Sunday, 20 February 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 9 - Nanjing

One of the things that most excited me about moving to Hong Kong was the opportunity to visit Mainland China.  My ideas of what it would be like have been strongly coloured by growing up in America during the 60s and 70s and by reading books like "Wild Swans" and "The Last Emperor".  I have, of course, also been influenced by Bruce Lee,  "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Kung Fu".   In other words, somewhere in the back of my head I was expecting row after row of Communist women in olive uniforms with bound feet doing martial arts whilst lifting burning cauldrons out of doorways and flinging themselves into the snow to cool their burns before being shot for behaving too intellectually.  I feel vaguely disappointed that during my recent trip to Nanjing, I didn't see anything like that.

The bankis about to sign a contract with a company to supply some Software.  As we haven't signed the contract yet, I shall refer to this company as "Sino Systems" - not its real name.  It is owned and run by two Taiwanese brothers, and they have offices all over the world.  Their major software development centre is in Nanjing, and as I am running the programme that will use their software, I don't need a fortune cookie to tell me that I will be seeing a lot of Nanjing in the future.  I made my first trip there last week in the company of one of my four bosses, a colleague and two members of my team.  My boss, colleague and I travelled out together on the evening flight from Hong Kong, arriving at about 9:30 into Nanjing airport. 

The airport looked pretty much like any other airport, with people waiting outside international arrivals to greet colleagues, family members and loved ones (in many cases in China, these are all the same people). We were met by a young man holding a sign printed with "HSBC" in tiny little letters. It is always so reassuring to be greeted at the airport by someone with a sign. It makes your feel confident that you are actually in the right place.  Even when there is no chance in hell of someone meeting me at an airport, I still always look out for a man with a little sign. Even though sign-man spoke not a word of English, we managed to convince him that we were the people he was looking for. He also managed to communicate that we should be patient as we needed to wait for one of the Sino Systems owner/manager/brothers to arrive so he could drive us all into town together.  Luckily, my colleague was from Hong Kong and although he only speaks Cantonese he seemed to do better understanding our Mandarin speaking driver than I did.  Actually, maybe he didn't and just made the whole thing up.

Anyway, we were standing around waiting when I heard a terrible explosion behind me.  My boss and I jumped (colleague had gone to the loo) and quickly turned around to see which way we should flee.  Despite the horrific blast we had heard, we couldn't see any carnage or destruction.  No one else seem the least bit perturbed. How odd. A few minutes later, we hear it again. Again, we did the jump and spin move and saw nothing.  It was really starting to freak me out.  Then it happened again whilst I was facing in the right direction to see it.  What I thought was a medium sized incendiary device was actually a rather large man sneezing, coughing and spitting simultaneously. I am not exaggerating when I say that the sound was akin to Concorde firing up for take-off.  I think I would rather have been hit with shrapnel than the stuff that came out of this guy's facial orifices. It was disgusting. All I could think about was that film "Outbreak" with Dustin Hoffman that used animation to chart the progress of a deadly airborne virus.  I really thought I could see the germs hitting me with each explosive roar.  Well, I'm still here so I guess the germs did not have an immediate impact.

When the owner/manager/brother finally arrived, we all piled into a car and headed towards our hotel.  I was so excited to be in CHINA! The first thing that struck me about Nanjing, a major city of five million people, is that it was dark.  What few street lamps existed were very dim and I was wondering where all those people were.  Maybe everyone just goes to bed and turns out the lights very early in Nanjing.  The second thing that struck me about Nanjing was terror.  I have driven/been driven on some of the most chaotic roads in the world, but nothing compares to the sheer insanity that is driving in Nanjing.  Cars share the motorways with cyclists and pedestrians. No one indicates their next movements. Lanes are fiction and there appeared to be no rules at all about on which side of the road one should drive.  I have never been so frightened in my life. 

When we finally arrived at our hotel, we all needed a drink so we agreed to meet at the hotel bar in 10 minutes after dumping our stuff in our rooms.  One of the most important things to know about China is that British American Tobacco, Philip Morris and the China National Tobacco company are all alive and well there (unlike their customers). EVERYONE smokes and there are none of those snotty, annoying little rules about non-smoking restaurants, offices or rooms.  I made my way to the hotel bar, hilariously entitled "Danny's Irish Bar - Nanjing's first and only Irish bar".  I could barely see two feet in front of me for all the smoke, but I managed to grope my way in.  Not only could I barely see, I couldn't hear over the sounds of "Nanjing's only Colombian band" who were blasting classic hard rock with a passion that I have only ever seen matched by other fourth rate hotel rock bands from Columbia. The only thing more excruciating than the music itself was the couple attempting to slow dance (on "Nanjing's biggest dance floor!") to Marilyn Manson.

