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 right....no 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.