Thursday, 30 October 2014

Relativity 01 (Singapore)


Traditionally, the Chinese tend to behave according to their status, not their age.  For example, someone aged 18, especially if a woman, will behave almost child-like if still at school, more grown-up if already in paid employment, certainly even more grown-up if married, and finally, definitely very much more grown-up if she’s a mother.  It may not be conscious role-playing, but it is not “acting your age”, it is “acting according to your status”.

I did some supply teaching at age 18 while waiting for my ‘A’ level results to come through from Cambridge (Cambridge Overseas Examination Syndicate).  My students were 14, only four years younger than I, but I had to act authoritatively, whilst only a few months back, when I was still at school, I was “the naughtiest girl in the school”, playing all sorts of tricks on people.  

At the end of the first term, I left that temporary post to go and do a secretarial course.  My students bought me farewell presents, little knick-knacks that children of that age like.  In return, I took them out to an open air food stall, sitting down for shaved ice (heaped over sweet mashed red beans and dowsed with multi-coloured syrup and condensed milk), paying for all 30 of them.  Very grown-up.

(Singapore 1973)

Relativity 02 (Singapore)


My third sister had been the most timid and lacking in assertiveness of all the five children in the family.

One day she told me about the change of behaviour in her before and after marriage.  

She’d go to work by bus in the morning, which was always packed, as it was peak hour.  No MRT (Mass Rapid Transport, Singapore’s version of the Tube or Metro) in those days in Singapore.

The practice in those days was for the conductor to move up and down the bus, stop at each passenger and ask, “How much?”  Fares were determined by the distance of the journey.

One day, the conductor kept overlooking her on his way up and down the bus until much later.  When his attention was finally drawn to her, he recognised her as having been on the bus for a while, and shouted at her, accusing her of trying to fare-dodge.  My sister had had her money ready in her hand from the moment she got on the bus so it was a gross injustice, not to mention terribly humiliating being shouted at in front of so many people.  She told me, “I didn’t have the courage to speak up in front of everyone, not even in my own defence against a wrongful accusation, so I remained silent.”

Fast forward to after she was married (at age 21, which is a young age in Eastern eyes in terms of status).  Same journey to work.  Same bus, same conductor, same situation.  This time, she answered back, “I’ve been standing here with my money ready all this time.  It’s not my fault you never saw me!”

She said to me, “I don’t know how I found the courage to answer back, and in front of all those people, too.  It must be because now that I’m married, I feel more grown-up and assertive.”

(Singapore, 1970s)

How to break down Chinese officials’ resistance 01 (China)


On the 37-day film shoot in 1988, we had a Shanghai Film Studios producer come along with us all the way from Shanghai to the border with Pakistan.  His role was to ease the path for us with his local credentials (and grease some palms).

At the stop before Xi’an, we woke up to find that the previous night’s thunderstorm had washed away two-thirds of the bridge across the river, so after hanging around for a number of hours hoping they’d get something fixed for us to get through, we had to backtrack into town and catch a train to Xi’an.

By then, it was 4pm.  The last train for Xi’an was in half an hour.  We had 54 boxes of filming equipment, large and small, plus two suitcases each for the crew of five and the “star” of the travelogue.  The station manager, a little chappie barely taller than I, told us that we had to tag all of them in duplicate, by hand of course.  Details to be filled in were:  full name of company (in Chinese of course), full address of company (in Chinese of course).  He said the train might be full, as it was the last one for the day, and there was also no way we’d be ready to board in half an hour, so there was no point letting us through.

I then witnessed one of the finest and subtlest negotiation techniques I’d ever come across, Chinese style.

The Shanghai Film Studios producer said, “Let’s step aside and talk about it.”  But first, the producer, a non-smoker, fished out the packet of cigarettes that he always carried around in his breast pocket and offered the chappie a cigarette.  The latter went through the Chinese ritual of saying no.  The producer pressed him to accept.  The chappie said no a second time.  The producer pressed him again, and this time, the chappie accepted, because it is impolite to decline so many times.  Or rather, it’s impolite to keep on declining when the other party is so keen to offer you hospitality.  (Or maybe it’s easier to say yes, just to stop being hassled.)

