Early Daze: Part III

By Derek On April 3, 2012 Under Post

I found an apartment to share through an ad in the Taiwan English newspaper. A Canadian girl had one roommate and was looking for another for an older walkup that had three bedrooms. The price was reasonable and it was in a neighborhood just down the noisy road from my new office. We met and hit it off right away. Carol and I had a brother sister-like relationship. She had come to Taiwan to learn traditional Chinese painting. Her area of focus was small birds on branches. It is harder to do than it sounds. She kept two small budgies in a wooden bird cage to study them and how they moved. I was cool with that.

Three’s Company

My other roommate was “Miss Lee,” a Cathay Pacific flight attendant. We all lived platonically and kept radically different schedules. I was at work by 6:30 AM and not home until after dinner. I rarely saw my roommates during the week. Carol, like most artists, kept late hours. Sometimes we would sit up and chat until it got late. Miss Lee came and went depending on which flights she was on. I never got to know her because one day soon after I moved in the phone rang and I answered. It was her father. The next day, she was gone. Thus began the search for a new roommate. We finally settled on “Miss Chen” who was Taiwanese but spoke English and worked at an embassy in town. So here I was, living the “Three’s Company” lifestyle in Taiwan. Just don’t call me “Jack.”

Our old apartment was roomy with wooden floors, high ceilings and a large central living room. The only thing wrong with it was the heat; the place was scorching hot. And the rats. Yes, we had rats. You could hear them at night. Sometimes I would get up at night and turn on the lights in the living room to see a handful of evil rodents scattering to different corners of the room. They had a nest of sorts in our water heater, of all places. Whenever we turned on the hot water, loud squeaking noises would emanate from the appliance as they moved about. I figured for the rent I was paying it was something I had to live with. Then one night as I was sleeping, I felt something near me. Very near me. I am a light sleeper and I opened my eyes to find a rat on my pillow chewing on my hair. The rat was as surprised as me and we both bolted out of bed at the same time. At that moment I knew, deep down, it was either me or them.

The Rat War

We bought some traditional mouse traps. I had to set them as the girls wouldn’t go near the idea. But these urban Taipei rats were smart; they could always remove the bait from the trap without triggering it. We had to try something else. In the dusty local shops I found sticky boards that you unfolded which were about one foot square and coated with glue. The target pest would get stuck on the board and you could then dispose of it. That was the plan. We tried placing these sticky boards along a wall, or by a corner, hoping a rat would run over it. Did I say these rats were smart? Ok, let’s put some food in the middle of the board to entice our foul, furry, follicle feasting visitors. We tried cheese. Several nights passed with no activity. We tried peanut butter with the same result. We tried bread, etc. Nothing worked.

One fine, fine day, I noticed we had this big box of Taiwan “pineapple cookies.” They are soft and square with a sticky sweet pineapple middle, sort of a rotting Fig Newton type thing and were found everywhere around the island. America may have Oreo cookies but Taiwan had these pineapple squares. I only ate them at friend’s houses as they were always proffered to guests and was thoroughly disgusted with them. But this turned out to be our secret weapon and was irresistible to the enemy. One night, I place one pineapple cookie right in the middle of the sticky board before going to bed. The next morning it had caught two rats! I called Carol, who was still sleeping. She got up, took one look and grabbed my arm in a death grip. It’s amazing how strong women can be. “Gross! Oh God, can you get them out of here?” I folded the board up with the two very stuck and alive rats inside and dropped them in the dumpster on my way out. A few weeks of this nightly routine and we had solved the rat problem.

Work was progressing steadily. There was a lot to learn. “Drinking out of a fire hose,” is the phrase that best describes it. I would get home after a 12 or 13 hour day exhausted but still interested in what I was doing. One evening, after climbing the three flights of stairs to the apartment and opening our front door, there was a huge painting, three feet by six, staring me in the face. It looked like a giant spider web with the spider sitting in the middle and was, well, creepy. Carol often hung her paintings around the place but usually they were of birds, or people. This, I could not fathom. Staring at it closely, I asked her.

“Carol, what’s this?”

“Oh. It’s my asshole.”

Right. Ok, that’s gotta go. Living with artists is different that living with other people. They think differently and they have moods. I’m all for encouraging art and art for art’s sake and all that, here, however, I had to draw the line. We had a talk about it and in the morning, thankfully, the offending painting was gone.

My Average Morning

My morning routine basically went like this; get up at 6:00 AM, shave and shower, put on my suit, step out of my bedroom, start sweating in the heat, check for rats and have a quick breakfast. I bought a Yamaha scooter for getting around. It was a little girly looking but kept your shoes dry when it rained and it rained a lot in Taiwan. I only had one pair of work shoes and needed to be careful. At the time, there were far more motorized scooters in Taiwan than cars. Scooters were cheap, fast and nimble. Many “salary men” like me rode to and from work every day on a scooter. Often entire families commuted on a scooter with Dad “driving,” the oldest child sitting or standing in front of him, one smaller child sandwiched between Dad and Mom, arms out like a koala bear and then another child who drew the short straw, clinging on to Mom for dear life at the back. In 1993, the scooter was the Taiwan family car.

