July 14, 2011
Part Two: A Bird in the Hand
YY strides into the office. He has a flip flop on one foot and a squeaky crepe-soled shoe on the other, but he’s wearing a light three-piece herringbone suit with its standard silver sheen. I do notice, however, that his toenails could do with a serious pedicure. It’s best not to look down.
This strange attire doesn’t seem to faze him in the slightest. He tells me his doctor’s put him on a diet since his foot started acting up: no red meat and plenty of greens. I can only surmise that due to his standard meaty-fare with creamy excess he’s developed gout in one of his feet.
Still, the first thing he says is:
“Maac, today we have lunch. We meet Shenyang* Big Shot. He like seafood. We go to floating palace restaurant.”
I’ve come to the conclusion that YY enjoys talking in riddles.
YY Stratagem Number 1: Only ever give them enough to get their curiosity piqued.
YY’s secretary notes the lunch in her diary. Shirley Luk is as meticulous and efficient as they come—everything has a paperclip, every file is marked according to date and priority with a typed strip of paper, every scrap of colored paper is recycled, each and every pen accounted for.
Shirley takes care of all YY’s English correspondence. Shirley’s one of the few secretaries I know who can translate from Mandarin directly into English shorthand. She never wears even a little make up, not a dab; only, she adores her fingernails and manicures them every lunch break after eating her ritual peanut butter and blueberry jelly sandwich. She paints her nails in bright colors: puce, hot pink, neon green and chartreuse. Sometimes she adds a gold star or a rhinestone to her pinkie-nail.
I can’t help but thinking she should send YY to visit her manicurist—for his toes.
Along time ago YY knew Shirley’s father, some old-time mogul from Tianjin, at least that’s what Frank tells me, a couple of weeks earlier on a Sunday trip to Lamma Island**. The trip is something related to Hong Kong University, on a beach, with a bonfire and a live Cantonese punk band called KooKoo. Frank is staggeringly drunk and slobbers over some Australian girl, who, by the end of the night has finally had enough and tosses her beer in his face. Frank still has to learn not to pinch women’s buttocks.
When he calms down, we sit on a rock overlooking the dimly lit power plant that reminds me of something straight out of a Ridley Scott flick. Frank, now slightly sobered-up, starts rolling a joint.
“You know Shirley is married to Richard, right?” he says taking his first toke. “Well, YY forced him to marry her.”
“How could he force him?”
“Richard’s father worked with YY’s Dad in Shanghai. YY took Richard under his wing when he’d just turned twenty. They’re all beholden to each other. Part of the deal was that Richard had to marry Shirley. I mean look at her? Who’d want to marry that?”
“Well, she isn’t much to look at, but she’s sharp as they come and she’s got great fingernails,” I say.
“So why is she just a secretary, married to some souped-up-clerk-come-plastic-bag-factory manager?”
Richard Kwo was recently appointed manager of YY’s polyethylene bag factory in the New Territories. I know Polycore Enterprises ships container loads of these bags to China, though honestly I haven’t a clue what they’re being used for when they get there. There’s a rumor going around the office that YY is doing business with some shady Australian silicone-chip-smuggling-ring. Frank reckons somehow the bags are collateral. Though what would Frank know? He’s a local sales clerk. Deals in babies’ nappies and baby food. It suits him down to the bone.
“It’s the first trick in the book,” says Frank, passing me the joint.
And here it comes: YY Stratagem Number 2, in Frank’s words:
“Tie someone to you—through family, money, or some other underhanded method—and if you play them right, you have them in the palm of your hand for life. Everyone who has any decent position in YY’s empire is tied to him in some fashion. Shirley’s Dad was beholden to YY, as was Richard’s. Shirley desperately needed a husband, but that husband had to be someone who YY could control. All makes sense, doesn’t it?”
I’m starting to think about my own position here at the Company.
“You never wondered why the evening entertainment when doing business in this neck of the woods is often more important than the signing of the deal itself?” asks Frank.
“This is how they do it if there’s no family connection, even with laowais*** like you. First they get you plied with Maotai****, VSOP or whatever other snakebite’s handy, then they see if they can get you to reveal one of your secrets. Something about your ‘bit on the side,’ your illegitimate son, or that rainy day cash you have stashed tax-free in the Caiman Islands. If that doesn’t work, they’ll drag you to the strip club or the karaoke bar and get girls to sit on your lap. They’ll take snapshots of you with the hostess dancing cheek to cheek. Even better, pay a hooker for you—especially if they know you’re married. Before you know it, you’re chained at the wrist.”
