One of the delights living in China long before the Lord of Wealth visited the world’s largest communist nation, and Chinese billionaires spread their wings throughout the world buying up your backyard and your grandmother, was the interesting array of people who found their way into the middle of China.
These people were not Mr and Mrs. Ordinary. People of all sorts of strange and exotic habits would wash up on the shores of the interior as so much flotsam and jetsam and every now and then an occasional trove.
You were either running away from where you were, had an inordinate sense of adventure or had been reluctantly assigned there by your company.
Mauro was a neighbor when we first arrived in Chengdu. An Italian, Mauro had lost all his hair and replaced it with a rather spiffing dead cat. Which sat perched on his chrome dome and would slip around his head as if it were alive. It was perhaps the worst example of a toupee that the world has ever seen and how he did not know how bad it looked was beyond me.
Mauro hated China and was only there because he had been exiled to this communist paradise for misdemeanors unknown by his company.
Mauro was very keen on stopping by and knocking on our first-floor door as he headed home up the dark dingy corridor to his second-floor apartment right above our place. He would enter and regale us, with a full set of moving Italian hands, about all the things that that afflicted him during his obviously long and painful days living in the middle of China.
His company couldn’t have been a particularly well-heeled company because the apartment complex we lived in was by no means luxurious (basically concrete boxes – concrete, unpainted walls, concrete floors, and concrete ceilings. No heating. Squatty potties. Bars on all the windows to keep the scoundrels out. In short, a good socialist place to ponder on the concepts of equal misery for all.
One of the features of living in these places was the almost daily power cuts caused by the fuses blowing. The building had a main fuse outside at the gate, perched on top of a pole sitting at about 4 meters off the ground.
When the fuse would blow the entire building would be plunged into darkness and despair – 7 stories, 2 stairwells, and 2 apartments per stairwell/story – in all 28 apartments. People would flood out of the building to stand around waiting for someone with a ladder, a replacement fuse, and a head for heights to materialize and fix everyone’s problems.
If I were honest, I would have to say that I was responsible for a few of these fuses blowing as we struggled to get a heater working that had been stored at the back of the really terrible communist era ‘department’ store, where you weren’t allowed to touch anything but would ask several different people for what you wanted (each one writing out a little ticket which you would take to the next person, who would rinse and repeat until finally you got a box from the back that was supposed to be an operational item. I did the unthinkable and demanded a new heater three times when each one was found to be rusty, not working, and prone to blow the fuses.
One of these fine crisp evenings when the fuse had blown, we congregated outside and waited for the guy to come and replace the fuse. I might add that the fuse was generally replaced with a bit of #8 wire or a 4-inch nail – all of which really added to the sense of security and well-being as you tried to make your toast in the morning.
This particular day, the guy arrived with his rickety old bamboo ladder with half the steps missing and headed up to replace the fuse. Mauro was in a particularly bad mood that day and was cursing and swearing about Chinese Health and Safety rules, electrical wiring, China, Chinese, communists and life, the universe and everything in it.
There were some choice epithets used – words that began with F and B and other rhyming letters of the alphabet. Which was pretty funny listening to an Italian with a strong accent swearing in Anglo-Saxon and waving his hands around to add stress to his pronouncements and trying to stop the dead cat from moving around his head and possibly leaping off into the bushes to chase a rat. Since pretty much no-one spoke English in those days it was at least comforting to know that the people couldn’t understand what he was saying, so we wouldn’t then have the crowd descend into a pack of rabid dogs and beat us all up for insulting the motherland.
It was bloody hilarious – 50 people standing there watching the guy up the ladder poking his fingers into the fuse box, dodging the sparks because the electricity coming in hadn’t been turned off, while being entertained by an Italian jester.
After the guy up the ladder had his hair stand on end a few times he finally got things back to normal.
Job done. #8 wire in place. Lights on. Ladder put away. Crowd dispersing.
As we walked away a local Chinese man, who had been standing behind me listening to our dear friend Mauro and his dead cat, tapped me on the shoulder and said in perfect British English:
‘Nice turn of phrase your friend has, hasn’t he?’
I nearly choked myself laughing.
One night, while we lay fast asleep in our beds there was a rainstorm enter the bedroom and all the other rooms of the house. Literally a rainstorm.
