Sunday, June 19, 2005

'It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook-up world ...'
It was late Saturday night, almost early Sunday morning and C and I were preparing for bed. We'd returned from a ''soft opening'' of a new nightclub that had featured as entertainment a 65-year-old British expat singing songs like the 1972 Stylistics hit, Stone in Love with You and Moon River. Among my tablemates had been two Serbian guys named - I'm not making these up - Velibor and Zoran and a former neuro- linguistics PhD candidate from Seattle who said his family was evenly split between orthodox Jews and old Communists - red diaper babies and the like.
Earlier C and I had spent the afternoon getting lost trying to find a modern art gallery only to emerge at a subway exit that was smack in the middle of an abandoned construction site with no main artery in sight.
Once we finally found it, the thoroughly modern exhibit had included a series of what I called "angry panda" paintings - one with a tormented, demonic looking panda eviscerating itself with its talon-like paws and several homoerotic oil studies mocking the Soviet Realism style featuring East German or USSR hunks "studying'' Marx and Lenin together... In other words, just another normal day in Shenzhen.
"Tommorow I have to get up early, maybe 7:30,'' C said. "I have to have Catonese tea with a friend and some PLA guys who are coming from Hong Kong to talk to him about stationary supplies issues.''
After nearly two years here, it was one of those comments that now passes as normal for me. Why not? I thought. In the US people get up early on weekends to hit garage sales. And in China they get up at 7:30 Sunday morning to talk about stationary with the People's Liberation Army. Life is like that sometimes. One rich tapestry of garage sales, stationary and the PLA.
But I paused a minute, before gently querying: "What are 'stationary supply issues?' ''
''The Hong Kong PLA needs stationary and my friend wants to sell it to them, but he doesn't have any experience.''
''The PLA is the largest army in the world. Don't they have their own official supplier?"
"It’s just a small item for them. It's just for the PLA in Hong Kong. Not the whole country.''
''So if they need a small amount of cruise missles for the PLA garrison in Hong Kong, do they go to your friend and you, too?''
''No, of course not. My friend is a friend of the PLA buyer. He wants to do business with the PLA in Hong Kong but has no idea of how to purchase stationary in Shenzhen. The only stores he knows are the ones on the street so obviously the stationary he buys there would be too expensive. So he knows the the only thing he can do is buy from manufacturers and he has no idea of which ones to buy from.''
''I still don't understand why the world's largest army doesn't have its own stationary supply source. I mean, I grew up being afraid of a lot of things, including the red horde, the Chinese army. Now I find out that in the 21st century they can't even buy stationary? Anyway, why does your friend need you?''
''I told him I’d worked for Walmart and had purchased stationary supplies for them. So he wants me to show up like a supplier and talk about stationary in professional words''
''So what's his connection with the PLA?''
''He used to be in the PLA in Hong Kong and they are good friends. If someone is going to make money with stationary, why shouldn't an old friend make money instead of a stranger?''
''Okay. So this is about friendship and money?''
''The Shenzhen guy has no experience in stationary but he is my friend, too. We had dinner together and talked about stationary purchasing and I said I might know a stationary supplier that could help him.''
''So you're going to pretend to be a paper supplier?''
''Yes, because I I know some technical words for that business. Like the weight of the paper, what brand of pens. The PLA guy will probably ask me about what kind of printer cartidges, copy machines, staplers, hole punchers, staple removers, correction fluids -- all that stuff.''
''So you're going to do what I've done before here? Pretend that you're in a business you're not so someone else can close a deal?''
''Yes. It's how people do business in China. And they buyer isn’t going to lose any money and we're not going to lose any money, so it's good for both sides.''
She left at about 8am and returned only about an hour later as I was still snoozing. By American standards and especially by Chinese standards it was an unusually short business meeting.
''So what happened? Did your friend get the deal? Will the PLA in Hong Kong have enough stationary?''
''It was a little strange. We hardly talked about stationary. But the tea and dim sum was very good. Something will happen, though. All the business in China comes out of meals.''
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