Hangzhou pictures.

Now, don’t get too excited; I’m a reluctant photographer, to put it mildly. One of those people who doesn’t like to interrupt the flow of their real life/real time experiences, stepping back from them in order to compose a shot, and thus somehow placing them at one remove. If a picture paints a thousand words, then give me the thousand words every time.

However, I did force myself to take the odd few snaps here and there. As usual, click on each thumbnail for a larger version.

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This was my (and later J’s) apartment, in the Zigui Gardens complex on Wenxing Lu. Acceptably contemporary, wouldn’t you say?

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Left: one of the strange group of ceramics that hung above the telly in the sitting room.

Right: me and some old stone geezer, at the tomb of General Yue Fei.

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Stone Buddhas, carved into the rock at the base of Feilai Peak.

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Views of the amazing Lingyin Temple.

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Left: view over the West Lake.
Right: Lovely Puff!

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Left: window cleaners on a Shanghai tower block.
Right: the Jingmao building, Pudong district, Shanghai. I think this is currently the city’s tallest building. The Hyatt Hotel starts on the 54th floor; J and I had a coffee up there.

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The amazing cake shop on Wensan Lu, snapped just in the nick of time before I was asked to move on. They must have thought I was a spy from a rival cake shop.

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Tombs, temples, grunge bands and a glass of your finest Moet.

Saturday daytime.

Two weeks in, and it’s high time I did the whole tourist thing. So off we troll on the trusty old Number 81, back towards the West Lake, for some serious tomb-and-temple action.

The tomb of General Yue Fei is one of the city’s top attractions, but I can’t say I’m bowled over. Like so many historical sites, it was badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, and so is more than a tad too Repro for my tastes.

Onto the Number 7 bus – packed with schoolkids, all gawping at the charmingly bonkers cartoon on the overhead telly – and all the way out of town, to the Feilai Peak and the Lingyin Temple. The former is a steep, wooded hill, with many images of Buddhas and other deities carved into the rocks around its base. The latter lies on the other side of the stream, and is a vast, colourful and elaborate complex of Buddhist halls, which rise up above each other on the facing slope.

Now, this is more like it. I’ve done more than my fair share of Buddhist temples over the years, but this is up there with the very best of them. J and I are particularly taken with the hall containing long, winding corridors packed with hundreds of gold-painted sculptures of assorted holy men; life-sized, but placed above head height in facing rows, where they almost seem to be interacting with each other. Every single sculpture has its own unique character, running the gamut from devout to leery, inscrutably beatific to slyly conspiratorial, quietly contemplative to exuberantly hedonistic (and not a little camp). Soon, I’m inventing little stories and doing little voices for each one. Freestyle anthropomorphisation. Great fun.

Saturday night.

The 31 Bar lies up a dirt track, off a deserted main road, way out of town, on the unfashionable west side of the West Lake. It’s Hangzhou’s only venue for live alternative rock music, and tonight – New Year’s Eve – it is closing its doors for good. From tomorrow, there will be nowhere – in this city of over six million inhabitants – for local bands to play.

To mark the bar’s closing night, seven acts will be playing – including one of the city’s longest established bands, the 5 Second Boys, whose lead singer/guitarist works in our Human Resources department. J and I have been playing their home-made debut album (Learn To Juggle) for the past few days, and have been won over by its semi-acoustic latter-day grunge sound. (Its nearest reference point: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged, but with an additional violinist.)

The 5 Second Boys were meant to be second on the bill, but various circumstances have dictated that they perform the opening set instead; this is good for us, as we’ve only just arrived and we won’t be able to stay the whole night.

Their set goes down great, with the album’s closing track Pussycat gathering a big whoop of recognition, as it was also featured on a recent sampler CD of local bands. Our colleague S makes a convincing front man, with a performance which – like all the other acts on the bill – eschews any form of flashy rock-star posturing. No-one’s in this for the career path, as quite simply there isn’t one. These are bedroom bands, rehearsing in each other’s flats, recording onto home PC equipment, and occasionally playing live for a small, dedicated community of enthusiasts. It’s the very essence of “indie”. John Peel would have approved.

