Writer Round-Up: A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft Noctuary Press Authors : Kristina Marie Darling, Kristy Bowen, Carol Guess, & Eva Heisler Interview by Cynthia Reeser For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013 ~ In this […]
Month: September 2013
Interview by Stephanie Renae Johnson For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013 I was very excited to reach out to Benjamin Lowenkron to discuss his newest book of poetry, Bone River (Ampersand Books, 2013). I had heard of Lowenkron through several hundreds of […]
Drama, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013
Dedicated to the memory of Johnny McCulley
GANDY – About 75 but full of piss and vinegar. He is as Irish as he chooses to be at any given moment, but there is always a lilt of the auld sod in his voice and manner. A consummate showman. Either his cynicism or his romanticism is a facade: “y’pays yer money an y’makes yer choice.”
RICHARD LaBROCCA – About 20, between years at college. Attractive, hopeful, inexperienced, and down to earth.
The grounds of Dreamland, a decaying amusement park somewhere in America.
Labor Day, last year.
AT RISE: The stage is dimly lit. Tinny-sounding, obviously recorded
CALLIOPE MUSIC is heard. Barely visible in the dim is a game booth
with prizes hanging along its back wall; perhaps there is a backdrop
suggesting amusement park ambience. Over a speaker, GANDY’S VOICE
Step right up, ladies and gents, step right up. Try yer luck, try yer luck. For only fifty cents, just one half of one dollar, ye’ve got three chances t’be a winner. Everyone wants t’be a winner, and everyone’s a winner here. You only need one and it’s easy as can be, just watch me and—there! Nothin’ to it. For only fifty cents, you c’n win once, twice, three times! That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, three chances for only fifty cents. Who’s next? You, ma’am? Or you, sir? How’s about it? You can win that lovely kewpie doll for the little lady of your heart…
(MUSIC swells, then is replaced by dim CROWD NOISE. LIGHTS RISE.
GANDY is at the booth arranging prizes, all plastic-wrapped, save one giant stuffed animal mounted far from public access.)
(Trying to make one doll stay in place)
Damn ye! Stay there. Och! Ye’d fall off the Pearly Gates if St. Peter himself invited ye t’sit on ‘em. Now…how’s about it? Eh? Ahh. There.
(GANDY takes a flask from his pocket, drinks, and straightens as RICHARD enters.)
You Mister Gandy?
’Tis just Gandy.
(Offering his hand)
(GANDY doesn’t respond)
I’m Richard LaBrocca. Boss sent me over.
How you doin’?
How’m I doin’? Hmm. (Waxing eloquent) Sure ‘n’ I can’t say jist yet. Too ’arly, y’know? But, it looks like a foine day; and it sounds like a foine one as well.
Yeah, oughta be busy for once. If it doesn’t rain.
Sure ‘n’ it can’train today; nah, ’tis too important a day to too many people for that t’be happenin’.
(Pointing to the sky)
Tell Him that. Anyway, they’re linin’ up.
’Tis their last chance.
Well, sure ‘n’’tis a foine day for a wake, though, isn’t it. A splendid day t’bid g’bye. A splendid day f’r the soul t’leave the body b’hind, for all those dreams t’pass.
Yeah. I guess.
(Pause. HE looks at, and over, RICHARD)
You ain’t another one of the press, come to write another “kindly” word on the body’s passin’?
Then piss on it—it’s gonna rain. Who ’re ya, what’re y’doin’ here?
Mr. —Boss sent me over. He said I’d be helpin’ you out.
Helpin’ me out? My assistant’s Timmy Kelly.
Tim, he’s gonna be late. So Boss sent me. To fill in.
(A short, snorted laugh)
Well… Yer name’s…?
Umm. A dago.
Yeah. I go back this weekend. This is my, I guess, only chance. To do—this. With this place closin’ down. But I thought it’d be kinda fun.
Fun. Ah, Sweet Mother a God, I got a wet-behind-the-ears college boy thinkin’ ’tis goin’ t’be fun. Ah, well, t’won’t be enough marks about’t make a dif’rence. You ever worked a game before, Richie?
I been runnin’ rides all summer. But I’ve walked around a lot, on my breaks. I watched you guys workin’ ‘em.
I see. Have you worked one?
Well, at like frat parties and Las Vegas nights at church, things like that.
Yeah. And Vegas nights.
And Vegas nights.
Course, I know this’s different. A lot different.
Mm. Here, help me with these. (The prizes)
Boss said you’d had this game for twenty years.
Twenty? No wonder the place is sufferin’; man can’t keep track a toime any better’n he c’n track the money. Here, for twenty-one, t’be exact.
Seems like it, I suppose. T’you.
Yeah, it does. God, this all seems so…familiar. I mean, we used to come, all the time. When I was in high school, I used to bring dates here; it was a great excuse to, y’know…on the roller coaster ‘cause it was scary, or on the lagoon when it got dark…
A lot of people used to come here.
It sure was a great place.
It still is a great place, in its fashion. At least, ’twill be till midnight t’night. Till the silence takes it over.
Man, I can’t believe they’re tearin’ it down. Why d’you think they’re doin’ that?
Why? Because a lot of people used to come here.
I guess it got to be old hat, huh?
More like it got to be old underwear—Ratty lookin’ and a little saggy in the supports. (Re: The prizes) That’s fine, now.
Dreamland… ’Tis a foine name, ’tisn’t it; a true name… “Where everyone can dream and all dreams can come true…” No one ever left here disappointed; you got your roly-coaster thrills and yer rides through the tunnel o’ love, people ate and laughed and cheered and sometimes they cried, they won their prizes and then went home smilin’ about t’morra…
I played this; I played all the games, up and down the midway. When I was a kid I’d come here with a pocketful of dimes and quarters and go home broke but with a bunch of these (Canes) or goldfish bowls or little stuffed animals. Yeah, I always left smiling. And, and—you’re right. I’d come in hopin’, and leave hoping tomorrow would be just as good. And it was.
…So you’ve been running this game for twenty-one years.
What? Oh, Sweet Mother Mary, no. Only here, for the last twenty-one. But I’ve been runnin’ it goin’ on sixty years. Since I was your age. Before. All over.
Fr’m sea t’shinin’ sea, as they say.
God—my Dad’s worked at the same plant for nearly thirty. I thought that was forever; to be doin’ the same thing, I mean.
Oh, it’s nivver the same, Richie. Every day is different, every mark. Only thing they have in common is wantin’ to win.
I bet you’ve given away a million of these things. (Canes)
I haven’t given away one of them. People’ve won a few though.
And probably a couple thousand kewpies.
What’s the secret? Of makin’ ’em (The game mechanisms) go in?
(With a smile)
Practice, Richie. Lots of practice.
(HE tries a few times, without success.)
I couldn’t do it then, I can’t do it now.
(HE tries again. GANDY sips from his flask.)
So, what do I do when we open?
Mostly ye stay out of the way. But you can work the sides, draw the marks in—you work one side, I do the other. You’ll do all right, ‘specially with the girls. And you c’n give out the prizes. These’re for one win—the canes, the whistles, the hats, whichever they want; the ducks and the rubber balls and so on ’re fer two; three; four; and…
Twelve for a kewpie doll?
How many does it take to win one of those? (The big stuffed animal)
More than you got.
That’s what you tell ’em when they ask: “How many wins to get one of those?” More than you got, so keep on tryin’.
But how many?
But, nobody’ll ever get to two—
’Tisn’t a charity I’m runnin’, Richie.
