PLENTY can get lost in translation when local firms venture into China given the huge language barrier, but that has not stopped some entrepreneurs from jumping right in and learning as they go.

Take Days Inn China chairman and chief executive Harry Tan.

When he first set foot there 27 years ago as a front office manager for the Holiday Inn in Lhasa, Tibet, Mr Tan had not practised Mandarin since his O levels 15 years earlier.

"I had given all my Chinese back to the teacher," he told The Straits Times as part of the 35th anniversary of the Speak Mandarin Campaign.

But he brushed up quickly on the job.

Every time a client said something he did not understand, he would quiz his staff until he did.

"It took me two to three years to be really fluent, to speak like a local," said Mr Tan. More crucially, he also had to learn "how they perceive things, how they do things".

"When they say, 'wen ti bu da', there is not necessarily no problem. It means they want something. When they say, 'mei wen ti', then there is no problem."

Beijing-based Mr Tan, 58, added that "to be successful in China, you have to be in China".

"A lot of Singaporean businessmen think they can work (by) remote control - you can't."

Mr Benson Loo, chief executive of educational software developer EyePower Games, shares Mr Tan's enthusiasm.

"I was resisting (the China market) at first, because of the culture, the Chinese language. Especially because I didn't know anyone there."

But since a business partner introduced him to Shenzhen two years ago, China has become the firm's main market.

"At first, I was struggling for words, but you learn pretty fast from the interactions," said Mr Loo, who has built up a vocabulary of Mandarin computer terms from almost nothing.

"To me, it's really challenging and that's what makes it so exciting; not just the size of the market but getting through to people. It's really an art."

Mr Loo, 43, has even developed a mental map of the country that comes in handy at business meetings, which he has learnt revolve for hours around copious amounts of small talk.

Then there are the business dinners where "you drink yourself blind".

While there are huge cultural differences between here and China, Mr Tan said he has never once felt lost, only "intrigued", while looking after the 170 hotels that have taken him all over the country.

China has come a long way from the place it was three decades ago, he noted, "far ahead of Singapore in some areas".

He also warns foreigners not to take a superiority complex to China: "You can't go to China to be a superior. For mid-level staff, opportunities are getting less and less, unless you're very specialised in some technical or professional skills. They don't need any more desk managers."