Whilst I mimed conversation with my boss (there was absolutely no way we could hear each other speak), I noticed that there were many other working women in the bar. I was, however, the only one not wearing a mini skirt, halter top and stilettos. I felt really overdressed and decided to call it a night.  I later found out that the private karaoke rooms on the same floor as Danny's offer very special services. And I thought those guys just wanted to sing along to Tom Jones tunes.

The next day was spent at Sino Systems who are based in a new "tech park" along with several other technology companies.  If you are thinking Silicon Valley, don't.  In this case, the park was more concrete than grass. We walked into the office and saw that it was bright with big spacious rooms empty except for desks, chairs, cardboard boxes and cigarette smoke. The walls were completely blank. In sharp contrast to Hong Kong offices, the desks were completely devoid of any personal adornment. The developers, none of whom appeared older than twelve, were all sat at their desks bundled up in their coats (the developers were bundled, not the desks), even though the heaters were going full blast and the cigarette embers could have warmed a small country.   I found all of this very strange; very temporary. "When did you move in", I queried, expecting an answer of "last week". "Three years ago" said the proud development manager. I nearly fell over in shock.  You would think that in three years they might have managed to hang a poster on the wall - maybe one of those big eyed puppies that everyone seems so fond of.  It honestly looked as if they were all ready to evacuate the building with a moment's notice. Aha, I thought.  I have finally found the evidence for the dull uniformity that is life in a Communist regime. Excited now, I looked around for evidence of starving children (those ones I was told about when I didn't finish my dinner as a child), water torture and Chairman Mao's little red book. I never found it.  I guess that people in China just don't like to decorate their offices with posters of David Beckham and Hello Kitty paraphernalia.

Our Chinese hosts were very keen to treat their new customers like royalty. Well, maybe not royalty, more like valued party members. We were taken out for both lunch and dinner. For lunch, we walked about 10 minutes to what looked like another office building.  We were assured that it was indeed a restaurant, but it only had private rooms.  Maybe if I hadn't been there, the guys would have been offered a karaoke singer. After lunch, I excused myself to find the ladies room. It was there that I made a startling realisation. I am now too old to find any novelty in a squat toilet. Sighing heavily, I locked myself into the stall.  I then realised that there was absolutely no place to hang my handbag, and I sure couldn't put it on the floor.  Given that I needed both hands for what I was about to do, holding it simply wasn't an option. The strap wasn't long enough to go over my head, so I did what any girl would do in that position. I gripped the damned thing between my teeth thanking all the gods above that I had had the good sense to remove my laptop earlier.   I then had to undo and lower my trousers to the precise position that would allow me to pee but not so far down they would slip to the ground and touch the unspeakable floor and position myself appropriately over the hole.  I then had to crouch down low enough to minimise splash back but not so far that I risked losing my balance.  I then had to reach between my knees and pull my knickers/trousers forward so that they wouldn't get wet.  It's not a pretty picture, is it? Keep in mind that my handbag was still between my teeth.  I did what I needed to do and then realised....that's toilet paper.  Stymied, I was temporarily paralysed. I had tissues in my handbag, but I needed one hand to keep my trousers/knickers pulled forward out of the drip zone and the other hand to manage my balance. I managed to release one handbag handle from my mouth (this really should be an Olympic sport), thus allowing it to open just enough for me to use the balancing hand to fish around for the tissues.  By this time, my squat angle was way off and I was dripping on my other hand.  I just did the best I could, stood up and exited the stall in as dignified a manner as I could. With no hot water and no soap, I reminded myself that urine is sterile when it comes out of the body and that Shirley Maclaine even drinks her own every day (allegedly).  Like I said, I am simply too old for this.

