HONG KONG DIARY
St. Dominic’s Preview
Chamois cleaning all the windows
singing songs about Edith Piaf’s soul.
And I hear the blue strains of ‘no regret, rien’
across the street from Cathedral Notre Dame.
Van Morrison, St. Dominic’s Preview, 1972
(Author’s Note: I ran into Van Morrison in 1972, back when I was but a callow, carbuncled student sleeping rough on the streets of San Francisco. I was walking through the Tenderloin looking for adventure (or whatever came my way), mesmerized by strip club marquee lights, lulled by bored barkers’ pitches and blinded by giant photo displays of giant women wearing nothing but cardboard stars pasted onto their cantilevered cleavages. Thus distracted, I was bowled over by a certain red-faced Irishman in a tight black suit who charged into my path from around the corner. Already cursing and gesturing wildly at nothing at all as we collided, he quickly turned his fury to me, shaking his fist in my face. Then he blew past, and was gone. Was it ‘no regret, rien’ he muttered as he disappeared down O’Farrell Street, or was it all in my head? OK, to this day I’m not even sure it was Van the Man. But I did get my underage butt into a club that night.)
Every journey has a defining moment or event, especially with overseas travel when distance combines with a traveler’s innate wish for a foreign destination to leave an indelible stamp. Years later, one can say, yes, I was there and I survived.
Sometimes a singular culinary experience can link place and taste forever in the traveler’s mind. It could be a particular conveyance or unique transit that punctuates a journey: that romantic ferry crossing, creaky tramcar, or smelly camel. Other times the location itself – singular, spectacular, historic – defines a trip.
Sadly, even the most exotic setting tends to be overlooked during business travel. A profiteer typically hurtles past the choicest scenery en route to a meeting in some dreary office that could be almost anywhere. Indeed, the profiteer’s journey is more often defined by the deal struck or goal achieved.
With luck, a journey will be defined by a personal encounter. Because after all, beyond the spreadsheets and bottom lines, business is intensely – exquisitely – personal. My latest trip to Hong Kong is a case in point. Shortly before I set off, a client charged me with the task of looking up a producer of antique furniture whose web site promised a broad mix of merchandise and a genuine understanding of the antique reproduction process. This producer – let’s call him Dominic, for that is indeed what he called himself – advertised, in addition to a Hong Kong office, a showroom in the notorious Dong Fang Hotel exhibit complex adjacent to the old Canton Fair grounds, upriver from Hong Kong in Guangzhou.
I was to interview this Dominic – to vet him, if you will – at the Dong Fang in Guangzhou, at the start of Canton Fair. I would do this prior to the official meeting I had arranged with him via email to take place with my client and me the following day.
The Dong Fang complex is really a series of buildings and exhibition spaces connected by breezeways, corridors and snakes-&-ladders escalators to form a maze of low-ceilinged hallways lined with tiny glass-fronted spaces. The hotel itself, also known as the China Hotel, is actually quite respectable (by China standards) and is part of the Marriott reservations system. But the exhibition complex is a down-at-the-heels overflow for third-tier and below Canton Fair wannabe exhibitors, some who come and go with the Fair schedule, and others who seem to have set up permanent residence.
During the Fair, exhibitors spill from the tiny showrooms into hallways to accost passers-by with deals on all manner of wares, from jewelry to rugs to electronics, and yes, even antique furniture. Others sit cross-legged on the floor, oblivious to all but the styrofoam-clamshelled lunch on their laps. The air is filled with wool dust from mounds of carpets, dander from endangered-animal pelts on offer and the stench of those ubiquitous lunches. So it was on this day.
There was indeed a showroom in the Dong Fang that bore the name ‘Dominic’s. But it was so small – barely three square meters with a dusty, smudged, glass front – that I cruised past it twice before noticing the out-of-place D ‘D’ in gothic lettering above the open glass door. To further confound, there was an antique reproduction table on display, suspiciously like one produced by an altogether different supplier of mine. The rest of the floor space was taken up by battered filing cabinets and an old desk littered with brochures, notepads, and a very large calculator. And, apparently, Dominic himself, sitting at the desk staring into the hallway with a beatific smile on his face.
I squeezed through the doorway, less from necessity than anticipation of the cramped quarters, and entered to his right. Dominic first glanced left with an almost imperceptible nod before turning to greet me. My gaze followed his, to a man apparently asleep in the hallway, hunched over a metal folding chair. I quickly turned back to meet Dominic’s eyes, offered my hand, and referred to our recent email correspondence by way of introduction.
– Of course, Dominic beamed as he stood to take my hand – but the meeting is tomorrow, is it not? He had a firm grip.
