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Pete Spurrier

Mainland mothers in Hong Kong

The issue of mainland Chinese mothers coming to Hong Kong to give birth is much in the news lately, with some people hoping new chief executive Leung Chun-ying will take steps to limit the number of beds available to mainland mothers. I thought it was a good time to excerpt this story from Yeeshan Yang’s book Whispers and Moans — now available in Kindle, Nook and Kobo e-versions.

This story was in fact adapted for the screen in the Hong Kong movie True Women for Sale, starring Anthony Wong Chau-sang and Race Wong.

Fertility for sale

The view in south China is that northern girls are looked down upon and northern wives are trodden on. Here is the story of Limfa, a peasant girl who would normally have few survival options. Without a pleasing appearance, she chose not to be a hooker, but followed a survival strategy more helpless than prostitution.

It was a typical morning at 6:30am on Mongkok Road. Construction workers were gathering to wait for the site supervisor, who would pick the labour he needed for the day. Uncle Gin could not sleep and had arrived at 5:00am. He needed money badly and wanted to be at the front of the queue. He squatted on the pavement and prayed for the supervisor to come early; no matter what, he had to work today.

Carrying a document folder and wearing a grey suit and a big smile, Kwai approached the hopeful men waiting for work. As Uncle Gin saw the smiling insurance salesman, he immediately turned away. Old Keung was standing next to him, and before he could do anything to save himself, Kwai had locked onto him, saying: “Hi there, Old Keung, you should buy insurance as early as you can. You are only in your fifties, with no injuries and no illness. The monthly payments would be very low.”

Old Keung was tired of the repeated sales pitch and said to Kwai, “I have told you many times, wait till I find a wife.”

The regular casual labourers nicknamed Kwai ‘the insurance Kwai’ – in Cantonese the word ‘Kwai’ sounds like ‘loss’ and insurance sounds like ‘sure’, indicating that buying insurance from Kwai did not sound like a good deal.

Insurance Kwai instantly responded to Old Keung: “You’ve been talking about getting married for years and years.” But Old Keung was running out of patience: “You think I enjoy being single! I just can’t raise enough for the marriage. What can I do?”

Seeing Uncle Gin trying to slip away, Kwai called out: “Hey Uncle Gin! Why are you so hard to find? The only place I can find you is here, early in the morning!”

“Don’t push me so hard!” replied Uncle Gin. “I haven’t cleared my prostitution debts yet, and my wife is having a new baby.” Kwai was shocked. “Haven’t you had enough babies, Uncle Gin?”

Old Keung was amazed as well. “Your first wife gave you four children, your new wife already had one, and you want more? That must cost you a few dollars!”

“She’s a tigress, she won’t have an abortion no matter what I say, so what can I do?” Uncle Gin sighed with resignation. Kwai showed no interest in Uncle Gin’s family troubles; he just wanted him to pay the money he owed. “Uncle Gin, I paid your last month’s life insurance premium, plus this month’s. That’s HK$1,120 you owe me.”

“I don’t want the insurance any more, I’m giving it up,” said Uncle Gin.

“Giving it up? How about your little boys, your little girls, and your young wife, what will they do? Besides, you’ve already paid the insurance policy for a whole year; if you give up now, you won’t get anything back.”

This made Uncle Gin uneasy. “If I can get some work today, then I’ll pay you back by instalments,” he conceded.

The construction supervisor drove his lorry along Mongkok Road and pulled over in front of the hopeful crowd. He picked out a few strongly built men, leaving Uncle Gin to plead: “I’ve waited here every day and worked for you for years. For old times’ sake, please take me, I’m desperate!” The captain nodded and Uncle Gin climbed into the back of the lorry.

The job that day was to move bricks to the higher floors of a partially finished building. Uncle Gin loaded bricks into the makeshift lift at ground level and passed them up to the waiting bricklayers, who were listening to a radio announcer repeating an irritating news item:

“The Court of Final Appeal has reached its verdict on the residency of Hong Kong citizens’ children born outside Hong Kong. Yesterday, those violating their temporary visas stormed government offices and attacked the police in a show of anger. Both those who have stayed longer than permitted, and illegal immigrants, are praying for an amnesty from the SAR Government. Most of the overstayers say they are not willing to leave Hong Kong.”

The constant repetition of the news item annoyed Uncle Gin, who yelled out: “Hey, switch the channel, will you? I’m sick of hearing this news over and over again!”

While looking upwards and shouting, he lost his footing. The weight of the bricks he was carrying made it impossible for him to keep his balance. He toppled over and fell silent. An ambulance rushed to the scene, only to find Uncle Gin already dead amid a scattered load of bricks.

Limfa arrived in Hong Kong by ferry, holding her son in her arms and carrying an unborn baby in her belly. The crowded customs hall smelled of peasantry. She noticed a well-dressed, apparently educated lady and coyly followed her into one of the long queues. When Limfa was standing in front of the immigration officer at the head of the queue, she was suddenly inspired to tell him: “I came for my husband’s funeral. My cousin saw me suffering so much, and she took great care of me.” She looked past the officer towards the well-dressed lady. The officer turned and glanced at the supposed cousin and let Limfa enter.

Burdened with packages, suitcases and her son, Limfa came out of the customs building to look for her husband’s family, who were nowhere to be seen. Then it began to rain heavily, which started the little boy crying. Limfa watched the well-dressed lady get into a taxi while she cursed her in-laws: “The whole family are bastards! They don’t care, they just want to abandon us, a poor widow and her child!”

It was now dark and Limfa stumbled towards her in-laws’ house, struggling with the infant and her luggage. She could tolerate having no one meet her at the ferry terminal, she could even tolerate the rain; but nagging at her most was wondering how much funeral gift money the in-laws had received. She had calculated the number of his friends and relatives who might have attended her husband’s funeral, and was expecting to receive a minimum of HK$9,000.

When she finally arrived, her first words to the several generations of female relatives seated at the dinner table did nothing to endear her. “Is the mourning ended now? Couldn’t you wait a few more days to hold the funeral? What are you doing now, finishing off all the food gifts? How much money did you collect? It’s my husband that died; all that money belongs to his widow and son!”

Without looking up, her sister-in-law spat out a fish bone and sneered to another family member: “Last time Limfa came to Hong Kong, she walked in and asked why there was only 10,000 dollars for the bride price. We told her, her husband’s first wife didn’t get a single cent from her wedding, so why should she be any different? Now she’s after money again, this time from the funeral.”

The little boy began to cry again, and the hard looks from the in-laws added to the palpable tension. Limfa began to weep: “You are all so mean. You just couldn’t wait for a few more days.”

The eldest daughter of Uncle Gin’s first wife took a sip from her drink and said: “The funeral parlour charged daily and we had to pay all the funeral expenses. It was up to us to decide when to bury him.”

