6 Inch Nails and Other Stories

Nothing brings out the inner frustration in China than dealing with building contractors and repairmen.

As a friend once commented – “Building this restaurant pretty much used up all the Jesus inside me”.

As China developed the people who have done all hard physical work are the urban migrant workers. People from the countryside have flocked to the cities to work on building sites, run small ‘tradesmen’ like businesses, and sit under bridges holding onto one specific tool and wait for someone to come along and hire them to use that one tool.

As far as vocational training is concerned, it’s all learn on the job, trial and error and ‘get in and out before anyone notices what mistakes I have made’.

It’s usually a case of your trial and his error.

The closest I think my wife and I came to divorce was when we bought a house and decided to rip out the interior and redo the decoration. Buying a house in China is quite different – if it is a new house then there are concrete walls and floors – a completely blank shell – and you create whatever interior heaven you can afford yourself.

Buying a second-hand house is pretty much the same – except you get to endure someone else’s idea of interior heaven while you decide what you want.

We chose the latter – a house with a big garden – which are as scare as hen’s teeth in China and there are a LOT of hens in China.

Thus began a 3-month nightmare.

It’ll only take 4 weeks he said. It’ll only cost 30,000 RMB he said. I can start immediately he said.

There were more lies said than a Donald Trump revival meeting.

We had decided to change the interior layout – pretty much completely – move walls from here to here. Create walk in wardrobes, find space for a maid’s room, turn a large balcony into a study, knock out an exterior wall and put in French doors onto a wooden deck – yes a real live Kiwi deck where we could have friends over and barbecue. The thought of the tasty steaks sizzling on the grill, the chicken kebabs gently browning… hmmmm.. the mouth was already watering and it was only Day 1.

Knocking down things seems to be something that holds no fear the intrepid souls that worked for our ‘contractor’ – within a day or so there was a pile of rubble that filled in the entire front of the house – I mean right to the ceiling. Couldn’t move at all.  When we inquired rather gently how this was going to be disposed of, and more importantly when, we were asked to put our hands into the deep deep pockets the contractor assumed we had and pull out a wad of notes.


I would have thought that a contractor would have made some arrangement in his quote to get rid of his mess but, au contraire, I was wrong.

2,000 RMB to get rid of the rubble – out and out extortion. But it had to be done otherwise we would be living on a pile of broken bricks for the rest of our lives.

An army of women was mobilized and with bamboo baskets on their backs they started moving the rubble – stinking hot day – 35 degrees and these poor souls had to fill up the bamboo baskets on their backs, navigate their way out of the house, into the roadway and up onto a truck.

It took this army an entire day to move the rubble basket by basket, load by load, sore muscle by sore muscle. I found out much later that the rubble had been dumped at the side of a lonely country road.

Now the real work could begin. There were walls to build, cupboards to make, ceilings to hang, doors to put in – every single imaginable construction item, had to be done.

There was a ‘carpenter’ who decided that working with silly things like measuring tapes, squares, or any tool to ensure that what he was building was straight and true, was thought to be an unnecessary impediment to his work.

He built the hall cupboard three times, he built the new study cupboards twice, he had to do the hanging ceiling a few times. All the doors he hung had to be taken down and re-hung.

Day after day we had argument on top of argument with the contractor about the quality of his work. And day after day we would win the argument after 17 hours of mind numbing remonstration. And day after day we would be exhausted with the sheer tiresomeness of the exercise.

Five years later, as I sit in my study tapping on the keyboard, I do so with trepidation, as every now and then a huge crack signals another storage shelf in the study has fallen down.

Every day when we open the cupboards we struggle to get the doors closed again as they are still squint-eyed and proud.

We tried banning the carpenter but the contractor wouldn’t even consider it – he came from what is known a ‘ke jia’ village – Guest People. The original Hakka people, the ‘Ke Jia’ people were moved around China whenever there was a need to repopulate the countryside.

The population of Sichuan province, which is the richest agricultural province and feeds a lot of China, was seriously depleted around 300 years ago by wars and rebellion, famine and plagues and when things settled down the Emperor ordered a host of ‘ke jia’ people to go and live in the province. These people have their own language – Hakka – and have a distinct cultural identity to the mainstream Han people and they have retained that identity for a very long time.

To this day there are numerous ‘guest people’ villages scattered around the province who are direct lineal descendants of the people moved into the province 300 years ago.

It would akin to a having French speaking communities scattered around Britain because Britain had been depopulated by war.

And our contractor came from one of these villages – so all of his workers were family or clan.

So us telling him to get rid of his carpenter was never going to lead to us getting a better carpenter and we better just put up with it – and rebuild and rebuild until we got something we could tolerate.

I’ll come back to the carpenter a little bit later.

