Monday, 20 September 2010


I have been traveling around China again this week, and despite having believed that I had been there, done that and caught the infection. This place never ceases to amaze me with every turn. Rather than get depressed by each sweltering journey, I cheer myself up with text messages to my wife, the odd phone call to a friend and a chat on MSN. This week my messages have been short (real txt msgs sent this week):

Hot, Sweaty and stuck in another queue from hell.
At Another sh*t supplier, in another sh*t hole place.
In a foundry, somewhere in shitsville china.
(My wife suggested these should by the titles for my next 3 books)

So as you can see I haven't exactly warmed to the need to visit as many of my new supply base in as short a period as possible. Perhaps i just need to get back into the swing of it, after all I spent 4 years touring suppliers in this country, and got used to waking up in another damp, clammy and smelly hotel, enduring a conch, noodle and hot orange cordial drink breakfast all in preparation for visiting a derelict factory, in the middle of a derelict village, down a road mountain goats would struggle to traverse.

On arrival at a factory you would need to step across the ocean like puddles, past the stinking bathrooms before sitting in a vast meeting room that is either freezing cold, or baking hot (dependent on time of year), handed a paper cup full of grass cuttings and boiling water, whilst waiting for the toothless, long filthy nailed, poorly dressed general manager or owner to appear.
Following a presentation that includes borrowed slides from his brothers company down the road, every western company logo available on google images and an English translation that is more complicated than the original 400 Chinese characters on the page, we head for the factory tour....

The tour is normally accompanied by a young girl so slight that she has to avoid cracks in the pavement, not because of bad luck, but in case she falls in and can't climb out. You get the feeling that she once watched an episode of Friends on TV and was instantly promoted to the position of company English translator and font of all western cultural awareness. I would swear that she is kept in a box under the bosses table when not needed, they seem so scared, nervous and demure that shadows cause them to curl up into a ball. Your desperate to ensure she doesn't get into trouble for not understanding your question, or more importantly understanding her answer. You nod convincingly to answers that have no connection or relevance to the critical, well thought out question you just asked, you try to ask it in 15 different ways so as not to cause offence only to become more and more confused. Finally you give up and hope your bosses don't ask you the same question.

During the tour you try desperately to ignore the workers cleaning the tool under the 75 tonne press, or the welders without face guards, pneumatic drill operators without ear protection and the casting operators in sandals. The piles of your damaged and broken products lying next to supposedly good stock, the variety of raw materials when you specified just one to be used, and the seemingly identical un-branded parts being made in the room next to where your 'exclusive' components are specially prepared!
Regardless of the time, the next thing on the agenda is lunch!

I have written about some of the things I have been 'invited to sample' before, but to recap for those not familiar with lunch at a rural factory, it firstly involves finding a restaurant - you would think that the treacherous drive to dead centre of nowhere would mean it was impossible to find somewhere for lunch? Well despite feeling like your in Vandor 1 of the Curuscant System from Star Wars, you will always find somewhere to eat within a 5 km radius of the factory (normally owned by the same person), and you will know it's a restaurant by the Porsche Cayenne, BMW 7 Series and Audi Q7's parked outside, whilst the bicycles, goats, pigs and other assorted forms of transport meander past, you can guarantee several 100 thousand pounds of motor vehicles will be parked outside the local eatery, including the one the poverty pleading factory owner just drove you there in.

