne, tells me that the NSW Southern Highlands are very similar to the region of France that produces their great Gruyere de Comte. We have the climate and the soils. All we need is some sensible relaxation of quarantine laws to import the starting culture and the Montbeliarde cows, and we can produce the finest cheeses in the world for the wealthiest market in the world right on our doorstep.

But we have to learn to move quickly - like the Chinese themselves. It's very salutary to realise that a 420 kilometre underground railway network was built in Shanghai in the same time it took the NSW government to think about an integrated ticketing system.

We like to think that we can punch above our weight. Now's the time to prove it and bring home the cash.

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