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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

UAE Portrait of a Nation: Girl from China’s land of peonies is making 'Friendship' flourish in Dubai

For all the tea in china, Jiang Yanying is causing a stir with her thriving cafe in Dubai

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - October 15, 2018: Chinese entrepreneur Yanying Jiang at the Friendship Cafe, a coffee shop she started in International City that sells mainly fresh Asian sweets to a largely Chinese community. Monday, October 15th, 2018 in International City, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Dubai, United Arab Emirates - October 15, 2018: Chinese entrepreneur Yanying Jiang at the Friendship Cafe, a coffee shop she started in International City that sells mainly fresh Asian sweets to a largely Chinese community. Monday, October 15th, 2018 in International City, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

A Chinese entrepreneur from the land of the peony flowers is enjoying a flourishing 'Friendship' in her new home of Dubai.

Farmlands filled with striking pink and pearly white peonies draw thousands of people every year to Jiang Yanying’s hometown Heze.

People flock to the city in eastern China’s Shandong Province to see the country’s favourite flower in bloom at spring festivals in April and May with country fairs, concerts and photography contests.

The Chinese resident has similar ambitions to draw more nationalities to a popular cafe she owns in International City.

“My city is small but famous because of the peony,” said Ms Jiang, 31, who opened the Friendship Cafe five years ago to fill a gap in the market in a Dubai neighbourhood bursting with take-out restaurants but few coffee shops.

It is located in the heart of the ‘China’ cluster in a community with different sets of residential buildings named after various countries

“We wanted to open a place that was comfortable where people could come away from their home to sit and chat.

“In this area, we will always have mainly Chinese customers. This is changing and we get Arab and Indian customers also.

“But I want to target more international customers. For that we will need to open in another area of Dubai. I have a business plan but I can’t afford to open a new branch now, first I need to save a lot.”

The cafe is decorated with bursts of colour from star-shaped lights and red tablecloths to papier-mache butterflies that hang from the ceiling as a sign of good luck and white-rimmed photo frames of green leaves tacked on the walls.

Ms Jiang’s drive to succeed is clear. She works in a high-end watch store, is studying part-time for a master’s degree while running the cafe with her husband Hongsheng Li and caring for their two-year-old daughter.

They start their work day early heading to the market to buy fresh mango, strawberries, melon and kiwi for the cafe.

When the tailored suit shop her husband worked in shut down, he began working full time at the cafe and Ms Jiang took up another job.

She believes a postgraduate degree in international business marketing will give her an edge in a tough job market.

“Many Chinese people working in shopping malls are doing their master’s degrees in Dubai. The degree will help me learn more about business so it improves our potential. I must keep working as a I study because we are not rich,” Ms Jiang said.

“When we opened the cafe, I didn’t take a day off for two years. I enjoy work. I need to work harder because I’m a mum. My daughter will go to school soon and there will be more expenses so I had to find a job apart from the cafe.”

Open to gaining new skills since arriving in the UAE 11 years ago, Ms Jiang has worked in jobs from airport sales to the luxury goods sector before opening the coffee shop in 2013.

A newcomer to the business, she travelled to cafes in the port city Guangzhou to learn how to make cake and bubble tea, often served with milk and a layer of tapioca balls.

“I knew nothing about food or running a café so I went home because I knew I had to learn a lot. We don’t just serve Chinese bubble tea, customers like our fruit-based sweets menu, healthy juices, fresh fruit and different flavoured ice cream,” she said.

At the cafe, women come in with friends in the morning and with children in the afternoon, while businessmen gather in the evening.

Customers enjoy a section stacked with Chinese language books on history and culture and children often borrow the literature for reference.

“We missed having a place to meet until this opened. It’s a welcoming place. Asian girls need to see more Asian women who have started businesses so they can learn to achieve something different too,” said Rosa Ibay, a Filipino mother of three girls.

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From only nine items, the menu has grown to 53 desserts, teas and coffees to choose from with a signature dessert of steamed sweet potato kneaded into sticky rice balls coated with sugar and served on a bed of ice cream.

Slices of mango and coconut sprinkles are an added twist to other desserts.

Ms Jiang often remembers the early days when Dubai was a distant dream and she needed to convince family to let her travel to work overseas.

It was the beginning of many firsts. The flight to the UAE in 2007 was the first time on a plane for Ms Jiang who is the only person in her family to go to university.

Her father ran a small meat shop, her mother is a housewife, two elder sisters are mothers and most girls she knew stayed home to look after the family.

“I wanted to be different. When I was young it was my dream that I would go abroad and work and study. I got my dream to come true because I’m studying for my masters here,” she said.

“Then no one in my family knew about Dubai. We had just heard it was a very safe place.”

Drawing inspiration from her heritage and home country, Ms Jiang wants to make a mark in her second home.

Her city Heze is also the home town of Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The First Lady is known to include the peony in gifts to foreign guests.

“Apart from the peony, we are also proud to say we are from Heze because the First Lady is from there,” Ms Jiang said.

“After President Xi came to the UAE we feel closer. The new China and UAE relationship will help Chinese who live here like me. I have a passion for this country. I didn’t go to Beijing and Shanghai to work, I came here. Now all my friends live here. This is my second home.”