Yeah, but if nobody can win it—
Oh, they c’n win it. Everyone c’n win it. If they want it bad enough. But no one ever does. Because, y’see, it’s not the prize that’s important. ‘Tisn’t the animal they’re after, not really. It’s the illusion, Richie, the illusion of winnin’—somethin’, anythin’ll do. They all want t’be winners, m’boy—that’s what they’re after. It’s the pursuit—it’s the challenge. It’s the hope. That’s what Dreamland’s always been about: dreamin’, chasin’ rainbows. That’s the game they’re playin’.
Come on now. What did you do with all those canes you won when you were a boy? You still have any of ‘em?
They got stuffed in yer closet till y’threw ‘em out, or they broke, and the goldfish died an’ ye flushed ‘em down the toilet, right?
I gave some of ’em to my mother. The stuffed animals.
And they got stuffed in her closets and in a month ’r two she threw ‘em out.
But y’always came back to win some more, didn’t ye?
Sure y’did. ‘Cause it made y’feel good, the winnin’ did. Not the prize—the
winnin’. That’s the secret, Richie. Knowin’ the secret’s the secret. ’Tisn’t the pot o’ gold people want; it’s findin’ the end of the rainbow.
I think a lot of people’d be happy with just the pot of gold.
Nah, they’d stick it in a corner and go out lookin’ for another. You watch ’em here. They always want t’ try for one more prize, one just a little better. If they win the first one, after that… ’Tis like ye said: the body lives on
hopin’ tomorrow’ll come.
What about you?
You want to be a winner?
(With a chuckle) The house is always the winner, Richie.
I don’t mean that.
No, I’m sure you don’t. Here, polish up the wood. Might as well have it lookin’ loike it’ll be here forever.
(An ALARM SOUNDS. CROWD NOISE rises; CARNIVAL SOUNDS join in.)
Listen to that: it’s like they can’t wait.
Now, who ever was willin’ t’wait on a dream? That’s what they’re for, Richie—for makin’ the moment seem the grandest it c’n ever be.
(Reflectively) Dreams. Yeah…
(HE shakes his head, as if trying to dismiss a specific thought)
Uh…what time’s break?
For the love a God, the boy’s not yet started warkin’ and he’s askin’ about his break. Y’ got t’pee?
Uh—no. Just, I was gonna meet my—this, my…girlfriend. For lunch.
Peein’s the only break y’ take from this. Y’can get a frank when ye’re hungry. But y’eat it here.
Yeah, okay. I guess I’ll see her tonight.
Uh, sort of. We’re, like, engaged to be engaged.
We, we’re not supposed to get married till we’re both out of school. She’s a
sophomore. And… I, I guess… I don’t know. It—I feel like I’m… Sometimes
it seems…hard. To imagine. I mean, I want it—ev’rything—to happen; I
think. I don’t know. It’s kind of like a dream. It doesn’t feel…real, y’know? I mean, there’re all these—things that haven’t happened yet and…
Are you married?
Is the Pope Jewish?
I guess not.
Thought about it. Once. When I was your age.
(An ALARM SOUNDS.)
Just, I’m still havin’ trouble…conceiving that tomorrow?, This—none of it—will be here.
Ah, but ye’re wrong, Richie. I‘twill.
You’ll not be able t’see it, but it’ll be here. Place is made a dreams, Richie; dreams don’t disappear.
“Dreams! in their vivid coloring of life,
As in that fleeting, shadowy, misty strife
Of semblance with reality, which brings
To the delirious eye, more lovely things.”
Oh, ’tisn’t me; it’s Poe. But someday, someday y’ll walk by—might be next month, might be fifty years from now—and, whatever seems t’be here at that minute, you’ll look at it but what you’ll see ‘n’ hear’ll be all this, the whirl and the calliope, the laughter and the flags wavin’ in the wind. And y’ll think you’re rememberin’ it, or imaginin’; but y’re not.
World without end; when you and I’re long passed from mem’ry, there’ll be ghosts and shadows ridin’ its ghosts and shadows. Makin’ wishes, tossin’ balls and achin’ for a kewpie doll.
Exactly, m’ boy.
Ya seem t’be a good boy, Richie.
Ye’ve got a lot of hope. Hold on to it. You’ll need it someday. When all your bamboo canes and kewpies are disappearin’ right b’fore your very eyes.
(The ALARM SOUNDS.)
Thirty seconds. Well, good luck to you.
Aye. The luck of the Irish.
You gonna go back there? After…this is over?
Richie, I’ve nivver set foot on the place.
John Gandowski’s my name. Born in Warsaw; raised in California. Sure ‘n’ enough. Sure ‘n’ enough.
Part of the illusion, Richie, all part of the spell.
Now, nivver mind. They’re comin’. Now: Say it like y’mean it, like ’tis the most wonderful chance in the world.
(As the LIGHTS begin to fade) Hi there, ladies ‘n’ gents. Welcome t’Dreamland and step right up. Three chances t’win—not one, not two, but three for fifty cents, just one half of one dollar t’take home a mem’ry, t’hold on’t a piece a Dreamland, t’win y’r dream…
Fiction, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013 I don’t know how to begin to explain the letter my wife, Cameron, left waiting for me on the kitchen island like it was just another gas bill or catalogue from The Bombay Company. Printed in pencil on unlined notebook […]
Fiction, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013 Knit, knit, purl, purl. Fingers that tremble, muscles that have atrophied. My needles clack at cross-purposes. I’m still learning to hold them. I see the question in their eyes, what is he doing here? This is my fifth session. Never […]
Fiction, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013
1. Onions. This is what I tell you on the phone when I ask you to come over and give me stitches. I was slicing onions and the knife slipped.
1a. In the old days, you would have eyed my waistline and asked if I should be using so much butter. You would have squinted at the camel I was repainting and asked if it was supposed to be so brown. In the slightly older days, you would have cut the onions for me.
2. I don’t tell you to hurry, but I do hint at how much blood there is. I cup some of it in the palm of my hand and let it puddle there, warm as a freshly laid egg.
2a. See, I fell in love with you before I even saw you. You’d left a music stand on the fire escape outside your window. A violinist. It was several more weeks before I finally saw you play. Fast songs, slow songs, concertos, waltzes, fiddle tunes. The sun in your teeth and the bite of your bow in the wind. You were exactly the kind of asshole I always fell in love with.
3. I’m not crying, I say over the phone. It’s just the onions. After I hang up, I hold my hand over a bowl of water and watch the inky shapes drip and swirl and dissolve. One looks just like a pink jellyfish. The next looks like a knot of worms that wriggles and fades as it diffuses.
3a. I read once that the three things pregnant women dream of most during their first trimester are frogs, worms, and water. A wriggling mass of jellied egg-dots. A clump of nightcrawlers. A big wet blank.
4. When you show up at my door, you have a sewing kit in your hand. You’re no doctor, but I’m no millionaire, and stitches seem like a tough thing to fuck up.
4a. Before we met, my job had been to buy up abandoned carousels around the country and restore them for a certain reclusive billionaire. Paint and enamel, bevel gears and offset cranks, brass screws and basswood and yellow poplar, round and round and round. I awoke to a different skyline every month for five years.
5. Are you doing it right? I ask you. It’s only been seven weeks since I moved out and six since I learned the news, but I feel like I’ve been storing up questions for years. Are you getting enough of the, I don’t know, the skin or whatever it is? The stuff under the skin? Is there supposed to be so much blood?
5a. I called myself an artist, but really I was a well-paid middleman. A paint-scraper, a varnish connoisseur. I knew the dimensions of every gilded pony and sea lion from Las Cruces to Kalamazoo. I loved the idea of you, of something certain and fixed.
