For several years I designed fountains, statuary, and planters. They were made in China and sold at Costco. The job required travel to China. I begged my boss, Mary Beth, to take me there. I had no idea how grueling those trips could be. After my first trek, I began begging NOT to go to China.
The flight from Chicago to Hong Kong was nearly sixteen hours. I was in economy, often a center seat. From Hong Kong, we took a ferry to mainland China, followed by a long car ride to the resin factory, Peak Top.
What I mostly remember was being horribly jet-lagged for the first several days. But we hit the ground running in spite of exhaustion. There was always a ton of work to jam into our two-week junkets.
Peak Top Factory was a large campus surrounded by a fence and watched over by armed guards. On the campus was a three story hotel where we stayed. The first floor had sofas, a reception area, and a dining room. The dining room had five large round tables. In the center of each was a lazy susan. Management ate there, as did any visiting guests.
One morning my breakfast companions were six tonsured Chinese monks wearing brown burlap robes, tied at the waist with a rope.
Breakfast was congee, a rice “soup.” Wallpaper paste. Dinner was always fried rice. There were other options, but none looked too appetizing.
The second floor had guest rooms as well as a karaoke bar. No one was ever in there during our visits. Our threadbare rooms were on the third floor, furnished with lumpy mattresses, a small round table, laminate night stand and an overhead light.
Each day our laundry was gathered and washed. It came back a bit gray. Possibly darks and lights were put in the same loads.
Other buildings on the campus were offices for management, a large showroom where buyers would view finished products, and the factory itself.
There was a giant plot of land where cast off fountains, statuary, and planters went to die. The puddles in fountains were a breeding ground for swarms of mosquitos. We spent hours wandering the graveyard looking for inspiration, being chewed on by bloodthirsty insects.
Every morning we walked from hotel to factory. The cement stairways were long, each step unusually high. If you happened to be on those stairs when the lunch whistle blew you risked being trampled by hundreds of hungry factory workers.
We worked with design teams to turn our two-dimensional plans into three-dimensional products. First, factory workers made a styrofoam prototype. Once we signed off on that, they created a clay model and made a mold for the resin.
At lunchtime, we went to a small restaurant off campus, chosen because it didn’t serve dog. Before the meal, we washed our dishes with hot water poured from a teapot. Appetizers consisted of redskin peanuts. Picking those up with chopsticks was tricky, but I learned.
The street into Peak Top town was pitted. Chickens wandered the road, and raw meat for sale sat in the hot sun gathering flies. Small children played unaccompanied by parents. Mongrels roamed, picking up scraps when available. We were told never to walk that street after dark unless accompanied by a couple of men.
While the work was physically exhausting, it was fascinating. We partnered with several English speaking upper management folks. Miss Gao, first name Sunny but no one ever used it, was a wizard with paint. A skinny little thing, she wore shirt waist dresses, high heels, and on her wrist was a Hello Kitty phone case holding a minuscule cell phone.
When speaking Chinese to coworkers, she sounded angry. I once asked, “Are you fighting with those ladies?” She wasn’t. It’s just how Chinese sounds. Rapid and irate.
Jim Peng was a wonderful young man. He speaks excellent English and loves to read. I would pass along my finished books, and he would devour them in days. He showed me photos of his childhood home, built into the side of a steep hill. They had no running water or indoor plumbing. The toilet was a hole dug in the ground.
Another woman we worked with was Maple. She was beautiful, gentle and ageless.
In spite of the long hours, we did find time for fun. Several times we went to Shenzhen and shopped Luohu market. Luohu is a vast building housing hundreds of vendors selling knock off everything. Gucci purses, Chanel jewelry, Hermes scarves. The shopkeepers are aggressive. They chase shoppers down the halls, pulling at their arms, demanding in pigeon English you buy from them.
We were told never to pay the suggested price. Barter until you get down to one-third of asking. If you don’t get your price, move on. Three doors down will be another showroom carrying the same items.
At first, I was timid about bartering, but as the day wore on, I began to have fun with it. I became a very “ugly American.” Mary Beth worked hard selecting half a dozen Kipling bags. She then settled on a price. I declared, “Mary Beth, we’re outta’ here! Put those back.”
She looked bewildered, then laughed and followed me to the hallway. Sure enough, the tiny shop girl pursued her. Mary Beth got the bags for a fraction of what she’d been about to pay.
She was unable to go to China on my final trips due to illness. I went alone for two weeks, returned home for ten days, only to turn around and go back for another two weeks. My body was completely confused about when to sleep, so I took Ambien. One night after swallowing my pill I opened the kitchen door to let the dog out.
The next thing I knew it was morning, Jim was looming above me. I had passed out and slammed my head against the granite counter top. Jim woke when a random man rang our door bell. He had Bronson in tow. The poor animal had been outside all night.
I ended up at the Emergency room getting ten stitches over my left eyebrow. After that, we decided I was too old to do such a taxing job.
My sister, Marilyn, is a nurse. When she heard my Ambien story, she said, “That’s why they call it the ‘velvet hammer.'”
I’m glad I had the experience of working in China. And I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore.
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