Early Daze: Part VI

By Derek On April 20, 2012 Under Post

Jacob and I were having drinks with Willy after work at TGIFriday’s on a Friday. Yes, it was pathetic but that was the only new place in town and for some reason Willy wasn’t a fan of warm Taiwan Beer in a dirty glass. Carlsberg was on offer and like bees to honey we found ourselves hovering around that bar frequently.

“I don’t know how you chaps do it but Taiwan is definitely a difficult nut to crack. It’s hardly a maiden’s prayer.” said Willy.

I wasn’t sure what that meant.

“Yeah, I think it helps if you’re single,” I ventured.

“I’m not single. I love it,” opined young Jacob.

“Jacob, you’re marrying a local so you are all set up. Willy comes here with his wife, neither of them speak Mandarin and it isn’t easy settling in. How long has it been now, Willy three months?”

“Six.”

“Oh. How’s your wife handling it?”

“Blimey, better now that she has found us a church.”

“What? You go to church. Sing hymns and all that?”

He turned his well groomed bulk and fixed his watery eyes on me. “Yes. Why?”

“Oh, nothing.”

Memorable Names

“I have met some interesting characters here,” Willy continued. “Let me ask you, how do they pick their English names? In the office we have Johnson, Olivier, Gerry; those are normal names.”

“Some of them are pretty random though, aren’t they?” I agreed.

“Random, indeed. Crikey, I met one fellow the other day, the name on the card he presented me was ‘Teddy Bear’!”

“Really? His last name must be “Xiong,” which means “bear” in Chinese.”

“I once met a guy who’s name was ‘Buffoon,” commented Jacob.

“Get out of town.”

“No, I’m serious. ‘Buffoon Lee.”

“Jesus.” That reminded me of a story. “Well, I met a guy here at Friday’s not too long ago, right? He was visiting his grandparents in Taiwan and was born here but his parents immigrated to the US when he was around five years old – to Texas. Now, this guy looked like your stereotypical dork; skinny, buck-toothed with long greasy hair. AND he grew up in Texas.”

“So?”
“You know what HIS name was? ‘Orpheus.’ ‘Orpheus Wang.’ Can you believe it – growing up a dorky Chinese kid in deepest Texas with that name?”

Willy was laughing into his beer. Jacob thought a moment,

“I met a guy with a funny name on his card, ‘Peter.’”

“What’s funny about ‘Peter’?”

“His last name was ‘Pan!’”

We all laughed.

Then I remembered another one I had heard from a friend.

“I heard about this guy whose Chinese name was Zhu Shaoping.”

“That’s a pretty normal Chinese name,” said Jacob.

“Yeah, but he wanted to make it into an English one.”

“Blast. Tell me,” said Willy.

“Right. So he changes his last name, ‘Zhu,’ to “Jew,” J-E-W. And spells his given name, ‘Shaoping,’ “Shopping.” So you get ‘Shopping Jew.’”

“Oh Goodness, stop,” said Willy cracking up again.

Gentle Jewish Jacob rolled his eyes but I think he thought this funny.

Riding the Magic Bus

Next week Daniel suggested we invite a group of clients over to Taiwan and arrange a tour. He told us we would rent a bus and visit companies scattered around Taipei for a couple of days. I called it the “Taiwan Magic Bus Tour,” and we actually got a good number of fund managers from Hong Kong and Singapore to attend. The market was moving up and Taiwan was still relatively unknown to the international investing community. The tour was hard work as we departed from the Sherwood Hotel where the clients were staying early in the morning, spent all day on the bus with them visiting companies and translating when needed and then entertaining them at night. This usually meant bar crawling until late with the die-hards (and there are always a few) in the group. Daniel foreseeing this beforehand made a suggestion to Jacob and me.

“Ah, Derek, Jacob. We can put you up in the Moonbeam Hotel, which is behind the Sherwood for the three nights during the bus tour.”

“Really?”

’The Moonbeam Hotel?’”

“Yes, we leave early in the morning and you both will be out late with clients at night. It will make it easier.”