There was water pouring from the apartment above – Mauro’s apartment. Every single room was flooded. The bedding was soaked. The floor was awash. It was a nightmare – 3am in the morning and there we were, huddled as a family, on the bed, all of us under umbrellas.
We had gone upstairs and banged like banshees on the door but there was no answer. The building management people – the guy who fixed the fuse – was long gone, no phone, and no way to get into the upstairs apartment.
All we could do was huddle for the night, cold, wet and angry, until the morning came and we could find someone to come and see what was going on in the apartment above.
When the door was opened, there was literally a flood of water surge out of the apartment and down the stairs. There was around 2 feet of water in the upstairs apartment – no wonder it was pouring through our ceiling.
And no Mauro to be seen anywhere.
Mauro was away gallivanting around the province somewhere on a weekends holiday.
He had decided that the squatty-potty style toilet was too much to bear and had put a children’s toy ball over the large drainage hole that is a feature of this style of toilet to prevent any smells from coming up. Sensible policies for a happier home. Or so he thought.
What he hadn’t bargained on was the incredibly poor quality of the rest of the plumbing – thin plastic piping – not the hard plastic piping that is usually used – no, that was far too sensible – this was thin bendy, easy to get holes, type of hose piping – so thin in fact that it was pretty much transparent. And when this thin piping had lived a long and useful life, and it passed into the next world, the ensuing flood of water, over the few days when there was no-one in the house, managed to trap the toy ball over the toilet drain with a vacuum effect, and basically the water filled up the concrete box that was the apartment.
And thus, it rained inside our downstairs apartment.
The next week was a nightmare – trying to dry everything in the Chengdu dismal winter was like trying to hang your clothes up in the fridge. There were no clothes driers in those days – far too comfortable and capitalist – so outside on the apartment was where all the big stuff went. And it certainly went – what a mistake to make. The people walking past couldn’t believe the buffet of bedding, bamboo mats, clothes and other articles that we arrayed on the top of the wall. And within two and a half seconds the wall was back to its empty status and we were bereft of our belongings.
What a lesson – in China if isn’t nailed down it is fair game., There may be no street crime – bashings, raping and pillaging but by God there is a heap of petty theft. Even to this day, you cannot leave anything where it is not being watched – or rather where you have paid someone to watch it. No money paid, no goods left when you return.
At last count as a family we have lost three motorbikes, 23 bikes – ranging from the latest super-duper double overhead cam, twin grease-nippled mountain bike to the good old fashioned tractor bikes that they made to survive nuclear war between Russia and China. Nothing is sacred when it comes to possessions being dispossessed if left unattended. Even your dog – we managed to stop a villain stealing one of the family dogs from outside Starbucks, while ordering a coffee.
This petty theft is one of the reasons that there is such a concentration of the mind on security – everywhere you go there are security guards and security systems in place to stop people stealing. This security didn’t just happen in a vacuum – it is a result of people having the idea that if it isn’t nailed down then it is fair game. I don’t believe it is a Chinese trait – I believe it is a legacy from the communist era when the people were told that all property was jointly owned – so if it is jointly owned by everyone, if you see something that is unattended then it is obviously yours, because no sensible people would leave their property alone for a minute.
Life is never dull when you live in the close proximity of one thousand four hundred million people. People have a totally different standard and way of looking at things than perhaps we are used to. The historical isolation of China has built a civilization that is completely different to other parts of the world. It is really thought provoking to think that, apart from a few instances where the country was open to foreigners (notably the Tang Dynasty), it has been a closed society.
So the mores are different and the ways of expressing love and other emotions are different.
There was one of our 3D modeling staff at work called ‘Yan Gui’ – which, by using different Chinese characters is a homonym for ‘Cigarette Ghost’ or perhaps a better translation would be ‘Smoking Demon’.
In China, if you are a drunkard or an alcoholic you get called ‘Alcohol Ghost’ (Jiu Gui) and Yan Gui had been given his nickname for the several million packets of cigarettes he smoked every day – which is probably why he was a really slight willowy character.
Yan Gui was a really nice young man and he had a really nice young lady as his girlfriend – who was once called Jane but thought it was too boring so renamed herself (in English) to Crystal.
Crystal and Yan Gui had been dating for a couple of years and they were intending to get married, but since there family of Yan Gui wasn’t so keen on the idea, they were simply cohabiting.