As the chappie puffed away at the cigarette, the producer put forward our dilemma to him.  The chappie repeated what he’d said in the first place.  The producer promised we’d be able to get everything tagged in time.  The chappie hesitated, in the face of such persistent determination.

The producer offered the chappie a second cigarette as the latter pondered the situation.  The chappie said, “But I haven’t finished this one yet.”  The producer, who was easily a whole head taller, just stuck the second cigarette in the space between the man’s ear and head, where people usually stick a pencil.  

This did the trick, because it was treated as acceptance on the chappie’s part.  He relented and let us through.

A cheap price to pay.  Just two Chinese cigarettes.  

I then understood why a non-smoker like the producer always carried around in his breast pocket a packet of cigarettes.

(China, 1988) 

How to break down Chinese officials’ resistance 02 (China)


Film shoot of 1988:  We had arrived at Jiāyǔguān (嘉峪关*).  It is where the last western section of the Great Wall is to be found, so we wanted to shoot the travelogue “star” riding off into the sunset, bound for Xinjiang out of China proper.

There is a building with turrets, from which we thought it would be most atmospheric to shoot the departure scene.  As we approached the front entrance, a bristling gatekeeper barred our way.  (They seem to be always bristling, if not actually barking—maybe because this makes them look authoritative.  It’s almost as if being polite and mild-mannered would put them in a subservient position by inference.)  Out came the name card bearing Shanghai Film Studios, a form of handshake with the man—the producer’s palm ready lined with some notes, and we were waved in.

As we approached one of the turrets on the far side to do a recce (reconnaissance), another man came charging into the courtyard, also bristling with outrage at our intrusion.  The film producer placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and said, “Shall we step to one side and talk about it?”  As the man turned to walk towards one corner of the courtyard, the producer gestured to me with his eyes to get on with it, and be quick about it.

We did a few hurried shots from the turrets.  Going down to the courtyard some ten or 20 minutes later, we found the producer had become what I call “squatting pals” with the second bristler at one of the walls of the courtyard.  The latter was puffing away at a cigarette, most likely from the producer’s breast pocket (see blog entry How to break down Chinese officials’ resistance 01).  

During the time we were up in the turrets, the producer had managed to engage the man in a conversation about the latter’s background:  he was not local but from somewhere much further out east, and only saw his wife and child once or twice a year.  The producer even got the man to show him a photo of the wife and child—which is another fail-safe conversation winner. 

David Bonavia mentioned in his 1975 Penguin paperback The Chinese a similar incident when he was caught speeding in Beijing, late for an appointment.  As he took out his very-full wallet to show his driver’s licence to the officious traffic policeman, out fell a wad of Chinese dollars that was the equivalent of someone’s monthly, if not yearly, wages, which made the gathering onlookers laugh (at the stupid foreigner).  This probably helped him in a way because he was partially humiliated, therefore not so threatening.  However, a photo of his blond(e) and blue-eyed child also fell out of the wallet, which then started a conversation about the child and completely defused the situation.  I’ve since been recommending that my students carry a photo of a blond(e) and blue-eyed child on them, even if they’re not married or childless.  Who knows, it might save an awkward brush or two with Chinese law enforcers...

*关 guān is “mountain pass” in Chinese, where one crosses from one side to the other, so 关 in a place name would usually signify a border place—there are Tang Dynasty (618–c.960 A.D.) poems about people going off to border lands, probably to war or in exile.

(China, 1988) 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Chinese hospitality etiquette 01 (China)


Nick used to take British trade delegations to China on outward missions.  At the end of each visit, the Chinese side would throw a banquet, which is typically a ten-course meal for ten people.  “Course” here is not in the Western-meal sense of a whole dish each for every diner.  Rather, in the Chinese banquet tradition, all the diners partake of each dish when it is served up, but not necessarily one-tenth each.

