Archive for March, 2010

Military Linguists, Part 1

by on Monday, March 29th, 2010

Bruce is a gentle man, soft-spoken and low-key. He’s often in the company of his very cute four-year-old son, Nathan. Bruce speaks with particular warmth of the love he has received from the Korean people.

Bruce’s Story

It’s been my experience that in Korea there’s a special camaraderie unmatched in other U.S. military bases in the world. You find this especially in units of two or three hundred, up to six hundred people. I’ve been out on the town with people in the unit here—maybe seventy to eighty people from the commander down to the lowest airman, all together, just having a grand old time. I think it’s a matter of being mutually supportive in a difficult situation. A lot of people miss their wives and kids. Talking about this with their comrades is good therapy for them. When people are going through tough times, they often change. For example, this morning I talked to someone on the phone who didn’t want to come to our unit because of his Stateside experience with someone in our office. This guy was very obnoxious in the States, but being away from his wife and children has been a big struggle for him, and he has opened up to us. We’ve found out that deep down he’s a really great guy.

I said, “You can’t imagine how well he fits in.”

I think when people decide to come here, do what they can to make the year tolerable. So they get rid of personality conflicts and excess emotional baggage. There’s a lot of honesty and a lot of camaraderie. The airmen at the base in Osan hang out with each other and also live together. They’re absolutely inseparable. When they’re stationed together in the States, they may become strangers, pass each other in the hall and not even say hi. When I first heard about that, I couldn’t understand the closeness not going with them. But sometimes it does. For example, there’s a softball team in the States named after a unit at Osan.

In Korea the chain of command is not as strict as it is in the States about things like wearing the uniform and haircuts. Here everyone is more concerned about the mission and can clearly see the enemy up in the North. That’s a really strong part of the environment. For instance, at the fighter wings down at Osan, mechanics are preparing aircraft for eminent combat. They have something you don’t find with the mechanics stationed in Utah, who’re not preparing for possible attacks by California.

The story of how I got here starts when I was about twelve and working illegally at a Chinese restaurant washing dishes. That’s when I became very interested in Asia. Later, when I joined the military and went to language school, they gave me choice of languages—Czech, Polish, a bunch of other European languages, and Korean. I decided on Korean because of my earlier interest and because there’s no surf in Europe—although it turns out that even though Korea is in the Pacific there isn’t much surf here, either.

It wasn’t until about six or eight weeks into the course that I looked Korea up on the map. I had no idea where it was. The Korean War and the Vietnam War were one in my head. You can blame that on my high school history, but when I was in stationed in the Midwest I found out a lot of Americans have the two countries confused, even veterans.

Within the course of my year of studies, I found out a lot about Korea and tried kimchi. I was very excited about coming here. Forty-five minutes after arriving in Songtan [the location of Osan Air Force Base], I had found my friends and was down in a bar being initiated into the group. Some of my linguist friends started speaking what seemed to me was fluent Korean to Koreans. That blew me away. I decided, “I am going to be just like them. I am going to do this. This is wonderful. This is the neatest thing I’ve ever seen—ever.” In language school I’d been a B+ student at best, but I went back over my course work and relearned all the Korean that I could, and I picked up more on the street.

At first I felt like the only one with a flashlight in a dark room. I thought that being a GI in a foreign country was a good excuse for a lot of stupid behavior—being drunk in public, being nasty to prostitutes. I made the mistake of thinking people would say, “Poor guy, he’s missing home,” and understand. Also, back in the 1980s, when Koreans had so little money in comparison with us, they were more tolerant of inexcusable behavior. I was rich by their standards. Despite my low rank and pay, I could rent two apartments, drink as much as I wanted to and still put two hundred dollars in the bank every month. But after about nine lonely months, I woke up to fact that I was behaving like an ugly American and that my behavior was really digging into me. So I became a nice guy and hung out with nice guys. I found out then that we could fit in, and the Korean people loved us if we tried a little bit.

I do get along with Korean people, and I’ve found that they’re not as group-think as a lot of Westerners assume. The Koreans are free to think for themselves, and they do. The attitude of service members toward Koreans seems to depend on how much they get off the base. In a unit at Yongsan [the main U.S. Army post in Seoul] where a lot of people live off-post on the economy, there is a lot more acceptance and a lot more awareness. But in a unit where everybody’s in the barracks, people are easily prejudiced by what they hear.

“Hey, Joe’s been here for nine months. He knows everything.”

