Early Daze: Part VBy Derek On April 18, 2012 Under Post
We returned to Taiwan from our trip to Hong Kong with more client contacts and renewed confidence in our business prospects. There was a lot of interest in theTaiwan market among the client base but not a lot of knowledge. I saw that if I could up my game we would be operating in a target rich environment.
While we were gone, Carey had disappeared. Nobody had seen him for a full week. He was supposed to be in Taipei and at work but Carey found Taiwan even less livable than Willy. At least Willy had his wife here whereas Carey left his entire family behind in Scotland. The separation and the everyday language barrier – hardly anyone spoke English in Taipei those days – fed his morose nature and Carey began slipping into a deeper and deeper funk.
Economist Beats Up Taxi Driver
He re-appeared a day or so after we returned from Hong Kong, unshaven and downcast. He told us of his first fight with a taxi driver.Taipei taxi drivers, like taxi drivers in most places, are generally a rough bunch, poorly paid and sometimes aggressive. I have generally found them however, to be much nicer and superior to Hong Kong taxi drivers to whom I would gladly feed chocolate covered rat poison, but that is another story. Something happened which was never made clear but Carey got into a fist fight with one of these guys and had to be bailed out of a local jail.
That explained the wooden sword I noticed by his desk. Carey had worked in Japan for the Industrial Bank of Japan as an economist years ago and was a great admirer of Japan’s order and cleanliness; two characteristics notably absent in Taiwan to even the most nearsighted observer. To protect himself from the taxi drivers and chaotic traffic, Carey bought a three foot long wooden Kendo sword, a “bokken” and now carried it with him wherever he went. “My ‘bokken’ is not bloken,” he sang, “My good friend.”
Willy never went to the morning meetings as they were all in Mandarin. Carey, when he came into the office, usually arrived even later in the morning. I was only half listening to Daniel this morning in the morning meeting telling the firm about ways to attract people to parties. We finished off with the daily chartist showcasing another incredibly boring chart.
Sybil Beats Up Derek
Somebody came to my desk and said that Sybil wanted to see me. My heart sank. It was starting off such a nice day. Like a doomed man, I dragged my crestfallen carcass over to her dungeon.
“Sybil, you wanted to see me?” Inwardly hoping it wasn’t true.
“Yes. Again I am looking at your expenses.”
Her withering tone let me know this was going to be another trial.
“You mean from my trip to Hong Kong?”
“Yes, and again they are not right.”
“Well, I was travelling with Daniel the whole time. Ask him.”
“I will not ‘ask him.’ I am the Vice President here and you are just a salesman. We don’t have salesmen staying in fancy hotels. We all follow the same rules here,” she snarled and snapped.
“I didn’t book the hotel,” I offered.
“I don’t care. You will not be staying at the Furama Hotel again. I will make sure of that!”
I stood there, face reddening. We were in Hong Kong to see clients and promote our business. We did that and on the back of that trip business was increasing and we had opened at least three new accounts. But to Sybil, I noticed, it wasn’t about business. It was about blood.
Her phone rang and she began another conversation with somebody else. I stood there for a minute in silence and then left.
That night I went out with the “6:29 crowd.” I complained to Johnny about Sybil,
“I swear, Johnny. That woman, if that is what she is, has it out for me.”
“You be careful with Sybil. She is a very bad person. Very bad,” he told me.
The others around our small table nodded.
“She is well known in the market,” one of them commented.
“Nobody can stand her,” said a third.
“Yes, but she is our boss and you must live with it,” Johnny reminded me.
Changing the subject, one of the guys asked,
“Johnny, “TaiBen” at $13. Not bad. Looks pretty good, you still think so?”
Before he could respond with another, “It will PIERCE …” I toasted Johnny with a “lim jyu” and we all joined in. The evening ended well.
The next day Carey came in the office late and was red and visibly upset. I asked him what was wrong.
The word “xiaojie” in Chinese meant, “Miss,” and unlike in English, it was used in common everyday speech to address a woman under the age of 50. Carey was complaining of somebody named “Miss Fuck.”
“Everyday,” he continued bitterly, “the newspaper is delivered to my door with a resounding whack. This occurs each morning precisely at 5:30 AM whilst I am sleeping. After the loud arrival of said journal, I, Carey McDougal, sleep no longer.”
Newspapers in Taiwan are delivered by people riding noisy old scooters. The scooter is saddled with two giant bags full of rolled up newspapers, one bag on each side, making the contraption look like a pollen-laden bumble bee slowly weaving through the early morning back streets of the city.
“I have called the paper to complain several times, but you know what it is like dealing with those custard faced loons.”