I usually had time to go through one of the Chinese papers at my desk before our morning meeting began at 7:30. Daniel would always start the meeting, launching off on some topic or another. Today he was talking about using an electric toothbrush. We politely waited for him to finish and then one of the senior local guys stood up and gave another detailed lesson on charts. Everyday it was the same. At least my Chinese was improving; now I knew how to say “electric toothbrush.”

I went back to my desk and read through another local paper. Gerry helped me again getting the English “Daily” right.

“Ok, Derek. This isn’t bad. But what do you by margins are ‘getting better’?”

“Well, they are getting better.”

“We say ‘expanding.’ Margins are expanding. And are these gross, operating or net?”

“Uh…”

“Why don’t you find out and…”

His phone began ringing. “Hello, Honey. How are y… . Yes….. uh-huh…..yes, Dear……”

I quietly escaped back to my desk. Ok, I’ll fix this thing on margins and then start calling clients, I thought. By now I had several fund managers in Hong Kong and Singapore that I was speaking to regularly. There wasn’t much competition on the ground in Taiwan so even though I was as green as they come, these fund managers welcomed, or tolerated, me calling them. I guess they found it entertaining.

My phone rang.

“Ah, Derek.” It was Daniel, the boss. “Can you, ah, come to my office?”

Closing the door behind me, I sat down in the chair in front of his big desk. Daniel stared at me for a moment across his piles of papers.

“Ah, yes. Derek.”

“Morning, Daniel. What’s up?”

He paused and cleared his throat. “Is flying safer than driving? Or is driving safer than flying?”

“Flying.”

“Many people think driving is safer.”

He went on. I stared at my nails.

Reptilian Encounter

Half an hour later when I stepped out of Daniel’s office, Sybil was waiting for me. Her office was next to Daniel’s where she sat motionless except for the occasional flicker of her tongue keeping her reptilian eyes fixed on whoever was visiting the boss.

“Derek,” she rasped, motioning to me from behind her large desk.

I hesitated but walked into her office. Her office was always the coldest room on the floor. I don’t know if it was because of the angle of the sunlight, which couldn’t get in because she kept the shades drawn, or something else. It was cold and stuffy and uncomfortable. Unlike Daniel, who liked people and had various family photos on his desk and certificates on his wall, Sybil’s desk held only papers and a phone. There were no photos, or paintings, nothing that would lend any human warmth to the environment.

“Yes?”

“You were talking to Daniel?” She gave me a phony smile. The Chinese have a saying, “The skin smiles but the muscles do not.” I was instantly on guard.

“Uh, yes. He called me in.”

“He probably wanted to talk to you about your expenses.” She was fishing for information.

“No.” I wouldn’t say more.

Sybil smiled again, “I have your expenses here.” She held up a folder. I had submitted a bus ticket and taxi receipt to go meet a client of the firm two weeks ago.

“They are late.” I thought I saw the beginning of a smile which was quickly suppressed.

“Really? Sorry. I didn’t know…”

“You will be penalized. We all follow the rules here. Even the foreigners,” she hissed.

I stood there and stared hard at her coiled and menacing presence.

“You may go,” she said quietly, looking down at her bare desk and waving me away. Our meeting was over.

The next day, Gerry and Johnny told me that our company, Yung Kao, was expanding the sales department. I am sure this had less to do with my meager efforts than some inspiration from Daniel. They had put a classified ad out in the local English newspaper and I was to help them with the candidate interviews.

Two people answered the ad. One currently worked at a trading company and was possibly a druggie and totally unacceptable. The other was Jacob, a Jewish kid from Los Angeles who was a year or two younger than me and who also worked at a trading company but showed promise. I recommended we hire Jacob.

Jacob Joins the Team

Jacob was affable and keen to learn about the business. We all quickly discovered, however, he wasn’t going to be much help with the English editing of the “Daily” or the research. He wasn’t interested in the finer points of research, or even grammar for that matter. But Jacob had street smarts and was keen to talk to clients. He had lived in Taiwan a number of years like I had and spoke Chinese, only he was marrying a local Taiwanese girl. The wedding was a few months away and he was very involved with meeting all the endless relatives and the gift giving and gift receiving this entailed. In one of our early conversations on the matter, Jacob opined in his open offhanded way,

“It’s great, Derek, I tell ya. You should do it sometime.”

“Yeah. Well, we’ll see.”

“The Chinese are just like the Jews, you know?”

“But I’m not Jewish.”

“They like big families, they respect their parents. Money and education is important. You know what? The only difference between the Chinese and us Jews is pork!”

An interesting comparison of two ancient cultures, I thought. In my mid-twenties, I remained unconvinced about the whole marriage thing at that time, pork or no pork. I also wasn’t convinced Jacob knew a whole lot about Jewish history. A mutual friend of ours who was also Jewish but very knowledgeable confided this to me.

“Ask him where the Jews come from, you’ll see,” he told me. The next day when we were at our desks in the office I gave it a shot.

“Hey, Jacob, where do the Jews come from?’

“Uh…”

He thought hard for a moment, eyes squinting, stroking his chin. His concentration reminded me of Winnie the Pooh.