I think about some of those late night/early morning business parties. Most of the time I don’t even remember what happened the day after. When I really start reflecting upon it, here in the Company most of us who do the legwork are bachelors so there’s not much customers or buyers can hold over us. I know there’s another YY stratagem at work here.
“What about the straight-out bribe?”
One of YY’s accountants comes to mind, Little Foo, he’s called. Most of us call him ‘Little Fool.’ Maybe he isn’t such a fool after all. Yesterday I saw he had a spanking new Breitling watch. I make a mental note to keep an eye on him.
“Sure,” says Frank. “Course that can get you into jail. Generally they’ll be subtler. During the course of the night they’ll hand you what looks like a sealed pack of cigarettes. When you get home, you find someone’s slipped two thousand dollars in there. What are you going to do? Give it back?
“Ever notice how YY doesn’t drink, and never attends any of those parties? How he always sends you along instead? Certainly not generosity, Marc,” Frank sniggers.
“So how do you avoid it, without offending someone?”
“You don’t,” says Frank. “If you’re middle-management or lower, you haven’t a choice. That’s why it’s generally better to be in sales than in purchasing. You need to have a heart of stone to be in purchasing.”
And Frank goes on. This time he gives me YY Stratagem Number 2, in detail:
“As far as I’ve observed, YY has three golden rules: One: Connect everything and everyone as deeply as possibly, but connect them through you. Two: Always make sure you are the most important link in the chain. And, three: Make sure they are always a hungry for more. In other words, always keep something they really want just within a hair out of reach. After many years, you’ll be forced to give them that carrot you’ve dangled, by that time though, you need to ensure there’s something else they want. And they always do.”
I can see Frank is going to make it far in the Company.
Bigger Fish to Fry
YY barges into the restaurant, ignores the hostess and plunks himself down on the biggest table—surely one for ten, rather than three. He clicks his fingers and two waiters come running, each hand him a menu and he rattles a detailed order off in Mandarin without consulting what I might like to eat. A few minutes later, a grey-haired Chinese man appears with two attractive ladies trailing behind. One carries his briefcase; the other carries his mobile phone (a giant thing the size of a small loaf of bread; remember this is the early nineties). He sits down next to YY and greets him in Shanghainese—nong hao rather that the Mandarin ni hao—which sends YY into spasms of laughter. (I know this guy is from North China, Shenyang, so the badly pronounced Shanghainese greeting is nothing more than a politeness, an effort to put YY at ease.)
YY points at me, then says, “Maac,” and rattles something off in Mandarin.
I’ve been told that YY’s Mandarin is—well, not poor—but heavily-Shanghai-accented. Frank tells me that at times YY can barely be understood. Be that as it may, I’ve never seen anyone acting offended in the slightest, from the lowliest busboy to the Vice-Secretary of the Communist Party. I guess it pays to be a billionaire.
The man, whom I’ve now discovered is called Mister Sheng, seems to favor the same shiny silver suits that YY does. In fact, from a distance, you’d be sure the two of them had the same tailor, only I know by his posture and bearing that Sheng is a Chinese government official, so it’s unlikely that he has his suits tailored in Hong Kong—far too expensive. Or is it?
After pleasantries, we dig into endless platters that keep appearing on the spinning Lazy Susan: whelks sautéed in vinegar and liquor and sprinkled with chives, mussels on the half shell with some kind of vermicelli noodles, scallops the size of my fist and a whole red lobster each. The girls tuck in vigorously, slipping me a glance every once in while, then tittering under breaths. YY and the man are gabbling away about some big business deal. Not a single word is translated for a least half an hour, until:
“Maac,” says YY. “Tomorrow you go Shenyang. You help Mister Sheng sell aircraft parts to Big Shot American buyers. This is big business.” Mister Sheng smiles, but his mouth is full of lobster. Unpleasant, but surely well intended.
I’m moderately stunned, but not really. I’ve started to learn to expect snap decisions from YY.
“Then after Shenyang, two days, you go to our Beijing office to start some paper sales.”
Talk about getting tossed into the South China Sea without a rubber ring isn’t even in it. For the last three weeks, I’ve been working with the marketing department on a new brochure, answering some correspondence with potential customers of China-made leather wallets and briefcases. Now I am suddenly promoted to aircraft-component-salesman-numero-uno, and paper? Of course, I didn’t breathe a word.