“What about the cash gifts? How much is there?” asked Limfa.

Her husband’s third sister was sick of arguing over money. She tossed a handful of notes at Limfa’s face. “Friends and relatives donated this money for the children of your husband’s first wife. You take this money and you never, never come here again!”

Limfa counted the money in tears, paused, and then screamed in anger: “Only five thousand dollars! You can’t bully me and my children like that!”

Her husband’s sister was outraged. “You deserve what you get! Is one child not enough for you? You’re having more? You’re shameless!”

Limfa’s mother-in-law was in her eighties and looked frail, but her quiet demeanour suddenly changed and she screeched: “You want more babies! You fucking whore! Even if you bear more of my grandsons, I won’t take you into our household!”

Limfa retorted: “Your son was old, ugly, and had stinking breath. I served him obediently for his last two years. Now you treat me like shit!”

The first wife’s daughter was infuriated, shouting: “If you despised our dad so much, why did you pressure him into marriage?”

This enraged Limfa. “I forced your dad into marriage? Ha! It was your dad that tricked me into this marriage! He promised to give me this, give me that; in the end, he gave nothing but his shit, and you lot!”

Inside a tumbledown building in Sham Shui Po, Insurance Kwai was breathless from climbing seven floors. He had run into an old hooker at a one-woman brothel on the third floor; she fondled his crotch, trying for a deal. Kwai said he wasn’t interested, and that he was an insurance agent there on business. The hooker’s expression went cold. “If you were in the heroin business, maybe I’d be interested,” she said and let him pass.

Kwai finally made it to the landing on the eighth floor, where he found a peasant woman washing nappies in an illegally pitched lean-to. He gathered his breath. “Excuse me. Are you Wong Limfa, Mr Ho Gin’s widow?”

“You know my husband?” Limfa replied, excited. Kwai nodded. Limfa gave him an unexpurgated version of her time since arriving in Hong Kong, and her opinion of her in-laws. For the past few days, she hadn’t been able to eat or sleep, thinking of the mean-spirited family. Kwai took a break while half-listening to her outpourings. She finally said, “My husband was a bit of a loner, but he’s been here for all these years; he must have some friends, and he has his relatives. They told me there was only five thousand dollars gift money! Do you believe that? How will his widow and children live on that? Can you help me get the rest of the money?”

Kwai took a breath: “I’m not a debt collector. You have a one-million-dollar labour insurance policy; you won’t starve to death.”

“The labour insurance payout is one million? My husband dropped dead, and the compensation is so small! Somebody must have cut a piece out of it!” Limfa exclaimed.

“Your husband was just a temporary worker, and you think one million dollars compensation is small!” Kwai was shocked to find that the peasant woman was greedier than the local Hong Kong women he was more accustomed to.

“At least I’ll have 500,000 dollars,” she said.

“Why only half?” asked Kwai. “You’ve become a widow, and you still have to support your parents’ household?”

Limfa cursed, then said, “Before marrying me, the bastard said he would invest in my family’s business, but after we opened the shop with loans, he told us he had no money, and my family was put deep in debt.”

Kwai’s instincts told him that this peasant woman was going to be a pain in the neck if he let himself become too involved. He produced some documents from his folder and adopted a businesslike tone. “Ms Wong Limfa, Mr Ho Gin bought life insurance and you are the beneficiary.”

Limfa was overjoyed: “Really? How much?” She was now so thrilled she verged on manic. She spoke uncontrollably and sprayed saliva onto Kwai’s face. Kwai wiped himself with a tissue. Limfa was embarrassed and suddenly realised that she hadn’t invited Kwai into her apartment. “Sir, what’s your name please? Come on in.”

The squalid room was strewn with nameless clutter. Uncle Gin’s portrait hung on the wall and the incessant squalling of an unseen child filled the room. Three stools were piled with miscellaneous items, so Limfa pulled another tiny stool from under the bed and handed it to Kwai. The baby’s screaming suddenly increased in volume, which merely irritated Limfa, who said: “That dead prick was hardly the perfect husband. He lived in this shitty chicken farm for ten years, and owed money to the hooker next door!”

Kwai tried some friendly conversation: “Why don’t you find a better place?”

“Moving house will cost. There will be four of us. I have to save up.” Kwai was surprised: “Four of you?” Limfa pointed at her belly: “I’ve been examined; it’s twins.” Kwai couldn’t hold back his laughter. “Old Uncle Gin, no money and no skills, except making babies!”

“So how much will the life insurance pay me?” asked Limfa. Kwai began: “The amount is US$20,000, about HK$160,000. But – ”

Limfa was disappointed and cut in: “Just 160,000! Why did the bastard buy so little insurance?” Kwai said, “Because I knew his family situation, I always tried to convince him to buy more cover, but he wouldn’t listen. As it happens he didn’t even pay the last two instalments, and you almost ended up with nothing.” Limfa was terrified. “So how much is the insurance now?”

“Don’t worry. You are lucky I paid those instalments for him, so you have the full amount. All you need to do is pay back what I’ve paid on his behalf.” Limfa grew suspicious: “Now my husband is dead you can say whatever you want. I only receive 160,000 dollars, and you are going to take a bite from my payout.”

Kwai was angry and stood up. “Cut the crap! I’m trying to help you!” Limfa fired back: “Don’t treat me like a jackass just because I am a country woman, you bully! What made you so kind to pay for him in advance?”

“You think I like any of this?” said Kwai. “Insurance agents really hate it when people stop payments after a couple of months. We’ve done all the work, made the sale, and then we get no commission. Your husband almost stopped me from winning this year’s sales championship. Each year, I have to sit at the round table at the annual sales meeting to hear about other people making a million dollars of sales. This year it was finally my turn!”

Back in his office, Kwai searched for the phone numbers of various social welfare agencies. A few phone calls led him to a social worker named Leung Chi-ko who specialised in immigrant services. Kwai told Chi-ko about a poor immigrant woman living in Sham Shui Po whose husband had tripped and fallen on a construction site, and died on the spot. The poor widow and babies had nobody to rely on and had to live in a run-down building housing one-woman brothels. It was so sad! He asked Chi-ko if social services could help her apply for residency, housing and government aid. During the conversation it took Kwai only a few minutes to get all the information he needed to size up Chi-ko as a potential client; he intended to visit him very soon.

For the rest of the day, Kwai planned to settle Wong Limfa’s life insurance policy. Calculator in hand, Kwai mouthed to himself: “Government welfare, 7,000 dollars per month; dead husband’s compensation, one million; half in the bank, that will get her 2,000 dollars monthly interest. The four of them will be living in public housing, and peasant women always try to save, so her maximum monthly expenses will be 6,000; then she could spend 2,000 on an insurance premium each month; she’s young, so she could have a 15-year policy. She could be insured for two million Hong Kong dollars.”