If Joe’s got a bad attitude—which he probably does because he’s in the barracks and he’s only been here for nine months, the others are going to pick up Joe’s bad attitude. The barracks rats don’t have much personal exposure to the local population.

When I first got here, there was a two-day cultural awareness training session for everyone on their first duty assignment. It was good, because I’d already had a year of this training in language school, but I learned some new stuff. I’d also been downtown as much as I could for three weeks prior to the course, so I had something of a feel for it. The problem is that people still believe Joe in the barracks. They sit through those classes and they think, “This is a bunch of bullshit. This is what they want me to think, but I’m going to think what Joe tells me because he knows more.”

It seems most American GI males have a hard time getting along with Korean males in general, unless they’re brothers-in-law or the Korean is a KATUSA [a service member who’s a Korean Augmentee to the U.S. Army] or there is some other relationship. I think they have a fear of us. But for the most part, Korean women are very easy for American men to connect with. They don’t put up a defensive barrier like the men do. Toward Western women, Korean men seem to react with the attitude of, “I don’t want my woman to turn out like you.” But the stronger, larger American female is very much a part of their health books and fantasy books—in a bikini, not in nude shots or anything pornographic—so I guess a lot of Korean men fantasize about foreign women.

The main thing that’s going through my head is that most of the bad things are changing towards the good. Unfortunately, I think that our role here is coming to an end. It’s too bad that we had to wait so long to come around to the good side, like in learning the language and in recognizing the Korean people for who they are.

You don’t see the friendliness in Seoul as much as you do down in Songtan. My wife is an orphan, and she has a foster family. The two of us have been through some difficult times, but her family never gave up hope for us or stopped loving us. And today when I show up at the door, whether I show up empty-handed or with oxtails in my hands, they’re just absolutely thrilled to have me. We sit down and talk about the things that have happened in all of our lives since we talked last.

These people are Buddhists. And I think that would have really scared me away ten years ago because of my religious upbringing. I was taught that Christianity was the only way and the people who believe anything else all going to hell. But today I have different ideas, and I’m very comfortable with people of other religions.

I met my wife in a club. Back then everybody did. It was only women from the lower classes who would marry a foreigner. But we seem to be the only ones who have stuck with our story. In the meantime, the former go-go dancer has become a former piano teacher, and the one-time sweater shop girls seem to be everywhere today. I was very fortunate to find a woman who was bright enough to see beyond the social mores. She knew that she wouldn’t be worse than anybody else if she married a foreigner, anymore than she was worse than anybody else because she was an orphan or because she worked in a club.

Mi-kyoung had terrible things happen to her in the orphanage. In those days there was a program for “American uncles,” servicemen who would volunteer to work with the orphans on a regular basis. It doesn’t exist today, maybe because of the news broadcasts of things happening in the States, cases of Americans sexually abusing children. But in those days the orphans all had an American uncle, a mi-ajǒssi, who would come and visit. Her mi-ajǒssi took her out and bought her a pair of beautiful, brand-new shoes. In her whole life she’d never had new shoes before. And sometimes she didn’t have shoes any shoes at all. He bought her some candy too. It was the happiest moment of her life.

A lot of the children at the orphanage still had parents who for some reason were unable to keep them. They might be alcoholics or parents who were physically or sexually abusing their kids. And these parents would come and give their children money and candy. Mi-kyoung didn’t have parents who visited her, so it was difficult for her because she never got anything. Well, one of the parents looked down at Mi-kyoung’s new shoes and said, “I like those shoes. Give them to my daughter,” and gave a wad of money to one of the women who worked there. The next day they weren’t Mi-kyoung’s shoes. They were on somebody else’s feet. It wrecked her.

Almost all of the people in orphanages in Korea are completely ethnic Korean. The orphanages with Amerasians are extremely small. In the orphanage at Tǒngduchun there are a hundred at the most, and there are some in Munsan, and a few down in Songtan. The orphanage at Tǒngduchun may still have tight connections with the Second ID—the U.S. Army—up there, but the one I saw down in Songtan was just the private house of a lady who took care of five kids. She was supported by the Buddhists.

I don’t think the attitude about adoption has changed while I’ve been here. I was told once—I think this notion would be inconceivable to us in the States—that it’s only okay for a woman to adopt if she’s already had a child, because then she can transfer the love that she has found for her natural child onto the adopted child. Of course, the major issue is lineage. Why is this person in an orphanage anyway?  Because its parents weren’t good enough to raise it themselves, and the parents’ faults will be passed down to the child. There’s fear. A friend of mine was in charge of KATUSAs. They were on a hike, and they were told to go down the hill near an orphanage to get some water. Some of them were so afraid to walk past an orphanage that they wouldn’t obey a direct order. So I think some of the legal discrimination, like the fact that male orphans are not admitted into the military, might be for their own protection. As an underclass, they are expected to be pickpockets or hard-core criminals.