Semi grand affairs you imagine them being quite nice on the day they opened, which seems like it must have been 300 years ago by how the decoration and furnishings have fared. Led to a private room, the fu wu yuan will quickly turn the heating/air conditioning on and pour some more grass cuttings and hot water. I won't go into the traditions of who sits where and why as I have covered this before, but if i say that this takes longer to decide than the actual ordering of the food, you will get an idea of the complex decision making process - especially if it is a state owned company or a number of local government officials are present.
Sometimes you may be asked if you like Chinese food, or if there is anything you don't like? This is a bit like asking if you like smells? You may love the smell of freshly baked bread or ground coffee, and dislike the smell of rotting flesh or bottom burps - the question is too open ended. The same is true of Chinese food, I defy anyone to say they like/dislike Chinese food as it covers everything from Pizza to Pancreas and Soup to Sparrows Tongue (a personal dislike of mine). However it is more often than not, the rejects from the dog food selection of ingredients. It's the only cuisine in the world that can ruin roast chicken, batter beef steak and crucify crab. The desire to grind a gob full of bone before spitting it out onto the plate you eat from, whilst trying to suck the marrow from a birds toe will always leave a westerner desiring something 'ordinary'. Pushing entrails around on your plate for 40 minutes only ends when the site of Mellon dawns the rotating food table to signify the end of the meal. Never a lover of this plain, oversized cucumber in the past, it now brings a smile to my face, and a delight to my stomach, having picked at the previous 30 dish banquet I now gorge on melon as if it was my last meal, I know my hosts look at me, and in their heads ask how I can be so overweight when all I eat is a watery fruit?

Was the food ok? Are you still hungry? Would you like rice or noodles? Are the next questions that you answer politely and smile while doing so. You then jump into the car and head back to the factory to cover the points of your visit, which can include project timing and price negotiations for a new supplier, or quality and delivery issues for an existing one. It doesn't really matter as all subjects are treated the same, the owner
Pulling in his sales, quality, logistics or engineering manager as each topic is raised, not letting them talk he himself answers the questions and instructs the responsible manager as to how important the request is and that it must take his full attention - all problems have been or will be resolved by the end of the day, promises are made and commitment assured - improvements in IT systems, a new factory, new employees or new machinery are always promised at the first review, and then again at the second, third, forth - well you get the picture.
The end of the meeting comes when the owner has an important matter to attend to, and is replaced by his number two, who also seconds as the companies sales, quality, logistics and engineering manager and happens to by the owners son-in-law. Devoid of any real responsibility you quickly realize you are wasting your time and may as well head back up the jungle track to the train station or airport, this provides an adrenaline rushed experience as you dodge overladen trucks, old women on scooters and various natural disasters to meet your transport onto the next supplier.
Successful meeting? Who knows, you did manage to come away with a box of oranges, Logan berries or depending on the time of year moon cake or boiled eggs, you got a free lunch and a ride in a fancy car - not quite what you set out to achieve, but there is always next time, oh joy.

Sunday, 12 September 2010


If like me you grew up during the eighties you will remember the song "Who wants to live forever" by Queen, well every now and again i have a similar feeling of anxiety and dread when i think about work. In my case i am not too bothered about living forever, but what i do worry about working forever.

I remember when i was much younger I wanted to earn some money for myself, especially when holidays beckoned or i needed some new clothes. My father had never seen the value in expensive training shoes or sportswear, probably because we didn't have the money, but also because he used to remind me of how he had to walk to school in bare feet on broken glass when he was small, because he couldn't afford shoes and even the glass had to be borrowed - if anything cost over $0.24 it had to come with 4 tyres and a steering wheel.
What he hadn't realised was that at school i was being ridiculed, beaten and traumatised for life by wearing Nicke' Abbibas and Pumar apparel. The chance to earn some money would enable me to buy my own clothes that didn't have "beat me senseless for wearing 'un-cool' clothes" blazoned on the back, however finding work at 14 wasn't so easy - I lived in an area where there weren't any paperboys (or girls), mainly because no one had a newspaper delivered - it was seen as POSH and frivolous, why pay someone to deliver your newspaper when you had 4 or 5 kids doing nothing in your own home, especially when fetching the newspaper for your dad might have meant he let you keep the 2 pence change - if you were lucky.