Chi-ko was paying Limfa a family visit. He was sitting on the same tiny stool used by Kwai. Limfa crawled under the bed and pulled out another matching stool. The leg of the stool dragged out a mousetrap, complete with a struggling mouse. Limfa opened the mousetrap and dangled the mouse by its tail in front of her infant. Watching the dying creature, Chi-ko felt sick and couldn’t go on with the conversation. When Limfa began to talk, she said: “It’s not that I want to have the babies. Doctors say the wounds from my last Caesarean aren’t healed, so it’s a high risk for me to have an abortion.”

Although he was young, Chi-ko knew enough of gynaecology as a social worker to try to persuade Limfa otherwise. “If the wounds are not healed, you really shouldn’t give birth at all.”

The writhing mouse brushed against the child, who was now scared, and started to cry. Limfa killed the mouse with a blow from her slipper and dumped it into the waste bin. The baby’s crying became louder and Limfa became annoyed. “If you keep crying, I’ll make you eat the mouse!”

Chi-ko had to say something: “You have such a bad temper. If you have more babies, aren’t you worried you may not be able to cope? A newborn is a little person, who needs to eat, be cleaned, looked after, and nurtured. Do you have the patience?”

The hooker next door was entertaining a customer. The rhythmic creaking of the bed springs bothered Chi-ko. “This environment isn’t good for the kids. You want them to grow up like this?”

Limfa cut him short: “Of course not! That’s why I have to get a residence visa. I can only apply for public housing when I have a visa, right?”

The occupants of the creaking bed were becoming increasingly vocal. Chi-ko struggled to contain his embarrassment. “One widow with three kids; why do you want to live in Hong Kong anyway?”

Limfa retorted: “You think I like it here? My whole village believes I married a rich Hong Kong guy. How can I go home with two empty hands and two new babies?”

“A mother should think about her kids’ future. How can saving face with your village match your children’s happiness?” Chi-ko asked.

Limfa felt she couldn’t reason with this young man. “You are so naive! My face doesn’t matter a bit; but if I don’t have face, my kids will be bullied! Whatever bad luck I have, it’s better to take it in Hong Kong.”

“So you think more babies will win more sympathy from the immigration office?” he asked. Limfa nodded. “I know dealing with the immigration office won’t be easy. Last time I had a baby, the immigration office showed no sympathy at all; they couldn’t wait to send me home! This time, I will show them two new babies!”

The hooker’s bed was creaking to a faster rhythm, and the baby continued crying. Limfa shouted at the baby: “You useless shit! You hear that bed day and night, what are you crying about?”

“Listen to yourself now,” said Chi-ko. “How will you deal with two more babies? If you want to have the abortion…”

“Shut up!” Limfa screamed, her saliva spattering Chi-ko’s face. He cleaned his face and saw a glimmer of maternity on those tough, angry features. Limfa cursed him: “What’s wrong with you that you don’t want others to have babies? Watch out you don’t have a baby without an asshole!”

“I am just saying that you have no family here, you are a stranger in Hong Kong, it might be more convenient for you to live in your hometown.”

Limfa shouted at him again: “Are you dumb, or just pretending? The mainland is reinforcing the birth control policy, and you are telling me to go back?”

Soon after Chi-ko left, Kwai arrived. Sitting on the same stool as before, Kwai took out an insurance plan tailored for Limfa, who was trying to feed her son porridge. She grew impatient: “Eat this, you sick son of a bitch! Or I’ll throw you out onto the street!”

Kwai had never seen a mother behave this way before. However, she was his client, and a client is of course always right. He listened to her account of Chi-ko’s visit and tried to take her side: “If he tells you to have an abortion again, you just talk about human rights! Anybody has the right to be born. Abortion is the murder of a little life!”

Feeling some emotional support, Limfa became more reasonable. “The social worker worried that I may not be able to handle it all by myself, but if I don’t keep the babies, can he handle the immigration office for me? In Hong Kong everybody has to depend on themselves.”

Kwai didn’t know what to say, so he continued on the subject of insurance. “I’ve done some calculations for you. If you get government aid and public housing, you could make monthly savings.” Limfa was delighted: “Excellent!”

Kwai went on: “Raising all these kids on your own, you’ve got to make some savings. Our company’s life savings plan is the best choice for you; it would be worth two million Hong Kong dollars.” Limfa was immediately dispirited. “I thought you were a good guy, and now you’re trying to talk me into buying insurance!”

“It’s for your own good,” Kwai explained. “Only small payments each time, and in the future, you won’t have to worry about your kids’ education.”

Out of idle curiosity she asked, “Over how many years do I pay?”

“I have tailored this 15-year scheme for you,” Kwai said. Limfa was shocked: “I’ve suffered so much to give them life, and I have to pay for their education over 15 years as well?”

Now it was Kwai’s turn to be surprised. “Haven’t you thought about education? You are having babies! You think you are laying eggs, and you can walk away from them?”

Limfa dismissed the idea: “In my village we say born by nature, raised by nature. My parents gave me a life but never gave me an education.”

Kwai was amazed. “So that’s your ‘nature’ plan!” He was disappointed and shook his head at the carefully calculated insurance policy, which was now just scrap paper. In the name column, he wrote down “egg-laying woman”, and for the insured sum, he wrote “0”.

A few months later, Limfa, now heavily pregnant with her twins, was shopping on a Sham Shui Po street with her baby son. She was attracted by a news item on a display television. It was Ah Leung shouting “Return our rights of Hong Kong residency” amid a crowd of people storming the immigration tower. Limfa watched Ah Leung in silence, profound bitterness welling up deep inside her.

It was on the anniversary of her wedding to Ah Leung that she first met Uncle Gin. She had come to hate Ah Leung so much that each minute was a new torture. She bought a bottle of mouse poison and planned to take it all, and then sleep soundly and permanently in the bed where she had slept with Ah Leung.

After only a few sips of the poison, Limfa was interrupted by her sixth aunt, who said if she did nothing else, Limfa must meet a Hong Kong guy she knew, as he was looking for a wife. Limfa recalled she was still feeling drugged later in the day and could not clearly see Uncle Gin when she was introduced to him over dinner. Now she was his widow, she still could not remember his appearance. In her semi-conscious state, she remembered Uncle Gin saying: “The other village brought women in trucks to meet me, which really stunned me.”

Limfa had no idea how her aunt convinced Uncle Gin to pick her. After vomiting the mouse poison into the toilet, she was told by her excited aunt: “Uncle Gin promised to take care of you and give your father a good bridal price. Now it’s all up to you.”

