1299

China Is Near

George Rafael

At first Larry and his wife had no great expectations about Turkey. They didn’t know from Adam. All they knew about Turkey was Midnight Express and Peter O’Toole being raped by José Ferrer in Lawrence of Arabia. Luckily, neither of them were heroin smugglers nor misled British idealists. To their surprise, Turkey was a revelation, Greece with fewer tourists, pristine ruins, down to earth cuisine. A rustic, friendly people, the Turks, a world apart from chi chi, anti-American Parisians.

Paris. Jeez. Hegemony nothing, all I’m doing here is studying for my MBA with a special focus on international business while my wife works at the bank, how personally am I harming you? Larry would sigh, his invariable world-weary response to cracks about how les Américains were trying to conquer the world with hamburgers, action pictures and loud music.

Tiens, I’m on your side, I don’t like these things either, he’d say, but if that’s what people want...they couldn’t respond to that, not in any logical way. With a seraphic smile he’d end his syllogism with the indisputable clincher: you are free to choose, no one forces you to, say, catch the latest Woody Allen film. Touché.

Frankly, they just resent us because we’re the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and they’re not. And don’t forget we bailed them out of two world wars. That would hurt anyone’s pride. I know it sounds simple, but this attitude of theirs goes way back.

Larry was sharing these insights with the wife of his latest friend, a high flyer at a white shoe firm doing the overseas gig. Larry made the high flyer’s acquaintance playing softball in the Bois; Jerry’s hard bouncer, which caromed off his upper thigh for extra bases (the cause of much mirth), brought them together after the game. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, Jerry proffered Larry a cigar, which he had to refuse as he didn’t smoke, whereupon Larry insisted on taking Jerry around to his favourite little bar, an art deco hole-in-the-wall on La Fontaine. They bonded over a pichet.

It was great. You don’t really meet that many cultivated Americans abroad.

You don’t meet many of them at home either, Jerry’s wife quipped.

I wonder why that is, Larry said. Anyway, he had popped around to retrieve the Turkish potholder Jerry had been so kind to bring back for him on an Istanbul run. Larry had accidentally ruined the one he’d given as a memento to Marge, his banker wife, burnt a hole right through it by placing a pot that contained the charred remains of his Irish coffee soufflé (he should have splurged and got more than one, they were so cheap). Marge didn’t say a word, about the holder or the soufflé, but he could sense, as only a husband could, that she was upset; she liked that potholder -- it reminded her of Turkey and all the fun she’d had there.

Well, here’s your potholder, Larry, Jerry’s wife said, handing him the precious tschotcke. She was sorry that Jerry wasn’t around, but this looked to be one of those days when he was going to be tied to the desk drafting memos till God knows when.

Larry sympathised. He had a long night ahead of himself too, a big pop quiz first thing in the morning.

They talked some more, of Jerry’s decision to return to New York, of Marge’s indecision over where she could earn the really big bucks, New York or San Francisco, on why cats made the perfect pets for urban couples, of frogs again. Then Jerry and Sophie’s overbearing guest, the writer from New York City, an ungracious boor, came in from the street. He collapsed into a settee, exhausted from a day of doing touristy things like haunting bookstalls and antiquary shops, trying to pick up married women in cafés, getting lost at the Louvre. When he learned that Larry was a ‘biz head’, he began to needle him about ‘globalisation’ on a ‘global, international, worldwide yet local scale economic model’, how Larry could, if he played his cards right and kept his nose clean, become the next Coca-Cola Kid. Imagine a bottle of sody-pop in the hands of every Chinaman in China! Or, better yet, a pogo stick! Imagine 1.2 billion Chinese hopping, all at once, on their pogo sticks -- they could bring the world to its knees! Talk about Yellow Peril, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, not with Mr Globalisation here ready to take China by storm! He challenged Larry to become a patron of the arts once he made his pile -- he could start with yours truly.

Larry tried to work the image of the invisible hand of the market into the conversation but he couldn’t get a word in edgewise, the writer was riffing out one outlandish free association after another, practically drooling in his drollness. It’s always the ones that have nothing in their heads, or wallets -- losers, bitter because they can’t make it in the real world -- who talk the most but say the least, Larry thought. He wanted to recommend Robert’s Rules of Order but instead maintained a gentlemanly composure, patiently hearing out the rest of his shtick.