Cohabiting at this time was still illegal in China – coming out of the communist era when you had to get permission from your work-unit leader to get married, the laws hadn’t caught up with the realities on the ground and if you annoyed the right person you could be hauled before a judge for living together.
The older more conservative part of the population were still horrified by the idea of two people living in sin before getting formally married but the young people had already moved on and it was a very common part of society for a couple to shack up together before taking the big step of marriage.
One fine day at work, as I was scooting along to the little boy’s room (literally on a scooter – the little boys room was a long way from the office, and several of us used little scooters to get around the place) I perceived one of our video editing staff walking along the long corridor with a very unhappy looking older woman.
I didn’t think much of it and kept scooting and returned to my office. Sitting working at my computer – or was it dozing on the couch – I was jolted out of my reverie by the sound of my brother-in-law and production manager yelling his head off. Literally yelling his head off – and he not only has a big head, he has an enormous voice to go with it.
I leapt out of my chair and raced into his office next door and enquired as to the reason for this 120-decibel outburst.
I got short shift. Get out he said. I’m dealing with something.
“Ok….. No need to lose your hair. I’ll retire back to my office”
The yelling carried on for around 15 minutes – that’s a long time in yelling minutes. The entire staff were disturbed and no work was being done at all.
Yan Gui raced past my office and disappeared into Hai Dong’s office.
Crystal, raced past my office, crying and disappeared into Hai Dong’s office.
Slowly the yelling dissipated and things started calming down and voices were lowered and everyone got back to work.
Hai Dong was in his office talking for another couple of hours – a couple of hours when my curiosity just about leapt out the building, and I was forced to wait patiently until the all clear was given and I could get the story.
It was a simple story really, The older lady coming in with the face on her like a bulldog chewing a wasp was Yan Gui’s mother.
She had decided that because her remonstrations to Yan Gui weren’t working and he refused to stop living with Crystal, that she would order Hai Dong to order Yan Gui to break up with his girlfriend.
Hai Dong had been gently explaining that he was Yan Gui’s boss and not his father/uncle or grandfather and therefore had no control over his personal life, when all of a sudden Yan Gui’s mother had jumped up, raced to the window, threw the sliding window open and yelled that since Hai Dong was such a miserable person and wouldn’t help her, she would throw herself out the window and kill herself and haunt Hai Dong for the rest of his life – a sort of ‘Ghost of Cohabitation’.
Hai Dong had been a policeman, and was a very strong character. His whip hand was able to manage our staff of 450 very effectively because when his face went black and his voice started to rise, everyone was just that little bit scared of him – even me, and I was his boss.
Hai Dong grabbed her and started the yelling:
‘Kill yourself” he bellowed. “You won’t get the chance to kill yourself”.
“I’ll kill you long before you get the chance to kill yourself”.
“Throw yourself from the 4th floor window, will you?”
“I’ll throw you out myself, long before you can jump”.
For fifteen minutes Hai Dong read to her from the good book of the Art of War
Then the flood of tears from Yan Gui’s mother.
“No-one loves me”
“My son is an unfilial son”.
“I am a poor starving widow (not true)”.
“I am shamed by that brazen hussy of a girlfriend”.
“Let me throw her out the window instead, if you won’t let me kill myself”
I’m not making this up – this was the dialogue that was going on.
Spare a thought for Yan Gui – sitting happily doing his work in a studio with 150 people and your mother comes in and next minute tries to throw herself out the window and starts yelling and then your boss starts yelling and then your face goes bright red with embarrassment and there is a hole you wish you could crawl into.
Oh My God – how embarrassing is that?
Little bit by little bit Hai Dong restored order.
The Mum stopped crying and sat there sniffling. Yan Gui was summoned into the office for a chat with his Mum.
Crystal was summoned into the office half an hour later when there was progress being made.
In the end, an agreement was reached. Yan Gui could stay with his girlfriend if they promised to get married in the next couple of years and if her parents would pay for an apartment for them to live in. It is a fact of life in China that almost any problem can be solved in China if you throw some money at it.
Face brought back. Honour restored. Family life back to normal.
And Yan Gui and Crystal could live happily ever after. Except they didn’t, unfortunately somewhere along the line, a year or so later, they found that they didn’t actually get on that well after all and separated.
Mum was justified in the end anyway, if not her methods.
