Buttering the tiger

Nick Holdstock

Nick Holdstock

The air was hot and smelt of petrol as I stood outside Guangzhou train station, watching people stream by. I was visiting China for the first time in eight years, and had arranged to meet one of my former students.

Guo Da Ming had been bookish and diligent at Shaoyang Teachers’ College, and we became good friends. We often ate lunch together, and I visited his family home in the countryside several times. We worked together on an English-language newspaper for the college that featured articles such as ‘Why Men Are Pigs’, ‘Our Mother, The Sun’ and, ‘How to Improve Your Mouth’. I remembered him having a strong sense of right and wrong, and being critical of many things in China, especially corruption. In his final college exam he wrote:

The English Department is the second largest department in our school. But I dislike it. Always, I think it is a world of animals.

The leaders, the cruel tigers, always roar at the students to follow their orders. The members of the students’ union are foxes, always buttering the tiger. The leaders must be sucked and their hides brushed by those tick-eating birds. Some students, who got a scholarship, are just like the hen, cackling now and then. Those who want to study their speciality are like bees, never doing anything to set the world on fire.

Guangzhou, by at least one measure, is the world’s second largest urban agglomeration, after Tokyo. Most of its population (some 25 million and growing swiftly) are migrants from other cities and the countryside. In the late 1990s, many of my students in Shaoyang — a city in Hunan famous for its green-skinned clementines and high murder rate — had intended to move to Guangzhou. Though they were mostly the children of farmers, becoming a high school teacher was not enough of a social climb for them. Most were only at the teachers’ college because their university entrance exam scores were too low to go anywhere better. They wanted to be translators, interpreters, international businessmen. In previous years, these ambitions would have been fantasies: most college graduates were assigned their jobs by the state. But by the late 1990s the government had loosened its control of labour and trade and brought in economic reforms (known as gaige kaifang). While these led to many closures and redundancies, they also created new opportunities. People from the countryside could dream of getting rich.

As I waited outside the station, I scanned the crowd for a tall, unassuming boy with acne scars and thick glasses. When a round-headed man with bristly hair said my name in a nasal voice, my disbelief must have been apparent.

‘It’s Da Ming,’ he said, and I said, ‘I know,’ but still wasn’t entirely convinced.

‘You look the same,’ he said. ‘But I have got very fat. Now I look older than you!’

This was, unfortunately, not true.

We walked past a rank of red taxis whose drivers beckoned to us. When I asked Da Ming if we were taking the subway, he said, ‘No need. I have a car.’


‘Yes. I must have, I need it for business.’

Though I had known doctors, teachers and heads of academic departments when I lived in Shaoyang, none of them had owned a car. Even the president of the teachers’ college had to share one with the party secretary. The most people had was a scooter, or at a push, a motorcycle, and so while I knew that times had changed, and the streets were full of private cars, it still required a mental adjustment to imagine Da Ming as the sort of businessman who would own one. He had been a modest, reflective young man who didn’t seem to have the calculating streak necessary for trade. I’d expected him to become a teacher in one of the better schools in Shaoyang, and had been surprised when he sent me an email saying he was now in Guangzhou doing business. It wasn’t until I saw his black SUV that I realized he must be doing very well.

‘So what is your business?’

‘I have a factory that makes mobile phone accessories. Some things for BlackBerry too.’

‘Are you the manager?’

‘No, it is all mine. I have about sixty workers. Business was bad for the first few years. I lost 1.7 million yuan! About $250,000. But now things are very good, because relations with America are better. We are selling in Target stores. And we have orders from many places. The biggest was $200,000 from South America.’

We crawled through traffic then drove up an expressway ramp. Soon we were driving through fields where the rice was a new green, deeper than emerald, brighter than lime – it was the colour of plant blood.

I was glad Da Ming was doing well, but I had read about appalling conditions in sweatshops in Guangzhou and was picturing a dungeon where people worked sixteen-hour shifts on vicious machines that maimed their limbs.

Da Ming said, ‘Do you like fish? Because there is a lot of good fish in Guangzhou.’

I said that I liked fish.

‘You know Nick, the food here is different to Shaoyang. They do not use the chilli pepper so much. And I have get used to this. I live here five years now. When I go back to visit my relatives the food is too hot for me. Maybe I am not a Shaoyang person anymore.’

‘Does that bother you?’

‘Now I have my family here, I think this is my home.’

‘Your parents are here?’

‘I bought them a flat. They say it is too hot here, especially in summer, but they do not have a choice.’