– Yes, I concurred, but since I was in the neighborhood I thought I would stop by. It was impossible to gauge his age; his full head of hair was dark with dye and pomade, and his square-jawed visage had the waxy look of work done, giving him a faintly western aspect. Flattery, I could see, would get me somewhere.
We conducted the obligatory name-card ritual, he with a certain flourish. His card featured the same gothic D ‘D’ on both Chinese and English language sides, and his title of ‘Free Export Agent’ was a designation I had never seen before. And under his name – on the English side, at least – was a series of letters:
G.M., MA.ED., Ph.D.
– Ah, Dominic, I said with a practiced tiny bow, do you know that my friends in China call me Professor? But I see you truly are a professor!
His bow in return was deeper than mine, and his smile broadened. – Ah, you are too kind. It is true, long ago before I started my business. But please – he gestured with his left hand – please sit. Sure enough, at the door was the man in the hallway Dominic had silently summoned, his chair in hand.
– May I offer you a coffee? There is a Mc’Donald’s downstairs. He dragged out the name: Mac-dahn-nall. He gestured with his right hand and another man appeared, apparently from the ether. Or perhaps the other hallway direction.
I politely declined; nevertheless he shot the man two fingers, who was gone in a flash. Aware of the need to establish tempo, I launched into a description of my activities in China, my services, and my clients’ business needs. He replied in kind, and we compared notes. Coffee arrived, and business talk stopped dead while he fiddled with his cup lid and savored a particular coffee aroma that is the same the world over. Mac-dahn -nall, indeed.
– You see, Poh-fess-ahh, he intoned – we can talk of business, but it really doesn’t matter. Mo sau wei. My factory will always offer you the best price of any other. You see, the gahv-vah-man, he drawled – has asked me to keep the people working, no matter what.
– So you are a government factory? I asked. Government-owned concerns were spectacularly inefficient disasters, sprawling and usually obsolete plants to be avoided at all cost, like karaoke or chop suey.
– No, not at all, he assured me – I am a Hong Kong person. But the gahv-vah-man has placed its trust in me to provide work for the people, and we have a special arrangement. So I operate the factory to give the people work, not to turn a profit.
I didn’t like the turn this was taking. He was describing the old government policy, before China embraced global trade and – eager to shed the burden of its centrally planned industries ¬– opened the doors to foreign investment. I could tell that no firm prices would be quoted, today or tomorrow. Time was a-wasting: Tick-tock went my profit-o-meter and Dominic did not appear to have one. Oh well, at least I could have some fun.
– So tell me, Dominic, what was your field of study?
– You see, Poh-fess-ahh, I once studied for the priesthood, in Rome itself. I was awarded a scholarship by the Franciscan order, even though I took St. Dominic’s name. I studied scripture, education, and Latin, of course. And, later, economics and global management systems. But in the end, I could not become a priest, and so I returned to Hong Kong to begin my business career.
I decided to let that one pass. I did know that Santo Domingo favored a hair shirt in his day, and urged his followers to make treasure out of poverty, but I hadn’t come 8,000 miles for a catechism.
– And so now we find ourselves here, I said with some forced cheer. I assured him that our client would be glad to know that pricing was of no concern, confirmed the next day’s meeting details, and bid Dominic a courtly adieu.
That evening I puzzled over my meeting with Dominic and the arrangement he described with the Chinese government. What was a ‘Free Export Agent’, anyway? Was it a government factory? But why retrench to the old centralized system now? China’s leadership seemed more intent on letting the business community sort its own problems than jumping back into the fray themselves. It seemed they were now prepared to let the new hybrid economy, which they had nurtured for the past decade, stand on its own.
This was at the end of 2007 and there was great change in the wind: Unpegged from the US dollar, the Chinese currency immediately appreciated against the wobbly greenback, which in turn had an immediate upward effect on prices quoted in dollars. At the same time, China pulled back many tax incentives and rebates they had offered in the past to exporters to encourage global trade.
Meanwhile, China’s demand for raw materials was driving commodity prices upward globally. Food prices in 2007 also went haywire, with a swine flu epidemic forcing the premature slaughter of millions of hogs before they could reach market, and the continued assault by development on traditional farmlands curbing soy and rice supply.
And on top of all that – unbeknownst to us at the time – the Chinese government would greatly alter labor laws to require overtime pay, minimum wages, retroactive benefits and other compensation that would cause even greater upheaval in the manufacturing sector in January 2008.
Suddenly, there would be regulations for overtime pay, seniority and retroactive service rewards, and the new minimum wage would actually be enforced beginning in January. So, while effecting hands-off policies in some areas, the government was intruding in others. As for the labor laws, it was practically turning back into a Communist country, for Mao’s sake, not a good time to take back a decrepit old factory.