It had seemed a much easier decision to marry Ah Leung, who had no hesitation because her father was from Hong Kong. Now she could marry a naturalised, true Hong Kong citizen. She had been torn between finishing the mouse poison and marrying the old man for a ticket to Hong Kong. Her aunt reminded her that the old man from Hong Kong had been brought women by the truckload to choose from; if she didn’t make up her mind, and quickly, the chance would slip away.

With a belly full of twins, her son on her back, and a name card in hand, Limfa was asking directions to the immigration centre. Help was given grudgingly, and she had to ask again and again. After a series of bus and train rides, she finally arrived at the new immigration service centre, only to find a cold reception from Chi-ko, who she had kept waiting. Limfa pleaded: “I’m almost ready, the twins could come at any minute. When I’m in hospital, there will be nobody to look after my son.” Chi-ko interrupted: “We are not a nursery.”

“I have no Hong Kong residency, so the government kindergartens won’t accept me, and the private ones are too expensive,” Limfa lamented. Chi-ko cut her short again: “Hong Kong government rules require that child carers have a professional licence, and we social workers are not licensed.”

Limfa sounded helpless: “I know you are mad at me. But babies are human too. Anybody has the right to be born.” Fearing that his colleagues may think he had violated human rights, Chi-ko decided he should try to finish the meeting and send her away as soon as he could. “You ask your in-laws to look after your son for a few days.”

“If they could help, I wouldn’t have come to you!” Limfa wailed. “I don’t know how I’ve survived for the last few months. That dead prick didn’t even leave me a TV set or a telephone, and I’ve just struggled all the way across Hong Kong to find you for some kind of help!”

The situation certainly aroused Chi-ko’s compassion, and out of sympathy he tried to advise her: “You can’t even spare time to go to the hospital now. When you have two more babies, you won’t even have time to go to the toilet!”

Her tears rolled down freely: “If you don’t want to help, forget it. You don’t have to lecture me!”

By now, Chi-ko’s colleagues were staring across at the distraught woman and he feared they would think he had discriminated against a mainlander, so he immediately changed attitude and softened his tone. “I’ve submitted all your applications. As for the nursing, even if I gave you a hand now, it could only be temporary, so you really have to think of some way to cope for the future.”

Limfa asked: “Did you make it clear that I have three babies?”

It was getting dark. Limfa found a phone booth at the roadside in Sham Shui Po. Her belly seemed bigger than ever to her, and she was carrying a child on her back. Getting into the booth was a tricky manoeuvre. She took out Kwai’s business card and began to dial. The street noises made it difficult to hear and she had to yell at the top of her voice: “Hello, is that Mr Kwai? I’m Wong Limfa, Uncle Gin’s widow. A few months ago, you asked me to buy insurance. I have decided to agree to your offer, but you must promise to look after my baby for a few days.”

Kwai was simultaneously irritated and intrigued: “Just to earn a little bit of commission, I have to look after your baby! Perhaps you should look somewhere else.”

A rough-looking man was standing nearby and was staring at her. As she left the booth, he whispered to her: “Hey, how much do you charge?”

“I’m not a chicken!” she said. But the man wouldn’t give up. “I’ll give you plenty of cash. I love sucking milk.” Limfa felt shocked and violated. She shrieked: “I’m not just another cheap northern girl. I’m a decent woman!”

She eventually managed to drag herself and a few plastic carrier bags of her meagre belongings to a gynaecology clinic. The attending nurse couldn’t find any record of her and demanded to know where the pre-birth examination had been done. Limfa said: “I had a check right after I got pregnant. It’s twins. Since then, I’ve been eating well, sleeping well; nothing has gone wrong.”

The nurse was surprised. “You haven’t had any pre-birth examination?” Limfa said, “I’ve really had no time. But I take herbal soup every day to soothe the foetus. It’ll be OK.”

The nurse warned Limfa: “Our hospital has no record of any pre-birth check; if anything goes wrong, we cannot be responsible. When are you due?”

“Any time now, maybe in a couple of days,” Limfa answered. “I’ve brought my stuff with me.” The nurse adopted a professional tone: “Do you have any labour pains?” Limfa shook her head. “Have your waters broken?” Again, Limfa shook her head. “Our delivery room won’t take in anyone without signs of imminent labour. You’d better go home and come back when there are definite signs.” The baby began to cry, which added to Limfa’s distress. “I’ve had to come a long way to get here,” she pleaded.

“Next time,” said the nurse, “don’t bring the baby to hospital, there is nobody to look after it for you. And remember to bring your Hong Kong ID card.” Limfa was drained of her remaining strength and became desperate. She cried out: “I’m not having an illegitimate child. Why do I deserve this?”

She went to the phone in the hospital waiting room and wiped her tears while taking out Kwai’s card. She called him again. Baby in one arm, phone in the other, she begged: “I’ll spend all I have to buy your insurance, OK? But please, tomorrow, you’ve got to look after my baby, please!”

Limfa put down the receiver and idly watched the news on the waiting room television. There was an agitated mob of young people, born in mainland China of Hong Kong resident parents. The protesters were angry and some were trying to breach the gate of the SAR government buildings, screaming: “We want Tung Chee Hwa! Don’t take away our residency!” Those at the rear were pushing forward; dustbins and bottles were being thrown at the police. The iron railing around the government headquarters finally gave way to the pressure of the surging crowd. Someone had started a bonfire.

While Limfa was looking for Ah Leung’s face in the crowd, her baby started crying. She shouted at the baby: “What are you crying for? I give you a life and then have to raise you, on top of all this other crap! You think I’m Superwoman?”

Just as the Tsuen Wan-bound bus was shutting its door, Kwai caught up with it. He was leading Limfa’s son with one hand and held two plastic carrier bags in the other. Limfa followed him onto the bus, out of breath. After a few minutes of jolting from the bus ride, Limfa realised she was soaking: her waters had broken. She yelled, “It’s coming out, it’s killing me!” This sent Kwai into a panic. All he could do was say: “Hold on! We are not at the hospital yet.”

Limfa screamed in pain: “I can’t take it, get the doctor!”

Kwai could see her agony. Her son was crying more loudly than ever. Kwai shouted to the bus driver, “Don’t stop, this woman is going into labour, it’s twins, it’s three lives!”

The driver and passengers replied with one voice: “She’s giving birth, and she’s taking the bus! Just to save the taxi fare?”

Limfa’s screeching upset everybody on the bus. One passenger came up and said she was a midwife. She touched Limfa’s belly and looked nervous. She said to Kwai, “Your baby may not wait till we get to the hospital.” Kwai immediately denied that it was his wife, or his baby.

