Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Immigration Man
My once feckless and free access to Shenzhen has suddenly ground to a halt, thanks, in part I suspect to international relations. Shortly after coming to Hong Kong, I had applied for and received a six month "multi-entry" visa which allowed the bearer to come and go from Hong Kong to the Motherland as many times and unfilled passport pages as possible.
My visa expired on Monday and I took the opportunity of a day off that included a rare visit from C to Hong Kong (ironically, even as a Chinese citizen and Party Member in Good Standing her opportunities to visit Hong Kong are even more difficult than mine going to Shenzhen) to get a new visa. I'd prepared by calling four different visa/travel agencies, all of whom gave me conflicting and increasingly confusing information.
Basically, I was told that as a US citizen my chances were slim and twice the price of the last time I'd applied. The reason? Post-9/11 US "war on terror" policies that have increasingly restricted tourist and business access for select countries, including China. In the tit-for-tat that passes for mature global diplomacy these days, the PRC has responded each time by making it harder and increasingly expensive for US citizens to penetrate its borders in order to buy its beer, its bootleg products, find clean restrooms with real toilet paper and to deflower its women.
Visa service #1: Cost HK$1,800 (US$205). Requirements: passport, one passport size photo, a business card in Chinese and English that lists HK, American and SZ addresses but does not identify me as a journalist. (American journalists are about as welcome in China as another SARS outbreak.)
Visa service #2: Cost HK$1,500. Same passport, photo requirements, "maybe" a business card but no idea on the content or language, except don't dare say that you work at a Hong Kong newspaper.
Visa service #3: Cost HK$1,600. Ditto passport, photo. Phony English-only, US address-only business card.
Visa service #4" Cost HK$1,500. Usual passport, photo stuff. One bogus English-only, US address-only and one bi-lingual fake card with HK-only information, "just in case."
I picked No. 4, partially because it seemed to cover most of the options. But also because it was the same firm that had given Julian stellar service during his December visit when we stood twice on two consecutive days on a windy street outside a subway stop for 25 minutes each time waiting for a complete stranger named "Stanley" to take my money and Julian's passport and then return the passport with a visa. Though Lou Reed's ditty, Waiting for the Man about a streetcorner wait for unauthorized pharmaceutical relief came to mind, ours had a more satisfying conclusion.
C had two different versions of "Justin Mitchell, Executive Buyer, The Standard Import and Export" printed up in Shenzhen for about US$4.
This time a fellow named "Dennis" directed me to a real building, not "outside exit C-2 Tsim Sha Tsui MTR stop," where I found him and several other slightly frazzled looking characters on floor 5, room "911" ("Not a so nice lucky room number, hee-hee, I am sorry!", explained Dennis).
"The business cards are fake," I said. "Made in Shenzhen earlier this week."
"Oh, yes! Of course! Of course! Shenzhen, usually good work. No problem," he said, thumbing through my passport and the four previous visas and pages of border stamps I'd collected since initially arriving in July '03. He assured me it was all no problem and that he'd hand deliver my passport and a new visa to my office within two days.
An hour later while my cell phone rang and a woman who called herself "Judy" rang from the visa office telling me that my application had been rejected because the visa would be for 6 months, but my Hong Kong work visa expires in five months. "You only need to get a two-entry tourist visa," she said.
I immediately saw my relationship with C shriveling to a pathetic series of increasingly remote, erratic e-mails and phone calls, punctuated by two strained visits and occasional trips to the border where we'd gaze longingly at each other from 50 yards away separated by an enormous grated steel gate amid throngs of happy visa-enabled co-mingling couples coming and going hand-in-hand.
I asked Judy if I used a two-entry visa, would it be possible to get a new one after it's used up and repeat the process as needed. Lather, rinse, repeat. And by the way, how much is it?
"It is because your Hong Kong visa expires in five months. The cost is $1,050" was the repeated reply, despite my efforts to simplify the question about getting a new two-entry visa as needed.
I handed the phone to C to ask the question in Chinese.
"She tells me the cost is only $50, not $1,050. But she still says the same thing that does not make sense about your Hong Kong visa."
A call to the Hong Kong immigration office "24-hour manned hot line" at 4:15 pm today to see if I can extend my work visa before five months met with a recording telling me to call back during business hours -- "Monday-Friday 8:30 am-4:30 pm."
To be continued.
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