The local Sichuan girls are renowned for their feistiness – there is a special word to describe them: ‘la mei zi’, which translates as ‘chili sister’. There is an equal term for the local men as well – ‘pa er dou’ which means ‘soft ear’. The perfect husband in Chengdu is a ‘soft ear’ – his ear (and his entire psyche) can be pulled by the ‘little sister’ when she is in full chili mode.
It’s a common misconception in western countries that Asian women are soft and compliant, and based on experience in the far-flung outpost of Sichuan nothing could be further from the truth.
You transgress the bounds of propriety at your extreme peril and those bounds are pretty narrow.
A friend of mine had a local girlfriend who was both beautiful and feisty. The cold glare of winter could be turned on in an instant, followed by the eruption of volcanoes worthy of the dawn of the earth.
As happens in relationships this one hit a few rocky bumps in the road and the couple parted ways.
Fast forward a month or two and the friend had taken up with another young local lady and was setting into a new relationship. Funnily enough there is a link with the story of Yan Gui above – the girl from our company who accompanied Yan Gui’s mother on her mission to save her son was the new girlfriend, who worked for us.
The previous girlfriend found out about the new girlfriend and she was not amused – even less amused when she found out that she was pregnant.
As they say in Chinese: ‘zhenme ban?’ – what to do.
One option is to go to her former boyfriend’s apartment complex and pay the gate guards a little red pocket full of money and get them to let her in to the empty apartment below the boyfriend’s apartment at 3am in the morning.
Then hitch your skirts up and climb from the 16th floor up onto the balcony of the 17th floor apartment and through the bathroom window that was left ajar.
Putting aside any health and safety issues, this took a modicum of courage, both on the social level and the physical level.
Bursting into the bedroom of the new couple, who alas were both ‘in delecto flagrante’ – in other words stark bollocking naked, she confronted the former boyfriend with screeches that were heard in Beijing.
She gave him a jolly good talking to, with the odd slap around the cold hairy arse, and enquired what he was going to do about the pregnancy situation.
Now embarrassment comes in many forms, but being woken up in the middle of the night, along with the thousand other people in the apartment complex and being yelled at and chased around naked by an angry chili sister, is one particularly uninteresting manifestation of the world embarrassment.
Like in all good villages this story was circulated faster than a hare can jump down a hole and the poor guy was laughed at by nearly everybody, excluding me of course, since I am nothing less than the paragon of discretion and diplomacy. Yeah right!
And the story has an extremely happy ending. Said friend did what good men do and married the girl, have produced two of the most lovely and charming children and are living happily ever after. Apart from the days when the chili rises and the moon turns black and the poor old ‘soft ear’ is looking for a balcony to jump from and escape.
‘Chili Sisters’ can be extremely mortifying.
We went on holiday with a couple once upon a time and unfortunately there was a bit of tension between the other couple, which at the time was a bit like World War 3.
We rocked up at Bangkok airport to check in for our flight to the glorious golden sands of Phuket and at the check-in the husband mentioned that perhaps, since new rules for carrying liquids on board had been instigated, that she should take the 1 liter bottle of perfume out of her carry-on luggage and put it in the check-in luggage.
The advice fell on deaf and angry ears. Shut up. Speak not to me you awful person was a paraphrased version of the dialogue.
Ah well, security shall have its way, the long-suffering husband replied, ducking to avoid the whack on the head.
I got through security, which in Bangkok Domestic Terminal, is at each gate separately instead of being a centralized security check, and was sitting patiently waiting for the flight.
I heard voices raised and commotion afoot and my friend came through the check and ‘suggested’ that perhaps I could manage his wife’s argument with security, which were, rightly, separating her from her perfume.
‘No you won’t!’ she cried.
‘Yes we will’. responded the security guards.
‘You are a pack of thieves – you are just trying to steal my perfume!’ exclaimed the wife.
Nothing I could say was doing any good. I joined the crowd that had by now gathered around to watch her being thrown off the flight, shot to death by the machinegun toting security personnel who were now getting interested.
As she got more and more angry I was convinced that a spell in the Bangkok Hilton was on the cards, until the light of dawn shone in her eyes, and a solution presented itself to her.
‘If I cannot have it, neither will you, you whole lot of thieves you.’
And taking the cap of the bottle of perfume she proceeded to pour the entire bottle – yes, that’s right 1 whole liter of perfume over her lovely locks.