However, under pressure from outside Korea, the treatment of orphans has improved. There is a strong desire to become a sǒnjinkuk, an advanced country, and the criteria for that status include a country’s record on human rights. The un-Koreans, they call them—the orphans, the handicapped—are all finally coming out of the closet and setting up support groups. My father is handicapped, and some very rude things happened to him when he was here. But once we were in Minsukchǒn, and a guy with a cane who walked just like my dad came up to him and shook my dad’s cane. And he said, “Yeah, yeah, number one, number one” [we’re the best].

To this day Mi-kyoung keeps in touch with the people from her orphanage. When we went back to the States we were buying presents for the kids—for the children of the people she grew up with. And we’ve been back to the orphanage and brought presents and stuff. The people who grew up in the orphanages for Amerasians also have support groups. Some of the orphans have become very famous, like In Sun-i, the singer whose parents were Korean and African American. You see her on TV sometimes. She and another famous entertainer provide the financial support behind this movement, but there are others who have become popular singers. The Amerasians blend into the society pretty well, although they’re still considered foreigners. I don’t see it as a severe problem.

Really, there’s only one thing about being here that I don’t like. In Korea the Air Force has to play war games with the whole chemical ensemble—a mask, a steel helmet and a shirt and pair of pants made of fabric with charcoal woven into it to filter out any chemical weapons. The Air Force people who are here for one year don’t mind doing Army stuff. But those people who extend their tour of duty here, having to play these games once every six weeks, year after year, it gets very old. In order to do your job, you have to relearn how to move your body wearing that stuff. It cuts down on your eyesight, your hearing, your dexterity, and it’s extremely hot. You may have to carry it around for a week, and if you hear the sirens you have to put it on until there’s an all-clear. The guys on the flight line really have it rough. It’s ridiculous, but comparatively easy sitting in an air-conditioned office, peering through a gas mask and typing with thick rubber gloves on.

The Second Journey into Tibet

by on Monday, March 15th, 2010


Tibetans on the truck
Tibetans on the truck

Alexandra David Neel was a French-born scholar of Tibetan Buddhism who in 1923, at the age of 55, became the first white woman to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa. She made her long journey on foot, disguised as a beggar-pilgrim and accompanied by her adopted son, a Tibetan lama. Some sixty years later, a middle-aged compatriot and admirer of Neel made two journeys to Tibet, traveling the roads her role model had taken. This is her account of the second trip, which she told as she crocheted a shawl for me.


Nichole’s story

 I had been deposited in a town where I didn’t want to be by a truck driver who didn’t want to take me any further after someone had told him about the danger of having an accident if you have a foreign passenger. But I learned in China not to worry, just to trust. I found a hotel, and I went out every day looking for a lift. I heard of a truck leaving the following day for Markham, a town 100 km away on the Tibetan side.

The next day I set off. That truck was full of Tibetans. There was also a Muslim from Gansu Province. We took thirteen hours to cover the ground to Markham. We were stopping to buy food, to pick up wool, to visit friends, to deliver things, to take care of breakdowns.

When we got there, someone in the guesthouse said, “Are you looking for a lift to Lhasa?  There are four Americans here, and they’re going tomorrow.” 

Truck passengers on break

Truck passengers on break

I was not pleased at all. When I travel on my own I manage to establish a contact and a rapport with the Chinese or with the Tibetans. As soon as there’s another foreigner, I’m immediately lumped into the “foreigner” category, and it’s not possible to have the same contact with the local people that I had before.

The Chinese driver wanted 80 yuan [$27]. It would have been 50 yuan by bus if there had been a bus, but that’s Tibet. Tibet’s about twice as expensive as China. I think it’s because there are very few roads and everything has to be brought in my truck. The Tibetans once had their own traditional food, and they survived very well, but because the Chinese introduced rice instead of barley and that sort of thing, a lot is transported now, and that brings up the prices.

The foreigners all went together. The “Americans” turned out to be one Swiss, two English people, and one American. There were twenty-three Tibetans and all their gear—a lot of food, a lot of bags—in this uncovered truck bed. They took up the whole truck. They wrapped themselves up with so many blankets and so many furs, they took up a lot of room. We barely had a place to sit down. Every time the driver stopped—he was really out for the money—more people were waiting to get on. The Tibetans were not nice to us. They resented us, and they were openly aggressive. They have big daggers—they use them to cut their meat—stuck in their clothing. The daggers can dig into your skin when you’re sitting squeezed in next to someone. One of the Westerners complained, and they were very indignant.