The acute pain convinced Limfa that the bus was going to be her deathbed. She made a huge effort and grabbed Kwai by the sleeve, pleading: “I beg you, if I die, look after my baby, please, promise me!” Kwai nodded, under the gaze of the onlookers.

The pain had rendered her semi-comatose, in which state she thought she saw Ah Leung. “What is happening to us?” she thought. “You and your wife demonstrate in the streets for your right of residence, and I have to go into labour on a bus for mine!”

Telling the male passengers to stay away, the female passengers did what they could. After the first baby appeared, Limfa cried out in pain: “There’s still the other one yet!” The bus finally made it to the hospital gate, where a medical team with a stretcher trolley were waiting.

It was early morning in Sham Shui Po. There was a huge pile of refuse waiting for collection on the street corner. Kwai and Chi-ko helped each other carry an old bedstead out from the dark old building, while Limfa, who had tied her twins to her back and her front, led her eldest son by one hand and carried a suitcase in the other. The local street hookers watched Limfa in envy and started their gossip: “Uncle Gin’s wife made such a fuss about giving birth, she got everyone’s sympathy.” “I heard the government has given her a big apartment.” Another said, “Sounds like I need to have a few babies to get the same benefits.” Her friend replied, “What benefits? Her husband just upped and left after sowing his seed.”

Chi-ko and Kwai laid the bed frame in the removal lorry and went back in for the remaining pieces of old furniture. Just then, the street hookers spotted several girls on the other side of the street. “Shit! Another group of northern girls! Trying to snatch our business this early in the morning!”

Limfa placed her suitcase in the lorry and seated her son next to the driver. She turned to see her fellow country girl Ah Liu standing in front of her. Limfa was delighted. “Hey, Ah Liu, I’ve made it! I’ve got my residency, government aid, and I’m moving to a new house!”

Ah Liu was not so delighted. “Since you sent home half a million dollars, everybody is expecting me to send home more money. My parents’ face is all down to me.”

Limfa said, “For me, living in Hong Kong is like a jail term.” She suddenly saw the northern girls behind Ah Liu and realised. She asked Ah Liu: “Are you with them?”

Seeing the contempt in Limfa’s expression, Ah Liu didn’t reply, and took out some sweets to give to Limfa’s little boy. Instinctively, Limfa blocked Ah Liu’s hand from touching her son.

Ah Liu was hurt and walked away, saying: “Maybe I’m selling sex. But at least I’m not selling my womb.”

Limfa yelled after her: “Selling my womb? I have to raise them, and see them through school!”

Two years later, Limfa married another temporary construction worker. Kwai was the matchmaker, pairing her up with one of his clients.

Social worker Chi-ko is now a district politician. When I met him recently, we discussed the constantly full state of Hong Kong’s maternity wards. It’s reported that 90% of these expectant women are not Hong Kong residents. Holding only a tourist visa, peasant women from Guangdong and Fujian provinces are prepared to enter Hong Kong at the last minute, with no pre-birth check records. Compelled by basic humanitarian principles, Hong Kong hospitals have no choice but to accept them, leading to yet another automatic right of residence for a woman willing to use her womb.

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Money for Nothing

Robert Wang spoke about Hong Kong’s tycoons on RTHK Radio 3′s “Money for Nothing” programme. The show’s name is a nice reflection of something top tycoon Li Ka-shing once said to the author: “Robert, there is so much money lying on the ground, I don’t have the time to bend down and pick it all up.”

Photo courtesy of RTHK. You can listen online at this link.

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New memoir is a best-seller

Robert Wang’s Walking the Tycoons’ Rope got off to a great start — No. 1 on the South China Morning Post’s best-sellers list on its first week of release. Well done Robert, and we hope it stays there!

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Online Q&A with author Jonathan Chamberlain

Goodreads is hosting a readers’ Q&A with Hong Kong best-selling author Jonathan Chamberlain.

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Please welcome Jonathan Chamberlain to our Q and A discussions. He is a writer who has been hijacked by life. When his daughter, Stevie, exploded into his life with all the problems she had to cope with, he ended up founding two charities for children with developmental disabilities (and wrote a memoir of this time in his book: Wordjazz for Stevie). Then when his wife was diagnosed with cancer he had a new battle on his hands – and this led to a series of cancer books starting with Fighting Cancer: A Survival Guide (1996) to the latest book The Cancer Survivor’s Bible (2012) – see his website: and cancer blog: He is now seeking to get back to his writing career and in recent years has published the rather controversial novel, The Alphabet of Vietnam, and his comic take on the London 2012 Olympics ( Dreams of Gold). He has also started a blog, In Praise of Older Books: Jonathan’s Goodreads Profile: Jonathan Chamberlain.

Some of Jonathan’s books: Dreams of GoldThe Alphabet of Vietnam King Hui  The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong KongWordjazz for Stevie  How a Profoundly Handicapped Girl Gave Her Father the Gifts of Pain and Love

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May 11, 2012 05:54am

Jonathan Chamberlain & 25 comments Hi

Just to let you know I’m online. I was going to do an intro but thanks to A.F. all the salient facts are up there. I am happy to talk about any of my books, writing or indeed anything else that seems relevant. I live in the UK so there may be time issues – so looking forward to the chat.

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May 11, 2012 05:56am

Marianne Wheelaghan (httpwwwgoodreadscomMarianneW) & 99 comments Hi Jonathan, the great thing about this Goodreads site is that you come across new authors, like yourself. I am fascinated to see how diverse your writing is – and so highly recommended by so many people. I’m not sure I’m in the mood for anything too serious as just finished a very depressing book about abuse so may start with the Dreams of Gold. Okay, my question, can I ask what is controversial about The Alphabet of Vietnam? Cheers:)

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May 11, 2012 06:17am

Jonathan Chamberlain & 25 comments Hi Marianne. Thanks for kicking this off.

As you can see from the reviews on this site it’s had everything from one star to five stars. Some say it’s badly written, others extremely well written. Basically the issue is violence. I have described a number of extremely brutal rape-murders – not at length but not pulling any punches and since these are described from the POV of one of the perpetrators, the tone is aggressive. Perhaps two of these go over (probably well over) the line of comfortable reading (they certainly made for very uncomfortable writing) – and I should say here that violence is not a hallmark of my writing – in fact these scenes are the only scenes of violence I will ever write. But although I was – and remain – uncomfortable with them I decided in the end that they served an important purpose. First off, they are both depictions of something that really happened. Susan Brownmiller (in Against our Will) described the incident that was the model for one of these episodes and I think a news report of the mass murderers Charles Ng and Leonard Lake gave me the other.