He was really getting going.
“So, this time. This time, I was ready for her. I heard Fuck Xiaojie’s scooter in the alley and as it rounded the corner she threw the paper at my door again. I was waiting and right after impact I flung open the door and charged her,” he swelled out his chest smiling triumphantly.
“What do you mean, ‘charged her’?” I asked, a little concern creeping into my voice.
“I grabbed my bloody bokken,” he held up his wooden phallus threateningly, “and I ran out into the street, this sword above my head yelling, “Fuck Xiaojie! Fuck Xiaojie!”
“Wait a minute. At 5:30 in the morning? Carey, what were you wearing, where did you run to?” Jacob had joined my side and was equally confused.
“Oh. I was just wearing my boxers. That’s all. But I ran right at her and almost caught her with the sword. Almost!”
“Good grief. What happened next?”
“She rode away with a quick burst of speed, that I can tell ya.”
He smiled and sat down, unfolded his paper and started reading.
Jacob and I looked at each other. Neither of us knowing what to say.
Journey to Exotic Hualien
I had a client visiting from Canada. Steve wanted to spend the weekend to “look around outside of Taipei.” I suggested we take a train to Hualien on the east coast which is known for a stunningly beautiful gorge always cloaked in mysterious mist. Through the gorge is a narrow winding road that the Japanese built during their pre-WWII occupation of the island using Chinese labor and teaspoons. It is an engineering marvel.
All good. So we bought our tickets, half a case of beer and boarded our train. The trip there was beautiful and importantly, lasted long enough for us to finish most of beer. When we arrived at our sleepy destination in the late afternoon we were feeling well toasted. After checking into the hotel it was time to roam the town and see what exotic delights Hualien had to offer.
As in most of Taiwan, the streets were cluttered with scooters, outdoor markets and friendly locals. The Hualien area is noted for being a traditional stomping ground of pre-Chinese aboriginal peoples and we noticed some of the populace looked more Eurasian than Chinese, which added to the uniqueness of our visit.
Betel Nut Neophytes
After a dinner of “san-bei-ji,” or “three cup chicken,” we had more drinks and were walking along the street when one of us got the bright idea to buy some “bin-lang,” or betel nut chew. In southern Taiwan the roads are stained red, not from scooter accidents, although seeing the way they fly down narrow alleys you may wonder, but rather from red spit squirting out the gap-toothed mouths of the happy betel nut-chewing locals. This is big business in Taiwan and betel nut is the country’s second largest cash crop after rice. Much like tobacco “chew” in the US, the refined delicacy of betel nut is mainly enjoyed by daft old people and working class men. The marketing of betel nut is a Taiwan original in that little glass-enclosed metal betel nut stands can be found scattered all over the place, quite often with the precious green nuggets sold by young, beautiful women wearing just lingerie. Yeah, I’ll pay up for that.
Alcohol surprisingly overwhelming good judgment, Steve wanted to give it a try so we did. Chewing bin-lang takes practice because you don’t want to swallow any of the toxic powdered lime and tobacco paste that is sandwiched in the nut and you don’t want the red juice dribbling down your shirt either; that’s for amateurs. So there we stood on the busy roadside, two foreigners chomping on betel nut, leaning over to spit out great streams of blood red juice all over the street. If you surmised the local people stared at us with surprise, you would be correct because A) there are almost no foreigners in Hualien, B) foreigners never chew betel nut, and C) it tastes like shit.
To wash the awful acid/dirt taste out of our mouths we started off on another bar crawl. Steve spied a “TGIF,” or “Friday’s” down the road and there we marched. What luck, to find a real “Friday’s” in distant Hualien. The place was kind of empty when we walked in but the music was loud and the staff were all decked out in the traditional red and white striped shirts, some with goofy hats, others with badge covered suspenders, and all were friendly and festive. We took two stools at the bar and looked at the menu. “Welcome to Thursdays!” it read.
Thursdays? Was this some kind of misprint, or joke? We ordered a couple of beers and were discussing this little mystery when the Taiwanese boss came out from the back room and started chatting to us across the bar. Mr. Lin was a nice guy and spoke some English. One of the enjoyable things about a Taiwanvisit is how friendly and sincere the people are. He wanted to know where we were from and why we were in Hualien and to tell us what a great place it is. So, I asked him about the misprint in the menu. He told us, no, that is right, this wasn’t a “TGIF, Friday’s,” it was a “TGIT, Thursday’s!” I was kind of surprised and asked him point blank, “But isn’t this just a blatant rip-off of the original Friday’s franchise?” Proprietor Lin laughed and told us with great sincerity a line I will never forget, “No. Not at all. Our stripes are thinner!”
