Sunday, May 16, 2004

Bewitched, Bothered and Bamboozeled
Damn. One reason I hate the idea of leaving Shenzhen is that I don't think that in Hong Kong you can get paid $100 to have a 3-hour dinner at a 5-star hotel to get squid-faced with good folks like Cheng Zhi Zing, vice-town mayor and vice-secretary of the Communist People's Party of Yixing City, Zhangzhu Town People's Government and five of his equally genial lackies.
You can't pass yourself off as "Michael Rymsha, general manager, bamboo expert, Xingli Bamboo Products Company" and tell Cheng and his legal assistant between liver shredding shots of maotai that Home Depot, Sam's Club and Wendy's are chompin' at the bit to buy up every meter of bamboo flooring and curtain China can deliver if the folks in Yixing City, Zhangzhu Town can just come through.
Such was my role Sunday night, the latest and probably last in my "Rent-a-Foreigner" roles. This one came suddenly, like all the rest, in a phone call from a friend-of-a-friend who needed a hairy barbarian face to put a legitimate gloss on a questionable enterprise. In exchange I'd get 800 yuan ($100) and dinner.
It was sort of like a shyster from New York bringing a non-English speaking Chinese guy to show the Box Butte County Nebraska Chamber of Commerce that he has connections in Beijing interested in buying the county's entire kohlrabi crop for packing, insulation and lingerie materials.
In this case I was to pose as the general manager of a bamboo flooring, curtain and furniture exporter. Name cards were provided at the last minute by my new "best friend" and "enterprise partner," bamboo czar Porter Mei who shoved a stack of them at me as I met him and scrambled into a glossy black town car limo to make the date.
"Your name is Michael Rymsha. I am sorry," said Porter.
No problem. Some of my best friends have been named Michael, I replied while humming "Michael Row the Town Car Ashore" to myself on the way to pick up the delegation from Yixing City, Zhangzhu Town.
"What else to do I need to know?"
"We are the kings of bamboo in China. You are my general manager and you live in Hong Kong."
"Where did you get this name?"
"I tell people I have an American partner, Michael, because I like the name from Michael Jackson," replied Porter. "Rymsha I found on another business card."
I thought of telling him about Porter Wagner and what a coincidence that the king of pop and the king of Nudie suits/ Dolly Parton's old partner should both be riding high to scam gullible commie party rubes from China's sticks. But, dear reader, yes, I thought better of it.
Sometimes obscure explanations only complicate the issue, such as when one of the rubes turned out to be a brighter-than-the-average-panda-bear young female law school graduate with a decent command of English.
"How many times do you travel from Hong Kong to Shenzhen in one month?" she asked brightly as I mulled over the choice of what appeared to be small, glossy pink reptile hearts and shiny squid tentacles as appetizers. "Uh," I stammered. "Six, about six times in one month, right Porter?"
"He is my best friend and business partner. We are the kings of bamboo" he replied confidently.
"What is your average export load and who are your top customers? How has the institution of the SEAC regulations affected your business?"
"Six metric tons, Home Depot, Sam's Club and Wendy's. Very happy with SEAC," I shot back, wondering what the hell SEAC was.
"I do not know this Wendy's," she said.
"It's gonna be big. Very big," I assured her. "Have you tried these oblong squishy things with spines coming out of them? Here, please!"
"Oh, you can use chopsticks with your left hand!" she cooed. "You must be very clever."
Clever enough to divert the conversation when it got uncomfortable, maybe, though not clever enough to dodge the really hard questions when they decided to play "guess the foreigner barbarian's age" after about 18 rounds of maotai toasts to the future of bamboo.
The guesses ranged between 39 and 62.
"Somewhere in between," I said trying not to slur. "You are all very clever."
"So it is 51!" replied the law advisor. "Hee, older than my father!"
Shenzhen Zen will be taking another brief hiatus in Hong Kong on Monday-Tuesday in a second attempt to shamelessly court the employment fairies at The Standard. Stay tuned for developments....

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