“The promised land?”

Jacob was very much a people person and liked going out. This was great for me and we became an effective team. He focused on clients that were like him and I ended up with the clients that had a more academic bent, or who were just total assholes. As more and more international funds started investing in Taiwan we became busier and busier. Jacob could go out with clients to dinner and drinks until late at night and do this three, or four, or even five nights a week. I never had the stamina for that. Often times I would get a client to Taiwan and take him out for dinner with Jacob and then leave the client in Jacob’s good hands for the rest of the evening. It worked well for both of us and we became good friends.

Monday morning we were talking about our respective weekends, as you do at work. Jacob told me about his watches.

“Yeah, it was cool. I get, like, two watches. Both Rolexes!”

“For what?”

“For getting married. See? It’s a Taiwan thing. When you get married, you get two watches and two suits.”

“Well, maybe I should consider it.”

A few days later, ever eager for a chat, Jacob sat down at his desk and told me, “Had drinks with Johnny last night. He kept talking about “TaiBen, 1310.”

“What, his $50 stock?”

“Yeah, he said we should tell all the clients to buy it.”

“Did he tell you it was going to ‘PIERCE’ resistance again?”

“Oh yeah. ‘PIERCE.’”

We had a good laugh but when I pulled up the chart I saw Johnny’s stock was now at $12.

I was starting to make progress. I could read all the Chinese newspapers now and had an idea about how the market worked. My knowledge was imperfect and incomplete by a large measure but at least I could string a few semi-coherent sentences together when talking to clients. I started visiting listed companies on my own and then calling clients about what I had seen. Clients seemed to love this. The analysts didn’t mind either. They didn’t see the reason for visiting companies. But this gave me “street cred” and improved my knowledge and confidence as well.

Love in the Research Department

Jacob and I noticed one day Olivier got a haircut. It wasn’t his normal cheap Chinese bowl cut either, Olivier was “styled.”

“Hey, what happened to Olivier?” we asked Johnson, our deputy head of research. Johnson was a large and sensible person. His family was originally from Shandong province in China where the people are tall and broad. Johnson was one of those gentle quiet giants and he was smart and always spoke carefully if rather formally. He and Olivier were best friends, even though Johnson was several years his senior.

“I think,” he smiled, “Olivier has a girlfriend.”

“Really?”

“Mei guo hua qiao.”

“No way. Some Chinese girl from the States is after our Olivier?” asked Jacob, astonished.

Johnson laughed, “Yes, it appears so.”

A few days later I walked into the research department and Olivier was standing there with his new hairstyle and now sporting a sharp new suit.

“Hey, Olivier. Nice suit,” I said as I ran my hand over his jacket sleeve.

“Yes,” he chirped in his high voice. “I like it.”

“New girlfriend?” I asked somewhat too directly.

Olivier turned red. He didn’t say anything. Johnson raised his eyebrows at me from his desk and shook his head slowly. Taiwan was still a conservative place and people didn’t talk about girlfriends or boyfriends openly like they do in the US. I had probably crossed the line.

“Well, you look good,” I told him and left.

Research is Useless

The market had started to move up slowly. I noticed Johnny’s top pick, “TaiBen” had indeed “PIERCED” the ten dollar mark. It was now trading at $12.40.

I walked over to Johnny’s desk on the trading floor.

“Johnny, good call on 1310.” “1310” was the stock code for TaiBen, “I see it pierced $10.”

“Goh tzap koh.”

“What?”

“$50. It’s going to $50. Tell all your clients to buy this stock,” he whispered earnestly.

“But we don’t have any research on this one.”

“Research is useless.” Johnny was a firm believer in common sense and the magic of “chou ma.” Research was for people who didn’t know the market and those people shouldn’t be in the market either.

After the market closed for the day at lunch, I wandered outside into the tropical heat and noise of the developing chaotic Asian metropolis that was Taipei. I found something to eat in a cheapish place that had air conditioning. That was my main criteria for a restaurant: air con.

When I returned to the office almost everyone was taking their post lunch, midday nap. This was a local custom and most office workers, if not all, even brought small pillows in with them and fell asleep, head on pillow on desk, tongue hanging out, drooling. The market closed for the day at lunchtime and the place was eerily quiet during this time. A phone would ring somewhere and often as not, nobody would answer. They were all asleep. It was like the wicked fairy that put the entire castle asleep for a hundred years until Prince Charming shows up and breaks the spell by kissing Sleeping Beauty. I’m afraid I was no Prince Charming and, unfortunately, there were no Sleeping Beauties there either.

I rode my scooter home after work and climbed the stairs to our flat. Carol was there in a flowing hippy gown. She was always very at ease and comfortable in her surroundings.

“What do you think?” she asked me.

“Think about what?” I looked around quickly for another anatomically correct yet disturbing painting and was relieved to see none.

“I am letting them free during the day.”

I looked up and one of the budgies shrieked and flew across the room.

“Cool. Can I shoot rubber bands at them?”

“No!”

I went to my room and took off my suit jacket. Nice, a fresh piece of green and white bird shit right on the shoulder. That budgie must have heard me.

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