Best to save one’s breath for when it really matters.

Sophie jiggled her head, a signal to her husband’s friend to cease and desist. Larry politely made his excuses and left.

Marge would be expecting supper. And he had to study.

 

Later that night as he dried the dishes, Larry’s thoughts returned to Jerry and Sophie’s overbearing guest and the wise remark he’d made about placing something, what exactly he couldn’t quite recall, in the hands of every Chinaman in China. The obvious consumer goods were already known to each and every citizen of that great nation, the Middle Kingdom he silently intoned, the hamburgers, the action pictures, the Public Enemy cassettes. China was no longer a backwater, the sun wasn’t merely rising in the East -- it had risen. They already had a fully fledged leisure class. They could afford to spend money on things they didn’t need, indulge their appetites for the ridiculous, act like carefree teenagers messing around on summer vacation, piling into telephone booths or swallowing goldfish.

It bugged him. Unbeknownst to him, Charles, the ungracious boor, the guest, had gifted him with a million dollar idea. Mouths of babes is right.

He went into the tiny living space to see what his wife was up to. Normally around this hour she’d be in bare feet and facial cream, ready to hit the hay after a long hard slog through the trenches of the Eurobond market, but there she was, glued to the television screen, a casualty with her knees up.

Anything good, honey? he asked, giving her a neck a quick rub. She motioned with the channel changer to a glowing image of Ayre’s Rock, so tired was she she could barely talk. It was some French documentary that promised the full range of flora and fauna Down Under: koalas, dingos, kookaberras, wombats, duckbill platypuses, wallabies, eucalyptus trees, but all they seemed to show were kangaroos. For the last fifteen minutes she had seen kangaroos hopping, fighting, sleeping, mating, hopping, eating, resting, hopping, and hopping some more. She was fed up with kangaroos.

Larry yanked her up and gave her a big hug and kiss. She pushed him away, she was too tired to even think of sex, maybe they could squeeze it in on the weekend, but Larry explained to her it wasn’t sex he was after, he was thanking her for saying the secret word: hopping. Hopping meant pogo sticks. A pogo stick in the hands of every Chinaman in China. The million dollar, no, billion dollar idea. Marge didn’t follow and shambled off to bed, feeling vaguely insulted.

With a rush of energy surging through his wiry frame, Larry whipped out the laptop and got online.

He’d let the pop quiz slide, just this once.

 

For the next few days Larry hunkered down on China. It was all he could think of or talk about, it was all that caught his eye in the morning papers. The Financial Times, his favourite, published an eight page survey on China the very day he threw himself into the project. This was not coincidence, this was fate, it was meant to be, why the Pink’un itself had read his mind and peered into his heart.

Larry aimed to be the last word on China if his eyes fell out and brain exploded.

The internet proved invaluable, though it was a case of the yield being a mile wide and an inch deep. That inch, however, was a mile wide inch crust of pure gold. The Chinese government spent a lot of money and time updating their daily web site, and it showed. Larry found riches there he didn’t know existed, data and information on every conceivable aspect of Chinese industry, finance and agriculture, and the ways and wherewithals to go about exploiting them. All the labour, materials and manufactures needed for pogo sticks was already there, on the spot, awaiting the organisational know-how of a latter-day Henry Ford. He could even tap some of the local capital, if was he willing to go halves with a native entrepreneur (the Chinese were big on guanxzhe, a local custom he was going to have to get used to if he wanted to get anywhere). He could print a book, which he did. (Marge complained about the cost x3 but she paid.)

Then of course there was all the pornography which made him -- well, let us not dwell upon this lurid violation of Larry’s virgin eyes.

(Heck, since we’re on the subject, for such a closed society, the Chinese themselves appeared to be a very open, liberated people, if all the Suzy Wong web sites and references he gleaned was anything to go by. This came as a relief to him -- for one thing, he wouldn’t have to worry about offending prudish old maids or religious fundamentalists with his pogo sticks. The People’s Republic was not Iowa or the Islamic Republic of Iran.)