At lunch Jacob and I walked a few blocks from the office to take a look at this place. We had never heard of it. I knew Daniel wasn’t going to put us up at the five star Sherwood and even if he had suggested it the idea would have been immediately attacked by Sybil. “The Moonbeam” was indeed a much cheaper alternative. It was what the Taiwanese call a “Love Hotel,” where rooms are rented by the hour. The outside of the squat 5 story building had a glitzy neon look with a happy smiling half moon logo and the car park was at street level inside the “lobby” and hidden by black curtains that hung down from the ceiling to about three feet off the ground. One could drive through the curtains and park in anonymity for their “tryst.”

Jacob looked at the place turned to me and said, “Wow, Daniel! A love hotel. I ain’t staying at no love hotel with you, Derek.”

“Yep. I concur.”

The thought of both of us checking into a love hotel together was far from appealing.

We binned that idea and made the best of the few hours of sleep we got that week commuting from home like always.

In Singapore They Believe in Fairness

Our tour was during the Taiwan summer and it was hot. I was chatting with a Singaporean fund manager after one of the company visits in the afternoon as our group of 30 were preparing to re-board the “Magic Bus.” There was a little shop that sold dry goods and some ice cream so I bought two and offered him one.

“Here, try this. We have to eat it now as we are late for our next meeting.”

He looked at the ice cream I had proffered as we walked toward the bus and said, “I cannot.”

“Cannot what?”

“I cannot have your ice cream.”

“It’s not my ice cream. I bought one for you too. It’s good. Here.”

We had stopped outside the bus as the last of the group boarded. The ice cream was starting to melt and run down my hand.

“No, so sorry. It would not be fair.”

Beginning to feel a twinge of exasperation I asked, “Fair?”

“Yes. I cannot be the only one to have ice cream.”

“What?” I was totally baffled by now.

“You must buy ice cream for the entire bus if you want me to have some.”

“Well, there isn’t time for that.”

“In Singapore we believe in fairness,” he said firmly.

I was flummoxed but he wouldn’t touch the now half melted ice cream in my extended hand. I couldn’t eat mine either and the bus was leaving. My little spontaneous act of hospitality was being transformed by him into a morality play. I tossed both ice creams into the garbage.

“Right. Let’s get on the bus.”

The “Magic Bus” tour everyone agreed was a success and would become an annual event. The following week back at the office Daniel called me into his office.

“Ah, Derek. Sit down.”

“Morning. That was a great bus tour, by the way, Daniel. Client feedback has been very positive.”

“Do you ever go to the movies alone?”

“Excuse me?”

“Do you go to the movies alone? A lot of people won’t do that…..”

Here we go again. Twenty minutes later I made my escape only to be collared by Sybil as I closed the door to Daniel’s office behind me.

“Derek. Come here” she snapped.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Now what do you want with me, you evil bitch, I thought as I stood before her desk. I received a verbal lashing for being rude to her new assistant in an incident that I didn’t even remember. When she ended it with her patent “…even the foreigners.” I knew I could leave.

New York Inspiration

Peregrine had an office in New York and we got a visit from one of their salesman. A Korean/American, Chris Park showed up at the office for a day and Jacob and I took him out to lunch. Chris’ main market was Korea and he had never been to Taiwan before. Taiwan and Korea competed in a few areas so he wanted a quick visit before heading to Seoul to meet a client. He was well dressed and aggressive, the typical Wall Street broker, I thought. We were very interested in Chris. He was our age and was working on “Wall Street” (well, Midtown). This was the Big Time and part of the Real World so we peppered him with questions but mainly we wanted to know our next career step.

“Chris, how do we get to where you are?” I asked him point blank.

“Well, man. You gotta keep at it. Bust your balls, make your calls. Ya know?”

“What’s that mean?”

“Dude, I mean you have to go out there and get it.”

“Right. Go out there and get it.”

I turned to Jacob, “Can you imagine working in a real office, in a real job and not having to put up with all the bullshit, like with Sybil.”

“Wow.” Was all Jacob could say, thinking about it for a moment, “I really want to go to New York,” he concluded. “Wouldn’t it be great?”

“Nah,” I said. “I’d rather go and work in London. More history, culture, close to Europe. That’d be pretty exotic.”

“And miss out on the bagels?” he asked. “New York bagels, man, nothing better.”

Chris looked at both of us with a sad expression.

