…or hell, maybe it is. They got a billion and a half people, so they probably have a city name with every permutation of the English alphabet. My favorite way to avoid being intimidated in my business dealings with the hyperaggressive Chinese that we were meeting with last week was to think, “Hey, buddy. Even if you’re one in a million over here, there’s 1500 people just like you.”
So I figured I’d better finish up my China travelogue posts before I hit the road again for this weekend’s biz-pig travel saga to the Happiest Place on Earth. Let’s begin with shopping in Shanghai.
I did everything I promised my mother I’d never do. No, not THAT! I promised my girlfriend I wouldn’t do that. But I did follow someone I’d just met an hour earlier down a dark alley, into a dark building, up three flights of a darkened stairwell to a dark room with a door that automatically locked behind me. I guess this shows what four years of higher education can teach a young country mouse from Tennessee.
The details: My trade delegation of six other capitalist running pig-dogs and myself had an hour to kill before dinner, so our translator/guide suggested we head over to the market to do a little commerce. When we arrived we were greeted by a huge banner which flew across the entrance.
We could hardly pass beneath this banner as the walkway was clogged with hundreds of people asking if we wanted to buy Rolex watches, RayBan sunglasses, Louis Vuitton bags or DVDs of movies which had just opened in theatres that week. One of our group discovered a way to at least chase off the DVD hucksters by answering their polished sales pitch of “DVD?! DVD?!” by looking them directly in the eye and asking “Beta? 8 track?” You could almost smell their little synapses frying as they attempted to sort out this anachronism.
I was amused by the fact that all the products had a “Made in the USA” stamp when almost nothing at WalMart does anymore. Most favored trading status, my ass.
Several members of our groups expressed an interest in buying watches. At this, our interpreter’s face lit up and he made a phone call. We thought we were getting the big hook up as he led us through the maze of booths and out the other side of the huge market complex. Then we made a turn and walked a few more blocks. And then we made another turn and walked a few more blocks. And then we made another turn and walked a few more blocks. Rinse, repeat. Had I even been able to read a map or a street sign, I would have had no earthly idea where our trading party of round-eyed businessmen was or was going.
Abruptly, we turned up a dark alley between two hovels and entered the aforementioned pitch black stairwell. I was more than concerned as we shuffled single-file into the kill zone up the three flights of stairs. I mentioned that I used to pay two dollars to go through things like this at the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon Funhouse at my elementary school. No one was amused.
Since it was so dark I didn’t even realize that we were entering a room at the end of a hallway until the door clicked behind me. The room was fetid and cramped with a desk, a ratty couch and a rattier bed as its only furnishings. A strange Chinese man beckoned us closer to him and said “Prease sit. Wait for watches.”
“Errr, no thanks. I’ve been sitting all day.”
We huddled in a pod like fifth graders at a cotillion dance and began to soak in our surroundings. Like I said, it didn’t take long, but I began to notice some disturbing details. I nudged the guy standing next to me and cut my eyes upward. “Is that a noose hanging from the ceiling?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“And is that a small stool slid back under the futon?”
I had just become convinced that we had entered the Shanghai equivalent of a Roach Motel that you checked in but didn’t check out of. Xing Yang’s Snuff Hut for the Suicidally Inclined?
Then another memory flickered in my brain. “Haven’t I seen this room in a $12.99 SpectraVision porno?” Naah, couldn’t be.
Then I began to notice the weapons positioned haphazardly (strategically?) around the room. Numchucks over the clothes rod. A huge hunting knife on the desk. A wooden club in the corner. A Ninja sword leaning against a trash can. Now I get it. This isn’t a room for depressed people to off themselves or a place to be filmed having sex with multiple people and/or species. This is a place to get seriously killed!
And I hadn’t even wanted to buy a freakin’ watch! I wear the same cheap watch every day that I received as a graduation from my mother and father just before they got divorced. I think of it as a twisted collector’s item since it’s the last thing that ever said “Love, Mom and Dad.” Just then, a knock at the door was answered with the appearance of a man wearing a glossy pin-striped suit carrying three full-size valises full of trays of watches. Rolex, Tag-Heuer, Timex, any brand you could think of in any style. All I could think of was that some of these mother-f%$kers better buy some damned watches or the consquences were gonna be dire.
In my mind’s eye I pictured a grisly scene. Did you ever have pet gerbils growing up? You remember when the momma gerbil had a litter of 10-12 little pinkie-size and pinkie-colored babies one evening and you tried to name them all before you went to sleep? And do you recall waking up the next morning to a scene of incredible rodent carnage with momma gerbil smiling with her bloody maw all alone in the cedar chips while dripping bits of fur and bone hung from the bars of the cage and a red spray fanned across your desk and on to your Evel Knievel notebook? Well that’s what I thought this room was going to look like if we didn’t buy some time pieces.
I tried to do my part. I even picked one watch that looked like the kind I had asked RAUBelle to buy me for my bithday. But, just my luck, it was already broken before I actually tried to pay for it. Besides, I have a really bad habit of giving her advice when she asks what I want for birthdays, Xmas etc. and then buying it for myself before she gets a chance. And that realy pisses her off. I thought about another Rolex that had a big ugly Coca Cola logo in the middle of it so that I could violate the maximum number or trademark regulations at one time, but somebody else in the group beat me to it.
So I stood at the back of the room a surreptitously snapped a few photos in case Shanghai CSI needed evidence to reconstruct the scene. Then…the bargaining began.
Our translator, who obviously had a commission deal going on, began to argue excitedly in Mandarin with suit dude and the “Prease sit” guy. It became apparent that somebody was going to have to lose in order for manhoods to be affirmed, but I had no interest in haggling A.) because I had no dog in this hunt seeing as I didn’t even claim ownership of any of the twenty watches involved in the negotiations and B.) because I wanted to survive the day and noticed “Prease sit” was idly stroking the Ninja sword. However the rest of the group was either less cautious, less attentive to the small details of death merchants or more interested in getting a really good deal on fake watches. The picture I took of this steaming pile of capitalism is priceless.
Finally, an accord was reached. Yuan changed hands and the group backed quickly out of the room and down the stairs to the sanctuary of a dark alley full of normal everyday beggars. At last count, two watches were still running by the time we got to the airport three days later.