Finally, after all the fun and games with periodicals and computers was done, Larry decided it was time to read a few books. There were so many to choose from he didn’t know where to begin, what with entire bookstores and bulging library stacks devoted to the subject. And, as it happened, doing business in China was the hottest topic going, making for the longest entry columns in the computer system of the Mitterrand Library. There was too much choice, one item for every man, woman and child in the country, China that is, not France. After a day or two of monkeying around the TGB, Larry finally threw his hands up in surrender and settled on the latest EIU report, a rather basic volume entitled Doing Business in China, and C of the Encyclopedia Americana (the Britannica articles by Needham were too clever by half, too British, altogether irrelevent).

After committing to memory the lengths of the Yangzte River and the Great Wall of China, the greater populations of Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Canton, and reducing five millennia of history to a thumbnail sketch he could recite at will, Larry was ready to kick ass. He could now hold forth on China intelligently with anybody, wow whomever with the details of his grand scheme, Operation Pogo, bowl over with a barrage of facts and figures the most jaded, know-all journalists and weathered China Hands. He probaby couldn’t wow or bowl over a China scholar with his crib Sinology, but then that didn’t matter for as a rule scholars -- true, Confucian ones he kidded -- are penniless. Even a large stipend, like the $100,000 his friend Keef, the randy classicist at Columbia, finagled a few years back, wouldn’t cover a year’s research and legal fees although he’d ring him up just to hear what he’d say.

Slamming shut the cover of an Edgar Snow memoir he was reading for yucks, Larry leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms, the big easy. The research phase was finito. Now it was time to speak to some actual Chinese, like the waiters in his favourite restaurant, and then from there a student or two, maybe an embassy official, perhaps pick up a few elementary phrases.

After first prepping himself with some tapes and a Teach Yourself Mandarin instruction book, Larry felt ready to give one on one human discourse the old college try. His guinea pigs, the waiters at his local Chinese, La Chinoise, were initially bewildered by his furtive attempts to engage them in childish patter. Just order, white boy, and shut up they thought and even said so to his face, they had enough tiresome customers to deal with, but when Larry started to make it worth their while -- by topping up the service compris -- they went along with him and began correcting him, taught him useful phrases and expressions. Larry was a good student and in short order was able to warble on about the relative merits of horses and greyhounds, fighting cocks and pit bulls, and where the best poon tang (a national delicacy) in town could be had after hours.

Having triumphed among the menials, Larry sought to conquer the exchange students of the Sorbonne with his newly acquired linguistic skills. Here he encountered greater resistance than expected, as no one appeared that keen to talk to a clean cut, immaculately casual imperialist running dog who might be a CIA plant seeking to recruit philbies. One sullen looking economics student, who would have been attractive in a perky sort of way had she bothered to smile or done something with her hair, punched him right in the mouth, drawing blood, when he inquired as to where the best poon tang in her region could be had. Another student listening to them came to her aid, clobbering Larry with a two-pounder Braudel. Larry stumbled out of the hang-out wondering what he’d said wrong and decided it would probably be better to enrol in a course taught by trained, accredited professionals.

The next day Larry called the embassy of the People’s Republic and spoke to a communications officer of his desire to learn business Chinese. Again, he warbled on about the turf and backwoods customs before the official rudely cut him off in English and asked him where he’d learnt such filthy language. Larry twigged and gave him the name of the restaurant (the relatives of the waiters lost their jobs, and worse, back in Szechuan). If he wanted to learn proper Mandarin, for business purposes, he could send him a list of approved schools or, for a nominal fee, he’d give him lessons himself, conversation, grammar, whatever. Larry agreed and, after some fuss, Marge paid.

It was an ideal arrangement. They would meet at a conveniently situated restaurant or café, usually Foucquet’s, and spend the first half hour speaking English and the second half Mandarin. Knowing Larry’s preferences, Wu concentrated on business and finance. They’d discuss articles from the European Wall Street Journal, the FT or Les Echos (Wu’s French was impeccable, even better than Larry’s). As Larry was obviously a young man going places, a financial maven in the making, Wu questioned Larry closely as to the latest developments in American technology, which companies had the best growth prospects and why, where he thought the Dow would end up, and when the Americans were, with the cold war ended, going to start beating their swords into ploughshares. Impressed that his wife was a bond specialist, Wu pumped Larry for information about her, her bank, what their assets were, what their involvements in emerging markets might involve, if they did any offshore deals, and what if any involvement they had with the IMF or World Bank or the US government or any other governments for that matter, the French government for instance. Maybe she’d like to join them on her lunch hour -- you never know, Mandarin could come in handy someday. When Larry told Wu how much his wife earned a year, just base, mind, Wu wolf whistled and shook his head and wished he could find a woman who made that kind of money. He consoled himself with another cognac.

