Joe The China Pro
September 22, 2020
Jerome and I shared an approach to dealing with the seventy factories and hundreds of owners, managers and developers we were responsible for working with from Shanghai to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh to Manila, Hong Kong to Bangladesh, and all points in between. We believed in cultivating personal relationships and trust, one-to-one. It took time and sincere interest, but it was effective. And we enjoyed it: We still have friends all over Asia.
After we had been acquired by a multi-billion-dollar private equity firm and new C-suite people came in, that way of relating to Asian partners was held suspect, with mass brand supply chain guys taking charge who wore white crew-neck t’s under open-collared dress shirts, and who regarded all Asians as shifty liars and whose dictionaries had the page with “win-win” torn out. “Partners” was not a word they cottoned to. Learning Mandarin was out of the question. Adventurous dining meant Outback Steakhouse.
Jerome lived in Hong Kong and knew his way around. I was a motivated rookie. Together we wore a groove from Tianjin to Colombo, Mariveles, Dongguan, Chittagong, Fuzhou and dozens of cities where our products were manufactured. We were an easy and productive traveling pair. Jerome was athletic and handsome, and locals likely mistook him for an American sports celebrity, Jordan perhaps. I never asked but I am certain I was not mistaken for anyone athletic or famous. But we had similar rhythms and made the dozens of transitions needed each trip with ease and humor. We were both gregarious, enjoyed our movements around Asia, loved food and appreciated learning about cultures and people. Finding a solid travel partner, especially traveling through the third world, is a gift.
Our new handlers decided that, although Jerome and I were demonstrably good at what we did, it would look responsible to their bosses back in Boca, the Wharton and Lehman and Harvard guys, if we spent ten grand a day to bring in a true supply chain professional as a consultant–meaning one of their unemployed cronies from the Fortune 500 brand that somehow none of them still worked for.
“You guys do great, but we think you would benefit from some help.”
“No, it’s all good, but Joe’s a terrific guy. You’ll like him. Show him around. He’s an old China pro.”
So we met up with Joe in Kowloon at the cheaper Inter Continental of the two, on Mody Road. Joe was a nice enough chap. Amiable and chatty. He had answers to questions no one had yet posed and solutions to situations that were not problems. In his sourcing world everything was merely a part number. He had no experience at all with cut-and-sew, which was 95% of our business. But we got on fine.
Our itinerary, as always, was brisk and packed—no slack for flight misses or missed alarms. Don’t check a bag in case there’s a hitch. Joe had three bags. We wondered what he was thinking.
We planned to begin our two-week tour just up the east coast of China from Hong Kong in Xiamen (“sha-men”), located on the 24th parallel north, roughly across from Cabo San Lucas. Xiamen is in coastal Fujian Province and is just a bit larger than Los Angeles. It’s a clean, comfortable, seaside city that reminds me of San Diego. It was notable that while Guangdong Province next door is mostly Cantonese speaking, like Hong Kong, Fujian and Xiamen people speak Min, Hokkien, Fuzhounese and Mandarin. Ethnically, most everyone is Han.
After a wake-up call in the dark, we would always taxi to the airport on Lantau Island, take our flight, get picked up in a factory’s van, followed by several hours ground travel. Our days were filled with traipsing through cavernous factories, up and down stairs, into ice cold conference rooms, in and out of vans, and parading through production lines with thousands of workers running digital marker machines, cutting, assembling, sewing and inspecting items that Americans and Europeans didn’t really need. Though conditions did not at all reflect the usual human rights tropes about Asian sourcing, this was work nobody I know would do. It was clean and safe with plenty of water sources available, ample bathrooms and breaks, tidy lunch areas and even exercise groups outdoors. But people worked twelve-hour days and it was repetitious. I never got used to feeling wrong as I walked through the hundreds of diligent workers, with eyes averted.
Following a long day, dinner with the owners and managers was always arranged, and understood to be obligatory. Refusing to partake was bad form and insulting. Our partners always hosted at top restaurants. Jerome and I enjoyed these dinner hours and they often stretched well into the night or even the next morning. This is when and where we became familiar, shared about our families and talked casually and personally. We soon learned our big corporate observers did not understand this courtesy and insisted on negotiating over kimchee or Mabo Dofu, or shunning the event altogether. Jerome and I ate and drank everything, without question. We asked about where foods came from and what local people were like and I learned as much dinner table Mandarin as I could absorb. Mild inebriation is an effective linguistic lubricant.
After schlepping through Mr. Kim’s factory, we checked into the well-appointed Xiamen Marco Polo hotel on Xiamen Island. Kim was a young manager of a large outdoor goods manufacturer based in Seoul. Most every coastal factory we worked with as well as those in Vietnam, the Philippines and Sri Lanka was Korean owned. Kim was smart, handsome, world-wise, educated in British Columbia, cocky and corrupt. I liked him. He liked his nightlife. Nepotism prevailed in many of these companies. Successful older owners who had lived through Mao’s time sent their kids to England or BC or Illinois or California for higher education, with an implicit quid pro quo that they would return and run things, so Dad could relax and move back to Seoul or to his place in Vancouver. This model prevails with Chinese-owned factories as well and is now reaching the next generation. Often, the kids have different ideas, but Confucian filial obligation most often prevails.