We had decided to put a glass splash-back around the kitchen walls. Unfortunately, no-one in Chengdu seemed to understand how to manage a glass splash-back, so when we had bought an extractor fan from the largest appliance manufacturer in China, we thought that they would know how to install the fan with the minimum of fuss.

How wrong we were. This guy came in with an attitude as big a double-decker bus; and he started criticizing the choice of splash-back – Impossible! Stupid! No-one has glass for splash-backs.! Where did this stupid idea come from?

As he warmed up to his task he got ruder and ruder and louder and louder. My poor long suffering wife, on whose shoulders the burden of managing the work was falling, was trying to argue with the guy who was speaking in a really rough version of the local dialect, full of earthy and pithy words – some of which weren’t actually rude. And then he started on the fact that it was a foreign invention to have a glass splash back and he was having none of it. It was around this point that I picked up a hammer and chased the man out of the house and right up to the gate and suggested a place he might place himself. Goodbye.

Shortly after, my wife rang the company and made a serious complaint about him and suggested that they employ some better mannered tradesmen.

We were driving along the road when the phone went and sure enough it was this miscreant and he was not a happy chappy at all – the company had fined him 400 RMB for his behavior and he was yelling his head off at my wife as we were driving along.  Brilliant my wife said. Keep talking she said. How much was your last fine she inquired – 400 RMB?  I wonder how much your next fine will be she mused. And called the company back and gently suggested that perhaps they might ask this guy to stop calling.

A new man appeared the next day to install the splash-back – but alas he had no idea how to use common sense and hang a pair of brackets from the concrete ceiling and hold the fan in place with these brackets. This poor guy – a young man – stood in our kitchen for three whole days and could not work it out. Three whole days of standing there staring at the wall. Three whole days of looking sheepish and trying to avoid anyone’s eyes.

Finally he gave up.

Calls to the company – sort it out or give us our money back.

The next day the doorbell rang and the first tradesman stood at the door asking to be let in!

He apparently was the only one in the company with any idea at all and he had been severely chastened and fined over 1,000 RMB and was told he was not to leave until he had installed the extractor fan.

My wife and I were in hysterics. Here was Mr Angry trying ever so hard to be nice as he wept and gnashed his teeth.

The penny dropped and a bracket was made and the extractor was hung and to this day it hangs there doing its job – and funnily enough in a kitchen with a glass splash back.

I imagine that there the guy has been awarded a new job title – Chief Splash-back Engineer – and has been given a raise to cover his losses from being fined for bad behavior.

And the concept of fining someone in China is a perfectly acceptable way of managing employees – every company will have a list of rules and every rule has an assigned fine against it if it is broken – and sadly, this is the only way that many employees will do the job properly.

The extractor fan was not the only way the splash-back caused trouble in the kitchen. The electrician did not know that glass couldn’t be hammered and drilled and five minutes after starting the electric socket installation it was time to re-order the glass panel around the plugs. Which was only a two week waiting list. To this day the plugs still don’t sit straight and two of them don’t work – especially since the electrician – yes, a family member of the ‘guest people’ village – was required to dip into his meagre savings to pay for the broken panel.

I’m a Kiwi and like South Africans and Aussies we love our barbecues and we love our wooden decks.

I just didn’t know I would have to build mine three times.


We had an architect in our company and I asked him to draw up the plans for the deck – and I asked him to put in twice the support piles so that no matter how many people we had over for a crispy slab of meat the deck wouldn’t fall down.

Plans were drawn up, instructions were given at 9am and off we went to work secure in the knowledge that when we came back in the afternoon the deck pylons would be sitting happily in their little concrete beds.

Indeed, some of them were – but only one third of the number of the plan. Why? We asked incredulously. Why are there two thirds missing.

You had too many we were told. No-one needs THAT many supports on a deck.  Don’t be silly – we are experts in our field and we can assure you the deck is safe.

OK, allow me to explain. Dig them up, start again and do it as I want it. Which short concise statement only took three hours of arguing.

Next day, holes were dug. Concrete was poured and swear words were muttered under breaths.

Success – we had the supports.

Now any self-respecting deck builder will tell you that you need to drill holes and screw down the decking and not nail it because nails pop up and screws don’t.

So instructions and training was given and off to work we went. Home again at 4pm in time to see the deck builder maestro hammering in screws. Not the big proper screws we had bought – but little tiny screws about the size of a small nail.

Why? We gently inquired again.

Who drills holes – it’s a nonsense. Holes take time. Nails (or in this case screws that looked like nails) are far far better for a deck than screws. Why, screws might……. and at this point the argument against screws sort of drifted into the sky.

Take the decking off and take out all the nails. Thank you and goodnight.

We returned in the morning to find the deck maestro with his hands over one eye. He had been cutting wood with a circular saw and alas a piece of sawdust had gone into his eye.

