Sunday, April 19, 2009

The General

With the economy taking the turn that it did, my role in my office has slightly changed. With many of our significant projects going on hold, we have focused more on trying to get more exposure in the Chinese market. With this, I’ve become more involved in Business Development and Marketing. Easy enough I guess I’ve done a bit of this in LA. Meet, greet, smile and talk about your credentials…blah…blah…blah……WRONG! Your not in Kansas anymore Dorothy.

In Asia it’s all about the Guanxi; personal relationships. If you have close relationships with powerful government officials then you are as good a gold. You could be a bi-polar retard with both legs missing but if you have the Guanxi, you could actually be a candidate to run the relay in the next Olympics. No joke, it’s that blatant.

So how do you attain this “Guanxi”? How do you become best friends with someone in the Communist Party? Well, you eat, drink, and get shit faced with them of course. Isn’t that how BFFs are made. I mean it worked in high school and college so why not now?

This is where the General comes in. Somehow, we made a key contact with this gentlemen that used to be something like the Attorney General of Shanghai. Mr. X as I’ll refer to him, has been critical in setting up meetings with high-powered government officials and captains of industry that have more money and power than God (ehhh…well they do in secular China at least).

Needles to say it has been interesting. I’ve found myself standing in parking lots of private dining clubs surrounded by Ferraris and Lamborghinis or in private restaurants choking down Great White Shark fin soup (I detest this but…) and expensive Russian caviar and washing it down with $300 bottles Bordeaux.

On paper, it sounds glamorous and exciting right? WRONG! It’s fricking hard ass work because what precedes and follows the shark fin soup, caviar and Champagne dreams is typically all sorts of crazy freaky dishes and terrible corn moonshine called Bie jiu . The dishes range from whole frogs and pig lungs floating in chicken blood to some sort of gross looking slimy sea creature oozing some ungodly mucousy liquid. I have to shovel his stuff down with a smile and say Hao Chi (DELICIOUS!).

Then there’s the drinking. Normally this is where I excel. This is my sweet spot, however years of training with best (the BBGA) has not prepared me to (and I’m not exaggerating about what is to follow) Gambei (down in one gulp) a full glass of Bordeaux. Now this is not one of those classy pours in a cheesy restaurant wine glass, this is a Crate and Barrel mega red wine goblet filled to the rim with a ridiculously expensive vintage. This is followed with a shot of Bie Jiu then immediately after a sip of beer or Remy Martin XO. Basically, you have about three or four glasses of different types of alcohol in front of you and you are constantly taking a drink out of one.

There was one night in particular that stood out. This night we were invited by Mr. X to have dinner at an exclusive private club that once was the British Consulate in the 1930’s. It reeked of the 1930’s glamour when Shanghai was considered the Paris of the East. The art deco mansion that we had dinner in is currently owned and managed by the Chinese Air Force for high-ranking Military officials to stay or for entertaining government officials. If only these walls could talk.

As we were introduced to Mr. X’s colleagues, my co-worker whispered to me the credentials of each of the men. These guys were no joke. I mean here we are as architects about to have dinner with the men that approve all of the Construction in Shanghai. One of these cats was the chairman that held the purse to billions of money that we are gunning for.

Then there was the host, The General. He is a massive mound of a man with a very imposing stature! He stood about 6’-6” with shoulders like a linebacker and was a retired four star General of the Chinese Air Force.

In China, there is a very specific order in which one sits. Therefore, as it happens, my boss’s sat directly at the center of this long table with Mr. Money bags and his cohorts directly across from him. Then you sit progressively away from the center by your position (or lack there of). Needless to say, I was at the end. Due to this seating arrangement, I was at the far end situated right next to the General who was sitting at the head of the table.

The General didn’t speak much English however as the dinner and drink progressed he asked me if I was Japanese. I said no and that I was, essentially, American. As the drinking continued, he kept insisting that I was Japanese so he kept calling me “Moshi Moshi” (this means hello in Japanese and kind of derogatory when put in the current context). Every time we would “Gambei”, he would say something in Chinese and end with “Moshi Moshi”. I leaned over to my co-worker and asked her what he was saying and basically he was saying that he wanted to bomb Japan so he was going to keep filling my glass until “moshi moshi” (me) was bombed!