In part, I think I was aiming this at male readers. I wanted to disturb. I wanted male readers to feel complicit. The book is in part about the violence that was perpetrated by US soldiers in Vietnam – which I don’t feel has been fully taken on board in America. Time has moved on and it is very difficult for Americans to believe that they could be doing evil – but it is not just about Americans, it’s about war in general (the philosophy of which is identical in its logic to de Sade’s philosophy of sadism). The book is very multi-layered and it does not provide answers but in a world where the word ‘Vietnam’ conjures up a war rather than a country with a culture, I think it has something important to say.

Carry on reading the discussions at Goodreads’ Writers and Readers group.

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New book: Walking the Tycoons’ Rope

Author Robert Wang spoke about his new book on Radio 3 yesterday, and you can now listen to the interview online. Hear how he fled from civil-war Shanghai in 1949 and took a perilous journey to Hong Kong, jumping from the train when it came under attack.

Robert’s memoir of his incredible life, Walking The Tycoons’ Rope, is Dymocks’ book of the month for May. The rags-to-riches story offers a rare look inside the unimaginably wealthy world of Hong Kong’s property tycoons, but the tales of his previous poverty — arriving in Hong Kong as a refugee and living beside Kowloon’s walled city — are equally compelling.

Robert was also interviewed last week by Time Out Hong Kong.

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Book excerpt: The Heritage Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong

I’m very pleased to note that The Heritage Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong has been revised and reprinted in a new edition; and even more pleased that it has been named Susan Blumberg-Kason’s book of the week!

Following is an excerpt. The book is not just walking directions; it’s very visual, with lots of photographs — some modern and some historical — and colour maps for each walk. I’ve included a few random spreads among the text below; click them to view at full size. Happy hiking!

Route 12: Pok Fu Lam

The green western slopes of Hong Kong Island have long been used as a retreat from the city – first by missionaries and dairy farmers, and today by students and wealthier residents. Starting at the Peak and ending atop Mount Davis, this walk will exercise your knees and give you advance views of the heritage sites along the way.

Victoria Gap, where the Peak Tower stands, is a crossroads from which trails lead in half a dozen directions. The entrance to Pok Fu Lam Country Park is easily found directly opposite the bus station, and a car-free road leads straight down into peaceful forest. Old banyans clinging to the stone walls shade your descent into the valley.

These steep hillsides were saved from development by the need to protect Hong Kong’s water sources. This valley was dammed as early as 1863 and a reservoir – the colony’s first – was built down below to supply water to the city. An aqueduct ran around from Pok Fu Lam to Central, giving Conduit Road its name. Major tree planting took place at the same time to prevent soil erosion. Before then, most of Hong Kong Island’s uplands were bare, partly thanks to the grass cutters who scoured the hills to collect kindling. The forest suffered during the war years, when much of it was chopped down for firewood; but it has recovered well and you’re now able to walk through mature woodland.

Camellia and eagle’s claw flowers provide colour beside the path, and birdsong fills the air. In fact, it was the ‘pok fu’ bird which gave Pok Fu Lam its name – lam meaning ‘forest’ – although the original Chinese characters have changed. It’s often pronounced ‘Pock Fulham’ by expats more familiar with the London football club.

At the only fork in the road, turn right to carry on downhill, passing some bricked-up bunkers built by the British Army. The path now skirts the reservoir. Beside the dam, there’s an attractive old building now used by the country parks staff, and facing it an information board with old photos of the area. One picture shows a strange white castle which seems very out of place on the bare hillside. In fact this building is still there: now known as University Hall, it’s hidden from view by trees. As you pass the riding school on your left, the mansion stands above the other side of the road. You can go up the steps and through the low gateway for a closer look.

Douglas Castle, as it was originally called, was built in the 1860s by Scottish taipan Douglas Lapraik to serve as his country home. It looked rather different then: an octagonal penthouse surrounded by battlements commanded all-round sea views, four crenellated corner towers had mock arrow slits, and outhouses were built in identical Victorian Gothic style. The building has undergone many changes over the years and is now used as halls of residence for Hong Kong University students.

Lapraik arrived on the China coast as a young man, travelling to Macau in 1839 to become apprentice to an English watchmaker. Upon the founding of Hong Kong a few years later, he moved to the new colony and quickly became successful in the property and shipping trades. He built a dock at Aberdeen to service Royal Navy vessels, ran a line of steamships up the coast to Amoy and Foochow (modern Xiamen and Fuzhou) and helped establish the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce. He was one of the investors in the Chinese junk Keying which made history by sailing to London and New York in 1846 – the boat amazed the crowds there, including Queen Victoria, who had never seen such a thing before. Perhaps his most notable legacy was the founding in 1863 of the Hongkong & Whampoa Dock Company. This was the first limited company in Hong Kong – prompting the government to start writing a Companies Ordinance – and its ultimate successor, Cheung Kong, still bears stock code 0001 at the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The Douglas Steamship Company remained in existence until the 1980s.

After an outstanding career, Lapraik retired to Britain, and Douglas Castle was sold to the French Mission in 1894. The priests renamed it Nazareth House, added a chapel, and installed a printing press which produced religious texts in dozens of Asian languages. A prominent feature added at this time was the cast-iron spiral staircase which connects three floors. In 1954 the building passed into its current ownership; the chapel was converted into a dining hall and the crypt into a common room, and as University Hall it continues to house undergraduate students. Despite the building’s change of name, alumni are known as Castlers.

Béthanie stands on the other side of Pok Fu Lam Road. Built in 1873 by the same French Mission, it was designed as a peaceful retreat and sanatorium for priests returning from missionary work in China and elsewhere in the Far East. The Missions Etrangères de Paris departed in the 1970s, and for many years the building deteriorated while being used as a storehouse by Hong Kong University Press. Since 2003 it has been occupied by the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, who have renovated it in innovative style: in particular, the original pitched roof, which was removed at some point in the past, has been reinstated using glass panels instead of tiles. The project won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award in 2008.

There’s a French Mission museum in the former wine cellar which is open every day until 6:00pm, and guided tours of the building are also conducted. The Bauhinia blakeana, Hong Kong’s official floral emblem, was discovered growing in the gardens of Béthanie by French priests in the 1880s.

On the far side of the building, two octagonal cowsheds have survived from the earliest days of Hong Kong’s milk industry – they gave rise to the company which became Dairy Farm. It was a Scottish pioneer of tropical medicine, Dr Patrick Manson, who came up with the idea of establishing a farm to supply hygienic fresh milk to the European population of Hong Kong. Eighty cows were imported and the Dairy Farm company began operations in 1886. The company later diversified into running supermarkets, in a joint venture with the Lane Crawford department store, until it bought the Wellcome retail chain and became part of the Jardines group.

The Pok Fu Lam farm was closed in 1983, and the two cattle sheds have now been converted into a performance space – one as a tiny theatre and the other as a foyer, which also has a small photo exhibition of the site’s history. Down the hill from these, another of the old Dairy Farm buildings is now used by the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute.