 For dinner, we went to the trendy part of town (it has lights!) to a fancy restaurant where we also had a private room.  I had the honour of sitting next to one of the owner/manager/brothers who spoke very limited English and has a real fondness for pork products.   We did not order; the food was simply brought to the table and placed on a giant Lazy Susan in the middle of the table. Everyone just spun the wheel and helped themselves. The food was not like anything I ever experienced in any Chinese restaurant anywhere in the world.  Here is some of what was on offer: shredded jellyfish, pigs ears, beef cartilage, chicken feet, duck tongue, drunken shrimp (served live, swimming in wine), smoked snake and pigeon head.  I know I have a tendency towards exaggeration, but I swear to you that every last one of those dishes was on the table.  The worst was the pigeon heads with their pointy beaks and beady eyes that looked at you as you popped them whole into your mouth.  I couldn't actually bring myself to do it.  The only one of those things I managed was a bit of pigs ear which wasn't too bad.  Next time I go to China I am bringing some granola bars and a couple of cans of baked beans.

Even with all of this, I am looking forward to going back again.  I was struck by the similarities between Nanjing in 2011 and Bucharest in 1994.  The feel of the places is the same.  Growing private enterprise in the midst of concrete bureaucracy. A huge gulf between exceptionally rich and heart breakingly poor. Beautiful women and ugly men.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 8 - Furniture

I never in my entire life thought that I could write a sentence about furniture, much less an entire blog. I only hope that that the blog is far more interesting than the experience itself (you should be hoping this too, readers!).

Before we moved to Hong Kong, we were informed that we were to work with a company called EC Harris for all our housing related needs.  Before we arrived, they ensured that our chosen flat was clean, everything was in working order, the phone was installed and there were sufficient bars on the windows in the "helpers" room.  Given that the helpers are forced to live in a space smaller than the average bathroom, I guess the bars are to keep them from hurling themselves from the 12th floor window.   ECH also provided us with a link to the website for a company called "Home Essentials", a local furniture rental company with whom ECH have a contractual relationship.  We were told to log onto the website and choose the furniture we wanted for our flat.  You are given credits for the furniture depending on what your grade is in the bank. The more senior you are, the  more credits you get and therefore the more/better furniture you get.  We were told that whatever we ordered would be delivered within four weeks so our flat could be fully kitted out by the time we arrived. How nice.

We dutifully logged on to the website with a real sense of anticipation.  We were expecting Conran, Heals, Roche Bubois or at the very least, Ikea. I am a Band 3 Senior Manager after all. Our expectations were quickly dashed as the furniture on this website looked like something out of "Tatty Reproduction Furniture Ltd". The website is divided into rooms: bedroom, living room, dining room and other.  For each room you have three style choices: dark brown, light brown and fake Chinese orange.  Feeling rebellious, we went for the dark brown option and chose a double bed, 2 single beds for Sadie, 3 chests of drawers, a dining table with red (!) chairs, grey sofas/armchairs, 3 bookcases, a sideboard and 3 desks.  With the few remaining credits, we went way out on a limb and got some lamps. We could now have a flat that looked EXACTLY THE SAME as everyone else's who is on a secondment for HSBC. I think they allow you to express some individuality by choosing your own light bulbs (regular or energy saving), but that's pretty much as far as it goes. Anyway, if you choose energy saving light bulbs, you are probably considered just a bit too left wing for career advancement.

When we arrived at our new flat, there was a lovely man from ECH to let us in and show us around. He proudly pointed out the air conditioners in each room, but he looked a bit embarrassed when I asked about heaters. "No heaters", he said, "but look at the lovely air conditioners"  "They are very nice, but we can see our breath", I said as I watched David and Sadie shiver. He made a quick exit and left us to our own chilly devices.  We had a look round the flat and found one double bed (used), one single bed (used), two chests of drawers (very used), one beige sofa (used), two beige armchairs (used), one dining table (very used) and six beige dining chairs (used). "Hmmm...I don't remember ordering beat up old furniture in beige".  It was very late at that point, so we were just grateful to have beds, used or not, and off to sleep we went.

When we got back in touch with ECH, we were told that Home Essentials was having a few problems with their suppliers and our new furniture would arrive "soon". Several weeks later, we still didn't have the furniture we ordered and I was weary of losing Sadie and David amongst all the other beige things in the flat. Thank god they wear clothes, or I never would have found them again.  David established a close personal relationship with a young woman at Home Essentials and managed to get them to deliver one more bed (used), two bookcases (very used), one sideboard (very very used) and 3 desks (two of them fake orange Chinese and so short that neither David nor I can get our legs under them).