We had had the discussion at the beginning of the job that perhaps safety equipment might be a good idea and I was assured that yes indeed it might be. Just not for me. No hindrances to my job allowed, thank you.

So the first idea for getting sawdust out of your eye is to lean across to the tree and break off a small twig and poke that in your eye and dig it around a bit. Guaranteed success. Just not this time.

We sent the maid up to the pharmacy to get an eye-wash and as she scurried out our dear deck maestro decided that in fact a twig was not ideal for getting sawdust out of the eye but a six-inch nail was the right tool for the job.

Seeing him poke his eye with a six-inch nail was an exercise in breath holding – is the eye ball about to be dug out? Or maybe he is going to be blinded in that eye. It was tortuous and despite all remonstrations he insisted on poking around with the six-inch nail.

The eye wash came and was used and he squatted down on the deck and sat there, I kid you not, from 10am until almost exactly 4pm, at which time his eye penance was considered served and he stood up and got back to work for an hour.

We went through this on each part of the construction of the deck – balustrades and palings – put on and then taken off again. The stairs leading to the garden had been planned to be in the middle and were put on the side.

Why? Why? Why? A lovely Chinese statement – because in the middle they are ‘bu hao kan’ – Not good looking. Pardon me? May I inquire when you are moving into the house to survey the handiwork and enjoy the position of the stairs?

And this argument was the only one I lost – because by the time the stairs had been put in it was too late to change them.


I could tell how the welder welded the metal with the electric cord minus any plug and tied onto the live wire sticking out of the wall and sitting in a puddle of water, and I could tell you how the shower was plumbed in and the cold water pipe was forgotten so the entire bathroom wall had to be redone. I could tell how the shower cabin installers put the shower cabin in back-to-front so there was no way to get into the shower and I could tell how the wallpaper hangers hung the imported expensive bamboo wallpaper on an angle of plumb off by around 200, but then you probably wouldn’t believe me.

Two months over the expected completion time and four times the contracted price and we were ready to move in.

And then the negotiating started. Dear wife sat at the dining room table for two entire days with the contractor arguing about the price. Yes, I know it is more than I quoted but it took me longer than I expected.  Yes, I know that taking longer than expected cost you two extra months of rent and expenses but it cost me more because it took more time.

Two days of arguing and a final bill was settled on – twice what we had been quoted and half what had been asked for.

Hands were studiously not shaken and tempers were a bit edgy on both sides.

Six months later I was sitting enjoying a glass of wine on a quiet Sunday night and there was a loud knock at the apartment door.

Now people don’t usually knock on the apartment door because you have to first get through the gate guard, who always calls if someone fronts up at the gate and then you have to ring the stairwell entry door through the intercom.

On opening the door there stood Mr Carpenter. Mr ‘Allow me to make everything three times for you’ Carpenter. And he was not alone. He was with his ancient mother who literally stood 3ft 6 inches. She was diminutive in the extreme.

‘You owe me money’, Give me money or I shall be unhappy’.

Yessir! You have come to the right house. You are at charity central and we often pick random poor quality carpenters and give them money for ruining our house.

The discussion raged on and on for several millennia and until I said enough is enough, get thee hence from this abode. At which stage the little old lady stuck her foot in the door and refused to move.

Now you can’t just shut the door on a little old granny – so I gently moved her aside and shut the door and called the gate guards and asked them to remove said people from the gated community.

I settled back into the glass of wine and mused on what had just happened. Bear in mind we had no contractual arrangement with the carpenter and his employer had been paid a final settlement.

Half an hour later there was a loud bang bang bang on the door again and I lept up and opened the door far more energetically than would be considered polite. And straight into the arms of two policemen.

Our ‘I can’t saw for peanuts’ carpenter had gone and reported us to the police for non-payment. And his tiny little mother was making more noise than a banshee with her feet in the fire.

Dear wife then proceeded to pull out the invoices, the payment slips, the contracts and the sign off.

Mr Policeman and sidekick were at this stage getting rather perturbed with Mrs. Carpenter and once they had seen the proof of payment they suggested that she take herself hence from here to there in a hurry.

And then she accused me of punching her in the eye. And said her eye was terribly bruised and beaten and she was a down-trodden mass.

The policemen had a look at her face and unfortunately there was no bruise, beating or downtrodding to be seen and he said that he had enough and was going to arrest her for making a nuisance of herself. And she ran away – for a hundred-year-old granny she sure could run fast and the policemen split his sides laughing. Apologized profusely on behalf of the entire Chinese nation wished us goodnight and departed.

To this day as I saunter into the garden via the deck, which stands as solidly as the day it was finished, I am still reminded of the day that someone tried to poke their eye out with a six-inch nail and whenever another shelf falls down in my study I chuckle at the thought of the carpenter and his little old Mum.

















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