Larry, who only knew what was written in the newspapers, expanded on his cursory knowledge by regurgitating choice morsels of Kennedy, Fukuyama, Soros, de Bono, Chopra, Huntington, and other masterchefs. Wu quietly took in the latest, tastiest tidbits of Western wisdom, nodding sagely with each platitude that came tripping off Larry’s tongue.

Essentially, we want the same things, Wu said once in a gregarious mood, having had a little too much firewater and not enough steak frites. You want what we want and we want what you want. It’s all the same. Getting rich is glorious! That is our wisdom, the same as yours! Wu growled cheerfully, slapping his good pal on the back as Larry picked up the check. It is the end of history, Larry stated, the market rules and everyone’s a winner, as long as they play the game. He plunked a few bills down on the table, flushed and happy in this new found camaraderie. You gotta be in it to win it! The 21st century could be China’s!

Pretty soon Larry was able to carry on a proper, if somewhat halting conversation with the waiters at La Chinoise. They wouldn’t fool him again. Even Marge was impressed when Larry ordered and received a dish that wasn’t on the menu, a sign that he was accepted (it was cat dressed up as rabbit, but they didn’t know that; it was delish, much like General Tscho’s chicken). But then Larry’s voice, the amber, soothing monotone of the rising church dignitary, the young State Department spokesman, or the late night classical music DJ, naturally went down easy with listeners.

Wu was not only a good teacher, he was a useful contact as well. As an apparatchek, albeit one in a glamorous foreign posting, he knew the ins and outs and the byways and shortcuts of the Chinese labyrinth. He told Larry not to be intimidated, that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, the child that cries gets the teat. The old Confucian bureaucracy, founded 500 years before the birth of Christ, had improved dramatically in the last 18 years, was less confusing nowadays, was up to date and with the times, ran efficiently and smoothly, but, just in case it hadn’t and wasn’t -- things change so quickly in China, it was mindboggling, sometimes he didn’t recognise his old stomping grounds on trips back -- that he should contact some of his friends in this ministry and that who’d put him right.

He also told Larry of a gentleman in London who specialised in Chinese ventures, a fearless, savvy operator with more than twenty years experience, Jeremy Savon of the famed City emerging markets player, Savon Pondicherry, formerly De Vere Savon (De Vere, Simon De Vere, was now head of emerging markets at ING Baring). The names rang a bell.

(Larry had a very cordial chat with Mr Savon over the phone -- an expensive call Marge complained about but it was cheaper than Eurostar, right? -- from which he learned of his long association with Wu and that he would be very happy to steer him in the right direction, should he go east he might want to contact his associate, Simpson Doss, who could be hunted down at the bar of any Intercontinental Hotel, happy hour of course, between Jakarta and Seoul, and that the Chinese were indeed purchasing more leisure items such as pogo sticks, whatever they were.)

Unfortunately, the friendship that was blossoming between Larry and Wu came to a rather abrubt halt. What happened was that Larry arrived at the appointed hour to find Wu not only not there but the area buzzing with trenchcoated policemen. One of them, a burly man who looked like Gerard Depardieu, beckoned him over impatiently and loudly began asking him a lot of in-your-face questions about Wu. Why did you walk him part way to the embassy and then pass him a envelope filled with cash, always near the Arc de Triomphe? We have it on film and we have it on audiotape! Why were you paying him? Wasn’t he supposed to be paying you? Where did you learn Chinese? Larry didn’t know how to respond, the flick spoke very quickly and used improper street French. He broke into a cold sweat. Depardieu, who was getting steamed, started to drag Larry towards a huge black Citroën when another trenchcoated cop, a Michel Platini lookalike, came over and whispered something in his ear. Depardieu glared at Larry with Gallic contempt, toyed with the idea of head butting him, and then in perfect English told him to beat it, he was no use to them.