The next week Carey disappeared. We didn’t really notice, however. His irregular hours at work meant some days he was there and some days he wasn’t. At times several days would pass without his appearance in the office. This time, however a few actual weeks had gone by with nobody knowing anything. I asked Willy if he knew where Carey was.
“Haven’t a clue, I’m afraid, son.”
I went to talk to Daniel.
“Carey? Yes, I haven’t seen him in a while. No, don’t know where he is. He’ll turn up,” he said brightly.
“Yes,” I was still standing hoping to make a quick exit.
“Ah, sit down.”
I did as told, my hopes dashed against the rocks of inevitability.
“Do you know the difference between private schools and public schools….?”
When I returned to my desk, after twenty minutes of nail staring, Willy looked up from his newspaper.
“What did Daniel say?”
“He said Carey would turn up. That was it.”
And that was that. Everyone was rather complacent about the whole thing, I thought. I mean, Carey doesn’t speak Chinese, he’s a bit loony and walks around town in his boxers with a sword at his side.
Two more weeks passed with nary a Carey sighting so one afternoon I called his landlady. She told me he had moved out a month ago and gave me a forwarding number. I called the number and on the tenth ring, somebody picked up.
“…Hello?” a groggy voice answered.
“Carey, is that you? This is Derek. Derek at work. How the hell are you? Is everything OK?”
“…Derek. Yes. I am fine. How are you?”
“Fine. Fine. What’s up? We haven’t seen you in a while and everyone is worried.”
“I…” his voice trailed off. “I had some bad curry.”
“What! Man, we haven’t seen you in six weeks! Because of bad curry?”
“Yes. It was… really bad.”
We never saw Carey again. He hopped on a plane and flew home. Daniel was upset as this impacted his dream of a world class research product. Willy sympathized with Carey but felt it best Carey return home to his family. It made me think, what kind of people, foreigners that is, live in Taiwan and like it? I thought Taiwanwas a great place but I spoke the language and was there by choice. If you didn’t know Mandarin Chinese getting around was difficult and getting things done nigh impossible.Taipei itself was a tremendously unattractive city; clogged with traffic, mostly scooters, people absolutely everywhere and really ugly 12 story buildings covered the industrial landscape like a rash. The island had been under martial law until recently and there was a cap on how tall buildings could be due to concerns over air raids from China, I was told.
Bathroom Tile Fetish
Taiwan also had an architectural fascination, the only words that can describe it, with bathroom tiles. The exterior of all buildings were covered in bathroom tiles. There were a couple of just completed office buildings clad in curtain wall or glass but they were a new breed and really stood out from their dowdy bathroom tiled brethren. Air pollution was also an issue. Two stroke engines, very popular for scooters and motorcycles which is what most people used to get around, were in the process of being banned. Over the next decade or so Taiwanwould lose most of its most polluting industry to China. Economically, this was a shock but the knock on benefit was clear blue skies. At that time, however, the average sky color was a nice latte brown.
As for the foreign community there at the time, it was mainly made up of people involved in international trade and manufacturing. Finance guys like me, you could count on two hands. When I started, now a year ago, one hand of fingers would have sufficed. Most expats were sent to Taiwan on a two or three year contract. Their children attended the Taipei American Schooland they lived in the hills just above the city in a neighborhood called ‘Tienmou.’ It was cooler and greener than Taipei and locals with money also lived there.
The word ‘Tienmou’ in Chinese meant nothing. It was a combination of the characters for ‘sky’ and ‘mother.’ A little investigation with my idle but curious mind revealed the story. During the Vietnam war Taiwan housed a large US military presence and the island was a favored place for R&R. One day, the story goes, a US GI wandered up into the hills above Taipei, liked the area and asked a local farmer, “Hey buddy, what’s this place called?” The farmer didn’t speak English naturally, and responded in Taiwanese, “Te abou,” which means, “I don’t understand.” “Te abou” became “Tienmou.” Whether true or not it is similar to the story of how the word “kangaroo” entered the English language.
Taiwan still had a six day work week and this sucked. For most people, including government workers, Saturday was a half day. I thought it felt like slavery. The only nod towards “modernity” was casual dress that day. As a small country of 20 mn people in the last gasping stages of industrialization, there wasn’t much to do for entertainment on the ground. There were precious few parks in the city and only two museums: the Modern Art Museum and the Palace Museum. The Modern Art Museum is self explanatory and you had to be into modern art to appreciate it, certainly not everyone’s cup of woolung tea. The Palace Museum, however, was world renowned as the best museum on the planet for viewing Chinese historical and cultural relics. I often took clients there.