Mind you, this dude was a big boy and there were all sorts of drinking and eating going on already; however, I wasn’t going to take this laying down. I remembered what my good buddy and functional alcoholic roommate Jeff would do when we were going to spend the night marinated in alcohol. He would always say it’s all about the pacing and to add taking shots of water in between drinks to stay hydrated and to make it seem like you are drinking a lot.

With that, I went on the attack and took on the General. I was the aggressor. Gambei after gambei. From red wine to whiskey to beer to bie jiu. It was all a fuzzy blur. As the night went on and business was being discussed at the center of the table, the General and I were going mono e mono.

After one bottle of 750 ml of bie jiu, six beers, nine bottles of wine and one bottle of Remy Martin XO, I was spinning and slurring. So was the General, in fact, he was wavering in his chair and that’s when I saw my opportunity to take him down. Dinner was winding down and I knew I had about 30 minutes before I passed out. This was the only chance I had to strike when the iron is hot! I knew if I took two more Gambei shots of red wine, I could end it and I figured I would be in the car by the time it hit me so I went for it. I had the waiter fill his glass and mine to the rim with read wine. We downed it then I asked to fill another round to the rim and that’s when I broke him.

He said “bu shi…bu shi…gou le!” which means “no more…no more…enough!” I kept on insisting that we finish the bottle but he couldn’t take anymore that grabbed one of his chopsticks placed a white tablecloth on it and raised it in surrender!

Needless to say, it was a ruckus-filled evening and as we walked out the door, he put his arm around me and said (in Chinese) you are a good friend and a good drinker. You are welcome here anytime. The only problem is that I hope he remembers me when I come back.

When the car dropped me at my apartment, I rushed in and headed straight to worship the porcelain god.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

All kinds of Amazing!

It is spring in Shanghai. The bone chilling wet winter has slowly dissipated and is giving way to longer days and cherry blossoms. I’ve been able to run outdoors more so the humdrum days of training for the Great Wall Marathon on a treadmill are behind me.

This morning was nice. It was a misty morning when I left the apartment. As I hit my stride about 2.5 km (sorry, I’ve been using the metric system now) the sun started to peek through the haze and the early morning wet market was in full swing on Ningbo Lu. As I dodged through the hustle and bustle of the morning market; I had a spring in my stride, my heart rate felt strong, a cool breeze against my skin and the smell of freshly steamed dumplings coursing through my nostrils. I thought to myself “it doesn’t get better than this” then right at that moment my IPOD shuffles to Jack Johnson’s “ Upside Down”….man, this was all kinds of amazing!

I usually carry a camera when I run but this morning I decided not to because it was a longer than usual run. It’s a shame because there were so many photo-ops. Having said that, I’ve attached pictures from this past weekend race. It was an 8km race in the Jinqiao District of Pudong in which we decided to wear Pajamas.

I think these spell out what running and training is like in Shanghai…'s all kinds of amazing.


My good friend Jessica has a blog called Sweet Eventide. As she explained it to me, Eventide is that transitory part of the end of the day that is magical. It’s her favorite moment of the day and I agree that it is magical.

Impressionist painters were obsessed with this time of the day because it was so ephemeral. They would use the fading light like acid to change and define everything even subjects that were deemed immutable. Whether it was to “melt” the past or redefine the future, it inevitably connoted change. This transformation, however, was always encompassed in beauty.

It’s a time of the day that one can look into the sunset and pat oneself on the back and say “good job today”. It’s a time of the day that wraps up all the pragmatic issues and allows us a sense of accomplishment. It’s a time of the day when a ritualistic bathing in the golden glow of the sun cleanses the day’s events and prepares us to dream of tomorrow.

I bring this up because last Friday April 10, 2009 approximately 6:15pm, I had a surreal “eventide moment”. I was in the countryside about an hour and a half outside of Shanghai when I stood on a road that seemed to be aligned perfectly east to west.

Unlike California, this part of China is perfectly flat so all I could see was open farmland and countryside for miles around. As I stood on this road basking in the sun’s golden glow on the west, I noticed a perfect full moon to the east. The amazing part was the alignment of these two empyreal bodies.

Both orbs where perfectly aligned at their respective ends of the road and both orbs were about the same size and almost at the same azimuth and altitude. I wanted to reach out; grab them both, switch them, and see where destiny would take me and what change in beauty would this bring.