Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tick Tock

A few weeks ago C & I had the pleasure of hosting two, rare foreign Hong Kong visitors in Shenzhen. Not a lot of them are willing to make the plunge, unless it's a quick in-and-out involving the ol' in-and-out and/or a swift trip at the Lohou border to score quickie counterfeit stuff, a massage, some non-Cantonese Chinese food and back again.

Thanks to C's connections and a story idea I had we had a different tour agenda for my New Zealand chum, H., and an English lass, N.

"Hey, kids! Instead of Windows of the World, Splendid China or Shenzhen's Tallest Building, how 'bout we visit a counterfeit watch factory?" The factory in question is run by a first cousin of C's, a cheerful 35-year-old fellow who originally made legit time pieces in their northeast China hometown of Dandong til the lure of more money and competition with North Korean counterfeit watch makers across the Yalu River drove him south to Shenzhen. His current set-up is a slightly scarifying operation; three floors up in a non-descript structure in an older, less-developed Shenzhen neighborhood it contains at least one room reeking of toxic plating fumes where brain jangled teenage employees without masks incur long-term neural damage working 7.30am-6pm, 6-days/wk. while crafting fake designer time pieces for about US$2/day.

First an introduction: N is tall, thin - 6-1 ft, 6-2 maybe? - and blonde. She also speaks fluent Mandarin. Thus in Shenzhen and anywhere else in China she is both an object of basic curiousity (see: tall, thin, blonde, female) and also one of extreme wonder (as in: "How wonderous that a young, exotic foreign female speaks our language so well, while that old, fat, red-faced, hairy barbarian loser squiring this group around and trying to poke into my fake watch factory speaks nothing but broken phrases and babble!")

She and C were the keys to getting her cousin to open up a little more. Mr. Wong as I'll call him (not his real name, but I'd have to kill you, etc. if I told you) was entranced by N and practically crawled on broken glass as he chatted her up while escorting us out of his fake watch sweatshop to the nearest taxi artery. You can read about some of it here.

And if you're in the market for a mass order of fake Thomas the Tank Engine, Mickey Mouse, Validmir Putin (or the Lone Ranger) on a White Steed, Hugo Boss, Rolex, Omega, Fossil, Tag Heuer, Beijing Olympics etc., watches, lemme know. I know a guy who might help. And if N agrees to a dinner date, I bet he'd drop the price even more...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Gallon of Gas
I love the smell of a flammable liquid in the morning and that's what greeted me when I arrived at the third floor of the mighty Sing Tao Publishing building at about 10.45am today. It reeked of gas fumes and the reception area was crawling with cops.

The third floor mostly houses the Sing Tao circulation department in addition to the temporary office where I'm working on a contract project with five other folks. It does not contain an advertising department or a newsroom, though there are two newspapers, Sing Tao Daily and The Standard on other floors.

But details like that didn't seem to bother the smartly dressed, Mandarin-speaking loonball who'd come into the foyer at about 9am, sat on a red fabric covered chair and demanded to place an advertisement. When he was asked by a receptionist what sort of ad, he didn't reply but instead poured a plastic jar of kerosene, gas or lighter fluid over himself and demanded to see "the editor-in-chief." He didn't specify a newspaper. He was also gripping a box cutter, and, reports vary, perhaps a lighter.

I gotta hand it to the receptionist who calmly told him to wait 10 minutes for the "editor-in-chief" to see him. She called the cops instead who tumbled in shortly thereafter later and hustled him out. I arrived after the excitment to see one of the humble cleaning ladies methodically soaking up the fluid with a wad of paper towels as Hong Kong's finest wandered around photographing the soaked, fume-laden chair which looked as though someone had urinated all over it.

Security guards said gas man had been here twice yesterday but because it was a public holiday (Buddha's Birthday) there was no one to take his ad, hear his demands or to watch him try to torch or cut himself. A former Standard coworker also cracked that he'd have had no luck placing an ad in that paper, even on a working day...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lost (in the) Supermarket
When I moved into my Hong Kong shopping center cum apartment complex about three years ago there were two, count 'em, two super markets. As of last week there are none, though Telford Gardens houses 15,000 or more souls, many of them seemingly on the far side of 118 years.

