Cookie Boy and other assorted tradesmen
This is a story from the early days in Chengdu when life was good and o so pretty.
Some people you just know are going to provide entertainment – ‘Cookie Boy’ was from the countryside and had an irrepressible ability to jump at things with absolutely no forethought at all. Nothing was a problem for him – ‘ask and you shall receive’ – usually with whatever you asked for falling on the floor on its way to you. On first being introduced to Cookie Boy I wondered where he stayed – he always seemed to be on duty but I couldn’t exactly see where he lived. Asking my translator this question I was given the answer ‘in the back of the chicken’. I can think of some interesting places to live. Living in the backside of a chicken certainly wasn’t one of them. It was all I could do to prevent myself falling on the floor and splitting my sides in laughter, but as time would tell, I was also guilty of many such language slips during my time in China. To this day I still chuckle when I bring to mind a vision of this poor guy climbing into the back of the chicken to take his rest. He did in fact live in the back of the kitchen in an area that with only a small extension of space be a little larger than the back of a chicken.
Around Xmas time at the kindergarten the cunning plan that had been launched in Qing Guang Ya’s mind when he had read my resume and found that I had been the restaurant business earlier in life became apparent. It wasn’t my ability to teach 2 years olds English – most of them unable to even speak Chinese at that age let alone grasp the concept of a gerund or a split infinitive – we were asked – I say asked but that would be like saying ‘Her Majesty Requires and Requests’ – to provide a Xmas dinner for all the staff and children at the kindergarten and for the foreign teachers from the high school owned by Qing Guang Ya. Just a small little soiree – you know maybe 30 people or so.
Not only was food missing but the means to cook it was missing – its hard to do a Xmas roast in a wok, let alone all the trimmings. But Qing Guang Ya was in full flight of imagination – he was going to have a Xmas worthy of memory regardless of the problems and we were sent out ‘shopping’. High on the list had to be an oven. Not an easy task – no-one used ovens in China – there weren’t any whitegoods stores where you could go and choose the latest appliances. It was a real problem. The first foray out into the marketplaces had everyone except jumping for joy – they had found a oven. It was about 300 mms wide – a sort of mini toaster oven – you couldn’t fit a pork fillet into it let alone a leg of pork. So the team was sent out again – these forays were major expeditions – taking at least two or three days – allowing for the few hours debating in the morning where they were going to go and rarely finding agreement. We worked on the menu. We figured we could get away with pumpkin soup, roast chicken, roast pork, maybe some ham, roast vegetables, peas and carrots, with garlic bread, salad and a trifle and fresh apple pie for dessert. All pretty basic stuff. A list was compiled and off we went to the market.
First problem – there was nothing available as a well dressed chicken – we had to choose from an array of scrawny looking birds running around the bamboo enclosures in the marketplace, and after having chosen our several likely birds, the stall owner would get out the chopper and cut the hapless birds neck, drain the blood into a plastic jar, plunge the bird into boiling water and proceed to pluck all the feathers off. Given that were feeding 30 plus people this wasn’t a matter of a half an hour – it was an all day mission. The children were with us and young kids who have been brought up believing that chickens came from Colonel Sanders and being faced with the reality of seeing these birds bled to death with all attendant convulsions was an interesting experience and one that exposed them to the realities of death.
Then came the problem with the piece de resistance – a leg of pork. Meat in China at that time was sold in the market in amorphous shapes hanging from steel hooks in the marketplace. If you were lucky you could a piece that the flies hadn’t been using as a regular meeting place. There was a real knack in selling meat. Everyone wanted the meat and not the fat, but if you sold the meat and not the fat then you didn’t make any money, so meat was cut on a diagonal from the front to the back – the back being where the fat was – you ended up with a skinny bit of lean and a whopping great lump of pork fat. None of this was going to be suitable for a good old roast pork and we struggled from meat seller to meat seller, with Clark the translator in tow and one of the kindergarten teachers brought along to give an extremely animated hard face to the meat seller to prevent him from ripping us off. No-one would sell us a leg unless we paid the equivalent of the China National Defense budget for it and our visions of a merry Xmas dinner were fading by the minute.