6. I would do it myself, I tell you, except I’m not left-handed. And you stitched up that torn bedspread that one time, remember?
6a. I wasn’t left-handed, I wasn’t a good cook, I didn’t know how to dance, I didn’t have money, I was afraid of heights and open water. You knew how to change the sparkplug in my car and make homemade pasta. You pinned me in place, taught me how to hold a bow and hold still.
7. Is that regular sewing thread? I ask. Aren’t you supposed to use a different kind? Something, I don’t know, more medical? What if it dissolves or I absorb it into my skin or something? I lean close enough for you to touch the curve of my stomach, or at least notice it. You don’t.
7a. I was new to your city and had no friends there. No friends anywhere else, either. I went out of my way to walk past your apartment every day. The music stand was always there. Listening to you play from a distance, I imagined you would have cruel lips and a beautiful throat. You did.
8. After you patch up my hand (seven stitches, two Band-Aids), I fix us both cups of tea and go sit on the couch with you. Neither of us has much to say. You look like you’d like something stronger to drink. I rack my brain for an interesting story, for something to scrape out a space from the silence.
8a. I never told you how I fell in love with you. Some things were too insignificant, or too ridiculous, to be said aloud.
9. I heard about this girl, I say, actually, you might know her, she was Jeff’s old girlfriend, the one who looked like Sophia Loren? Anyway, this girl, she got knocked up and she decided to go to a symphony so the baby would hear something beautiful before it, you know, before they took it out. Isn’t that bizarre? I say. I hesitate, then put my hand on your leg. What would you do in that situation? I ask. What do you think would be best?
9a. Two years. Plenty of time to become a different person. I quit my restoration work, learned to like Mahler and Sibelius. I developed strong feelings about cellists and libertarians. I lived mainly on vodka and vitamins. I don’t know why I was surprised when you kept playing your violin out on the fire escape.
10. You ask me to please stop. You tell me I’m going to get blood on your pants, even though it’s my other hand that has the stitches.
10a. I forgot how to be in motion. You pinned me in place and ran away but you forgot to take the pin with you. Did you ever feel like a sparrow stuck in a paper bag, I wanted to ask, or was that just me?
11. I can already tell the scar is going to be crooked, but what does it matter? It’s not like I need perfect hands for anything. Not in my line of work.
11a. What I didn’t forget was how to restore carousels, how to haggle with antique dealers. When I moved out, I went back to the same old tools, the same old horses and zebras. White pine, faded velvet, chipped paint, et cetera. Groceries, rent, clinic fees.
12. After you finish your drink, you get up and go. You don’t offer to check in. In your absence I flex my hand, feel the sutures tighten and pull in my skin. Maybe I should see a doctor. Maybe I should move across the country.
12a. I assumed I’d figure out what to do, but I always assumed that and was rarely right. I kept assuming. Six weeks passed. I restored eight horses, two sea monsters, a tiger, and a reindeer. I read the manufacturers’ warnings on the epoxy labels like a fortuneteller reading tea leaves.
13. I go into the kitchen and begin to clean up the blood. Some things are straight lines (knife blades, self-injury, violin strings), but others (carousels, onions, relationships) go around in circles. Still other things (surgical stitches, decisions regarding the future) are wobbly and crooked no matter what I do.
13a. Merry-go-round. Merry went round. Went round and round and round.
Fiction, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
I thought for a moment. The Immigration Officer looked, unblinking, into my eyes. “To visit my uncle, sir.”
“What does your uncle do?”
“He owns a tailoring shop, sir.”
“You’re going to work for him?”
The officer signaled to a colleague who had been pacing behind the Immigration kiosks. He walked over briskly, took my passport, and signaled for me to follow him.
He made me stand outside a room behind the kiosks. What were they going to do to me? I had done nothing wrong. I hadn’t even spoken rudely.
I hoped they wouldn’t send me back. My mother had sacrificed a lot to put together the money for my ticket.
The door of the interrogation room opened. A Filipino woman came out sobbing, accompanied by an officer.
A tall Chinese officer craned his neck and asked me to enter. He told me to sit on a narrow chair across from him. He scratched at a fiery rash on his forehead as he flicked through the pages of my passport.
“You never travel before?”
“Why have you come to Hong Kong?”
“To visit my uncle, sir.”
“Your uncle. Does he have a business?” Scratch, scratch. “You’ll work for him?”
“No sir.” Ram maama, my uncle, had written my mother and told her that no matter how often they asked whether I had come to Hong Kong to work, I should say “no.” Indians, as part of the British Commonwealth, do not need a visa to enter Hong Kong, and many use this privilege to enter and stay on illegally.
“Then why did you spend so much money to come here?”
I had come off a long flight, and hadn’t been able to sleep on the plane. My head was heavy. I was getting nervous. And the officer had taken my return ticket.
Scratch forehead. Flick through passport.
“Sir, I’ve come to visit my uncle.” I could sense the pleading strain in my voice.
“I will give you thirty-day visa. Go back by thirty days.”
“Thank you—thank you, sir, so much.”
I was relieved to see my uncle in the crowd outside the arrival gate.
“I have been here an hour and a half,” Ram maama said testily.
Mother had told me not to talk back to him.
“With all this trouble, they should have sent you back.”
I saw people getting into taxies and began moving toward the taxi stand.
“Where are you going? You think I have money to throw.”
He led me to a bus stand. Couldn’t he see that I was dragging a heavy bag? Mother had packed a lot of home-cooked food, clothes, shoes, and all sorts of junk for Ram maama, Parvati maamee, and their children. All to please him, so that he would treat me with some consideration.
“Best quality shirts and pants. Cheapest price,” I shouted at the top of my voice, pushing fliers on passersby who rudely ignored me. At least take a flier from me, I pleaded silently. My shirt, clammy, clung to my body.
“What, you don’t know how to give out pamphlets?” Ram maama said, an expression of shock on his face. “Where did you stand?”
“On the steps outside.” Ram maama’s store was on the third floor of Chung King Mansion and I thought that people entering the shopping complex would be the best catch.
“You stone-head. Every restaurant, grocer, and watch hawker stands on those steps. How did you expect people to notice you? Go out in the streets.”
I was eighteen when my father passed away.
“Beta, son,” my mother had said shortly after his death. “There is only so much I can earn.” Her source of income was from the jars of pickled fruits and vegetables she sold to residents in the buildings neighboring our apartments. “You are the oldest.”
She didn’t have to say anything more. My brothers and three sisters could not live on her income alone, and so it fell to me to leave school to help support the family.
My mother found me a job in a shoe store in Worli, and the money I brought in was barely enough to sustain the household. She kept writing to Ram maama to try to get me a better job with him. She promised that I’d work like a son to help him in his business.
Son? Ram maama treated me worse than a servant.
“Keep looking in classifieds in the newspaper,” he would tell me almost daily. “Every business in Hong Kong needs workers. Get anything. Move out of my home.” Once he paused, then hissed, “Just vanish.”
Hong Kong, with its colorful signs and Chinese characters, should have been an enjoyable experience for a twenty-one year old. But how could I like a place where I was not wanted?
On the third day after my arrival, I stood outside Ram maama’s eight-foot square, hole-in-the-wall shop. Ram maama went home for dinner at 8 p.m. and returned at 9:00. We kept the shop open past midnight, since tourists stayed out late. He told me that when he left for dinner, I should not plop down on a chair and watch people passing by; I was to stand at the entrance and shout, “Best quality shirts and pants. Cheapest price.”
When I saw a boy of my community pass by, a Sindhi about my age, I stopped him.