As for me, I feel privileged to be here, just in the nick of time, in this roomy, dingy, appropriately scuzzy backwater bar with newspaper plastering on the ceiling and (oh joy!) strong draught Tiger on tap, instead of the ubiquitous piss-weak Tsingtao.

After his band’s set, S sells around thirty copies of the CD, signing the booklets in the makeshift backstage area for a throng of fans. While he’s doing this, the next act slinks onstage, almost unnoticed. He’s a quirky looking long-haired dude in a scarlet anorak, big specs and a woolly hat, who starts up a simple drum pattern from his laptop, sits himself down on a little wooden chair, and starts strumming basic chords on his guitar, feeding them through his effects pedal as mood dictates.

Behind him, an exceedingly primitive Winamp visualisation program does its rather limited thing on the projection screen. Occasionally – very occasionally – someone at the mixing desk chooses a new pattern, by closing Winamp, going into the Windows Start Menu, picking another file, maximising the Winamp window again… all of which does rather kill any potential psychedelic mystique. (They’d have been better off with iTunes.)

This is clearly the “experimental” section of the evening. The dude’s first number is over in a few minutes. His second number – featuring puny drum machine pattern #2, in the same tempo as the first, and an equally random selection of chord patterns and indistinct mumblings – lasts well over thirty minutes, and incorporates snatches of I Wanna Be Your Dog by Iggy & The Stooges, and If You’re Happy And You Know It Clap Your Hands, re-worked in Mandarin to read If You’re Not Happy And You Know It, All Jerk Off.

I’m making this sound a damn sight more interesting than it was; actually, it was intolerable. Unable to summon up the courage to register my misery in the appointed fashion, I retreat to the yard outside – along with a sizeable section of the clientele, who burst into wild applause when the drum machine finally shuts up. This is my first encounter with Chinese sarcasm, and I cherish it.

We stick around for the next three bands, who all play short sets in quick succession, sharing the same drumkit to speed up the process. It becomes increasingly clear that the ghost of Kurt Cobain still looms large over Hangzhou’s underground rock scene. Nothing wrong with that, but I make a mental note to mail S with some recent releases. (The Arcade Fire album, for instance; they’ve got to hear that one.)

S orders us a cab, and we whizz across town in time to arrive at the All! New! Shamrock before midnight. (As one venue closes, so another one opens. Darlings, we only do opening nights and closing nights, and only if we’re With The Band or friendly with the owners. I tell you, I’ve got this city cracked.)

The All! New! Shamrock is a very different proposition from its predecessor, which closed its doors for good on Christmas Day. The old venue was tall, narrow and historic; the new venue is in the ground floor of a modern building, with a wide, open-plan layout and a small stage area in the middle of the back wall. R greets us effusively and shows us to her table, where yet another mad dice game is in progress. Someone tries to explain the rules, but it’s loud, and everybody’s sloshed, and it’s nearly midnight anyway, and Woo! Happy New Year, Hangzhou!

The benefit of being at R’s table is that we get the Moet, rather than a glass of the more regular bubbly that everyone else in the bar is offered. Upgrade! Upgrade for Mister Diva! I’m soon out in the corridor near the loos, bellowing New Years’ greetings down my mobile to K in Derbyshire, and to my mother in Cambridge.

Tomorrow, we hit Shanghai city for a Big Adventure.


Or in real time: tomorrow, I hit Shanghai airport, followed by Heathrow and Nottingham. My Hangzhou experience is almost over; I’ll be leaving the office in a matter of minutes, heading back to the apartment for some preliminary packing, then out for a meal and a late drink at yes-you’ve-guessed-it.

See you on the other side of the world.

Mud, Mariah, madams and mince.

All the rainfall of the past few days has exposed one of the city’s big weaknesses: the quality of the pavements. There’s flooding everywhere, which has a habit of seeping underneath the atrociously laid and completely unsuitable little square tiles of etched concrete – which, I am told, begin buckling almost as soon as they are laid, and require replacing every three or four years or so.