The next morning we set out early, about five o’clock, because we were going through very, very high mountains. We were traveling at altitudes of 5,000 to 6,000 meters, so it was fairly cold except in the sun. The American boy said he wasn’t going on. He had had enough with just one day in the back of the truck. When I got on, there was nowhere for me to sit.

I said, “I’m not going. I’m staying here. I’m not going.”      

The Chinese driver told me I had a bad temper. He asked the Tibetans to make room for me. They did, very grudgingly, make a little bit of room for me, but not for long. The driver said, “You have to come early if you want a seat.” 

But the Tibetans were sleeping in the truck, so it didn’t matter how early I came. By the time I came from the guesthouse in the morning, they had organized themselves in a nice neat, little rows. They would grumble that I was sitting their legs, but I thought, “I’ve paid the same as they have.” 

The driver kept picking up more people on the way. The Swiss boy said, “I’m going,” and jumped off the truck. I gave him a packet of biscuits because he had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, nothing. We went on picking up people. The third day—I think—I was too sleepy—I blew my top, and the driver told me again that I was a bad-tempered traveler. He got the Tibetans to make some space for me. By then the two English had had enough of it. They didn’t get on the truck. They just stayed where they were. So I was the only Westerner left. I still five more days to go riding up and down those mountains.

As soon as I found myself alone on the truck with all those Tibetans, their change of attitude was amazing. When the last of the other foreigners was gone, they adopted me. I was one of them. They started feeding me. Every time we stopped they gave me some tsampa [a flour made of roasted barley] and tea. They always made sure I had some room, they kept me warm with their blankets, they watched that their daggers didn’t poke me.

The driver was very erratic. After being on the road for twenty-three hours, we would get to a place at two in the morning, and he would say,” We’ll get up at five.” 

So we would get up at five, and the truck would have mechanical trouble, and we wouldn’t be off until three in the afternoon. The Tibetans were used to it. They just started lighting the fire, boiling the kettle, drinking some tea, eating some tsampa. It was nice. It was like a excursion into the Australian bush. One day we got up at five, there was the usual breakdown, and at two in the afternoon the driver decided to have a siesta. Some days we had to get up early because the road was so narrow that traffic went in one direction in the morning and in the other direction in the afternoon.  

The only day we didn’t get up early, the driver was in no hurry at all. Then I discovered we were not far from a town where we had to help build the bridge before we could go across. It frequently happens that the passengers have to get out and push, but having to get out and work on the road doesn’t happen that often. We got out of the truck, and we carried those big heavy boulders. But really, it was a nice break. I wasn’t eager to get back on the truck. 

The driver had a monkey. He also had a Tibetan apprentice. The apprentice could speak English, Tibetan, Chinese putonghua and one of the Indian languages. Very clever boy. The driver treated him very badly, making him do all the work and calling him stupid all the time. He had to do the driving, do the maintenance and fetch the water for the radiator. When we were eating he always ate very quickly, looking fearfully from side to side all the time. I suddenly realized he was behaving like the driver’s monkey. The driver treated both of them with a mixture of brutality and kindness, feeding them well but then beating them. They reacted in exactly the same way.

Anyway, the last day before we set off the driver said to me, “Are you going to pay me?”

“Yes, how much?”

 “80 yuan.”

 “That’s too much.”

 “That’s what the Tibetans pay.”

  “Yes, but the Tibetans have a lot of luggage. I only have a small bag.” 

All the Tibetans were doing business buying goods in one place and selling them in another. The fare was calculated mostly by weight—person plus luggage. Everybody was entitled to about two hundred kilograms of luggage, and I didn’t have any to speak of.

I stayed in Lhasa a long time. The old town has those houses with all the bright colors, blue and green inside and out, very Tibetan. I stayed in the old town where the hotels are for the independent travelers. I booked into a hotel I knew had showers. The girl didn’t want to change the bed linen, which was obviously grubby. When you travel in China, and you pay the kind of prices I pay, you don’t look too closely at the linen. But there is a limit.

I said, “For 5 yuan [$1.67] I want clean linen.” 

She wouldn’t change it, so I booked out. I went to the next hotel, which did have clean linen. It didn’t have showers, but I could always go to have a shower at the other hotel.