“I don’t know whether I should ask you this question,” I said. “I want to get a job—any job.”
“I did what you did for weeks. I know you must feel like a pimp. I put an ad in the classifieds.”
I didn’t know how much that would cost. I was careful with the money my mother had given me; I wouldn’t know what to do if it ran out.
“Make it a point to say you will work long hours. Also say you will accept the offered salary. I’m Shiv Harwani. Phone me if you want more information, but do it between 1 and 2 p.m. That’s when Boss is away for lunch.” He gave me his card. The card read Specility Exporters.
A few days after I placed the advertisement—with Ram maama’s knowledge, and to his relief—I received a call from a Mr. Chandru Tejwani asking me to come for an interview at the Holiday Inn hotel.
Shiv Harwani had been god in disguise for me.
Mr. Chandru Tejwani, an Indian and Sindhi like me, was tall, trim, and well-maintained. He spoke in a soft voice and smiled a lot. His rimless glasses gave him a professorial look. He asked about my schooling, about my prior stint in a shoe store, and why I wanted to leave my uncle so soon.
“There is no future working in a tailoring store.”
“An ambitious young man,” Mr. Tejwani said with an approving smile. “If a friend were to ask you what markets your company ships to, what would be your answer?”
I thought for a moment. “I’d say I’m new in the company and I’m still learning.”
“Suppose this friend were to ask you the same question a year later?”
Mr. Tejwani was testing either my loyalty or maturity. I had to cover all my bases.
“I’d smile and not say anything.”
“How would that help?”
“The friend would know that I did not want to answer his question.”
“Suppose he was asking you for the sake of conversation.”
“Excuse me, sir, for saying this, but a Sindhi would not ask without a motive.”
“What would be his motive?”
“To try and open a new market for his own company. Sindhis go where other Sindhis have succeeded.”
Mr. Tejwani’s office, an export house, was located in Taiwan. I would be an Export Executive.
“We export garments and sundries,” Mr. Tejwani had explained. “Sundries is a general term that covers anything that might be needed in a household. Your job will be to contact factories, and collect samples and catalogs.”
That didn’t seem too hard.
“Once you become familiar with the items we handle, you’ll be sent to the markets—all overseas—to book orders. When you return, you’ll have to place the orders with the factories. When the goods are ready, you’ll go to the factories for quality inspections.”
“I’m ready to learn, sir,” I said.
“Good. Also, you’ll have to travel to our markets a number of times throughout the year. Any questions?”
My monthly salary would be the equivalent of $300, plus a meal allowance of $300. I’d be housed in an apartment with the two other Sindhi staff. My hours would be long. While the Taiwanese staff worked from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., the Sindhi staff were expected to finish the day’s work. In his experience, Mr. Tejwani said, this never went beyond 8 p.m.
The contract was for two years. The company would arrange my Taiwan visa. I would also be given a month’s leave and a round-trip ticket to India to visit my family at the end of the contract term. It would be a one-way ticket if my contract was not to be extended.
I could have kissed Mr. Chandru Tejwani’s feet for this act alone. It meant that I could live without fear of being deported for two years.
He asked me to return the next morning, and handed me a round-trip ticket to Taipei. He accompanied me to the Taiwan consulate to help me apply for a visa.
On the flight from Hong Kong to Taipei, I tried to think of every question the Immigration Officer could possibly ask me. What did you do during your time in Hong Kong? How much money are you carrying? What is your job in Taipei?
When I finally reached the airport, I felt fully prepared with a response to any question the officer would ask me. I was greeted by a blue-uniformed officer, who brusquely requested my identification. He looked through my passport, looked up once to see whether my photo matched my face, stamped the disembarkation card, stapled the yellow duplicate in the passport, and slid the whole thing forward.
The welcome was complete when I found someone who looked to be a year or two older than me holding up a sheet of paper inscribed with my name, Vivek Ajwani. I nodded at him.
“My name is Ashok Dalwani. Follow me.”
We took a bus to the city. Ashok and I talked on the forty-five minute drive. He was one of the two Sindhis who worked for Mr. Tejwani. The other was Vinod Gurnani. Our staff quarters consisted of a spacious three-bedroom apartment, but everything in Taipei was spacious compared with Hong Kong. I learnt that Ashok and Vinod had the same contract I did. The bus dropped us at a city bus stop on Chung Shan North Road. We walked a few yards to our office—Forever Fortune Trading Company, Ltd.
“Strange name for a company,” I said.
“The boss is a little superstitious,” Ashok said. “He consulted a Chinese astrologer, and the astrologer gave him a choice of three names. He chose this one.”
I scanned my surroundings as we entered the building; the office was rectangular in shape, and a narrow passage divided six tables. The reception area consisted of a sofa set and a table at the entrance.
Two Taiwanese secretaries sat behind the desks in front. A darkish man with hair falling over his brow, who I guessed was Vinod, sat at a desk behind one the secretaries. He looked up, caught my eye, gave me a fleeting smile, and continued typing on a calculator. Ashok pointed to a glass door on the right and took his seat across the narrow aisle from Vinod.
On the door was a plaque with a few Chinese characters, which I later learned translated as “boss.” I knocked, and an impeccable Mr. Tejwani opened the door.
“I hope you had a good flight,” he said, smiling broadly and holding out his hand. I tried to imagine my maama welcoming me with such warmth. Or any Indian boss, for that matter.
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Mr. Tejwani placed me behind Ashok and in front of another Taiwanese secretary, who appeared to be the manager.
Wasting no time, Mr. Tejwani explained the intricacies of the items Forever Fortune handled. Most buyers wanted to know the delivered-in-the-warehouse cost of the goods they ordered. It was important for the exporter to give him prices that included cost, insurance, and freight—what I would come to know as CIF. He taught me how to calculate CIF prices, then as a test, gave me the price lists for a number of factories, with packing details and cubic measurements, and told me to calculate CIF prices for various ports.
Once I had acquired a fair degree of proficiency, he called me into his office, took out a sheet of paper, and drew a circle in the center of the page. Then he drew smaller circles, like a constellation, round the orb in the center.
“Forever Fortune is the circle in the center. The one in the left corner is the buyer. The circle next to him is his bank.” He moved clockwise, filling in the circles with the words, buyer’s custom broker, the shipping company, the insurance company, our bank, our custom broker, and the factory.
He then drew lines to connect the smaller circles to Forever Fortune in the center.
In half an hour, I learned more about the interconnectedness of all the various service institutions from his overview of international trade than I would have learned in a year at college.
Mr. Tejwani’s manner was quiet and understanding. He seemed more like a teacher than a businessman. A kind teacher, because he allowed me my mistakes and was patient when I did not grasp something the first time round.
Mr. Tejwani was so unlike most Sindhi, who live and dream business. Whenever he had a free moment, he opened a book and became lost in it. He left the office exactly at six every day, whereas most other bosses stayed on until eight. After work, Mr. Tejwani drove to the American Club in China (the ACC) to swim. ACC membership was open only to expatriates. On Friday evenings, his wife and two daughters joined him. On Thursdays and Sundays, he attended the bhajan session in the small temple run by the Indians’ Association of Taipei, and would occasionally sing a bhajan, a spiritual song.
After three months, Mr. Tejwani asked me to accompany him to a factory on the outskirts of a city named Changhua in South Taiwan to check the goods and make sure they were made to specification.
During the three-hour ride in the luxury coach, we talked without the usual formality between a boss and employee.
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” he asked me.
“Two brothers and three sisters.”
“So as the eldest, you have come overseas to help the family.”