Expired leases and raised rents are the explanations, though the space where the latest one closed is supposed to be reoccupied by another grocer, in, "oh, not sure, maybe ... two, maybe three months?" according to the zombie housing management officer whom I beat senseless with a shovel in order to extract the informaton.

Meanwhile, if old Auntie Kao or I want basics like toilet paper, rice, eggs, chicken feet, fish heads and fresh bovine bronchial tubes the nearest option is either a shuttle bus that runs only between 8.30am-12.30pm -- perfect for the day shift working stiffs! -- to some other super market several time zones away or to hump it on foot up and down over 170-some stairs, through sweaty throngs, monsoons, 90% humidity and an overpass or two to a slightly closer purveyor of expired freshness-dated goods.

I wanted to complain, find a solution, start a petition, rally, organize, march -- whatever it took to change this sad state of affairs. After failing miserably at the housing management office where my Ugly American act got me virtually nothing but blank stares and contrived "apologies" I decided to try my luck with my District Councillor, a fiftysomething grandmother named Winnie Poon. I'd seen her office almost daily but had never ventured inside.

Winnie was thrilled to see me. "You are only the second gweilo to visit this office!" she enthused. What happened to the first? I wondered, but didn't ask.

Winnie has been a District Councillor (the HK equivalent of an alderman) for more than 20 years. She's a staunch liberal who admired the "Support the Tiananmen Mothers" T-shirt I was wearing, and she had already fought the good fight to no avail to keep uninterrupted access to groceries for Telford Gardens residents. She showed me a petition with 10,000 signatures pleading for the management to help keep a store open.

Result? Nada. "No one cares," Winnie said of the management. She also showed me pictures of creaky, wobbling outraged elderly residents picketing and waving Chinese language signs protesting the closure. It was Winnie who arranged for the shuttle bus -- she said the limited hours were the best she could do -- and said she'd also offered to collect money and grocery orders for delivery service if someone wanted to spend HK$400 (about US$50) for a minimum order.

I thanked Winnies for her efforts, declined the delivery option because of potential language/brand name snafus and then learned that she had an American son-in-law.

"Where's he from?"

"Utah," she replied. Then the kicker. "I'm a Mormon!" she said smiling broadly. She might as well of said, "I'm a transsexual Venutian bobsled racer!"

I'd never met a native Hong Kong Mormon, though I've encountered plenty of the white, ever-smiling USA and English LDS missionaries here with their name tags, permanent press shirts, cheap ties and clunky black and brown shoes trying to buttonhole me and others into believing that in 1827 a guy named Joseph Smith dug up some magical gold tablets in upstate New York courtesy of an angel named "Moroni." Joe needed two years and some magic glasses to read and translate them as The Book of Mormon, a work aptly described by Mark Twain as "chloroform in print."

"You know, it just all sounds like a fairy tale to me," I said after I'd impressed Winnie with my minimal knowledge of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Moroni, Nephites, Urim and Thummim and Jesus's post-death Tour of the Americas. I didn't press her on why Indians used steel bows in pre-Columbian America or why the Lord took until 1978 to reveal to LDS honcho Spencer Kimball that it was finally okay to allow blacks to be priests. And I didn't make any polgamist or Osmond Family jokes or mention a nasty little LDS secret called the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

"All religions sound like fairy tales," she replied, smiling.

"Yeah, a dead guy comes back to life three days after being nailed to a tree ... waters part miraculously ... Mary's face appears suddenly on the hood of a 1977 Chevy Nova..." I mumbled more to myself. I cleared my throat.

"Maybe you could pray for a new supermarket soon, though," I said more clearly. "A miraculous supply of fish and loaves that we wouldn't have to walk a couple miles to find. That would be a fairy tale I could believe in."

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Son Also Rises/Smuggler's Blues

Photo by Ty Hart
It was about 10.30am Saturday in Hong Kong when my cell phone rang again for about the eighth time that morning. I sighed. "Another call from the piano smugglers," I thought, almost reflexively handing the phone to C, until I noticed that it was an unknown caller.