The next day Wu’s stunned visage was on the front page of the Herald Trib, in a little photograph next to the table of contents (the story was on page four; Clinton, presumably with his trousers down around his ankles again, led the headlines). It transpired that Wu was something of a loose cannon. He was a spy, with a fairly wide network -- which crashed and burned that night -- but that his expensive tastes for rare cognacs, fine dining, shoes from Weston, suits from Zegna, cuban cigars, weekends at Chantilly with Russian and Polish callgirls, were leading him to take unnecessary risks. The rumour was he was going to defect, probably to Wall Street or the City, and that the Chinese, fed up with his reckless ways and going native, tipped off French intelligence. At this juncture, Wu was expendable, as was his network which, all things considered, cost far more than it was worth -- indeed, it was just a tatty, floating social club for other crooked, greedy little Wus on the make.

In the final paragraph of the story, Larry, who was mentioned (but unnamed) as an American college student briefly questioned about his relationship with Wu, discovered he was not under any suspicon: ‘Mr Wu dismissed the idea of trying to recruit the student as he was “the slowest person I’d met in my 12 years in France. If this is the American elite, I pity their masses”.’

Look who’s talking, Larry thought, you’re the one who got caught.

Despite this embarrassing setback, Larry was still determined to chase his dream, follow every rainbow to that pot of gold. The next step was a trip to China, which Marge vetoed as it cost too much. How am I ever going to set up a company there if I don’t actually go there, he asked her, and she suggested he apply for a grant or a scholarship of some kind. Call up that Savon guy, maybe he can help.

No way was she going to shill out five or ten thousand smackeroos for him to go gallivanting about China. What was in it for her? she asked. Riches, he replied. Your puny male ego, she thought. If he was at all serious, he’d have to draw up a business plan first.

So, with little help from his friends -- Jerry provided about twenty or thirty bucks worth of free legal advice -- and references from professors who didn’t know him too well, Larry decided to call on Mr Savon in London. (Eurostar Marge would pay for, as long as it was a weekday saver fare; he could stay with one of her friends, an obnoxious, overweight bitch she knew from Brearley who was now the bee’s knees in corporate finance at CSFB.)

It was great to be in ritzy, sunny St James’s after the overcast dreariness of Paris, though the British emigration people on Eurostar were a bit of pain, questioning him about every stamp on his passport. Right away Larry felt at home in the clubby confines of Savon Pondicherry. Savon himself came out to greet him and brought him in personally to his office, had his cute Indian secretary serve him a nice hot cup of Earl Grey on good bone china. I’ve arrived, he thought, and then Savon asked what he could do for him. Larry passed him the business plan, which Savon perused (Marge had helped him on the final draft, his original having caused her to spray orange juice all over it so hard did she laugh).

Savon liked it and said they could do business and was Larry planning to visit China any time soon? whereupon Larry told him he merely lacked the funds -- he already had all the contacts he needed, that he would build his ‘dummy’ pogo sticks on the spot and from there play it by ear. Larry’s knowledge of the Chinese leisure market impressed Savon. Pogo sticks were just the start -- next would be roller blades, skate boards, hang gliders, bungee jumping equipment, rock climbing gear and the like. In no time, young, thrusting Chinese movers and shakers would act and look no different from their counterparts on the other side of the Pacific slipsliding away in Venice Beach. He’d been in touch with the agency that represented Michael Chang, the world’s most famous Chinese athlete, about getting into the swim.

Savon, looking through his diary to the weeks ahead, said that he could send Larry to China for two or three weeks on an exploratory study, get the lay of the land, the skinny, in return for a few favours, namely checking up on how Simpson Doss was doing; as an outsider Larry could make an objective assessment of Doss, whether he was slacking off or if he appeared to be fast and loose with his expenses. Also, he could see how a couple of projects he helped underwrite were going, the first a human organ transplant network that, under the aegis of the Chinese government, served up to British health care providers an unlimited supply of fresh, untainted livers, hearts, kidneys, eyes, skin grafts, ligaments, bones, marrow, you name it, at low, reasonable cost; the other was a recycling plant near Tibet that converted useless old Buddhist texts and scrolls into toilet rolls, napkins and other paper products.