Although there is a long tradition of obedience to parents in China, the wealth that some rural migrants have found in the cities has disrupted the familial balance of power. Given that Da Ming was taking care of his parents financially, they had perhaps lost some of their authority.

His parents’ flat overlooked a vegetable market that was closing when we arrived. Da Ming unlocked a gate and we climbed two flights of stairs. When he unlocked a second gate, a little boy in an orange T-shirt ran to him. Da Ming picked him up.

‘This is my son, he is a naughty boy. But he is very clever. He understands a lot of things. He can already use the DVD, which my mother cannot.’

We went inside and Da Ming introduced me to his wife. She was a short, pretty woman wearing a yellow sweatshirt and black slacks, an outfit that would not have been out of place in Shaoyang ten years ago. I asked Da Ming how they had met.

‘She was working in the same company as me. Now she runs 70 per cent of the business, the ordinary things. She is also my accountant. She is much cleverer than me!’

He smiled at her, and she smiled back. It was obvious, from this long look, how much they loved each other.

‘My father does the cooking,’ he said, and as if on cue, his father came out of the kitchen with a bowl of shrimp. We sat down around a small table with five dishes — shrimp, egg, a whole fish, some variant of spinach, hunks of beef on the bone — and although it was ten years later, and they were in a new place, with far more money at their disposal, their wealth was not conspicuous. Neither the food nor the apartment was much different from how it had been in Shaoyang.

After dinner Da Ming played with his son. His mother peeled me an apple. There were a few attempts to get the boy to speak English (‘Say “uncle”!’ ‘Uncle!’), but these seemed dutiful. In the end, the boy’s most communicative act was hitting me with a toy helicopter.

Da Ming’s phone rang, and after a short exchange — during which he made sounds of disapproval — he turned to me and said, ‘I am sorry, I must go to the factory, there is a problem. If you are tired I can take you to your hotel.’

I told him I was fine, and was very much looking forward to seeing the factory. It was only nine o’clock, but the streets through which we drove were deserted. Da Ming asked if I had ever been to France. When I told him I had, he asked if I liked it; before I could answer, he said, ‘I went there and did not like it. People were very rude and I felt uncomfortable. It was the same in Germany. I think people were against me because I am Chinese.’

In Shaoyang we had often spoken about foreign countries, how many I had been to, what they were like. There was always an air of unreality to these conversations, because he had never been outside of Hunan, and if he ended up as a high school teacher, that wasn’t likely to change.

‘Before I left China, I didn’t like it and hated the government. Now I like the government because they help farmers a lot. They got rid of many taxes, and it only costs a little for medical insurance.’

We stopped outside a large grey building with no windows at ground level. We got out, and Da Ming unlocked a metal door. Inside was a narrow hallway with a concrete floor on which sat a beige dog with very black eyes. The dog began to growl. Then it opened its mouth, made a muffled bark, and trotted over to Da Ming. He picked it up and said, ‘This is the factory dog. He came here a year ago, and now he lives here.’ The dog raised a paw then yawned.

Da Ming pointed to a door on the right. ‘This is dormitory where some workers sleep.’ He pushed the door a few inches and I saw two rows of bunk beds, on which three men were sleeping. There was just time to notice a sink in the corner, and a door that presumably led to a toilet; then the door was closed.

‘Let’s go to my office,’ said Da Ming, and we climbed a flight of stairs. I asked him where the rest of the workers were.

‘Most like to stay outside. If they are in dormitory it is free, but if they go out, I give them 300 yuan.’

‘What about if they have family here? Do you still give them money?’

‘No,’ he said, and switched on a light. I saw rows of sewing machines, bolts of cloth, piles of vinyl and leather. ‘But most are from far away, especially Guangxi or Sichuan province.’

‘How much do you pay them?’

‘It depends. Between 1,000 and 1,300 yuan a month.’

‘Is that low?’

‘It is average. But I try to make the conditions good. In the past, maybe some employers didn’t treat their workers well. But now, if we want to keep our workers, we must. You can cheat someone once, but then everyone will know and they will not work for you.’

I was almost persuaded, but then he added, ‘If companies are treating workers badly, they must be foreign ones.’ This was probably an attempt to save face, but it made me wonder about the working conditions in his factory. The dormitories had looked shabby. Whatever Da Ming said about employers getting a bad reputation, the continual influx of people from the countryside made a labour shortage unlikely: it is estimated that there are over two hundred million migrant workers in China, moving from city to city.