Therefore, if you don’t watch your every step, you are quite liable to step on a loose tile and splatter yourself, from both ankles to both knees, with muddy water – made thicker and browner by the layer of dust-turned-sludge which accumulates at times like these.

By the time I get to the office and look down for the first time, I find that my nice dark blue Paul Smith jeans are plastered – nay, caked – with the stuff. Oopsy. That’ll learn me.


J and I are growing increasingly irritated with the number of telephone candidates who are blatantly trotting out prepared speeches. It’s always the candidates with the weakest grasp of English who do this; there will be a sudden jump from faltering hesitancy, and an inability to grasp the simplest of questions, to suspicious fluency and a dramatically increased vocabulary. How can you know what “enterprise knowledge management system” means, when you don’t even understand the word “why”? Or even, in the case of one rather abrupt fellow, the expression “IT”.

(“What? What is this? What is IT?” It’s the name of your industry, petal. Thank you for your time. Someone from our Human Resources team will contact you later.)

This morning, I catch one candidate lifting entire sentences straight from his CV, and so deliberately set out to throw him off course with unexpected questions. But the phone candidate who annoys me most is an otherwise intelligent, articulate young woman who is determined to read out her lengthy scripts at all costs, no matter what questions she is asked. In fact, it’s a few minutes before I even get to ask my first question. In between speeches, she listens and responds perfectly well – but then her whole tone of voice will switch back to Recital Mode. She’s trying far too hard to impress, and this desperation spoils her chances. I’m sensing an underlying neurotic anxiety which goes beyond the nervousness which I’m used to dealing with, an obsession with winning for its own sake, and something of a prima donna attitude.

As she drones determinedly on, my imagination starts to wander, and my mind starts to project. I can see this girl fighting hard to stay at the top of her class, all the way through school; popular with her teachers, shunned by her classmates. There’s also something about this Recital Mode which puts me in mind of the star pupil on Speech Day, up on the podium, reading out her prize-winning essay on Responsible Citizenship. She’s someone who’s used to getting what she wants, whatever it takes.

“And for my next project, which I commenced in October 2003 and completed in March 2004…” Please, make it stop.

By the end of the interview, I’ve come up with a name for her: Princess Pushi. Sometimes, it’s being a snidey little bitch which gets me through the day.

The next phone candidate is a jolly, giggly soul, and a right little charmer to boot. (“My family think I am half a genius! But I am more than that! More than genius! Yes! Haha!“) His answer to the “what are your other interests” question makes my day.

“I like to sing! Backstreet Boys! And you know Mariah Carey? I love to sing Mariah Carey! You know her song Hero? Is my favourite to sing!”

Before I can stop him, he’s off and away. “There’s a heeee-ro, if you look inside your heaaaaart….

My ears, my ears. Enough already!

D the English manager asks whether I’d like to join him, one of the other English guys, the two American lady trainers, and a thrusting American entrepreneur from the office upstairs, for a buffet lunch at the über-swish Hyatt Hotel, overlooking the West Lake. What a treat! But oh, my trousers! On today of all days!

No matter. I’ll tell them all it’s the latest distressed look. Helmut Lang, darlings. All the rage in Milan. You mean you didn’t know?


In the evening, J and I decide to try the famous Banana Leaf: a Thai restuarant, where an unfeasibly camp bunch of Filipino waiters perform song-and-dance acts round the tables, flirting suggestively with half the male diners, with a shamelessness that is all the more startling given the precarious legal status of homosexuality over here.

Then again, camp “theatricals” have always got away with more than most. And boy oh boy, do this bunch ever clock me. Less than halfway through my meal, I am pulled out of my seat to join them in a rousing rendition of I Just Called To Say I Love You; a couple of minutes later, one of them is giving me a mini-lapdance, his grinding arse hovering a couple of inches above my napkin-shielded crotch.

“Where you from?”, he asks.

“England.”

“Oh, Ing-er-rand! You have a special language there?”

