Dear Reader: This post has been updated and now includes the entire story in proper order. Had I posted the second half at a later date, new visitors would have seen the end before the beginning. (It’s like time travel, only without all that quantum crap.)
A corkscrew and a bucket of ice.
You’d think it would be simple enough, wouldn’t you?
I checked in at the Grand Regency Hotel in Qingdao, China, and expected, understandably, to get the special treatment promised by the hotel that boasts itself as the first five-star hotel in Shandong Province. The lobby was ornate, modern, lots of polished marble, and literally an army of bellhops, ashtray-cleaners, table-polishers, you get the idea. I was impressed from the start.
I had just come from Dalian, across the bay in Liaoning Province, and wanted to be spoiled. Dalian was a gray, dreary city, right out of the pages of Orwell’s 1984. I’ll save the rest for another time – Dalian deserves its own space.
So, back to the hotel: I sign the papers, get my card and my passport back, and I bend down to pick up my laptop bag. Two bellhops were on it in a flash, blitzing me from both sides. “No, Sir, I carry,” they said in stereo.
“No, that’s OK. I’ll take this; you can take the rest,” I said to either of them.
The elder of the two made another try for my computer bag.
“Hey! I said I’ll take this one.”
“Please,” he says, not making direct eye-contact, but focusing on the bag, “I will carry. I take it to your room in few minutes.”
I took the laptop bag, picked up my papers and room-key card, took a couple of steps toward the elevators, and pointed to the rest of my luggage for the overzealous lobby-monkey. Unless you have a badge or a gun, possession of my computer, even temporarily, is not tolerated. Especially in China. Story for another time.
I step out of the elevator on my floor, check the sign, and made a right towards my room. Right outside the elevator, on the ceiling, and not concealed in any way, was a security camera dome. OK. As the hall bent toward the right, at the apex of the bend, on my left, was another security camera dome. Hmm.
As I passed some rooms, I noticed that there were still more security cameras. One on the ceiling directly over each door; and another one straight across the hall, which was mounted where the wall opposite the room met the ceiling. All angles covered. I was not liking this.
About a step inside the room, on the ceiling, was another goddamn security camera. “Better not leave the bathroom door open,” I’m thinking, but the bastards probably have a couple in there too. And… another pair of cameras, strategically placed, of course, in the bedroom. Great! They had every goddamn inch of the room covered.
I sat on the straight chair at the desk they provided with this deluxe king-sized room, slogged down a locally-brewed Tsing Tao Beer, and read through the Official Hotel Rules for Visitors to The People’s Republic of China while I awaited the arrival of my luggage. I was looking forward to taking a nice hot shower before my first meeting, which was in about three hours.
A different bellhop arrived with my luggage. I learned later that the guy who wanted my laptop bag hadn’t worked there long enough to deliver luggage; he was only the luggage collector. Impressive — I was being served by specialists.
I closed the door behind the bellhop, locked it, put the chain on the door, and plugged the peephole with a piece of tissue. What I really wanted to do was to cover the camera domes with shaving cream or something, but I went about the business of settling in and preparing for my meeting. I’d have time to make my political statement. Instead, I took a shower and got dressed.
My guests arrived right on time, 9:30 PM, and buzzed me from the lobby as I’d requested; told them to come on upstairs and gave them the room number. Another lobby monkey brought them up, dropped them at the doorstep, and did a swift about-face. Visions of PLA marching through Tiananmen Square.
The office manager, whom I’ll call Xiong, because his breath was like a bear’s, and his assistant? interpreter? date? – I wasn’t sure which – came in; I greeted them and they both welcomed me to their city. Then Xiong asked me if I’d ever heard of their “fay-merce” beer, as he pronounced it, which was much more potent here in China than the swill they export to the United States.
“Yes, of course,” I answered, thinking I’d missed the opportunity to offer them something to drink. I smiled uncomfortably, but continued smoothly, “and forgive me for not offering you a drink….”
“No problem! Don’t worry. I can order some tea,” he said, waving off the apology, “I call downstairs,” and he picked up the phone on the table and ordered. I signed for it when it arrived, we had our tea and made our conference call back to the States, and they were gone by 10:45. “Rules say Chinese must be out of room by eleven o’clock. Hotel for foreigners only,” Xiong said as they left.
I locked the door and flipped the bird to each of the cameras that had me in view. “Fuck you, Deng Xiao-Ping, and Li Peng, and their mothers too.” Business was mercifully over. I sat down on the bed to swap my shoes for my slippers, and felt like I’d just sat on a block of cement. What the fuck? I’m supposed to sleep on this… this slab?
I made a post-meeting call and was done in about a minute and a half. But only the bar downstairs was open, and I was hungry and tired, and now I was really steamed about the goddamn concrete bed. And I didn’t want to wait an hour for limited room service, which was all they had after eleven.