Going back to the kindergarten empty handed wasn’t received very well – by now Qing Guang Ya had come up with a brilliant plan – he had arranged for the US Consul General to attend the Xmas dinner and the pressure was really on. Now money was no object. Only success. The team was whipped into a fervour and no excuse for failure would be entertained. Back to the marketplace – where the smiles on the faces of the meat sellers was almost risible. Here was the filthy rich foreigners having to come and try and extract a leg of pork from the them and they had visions of grandeur and wealth beyond their wildest imaginings about to fall into their lap. Albeit however that they had get past the Deputy Head of the kindergarten who had been assigned to bargain for the meat with. Teacher Zhao was a formidable foe. Well educated and urbane with that Sichuan ‘chilli beautiful’ character she launched into the bargaining as if she had a stick in both hands. The fear was written all over the faces of the farmers in the market trying to secure their families fortune from this one leg of pork. Only now it wasn’t one leg of pork – we needed two legs of pork.
Bargaining in the market isn’t a case of whose nerve is firmest – it isn’t a matter of yelling and demanding – it is a delicate negotiation of many words, none of which call into question ones antecedents, a matter of both sides being able to walk away with their face kept intact, but at the same time getting what you wanted. Teacher Zhao was a master at it. Combining the firm will and prickly character of the local women with an eloquent tongue delivered in the broad Sichuan dialect – not for her the niceties of Mandarin dealing with these farmers. There could only be one outcome – two legs of pork were going to obtained at a price that didn’t see the farmers rush out and buy a new bicycle after the deal. And so it was. Two huge shining fatty legs of pork were extracted like wisdom teeth from the clutches of a hapless farmer at a price that was perhaps only a quarter of the Chinese National Defense budget. And now the challenge was truly one.
Let’s hope that on our return we had something to cook it in.
The oven buying team had been successful. They had found a smallish gas oven that looked like it might just do the trick. Gas installation engineers – and use that term in its loosest possible application were brought in from under the 2nd Ring Rd bridge to install the oven. The word that probably could have been used was ‘infernal engineers’ because these boys – they couldn’t have been older than 16 or 17 – were installing an infernal engine. They managed to jury rig a gas line – made out of plastic hose from the mains into the back of the oven and we fired it up. I have to say literally fired it up because within 2 minutes the gas line in the back of the oven melted and we had a plastic hose spewing super heated gas flame around the kitchen threatening to blow us all to kingdom come. Cookie Boy in his illimitable energy was on the scene with a cloth and he was going to save us from certain immolation. It only took about 1.2 seconds for his cloth to be on fire and his arm to be well and truly on the way to be an extra serving of roast Cookie Boy. Thank God the kindergarten was made from brick and render and nary a wooden wall in sight. The caretaker cut off the gas at the mains and our hearts returned to normal beating after about a day and half.
The infernal engineers were brought back and chastised severely although they were still smiling a happy smile – didn’t seem to faze them at all. One of them was sent out to the plumbing and gas fitting market – also under the 2nd Ring Road bridge for an appropriate connector that was going to save our skins and save the day. We weren’t that worried – we only had less than a day left before the 40+ people arrived for Xmas dinner and sure we didn’t have half the food and sure we didn’t have any way of cooking of it – but hey – I’m an eternal optimist – it would be alright on the night.
Gas oven Round Two – we now had the plastic hose connected to the gas oven with short metal pipe and connector and we were ready to rock and roll. Funny thing about this gas oven – it was made from a single layer of enameled steel – probably about a quarter of the thickness it needed to be for an oven and surprise surprise the heat adjustment knob didn’t work – well actually it did work – it worked long enough to get itself firmly jammed on supernova setting. I must admit that while this trial was more successful than the first in that it took a full 15 minutes before the problems started the problems were off a much bigger order of magnitude. I don’t know what temperature steel melts at but within 15 minutes the thin enameled steel skin of the oven was glowing red hot and the enamel was cracking and exploding off the side of the steel sending showers of red hot enamel through the entire kitchen. Never mind the on-off knob now because all knobs had been totally melted and the oven looked like it was going to curl up into a pool of molten metal – which I am sure if we had left it it would have done in about another 5 minutes flat. The oven was ruined. A bit like nuclear waste it took forever to cool down – we had to suppress the urge in Cookie Boy to run out with a pan of cold water and throw it on the oven because cold water and red hot metal don’t always mix like you would expect.
