Raymond Lam (not his real name) was one of the more colourful characters I met. We agreed to meet in a coffee shop in Wan Chai, Hong Kong. He was 45 minutes late.
“Ah Macro! Sorry I late. I was in bar.”
It was 10:15am.
“Macro. I show you prototype. Best ever!” He produced a tiny machine that looked like a stapler. “The coffee bean go in here. Out here, good grind amount – just ok for one cup of coffee. No waste.”
“Very nice,” I nodded. “Cost?”
“Three dolla FOB with silkscreen. You buy 10,000. Thirty day lead only. Hahaha. You sell for thirty dolla and you rich as Bill Gates. I take you to factory now. You speak Chinese?”
“Ah good. Hong Kong guy eh? So am I. But it’s a Dailulo (Chinese mainlander)’s world now.”
We crossed the border into Shenzhen later in the afternoon. He arranged a car to pick us up.
“Macro, we eat first. We have lot of work to do next three days. We eat now.”
“Ha ha!” I joked, “You mean we’re not going to eat again until we’re finished the factory audits?”
He looked at me, clearly missing the joke. “Macro, I do not abuse workers. I feed my workers. Write it down. Go. Go. Write it down.”
“F______ CNN. They take one picture of one factory and tell everybody that China is like that. ” He lit a cigarette. “Americans the ones who tell us to use the cheapest materials. Americans the one who tell us to rush QA to make ship time. Americans the one who choose the paint they call poisonous. Nobody in America die because of paint on toys. But factory owner kill himself because of shame. For what? Because Americans want to buy everything from One Dolla Store. We make smaller than two percent.”
He looked right at me. “Macro, this will end in five years. I guarantee you. This system will not work forever. All factories in China told to sell to people inside China now.”
This was 2007.
Once we left the city limits, we pulled off the main road and onto a dirt road that stretched across a deserted field. The drive across the field lasted fifteen minutes. By the time we stopped, the skyscrapers of Shenzhen were nowhere to be seen. We were standing at the entrance of what looked like a farm. Pigs, goats, and geese milled around us as we made our way toward the entrance. A skinny woman greeted us by, I swear I’m not making this up, waving the leg of a freshly slaughtered dog.
Raymond saw the frozen terror on my face.
“Hahaha Macro. Don’t worry. I know you don’t eat your friends in Canada. We only eat pig and goose today.”
The establishment was in fact a farm, or at least it was prior to it becoming a restaurant. I use the term restaurant extremely loosely. It was a tarpaulin-covered area in the middle of a farm. To my left was a narrow, artificial pond so packed with fish and eels, the ones closest to shore were hurling themselves onto land to end their own misery. To my right was a large dirt field where pigs, goats, dogs and geese roamed freely; each animal seemingly aware of the horrors that awaited them every day around noon.
We were seated on round plastic stools. The table was dressed with a large black garbage bag. We were offered a choice of, again, not making this up, clean dishes or ‘self-wash’ dishes. The clean settings included chopsticks, a bowl, a teacup and a single napkin. The whole thing was shrink-wrapped in plastic. We had to pay 2 RMB per setting. The ‘self-wash’ option was a pile of dishes on a counter we could help ourselves to and, again, not making this up, wash ourselves with a pot of tea. Because I was a guest, they splurged on the clean dishes.
I sat quietly while Raymond spoke about his factories, his business plans and his mistress. Once in a while the driver would contribute a few choice zingers. They would hoot and let loose a tirade against Americans, their suppliers, Americans, the economy, Americans and copper prices.
Suddenly I was pierced by the most terrifying screech I’d ever heard. It was a drawn-out, brain-shrinking ‘eeeeeeee‘ that hit maximum decibels instantaneously. My entire body froze and my mouth went dry. Even Raymond looked shocked. The sound was like a human-child being cut open while wide awake.
Fifteen minutes later, the woman brought out our lunch – pork in black bean sauce.
I just ate the suicide fish.
*Every single Chinese person I have ever met in China called me Macro. I get it. The ‘R’ thing. But these folks addressed me as Macro on emails, letters and sales contracts as well. One prospect even helpfully changed the spelling from ‘Marco’ to ‘Macro’ on a contract sign-back and advised me that I should be more detail-oriented next time.