His visit, while short, left a big impression. We realized that if we “made our calls and bust our balls,” there was a way out. In Taiwan itself there were only a couple of “houses” where foreign sales guys like us could work. Everyone wanted to work for Barings at that time as it, along with SG Warburg, were the premier equity brokerages in Asia. Warburg was very genteel and low key. They weren’t in the press all the time like Barings so we didn’t know much about them.
The head guy at Barings, Mr. Kurz, had been in Taiwan at least a decade by then, was married to a Taiwanese woman, had kids there and knew everybody and seemingly everything. His comments moved markets. Unfortunately for us, though, he had stated in a newspaper interview once, “I would never hire anybody who had worked at a local house.” Well, shit. That was Jacob and me! We had no idea why he took this position – and I still don’t. Shortly after making that comment his shop, Barings blew up thanks to the original “rogue trader,” Nick Leeson.

After our visit from NY salesman Chris Park, Jacob set his heart on going to New York. He could see it: the glamour, the money, the bagels. For me, I was still ambivalent about “my career.” As a single guy with itchy feet I didn’t see sitting in an office until it all ended with a coronary induced face plant into my keyboard as an attractive future. Sure, the money was better than teaching English – just. In our second year, both of us had received an increase in salary, quite substantial, in percentage terms too. I had started out making US$1,000 a month. My rent ate half that so there wasn’t much to kick around. In our second year, though, Daniel raised our salaries to $1,500 a month. That was a big difference. Chris based in New York and working for Peregrine, I think, was making much more.

Time to for New Digs

However, with the new found coins in my pocket, I decided to move out and get an apartment of my own. The decision was finally made one hot summer day with no air conditioning. It was a Sunday and Carol had some of her hippy English teaching friends over. I was trying to “work,” and was methodically going through a stack of Institutional Investor magazines Daniel had lent me. “II” is the blue chip rag of the industry. I was forcing myself to read each article in a stack at least a foot high. I only understood maybe a quarter of what I was reading and I was probably even getting that wrong but I knew I had to master the material.

“Hey, whatcha reading man?” a tall disheveled hippy came over to the table in the living room where I was trying to concentrate. I held up the magazine so he could see, wiping the sweat away from my brow.

“What’s that? ‘Institutional Investor’? Wow man, sounds boring.”

“Yeah, well.”

“Hey everyone, take a look at what he’s reading: “Institootianal Investor.” You one of those money guys?”

“Does it look like it?” I asked.

“I dunno.”

I went back to my reading, ignoring this goofball, but my concentration was shot. I put the magazine down, wiped the sweat off my brow again and went for a walk. I needed my own place and started to hunt around. Most people who rented in Taiwan, ie, all the foreigners, shared places. Apartments were mostly family sized and almost always three bed, two bath. Trying to find a studio or one bed one, bath place took a lot of time but I finally got one for the same rent I was paying to live with Carol, the birds, and the hippies. We had an amicable parting and kept in touch as I moved across town. (Good thing too because she ended up marrying my best friend and moving to Alaska. I flew up there for the event years later and was best man at a Jewish wedding in Alaska with a Cajun band. Seventeen years on they are still together with two kids in the house they built in the woods, but that is another story.)

The little dive I moved into, because that is what it was, was right on Linsen Bei Lu, the red light and bar district of Taipei. I wasn’t so keen on the neighborhood but it was close to work, I could live by myself and, thank Christ, it had air conditioning. The inside of my studio was tiled with big pink bathroom tiles. A nice touch. They were coated in a brown film as the previous tenant must have been a dirty chain smoking whore. After two days of bucket and brush scrubbing I had the pleasure of restoring the tiles to their original bathroom pink luster and like a hermit crab on a crowded beach moved right in. On my budget I couldn’t be too picky.

I am not a night person and my job required me to be at work early so I was concerned the area might be noisy when I was trying to sleep. My worries were misplaced however; the window mounted air conditioner was so freakin’ loud that it drowned out all, well most, of the fights and music just outside my shiny pink walls. In Mexico they describe politicians as being like air conditioners; they make a lot of noise but they don’t do anything. But my little boxy friend, noisy as he was, did blast cool polluted air inside which is what I craved.