Chinese-hospitality etiquette requires the host to keep pressing the guest to eat more, and the guest has to decline, at least three times, and, even after that, to eat small amounts only.  The host must not be seen to be stingy with the food, and the guest must not be seen to be greedy.  So the game is played out every single time, with each side knowing how many times to press/decline and when to give up—usually it’s the guest, simply by dint of his role.

One of the tools of persuasion employed by the host that is practically fail-safe is, “You must give me face.”  At this, the guest cannot say “no” anymore.  The ultimate trump card.

Alongside suckling pig, king prawns, fish, lobster and dried mushroom served up at Chinese banquets is another expensive ingredient that the Brits insist on calling “sea slug”.  I grew up with the term “sea cucumber”, because bêche-de-mer does look like cucumber.  For some reason, the people in Britain choose to call it “sea slugs”, which is revolting.  This is probably deliberate, to make it off-putting as it does have an acquired taste.  It’s rubbery in texture, and practically devoid of any discernible taste to the uninitiated.  It has very high nutritional value, though, and is gastronomical gold dust, which makes it a “must serve” at banquets and parties.

At one farewell banquet in China, someone from the Chinese side, treating Nick as “one of them” since he could speak Chinese, said candidly, in Chinese, “We know you Westerners don’t like sea slugs, but we like to serve it to you all the same.”  And he sat back and smugly watched this being digested.

Having to put up with eating the stuff is bad enough if it’s just a matter of how highly prized (and priced) it is, but for the host to deliberately inflict it on the guest whilst knowing how much the guest dislikes it is something Nick finds hard to stomach.

At the end of the banquet, Nick picked up a banana from the fruit bowl and offered it to the chap, who rubbed his tummy and said, “No, I’ve had a lot of food already, thanks.”  Nick applied Chinese-hospitality etiquette moves and pressed him: once, twice, then finally went for the kill, again playing by the rules the Chinese use: “You must give me face.”  The man accepted the banana.

Nick waited for a couple of minutes, then offered him a second banana.  They went through the same ritual, and Nick used the same trump card: “You must give me face.”

Three trump cards and three bananas later, the man’s face was the same colour as the bananas.

Nick sat back and thought, “Now you know how we feel when you keep forcing us to eat those damned sea slugs, you b…..d!”

(China, 1984)

Chinese hospitality etiquette 02 (London)


Throughout my life, I’ve suffered endless occasions of having things foisted on me by Chinese people and accepting because I don’t have the same level of tenacity as the offerer.  Giving in and accepting requires much less effort.

My latest run-in on this score was with a woman in her early 50s.  I mention her age because it is my impression, and first hand experience, that older Chinese people are very insistent when they’ve decided they want to give you something.  Whether you’d like it or not seems to be totally irrelevant to them.  Even when you actually tell them to their face that you don’t like such things, they’ll still press it on you.  Even when you make it clear that you’re not just being polite—cf. blog entry Chinese hospitality etiquette 01 on the ritual played out by host and guest in pressing and declining.

This happened a fortnight ago, which was fairly soon after the Mid-Autumn Moon Cake Festival.

The woman said she’d meant to bring in a particular type of moon cakes for me but had forgotten.  I told her I hated them.  Big mistake, for I was then dragged through the tedious ritual of being sold on the idea, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Eventually, in an attempt to stop her trying to ram the moon cakes down my throat, I said, “You must respect other people’s wishes.”  Her answer was, “And you must respect my wish to give them to you.”

Maybe next time with people like that, I’ll accept, then bin their presents in their presence, so that I fulfil their desire and get my point across as well.  I’m not being ungrateful or stubborn; it’s their insisting on ramming their taste down my throat that sticks in my craw.

(London 2014)

PS:  This is also inspired by Thomas, a Greek vegetarian, who said his aunt insisted on cooking him a meat dish when he visited her, on the basis that she couldn't possibly tell friends and neighbours she'd cooked him "nothing else but vegetables" — my paraphrase.  So, it’s not just the Chinese then.