I went to Samye, the first monastery ever built in Tibet, with some foreigners from the guesthouse. You have to take a bus up to a point and then you take a ferry across the river—5 mao [17 cents] for the Tibetans, 1 yuan [33 cents] for the foreigners. At Samye the people in the guesthouse didn’t want to put us up, so we ended up asking Tibetan households to give us shelter for the night, going from door to door, knocking and asking. Finally one family took us in. They were very, very nice people. They gave us tsampa and tea constantly. They gave us their bed, and they covered us with a quilt. Their intention was good, but the quilt was filthy. We slept in our clothes.

 The old lady had a wrinkled face, a dried prune face, but she had a beautiful smile. She spun wool with a little wooden hand spindle which she kept in her pocket ready for any idle moment. She was so beautiful, that old lady. She had a lot of wool in her house, and I thought, “I’ll buy some to make a shawl for my friend.”  It looked so lovely then, when it was part of the house. Now it looks as if it needs to be washed. It smells of yak butter.     

Traveling around, I noticed that frequently the Tibetans would get on the bus and refuse to pay the bus fare. I also found this in Xinjiang. The bus people would have to call public security [the police]. Sometimes they would get on the bus and only pay the fare for the minimum distance and then refuse to get off when the stop came up. I saw some drivers, who were usually Han Chinese, threatening to beat passengers who don’t want to pay. Many Tibetans want to barter goods for the fare. There was one Tibetan who was chucked out because he didn’t pay the 3 yuan fare. We were really in the middle of nowhere. It was ridiculous to be stuck in a place like that. I wasn’t allowed to pay his fare. I suspect it’s a matter of the driver’s loss of face.

They had a lot of border inspections. There were also an awful lot of body searches and inspection of luggage inside Tibet. They always get everybody out of the bus and inspect everything. You have to leave your luggage on the bus. I asked, “What are you looking for?”

“Chinese medicine.” 

 I thought they were more likely to be looking for arms. Since the Tibetans wear those long robes and furs and all that, I said, “Well, how do you know they aren’t wearing it in their clothing? Why would they put it in a bag?”

 When he came to my bag and started opening it, I got very cross. “Hey!  That’s my bag.”

 “We have to inspect.”

 “Yes, but you can’t inspect without me being there and watching you.”

 “Oh, you’re in China. In China you do what you’re told.”

 “I might be in China, but it’s my bag, and nobody’s going into my bag unless I’m there.”  

I didn’t push the point too far. In both Tibet and in Xinjiang you always feel that the situation is very explosive and any altercation at all can result in a fight. Once I saw a driver throw a passenger out of a bus because he hadn’t paid enough. The passenger picked up a stone, and the driver picked up a crowbar. It could have been a bloody situation if the other people hadn’t somehow dissuaded them both from fighting.

In the guesthouse in Lhasa I was in a big room with about ten beds. People talked all night long about their lives and the meaning of life. They’d take one concept and talk about it all night. Some of what they said was amazing. One night a Canadian boy said one night, “We all have similar stories.” We had all had a life-crisis—a divorce or death or the breakup of a relationship—that forced us to look at ourselves and say, “What am I doing?  What’s going on?” 

The Italian boy said, “We’re all running away from reality.” He’d only been in China for two weeks, but he wanted to get back to the reality he had been running away from. His remark hit some nerves. The next day I found one of the English girls in tears. So we talked for a long time about broken relationships and emotional detachment.

I thought about a night when I was on the back of the truck coming to Lhasa. I just kept on because I didn’t know what else to do. That was all the energy I had. I got off the truck when I was told to and got back on the truck when I was told to. In the mountains at night you see beautiful stars. I was looking at them, and a thought came to me from nowhere, “I don’t need anybody. I don’t want anybody.”  Then I thought, “That’s a frightening thought. That’s a desperate thought. That’s what a friend of mine told me after her husband left her.” 

I also thought about my last trip out of Tibet toward Chengdu, where the road was very dangerous. There was a very narrow track winding around and around the mountain. There were mountains bigger than I’d ever seen before, even in the Alps, with big rivers running down them. I kept thinking of the Alps, but they’re nothing like the Alps. They were so isolated from everything, those big, silent mountains, with the road, one narrow track winding, winding. One day the truck started rolling backwards, and the driver told me to get out. I had two bags, one with my documents and one with my food, and I didn’t know which one to take. As soon as I set foot on the ground at that altitude everything started freezing, and I thought, “It doesn’t matter which bag I take. I’m going to die anyway. But what a beautiful place to die. It’s so still and so beautiful.”