Kim and his young management team shuttled us to a five-star Korean barbecue restaurant where the staff knew them well. What followed was a three-hour feast that included beef, pork, chicken, fish, shellfish, noodles and vegetables, with various types of kimchee, all cooked on the tabletop. I enjoyed octopus tentacles still alive and wriggling. We never ordered a thing. In a practice common throughout Asia, Korean Soju (rice liquor) was poured endlessly following the custom that being a good host meant bruising one’s guests with alcohol. Our job was to pace.
Jerome and I were well trained and in shape. Joe held his own throughout dinner.
Like so many in China, Kim was a huge karaoke fan, and the places to go were the KTV clubs. These were often huge, elaborate, multi-story places with bars, live music, restaurants and private rooms for karaoke as you’d find in a luxury condominium: An enormous screen, a stage, state-of-the-art sound gear, couches and chairs, a full bar, food on demand and hostesses who would chat, pour drinks and play dice games of chance. Most of these places were on the up-and-up though we suspected there was always an underbelly, a “secondary revenue stream” as it were.
Joe claimed to be familiar with KTV culture, and though this was neither my nor Jerome’s top choice for entertainment, we played the role of charmed guests. An hour into the fun, and after renditions of Kim doing My Way, Horse With no Name, Hotel California and Benny and the Jets, it appeared Joe was deep into his cups, laughing at everything, slurring, slumping into the couch and obviously and lasciviously groping the two hostesses on either side of him. I was careful using the term xiăojiě, one of those tricky Mandarin words that can mean both “Miss” in a very respectful way, or “prostitute”. Both may have applied. A point came where Jerome and I looked at each other and realized we needed to rescue our “China pro”. Joe was unable to walk. We each hefted a shoulder and slid him out of the private room, down the hall, down a huge staircase in front of hundreds of people and out to a taxi. Joe blubbered senselessly, crying that his wife was going to kill him and what a dope he was. We agreed. This guy was a dope. And it appeared he had been doped. It became apparent Joe had taken on more than Johnnie Walker Blue. He’d been slipped a Fujian Mickey. Benzodiazepine perhaps? China Pro comes to Xiamen and gets roofied?
We slid our sodden Fortune 500 consultant through the elegant Marco Polo lobby, with knowing nods to the front desk and bell guys. They’d likely seen this show before. We managed to get him to his room and into bed.
It was after midnight but we felt we’d survived a test, a travel epic that truly marks a pro, which we knew we were, so we repaired to the bar for a nightcap and self-congratulations. No sooner had our Old Fashioneds arrived than the mobile rang, with young Miss Xu calling to say she had Joe’s passport. He’d dropped it at the KTV.
Classy, Big Joe. China Pro Joe. Very classy.
Strike Two for Big Joe.
“Yes, thank you so much. We’ll meet you out front. We are so sorry for your trouble. Fēi cháng gǎn xiè”
We had no idea we would spend even more time with Miss Xu that night.
We finished our drinks and headed to bed. Around 1:30 the hotel desk rang us both. We had no idea how they knew but Joe the Pro had gotten out of bed, gone to the bathroom (Chinese hotel bathrooms are always granite or stone or some other brutally hard and slippery surfaces), fallen and split his head open. They let us into Joe’s room and he was conked out on the bathroom floor, with blood everywhere.
“Shit, man. We’re in China. A hospital? Got any cash? Get the guy to call an ambulance. You okay? Time to cowboy up.”
We got it done. We carried Joe, a 225 pound bag of inert middle age male, stoned as a mason, out the glass and steel hotel doors, into a taxi (the ambulance idea didn’t fly) and with the help of Miss Xu, who met us there, into the Zhongshan hospital where Joe got shot up, stitched up and doped up. Again. His bleeding was stanched and he was bandaged like Boris Karloff, more awake now, but still under the influence of something wacky.
It cost us thirty-five bucks. “Be sure to get a receipt for expenses.”
We got Joe reinstalled into his room but Jerome and I were much too energized and jangled to sleep, though it was now after three. Plus we were hungry.
“Hànbǎo diàn zài nǎlǐ?” I asked the desk guys, who by now thought we were pretty funny lǎowài, “Where is hamburger store? McDonald’s?”
We walked out into the warm and soft tropical air, a light rain falling, and around the corner to the clown burger shop and macked down a couple Big Macs (jùwúbà), then trudged back home to our rooms and passed out.
The next day we made the bell early, with only an hour or two sleep, did our factory tour and price negotiations, all while Joe slept the day away. He roused himself for dinner, and our hosts, appreciating our dilemma, gave us a party pass. Jerome and I were impressed with the emergency room work at the Xiamen Zhongshan hospital but we also felt we had a responsibility to get Joe the Pro to Hong Kong for another check-up, possibly get him re-stitched and get some good English drugs into him. We dined solo in the hotel and agreed to hop a flight back to Hong Kong the next morning. We called ahead to our staff there and arranged an office visit.
After a trip to a local medical clinic in Hong Kong, we put Joe on a flight home to the US and headed on to Sri Lanka.
We never got to fully see Joe’s depth of expertise as a seasoned supply chain guy. No one asked us for much in the way of details about Joe the Pro. They seemed to know.
I didn’t know about Jerome, but I felt a subtle sense of pride that we had dealt a blow to a $10,000 a day Fortune 500 consultant.
It was three months before the private equity guys sent us another sourcing pro.
“Sure. Send us another one.”
The next one nearly bankrupted the company.
But that’s another story.