He also told Larry that if Operation Pogo got off the ground, he should consider the advantages of contracting prison labour. It was natural, at first, to have qualms about such things, we are civilised beings after all. Savon assured him that the prison labour system was, by any measurable standard, a humane one, he had seen it himself firsthand. It was far closer to the Western training/re-education model than the leg-irons and manacles of ‘Cool Hand Luke’ or ‘I Was a Prisoner on a Chain Gang’ stereotype, which was how know-nothing, namby pamby Amnesty International types portrayed it. You’ll sleep at night, Savon said. And, if you wanted to be candid and think the unthinkable, some of those prisoners, violent criminals, bandits, rapists, brigands, murderers, deserved breaking rocks in the hot sun -- he sometimes wished they’d bring back hanging in England.

As Larry understood it, the prisoners in these labour camps were drawn from the most violent and dangerous ranks of the penal system, you wouldn’t find a bicycle thief or a persistent jaywalker among them. Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea, especially if a little bit of hard work did them some good. Anyway, weren’t we all gung-ho on welfare reform back in the States, and here in the UK with the new government?

With that, they parted on the best of terms, Larry, fairly drifting away on a remote vision of himself jetting off every few months to conduct high-level trade talks and negotiations in Beijing and Shanghai, patiently steering an investment course through the perilous South China straits of emerging market finance, inscrutably outmanoeuvring pokerfaced taipans and warlords at their own game, walking away with all the chips, Savon, striding off to his club, pleased as punch with the new bucket boy he’d bought for pennies on the dollar.

 

Larry breezed into Shanghai, bright-eyed and bushy tailed in spite of the 17-hour flight. He didn’t even unpack, he headed gangbusters out the door of his Bund guest house and walked and walked and walked, a stranger in a strange land, a wanderer in the city, not a care in his head, taking in as much as he could, bumping into the natives as he gazed up at the tall glass and concrete edifices that sprouted from the good earth willy nilly.

He’d seen the future and it worked. It also belched and spat and poured out noxious fumes and sewage. He bought an oxygen mask on the street.

China was on the road forward, no doubt. After they sorted out the pollution problem, Shanghai would be a carbon copy Pittsburgh in a generation or two. They were just at different stage of economic development, the unfettered capitalist phase.

They were going through what we went through with the Industrial Revolution, but at warp speed. They were more intelligent than us, having been around longer, they’d be alright.

Walking down another broad, ugly boulevard, Larry spotted the Intercontinental and remembered this was where Savon said he could find Simpson Doss. He hastened in and asked one of the bartenders if Mr Doss was about. The bartender looked at him suspiciously and asked him why he wanted to see him, was he delivering? When Larry said Mr Savon had sent him, the bartender grinned and gave him the suite number, he just had to call first to inform Mr Doss a guest was coming up.

Larry was whisked up in a lift to the fifth floor. There he was met by an alluring young woman, a slip of a thing, dressed in silk pyjamas, probably not 20, who led him by the hand as if he were a small boy to a large suite down the end of the hall. Mr Doss was in the act of zipping up his trousers when he shook Larry’s hand. He offered him a drink and a girl, both which Larry refused -- he was shocked by Doss’s cavalier treatment of women, even if they were submissive Orientals --, and then asked how he could help Larry. Larry started at zero, told him everything, how he came to know Mr Savon through Wu, and what happened to Wu and Doss shook his head at the mention of Wu, what a waste, the man couldn’t control his appetites, just like most Third World types with too much slack on the leash and cash in their hands. Still, if Wu gave him some leads in Shanghai and Beijing, they were certain to be good as gold, money in the bank. And the pogo sticks? Brilliant idea, jolly good sign if Jeremy sent you all the way out here, that means he’s serious about your idea. Pogo sticks -- absolutely brilliant!

Sure you don’t want a girl? Plenty more where this one came from.

Suddenly feeling the weight of the 17-hour flight kick in, Larry said he’d take a raincheck, he needed to rest and think about what he was going to do over the next three weeks.

Back at the guest house, Larry watched for news from back home on Star Television. Seinfeld had called it a day, which saddened him a touch, Oprah was riding high in court defending the first amendment, another Kennedy had been killed. It made him homesick. American Gladiators was next, followed by repeats of Star Trek: the Final Frontier, but by then he was dreaming test patterns.