The truck rolled back like that three or four times on that trip. There was a bridge which was slowly collapsing over a very deep river. The driver told me to get out and cross it on foot. He wasn’t sure the truck would make it. That time I didn’t take any bags at all. I think you have to accept the outcome. You have no control over your situation. Somehow I didn’t find the risk-taking at all upsetting. I found it to be a good experience, maybe a bit of a mystic experience. I would have preferred to die there rather than in a hospital. It would have been a quick death, I’ll tell you.

That driver was OK. He was a very, very good driver. You have to be a good driver under those conditions. He also ordered me around all the time—walk, get out, stand up, eat. Do you know what he did throughout the trip?  He stopped me from sleeping. Every time I started to doze off he nudged me. I think it was because he didn’t want me to freeze to death in my sleep. Since then I’ve heard of two Australians who froze to death while traveling on that road. I’m sure it’s true.

I saw a few Tibetans walking on those roads, going to the monasteries. They pray all the way to Lhasa. I saw two male Tibetans without shoes and with very little clothing, walking in the snow. They looked so serene. They didn’t look as if they felt the cold or hunger or anything. It was marvelous. I thought, “I wish I could be like them, walking the same way.” They seemed so strong and so free of a need for all the material comforts we attach ourselves to.

The Last Contract

by on Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010


Old and new housing in Xiamen, Fujian Province, China

Old and new housing in Xiamen, Fujian Province, China

In the spring of 1986, I talked with Andrew in his bungalow at the Mandarin Hotel near the Huli District of Xiamen’s Special Economic Zone. It’s a place Andrew characterized as having been a five-start hotel before the Hong Kong management pulled out, but now in decided decline. The living room was bare except for the  furniture and packing crates. Andrew was a good-looking Briton in his late thirties, an executive who gave me an immediate impression of competence, assertiveness and general goodwill toward others. He spoke in a dry, clipped, very articulate manner.


Andrew’s story

I work for a multinational company with offices in just about every major city in the world. We do a lot of trading, and we also have a construction company, the one that I’m involved in.

We had a joint venture agreement with a company here. Everything was signed and agreed. We were to provide the design for two hotels—using an architect from Hong Kong, using the best possible management techniques to make the hotel the right shape inside. We produced three schemes for the Chinese to look at, had models made up, brought the models up in boxes, and the Chinese wouldn’t even look at them. Before they looked at anything, they wanted to have another agreement that they could have a local design institute involved with the Hong Kong architect doing the design.

 So we said, “Well, in principle we don’t object if the local design institute here helps us with the design for the structure, because they know the regulations here and any particular quirks of the administration bureaucracy. They could deal with that.”

 “No, we want the design institute involved with the interior design too.”

 “We can’t agree because we will be involving specialists from the States in interior design.”

“Oh. Well, we can’t agree to that.”

Although we still effectively have a joint-venture, the project was never started. The site is in a good spot near the lake on the new road that runs out to the airport. The ground is still there, but we’re not using it.

 We were involved with the other hotel project up until last September. We were not only going to build the hotel for them, we were going to invest the money and run the hotel with our own management. From the profits of the venture we’d repay the loan money that we’d brought in. But before we put any money in, we said, “Look, we must have a Bank of China guarantee that if something goes wrong we don’t lose our money.” We could invest everything and then China could say, “We’re closing the doors again.” It’s only a small risk, but when you’re talking of 25 million U.S. dollars, it’s a lot of money to end up not having.

So, we waited to hear from them that this bank guarantee would go through. We couldn’t send the money up from Hong Kong until we had the guarantee. They couldn’t get the guarantee, so they put a lot of pressure on us to send the money anyway. We said, “Sorry, we can’t.”

That left them with a problem. They had sufficient money from their part of the finance for the joint-venture to complete the structure and the brickwork. It’s standing over there now. It will be a monument to dust-collecting. But they carried on. They couldn’t find another company to go in with them, so in November they came back to us again and said, “Look, is there some other way we can come to an agreement to get this hotel built?”

“Well, yes, of course we shall look at it, but we’ll have to rethink the time schedule and so on.”

So we sent a team here of people here from Hong Kong and from England, we checked over the hotel they’d built. The standard was not particularly good. Since our management was pulled off in September, the rest of the work was fairly bad, and it would have cost a lot of money to put it right. So we did all of our sums and worked out how long it would take us to recover the cost of the loans. We found that over seven to nine years, the stipulated period for the loans, we couldn’t recover the investment. We told them, “Look, it’s not possible to do this.” There it stayed for a while.