I wondered, too, where his start-up money had come from. His parents were teachers, and to my knowledge he had no rich relatives. I couldn’t imagine a bank giving such a large loan to a graduate of Shaoyang Teachers’ College. When you live in a place, there are questions you don’t ask. But if you return to a place you once lived in, you can be as blunt as necessary. As Da Ming unlocked his office, I said, ‘So how did you get the money for this place?’

He turned on the lights and I saw a long room whose centre had been partitioned into four cubes, each with a computer and chair. Da Ming asked me to sit, then said, ‘I got it from a customer in the company where I worked before.’

‘Was that your first job?’

‘No, after I left Shaoyang I taught for one year. Then I come here and got a job in that company as a translator. They do a lot of foreign trade. Then I began to know about business, and so I change my job in that company to sales.’

‘How did you manage to do that? Did you have guanxi with someone?’

Guanxi can simply refer to a person’s contacts, but can also indicate the way they were obtained. When used in this second sense, it often connotes corruption. The Chinese government regularly announces anti-corruption initiatives, which usually involve the indictment of several high-profile figures (though no top-ranking member of the Party has ever been convicted). In January 2011, Beijing’s prestigious People’s University began offering a master’s degree in how to investigate corruption.

‘No, I am just a good worker, I work very, very hard. You know, Nick, in Guangzhou it is not important if you have guanxi. The first thing is your ability. I speak to this customer in Egypt about many things, he was like a teacher. He got me my first order.’

Da Ming said he had to make a phone call, and went out the room. As I waited for him to return I wondered how he could have lost so much money in his first year and survived. It seemed, if not suspicious, at least in need of explanation. Though he had said guanxi had not been a factor, I wondered what this customer of his in Egypt was getting in return. In Shaoyang many of my colleagues had asked me to do things on behalf of their friends, most typically visiting a local school. After the visit, the friend of my colleague would take me for a meal, get me drunk, then ask me to give private lessons to the sons and daughters of the leaders. In most cases, my refusal was taken gracefully, but there were several instances where it led to a spate of gift-giving. Once, a man placed a red envelope full of money into my pocket. When he refused to take it back, I put the envelope on the ground, which made him roar with rage. I was told that this was such an insult that the man would have beaten me ‘if I had been a Chinese’.

When Da Ming came back he looked tired. We went downstairs, said goodnight to the dog, then got in the car. As we drove off I saw a man squatting next to a small fire on the pavement, feeding the flames with pieces of paper.

‘This is for Qing Ming,’ said Da Ming. ‘It is grave-sweeping day. This is when the men are supposed to take care of our ancestors’ graves. We must clean them and burn ghost money. But many people are too far from their hometowns, especially if they have come from countryside to the city. So they can only do this, burn some ghost money for their relations. Many of my workers do this because they are from other provinces.’

Da Ming had relocated his family from where his ancestors had lived for generations. The only thing he couldn’t move were the graves of his ancestors. When I asked if he was going back to Shaoyang for Qing Ming he said, ‘No, I don’t need to. My uncle lives in Longhui, near Shaoyang. He will go for me.’

The hotel where he’d booked a room for me looked very new, and I was the only guest. While I was searching for my passport, Da Ming paid the desk clerk. When I protested, he said, ‘Don’t worry, you are my guest. It is only a little money.’ He yawned. ‘I am very tired.’

‘How much do you normally sleep?’

‘Maybe five hours. Sometimes less. Sometimes I must be awake to talk to a customer in America.’

We said goodnight, then he added, ‘Tomorrow I will come here at ten. We will go somewhere special.’

I slept and dreamt of an orchard in which I walked without clothes. I was woken at 7.30 by drilling, followed by banging, shouting, more drilling, then a cry of rage. After this there was silence, till Da Ming banged on my door. We went downstairs and got in the car where his wife and son were waiting.

As he drove, Da Ming and I spoke about his old classmates, how some of them had also left Shaoyang and got jobs in large cities. Most of them, despite their ambitions, had ended up being teachers. Da Ming also had news of one of my former teaching colleagues, a Mr Ma, who was famous for having once been a spy. When you asked about his plans for the weekend, he would say things like, ‘I am going to be alone with my sorrow.’ The chief causes of his unhappiness were his wife and the fact that the leaders of the college refused to allow him to leave the college. Without their permission, he could not accept a government job elsewhere.

‘He had a very difficult time,’ said Da Ming. ‘He tried to leave for six years! But in the end he has the success. He is divorced and has left the prison!’