His colleague cuts in. “You stupid! They speak Ing-er-ish! They’re Ing! They from Ing-er-rand, so they’re Ing!

“Aiee, I’m so stupid!”

“It’s like people from Swiss-er-rand, they are Swiss!”

I can’t resist cutting in.

“And people from America, they are?”

“???”

“RUDE!”

Peals of laughter. They liked that. And no, I didn’t fully buy their Dumb Act, either. Who cares, though. Stereotyping can be FUN.

Ponchos, hotpots and dive bars.

Thursday morning.

It’s raining today, so many of the cyclists are decked out in plastic ponchos. Others simply cycle along using one hand to steer, and their other hand to hold up their umbrellas. J says it gets interesting when they start talking on their mobiles as well…

I’m having difficulty reconciling two aspects of Chinese behaviour. On the one hand, there’s a sense of regimented orthodoxy – a certain dampening down of individualism – which is particularly apparent amongst the young graduates who pass before me each day, fresh out of the sausage factories of the mind, parroting the same stock lines. But out on the streets, where the collective good would be best served by observing the rules of the road and obeying the traffic signals, it’s everyone for themselves, pushing ahead, swerving and cutting up and simultaneously claiming equal and opposite rights of way. The same holds true in the shops, where queues are almost unheard of, and getting served is a simple matter of shoving your way to the front regardless. What’s also strange: there’s no sense of underlying aggression to this sort of behaviour. It’s just the way things are.

Thursday evening.

D the English manager takes J and I to a Chinese Hotpot restaurant. As in yesterday’s not-Korean-after-all food joint head shop, there is a gas ring set into the middle of each table, onto which a large metal pot is placed. The pot is split into two compartments, ying-and-yang style, with each side containing a different blend of oily sauce and spices; deep red on one side, golden yellow on the other.

Vast quantities of raw food are ordered from the picture menu: meat slices, meat parcels, sausages, fungi, green vegetables, bamboo shoots, quails’ eggs. Once the oils are bubbling hot, representative samples of all of the above are incrementally dropped into the pot (watching out for splash-backs), slooshed around a bit, cooked until they go soggy and mushy, retrieved with chopsticks, dipped into a selection of sauces (chilli/garlic/peanut) and consumed.

The process is labour intensive, intrinsically socialising, and deeply pleasurable – at least until you’ve eaten your fill, and the pot cools down, and you peer into the cloudy, blotchy residue, and you realise how much grease you’ve just poured down your throat.

With The Shamrock closed all week, J and I are missing bar culture – so we ask D to drop us off on Nanshan Lu, where the hot-spots are. I’ve read good things on the web about Kana’s Bar, so we give it a shot.

Ooh dearie me, no. It’s a dank, gloomy dive in need of a good scrub, with vast swathes of empty tables and not much more than a dozen other punters round the bar. Kinda back-packy, as evidenced by the table of loud young Americans in the corner. The music’s shite: dated trance, played on a muffled and knackered old sound system. Still, we’re here now. Set ’em up, barman.

A couple of beers later, a Chinese guy staggers in from the street, barely able to walk – I’m assuming extreme drunkenness, although I’ve not witnessed it before in this city – and lurches up to the bar. J spots that one of his hands is drenched in blood. He slams three 100 YMB notes down on the bar (around 20 quid), and lurches straight out again.

We call the bartender over. “What was that all about?”

(Dismissively) “Oh, he’s a friend of the owner.”

No more information is volunteered. Maybe it’s best not to enquire further. But once again, you sense there’s a whole story there.

 

Bus shelters and heavy trips.

Wednesday morning.

On this morning’s walk to work, J and I encounter two elderly men who are slowly wheeling a bicycle down the road. Attached to the bike is an unusual cargo, even by Chinese standards: a full-sized metal bus shelter.

Perhaps they are mature students on a jolly jape, carting the shelter back to their dorms as some sort of trophy? (Well, traffic cones do seem to be in short supply round here.)