A City that Never Sleeps—Not Really
A Mister Jin meets me at the gate at Shenyang Airport. He’s holding a great big white placard that looks like it may well have been used for resting teacups on it at some stage. It reads in big capital letters:
The K is written backwards. I raise my hand and move my trolley towards him. He smiles a full set of gold teeth. I think about telling him that I spell my name with a C, and besides, the K is backwards, but after due consideration, I realize it isn’t worth the effort.
In the car, a twenty-year-old van which rattles so much I think the steering wheel is going to come off in Jin’s hands, he asks me, “So, you big aircraft parts salesman, eh? Mister YY tell me you are top ace.”
“Top ace,” he repeats, then throws me one of his golden smiles and gives me a thumbs-up.
“Hold the steering wheel, please!” I shout, as Jin just about misses a bicyclist on the side of the road.
“No worry,” he chuckles. “Bicycle move. He doesn’t want be killed.”
“Neither do I,” I say, which, of course, sends Jin into rippling laughter. Jin seems to laugh at just about anything out of the ordinary—or, out of the ordinary to him. This includes more things he’s only ever heard of about laowais, or perhaps he’s caught a glimpse of on TV.
Jin likes to talk about sex, or rather with whom and in which fashion I enjoy sex. He begins this deviousness slowly in the car, first asking about whether I’m married. I say no. He asks if I like Chinese women. I say sure. He asks if all western women have big breasts, not like Chinese women who are flat as ‘runaways.’
“You know airplane runaways,” he says.
I put my two hands together and make a motion like a plane taking off. This sends Jin into raptures, and I have to remind him to keep his eyes on the road again.
It’s about nine pm when we arrive, and I could kill for a drink. After check in I ask Jin if he’ll join me, but he declines saying he has to get home to the wife who’s already angry with him.
“Why’s she angry at you?” I ask, certain I’m opening a can of worms.
“What?” I shake my head.
“Too much sex,” he says.
“She’s demanding, eh?”
“No,” he says. “She doesn’t like it.” Then he moves in a little closer and whispers, “I lie. I no go home now; I go to see my other lady. She never say no.”
I’m looking at Jin, this skinny chap, possibly in his early fifties, a full set of gold teeth and thick fop of greasy black hair. You can see the dandruff flakes from ten strides away. His collar looks like it hasn’t been washed in weeks, and there’s some kind of yellowish stain on the sleeve of his beige jacket. It’s hard to believe how this guy could afford a second wife.
“How do you do it, Jin?” I ask smiling.
He puffs out his chest and says, “Superman,” then strides off into the hotel parking lot chuckling to himself.
There is a bar here and believe it or not, a lounge pianist too. The guy seems only to know one single song: Bridge Over Troubled Water. He plays it over and over again. There’s one man, a foreigner sitting at the bar milking a beer. I pull out the bar chair next to him.
“Mind if I join you?” I ask.
“Would you?” the man says in an Oxford English accent. “Anything to break this damned monotony. I’ve been listening to that fucking piano player for two weeks now. I’m about ready to snap his bowtied neck. Listen, I’m in a good mood, let me buy you one. Just did the deal of a lifetime.”
“Just sold Shenyang Light Industry five complete shoe making lines. Biggest deal I ever scored. Bloody cost me my liver though.”
I take a sip of the lukewarm draft beer and raise my eyebrows. “Your liver?”
“Bloody ganbei***** every single night. I’ve got Maotai and cheap Tsingtao white wine flowing out of my ears. Can’t you see it,” he laughs.
“Ah, the karaoke bars,” I say, thinking I know exactly what he’s talking about.
“Karaoke bars? Here? Impossible,” he says. “This town has about as much nightlife as my scrawny British arse. Not a blimp, in two whole weeks. Can’t eat the goddamned food. No, mate, after nine o’clock the whole town just goes to sleep. What do you think this is? Hong Kong?”
“Just came today. From Hong Kong.”
“Ah, that explains everything, the boyish eyes, the nicely pressed suit. Outside of Beijing and Shanghai you won’t even find a girl in a tight dress. Nada.”
“So what do you do for, er—entertainment?”
He laughs. “You’re looking at it.”
“Guy who picked me up at the airport told me he has a girl on the side. I guessed she must be a karaoke girl or a bar girl or something like that.”
“There are places, for locals. But listen. This is deep Communist China. You know this place was once Mao’s largest munitions’ dump? Couple of years ago, I knew one lad who was kicked out of the country for pinching some waitress’ arse. They blacklisted him. In the old days, foreigners were arrested for less than that.
“Now Beijing, on the other hand,” he says, “is the only civilized city in the whole country. There are more Mongolian hookers working the Holiday Inn Hotel than there are in all of Ulan Bator. Anyway, I’d better call it a night. Got to work on the payment terms with those buggers tomorrow. If you’re feeling up for it, meet me at the bar here around, say—seven. I’ll take you to the most interesting restaurant you’ve ever seen.”