I remember once, one of my uncles (Ray) who to us lived in a posh area because they had trees, wanted someone to chop up some wood for his open fire (again posh), it was just before our summer holidays and me and Martin, my younger brother, jumped at the chance. We thought it was the perfect job. Letting a couple of juveniles cut, pull, break, smash and hammer a load of wood - and get paid for it!
Then the icing on the cake, he told us we would need to use the small chainsaw he had just brought - was this man crazy? We were known for burning anything that was flammable, smashing anything that was expensive and basically ruining anything good, and he was going to let us loose with a chainsaw.

"I want to go first - I'm the oldest" I yelled at my younger brother, who by this age was already taller and stronger than me. We argued for hours until he conceded, and our father dropped us at Ray's house, he was waiting for us with an open garage stacked to the roof with timber - Noah hadn't used as much wood when building the arc. Still we thought with a chainsaw we would make quick work of it and receive our bounty in full, er no. The chainsaw must have come from the same Chinese factory that made Christmas cracker toys, and was about as useful. We toiled for 8 hours trying to make a dent in the mountain of winter fuel, taking it in turns to slide the blunt instrument across the damp, green, knot ridden railway sleepers and 500 year old oak tree trunks. After what seemed an eternity our dad arrived to pick us up and we were released from our shackles. To get us threw the torture we had planned what we would spend the money on, a new computer game for the Sinclair Spectrum, a pair of Reebok trainers, a kite etc. Ray gave us our pay in a brown envelope, just like a factory worker might receive his weekly pay. I knew instantly it would not be enough to fulfill our dreams, even without opening it I could tell it contained coins - coins weren't good.

I learned several valuable lessons that day, firstly my uncle was as tight as a fishes arse, secondly always agree the fee upfront and perhaps most importantly that the size of the remuneration received isn't necessarily connected to how much sweat you lose trying to earn it. Since then I have lived by these rules, and looked to find a job that meant I perspired little and earned a lot, I'm still looking!
Which brings me to the point of this blog, I am fast approaching 2 anniversaries, 40 years on the planet and 22 years in full time employment (albeit for a multitude of companies). The 40 doesn't bother me, however the 22 does, why? Well probably because according to recent reports, by the time I approach retirement, the UK government will have raised the pensionable age to 70. The thought of another 30 years working feels me with dread, don't get me wrong the first 22 have been a blast, 4 continents, a dozen countries and a bewildering variety of responsibilities and experiences. But to think I have to go and do it all again plus some more - pass the razor blades now.
I can't imagine another 30 years of getting up at 6.00am,working out how to keep my well paid job, please my bosses and stay ahead of the young pretenders, I'm already tired, grey and past it. Sleep is my favourite hobby, next to snoozing and 'resting my eyes'. I long for the weekend, and dream of lazy holidays spent sleeping in the sun, afternoon siestas and late mornings, I work for free time these days, not for money.

My children,  talk to me about wanting to start work and earn some money, my daughter already has her life mapped out, leave school at 16, get dad to buy her a chocolate shop and she will make millions devising new ways to form chocolate into ever more desirable shapes - she's 8 years old, and her one passion is to start work ASAP. I tell her not to leave school, college,or  university until they kick her out kicking and screaming - work is for dummies, leaving school at 16 will leave you with another 54 years of work! 54 years that's more than the average life expectancy in South Africa, Tanzania or Mada-bloody-Gascar. My elder son feels the same and despite owning everything a 12 year old boy could possibly need or want, he longs to earn his own money, sounding like an old fuddy I send him to his grandad who at 60 has just retired, 5 years before the current UK age for retirement as he was fortunate to have worked for the civil service (how does that work? They make the rules that tell us we must work longer, retire later and pay more into the state pension system, then they retire on inflated pensions younger than anyone!).
My father started work at the age of 14, plucking chickens in the back yard of the butchers shop his family lived above in Aston Cross, Birmingham. He covered 46 years of employment without a single sick day and no break between jobs. He is the epitome of what society wants - a tax paying, hard working, never complaining worker ant, stuff that -become a soldier ant, directing, organising and telling everyone else what to do, or better still go for the queen ants job, work for yourself, avoid as much tax as possible, fail to pay your debts on time, and pay yourself unrepresentative wages whilst everyone else does the work, if all that fails get a government job, be good at football or marry well!