Then I noticed a welcome basket on the dresser next to the armoire. Damn! How did I not see that? Apples, oranges, a little basket of tiny sweet cherries, a triangular box of Toblerone, some cheese and crackers, and two bottles of local wine, a white and a red! And a card from the people I’d just met with and hadn’t thanked because I just noticed it.
The Soup Commie
I picked up the phone on the night-table, and punched the Room Service number. They picked right up, and I asked for a corkscrew for the wine, and a bucket of ice to chill it in. The guy asked someone there a question in heavily-accented Chinese. I understood a few words. “Shenme?” was one of them. It means “What?” After he got his answer, he comes back to the phone, “OK, ten minute. Thank youuuu….”
I turned the TV on, flipped through the channels, and was pleasantly surprised to find CNN International, as well as Star News, which I knew from Hong Kong, and a number of CCTV channels, one of which was in English. Knock on the door. “Room Service.”
Things were looking up. I open the door, and the first thing I smell is soup. Huh? He lifts the metal cover for a moment to reveal what’s under Dome #1: a bowl of soup. “Corn soup,” he says. I suppress a laugh. I notice there’s no ice bucket.
“Where’s the bucket of ice?” I’m not pleased.
He gives me a quizzical look, and says, “We… do not have basket… for rice. I apologize.” And he lifts Dome #2 to reveal a huge bowl of rice. “Is large bowl OK?” I look up toward the ceiling, wanting to ask God a rhetorical question, but I looked right into the camera dome above my head. Steaming now.
“No! Not OK! Bu dui!” I turned around, picked up the phone, and called Room Service. “Excuse me, this is Room 815. I just called and ordered a corkscrew and a bucket of ice, and the guy’s standing here with corn soup and a freaking bowl of rice! Do you have anyone there who speaks English!?”
“Moment….” Man with slightly less affected English comes on the phone. “I’m sorry, sir. What was it you ordered?”
“I – ordered – a – corkscrew – and – a – bucket – of – ice,” I said, enunciating every word, careful to cover my New York accent. He’d never get “kawks krue” in a million years. And I repeated it, explaining as I went along: “A bucket of ice, to chill a bottle of wine, and a corkscrew, to open the bottle,” as if I were teaching an English class. How could he possibly mess up? “OK, ten minute. Thank you,” and he hung up.
I turn back to Mr. Room Service. I couldn’t resist: “No soup for me!” and I politely closed the door. Back to investigating the incredibly solid mattress. I lift off the bedspread and toss it over the side, and continue to pull off layers until I reach mattress. There’s not very much soft to be found below the blanket.
I slap my hand on the mattress, and there’s maybe a couple of centimeters of ineffective padding above and below, and an even thinner layer on the sides. Inside, springs — probably like the ones they have at NORAD — and a thick wooden frame and a metal rim that jabbed me in the ass when I sat on the edge of the mattress. You could bounce a dime off the goddamn thing, and it sounded hollow. Where the hell is that goddamn corkscrew and bucket of ice?
The Last Straw
Knock on the door. Now they’re tuning into my thoughts. It really had been an exhausting day, starting with a 5:00 AM wakeup call in Dalian. Same Room Service guy, this time with a bottle of wine in a bucket of ice, and two glasses. Nice presentation, but we still have a failure to communicate. I take the open bottle out of the bucket, put it on the tray, and take the bucket of ice.
I put one of the two bottles I’d received into the bucket of ice, and put it down by the mini-bar, and I give the guy a buck and send him back. By now it’s after midnight, and I’m wearing a pair of Denver Broncos sweats and a Bruce Springsteen “Born In The USA” album-cover t-shirt. But the bar is open, so I take the bottle and my room key, take the elevator down to the mezzanine, and walk into the bar.
Not surprisingly, it was almost empty, except for some suits. I signal to the bartender, show him the bottle I’m holding and pantomime a corkscrew. He takes a good look at this fat, pissed-off American, and motions for me to give him the bottle, then takes it to a machine mounted behind the bar, and pops the cork in a second flat. Then he hands it back to me with the neatly-pulled cork.
I handed good old Jeeves a couple of dollars, and padded my way back to the elevator, bottle in one hand, cork in the other, got off on the 8th floor, looked up at the camera over my room door, took an Animal House sized gulp from the bottle, and thundered a belch that would have made Jon Belushi proud. Victory was mine!
The Five Stars
I managed to drink enough of that wine to get a good seven hours of sleep on the China National Institutional Rock-Hard Mattress Import/Export Co. Factory Number Three deluxe king-sized slab, and checked out right after breakfast. I had my people pick me up in front of the hotel, and let them check me into a smaller, more personal, hotel right across the street from a beautiful string of waterfront parks.
Xiong put the cap on the trip by advising me that ALL the hotels in China are Five-Star Hotels — just count the stars on the flag out front.