Then again, there’s a bus crawling along behind them in the next lane; maybe it can’t stop until the bus shelter is safely installed. Perhaps this is some sort of traffic calming scheme, along the lines of those chaps with red flags who used to walk in front of early automobiles?

We shall never know. Only in China, etc etc.

Wednesday evening.

Flushed with the success of last night’s sushi emporium, we decide to try the next restaurant down the strip on Wensan Lu. J thinks it might be a Korean restaurant. It looks bright and bustling, with gas rings set in the middle of all the tables (which might be fun) and they have laminated picture menus (which should make things easy).

I’m used to large menus over here, but this one takes the prize so far; the pictures must be well into the hundreds. Unfortunately, they’re also small pictures, with poor reproduction quality, rendering it impossible to guess which dish is which. Some of them do look a bit hardcore, though – and so we decide to play safe, and order the dishes which look the least threatening. One wok dish, to be stir-fried at the table, and two side dishes.

Our waitress, though polite, seems oddly reluctant to take our order. Every time we point at our selections, she hesitates, looks at us searchingly, and says “This is…”, followed by something unintelligible. It’s proving a real struggle to get her to write anything down. Just take our order, dammit! This one! Yes, yes! Good, good! Want, want, want!

The first side dish to arrive looks like a plate of mixed twiglets. Our waitress stands nervously behind us as we taste our first mouthfuls. Yes, yes! Good, good! Xie xie! Eventually, she nods and backs away.

“Actually…”

“It’s a plate of twigs, isn’t it?”

“Mmm. They’re, um, a bit chewy aren’t they?”

“Well, they are twigs. Quite bitter, as well.”

“Actually, they’re pretty disgusting. I’m not a big fan of eating wood.”

The other side-dish arrives, followed by the wok: pieces of chicken, mixed with sauce, peppers and various other bits and bobs. The gas ring is lit, and we commence stirring.

“I wonder what they do with the breasts and legs of chickens over here. You know, the good bits. Do they go eurgh, disgusting, and throw them in the bin? Because all we ever get are the gristly bits. What are they, anyway?”

“They look like kneecaps. But chickens don’t have kneecaps, do they?”

“Shoulders, maybe?”

“I’m getting the hang of them, though. You just suck them very slowly in your mouth, and the meat drops off. If you try to chew them too quickly, then you’ll get a mouthful of bones.”

“Yeah, it’s a bit like sucking boiled sweets. Gobstoppers or something. Slow food – that’s the point, isn’t it? Meant to be good for you. We Westerners like to wolf things down, but over here, they…”

“Mike, are you feeling all right?”

“Yeah, I think so. Why?”

“Well, I’m starting to feel a bit light-headed. Spaced out. A bit trippy, I suppose. What about you?”

“Actually, you’re right. See that wall next to us? It’s gone all wobbly.”

“What the…?”

“Must be something we’ve eaten.”

“Shit, the twigs!”

“So that’s why they were so disgusting. It wasn’t about the taste at all. They’re trippy twigs! We’ve eaten trippy Korean twigs!”

“Which is why they were looking so nervous?”

“Must be. Woo, I’m getting quite a rush from them. Coming up on me twigs!”

“Will K know anything about them?”

“Dunno, I’ll give him a ring… oh, shit. I’ve just realised why I couldn’t suck much meat off that last piece of chicken. Look at it. It’s the f**king head!”

“Eurgh…”

“I’ve been sucking on a chicken’s head! Whilst off me nut on f**king hallucenogenic Korean twigs! Bad trip, man!”

On the way home, after ringing K (“Google for them! Google for trippy Korean twigs!”), I discover that the twigs have a nasty side-effect: they’re also powerful diuretics. Jeezus, I’m bursting.

This is where I make my second discovery: that in densely populated Hangzhou, there’s no such thing as a quiet alley. Having sentry guards posted outside the entrances to half the buildings doesn’t exactly help matters, either. Oh, the agony.

“Look J, you buy any DVDs you like. I’m going to race on ahead, OK?”