After a few minutes, Mr. Tejwani smiled impishly. “What was your favorite book in school?”
I hesitated. “Aesop’s Fables.”
Mr. Tejwani guffawed. “Are you serious?” He withdrew a book from his briefcase. It was Philip Roth’s Deception.
A little later he asked whether I liked Taiwan.
“I like any country that gives me a proper visa.” The nature of my visa was such that I had to fly to Hong Kong every two months to renew it.
A lot of passengers dozed off even though the volume of the TV, which was showing a Taiwanese soap, was deafening. I became fascinated by what I could see of the countryside through the window: water-logged paddy fields reflected cloud formations; boats shaped like swans—obviously a tourist attraction—glided across a lake; villagers sold vegetables in a township just a single street long.
The townships grew bigger as we approached Changhua. A huge granite Buddha was seated in the lotus position atop a hill.
“The statue is twenty-eight feet high,” Mr. Tejwani said, as though he had read my mind.
The streets narrowed and the coach slowed as it wove its way through cars parked alongside a brick-colored temple with a graceful, upward-sloping roof.
“One of the oldest Confucian temples in Taiwan,” he said.
As the coach pulled into the terminal, which was really a huge parking lot built around a circular brick ticket office, a man in a parrot-green T-shirt waved his arms at us.
“That’s Mr. Lin. He always picks me up.”
“Ni Hao,” Mr. Lin said, smiling through red, betel-stained teeth.
A Chinese girl with oversized glasses stood behind Mr. Lin. “I am Miss Shi. Mr. Lin says welcome to Changhua to Boss Teja-wani and his assistant.” Miss Shi was obviously the interpreter. “My boss says we go for lunch before going to factory.”
Lunch was a lengthy affair that included a succession of dishes and Mr. Lin downing shots of Kaoliang wine, urging us to join him, with Mr. Tejwani politely declining every time. Miss Shi described each dish as it was brought in.
Afterward, we rode in Mr. Lin’s Mercedes to the factory. The factory was a squat, three-story building with unpainted, grey concrete walls. A sign atop the building read: Elegant Shirt Manufactory Ltd.
“Mr. Lin says that we first go to warehouse,” Miss Shi explained. “We see the packed cartons and you choose the cartons. We will open them for your inspection.”
In the factory, we passed rows of whirring sewing machines, the women behind them intently feeding fabric to the stitch-plate. Not one of them looked up as we passed.
Cartons with yellow straps lined three sides of the warehouse. A counter twice the size of a billiard table stood close to the entrance.
Mr. Lin gestured, directing us to the cartons, then took out a roll of betel leaf and stuffed it in his mouth.
Mr. Tejwani looked up at the stacked cartons. “It is not physically possible to check all 960 cartons.” He directed his instruction toward me. “We have to pick, at random, one carton per color and one carton per size—a maximum of twenty-four cartons.
At Mr. Tejwani’s direction, the two workers who followed us into the warehouse brought down a series of cartons, lining them against the table. They started clipping the straps and lancing through the tape that sealed the boxes. Mr. Lin stood close to the table. His face tensed as he undoubtedly hoped the inspection would go well.
Mr. Tejwani unpacked a shirt, laid it on the table, and removed a measuring tape from his briefcase. He stretched the tape down the front of the shirt, then across the length of the sleeves and the width of the chest. After matching the results with our order sheet, he examined the stitching round the button holes and the interior label with the care instructions.
“Size M is fine. Vivek, check the XLs, Ls, and Ss against our order sheet.”
I was nervous. I ran the tape twice where Mr. Tejwani had only measured once.
“Check whether the colors are assorted correctly in each carton,” he said.
We found that the goods had been made to our specifications.
“Miss Shi,” Mr. Tejwani said, “please tell Mr. Lin that the goods are fine. Please ship them out.”
Mr. Lin smiled and said a few words to Miss Shi.
“Mr. Lin says thank you. He says thank you very much.”
“Does Mr. Lin make anything else?” I asked my boss.
“No. He specializes in shirts.”
“May I ask what happens when we don’t inspect goods?” I asked.
“Good question. The factory can ship what it likes. If the goods are not right, the buyer will slap us with a claim. The claim can be anything from ten percent to 100 percent. In the import-export trade, honoring a claim is established international practice.”
Our business concluded, Mr. Lin and Miss Shi drove us to the terminal.
Mr. Tejwani called me to his office one afternoon and motioned me to sit.
“You’ve gone on a number of inspections. You’ve become familiar with what we sell. Do you think you are ready to go overseas and book orders?”
“I’m ready, sir.” I leaned back in the chair. This was the chance I’d been waiting for.
Mr. Tejwani always sent his raw recruits to the island of Mauritius. Forever Fortune had a good agent in Mauritius, and the clients were not demanding.
Mr. Tejwani called Ashok and Vinod into the office.
“Make a list of the items we ship to Mauritius. And the factories we buy them from. Vivek, after they give you the list, call up the factories. Tell them that you’ll leave on a trip shortly. Ask them to send you their current catalogs and new samples. You can always ask me if you have any questions.”
“I will, sir.”
As I recorded and cataloged samples for the customers, Mr. Tejwani went over the best ways to read a customer’s needs, and briefed me on any number of minor details. On the flight to Mauritius, I went over all Mr. Tejwani had taught me. Oscillating between worry and confidence, my thoughts jumped from concern for my family in India to focusing on the person that Mr. Tejwani was beginning to mine from me.
As the plane descended, the calm blue waters surrounding Mauritius had a soothing effect on me. The feeling of serenity would carry me throughout the day.
Forever Fortune’s agent, Mr. Mohamed Ahmed, received me at the airport, drove me to the hotel to check in, then brought me to his office.
He introduced me to his secretary, Ms. Nasima, then began speaking to her in French. I was surprised to hear ethnic Indians conversing in this language, but I soon learned that French was the lingua franca in Mauritius.
“Mr. Vivek, please show me your samples. This will help Miss Nasima to set up appointments for you.” Mr. Ahmed spoke in a soft voice, and a missing lower tooth drew attention to itself whenever he opened his mouth.
The next morning, Mr. Ahmed drove me to see one of his clients, Sukhlal et Fils. Mr. Ahmed sat at Mr. Sukhlal’s table, while Mr. Sukhlal’s two sons spread my samples over the counters. They would pick up an item, say something in French, and either set it aside or toss it into my bag. After they had made their selections, Mr. Sukhlal said something to Mr. Ahmed.
“Mr. Vivek, they will give you the quantities they need for the items they have selected. You have to quote them your lowest CIF price.”
“I will quote them for the items I have prices for,” I explained. “I’ll have to fax my office for the prices that I don’t have. I’ll have these to you by tomorrow morning.”
Next, Mr. Ahmed took us to the home of Pierre et Fils. Mr. Pierre was an elderly man of mixed race with a thatch of white hair. I opened my bag and laid out the samples before Mr. Pierre. He asked the price of each item he picked up.
His response was the same to almost everything: C’est trop cher. When I had become certain that Mr. Pierre would not order anything, he set a few samples aside and said something to Mr. Ahmed.
“Mr Vivek, he’s going to make you offers against your prices. He wants you to fax his offers to your boss.”
Mr. Pierre said something, his hair quivering as though it had a life of its own.
“He says to add the words in your fax, Monsieur Pierre wants you to negotiate hard with your supplier. You get him the prices and you’ll have yourself an order.” Mr. Pierre nodded his head as Mr. Ahmed translated.