For readers faithful enough to recall niggling details of past posts, C's desire for a piano has never abated and to make a long story very short we were due to take possession of one on Saturday, a free(!) 12-year-old English made standup courtesy of a charitable expat pal whose 14-year-old daughter had foresaken it and Chopin in favor of Internet games like Smart Anime Mania's "Lupin the 3d" and "Virtual Joyce's" Lover Personality Test. "Thank you, Jeebus!" I babbled at the time. "You've saved our relationship!" He pried me from his ankle and wiped my drool from his otherwise spotless deck shoes. "Just get it moved, pronto," he replied.

Only one hitch. After several calls to legitimate moving companies I found it's illegal (and prohibitively expensive) for a foreigner to move furniture from Hong Kong to Shenzhen/mainland China without documents that I don't possess nor could ever come by easily. And apparently it's illegal for a Chinese citizen -- i.e. C -- to import furniture from Hong Kong, period. So, C found some piano smugglers in Shenzhen. Initially, the price was right and no paperwork needed. At least that was the initial play. Suffice to say the piano is currently being held hostage in a Hong Kong/Shenzhen border warehouse in the New Territories. But I'm getting ahead of myself. This began as a tribute to my son.

The smugglers had been calling every 10-15 minutes since 9am with excuses with why they couldn't make it on time (or at all). I'd spent the time listening to C forcefully shout, cajole and threaten them and wondering if it would all eventually result in a story reading: "The dismembered, partially decomposed remains of an unidentified foreign man and a Chinese woman were found stuffed in an abandoned, damaged piano in a New Territories warehouse Thursday after nearby residents complained of an 'inauspicious smell'..."

So it was with some trepidation I answered the phone only to hear my sister calling from a Des Moines, Iowa hotel room where it was about 9.30pm Friday and graduation eve for my son, Julian, at Drake University. A mixture of pride, love, shame and melancholy swept over me. I had no financial means to be there and it seemed only a day or so ago that he and I had been at the Drake new student orientation, with me shortly to decamp to Shenzhen for a three week gig; one which has turned into four years.

In the meantime he's gotten a journalism degree which he's about to transmute into a pr writing gig with a Major American Beer Company. I used to look down on pr gigs, especially with mainstream corporate America. But times have changed while I have essentially remained in a state of arrested emotional and professional development, circa 1972. Which is why he's on the way up while I'm without a retirement plan of any kind, semi-employed in a foreign city to which I owe massive back taxes and am worrying about smuggling pianos and writing crapola for hire. My next thought was of me begging him for a job writing press releases for Duff Beer.

"I dunno, Dad," he says in the fantasy. "We do have an opening for an under assistant fork lift driver on the 11pm-8am distribution shift in the Fargo warehouse. Tuesdays off."

Damn. I can't take credit for much good in my life, but raising him is the best thing I've ever done and I wished badly at that moment I'd been in Iowa to see another turn of the wheel instead of sitting out the 6-Party Sino-Hong Kong Piano Removal Talks. I thought about the best - and a couple of the worst - times with Julian. None were exactly Hallmark or Kodak moments, mostly just goofing on the couch as we watched The Simpsons, The Critic or King of the Hill. Or younger times, nursing him through a kinghell migraine, pushing him on swings on an cold, clear and quiet Colorado autumn afternoon, or teaching him the words to The Byrds' Chestnut Mare or Aretha Franklin's Respect. "R-p-e-c-s-e-t-t!" he'd chant, 5-years-old, squeaky voiced and off-key to Sister 'Ree.
I ached. I put down the phone after talking with him, my father, sister and after C had taken her turn.

I went into the bathroom, shut the door, turned on the water and began crying a little. The phone whooped again and C squabbled with the piano mafia and then shouted through the door that it was all a go. I wiped my face and came out sniffling some.

"What's wrong?" she asked. "You're crying?"

"Nah," I said, "Just washed my face. Allergies, maybe. C'mon. We've got a piano to smuggle."

Happy graduation, Julian. I love you. I miss you.

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