When I went downstairs and walked outside in the evenings I would always say hello to the betel nut lady. Betel nut, as I mentioned before, is a ubiquitous Taiwan habit. The little brown and wizened old lady with a big baseball cap who manned the bin-lang stand right at the front of my building spoke no Mandarin. Whenever I came home from work at night she always greeted me with a big gap-toothed grin, “Li dung lai-ah!” Or, “You’re back!” Why, yes I am. I always come back after work at this time. In the beginning she tried to give me some of her best betel nut but I always demurred. We kept up a friendly relationship the whole time I was there.

Asking for a Raise

After a year and a half of constant abuse my one pair of black leather work shoes were falling apart. I walked around town looking for a place to get them fixed. I found a skinny old guy in torn pants and stained T-shirt who had set up shop on the street. He perched himself next to a building on a wooden stool, surrounded by old shoes and the tools of his trade. That was all that was available for shoe repair in the country so I went for it. Twenty bucks and a day or two later he fixed the soles. It wasn’t a great job but I had to make do. This well intentioned clown used roofing nails to hammer the soles in so now I didn’t walk, I “click-clacked” down the road. I went to talk to Daniel about a raise.

“Ah, Derek.”

“Morning Daniel, before you start, I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Is it Johnny?”

“Uh, no.”

“Is it Gerry? It must be Gerry.”

“No. No, I want to talk to you about me.”

“What about you?”

I leaned back in my chair and lifted up my feet so he could see my soles. I told him the whole sob story I had rehearsed about only having one pair of shoes and that I didn’t have the money to replace them, etc, etc and etc. I thought it was a good story but the impact it had, if any, was negligible. Daniel was noncommittal and I left his office feeling discouraged.

And Getting New Shoes…

That weekend I got a call on my home phone. Thinking it was my parents calling from overseas I was surprised to hear Daniel’s deep voice booming over the line.

“Ah, Derek. Daniel here. What size shoes do you wear?”  he thundered. “I am in the department store right now.”

“Gee, Daniel,” I was thinking fast. This was not at all what I wanted nor expected. “I am US size ten,” I told him figuring I would call his bluff.

Monday morning at work he called me into his office.

“Ah, Derek.” He pulled out a large paper bag and from it withdrew a pair of black leather shoes!
“I bought you a pair of wingtips.”

“Uh, thanks. Daniel, but…”

“And,” he said withdrawing another pair of shoes from the bag with a big smile, “I bought you a pair of Diplomats. There. Now you have three pairs of shoes.”

He smiled again, triumphantly.

Thoroughly beaten I thanked him and gathered my new footwear and went back to my desk.
Everyone was curious to see me walking out of the boss’ office with a big bag. A few of the analysts came over to my desk as I told Willy and Jacob my sad story.

“He bought you a pair of shoes in Hong Kong?” Jacob asked incredulously.

“Not just one pair. Two,” I held them both up for my audience to see.

Willy burst out laughing, turning red as he did so.

Big Johnson, our deputy head of research, thought for a moment and then commented, “Derek. Daniel must really, really like you.”

“What are talking about? I asked for a raise and I got two pairs of shoes,” I lamented.

“No. For a Chinese boss to buy a worker of his a pair of shoes is … unusual.” He searched for the right word. “Not unusual, incredible! Yes, he really likes you.” The other Taiwanese there all nodded in agreement. I bit my tongue as Willy continued his guffaws.

I’m Outta Here

The market had entered one of its frequent periods of doldrums and clients were quiet. I was bored, restless and after another “meeting” with Sybil over nothing in particular but with the upshot being me getting penalized anyway, I made a decision. I told Jacob my plan.

“Fuck this. I’m outta here.”

“What? What are you talking about?” He looked up, surprised.

“I’m going to South America,” I said firmly. As I said, I liked to travel and I was tired of being desk bound in an office and needed to get out and DO something.

“What are you going to do down there? Sell burritos?”

“That’s Mexico, man. They don’t have burritos in Argentina and Chile. I want to go down there and check it out.”

“What are you going to do for pesos, amigo?” Jacob smiled at his clever remark.

“I’ve got some money saved up. Not much but enough to get me there,” I thought for a minute, “But it would be great if I could come back here. I mean nothing is going on now so it’s not like I’m going to miss anything.”