David and I then started a good cop/bad cop routine (yes, I was the bad cop) with both Home Essentials and ECH. I tried the "do you know who I am" tactic (they didn't), and David tried the "I'm terribly sorry to bother you, but I have a terrible illness and my only wish in this life is to have furniture" tactic. This finally resulted two weeks ago in EC Harris telling us that Home Essentials would probably never be able to fulfil the order and that we should go to a shop called Indigo and buy our own furniture. We would have to give back what we had from Home Essentials (I am really going to miss this desk, but it will be nice to not have cramp in my legs anymore), but they would give us HK$40,000  (about £3800 or US$5500) to buy new furniture.

Now, we had been to Indigo the week before, and we knew that HK$40,000 would maybe buy a table and a couple of chairs. It is eye wateringly expensive.  So, I (the Bad Lieutenant) rang up our contact at EC Harris and explained that this simply wasn't enough to furnish a three bedroom flat. (By the way, our contact is called Man Kei, which the way she pronounces it sounds like Manky.  This goes some way towards mitigating the Kafka-esque situation in which we find ourselves). We were then informed that we could only have HK$40,000 but we were permitted to shop at Ikea (pronounced Ick - E - Uh) if we wished.  This resulted in our second trip to Ikea in a month.  It was heaving, and I had a major panic attack when I had to figure out the 943 separate items required to make up the entertainment centre we wanted. My heart was beating, my palms were sweating and I seriously considered abandoning both my boyfriend and my child in a dash for air. David managed to talk me down (it was like talking someone off the roof of a 85 story building not someone in between the Besta TV Benches and the Hulska Sofas) and we managed to make a get through the shop and make a list of all of our required furniture items.

On the Monday, I emailed Man Kei with our choices and said that they came to under $40,000 but some of it wasn't very nice and could we mix and match Ikea and Indigo furniture.  After consulting with her boss, Man Kei informs us that she will need to come inspect our furniture to see if we can keep any of it. The fact that this makes no sense whatsoever  and has absolutely nothing to do with what I asked is, I guess, beside the point. She comes to inspect the furniture (or maybe she just wanted to inspect David) and decides that we can keep the beds, the bookcases and the chests of drawers but the rest are indeed too manky (sorry) to keep. She needed to speak to her boss about how much money we could now spend on new stuff.  A few days ago we had an email informing us that we could keep the beds, the bookcases, the chests of drawers and the lamps, but we could buy new sofa/chairs, dining table/chairs, desks and sideboard.  They would now give us HK$70,000 to buy the required items.  This is almost twice the amount for half of what we thought we had to buy! I felt like I was on "Let's Make a Deal".  Everything is a negotiation in Hong Kong.

David, Sadie and I made our third trip to Ikea yesterday. We are going to Indigo this afternoon. Tomorrow, we will place our final order with Man Kei so ECH can buy the stuff we want. None of it is beige.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 7 - Kung Hei Fat Choi

The Chinese lunar new year is now being celebrated here in Hong Kong, and the sound of "Kung Hei Fat Choi" rings out everywhere you go.  This is the Chinese phrase for "Happy New Year" or literally "Wishing you prosperity and wealth".  This is so typically Hong Kong, where wishes for wealth are far more prevelant than wishes for health, happiness, world peace or a cure for cancer.

It has been a fun, but stressful, time leading up to the holiday that rivals Christmas/Thanksgiving/Groundhog Day in its magnitude here.   There are so many traditions to follow; there are so many things to get completely wrong. 

The first thing to worry about is when to start saying Kung Hei Fat Choi. Is it like Christmas, where you can start saying "Merry Christmas" just after Halloween? Or, is it one of those bad luck Chinese things where the world will come to an end if you say it before the actual event?  I'm pretty sure it's the latter, but I slipped up and said it to someone a few days early last week.  That may be the root cause behind the massive winter storm in North America, the Egyptian uprising and Andy Murray's tennis loss.  Really sorry everyone.