The next morning, Mr. Ahmed waited for me at the hotel to take me back to his office, where faxes from Mr. Tejwani awaited my inspection. I booked an order with Sukhlal et Fils, but Mr. Tejwani could not match Mr. Pierre’s prices. And so it went over the next few days, with one order here, no order there, until it was time for my return to Taiwan.
In the hotel before my flight was to leave, I couldn’t resist tallying up my orders. As it happened, I would be leaving Mauritius with a sheaf of orders running into six figures.
Vinod raised his head, looking at me curiously as I walked into the office the next day. “You look like one of those Bollywood heroes who’s just karated six goons,” he said. “I guess you have done well.”
“No, no, Mr. Chen. I can’t accept that shipment date. You have to ship it two weeks earlier.” I heard authority in my voice as I placed orders with the factories.
On to the next call. “The client wants nine colors in the baby’s jumper set. I can’t accept six colors, Mr. Ho.”
“If you want nine colors, you have to increase quantity or increase price,” Mr. Ho said.
“Mr. Ho, this is not a one-time deal. The nine colors will help our client sell the item fast. The faster he sells, the sooner you’ll get a repeat order.”
The Taiwanese staff helped translate for me when a factory owner did not speak English. Miss Huang prepared and placed orders. Mr. Gin attended to enquiries. The manager, Miss Lee, looked after the shipping formalities and the documentation.
If I had called Shiv Harwani my god, Mr. Tejwani was my guru. Apart from teaching me a whole new trade, he had given me the tools I needed to develop confidence in my abilities.
A few days after my return, Vinod left for Africa and Ashok headed to South America. Every now and then, I’d shoot off to Mauritius.
Two years passed quickly, and I was given a month’s holiday to visit my mother. When I returned, I found that Mr. Tejwani had arranged a visa that did not require me to leave Taiwan every two months. I could have kissed his feet.
I took bus 220, which left around 7 p.m. from Chung Shan North Road to the apartment in Tienmou. On most evenings, a girl with glasses and a large handbag was on the bus when I boarded. One day she smiled at me. I nodded and smiled back. This became a daily routine.
On an impulse one evening, I got off at her stop.
I said hello and stuck out my hand. My Tejwani-shaped persona had vanquished the uncertain youth who had emigrated from India two years ago.
“My name is Vivek. What is yours?”
“I’m June Yu.” June’s brownish hair was parted on the left. She was unlike other Chinese girls in two respects: she had a double eyelid crease, and was full in the body, though not fat. I had never seen her in a dress or skirt; she usually wore pastel slacks with a floral top.
“Lovely name. Where do you work?”
“I work for a company on Nanking East Road. We make ABS molds for cars.”
“I’m in trading myself. Our buyers are in Africa, South America, and other countries.”
“Our buyers are large Japanese manufacturers,” she said.
June spoke English well; I could not say the same was true for our staff and most of the others who worked in our building.
We began to meet every day. We would walk slowly through the narrow lanes to a complex of apartment buildings between Shir Dong Lu and Ter Shing Tung Lu. One day, I held her hand, and it went on like this for a few weeks before finally, I stopped to look her in the eye. When I kissed her for the first time, she responded with passion.
Since, at any given time, one or both of my roommates were traveling overseas, the third person had the run of the staff apartment. I brought June to the apartment on most evenings.
In the month of December, nobody travelled; the clients were busy with their Christmas and New Year’s sales. One afternoon, Ms. Tu, the new secretary, asked Ashok, Vinod, and me to stay after hours.
After Miss Huang left, Ms. Tu latched the office door from inside.
“Listen to me,” she said in a low voice. “Forever Fortune is making good profits. Who’s working hard to make this money? You three boys and us Chinese staff.”
I wondered where she was going with this.
“The boss has stopped travelling. All he does is make a few phone calls now and then—to the agents, the buyers, and the banks.”
“But that is what bosses do,” I said.
“Ayi-yaa. You don’t understand. Let him continue to make the phone calls. We should share the profits.”
“How can we do that?” Ashok scratched his chin.
“Very simple, lah. I’ve spoken to a number of factories. I told them, ‘keep three percent commission for every order we give you.’”
Vinod cut in. “Have the factories agreed?”
“Why wouldn’t they agree? If they keep three percent for us, they can keep one or two percent extra for themselves. They make more money.”
“Why don’t we go to Mr. Tejwani and ask him to give us a raise?” I said.
“Oh, the laopan, the boss, will say, ‘you have your contracts.’”
“Let us try to approach him anyway,” I said. Vinod and Ashok maintained a studied silence.
“Ayi-yaa. He will say, ‘when the contract is over, I’ll consider.’ Bosses always say that. Then when the time comes, they say this and that, business is slow, customers not paying our bills, hundred reasons.”
“I don’t think Mr. Tejwani will say that. He is a kind man.” I meant it.
“Veevaka, you are a simple man. If we lose this opportunity, next time factories will think we are not serious. They will not even listen us, lah.”
“Have you spoken to the other girls?” Ashok continued scratching his chin.
“I have spoken to Miss Lee. I’m not so sure about Miss Huang. She has an upside down brain. I don’t know what she will reply. Maybe she will tell the loapan about our plan.”
Ashok, Vinod, and I conferred, speaking to each other in the Sindhi language. We agreed that Mr. Tejwani was a good man who treated us well. Should we join Miss Tu’s scheme?
“But he does not pay us as well as other Indian companies,” Vinod pointed out.
“Getting a job elsewhere would be difficult,” I said.
“Not with our experience.” This from Vinod.
“Give me one day to think about it,” I said.
Miss Tu jumped in, angry. “You have to decide now. If you tell ‘yes’ tomorrow, we’ll say ‘sorry.’”
It all came down to money. It was true that Mr. Tejwani had helped me, but I had also done my bit, working hard and bringing him business.
After conferring again in Sindhi, Ashok, Vinod, and I agreed we would take part in Miss Tu’s scheme.
The commission we earned under the table came to about five hundred dollars a month for each of us.
The advantage to us became a liability for the company. Because of our built-in commission, the prices we quoted the buyers were higher than those of our competitors. And as a result, we began to lose orders.
Six months later, Mr. Tejwani opened the door to his office.
“I’d like to talk to all of you for a short time,” he announced. “Please don’t take any phone calls.”
Mr. Tejwani did this rarely—it was his way of calling a meeting.
Papers were placed on desks and the clack of typing slowed to silence. “We get a lot of enquiries. But these have not materialized into orders.”
Everyone was quiet.
“Do you negotiate hard with the factories?” he asked no one in particular.
No response. Miss Tu doodled a flower on her worksheet.
“I suppose I’m to blame. It’s true, I haven’t phoned our customers in a long time. I used to call them at least once a month to chat and ask how business is going. Then I’d slip in, ‘check your inventory. If you need anything, shoot me a fax’.”
Mr. Tejwani pushed back his glasses and walked up and down the length of the office.
“Out of sight, out of mind, I guess,” he said in a monotone.
“After all, bosses relate better to bosses,” he continued. I noticed a smirk on Ms. Tu’s face, but she covered it quickly enough.
“I guess I have to hit the road again. One is never too old to begin again.”
Mr. Tejwani went first to South America. He sent us enquires. We faxed back prices. He faxed back and said these were not workable. “Our competitors are offering about five percent cheaper for the same brands, the same products,” he wrote on each of his faxes.
The story was the same on his trip to the African markets.
Ditto the other markets.
On his return, he invited the factory bosses and managers to lunch in an expensive restaurant and explained his situation. But Miss Tu had alerted the factory owners to the reason for the invitation.
After the usual parade of dishes, we were sipping green tea when he said, “Friends, I’ve been doing business with you for many years. But recently, I’ve found that my competitors are able to supply the same goods at a much cheaper price.”