‘Why did they let him leave?’

‘He had to pay them money. About 50,000 yuan.’

That much?’

Da Ming lifted a hand from the steering wheel, then let it drop. ‘It is not so much.’

‘It’s fifty times what your workers earn per month.’

He shrugged. ‘It is not a lot for many people here.’

I didn’t know what to say. I hoped he was just trying to impress me.

We drove in silence till a twenty-foot white tiger appeared by the side of the road. ‘Here we are!’ said Da Ming.

This was Chime-Long Paradise, the largest amusement park in China. The park contains a variety of rides and shows, seven different roller coasters, a safari park, a circus, and ‘a world advanced 4-D cinema’. Despite the high cost of admission — entry to the park and circus cost 320 yuan each, a quarter of one of Da Ming’s workers’ monthly salary — the park was crowded with families and young couples. The air was loud with muzak and screams. There were giant pendulums that looked incredibly unsafe, log rides that drenched anyone who came near. I had never seen so many people in China pursuing leisure. In Shaoyang, most people had had neither the money or time to enjoy such things. Other than the cinema, the only thing to do was walk by the river, sit in the park (where you were forbidden to walk on the grass) or sing karaoke. The closest thing to a theme park was a four-hour bus ride away, in Shaoshan, the birthplace of Chairman Mao. There you could visit a museum, eat Mao’s favourite dishes in restaurants, and see the house he grew up in, complete with the pig pen, ‘the place for farm implements’, ‘the room where He would gather the family for meetings’, and ‘the room to put the treadle-operated tilt hammer for hulling rice’.

Da Ming and his family seemed happy. It was the first day they had spent together in months. I went on the rides and watched the performances and did not ask about his factory. We saw a lumberjack show where burly American men competitively hacked at logs while miniskirted blonde girls wiggled their hips. Then, after taking photos in front of a giant purple tower on which tigers squatted, we watched more Americans compete with each other, this time on motorbikes and jet skis. There were simulated fistfights. There were explosions.

The climax of the outing was our visit to the circus. This began with a gala procession of figures in cartoon outfits, followed by the grand entrance of a blonde young woman in a diaphanous gown. Next came bears on bicycles, then elephants that played football. The audience laughed while I thought of how often these creatures must have been beaten.

When a tank came on stage, its gun pointing at the audience, I heard people gasp. It moved forward, its turret rose; there was a loud bang followed by smoke. As it cleared, a white flag popped out of the turret. Then the hatch opened and a chimpanzee in a general’s uniform raised its arms in surrender. The man next to me stood, followed by his wife, and then the people around us, till most of the audience was on its feet, cheering, lost in applause. If the show had ended then, they would probably have been satisfied. As it was, when a podium rose from the floor with a roaring white tiger and an almost naked princess, the crowd’s reaction was strangely muted, even when doves were released.

We filed out into the warm evening. ‘Was it wonderful?’ said Da Ming.

‘Yes, very,’ I said.

We went to a restaurant with large tanks of seafood, not just fish, but lobsters, crabs, turtles, eels, some vicious-looking black prawns. Da Ming offered me the menu. ‘Please, help yourself.’

The first ten pages were filled with photos of crustaceans, whose prices ranged from 200 to 600 yuan. I had a suspicion that the more expensive the dish I ordered, the happier Da Ming would be.

‘What about the tofu?’ I said. It cost 15 yuan.

Da Ming looked doubtful. ‘What about lobster? That is very tasty. You know, I come here often with clients. Sometimes we will spend 1,000 yuan. Nowadays in China this is very common.’

I stood up. ‘Do you mind if I look at the tanks? That’ll help me choose.’

Da Ming gave me a puzzled look. His wife stared in confusion.

As I performed a slow circuit of the tanks, I caught glimpses of them through the bubbles. They seemed to be arguing, and I guessed it had something to do with me. By then, I didn’t care. I considered antennae, twine-bound claws, the terrapins’ weak necks. Then I went back to the table and said, ‘The shrimp.’ As they were being scooped from the tank, Da Ming’s phone rang. He got up and went outside. His wife and I smiled at each other. I poured her some tea, she said thank you, and then we sat in a silence that soon become awkward. She broke it by asking where I was going next, and I said, ‘Shaoyang’. She sipped some tea; it seemed the end of the conversation. But when she put the cup down she said, ‘He is lucky you were his friend. It make his English very good. If you did not talk a lot, he will not be translator, then he will not have this company. He is very grateful.’