“You think Daniel’s going to let you waltz off to Argentina for a couple of weeks and..”

“Couple of months, I was thinking.”

“You’re nuts.”

“It can’t hurt to ask.”

He shook his head. I walked over to Daniel’s office and knocked on his door. When I came out I went back to my desk. Willy and Jacob both wanted to know what Daniel said. I just shook my head and we all went back to work. That night at Friday’s Jacob and Willy bought me a beer.

“Sorry you didn’t get your time off,” Jacob commiserated.

“Not so,” said I.

“Huh?”

“Come on old son, tell us what is going on,” said Willy.

“I’M GOING!” I almost shouted.

“But you’re not coming back right?”

“Look, Daniel said I could go and I could come back.”

“What?”

“Yep, I told him I wanted to go study the equity markets in Chile and Argentina and explore ‘cross border opportunities.’”

“You gotta be kidding. And he said yes?”

“YES. Drinks on me!”

Old Time Traditions

Taiwan it has to be said is the last bastion of traditional Chinese culture to be found anywhere. In China itself, Chinese tradition was at first frowned upon by the communists after their takeover of the country and then shot at and finally dismembered entirely. Taiwan escaped the cultural and historical self immolation and on a trip there today one can see the ancient customs and practices of a civilization gone by. One of these traditions is the making of offerings to the various gods which, in the Chinese psyche, bestow luck or take it away.

The Chinese concept of “gods” and “morality” has nothing to do with anything as stark and absolute as “right” or “wrong.” The only absolute is there are no absolutes. Luck however, is a force in the universe to be reckoned with. Luck is to be cultivated and worshipped. Businesses in particular in Taiwan observe rituals which require a table of “sacrifices” to be set up in front of the place of business on which is placed fruit and incense. “Ghost money” is burned as well in the hopes the smoke which is carried up to the gods will be returned with the real stuff in the not too distant future.

Once or twice a month in the lunar calendar these rituals, or “Ya” are observed in the hopes of increased prosperity. Many merchants often tape a coin for good luck to the front of their calculators too. Some businesses will perform a “Ya” monthly but ALL of them observe at least two: “Tou Ya” and “Wei Ya.” The first “Ya” at the very beginning of the Chinese New Year is “Tou Ya” – or “Head Ya,” while “Wei Ya” is “Tail Ya” and is celebrated at the end of the lunar New Year. As is often the case in ancient cultures, there is a proverb to explain the phenomenon: “No “Tou Ya” brings a year of bad luck. No “Wei Ya” brings a lifetime of bad luck.” Even educated Taiwanese are loath to break such time honored and hallowed rules. There are a lot of bad gods out there with time on their hands to do you harm. As one guy told me, “We’re not superstitious but why take a chance?”

The “Wei Ya” in particular has evolved into a larger office party usually celebrated just before the Chinese New Year. To add to the confusion, the Chinese calendar is not based on the movement of the sun, like the western one, but on the movement of the moon. (China always has a different take on things: their compass, for example, which they claim credit for inventing, points SOUTH, not north!). This means Chinese holidays and festivals jump around in our calendar every year. “Wei Ya” can be celebrated from December to February, depending on the year. Ours was in early January, which was perfect as it was high summer in S. America. I could do the “Wei Ya” and make my exit.

We held our wei ya at a hotel downtown with food and drinks for all the employees. It was a nice tradition. As the party ended and people were starting to think of leaving, Daniel stood up and looked at me across the long table and started to sing in his baritone voice:

Don’t cry for me Argentina, the truth is I never left you….”

He had a great voice and I had to laugh. What a send off.

Down to South America

I hoisted my backpack and hit the road. It was good to be moving again. It was a new feeling to be travelling AND having a job to come back to. I had found a cheap ticket on LapSa, the national airline of Paraguay via Miami. The whole trip took almost 48 hours door to door and when we finally landed in the capital, Asuncion, I was amused to see how the luggage was slowly removed from the airplane and taken to the baggage area – by donkey and wheeled cart. It took a long time but my one piece of luggage, that backpack which pretty much had everything I owned in it, finally emerged dusty but unscathed. The adventure began anew.

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