For me, I have already planed my next move. It's a job I noticed about 10 years ago whilst on holiday in Cornwall. We were staying in a holiday home called the "little house" in St. Ives which is right on the harbour wall with uninterrupted views of the bay and the small town beach. Just outside of the front door a man with skin like a hippopotamus's backside and the colour of recently varnished mahogany, sits there day in day and day out, his trusty dog lies by his side and an old women brings him a freshly cooked bacon sandwich for elevenses, a cheese and pickle roll for lunch, and a cool pint of scrumpy cider for tea. He spends most of the day sucking on his pipe and snoring, only waking to take a couple of pounds off the visiting tourists for the days hire of a deck chair or windbreak. No employees, no bosses, shareholders or worries - ah that's the life, bring it on, only do it before those civil servants make me work another 40 years.

Sunday, 5 September 2010


So one week into my move back to China, did I make the right decision? Well the answer to that one is a resounding NO, but then the answer was always going to be a NO, Clarkson once said that people only become expats because they cant get a job in their own country, or they are pedophiles or jobless child molesters. As with many things Clarkson says I don't necessarily agree, of course many of the foreigners (a term used here to describe westerners living in Asia) fit the bill, and I would struggle to argue against his description. However there are those that find the fast pace of life, the opportunity not to conform to expectations, and lets not forget the financial benefits a strong pull over fish and chips, rainy summers and Coronation Street.

Some come to enhance their career, a few years working in Asia learning the culture and picking up the language can be seen as a big advantage as the world gets smaller, and we all start working for Chinese Government owned companies. Others come to broaden their understanding of life outside of no. 43 Acacia Avenue, send their children to international schools and explore the surrounding areas of beauty, diversity and history. The rest are here for the money, the lifestyle and the fact that the concrete ceiling in their own companies meant that going sideways 6000 miles was a shorter distance than the 3 meters to an office upstairs. Then their are those whom my posting today is about - the pseudo expats. who leave their brains, conscience, dignity and respect at immigration control on entering the country.

I could write for days on what I hate about China, the things that frustrate me, wear me down and at times beg belief. I probably have and most definitely will again write about the bizarre and sometimes unbelievable things I see, do or have done to me whilst here, but none of these compare to how much I detest the groups of westerners who feel that when they land here, that the 12 hour flight somehow took them back in time to the turn of the last century. Virgin/BA/United etc. etc. do not advertise the fact that not only can their planes provide you with a choice of 500 movies, but they also equip their planes with a flux capacitor that will transport you back to the height of colonialism.

It all starts at the airport, most of us are used to queuing for a taxi, hiring a car or even booking a hotel vehicle to pick us up after a long flight. Of course all of us would like that car/taxi to be there the moment we disembark and collect us from the foot of the airplane - however we all recognise that we don't sing in a rock group or run a country somewhere off the cost of Africa. So we endure the heat, the queuing and the stroppy assistant at the hire car check-in, in the full knowledge that there are several thousand other people in the same boat and complaining will only prolong the agony What we don't do is huff, puff and generally make a scene when our personal driver hasn't laid a bed of white rose petals to the car door, cooled the vehicle to 18.64 degrees Celsius, flown-in young Timmy's favorite chocolate bar from Switzerland and organised the police motorcycle outriders to expedite the journey home.
Go to any international arrivals lounge in Asia and you will see a straw hatted women with a dozen cases, two mobile phones, a worn out husband and a couple of adolescent children all pacing up and down, shouting into mobile phones, and generally making an arse of themselves because their driver failed to predict that their (fake) Louis Vuiton luggage sailed through the airport security putting them 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

On arrival at there company provided, over-priced, over-sized and over-the-top homes behind the tall security fences, barbed wire and security cameras, they leave their 6 stone driver to carry in their luggage under one arm and their 14 year old son under the other, they immediately usher the Ayi (Maid) to unpack the cases, wash, dry and iron the contents, poor them both drinks, draw the curtains, prepare a meal, run a bath, feed the dog, fetch some fresh lemons, help with their sons school project, top up the credit on their phones, kill the lone mosquito that found its way in behind the electrified surgically enveloped home, massage their backs and remind them to inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, whilst they recover from the first class flight, the 6 weeks holiday spent elsewhere because it "just gets too hot in the summer" and spending most of the time complaining about life, their driver and their maid.