 

A week later, after fulfilling his obligation to visit the human organ transplant network which was based there in Shanghai and taking a three day trip to central China to the recycling plant -- everything checked out and was running smoothly at both businesses, although he did become physically ill at the sight of frozen eyes staring up at him in terror -- Larry went up to Beijing to meet one of Wu’s trade ministry friends. Doss warned Larry that given recent events it would be unwise to mention Wu, he could drop his name if he wished, the functionary he was to see, a Mr Tang, would understand.

While China’s enormous market potential had kept coming at him like a boxer limbering up on a cross-country run, Larry could detect none whatsoever at the ministry, a throwback to the Stalinist 1950s, an ironfisted monstrosity anchored in the midst of a concrete jungle. Inside hospital green, grey and black lead paint, the colours of the terminal ward, chipped off the walls in great chunks. None of the conveniences worked properly, the water had a chemical taste, the floors were filthy. A clerk tossing a dead rat into the street gave Larry a dirty look, as if he had brought it in. Restless with dumb, unsmiling activity, stacks of paper being hurried to and fro, a joyless hive of worker bees servicing no welcoming queen, the ministry was an Orwellian nightmare.

Larry waited all morning and afternoon along with fifty other supplicants before he realised that office hours were over. No one informed him. This continued for several days until a rather hardfaced woman shouted at him from down the corridor that it was finally his turn. She berated Larry to his face, calling him a spherical idiot for not paying to get his name moved up the list, but he couldn’t make out her dialect.

He was about to give Mr Tang a hearty handshake and mention Simpson Doss when a stack of forms in triplicate was shoved into his chest. He spent the next three hours filling these, by which time the office closed. (When he brought the forms in the next day, he was sent home and told to come back in a week; Savon said he’d change the ticket, not to worry.)

After a week of doing nothing, Larry was called in to see Mr Tang. His excitement was such that he forgot his anger, he was ready to rock ‘n’ roll.

Mr Tang, an animated little man, the last of the Mao jackets, chainsmoking Winstons, waved Larry over. He complimented Larry on the very good job he’d done with the forms but something was missing.

A sly grin wrinkled his elfin face. He was amused by Larry. Jiggling his head like Sophie, Larry’s wife, used to, he repeated the Winston jingle, ‘Winston tastes good like a cigarette should’ as he lit another. Here you buy one pack, get three free, he informed him. He loved his Winstons, he smoked four packs a day and had six children, all boys. He loved America, especially North Carolina and Virginia.

Look, we’re not getting anywhere, Larry said, I still haven’t got my permit. I’ve done all the paperwork, all 31 pages in triplicate, I’ve paid my fee. I’ve been here a month now. Thank God things are cheap or my backer would be having a fit. I haven’t seen my wife in a month. What more does it take?

Winston tastes good like a cigarette should, the little man murmured, going off with Larry’s forms to a beat-up filing cabinet, his left hand cupped behind his back.

 

With five weeks of Far East Asian economic experience under his belt, Larry was beginning to take on the gravitas of a seasoned China Hand. He might be out here indefinitely, he thought, like the missionaries of olden days, spreading the word of the Lord. No sweat. Savon didn’t seem to mind changing the ticket, the whole project cost peanuts anyway, and besides it was a way of keeping tabs on Doss who, to all appearances, was being more conscientious about his duties these days.

Marge, too, didn’t seem to mind Larry being so far away for so long, it was no skin off her nose, she never even called and whenever Larry called her she never seemed to be in. One time Jerry picked up the phone! He passed on his regards and said everyone missed him in Paris, to hurry home, we’ll paint the town red!

Larry forged ahead to an enterprise zone in South China with his pogo sticks. The ‘dummies’ had been knocked up and were ready to be tested. Larry, with his finely-tuned head for marketing, concocted an event around the inaugural hop with the aid of a renegade member of the local American Chamber of Commerce. It was to be Pogo Stick Day in the quaint little town of Shenzhen.

The day came, the future was now, the air sizzled with excitement, some forty or fifty souls showed up, thrilled to bits in anticipation of this wild new crazy western thing, pogo sticks. You got on one, you hopped, and you hopped some more. You could move forwards, you could move backwards. One on-looker said she’d heard you could even move sideways. What was this wondrous invention, this re-configured wheel, that would liberate us from the tyranny of using our own pedal digits to propel us forwards, backwards and sideways? O, pray enlighten us, round-eyed devil!

