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)
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.