Now to catch up on another bit—it all comes together in the end—with the same company we were negotiating another project to build a furniture factory in Xiamen. The potential was unbelievable. It would have been a terrific project for everybody concerned. For China, because it would have produced a lot of hard currency for them—and for us—and given them technology in the form of the factory that we were going to provide. It would have meant a good return for my company as an investment, and also we would have taken the product and sold it worldwide. Hardwood furniture. China has great reserves of good-quality timber.

So we started negotiating that one, and after a period of time—I’m talking about a long time—we had a joint-venture contract, we had all the feasibility studies prepared, the reports, we had everything set up ready to go. We sat in this room here, and we signed every page of the contract, initialed it as agreed. We couldn’t sign the final page until the whole thing had been put to the Xiamen government.  

In November 1985, and we got the approval of the Xiamen government. So I contacted the head office in Hong Kong, and I said, “Could we arrange for the managing director, the commercial director from England and the director of our associated company in Denmark to come here to sign?”

We spent quite a bit of money bringing these people here for a meeting, and then the Chinese party would not sign. They wanted some changes to the contract. Okay. We sat here for three days, and we changed the contract.

“We’d like some more changes.”

We made some more changes, and they came back again. “We want some more changes.”

Now, they were tying up the two projects together, the hotel and the furniture factory. They wanted the two ventures to be channeled together so that the profits from the furniture factory would offset the loss on the hotel.

We said, “No, we don’t particularly want to do that. We can talk about that further, but let us get the furniture factory going because even after the first year, we will be producing some money. We will be repaying the loans, and we will be taking profits.”

“No, we’d still like them to be run together, and we’d like you to look again at the hotel.”

This was now the end of February, beginning of March. We brought yet another team from Hong Kong and from England, and we looked at the hotel again. We did our revised cost, and we said, “There may be some way we can do it, but we must have all the figures you’ve prepared, and we must check with the architect in Hong Kong.”

They gave us their budget of nine million U.S. dollars to finish the hotel. We thought it was not really the right sort of figure, and we checked it. Our figure was about 22 million dollars to get something reasonable. We’re not talking about a hotel to the standard of the Mandarin. It would be just one step lower, aimed at the businessman. With your hotel room you could rent an office with computer links to bring in information from outside.

We said, “Even at two, three-star standard we need 22 million.”

“Ah. Well, that’s too much. That’s too expensive.”

“But that’s the only way we can do it.”


So they looked at the furniture factory again, and they said, “We want some more changes in the contract.”

“Look. We cannot go ahead with the hotel because we believe that it’s not a good commercial proposition. We feel that over our association of eighteen months you haven’t told us what’s going on. We are supposed to be your partners, and you’ve just gone your own way without informing us of anything you’ve done. Now you’ve got a problem, you’re telling us. We don’t want the hotel. Finished. As for the furniture factory, this is the last contract. Look at it, if you want the furniture factory, got ahead, sign it and return it to Hong Kong by April 15. If you don’t do that, we will consider that you don’t want the contract.” They sent the contract back to Hong Kong with more amendments.

So that was the end of the furniture factory project and the hotel, which means that we knew two weeks ago that we would be going back to Hong Kong. It’s been very difficult from this side. When you think of the waste of time and effort—for over one year talking about the contract, which had been agreed, a contract that would have made millions for China. I was very disappointed about the furniture factory not going ahead because it meant that we couldn’t stay here. Secondly, it would have been an excellent project. They have the advantage of having a labor cost that can beat anybody else in the world. They also have the resources here to do it. I feel sorry that China has missed out on a good opportunity. Obviously, we were doing it because we could make some money from it. But also, our partners here would have made an equal amount of money, all in hard currency, which China does need.

Then there are other things. For example, I’m a builder. I understand building. When you start putting a building together, the bits underneath must go in first. They don’t do it this way. They put the building in, and they don’t think that they’ve got to have sewage, water, gas, electricity, telephones all coming into the building somewhere. This is why I think their design institutions here are a bit behind. It would be good if you could send people out to get some training.

I noticed a piece of ground just down the road near those new factories. That piece of ground has been dug up and opened four times—a length all they way down the road, say, half a kilometer. They dug and put the sewer pipe in. Closed it up. They dug and put the water pipe in. Closed it up. They dug and put some cable ducts in for the electrical system and filled it up. They found out the sewage system didn’t work, so they dug and took all the pipes out because they were leaking.

