Since Boss punked out and went directly home from Kong Kong, my first trip into Mainland China was a solo venture. Just as well; that allowed me the freedom to walk at my own pace. But it was pre-1989, and the government still controlled pretty much everything. Foreigners used “funny money” – Foreign Exchange Coupons – instead of Renminbi, and couldn’t shop just anywhere. I decided I hated it. In those days, I couldn’t even go outside for a cigarette without being watched by two plainclothes cops.
First day, I met my colleagues in our Shanghai office, which was managed by the brother of the Hong Kong sales manager, a Shanghai native and a good Communist named Bao Jin-Long (real name). I spent as little time with him as possible. His brother Larry told me when they were kids, his brother turned their parents in to Mao’s terrorists. I decided it would be nice to see this guy fall off a cliff.
My primary contact at that office was a pretty young woman named Eileen, with whom I’d developed a close working relationship. She was by no means a Communist; Eileen was a free-thinker, not too long out of university, and in fact we are friends to this day. She and her family are now Canadian citizens, living in Ontario. We’ve been friends since 1987-88, almost 25 years.
One of my major agenda items in Shanghai was to meet a guy from Beijing Arts & Crafts Import & Export Corporation — the government — and get the grand tour of a stuffed panda-bear factory for one of our importers. He ran the factory — a guy named Wang Li — and when his car pulled up to my hotel to pick me up, he was wearing knockoff Gucci sunglasses and a knockoff Rolex watch, and he just looked like a million yuan. I knew without being told to keep an eye on this guy, just because he was with the controlling state agency.
Our traveling party was Bao, Wang Li, Eileen, me, and our driver, whom Eileen had told me was also a Party member. Our destination was a town in nearby Jiangsu Province called Kunshan. The drive took us past a number of checkpoints – nothing fancy; a guard in a shack checking IDs – and out into the countryside.
I remember it was flat, and the road wasn’t entirely paved; there were ancient-looking farm vehicles and horse-drawn carts and the usual scooters, and occasionally a big smoking truck that the farmers used to take their crops into the cities, all sharing the same road.
I also saw people with bird-guns (they looked like .22 caliber rifles and were probably loaded with bird-shot) every few hundred yards and was surprised that any Chinese citizen was allowed to own a gun, but apparently it was OK out here because the people had to be able to get some kind of meat.
The road paralleled a river that was separated from the road by 200 yards or so of relatively well-kept grass, and there were huts made of grass and sticks that some of the farm-workers lived in. It was about a two-hour ride, maybe a little longer, before we reached the town, which looked to have been almost deserted.
The factory was on the outskirts of town; in fact, the entire town seemed to be made up of semi-deserted outskirts. I’ve seen a few of these ghost-settlements (which is what I call them) around China over the years. Maybe they were deserted Vietnam-era movie sets, who knows?
I had started taking Mandarin Chinese classes two nights a week at an adult-ed center in Denver, so I knew enough to have a simple conversation. I’d also made sure to learn many of the phrases every traveler to China should know. Forewarned is forearmed.
So after the factory tour — another story for yet another day — Wang Li, the big macher from Beijing, had the factory manager take us all to the conference room for tea, and we all sat around and I listened to them bullshit, nodded occasionally, and drank tea. Occasionally either Eileen or Wang Li would relay questions about clearing U.S. Customs or preparing documents or some other thing, and I actually used a little of my Chinese and tried to make myself understood with very limited success.
We adjourned to the parking lot, where we packed into two cars — there were about 8 of us — and we met four other guys from the factory, I presume, who weren’t at our meeting but got back and met us at the hotel in time to eat on Beijing’s tab.
There were two lazy susans on the long table, and we all took small bits from the plates and put them onto our own and then spun them around for the next person. There were vegetable dishes — gai lan and oyster sauce, something with mushrooms and carrots — and some cold appetizers also. One of them, some kind of sliced, smoked meat, tasted incredibly similar to sliced, pickled beef tongue, which is a common Jewish deli favorite (along with the more well-known pastrami and corned beef), and something I grew up with. Either Wang Li or Eileen, who sat on either side of me, usually started me off with a taste of this or that.
And of course, after I’d tried each of the dishes, the others would ask me how I liked each one; so after I’d tasted some of that meat with the dipping sauce it came with, I remarked as to how much it tasted like something I grew up eating, “Oh, this one is good! I’ve had this before. I like this. This is beef tongue, right? Beef tongue?” Some of them smiled, one of them nodded and said, “Yes, yes. Beef. Good yes?” “Yes, very good!” I took another slice with my chopsticks, dipped it in the sauce, put it in my mouth, and began to chew it.
At that point, a couple of them — two of the guys who’d met us at the hotel but weren’t in the meeting at the factory where I tried out my elementary Chinese — looked at each other across the table and one of them said to the other, not even looking at him, “Don’t tell the American he’s eating dog meat.”
I chewed once more, smiled, and washed it down with a glass of their tasty formaldehyde-loaded beer, but I sat there as straight-faced as I could. Reached into my pocket and opened the small bottle of traveling drugs and remedies I always carry with me; ate two Pepto Bismol tablets, and asked, in Chinese, “Cesuo zai shenme difang?” Where’s the toilet?
One of them pointed and looked a little embarrassed; I was on my way to the room with the hole in the ground and the faucet on the wall to flush things. I saw it, did a 180, went back to the table, and didn’t really touch anything until lunch was about over.
The waiter brought over a plate of breaded, deep-fried tofu cubes. Mmmm. There’s something I could eat, And it smelled great too. Picked one up with my chopsticks – man, it looked good – and because it was hot I took a small bite. I hadn’t even got it to whatever part of my tongue that could taste it and this awful, stinking, rotten smell hit me square in the nostrils, and I almost gagged. I spit the piece I’d bitten off into my napkin, looked at Eileen and excused myself from the restaurant.
After we all split up, Eileen told me that awful, rotten stuff was actually a favorite dish in those parts called “cho dofu,” or “stinky tofu.” Looks great, smells great, but once you bite into it, it’s like releasing all the evils in Pandora’s Box directly into your throat. After that, knowing I ate sliced dog was a little easier to handle.
Next: The concrete cave-dwellers of Beijing will be posted at another time…. Have decided to do a more timely and relevant piece.