Thirty minutes on a full-to-bursting bladder, racing down the street, eyes darting up every dark entrance. Waste of a good trip, man.

J arrives back at the flat bearing DVDs and snacks.

“Look, Mike: I bought these especially for you.”

J’s chosen box of snacks rejoices in the name of LOVELY PUFF. Quick, call the Graham Norton show.

“J, I’m touched. Really touched. What are those?”

“Oh, they’re some sort of sweet doughballs, with a gooey filling.”

I choose from the selection of four DVDs, opting for the last John Waters movie, A Dirty Shame. You know, the guy who did all the classic low budget Divine movies? Hairspray, with Ricki Lake? Serial Mom, with Kathleen Turner? Sick humour but he’s cleaned up and gone mainstream?

Eww. We seem to be back with the sick humour and the B-movie production values. And, well, it’s a bit crap really. I reach for my sweet white doughball. It feels smooth, cold and clammy to the touch. Kind of creepy.

“This doughball is kind of creepy.”

“I know. It’s like a dead woman’s breast, isn’t it?”

“I WOULDN’T KNOW. What makes you say that?”

“Heh heh.”

“Actually, you’re right. OK, so I’m watching a pervy John Waters film, munching on a dead woman’s breast, with a box of LOVELY PUFF beside me, high as a kite on trippy Korean twigs. That’s… fine. No, really.”

“In China, you can be sure that something will happen every day…”

“Yup. Something happens every day. God, this breast is sticking to my fingers…”

P.S. We checked, and the twigs weren’t Korean after all. The restaurant specialises in food from the south-west of China, not sure what district, still none the wiser…

Jowzers, bowzers and hunky plumbers; lip gloss, tears and virtue rewarded.

Monday.

It’s J’s first day in the office, so I’m back in Mentor Mode, introducing him to all and sundry and explaining the interviewing process. We do the first couple of phone interviews together, with J sitting in as a silent partner. Fortunately, the first candidate is one of the strongest yet, thus providing a useful initial yardstick.

Later on, I have to terminate a phone screening interview when the candidate – whose verbal English skills are almost non-existent – breaks down completely, his attempts at speech dissolving into soft whimpers. I do this as gently as I can – I’m used to nervous candidates, after all – but I can’t help wondering why someone would put himself into such a distressing situation in the first place. It’s not as if they aren’t warned in advance, in their native language, by our Human Resources team.

On the way home, J and I spot a dodgy DVD shop on Wensan Lu. Wa-hey, the complete second season of Desperate Housewives, for less than three quid! Back in the apartment, it takes a good half hour for the two of us to master the complex and typically non-intuitive DVD system, but persistence wins out in the end. Bree, Susan, Lynette, Gabrielle: welcome back into my life. (And thanks for hanging onto the hunky plumber; I don’t generally do Celebrity Crushes, but Mike Phwooar Gerra Loada That Delfino is the shining exception).

Tuesday.

On the half-hour walk between the apartment and the office, J is spotting all sorts of things which I had missed last week, stomping along with my headphones turned up high, impervious to everything but the mad traffic and my inner angst. An obvious case in point: the tiny brothels, with their pink lights, barbers’ poles, and nominal disguises as hairdressing salons. Once I learn how to spot them – and it does take a while – I realise that they’re ubiquitous; yet another phenomenon of Chinese life which makes no economic sense to an outsider.

(At this point, I was going to say something along the lines of: we only see what we need to see. But as that would cast all sorts of misplaced nasturtiums upon J’s stainless character, I shall refrain.)

J has decided to take his breakfast en route, purchasing gyozas (he calls them “jowzers”), “bowzers” (God knows how you spell that), and filled pancakes from a variety of street vendors, in exchange for tiny handfuls of small change. I follow suit, and feel a frisson of excitement in going native, to such a daring degree. Tomorrow morning, I’ll pack tissue paper; this stuff is tasty, but it ain’t half greasy as well. Jowzers and bowzers! Sure beats supermarket muesli…

(Side-note: since I’ve been here, I’ve almost completely stopped farting. Could this be down to the lack of dairy products, such as the milk on my morning muesli? Whatever it is, it’s a blessed relief. This won’t have come up before, but I’m SUCH a fart-arse. Sorry, is this too much information? OK, back to the plot.)