As the hours ticked by the situation became grimmer and grimmer. The older teacher Zhao (no relation to the younger) was the head of the Kindergarten and didn’t hold any truck with this business of roast pork or Xmas dinner for 40 people. She was wandering around with a face on her like a bulldog chewing a wasp, tripping over the her bottom lip and mutter strange incantations against all things great and small. Her life was being disrupted by this intrusion in the smooth running of her well run kindergarten and didn’t we have a better place to go and ruin. Hasty and well meaning calls were placed to the emperor Qing Guang Ya who came rushing in his latest model Cadillac all the way from Dujiangyan where the high school was located ( a mere 70 kms along a tortuous road filled with farmers on their walking tractors, although I suspect one or two less after Qing Guang Ya’s emergency drive) – and his imagined moment of triumph in front of the US Consul General – with his illusory reward of hundreds of US visas emanating from his hospitality – all up in smoke – literally.
There is something to be said about the emperor system – once the emperor arrives with a face the colour of the underside of a thunderstorm people quite literally jump. How older Teacher Zhao changed her tune. Gone were the mutterings and the long lip. Gone were all her objections. Suddenly the best idea in the world was the one we were working on – “Yes, Mr Qing, a Xmas dinner cooked up by this intrusive foreigner was indeed the best idea since Beijing duck”. “Yes Mr. Qing, I shall lend my entire resources to solve any of the supply problems currently afflicting this poor lonely foreign man in a strange land.” I think in that moment I learnt the power of fear.
The oven buying team was dragged kicking and screaming back to the minivan with STRICT instructions not to return without an oven that worked – an oven that would cook a dozen or so chickens, two legs of pork, several trays of assorted roast vegetable and whatever else Mr. Crombie wished to put in it.
We started cooking with a standby team on hand to get whatever we needed from the market – the markets at that time had quite a different selection of vegetables – for example the ‘lettuce’ was completely different to the good old iceberg lettuce – this lettuce was for cooking – you peeled the thick long stem and stir fried it – not what a salad is usually made from. Trying to explain that we didn’t need the lettuce cooked was beyond all comprehension of Cookie Boy – we would have a bowl of lettuce leaves prepared ready for the salad and bang! into the wok it would go. We had potatoes cubed and ready to boil for the potato salad and the minute we weren’t looking it was in the wok being stirred fried. The final straw came when we had peeled and sliced apples for the apple pie and without a second thought they ended up in the wok. Thank you Cookie Boy – my fine helper. Because this is a polite account I can’t add the words that were said to our friend ‘Cookie Boy’ – who wasn’t in the least bit fazed.
Making a mayonnaise was even more interesting – the thought of ‘raw’ egg yolks and cold oil was a recipe from another planet as far as my audience was concerned. I could see that there was no way the locals would be partaking of any of the salad dishes we were preparing.
The oven buying team arrived back towards 7pm in the evening before the big dinner with great smiles of satisfaction on their faces – an oven had been obtained that matched all the specifications – in fact it could have been used to roast an ox or if you cut the legs off, an elephant. We believed we had solved our number one problem. Being loosely based on a pizza oven it looked like we were going to have a Xmas dinner after all. Qing Guang Ya’s wallet had just taken a hefty walloping but we had an oven. And by the efforts and cajoling of Old Teacher Zhao we had pretty much everything we needed to cook the sumptuous feast.
The infernal gas engineers had been summarily dispatched after their last failure and a team of electricians was brought in to wire up the oven to the kindergartens power supply. This was an interesting affair. There was no such word or product in these guys minds such as ‘heavy duty cable’ or conduit. There was no such idea as running the cable around an appropriate path allowing for safety and other such minor concerns as prevention of electrocution. Three scantily covered copper wires were hard wired into the fuse box, run out the window, across the garden – stopping to have a bath in the puddles outside and back into the kitchen through the window. The wires were connected and apparently it was all good. The oven started to heat up and hadn’t exploded nor melted, no big blast of sparks was evident and we thought that while it wasn’t perfect maybe it would just hold together to get the meal prepared in time. The next day was replete with promise and hope.
The following day it was time to step up to the plate and actually produce something that could be eaten. Into the gigantic oven went the apple pies – they cooked beautifully – even given that we had made the pastry without any butter (it’s amazing how lard can turn out a halfway decent pastry when all else is unobtainable). I say they cooked beautifully because they did – however Cookie Boy in his infinite wisdom just couldn’t resist the temptation to have a look inside the oven as they were cooking. There are few memories that have stayed with me as vividly as what happened next. I’m sure he didn’t get the full voltage of the electricity because he wouldn’t be alive today but By God he got a good belt from the door handle. Somehow the wiring had short-circuited and the door handle was now live. Like something out of an old cartoon his hair frizzed up beyond recognition, he leapt about 2 metres in the air and he danced the merriest jig imaginable and he spent half an hour in the corner sucking his thumb and feeling sorry for himself. If it wasn’t so serious I would have died laughing, as it was my mirth was barely concealable.