Larry and his well-oiled friend peered out over the huddled mass and were ready to give their speeches when one of the official invitees, a big cheese in the local party, hijacked the event, seizing the microphone from Larry’s hand to give his own impromptu speech. The assembled applauded politely, Larry and the regenade did so as well though they only understood every other word. Then the official, who bore an eerie resemblance to John Wayne in ‘The Conqueror’, even walked like him, strode over and grabbed the first-among-equals pogo stick from Larry’s hand. Flashing a gold toothy smile at Larry and the beery business booster, he placed one foot on the rests and then the other, revved her sky high and came down awkwardly, the ineptly soldered pogo stick having come apart upon impact, impaling him through the scrotum.

This was not how Pogo Stick Day was supposed to start, with a profusely bleeding, screaming party official being carried away with a hideous third leg sticking up between his thighs. Pandamonium broke out, Larry was roughly bundled from the vicinity by two stern looking policemen, the vaporous Chamber of Commerce flack vanished into thin air.

At the police station Larry learned that the party official had died in agony en route to hospital, having bled to death. Larry was now in big trouble. He thought of Marge, would he ever see her again?

When he was finally released late the next day, after some extraordinary string pulling above and beyond the call of duty by a consulate fixer, Larry straightaway called Marge to tell her what had happened. This time, miracle of miracles, she was there but her voice sounded different, husky, quivery, breathless with mounting expectation. He thought he heard someone else move in the background and after an ecstatic whimper of pleasure, she hung up on him.

Mr Savon was not in but would return his call. Simpson Doss could not speak, he had his hands full. Clutching at straws he called Jerry, who had the afternoon off. Sophie, his wife, was in the States. There was nobody around at the business school, it was half term.

Larry’s goose -- or Peking duck, in keeping with the Chinese motif -- was cooked.

The authorities wanted to make an example of him, flog him if they could, in public, but wiser heads prevailed -- investors hated flogging. Still, he had to be punished, even if he was a Citizen of the United States of America. Water torture in a manner of speaking, make him sweat a bit.

They sentenced him to two years in labour camp but, as luck would have it, deus ex machina -- an accidental death appeal sustained -- the sentence was reduced to nine months, suspended, with Larry being charged full court expenses.

Larry nearly died of fright the two weeks of his closed hearing, dropping a ton. He came to look like one of the labour camp prisoners he just missed joining. The deal done, bribes paid, Larry was quietly booted out.

He crawled back to Paris, his tail between his legs.

Marge was not there. She’d left no forwarding address with the concierge. She had taken everything except his clothes, which the concierge had given to charity. (Larry recognised one of his ties around the concierge’s neck, however, and when he accused him of theft, the concierge told him he’d have to leave by the end of the month, he wasn’t going to be insulted by an American criminal.)

On his way to the post office, Larry ran smack into Jerry, who greeted his partner in crime with a firm handshake, asked how the thigh was healing (he, too, was wearing one of Larry’s neckties), wasn’t he on his horse to New York? that’s where Marge was, plenty of gravy, boatloads, on the plate she’d been passed, some triple A thoroughbred, bulge bracket bank snapped her up, made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. We’re all going to be there together, good neighbors, we’re going to have to have you guys around for dinner -- we’ll always have Paris -- Jerry told him, hail fellow well met.

Later, picking at his sesame chicken at La Chinoise, Larry took stock of himself, listed his good points and his bad points (the former outweighed the latter by a considerable margin). The past was past, he decided, the future was all that mattered. Adversity revealed genius -- pick yourself up and dust yourself off, fella, picturing himself as Chaplin’s little tramp. There were no limits to what you could achieve with effort -- and luck -- but you had to make your own luck, you had to take risks, go for the gold, accentuate the positive, negate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mr In Between. No one was going to hand you anything on a silver platter. He would write a book! -- he wrote some pretty nifty essays back at New Haven -- a cautionary tale, call it Operation Pogo Stick, snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, cause the death of another tree.

Marge would be waiting for him in the Big Apple, with open arms. They’d work things out. I’ve neglected her needs, he thought. Maybe she could get him a job at the bank.

Tomorrow was another day, the first day in the rest of his life.

© 2000 George Rafael


George Rafael writes for Cineaste, Chess Life, Salon and Archipelago. He works as a legal writer and lives in London. He supports "River Plate" - (an Argentine soccer team).

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