Across the road, Pok Fu Lam Village may look like a shanty town but it is in fact one of the few indigenous settlements remaining on Hong Kong Island. A lot of villagers were formerly employed on the dairy farm. Today, some of them grow crops on land which must be worth billions. Besides a large earth god shrine, the village has an unusual brick tower called the Lee Ling Immortal Pagoda which dates from about 1910.

Take a bus now a few stops north, passing the Queen Mary Hospital, to alight at the Chinese Christian Cemetery. The site has excellent fung shui, with wooded hills behind it and an unencumbered view out to sea. A stairway leads straight down through the terraces to the Pavilion of Eternity – ‘Erected by Wing Lock Tong, May 1951’ – and then to Victoria Road. Bear right and then take the steps down into a ramshackle stonemasons’ village. At the foot of the hill you’ll find the gates to the Tung Wah Coffin Home, a complex of buildings reminiscent of old Macau.

From the late 19th century onwards, tens of thousands of mainland Chinese people passed through Hong Kong on their way to Southeast Asia, North America, Australia and other places where fortunes in tin, gold or plain labour could be made. When they died, their wish was to be buried in their ancestral lands, and so their bodies were sent back the way they came. There was a need for temporary storage of their remains until transport could be found back to China, particularly in times of strife on the mainland, and so the trustees of the Man Mo temple on Hollywood Road founded the first coffin home in Kennedy Town in 1875. This was moved to the present site in 1899, and the Tung Wah Hospital took over its management. It is still in use; good burial plots can be hard to find in crowded Hong Kong, and caskets and urns can be kept here until one becomes available.

The site was nicely restored in 2004, winning praise from the Hong Kong Heritage Awards, but it’s private and you may not be allowed into the compound.

Further west along Victoria Road, Felix Villas is an elegant terrace of houses built in the 1920s and now used as quarters for university staff. Beyond it, a foundation stone for Victoria Road is set into its junction with Mount Davis Road. This was laid in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s 60th year on the throne; construction of the road commenced at the same time and was named in her honour. It was moved to its present site in 1977, coincidentally also a royal jubilee year, and a plate notes this fact.

On the coastal side of the road further on from here, a compound of white buildings behind a high wall has no sign, nor any official name on maps; not even a street number. Since the handover in 1997, it has been slowly crumbling into the surrounding greenery. Originally the mess of the Royal Engineers, the compound was transferred to the police force in the 1950s for use as a secret prison for Taiwanese spies – the colonial government was keen to avoid Hong Kong being used as a proxy battleground for Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces, and Special Branch detained anyone suspected of engaging in espionage.

But it was in 1967 that things really heated up. That summer, Hong Kong was rocked by riots inspired by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution over the border. Home-made bombs were planted in the streets. Leftists called strikes which paralysed public transport. Unionist demonstrators clashed with police, pro-Beijing crowds waving Mao’s red book picketed Government House, and a radio journalist who opposed the violence was murdered. At the border town of Sha Tau Kok, Chinese militia shot and killed a group of Hong Kong police officers. Fearing a possible invasion, the government decided to take radical action: pro-communist schools and newspapers were closed down, and the police were granted special powers to arrest leftist leaders. This involved the world’s first helicopter raids on multi-storey buildings. The political prisoners were brought to Pok Fu Lam and held in solitary confinement until the disturbances were over.

This hard-line response was generally supported by the Hong Kong public – the leftists’ violence having turned public opinion against them – and in appreciation of its steadfastness, the Hong Kong Police Force was later given the prefix ‘Royal’, which it kept until 1997. In Macau, by contrast, the Portuguese authorities failed to maintain order during the unrest, and control of the enclave was effectively handed over to China thirty years early.

The ‘white house’ compound may last have been used in 1989, when democratic activists smuggled away from the massacre in Tiananmen Square were debriefed here before being sent abroad. The Beijing crackdown prompted Hong Kong people of all political stripes to assist an emergency ‘underground railroad’ operation. Led by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which still organizes the annual commemoration in Victoria Park, Operation Yellow Bird helped hundreds of students and intellectuals escape from the mainland. One such person involved was Lo Hoi-sing; formerly Hong Kong’s top man in China as head of the Trade Development Council’s Beijing office, his involvement in the rescue missions landed him in a mainland jail, and his career never recovered. Most of the details of the risky operation remain a secret.

Special Branch was disbanded as 1997 approached – some local detectives were given British passports to protect them from any post-handover retaliation – and the buildings have been empty since then.

The final stretch of this route involves a hike up quiet Mount Davis Path. A flight of 365 steps leads up to an isolated youth hostel, from which backpackers can enjoy 270-degree views of Victoria Harbour. To save their legs, a shuttle bus service links it to Sheung Wan.

Past the hostel, and up a steep slope built to haul giant 9.2-inch guns to the summit of this coastal peak, you’ll find the ruins of an extensive system of fortifications. Mount Davis is well positioned to guard the western approaches to the harbour, and five gun emplacements were built here in the early years of the 20th century to ward off potential French or Russian fleets. More cannons were installed at Jubilee Battery, at the foot of the peak. They were of little use against a land-based army, however, so were unable to defend Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion from the mainland in 1941. They came under heavy aircraft attack during the assault – and the damage can still be seen – but the last defenders held out right until the surrender on Christmas Day.

As well as exploring the bunkers, tunnels and command posts, you can end your walk the same way it was started: with panoramic views of sea and islands.

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Book signing, May 19th: Don’t Joke on the Stairs

Come and hear from longtime Lantau resident Cecilie Gamst Berg as she ploughs through the non-stop surreal-fest that is today’s China, stopping occasionally to ruminate about the travails of trying to make Cantonese a world language, and how the Chinese have invented a new English: Manglish.

You’ll find answers to everything you wanted to know about China, such as:

What does “the slippery are very crafty” really mean?

What’s the etiquette for hitch-hiking in really small cars?

And what’s the best way to gatecrash a ketamine party?

Cecilie will show you how China is not only the most happening place on Earth, but also the most fun.

Saturday May 19, 2pm – 4pm at Dymocks bookshop in Discovery Bay Plaza, Lantau Island, call 2987 8494 for enquiries. Free entry. Wine will be served!

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Singapore availability

Since the start of this year, our books have been available in Singapore (and Malaysia) through Select Books, a company which specialises in books from all parts of Asia. (It’s my dream to one day open a similar bookshop in Hong Kong). The timing is good, as several of our recent and upcoming titles have Singapore connections.

Select Books’ store can be found at 51 Armenian Street, Singapore 179939. Gazetted as a national monument, the building has historical significance as the location of Sun Yat-sen’s United Chinese Library from 1911 to 1987, and it sits in a neighbourhood with a rich cultural heritage. Check out Select’s blog to find out more about them.