Our translator, Yang Ji, decided that he was indeed a capable electrician and would rewire the oven in a totally professional manner, but we decided that we didn’t want to go anywhere near that oven ever again. Our protestations were all for naught. Yang Ji rewired the oven and a compromise solution was found whereby we agreed not to go anywhere the oven and he agreed to put everything in and take everything out of the oven as required. Cookie Boy was strangely quiet after his hair raising experience and exhibited no desire to interfere in this arrangement.
To be honest I don’t know how we managed to get everything cooked – the oven performed beautifully – no-one was else was zapped unmercifully and our idea of a merry Xmas dinner became a reality. The US Consul General was fed, the guests were delighted. Everyone had a wonderful evening and Qing Guang Ya beamed like the cat who had swallowed the canary. We were heroes and could look forward to rewards numbering in the thousands after giving our illustrious master great face. And there the story should have ended.
Two days later Yang Ji decided that his wiring could be improved. Perhaps running the wires through a series of puddles may not actually be the best way. So he fiddled. And as Nero discovered fiddling when Rome burned, so to did Yang Ji learn about fiddling. The wiring was rerouted, now it was strung along the outside wall of the kindergarten into the kitchen. Yang Ji decided that the fuse was too small to carry such a load on a long term basis so he replaced it with a piece of wire. I say a piece of wire but a four inch nail would be a more apt description. All was hunky dory – the oven was working beautifully – everyone was happy for about 5 minutes at which time the smell of burning plastic wafted over the entire kindergarten. And the lights went out. And all the wall sockets wouldn’t work. In fact nothing even vaguely electrical would work. And the awful truth dawned up our hapless electrical engineer. The fuse, while it didn’t blow, it did manage to allow the entire electrical wiring system in the kindergarten to heat up and glow, melt and cease to be able to be described ever again as a working electrical system. To add salt in the wound the kindergarten wiring was embedded in the concrete slabs and was inaccessible.
It took three months to rewire the kindergarten. Three months with no light. Three months with no electric heating. Three months being unable to vacuum the floor. Three months of hell for the caretaker Grandfather Qi who was required to keep the lights on during those winter months using dozens of kerosene lamps that all needed to be filled, trimmed and lighted every morning and evening, and whose one small pleasure in a long hard life had been to sit and watch the news on the kindergarten television each evening had been cruelly denied him. And thus was I introduced to trades people in China.
The oven was never used again.
Xmas that year was wonderful. We were in the middle of China – far from home in both distance and in mind, with my extended family not speaking to me and I imagined that in a communist and by extension an atheist country there would be no celebrations of any note to mark the west’s most important festival. In fact, being asked to put on a Xmas dinner was the best thing that could happen for us because we were surrounded with many people who were also feeling lonely at this time – also far from their families and far from home. The other foreign teachers all had a wistful look as we celebrated that first Xmas in China and the Chinese teachers were so attentive and so interested in finding out what the spirit of Xmas was all about. There was a grand piano at the kindergarten and it was carried out onto the small playground and whether it was because they were teachers or whether it was because they were Chinese all of the teachers could play the piano beautifully and sing like angels. The evening was cold and misty but the warmth from that gathering was palpable. Songs such as ‘Red River Valley’ – admittedly from an era long past in the west floated across the neighbourhood like a memory from home. The English songs that were known in China at that time were all from the fifties – it was as if time had stood still up until the Beatles had hit the scene in the west, and not only was I transported back to a gentler and lost age in the west, I was also strangely drawn towards the simplicity and beauty of the Chinese people.
Here were genuine smiles and genuine people. Here it seemed that the heart ruled and not the head. Here I felt the first intimations of what would become a love affair with China that has never left my heart. Sitting outside in winter woolies on that first Xmas Eve in China something stirred inside me that I carry to this day. Here, singing songs that I only vaguely remembered on the radio from my own childhood, I learned that you could be happy far from home you could find joy and exhilaration from very little. The small concrete floored and cold apartment warmed in my heart, and I wanted this evening to continue and continue. On that cold misty evening, 2000 kms from the ocean, 10,000 kms from my country and at the foot of the Himalayan Plateau I found my true home.
Categories: Doings In The 'Du