There was mirth aplenty in the crowd as she was allowed to go through security, smelling of roses.
The plane we were on was a 747 – a big plane. With a very healthy and efficient air circulation system.
Within two shakes of the proverbial lambs tail the entire 747 and all its passengers were smelling as if it had been on a shopping spree in Paris.
It was quite a holiday.
It isn’t only the local girls that can bring out the spice.
Chen Hao was one of our top technicians in the studio. A young man with bucket loads of talent and spirit and he had a rather interesting nickname – Chinese Boy.
This wasn’t assigned to him by any of the foreign staff – no indeed. He got this nickname all on his own from an incident in a bar one evening after a company dinner.
After a hot-pot of gizzards, intestines, and duck’s feet, we adjourned to a local bar to drink, dance and be generally merry.
The bar was a favourite haunt of the younger expat population and attracted its fair share of local girls hoping to catch the eye of one of the foreign boys, who, at the time, were seen as richer and in possession of passports and the hope of travel and excitement. The door of China had been opened but it was still a narrow door and didn’t let many people out, and those who wanted to get into the wider world generally couldn’t afford it anyway.
This particular night there was a young girl who caught Chen Hao’s eye and he sidled up to her all smiles and romanticism and asked her for a dance. Which was refused.
As were the next few requests for a dance. And he was not a happy chappie at all. Particularly when he saw that some of the girls he had asked for a dance were dancing with foreigners.
So, with a belly full of hot-pot spice he started yelling at the top of his head – in English:
‘What is wrong with me? I am a Chinese boy.’
‘Chinese girl – dance with Chinese boy.’ He opined – at full volume.
The rest of the team from the company, also being Chinese fell about laughing their socks off.
‘I am Chinese boy too’
No, I am Chinese girl’
And the name stuck.
From that moment, his English name was Chinese Boy.
And luckily he wasn’t thrown out of the bar either and after a few socially lubricating drinks he eventually found someone to dance with him all the while muttering to himself:
‘I am a Chinese boy.’
While the feistiness and the liveliness of the local women makes for a great story, there is a sadder side to that story.
While Mao Zi Dong said: “Women hold up half the sky” the reality for many Chinese women is a quite different reality.
More like holding up the entire sky and the man as well. The life of women in China can be a hard life – often married to someone their families want to knit relationships with. It’s not exactly like an arranged marriage but families will plan their children’s futures in cahoots with other families to cement business and clan relationships.
Even the advent of communism swept away so many of these old traditions they still exist under the surface – a bit like the caste system in India – its illegal but it still has an effect.
One of my closest Chinese business associates found a suitable girl for his son in this way, and indeed they are happy together, and he definitely had a say in the choice but it was a choice from a narrow field of contenders.
Additionally, mothers tend to absolutely spoil their sons and there is often huge tension between the mother-in-law and the wife. Far too often actually. Because families are much tighter in China than they tend to be in western countries the amount of interaction between the extended family is greater, giving more opportunity for friction.
Walking with my wife day she suddenly came out with a blistering summary of a Chinese women’s life, and the feistiness was explained.
It’s a result of being downtrodden in so many ways.
Suggested marriage. Spoiled and lazy husband. Bitter mother-in-law. Burden of looking after the children or child. Husband thinking he is an emperor and spending time in the Karaoke bars, which is a euphemism for a brothel, and then spending the remaining time with his ‘fox and dog’ friends. Being responsible for the older generation. Cooking and cleaning. Finding that youth has left all too early.
I was surprised in hearing how despondent my wife was on behalf of the women in many (and I stress this is a big generalization) of the local families.
It reminded me of Socrates who said: “By all means marry. If you get a good husband/wife then you will be happy. If not, you will become a philosopher.”
In the past, it was far worse – foot binding, concubinage, living in the man’s family home, little chance of education and little social life.
Because of that pressure there was probably only one response – become feisty – don’t lie down and take it – you couldn’t control your life but you could control your tongue.
Become a ‘chili sister’.
This has come down the generations and even though circumstances for women are far better than the past, there is still a way to go and the echo of the past still resonates.
There is a section of society that refuses to bow down to the past, and these women are often the ones who prefer foreign partners, much to the chagrin of the many ‘Chinese Boys’ who deride this avenue of escape.
China is still a male dominated society but it has changed enormously and is changing enormously and there is an inner strength in the women that is not often found in the men.