As usual, there’s a long, chatty e-mail from K waiting for me when I log on. In an unexpected side-effect to our prolonged separation, K has revealed a previously hidden talent for witty, eloquent, tartly observed and pleasantly bitchy e-mails. I suspect that he would make rather a good blogger. Dammit, is there anything the man can’t do (apart from putting away his shoes neatly under the stairs, or leaving the house in unironed clothing)?

The day’s first face-to-face candidate is articulate, charming, confident, energetic, immaculately groomed (he’s gone in a bit heavy on the clear lip gloss, but I’m in a tolerant mood), thoroughly likeable, enjoyable company, with all the hallmarks of a rising star… and, for various reasons, completely the wrong “fit” for our company. Part of me feels rotten for rejecting him, but the rest of me is certain that he would not be happy here, and would quickly move on. It’s for his own good, I tell myself, as I circle the NO option on his reaction sheet.

After work, J and I try the sushi bar down the road from the office. The sushi turns out to be first-rate, and we find ourselves wolfing down dainty little plateful after dainty little plateful. The staff, who look vaguely stunned at our rate of consumption, and vaguely distressed at the size of our bill, offer us a VIP discount card as we settle up. VIP cards are common enough currency round here – JP bequeathed me his card from 5th Avenue, for instance – but you generally have to earn them through repeated visits. Our naked greed appears to have fast-tracked us through the entire process.

It’s still quite early, so we jump into a cab and head downtown for a speculative mooch. The main downtown area turns out to be a bit of a let-down; bright lights and wide streets, but with little of unique interest, as KFC follows Pizza Hut follows McDonalds follows bloody KFC again, in an endless loop of homogenised mediocrity. The shops are still open, but we search in vain for atmosphere, buzz, life. In fact, it all turns into a bit of a trudge. After an hour or so, we head back to the flat.

Emerging from the open-all-hours “C-Store” over the road, with tonight’s beer and water and tomorrow morning’s rolls and juice, the awful realisation hits me: I am no longer in possession of my satchel.

Shit, what was in it? Company laptop? Nope, I left that at work. Passport? It’s in the flat. Keys, cash? In my coat pocket. Oh buggeration, my bloody credit cards. Shitshitshit stupidstupidSTUPID.

I’m almost certain that I left the satchel on the floor of the taxi, which sped off into the night over five minutes ago. Trying to think clearly, I make a call to Y, our Chinese office administrator. As luck would have it, I asked the cab driver for a fa piao tax receipt, as torn off from his little till-roll machiney type thing. Mercifully, this contains the registration number of his cab; all we need now is the phone number for the cab firm, who can put a call through to him. I read out the only number which I can find.

A few minutes later, Y calls back. It was the wrong phone number, connecting her instead to the company who manufactures the till rolls. Oopsy! I can’t see another number. She says she’ll see what she can do.

An agonising hour passes. What if the car can’t be traced? What if the driver denies all knowledge? What if the bag has been filched by another passenger? J is urging me to cancel my cards, but I’m reluctant; it feels like giving in. For the umpteenth time, I remind myself that things could have been a lot worse. It’s only plastic, no-one has come to any harm, and the passport’s safe. Actually, what bothers me most is that I’ve also lost my CD Discman, my sexy top-of-the-range Bang & Olufsen headphones… and one of the lovely world music CDs that K lovingly put in my suitcase for Christmas Day boo hoo hoo I miss him SO MUCH oh pull yourself together you big fat drama queen.

Why hasn’t Y replied? I text her, but no reply. Look, I’m English; one hates to nag, one baulks at being a burden, oh very well then I’ll ring her.

“Hi Y, any luck?” Oh so faux-casual.

“Didn’t you get my text? Your cab driver is downstairs, by the main gates.”