What you have to remember that these people are not some gentrified, blue blooded socialites who happen to have been posted to Asia to escape death duties on one of their estates. They are generally people who have no more class than Katie Price (Jordan), an upbringing similar to all of us who have had to share a stick of candy floss with our siblings whilst on holiday, and normally live in normal houses, with normal cars, and normal lives. Only for the grace of the ability to speak English, being born in the right country at the right time, wearing the 'correct' skin colour, and have the ability to sound as if they know what end of a spanner you should use when knocking a nail into a piece of plastic, are they given the opportunity to "be our man in China".

Wealth gives no one the right to act like Major Plum of the 4th Guards regiment stationed just outside Bugaracky in 1901 - especially when the wealth comes from an over generous multi-national company who for some unknown reason think that the 30 something Chinese engineer who graduated from Stanford, then spent 6 years working for Ford designing engine ECU's , happens to speak 4 languages, will work for 60 hours without question in any country and will only go home if you hold a gun to his head, is somehow incapable of managing a team of 5 chinese only speaking engineers making cornflake boxes - and cannot compete with their 40 something year old westerner who only ever got as far as smoking behind the bike sheds, barely speaks English without every other word ending in ***off, **nt and **stard, and claims company expenses for his wife's tennis lessons, massages and nail trimming due to the hardship endured living in a developing nation.

Some of this could be seen as jealousy, maybe it could, but I live in a nice house, drive a nice car and earn a nice wage. I do not object to anyone using a driver in China its only the crazy westerners who drive themselves (me included) in the dangerous, alien and the always congested roads. I don't even object to those who have an Ayi, sure we would all like someone to do the mundane washing up, ironing of clothes and popping up to the local market to pick up some fruit, vegetables or fresh flowers. I dont even mind when companies provide the spouses wife's with expense accounts for nasal hair bleaching treatment. What I do find disturbing is how these obvious trappings become a benchmark for all other people who work here, we all become measured by how much housing allowance we receive, how many staff we employ to arrange the flowers in our houses, and the size of our winter wardrobe budget. People are mocked for not living on the right compound, street or apartment block, they are harangued for only having one driver and disowned for not taking their Ayi on holiday with them to look after the children. All of this has created an upward spiral of decadence and bizarre 'one-upmanship' amongst expats in China. I know of 'friends' companies who have spent £60k on flights home at Christmas - for 4 people, children of 6 who have fired their drivers for being late, and childless couples who have 3 Ayi's because their house is to big for one to manage - er get a smaller house?

This is what I hate most about China, people who treat their companies generosity as a weapon against those who treat China as an adventure. They convince themselves that they do it to help the local people by 'giving something back' and that they need these comforts due to the trauma caused by missing "dancing with stars on ice" on TV at home. None of the them would send there children to Chinese schools, buy a Chinese brand car (or Chinese anything for that matter) or even fly first class on a Chinese airline, all of which provide the bulk of the money that their companies spend in China, and all of which employ more local people in value added employment. I could go onto talk about how when not being chauffeured around they let their 10 year old children drive motorbikes around roads they wouldn't normally drive Sherman tanks around themselves, how they complain when despite flapping their arms around like a demented fly swatter - the local chinese cannot understand that they wanted their eggs slightly runny not hard boiled, Or how they criticise other foreigners for leaving tips greater than $0.01, as it will increase expectations - however I will leave that for another blog in the future, as I will probably have plenty of time as I have just alienated have of my neighbours!