Finally, the massive product recalls in 2007 were resulting in changing attitudes of consumers of Chinese-made goods worldwide. Unstable conditions in the manufacturing sector could never produce merchandise with quality and safety standards high enough to rebuild consumer confidence.
Every manufacturer – good or bad – would have to acknowledge the existence of these new pressures in the new year, if not honor the new laws and steeper consumer expectations. I could only guess at the response of each of my suppliers, given that virtue untested is no virtue at all. So what kind of supplier was Dominic? It sure beat the bean curd out of me.
That said, the next day I met with my client as planned, and together we walked through the Canton Fair grounds to the Dong Fang Hotel. With us was my Taiwan-born colleague – let’s call her Sugar – who lives year-round in Guangzhou and works with suppliers in my absence. Sugar possessed a sharp eye for detail, a sharp tongue for barking instructions, and a weakness for chocolate that recently led her to challenge the boundaries of the rhinestone-studded jeans and ruffled silk blouse she wore every day. Her hair was cut cereal-bowl style, which everyone in China was wearing this century, and every other one in history.
Along the way I tried to explain Dominic’s situation, but was at a loss except for the priest part. As before, Dominic was waiting at his desk when we approached the showroom. This time I noticed two men hovering in the hallway. We crowded into the space, introductions were made, but my client quickly dispensed of any pleasantries. He wanted the specifics of Dominic’s operation and pricing structure.
After a few vague words, Dominic, frustrated by his audience’s skepticism, was at a loss. – I will explain, he finally said – I will show you. Your Chinese helper will understand, he said with a nod to Sugar.
Dominic turned his back to us, pulled out his wallet and began performing what could have been a sleight of hand as he extracted a hard card from its depths, the kind with data or cash value embedded in its works. It was bigger than a business or credit card, and he grasped the tiniest measure of one corner as if he couldn’t bear to sully the card’s face. Once removed, he cradled its edges with open palms, almost like an old ’78 record. I half expected him to blow dust from the surface as he rotated it.
– Your helper can tell you what this is, Dominic said, as he faced us to present the card.
Sugar stared blankly, then shook her head and said – No, I do not know what that is. I have never seen that card before, bless her little Taiwanese heart. For there was no gothic D ‘D’ or credit card hologram on this card, but an unmistakable icon, the hammer-and-sickle H of the Communist Party under whose banner billions had marched throughout the twentieth century: The same Party that still annually threatens to bomb Taiwan into reunified submission, and could fabricate criminal charges, seize assets, restrict travel, and generally make one’s life miserable at the drop of a Party card. And at this moment, the showroom space suddenly felt quite small.
In all my time spent traveling in China – almost ten years – I had never before met a member of the Communist Party, at least no one who would admit to it. Dominic hastened to assure us that, as a Hong Kong person, he was merely an honorary Party member. After all, there was business to be done, but now we could understand why the government had entrusted the workers’ welfare with him, no?
Let’s just say that the Party has a less-than-stellar reputation among profiteers, pirates, entrepreneurs and all the running dogs we run with. There was that little dust-up in Korea back in the day, for one thing, and–oh yes, the routine jailing of defiant religious groups, unrepentant political dissidents and unscrupulous company owners. Suffice to say the Party still has a very long arm in China indeed.
Dominic had his Party card, his trump card if you will, trumping all doubts, disagreements and negotiations. And – silly me – I had left my own two bodyguards back at the hotel. We high-tailed it out of there quicker than you could say ‘Great Leap Forward’.
We met Dominic again, in Hong Kong on what felt like neutral ground even though it was in his tawdry office. As promised, he gave us pricing, but – not as advertised – it was above market levels. In hindsight, I wonder, did he already know of the impending labor law changes and new currency valuations ahead? If so, he wasn’t saying. Although, that beatific smile remained fixed on his waxy countenance throughout the meeting.
We took his offer under advisement and went our way. It remained to be seen if we would ever do business with him. But Dominic had already left his stamp on this trip and on us, or rather two stamps: the Party’s and his own gothic ‘D’.
Was it ‘no regret, rien’ I sang as I mused over our encounter? Nah – but close.
All the orange boxes are scattered
against the Safeway supermarket in the rain.
And everybody feels so determined
not to feel anyone else’s pain.
As we gaze out on, as we gaze out on
As we gaze out on, as we gaze out on
St. Dominic’s preview
St. Dominic’s preview
St. Dominic’s preview.
The Professor, as he is known to legions of business contacts throughout Asia, has been traveling to Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region since late in the last millennium. He is a native of Philadelphia, PA and maintains his permanent residence there. His poetry, fiction, interviews, and articles have been published by Philadelphia-area newspapers, magazines and anthologies, and he is currently planning another trip abroad. He is shown here at left, about to join the Maclehose Trail in Sai Kung.
Articles by the Professor
Column: Hong Kong Diary