The next things to worry about are the traditional Chinese New Year's foods. For several weeks now, the Chinese restaurant in our building complex has been selling hampers chock full of new year specialties.  These include four different types of "delicious puddings":  turnip, taro (a small starchy tuber that is toxic unless well cooked) and glutinous rice, as well as sesame balls (tasty balls of glutinous rice flour filled with red bean paste and rolled in sesame seeds and fried). It's a long way from the stilton, port and shortbread in my familiar holiday hamper. I had the opportunity to try some of the turnip pudding recently, and it was surprisingly delicious, once I got past the textural issues.  Here is how you could make something similar at home (well, at least if home is in the southern United States).  Cook some grits. Add tiny chopped up pieces of ham. Spread it in a pan. Put it in a fridge until it is completely gummy and congealed. Eat it. No turnips, but I swear the taste and texture is the same.  Other traditional foods include oranges or tangerines with the leaves still on (entire trees are often given as gifts), jai (a combination of food that allegedly represents good forune which includes ginko nut, black moss, dried bean curd, bamboo shoots, noodles and green onions) and whole chicken and fish to represent prosperity.  When I say whole, I do mean that quite literally.  Chickens, ducks and geese are all served comlete with head, tail and feet. MmmmMmmm.

I manage a large team of people in Hong Kong, and I am expected to sponsor (i.e. pay for) regular social events.  We try to give these events a cultural theme, so last week I hosted a holiday party in the staff restaurant. We all took part in a traditional new year activity, using Chinese caligraphy to make small banners with four word new year wishes. It was great fun, sort of like being in Kindergarten again as all the tables were covered with newspaper and we were warned of the perils of indelible ink. First you take a red piece of paper that is about eight inches wide and 15 inches long.  You then take a special paint brush and dip it in a glass that has some cotton in it that has been soaked in black ink.  You hold the brush sort of like a chopstick and then paint your Chinese characters. These characters can be incredibly complex, and there are strict rules about the order in which you draw the different brush strokes. It is painstaking, but very relaxing work. We were given a choice of "sayings" to draw.  Most of these, as I have come to expect in Hong Kong, have to do with wealth and professional success.  They include: "May you have great wealth", "May you be promoted", and "May you be very successful".  Actually they could have all said "Lisa is a complete idiot". I would have been none the wiser. 

Every social event in Hong Kong includes prize giving, raffles and other things focussed on winning stuff. The new years party was no different.  The caligraphy teacher had to award prizes for the best work.  As always in these events, I won. I assure you this had nothing to do with the quality of my painting and everything to do with kissing up to the boss. The HK$50 voucher for a local supermarket went some way towards compensating for the HK$2000 I had to shell out for the party in the first place.  After the prize giving, everyone lines up for a group photo and then several people ask to have their picture taken with me. I am not sure if this is a sign of respect or an opportunity for them to show their families pictures of themselves with that very large western woman and have a good laugh.

The trickiest custom related to Chinese New Year is something called lee see or red envelope.  It is customary to give lee sees stuffed with cash to a wide variety of people during the holiday season. The rules around this custom are a complete minefield. The first group of people to receive lee sees are children.  This is pretty straightforward.  First of all, because I don't know a lot of children here and secondly because they won't refuse to speak/serve/work with me for the rest of the year if I get the amount wrong. I have filled a number of red envelopes with HK$20 (about £1.80 or US$2.50) to keep handly in case I run into any threatening looking children. The second category of people to receive lee sees are people who provide a regular service to you. This includes the Uni-Barry doormen (now also known as Dominic, William, Philip and the one who doesn't wear a nametag).  It also includes our various shuttle bus drivers as well as Fong, my favourite supermarket check out lady.  You have to love anyone named Fong. These people all provide excellent service, and I am very happy to reward them for it. But how much? Do we give the same amount to all the Barrys even though some are around a lot more than others? Do they compare notes?  Will we be causing grave offence? If I give to Fong, but she has the longest queue to check out in the future, will the other check out ladies spurn me if I haven't given them a red envelope? It is so challenging.

The final dangerous category of lee see recepient is people at work. I have over 50 people who work for me in Hong Kong alone.  I am expected to give them all red envelopes.  Even with the minimum spend of HK$20, this is going to get very expensive.  I need to give even more to certain people. My PA will require at least HK$100 if she is to continue providing the excellent support that she has historically. I don't really have an issue with the money per se. I am far more worried about the logistics.  The problem is that I don't actually know the names of everyone on my team or recognise them by sight. This means that when I greet people at work next week, I will have a very hard time knowing to whom I should hand the envelopes.  Even worse, I am very likely to forget that I have already given someone an envelope and I will then end up giving them two. I have solved one problem by asking my PA to print out a list of the people who work for me. I have now labled 54 red envelopes.  The problem remains, however, of knowing who is who. I am in a complete panic over this, but I'll let you know how it goes.

Kung Hei Fat Choi!