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Recap: Meet the authors in Hong Kong

Blacksmith publisher Pete Spurrier was among four writers who shared their insights with Hong Kong members of the Asian American Journalists Association on the evening of April 3. Pete has written guidebooks to Hong Kong, while the other authors — Cameron Dueck, Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan — have written travelogues and novels, so there were different perspectives and a lot of variety to the discussion.

If you missed the fun, you can still follow the discussion on the high-tech AAJA blog — their webmaster was live-tweeting the whole event!

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A story of Fries and Mayo

A guest blog post from business veteran Jack Leblanc, whose entertaining book Business Republic of China is now available on Kindle, Nook and other e-readers!

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Once upon a time Mr. Mayo, a smart businessman who headed a three-generation-old European company producing deep-frozen French Fries and other iced delicacies, decided that the time was ripe to head for China.

So by the middle of the 1 st decade of the 21 st century his entrepreneurial spirit brought him to the “mysterious” Far East.

His findings were astonishing to say the least: He discovered that the largest multinational fast food restaurants had set up shop far ahead of him, that some of those chains had hundreds of outlets spread all over the country, that the young Chinese loved fries almost as much as rice. And that meant that his deep-frozen fries should certainly be in demand.

He temporarily hired a Mr. Yang, a thirty-something-year-old, as his consultant to further discover the potential of his fries in the Middle Kingdom. Quickly the wildest estimates hit the Excel sheet, far exceeding the conservative forecasts Mr. Mayo could have dreamed up, and it soon became fact that selling to China was a must. His company would quickly show a return to the family shareholders far surpassing the 3-5% growth they saw in their customary markets.

Unfortunately the lack of enough cold storage, and therefore the prohibitive cost of small shipments, “taxing” import procedures and messy logistics to move cold containers around the country, quickly made him realize that to reach the end users he had to build a production facility in China.

It was decided to build a brand-new factory at a cost of 2.5 million Euros. It would be headed by Mr. Yang, whom Mr. Mayo had come to trust like family. Shandong was chosen as the perfect location. This made sense because it looked like potato paradise: Different varieties were available within a 400km radius. Farmers were eager to sell and at very interesting prices.

Sadly many of the potatoes that reached the production site turned starchy and were no longer the quality that would provide a superior French fry to which his European customers had become accustomed.

So Mr. Yang proposed to start importing European potatoes instead, which could be further processed into a likeable fry.

Mr. Mayo had got accustomed to Mr. Yang’s business acumen and decided on the spot that this should be the way to go.

Potatoes were imported in bulk and processed into the perfect fry.

The factory seemed to operate perfectly and Mr. Mayo would visit it at regular three-monthly intervals. Mr. Yang was always at the ready to pick him up at the airport, and on the way to the factory would explain to him how some of the imported potatoes would inexplicably rot and could not be used any longer in the production process.

Sales generated enough income to break even in the second year, as was planned. Mr. Mayo couldn’t have been happier. Until one day on his return to China, Mr. Yang met him at the airport and handed Mr. Mayo the keys of the car and… the factory. He no longer wanted to run the operations because he was in need of a well deserved break. All the protests and pleadings of Mr. Mayo were brushed aside and Mr. Yang left him there in the middle of the airport parking lot.

Shaken by the sudden departure of his most trusted staff member, he headed for the factory, wondering why Mr. Yang couldn’t have informed him earlier.

The truth however was going to hurt him more than he could ever imagine.

At the factory entrance, the place looked desolate: no guards at the gate, no trucks on the parking lot, no familiar smell of cooking oil in the air. It even seemed that the cold storage area seemed to be missing… Wrenching himself through the half-opened gateway, he walked into the offices… Desks, computers, cabinets… all had gone.

Rushing to the production site, he slid open the main door, only to hear the sound echo off the walls of the huge workshop several times over.

All the equipment had evaporated. Outside there were only traces on the ground where the huge cold storage units once had been.

He couldn’t believe his eyes. Since he had never driven himself to the site he quickly hoped that this would be the wrong address, the wrong location in the industrial park. Sadly enough he was at the correct co-ordinates. Anxiously calling Mr. Yang’s phone number was of no use.  That phone number would remain switched off forever. The same happened to the phone numbers of other staff he had kept in his mobile’s memory.

A quick call home was kind of useless too. Now everyone over there was in a panic as well. A walk into the police station (public security bureau) of the city nearby gained nothing. Nobody there spoke English and he couldn’t speak a word of Chinese. Frustrated, he left to sob on his own and inexplicably flew back to Europe only to return a month later, together with his son. And this on the advice of his family lawyer.

Needless to say, nothing had changed.

With a translator they went to the police station. The officer in charge requested proof of company ownership, which they couldn’t show because all paperwork had disappeared with the equipment. When the officer asked for proof of theft from the Public Security Bureau, nothing could be shown except an empty factory, but only if the officer would be willing to go with them. The answer to when exactly this vicious act had taken place also got no clear reply. Finally asking who, in Mr. Mayo’s opinion, was behind the pilfering on the factory floor, Mr. Mayo exploded “Mr. Yang, Mr. Yang!”

At this the officer requested Mr. Yang’s address, copy of ID card and phone number, only for both father and son to reply with a sigh and a desperate look up into the air.

This was the end of the road for the officer. He had lost patience with these crazy foreigners who could not give any answer with clear proof or certitude.

A trip to the bank ended in further disappointment. A kind bank employee informed them that the company’s bank accounts were empty.

Further investigation revealed that the so-called “rotten” potatoes actually were not that rotten at all but ended up in production and were sold off the company records.

We leave it up to your imagination what Mr. Yang is doing now.

What’s the moral of this story?

Get your act together from the very beginning:

*Implement the same internal procedures in China as those at your HQ.

*Make copies of ID cards and counter-check to see they are not fake.

*Check if the home addresses of your senior staff match what is mentioned on their CV/ contracts.

*Make sure you have copies of all vital documents of your Chinese entity.

*Handle the company stamps yourself or, if not possible, make sure you have an independent third party to handle those (e.g. an accounting or law firm that YOU appoint).

*Better still, have at least one staff from HQ permanently based in your Chinese entity. It might cost more, but at least this decision will not chop a number of years off your life.

*When operating in China, learn to think out of the box and try to keep your biased cultural heritage at bay.

*Remember that Chinese staff are not worse than any other employees around the world, but give someone an open invitation to become creative and it will be taken.

*Don’t feel sorry if you’ve been cheated; probably the opportunity was created by you.

*Enjoy China business. You’ll be surprised how rewarding it can be as long as you play it smart, not like a dumb new kid on the block.

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