Monday, 20 October 2014

A house of skip raiders 01: the bookshelves (London)


I moved into Belfiore Lodge on 28 December 1985.  

It was an attic flat with sloping roofs, which left awkwardly-shaped wall space for standard book shelves.  Shop-bought ready-made book cases were out of the question.  Putting up our own brackets meant taking precise measurements for every single one of the planks as each level would be a different length.  We were also not that confident about our drilling skills for the brackets.

To match the style of the house (see blog entry A family of skip raiders 02), we decided to make the book shelves out of bricks and planks.  A house a street away was being renovated, and the skip outside was full of old bricks ripped out.  Unlike new bricks, they had different hues—tinges of reddish brown, orangey brown, purply blue.  The type one sees in old houses in England.  Just right for Belfiore Lodge.

We went out late one drizzly Sunday night, as no-one would be out and about, and humped back bucketloads of these bricks, getting wet and slightly muddy, looking like a couple of hobos.  Then, we washed them, to get rid of the mud, and dried them in the oven of the dinky 1930s cooker, which we’d kept going in the winter for heating, as all the flats (bar one) in Belfiore Lodge had no central heating.

It was a time warp experience in every step of the way!  Most fitting for a time-frozen house like Belfiore Lodge.

(London, 1986)

A house of skip raiders 02: the windows (London)


Belfiore Lodge was a Victorian house that looked like it had come out of a Dracula film set:  the outer walls of the main house and the wing covered with Virginia creeper, ivy, honeysuckle and sweet pea; turrets on the roof of the main house, complete with a wind vane.  People who happened to come down our cul de sac would stop, stare and point at these features in amazement, admiring this most eccentric house.

There were eight self-contained one-bedroomed flats:  four in the main house, four in the wing that was added on later (in the 60s?).  The landlord and landlady, Fred and Nora, lived in one of the ground floor flats.  

In the space between the house and the one next door was a single-storey long room, with the front and back walls made of brick and a tiled roof, used as a kind of storage area / workshop.  (The other two walls were the side wall of Belfiore Lodge, and the garden wall.)  

Further down the garden was a spare shed, completely made out of doors and windows salvaged from skips.  The inside was stuffed full of other things, also picked up from skips.  I heard that the built-in wardrobe in Fred and Nora’s bedroom was made out of discarded doors, rescued from skips.

One blustery winter’s day, one of my two living room skylights, which had a dodgy rotting catch, was blown right off its hinges, flew over the sloping roof and landed on one of the skylights, which was in good condition, in the bedroom on the other side, smashing it to bits.  In an instant, there were two gaping holes in the roof, one at each end of my attic flat, providing a clear passage for the gale outside to whip through my flat, slamming doors hither and thither.

I ran downstairs to inform Fred, who came up to inspect the damage, then went downstairs to his spare shed to pick out a couple of spare windows stored in there.  

Where would one find someone to come at 5pm on a windy Sunday afternoon, never mind get two windows replaced within 20 minutes?

(London, 1986)

A house of skip raiders 03: the deckchair (London)


A deckchair sitting out on the pavement outside the garages at the curve of Leigh Road caught my eye: “Obviously to be thrown out.  Only the canvas needs replacing.”

“But you don’t have any need for a deckchair,” I reminded myself.  “When are you going to find the time to replace the canvas?  No, leave it, leave it.”

The following day, I came home and found the deckchair still sitting there.  The same internal struggle to resist taking it.

This went on for about a week.

One day, I came home and the chair was gone.  Relief!  No more having to hold myself back.  Someone’s found a home for it.

Half an hour later, I had to go upstairs to my old, attic flat, which I’d passed on to Helen and her husband when I was offered the flat downstairs, to speak to her about something.  As soon as she opened her front door, I espied the deckchair sitting in the living room!

(London 1989)

Being challenged to a car race (Singapore)


I’d passed my driving test at age 18, the minimum age for taking the test.  My mother had, only a year or so earlier, swapped her Morris Minor for a Datsun 1200.  The “1200” was 1200cc here, I think.