Shitshitshit quickquickquick, and I’m flying down the stairwell, out into the night, how long has he been waiting PLEASE let him still be there hey THAT must be him PLEASE let it be him aha he’s smiling at me, opening the boot and YES, it’s my bag!

Before handing it over, the kindly looking driver (who bears a passing resemblance to Chairman Mao, now that I can take a good look at him) insists that I check every compartment of the bag. The cards are there, the Discman is there, all’s well. Xie xie, xie xie. I slip the driver a massive tip – five times the original fare, but Y said he had come a long way, and it’s important to demonstrate that honesty pays, right? – and stagger back upstairs, sinking to my knees on the living room floor with relief. What with my notorious absent-mindedness, and all the solo business travel over the past few years, something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. It could have been so much worse. Oh, did I say that already?

Although J and I were dog tired an hour ago, my mini-drama has left us with sufficient residual energy to keep us heart-to-heart-ing into the small hours.

Christmas Day – addendum.

Oh, oh, oh! How could I have forgotten to tell you about the Gents toilets in the SOS Club?

The Gents toilets of the SOS Club are, as you would expect from somewhere so damned aspirational, of a shiny and glossy appearance. Unfortunately, this shininess and glossiness also extends to the tiled flooring. Not just because the tiles have been polished to within an inch of their lives, but also because the floor is, in fact, soaking wet.

With what, I do not care to speculate; all I know is that it takes a concentrated effort not to skid on my Pradas and fall arse over tit in front of the uniformed toilet attendant.

The toilet attendant who is now approaching me, even as I wee, with a beaming, servile smile upon his face.

The toilet attendant who is now standing directly behind me, and attempting to give me some sort of half-assed back massage. I repeat: as I wee.

This sort of behaviour is liable to put a chap off his stroke. It’s a good job I’m desperate. Er, for a wee, that is to say. Crumbs, what do you take me for?

I do my best to shrug off the ministrations of the toilet attendant. It’s a pity that there’s no easy catch-all Mandarin term for “No”, and I’ve temporarily forgotten its nearest equivalent, bu yao (“Don’t want.”) Also, effective shrugging is kind of difficult when you’re, you know, trying to have a wee in peace: an activity which, by definition, does rather anchor you in one fixed place.

Also, I don’t want to offend. I’m sure the back massage is kindly meant, and all part of the service sir, and probably factored into the astronomic 100 YMB entrance fee, and I’m aware that an outright display of irritation might not be duly sensitive to the different cultural… oh, f**k it, I need this guy to get off my back, now. Literally and figuratively.

I risk a harder shrug – a sort of sideways shimmy, hopefully not too coquettish in effect or else we’re opening up a whole new minefield of misunderstanding – and accompany it with a series of me-no-want grunts.

He gets the message, and backs off. I finish the job in hand, and teeter my way over to the sink, using tiny tippy-toe steps in order to stave off any further arse-over-tit opportunities. Ancient Chinese Ladies Of Yore, I feel your foot-bound pain.

The toilet attendant is waiting for me by the sink. In common with all annoying toilet attendants everywhere, he rescues me from the arduous and faintly demeaning task of actually turning the tap on for myself. That’s OK, we’re used to that.

Except that, instead of reaching for the hand towels as all good attendants should, he is now seizing this second opportunity to do manifestly non-therapeutic things to my back – this time by performing lame chopping motions with the side of his hands against my shoulder blades.

More shimmy-shimmy, more me-no-likey. Takes a bit longer this time, but we get there.

And then – and then! – he has the GALL to point at a couple of soaking wet 20 YMB notes beside the sink, and then back at me, expectantly and confidently.

Have I mentioned that tipping is not a part of Chinese culture, anywhere at all, and that leaving a tip can even cause offence?

Cheeky bugger. Maybe, if he spent a little less time fiddling ineffectively with his client base, and a little more time actually keeping the f**king floor dry, then such gross impudence might be justified. But, under the circumstances, how DARE he presume to…

I tip him 10 YMB, and meekly waddle off back to the dancefloor.