Stealing ALL the Treasure
When Chiang Kai-shek fled China in 1949 he came to Taiwan with roughly 1 mn people, mainly soldiers. This changed the history of Taiwan overnight. With them they brought all of the gold from the dusty vaults of the Bank of China and all the art treasures they could carry. While viewed today by China as outright theft, this proved over time to be a very good thing. When Mao and his buddies took over the Motherland they proceeded to destroy most of China’s cultural heritage which culminated in the 10 year orgy of self destruction we know as the Cultural Revolution. Nobody knows how much art “CKS” and his acquisitive friends brought with them, but it is secreted away in bomb proof bunkers in the hills next to Tienmou. The museum itself squats snuggled into these green hills guarding its hoard like a proud hen sitting on dozens of eggs. The exhibits are changed monthly as loot is rotated out from underground into the bright light of day to be put on display. All this sounds fascinating and it is except mostly what they have is pots. Now I like Chinese pots as much as the next guy but when you have seen one pot, as they say, you have seen most of them. Every time I went to the Palace Museum and saw the long line of glass encased pots carefully placed in every room I suffered from a heavy case of MEGO. My eyes glazed over.
A few months later we were in the middle of our normal morning routine calling clients.
“Hey Rex, this is Jacob at Yung Kao. Yup. How ya doin? When are you coming over here so I can buy you some drinks?”
“Morning Mark, this is Derek at Yung Kao. I know you are looking at the petrochemicals sector, did you see our latest report on Nan Ya Plastics?”
“Nigel, a good morning to you, sir. Wilbur Williams here in lovely Taiwan. Yes, stocks are moving up and down like a whore’s drawers. What? Rectron? Never heard of it. Let me ask one of the chaps here, they’re very good. Oh, Derek. Just a second, if you please.” Wally whispered with his meaty but well manicured paw covering the phone. “Have you heard of some company called “Rectron?”
“Well, what do they do, old son?”
“They make anal thermometers.”
“They make what?”
He bursts out laughing and tells the client this one while Jacob smiles and shakes his head.
Good times on the floor.
I was getting ready for another marketing trip to Hong Kong. This time I would just be going with Big Johnson, our deputy head of research. Daniel was somewhere else and Gerry was “grounded” after our last fiasco. I walked over to Johnson’s desk.
“So, buddy. We fly to Hong Kong tonight, right?”
“I am not going.”
“What? Not again. Come on, Johnson you HAVE to go.”
“Are you going to make me go face the clients alone?”
Silence. Johnson looked down at his desk.
I boarded the 90 minute flight alone that evening. This was going to be tough with just me, a salesman, facing the clients. I had all the research material with me this time and committed it to memory. I wasn’t looking forward to this trip. Sybil had kept her promise and now I was staying at the YMCA. This was a far cry from the gentle luxuries of the Furama Hotel but I had stayed in worse. Screw her. I’ll make the best of it, I thought.
I spent two and a half days seeing clients in the city. I quickly learned I had a lot to learn. I made it to all my meetings on time, which was a miracle, but often I couldn’t answer some of the client questions. Usually, as a sales person, you can defer to the analyst for the tough stuff, I mean, that is his job, to know the nitty gritty. But I was flying solo – and I was staying at the YMCA. I remember one meeting clearly with an American fund manager who had the reputation of being tough. Dreading this meeting I soldiered into his office.
He entered and we shook hands briefly, meeting for the first time. He sat down at his desk.
“You have 15 seconds to impress me.”
What an asshole.
“Toilets,” I barked.
He started, “What? Toilets? What do you mean?”
“There’s this great toilet company in Taiwan you should see, Hocheng 9909.”
He smiled. I continued with my off the cuff pitch. Hocheng was a company I had recently visited and the details were, thankfully, still fresh in my mind.
“Yes, they are the best known toilet brand in the country. Have you heard of their best selling brand, “HCG? No? Well, it is an acronym for the company name but they promote it as “High Class Gentleman.”
I escaped that meeting only to have one right after that where the fund manager was from the UK, wore a Dunhill tie, French cuffs, wrote with a Montblanc pen and clearly appreciated the finer things in life.
“How do you do,” he said as we exchanged business cards for the first time.
“You are based in Taipei, I see,” he said staring at my name card. “And for how long are you visiting Hong Kong?”
“Just two to three days.”
“I see. In which hotel are you staying?”
I squirmed. I couldn’t lie and tell him the Conrad, or the Shangri-la so I came right out with it.
“Excuse me? The YMCA?”
“Yeah. All the cool people stay there.”