Late one night, I was sitting at a set of traffic lights near Thompson Road, practically devoid of traffic at that hour, minding my own business, waiting for the lights to change, when I heard, to my right, a car being revved up repeatedly: vroom, vroom, vroom.  I turned round and saw the source of the noise: a car in the next lane, with its owner—a young man—looking at me in a raised eyebrow, “well, how about it?” way, obviously challenging me to a car race.

As my Datsun was only a 1200 model, I knew it wouldn’t be up to it.

However, I knew the car well enough for a quick off-the-blocks head start for the first three gears, as I could change gears very quickly, with immediate response from the car.

My training and experience as an athlete from age eight throughout my years at school had taught me that one has to start running at the same time that the starter gun is fired, not after one hears it, as this will be a split second too late.  And every split second counts in a 100-metre sprint.  When the starter says “get set” (after “on your marks”), you start counting to three—that’s the time gap between “get set” and the firing of the gun.  At the count of three, you kick off.  The reason for false starts by athletes is they’ve gone too fast on counting to three, thus pre-empting the gun and getting off the blocks a little too soon.

Being the nerd that I am, I had also observed the timing of traffic lights when changing from one colour to another:  there was a 3-second gap between amber and green.

After my first glance at the young man, I’d turned my head back to focus on the road ahead, giving him the impression that I wasn’t going to bite, thus throwing him off the scent.

The lights went to amber.  I started counting to three, and shot off at the same time that the lights turned green, leaving the young man behind.  A few yards on, a quick change of gear to second gear.  Another stretch of road later, a quick change of gear to third.  

Once I’d changed to fourth gear, I eased the pressure on the accelerator pedal and let the car cruise, as my Datsun wouldn’t be able to sustain much speed at fourth gear.

To add insult to injury, I stuck my hand out of the window, and slowly waved the young man on.

(Singapore, 1973) 

Curious level of curiosity (Taipei, Taiwan)


A few days after the noodle shop eavesdropping incident (see blog entry Enthusiastic eavesdropping), I was walking past a shop window during my lunch hour when I spotted an interesting display in the window.  I stopped and gazed at it, standing about 3 feet (1 metre) away.  A few seconds later, a passer-by, wondering what it was that had attracted me so much, stopped and stood next to me, peering into the shop window to see what it was that had caught my eye.  When he couldn’t identify the item, he looked back and forth, back and forth, from my face to the shop window and back, to try and follow the line of vision and thereby pick out the fascinating display.  When even this failed, he just stepped forward and moved sideways to stand right in front of me to try and get the direct line of vision that would lead him to the item!

(Taipei, Taiwan, 1975)

Enthusiastic eavesdropping (Taipei, Taiwan)


A scene in the American TV series Frasier featured Seattle-based radio psychologist Frasier (played by Kelsey Grammer) and his psychologist brother Niles sitting in their usual café, talking about something.  A chap at the next table was so obviously following their conversation that Frasier said to him, “Why don’t you pull up a chair and join us?”

This was exactly what happened to me in 1975 when I was working in Taipei for Conoco Taiwan.  Minus the prompting bit.

My colleagues had taken me to a famous beef noodle place, Chia Chia Beef Noodles 佳佳牛肉麵.  We were speaking in English, which was (and still is) very common in Singapore between people of Chinese ethnicity (ditto between those of Malay/Indian ethnicity) but something totally unheard of, even inconceivable, in Taiwan, perhaps right to this day.

A young man at the next table was so curious about this, and probably keen to learn some English too, that his eavesdropping visibly progressed in stages.  

After the initial quick, startled jerk of the head around to see who were speaking English at the next table, he then turned his head to partially face us, so as to better catch what we were saying, looking at us out of the corner of one eye.  

Not getting very far with that, he then started leaning more and more towards us.  

In the end, he actually turned round completely and pulled his chair up to our table to sit at our table between me and Peggy, nonchalantly looking from one to the other as we chatted away!  

(Taipei, Taiwan, 1975)