As for the finish of the buildings inside, if they paint the wall, they paint the wall, but if the paint goes on the floor as well, it doesn’t matter. They’ve painted the wall, they’ve completed their task. If they’ve painted the windows, it doesn’t matter if the paint goes on the glass, They’ve painted all around it, so they’re done. The final, little things that make a building a building, they don’t do them.

Granite buildings at Xiamen University

Granite buildings at Xiamen University

Granite hallway

Granite hallway

The traditional buildings here are good. All the houses—excellent. The granite work is unbelievable, all cut by little men sitting there for hours banging bits of steel into the granite and splitting it up. The granite houses are wonderful places. But their “modern” work—they call concrete “modern”—is very poor.

When I was involved in the hotel there were certain things that were wrong on the construction. Wrong by drawing, wrong by common sense, and wrong by any building regulation you can think of. So I said to the people, “This is not right. We can’t do it this way. We must change it.”

“Oh no, in China this is acceptable.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter. I can’t accept it because I don’t think it’s good. It’s bad workmanship. We must change it.”

“Well, no, it’s okay. We do it this way. It’s fine.”

“Look, I’ve been brought here as a Foreign Expert to try and help you to try and impart some of the higher technology that we have.”

“Well, yes, that’s right. Yes, yes.”

“But when I tell you something is wrong you won’t listen to me.”

“Oh, but we do it this way here.”

“Then why am I here?”

“Because you’re the expert.”

They want you here because they think it’s a good idea, but when you’re here they won’t listen to you. We had lots of arguments, and in a typical businesslike fashion I was banging the table at them.

Once we were putting in the foundations, which are a pretty important part of a building. The outside foundation from one side of the building to the other was six inches out of position, and some of the beams were the wrong size.

“No,” I said, “this is not good. I’ve checked it. We must put it right. We must have the ground beams the right size—not this big, but the right size.”

“No, we always make them smaller.”


“Because when we put the concrete into the form work, the form work gets bigger.”

 “No, you fit to the right size.”


 “Look, I don’t want you to concrete this until you’ve changed it all, it’s all right, and I’ve checked it on Monday morning. You’ve got the weekend to change it.”

 I went there on Saturday morning, and there were people working. Okay. I went back there on Monday morning, everything has been concreted. All done.

“We did it yesterday.”

“But I told you not to do it until you checked with me.”

“Yes, but we did everything like you said.”

“I don’t believe that. Let’s go and check everything.”

So we went and checked. It was still six inches out of position and the beams were the wrong size wood.

“I’m very upset about this. I will call in the local building inspection agency.”

They came down to the site, they did their check, and the report said we had a 73% pass.

“What does this mean?”

“Look, 73% of the beams are okay.”

“Well, what about the other 27% of the ground beams?”

“They’re okay. They’re all right now,”

“But we haven’t changed them.”

“Oh no, they’re all right, because everything’s passed—73% passed, so everything’s okay.”

“A building is as strong as its weakest spot. We’ve got 27% of the foundations that aren’t good enough. What are we going to do?”

“It passed.”

Because there’s this piece of paper that says it’s 73%, which is more than 60%, nobody has any blame now. I couldn’t really work that one out. I mean, they’re not faulty foundations. I’m not saying that the building will fall down. Design is something that’s hit-and-miss anyway. You think of a number, double it, and make sure by doubling it again. That’s more or less design. It’s a bit more scientific than that, but that’s the principle. Nobody really knows how strong material is—steel, concrete—so it will be all right, I’m sure. If it were in England I would have had everything take out and had it put back again. But here! “Oh, you can’t do that! That’s too much money!”

On the other hand, they put in a lot of unnecessary money because a Chinese soothsayer designated Xiamen as an earthquake zone, even though the fault line is further north, north of Taiwan. He said there would be three earthquakes in China—one in Tanshan  one in Tianjin, and one in Xiamen. He got the first two right. So now everything has to be designed to the equivalent of the California Code, which sets standards for structures in earthquake conditions. They’ve got this expensive, massive design of heavy concrete to insure that the building stays there in the event of an earthquake. There’s never been an earthquake here, and I don’t suppose there ever will be.

As far as we’re concerned, the Chinese want you here, but they don’t want you. It’s a strange feeling and one that comes again and again. There’re only three types of people in the world for them, aren’t there? Chinese, Overseas Chinese, and foreigners. Nobody else exists. It’s a strange attitude, but I think it goes way back in their history when China is the center of the earth. I don’t think they’re doing themselves any favors. If they listened to us, there would be more encouragement for people to come here.