The Shenyang Aircraft Factory, formerly the bus factory, formerly the ammunition factory, has laid on the works for my arrival. The Swiss flag is flying at full mast and a gigantic banner hangs over the entrance, and says:
WE WELCOME OUR ESTEEMED FOREIGN GUESTS FROM
SWITZERLAND AND AMERICA IN BROTHERLY COOPERATION
Mister Sheng, whom I met in Hong Kong, greets me in the lobby, along with the factory’s General Manager and a whole retinue of unnamed others who follow us from workshop to workshop, including some guy with a video camera who I’m later told works for the local TV station.
A small guy shuffles up to me and gives me his hand, “I am your official translator,” he says. “My name is Zhu, but you can call me JohnsonJohnson.” I look around for Jin, who dropped me off, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Suddenly I catch a glimpse of him in someone’s office sipping a cup of tea.
“Nice to meet you…JohnsonJohnson. How did you get a name like JohnsonJohnson?”
“My English teacher gave it to me,” he says proudly. I don’t dare tell him that she probably meant John, not the shampoo.
Mister Sheng and the General Manager motion me to follow them through the workshops. There’s the turning shop with at least fifty lathes producing sprockets, engine parts, and long threaded spokes of aluminum. Surprisingly it’s as clean as a whistle. JohnsonJohnson later tells me that the whole factory has been on non-stop clean up for the last three weeks. Apparently, Mister Sheng even flew in some sanitation consultant from Singapore.
We move into the stamping workshop that appears to be producing segments of aircrafts’ wings. The gigantic presses are mostly operated by young women wearing what look like 19th century bed caps. I cringe watching them deftly moving their fingers in and out of the monstrous presses. They have no eye or ear protection. I know I’ll have to try and resolve this.
JohnsonJohnson nuzzles in every once in a while and explains technical terms to me like, ‘that is a special alloy steel imported from Germany;’ or, ‘notice the precision;’ or he pulls down a clipboard hanging above the machine and points out that the quality control in his factory is absolutely excellent.
In each workshop there is a chalkboard indicating targets to be met, and it looks to me like they all read zero defects in the last ten days, which, of course, is an impossibility. Each workshop appears to have its own slogan written both in Chinese and English.
WORK EFFICIENCY IS THE PARADIGM OF A WELL-OILED MACHINE!
THE WORKERS ARE THE HEART OF THE FACTORY –
WORK HARD! BEAT HARD!
After the factory tour, we sit down in the meeting room, me on one side, five of the factory staff plus Mister Sheng on the other. JohnsonJohnson translates for the General Manager, but first Mister Sheng gives us all his long speech—and, believe it or not, I finally find out that he is the mayor of Shenyang, and that he has all his hopes pinned on this new business.
He rests assured that I am ready for the delegation of American buyers who are set to arrive tomorrow. After all, he says, what more could a factory want other than a Swiss salesman? the very embodiment of quality and efficiency. (JohnsonJohnson translates very as ‘veritable,’ once again, well intended.)
This speech is followed by the General Manager, who basically says exactly the same thing in different words, throwing in a few metaphors and some kind of an allusion to an ancient Chinese folktale about bears and birds.
I want to ask, who is this delegation from America? What the hell am I supposed to be selling? Why in God’s name am I here in the middle of nowhere? But I simply smile, cringe a little inside and decide I have only one choice: stick to YY Stratagem Number 3: When in doubt, play it by ear.
(To be continued…)
*Shenyang is the capital of Liaoning Province in Northeast China. The city served briefly as the capital of China in the 17th century and has been a center for heavy industry since the late 1800s.
**A picturesque island Southwest of Hong Kong proper once known for its wild weekend party-scene.
***A Chinese liquor that is extremely popular at Chinese business banquets. Distilled from fermented sorghum, it and packs a quite a pungent punch at over 50 proof. Drinking copious amounts ensures a serious hangover and a sweetish, slightly sickly fragrance exudes from the pores the morning after.
****Colloquial Mandarin Chinese term meaning foreigner, literally: ‘old foreigner.’ It has come to be considered a pejorative term by expatriates living in China in the same fashion that ‘gringo’ is considered such in Mexico.
*****Literally, ‘Bottoms up’—a very popular custom at Chinese business banquets, normally involving never-ending bottles of liquor or wine until someone ends up under the table, collapses from alcohol poisoning or throws up over his host.