A few factory owners busied themselves with sipping their tea.
“I can’t understand it. May I request that the next time we send you enquiries, you talk to your suppliers, the raw material suppliers, and get better prices?”
Mr. Jong, who manufactured ladies and men’s underwear, and who could speak some English, made a show of looking for his glasses, then put them on and said, “You are old and respected customer. We quoting same prices to you and other exporters.”
“I believe you, Mr. Jong. But my customers have shown me the faxes, quotations from other Taiwan exporters.”
Mr. Jong initiated a discussion in Chinese with the factory owners at the table.
“Mr. Teja-wani. We think other exporters keeping smaller profit. Maybe you also should reduce your profit margin.”
Mr. Tejwani, being the trusting man he was, believed the factory owners. He took their advice. But instead of continuing to go on trips himself, he sent us out: this is where he made a mistake. His loss was our gain.
Vinod was the first to set out.
I was happy I was not chosen. More and more, I hated spending time away from June and she hoped I’d never have to travel. Lately, she’d been asking me to get a desk job in Taipei.
The office needed about three weeks to prepare samples and catalogs for Vinod’s trip, so June and I used that time to set a plan of our own in motion.
Govind Parnani, another exporter in Taipei, had a reputation for trying to contact the salespersons of other Sindhi companies with the sole purpose of finding out the names of his competitors’ buyers in various markets. Ashok, Vinod, and I planned to approach him and tell him we would pass the orders we booked for Forever Fortune on to him. Govind Parnani liked the idea, and why shouldn’t he? We would share our profits with him, and he was getting orders without having to foot the bill for our airfare and hotel.
In this arrangement with Govind Parnani, we left out the Chinese staff of Forever Fortune.
On Vinod’s return we passed on two thirds of the orders to Govind Parnani. Mr. Tejwani was surprised at the paltry orders Vinod had booked. He made a quick calculation: the trip had barely covered Vinod’s airfare and hotel expenses. Profit there was none.
The arrangement with Govind Parnani worked well.
June was privy to all that went on at Forever Fortune.
“Vivek,” June said one Sunday as we walked hand in hand through Tienmou Park, “how can you trust this Parnani?”
“We get a cut without the expenses of an office. Gravy on top,” I said.
“What guarantee do you have that he won’t enter your markets and snatch away your clients?”
“No guarantee. We made the deal on a handshake.”
“You have given him all the information about the clients on a platter.”
June had a point.
“Yes.” I thought for a moment. “He can ask for a bigger slice of the pie.”
“Or he could expose you or report you to your boss.”
“True,” I said. “There are many ways he can twist our arms.”
I had made up my mind to marry June. June understood export procedures. She told me that her parents would help finance me if I set up independently. The biggest advantage of the arrangement was that I could get a permanent resident visa as the husband of a Taiwanese citizen.
I began to feel the thrill of the well-known Chinese saying: “It is better to be the head of a chicken than the tail of an ox.”
June resigned from her job. We rented a small office in one of the suburbs of Taipei, far away from Forever Fortune. She applied for and followed up on the various licenses that were needed to set up an export company. I did not tell Vinod, Ashok, Miss Tu, or Miss Lee about my plan.
Shortly after Vinod and Ashok returned from their trips, Mr. Tejwani sent me on a South American tour. This was the opportunity I’d been waiting for. On the very day I landed in Chile, I sent Mr. Tejwani a fax informing him I was resigning. All I stood to lose was the current month’s salary. The Travelers Cheques Mr. Tejwani had given me were enough to see me through the rest of my trip.
I did feel sorry for Mr. Tejwani. He had done a lot for me. But in the end, one has to put one’s own interest before that of another, no matter how good the other has been.
On my return to Taipei, I executed the orders I had booked through my own company. “My Own Company”…that sounded nice. The banks deposited the proceeds of the letters of credit into my account as soon as I submitted the export documents. I saw how easy it was to become rich. I was happy I had taken the plunge.
I phoned my mother to tell her the news.
“Ma, Ma. You’re not going to believe this. I don’t work for anybody.”
“What! Have you lost your job?” A quaver entered my mother’s voice.
“No, Ma. I’ve become my own boss. I’ve opened my own company.”
My mother started crying.
“You should be happy, Ma.”
“I am. I am.” She paused, then said, “Your father would have been so proud of you.”
“I’ll send you more money than what I’m sending now. Also, you can ask me for more if you need it.”
The next day, I wrote to tell my mother that I was in love with a Chinese girl and would be marrying her. I had a reason for relaying this news by letter—I wanted to prepare her, give her time to accept my decision before I called her again.
I phoned a few days later.
“Ma, did you get my letter?”
A curt yes was her only response.
I was quiet. I’d hoped she would ask me questions about June. For a while, the static on the line was the only sound.
“Ma, give me your blessings.”
A pause. Then: “I will imagine that I have four daughters instead of three. A daughter leaves her home, her parents.”
“That’s what I’d like for my wedding,” June said, pointing to a couple posing for a photographer. They stood on the steps of the picturesque Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. It was Saturday; we had come to see the ritual changing of the guards. “I want an album of our photos.”
It had become fashionable for young couples in Taipei to be photographed in romantic poses against various landmarks. Each photograph entailed an expensive change of costume, and the professionals who shot these photos charged an arm and a leg. But the strange thing was that the album did not carry a single picture of the wedding ceremony or the banquet.
“Who looks at an album after the first three months?” I said.
“Vivek, no marriage is complete without an album.”
June wanted to experience the fashion and the tradition, the farce and drama, of a contemporary Chinese wedding. I’d hoped that our wedding would be a brief ceremony in a court, but I decided not to share my opinion with her.
“We’ll choose the best venue for the ceremony—we’ll hold the banquet at the most expensive hotel!”
June’s parents were financing my business, so it would appear magnanimous to her if I spent all my savings on the arrangements.
“June, I’ll give you my check book. Spend as much as you like.”
“I’ll wear a white dress with lace when I enter the banquet hall. Then, midway, when we have to go from table to table greeting the guests, I’ll change into a pink sleeveless gown. Later, when it’s time for us to stand at the door to say goodbye to the guests, I’ll wear red.” I was aware of the Chinese custom of the bride changing three dresses during the banquet. Had money become such an obsession that I kept a mental count of the expenses?
The reception was held in the ballroom of the Grand Hotel. Its architecture mimicked that of a Chinese palace, with its huge lobby and friezes of scenes from Chinese history adorning the walls. There were over eighty guests in attendance. The dishes kept coming, the liquor flowed, and the decibels kept rising.
I worked hard. I’d return from a trip only to prepare for the next. I had no fear that in my absence, my staff would do what Vinod, Ashok, and I had done to Mr. Tejwani. June was also an unbelievable negotiator, and got us prices that increased our profits by three or four percent. The overall margin worked out to a whopping twelve or thirteen percent. I would advise any foreigner who wishes to make money in the export business to marry a Chinese woman.
I had learned a while ago that Hong Kong exporters had access to far more sources of supply than did exporters from other countries. After all, what didn’t China make?
Money was coming in hand over fist. I grabbed opportunities when they came my way. And June remained my best consultant. “Yes, Hong Kong is better for business than Taiwan,” she said. “But I don’t want to move there.”
“My friends are here. My family is here.”
“Your brother has graduated. Why should he work for someone else? We can expand. Talk to your family about it.”
She conceded, and her parents liked the idea. But it was June’s mother who finally convinced her that the move was in everyone’s best interest.
