I met Rogerson Tong (not his real name) for the first time in the lobby of the Grand Howard Hotel in Dongguan. He was yelling in Mandarin into a cell phone, one of three on his hip. His gut hung well over his belt.
“Ah. Macro. How you like China? You speak Chinese?”
“Yes Mr. Tong. But only Guangdonghua (Cantonese). My Putonghua (Mandarin) is still poor but improving.”
“No matter. My English excellent.” He lit a cigarette the length of a Bic pen. “Guangdonghua garbage. Real Chinese speak real Chinese…Putonghua. But I see you not garbage.”
“Thank you Mr. Tong.”
“Where you stay?”
“I’m here at the Grand Howard.” The Grand Howard, I was told, is a seven star Howard Johnson (Wait, what?).
“Macro. You a good young man. Good future.”
“It’s Marco sir.”
“Good Macro. We go to my factory.”
He motioned a man across the room. The man in turn motioned to another man at the door who in turned motioned to the valet who was standing no more than ten feet from where we stood. The valet, a young man in a cap and uniform, looked 12 years old. He nodded and ran off to retrieve the car. His nod initiated a chain of acknowledgement nods around the horn back to Tong, who was by now on his second cigarette.
“Macro. You the first one from Canada. You from Canada yes?”
By ‘first one’ he meant consultant. My company used to set up sales channels in Canada for Chinese manufacturers. Typically manufacturers do not consider Canada in their expansion plans. “Too cold. Too poor.” The image most Chinese hold of Canada is Banff, snow and the Yeti. But in this case, the product made sense.
The car was a 2006 Silver Audi A6. Mr. Tong’s employee, the first man he signaled across the room, climbed into the driver’s seat. Tong and I sat in the back.
“Look at China Macro. This is nothing five years ago. Today it is New York. No! Better than New York. Look at the land. Next time you come it will be hotel and shopping place. Ten years before I work factory. I own factory now. No English. But work with white guys. They learn two words of Chinese and act they know China.”
He spat a huge wad of black phlegm out the window and took a deep drag on his cigarette.
“China has more rich people, even richer than me, than Canada.”
I didn’t say anything. I was concentrating on stifling a scream. The driver was hurtling through a teeming street, swarming with pedestrians, bicycles and random animals. Not to mention cars. Lots and lots of cars. More than I had ever seen in Toronto or anywhere else in the world. Cars that seemingly drove themselves while their supposed drivers were busy texting on their phones, reading their newspaper or simply delighting in a bowl of steaming hot soup noodle while managing the steering wheel with their knees.
“I have a doctor.”
“I have a doctor. Doctor of Business from the University of Wuhan.”
“Oh. A PhD. Congratulations. That must have been a lot of hard work,” I said in simple Mandarin.
“No. Just money. I own many factories.”
“I see. What was the first product you manufactured?”
“Nebulizers.” He pronounced this perfectly. “Nebulizers.”
I was told that Tong was given a subsidy from the government to convert a farm into a factory. The government provided all the materials, and built the factory for him. His factory operated rent free and minimal taxes were collected on gains for over a decade. Tong was responsible for hiring workers, typically village peasants or unemployed city dwellers. For the first several years, business was assigned to his factory by officials. Local officials made out very well during the early 90’s. Multinationals paid them for access and factories paid them for the introduction. In turn, the officials would funnel the money to friends and family who would then enterprisingly open their own factories on lease-free land.
“Can we talk about the product you want me to help introduce to North America?” I decided now was a good time to start talking about work. A moment a ago I glimpsed a bicyclist get clipped by a car. The car didn’t stop. I wasn’t sure if I really saw it and turned back to look. The fallen rider was surrounded by people.
“It is amazing. We take the inventor. Ha!” He continued. “Heat gel. Instant hot. For army.”
“So you hired the inventor?”
“Not hire. I buy him.”
“Oh – he’s on contract for how long?”
“No Macro.” he looked down at his lap and grinned. “I buy him.”
“Ha ha. Yes sir.”
Note: I’ve removed all the swearing from the conversation. For a more authentic version, please insert your favorite four letter word liberally in front of everything Tong says.