It took me a moment to absorb this. Despite having seen how simply they usually lived, it had not occurred to me that all this expense was for my benefit.

After lunch we drove to the factory; Da Ming had a meeting scheduled, but first he gave me a tour. We went into a long, low-ceilinged room without windows, most of which was taken up by a workbench where a young woman was cutting a sheet of plastic with a power saw. As she worked, sparks flew into her apron; she was wearing no eye protection. At the far end of the room, a man was placing fabric under a heavy press. He pressed a button and the press stamped down so loudly I imagined its effect on a hand. When the press rose, he removed the fabric, checked it, then placed another piece of fabric beneath. He did ten of these during the minute I watched him, which meant he probably did around five hundred an hour, time enough for the mind to wander, a finger to be in the wrong place.

‘How long are their shifts?’

‘Six hours.’

Upstairs girls were sewing, cutting and gluing, working quickly in silence. The only sounds were the whirr of sewing machines, the occasional fall of a hammer. At the far end of the room a young man sat by himself, working a foot-powered treadle with such an air of disgrace that the task seemed a punishment.

At another table workers were putting finished mobile phone cases into plastic sleeves with a blue piece of card. ‘These are some part-time workers,’ said Da Ming, laughing. I was surprised to recognize his father and mother, both of whom said hello without ceasing to work. I watched leather, plastic and vinyl being moulded, cut and stitched.

‘Do you actually pay them?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘They just want to help.’

Da Ming’s meeting was with one of his suppliers, a small man with bright eyes and a slightly pinched face. The three of us sat in the office and drank tea that had been packed inside an orange for twenty years. It was from Yunnan province, and tasted like orange-flavoured smoke. Da Ming said it had doubled in price, because of a drought.

They spoke of mobile phones, chargers and prices, a conversation that was more enjoyable to listen to in Chinese than it would have been in English, as I understood far less of it. I had stopped listening when Da Ming said, in English, ‘He is from near Shaoyang. From Loudi.’

Loudi is a two-hour train ride from Shaoyang, which qualifies as ‘near’ in China. I told Da Ming it seemed an unlikely coincidence that his supplier came from a place so close to his hometown.

‘Actually, this is very common. Many of my partners come from Hunan. One of my suppliers is from Huaihua. Another is from Zhuzhou.’

‘How come?’

‘We have more in common. It is easier to trust someone if you know where they’re from. If there’s a problem, people find out. If we owe each other money, that is OK, it is good business for us to wait until their business is strong again. In my first year, he is very patient, and so now I give him some orders.’

Given they were all far from home, these allegiances made sense. I ventured the opinion that this was a good kind of guanxi, but Da Ming rejected the idea.

Guanxi is corruption. With good friends, you can have good guanxi. But friendship must be first.’

There were still several hours before my train to Hunan. Da Ming asked if I wanted to go for a massage. In the past, with others, I had turned such offers down, as they were usually just a euphemism for going to a brothel. But I decided that couldn’t be what he meant. I was also tired of expecting the worst.

We drove to what looked like a small hotel, where women in cyan tunics welcomed us as we entered. They ushered us into a small room with no windows, two reclining chairs and a large television. We removed our shoes and socks, and leaned back. The women returned with basins of hot water. They began to wash our feet, which felt wonderful and awkward. I asked Da Ming his plans for the future. When he answered, his eyes were closed.

‘I will have a bigger factory, then maybe many factories. But I hope I can stop before I am old. Maybe I will go to some place in the country. When I was in college I write a lot. I would like to do that again. It is a good dream.’

Then he was asleep. I shut my eyes and focused on the hands moulding my feet. Even when cold lotion was applied, I did not open my eyes, not until I heard the click of a lighter. The woman was heating a small porcelain cup. When she placed it on my foot, it sucked in the flesh.

Da Ming slept for fifteen minutes, then woke and looked confused. For a second he didn’t seem to recognize me, or perhaps he thought I was part of a dream. Then he bent, put on socks and shoes, stood and said, ‘Let’s go.’

We made one final stop en route to the station. Da Ming went into a bank, then came out several minutes later with a red envelope. He handed it to me and said, ‘This is for you. I want you to have a good trip.’

Inside was a large wad of red notes bearing the face of Chairman Mao. They were hundred-yuan notes, the highest denomination. There looked to be at least fifty of them.

The decision was not difficult. ‘Thanks very much,’ I said, and put the envelope in my pocket.

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