If Hong Kong were ever to have a statute over its harbor, it would be a Chinese fairy, her hands clutching dollar bills, opening her arms to all comers. Indeed, you can bring in as much money as you want and take out any amount, no questions asked.
The move to Hong Kong was easy. June picked up Cantonese in no time, although she spoke it with a Taiwanese accent.
I became a sort of yo-yo between my markets and Hong Kong. I was hardly in the city a week before I took off again.
Money created a taste for more money.
When June became pregnant, her father, Mr. Yu, came in for part of the day to help out. But in no time, the excitement of the office got to him and he involved himself in helping out with the company. Since Jay, my brother-in-law, also worked in the office, I felt there were no Miss Tus or Miss Lees to cut deals with factories. I felt free to expand as quickly as I liked.
Our first child was a daughter; June named her May Hua.
Since I was on the road most of the time, I did not see my daughter grow up. I tried to make it up by telling June to send her to the best school in Hong Kong—after all, we had the money.
One day, as I was walking to lunch along the poorly named Lyndhurst Terrace, which was actually quite a narrow street in Hong Kong, who should I run into but Ashok. Grey peppered his mustache and his hair was thinning.
I took him to a classy Thai restaurant across from the HSBC Bank building, and he filled me in on what happened after I’d resigned from Forever Fortune.
“Mr. Tejwani was subdued for a few days,” Ashok said. “We couldn’t tell whether he was angry or upset. He tried to contact your maama, Ram. Your maama told him that he was lucky you were off his hands.”
How should I see Mr. Tejwani? As a decent man who took bad luck in his stride, or as a trusting fool who did not know that the darkest shadow was under the lamp?
Ashok described how, seven or eight months after I’d left, Mr. Tejwani walked into the Forever Fortune office, looking flushed. He closed and locked the door behind him, went over to Ashok’s desk, and demanded his personal bank statements. He knew Vinod and Ashok kept their papers in the office. He held out his hand toward Miss Tu. She said she had left them at home. Miss Lee said the same thing. Ashok described his fear as Mr. Tejwani asked him and Vinod to hand over the keys to the staff apartment. Ashok turned his over, but Vinod held onto his.
“Shall I call the police and report you to immigration?”
Mr. Tejwani had raised his voice. That was enough for Vinod to hand over the keys.
“And now your passports and black books.”
The black book is the rough Taiwanese equivalent of the American Green Card. The real name of the black book is the Alien Resident Certificate (ARC). The ARC is given to a foreigner for a specified number of years.
Mr. Tejwani held the passports and black books in his hand.
Mr. Tejwani went to the door, unlocked it, held it open, and looked at Miss Tu and Miss Lee. Both of them picked up their handbags and walked out of the office.
Mr. Tejwani looked at the bank statements, saw the balances in them.
“Both of you go, one by one, to the bank. Take out the balance in your accounts and bring the money here. Don’t try to run away like Vivek Ajwani. I’m holding your passports and black books. You will be in trouble if I report you.”
“Sir, we are sorry for what we did,” Vinod tried.
Ashok muttered, “I’ll never do anything like this again,” knowing his apology was useless.
“Don’t make me take any drastic steps. Do as I say.”
Ashok and Vinod returned with the money, and Mr. Tejwani took them into his office to count it. He calculated what their salaries would have been from the date of the first big deposit in the bank until that day.
“I am being very fair,” he’d told them. “Here is the money that is rightfully yours. Use the phones, buy your tickets for Hong Kong. Ask Kevin to deliver them here.”
Kevin Chen was Forever Fortune’s preferred travel agent.
When Kevin delivered the tickets, Mr. Tejwani accompanied Ashok and Vinod to the staff apartment and told them to pack their belongings. Then he took them to the station where the luxury coaches brought passengers to the Chang Kai Shek airport. He handed Ashok and Vinod their passports and kept the black books. And before they had even loaded their luggage into the coach, he drove away.
The mystery of how Mr. Tejwani learnt about the shadow under his lamp was cleared up soon enough. Ms. Huang, the only person on staff that was not in on our scheme, had received a call from a factory manager, who said only, “Lunch time. Same place. I’ve brought your cheese.” When Ms. Huang started asking questions, it didn’t take long before she figured out what was going on.
“I can imagine her surprise at learning how long she had been in the dark,” Ashok added. His smirk, an attempt at dark humor, failed utterly. “She waited till Mr. Tejwani left at six, then followed him and told him the whole story.”
Now, Ashok worked as a clerk in a travel agency. Vinod had taken a job as a salesman in some store in Kowloon.
Ashok asked the inevitable question, to which I had prepared an answer. “You seem to be doing well, Vivek. Where are you working?”
“Oh,” I said, with a casual shrug of my shoulders. “I work in a Chinese trading company.”
“Can you get me a job there? Or with any other exporter?”
“Give me your telephone number. I’ll call you if I hear of something.” I had no intention of ever doing anything like that.
When my second daughter was born, I engaged a broker to find our family a house on The Peak; this was where the richest expatriates lived. We bought two apartments in a luxury high rise with a view of the harbor, one for June’s parents and her brother, and the other for us. I told June not spare any expense in furnishing it just the way she liked.
I saw the amount of business in our markets. But one had to travel to get it, and I did not want to hire anyone to travel for me. He could easily learn my secrets—my items, my markets, my buyers, my suppliers—and do exactly what I had done to Mr. Tejwani. I decided to keep it in the family, and took Jay on a trip. Since Jay had worked in the office, he was familiar with the items. Jay turned out to be a fast learner. And he had a knack for handling clients.
When we were returning from this particular trip, I saw Mr. Tejwani in the immigration area. I made it a point to wait for him near the luggage carousel. After he had collected his bags, I walked up to him. He took a moment to recognize me.
“Ah, Vivek Ajwani.”
“How are you, Mr. Tejwani?”
“Still in Taiwan?”
“After you and the other boys did—after what you did—I decided to do the travelling myself. I said to myself, how much does a man need? He can eat only so much. He can wear only so much. I make as much as I need. Maybe a little more.”
“You must be working very hard.”
“On the contrary. I do exactly what I did before. But without anxiety, without stress. I read. I spend time at the American Club. I conduct bhajans on Thursdays and Sundays.”
“And business is coming in?” Did a twinge of conscience prompt me to ask the question? “What is in my nasib. What is due to me will not be denied me. Why should I fret?”
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him about my offices and my apartments, but these things would not matter to a man like Mr. Tejwani. He seemed to harbor no rancor.
After the new apartments came the latest Mercedes Benz. I had never learned to drive, so I hired a chauffeur. Most of the residents in my building owned Mercedes but few had chauffeurs. People thought I hired a chauffeur because I had money to burn, which was also true.
As the range of products that China produced increased, I felt that an office in Hong Kong was not enough. I opened another in Guangzhou in south China, and placed my father-in-law in charge. Two years later, I opened an office in the north, in Hangzhou, near Shanghai. My father-in-law interviewed, screened, and hired staff.
Jay called to update me on the most recent interviews. “One of the more interesting candidates my father interviewed was Chang Chan Ming,” he explained evenly.
“How so?” I asked.
“Well, he’s from Shaoguan.” Shaoguan is a town deep in the north Guangdong province. “Chang Chan Ming is determined to make it big in an international city like Hangzhou.”
“He learns English in a bushiban, a cram school. During the day he takes a number of part-time jobs—accountant, salesman, whatever he can get.”
“Why doesn’t he have a permanent position?”
“As an interpreter to foreign buyers at the Canton Fair, he can earn more and practice his English—”
“—and hope to get hired by a foreign businessman. So why does he want to join us?”
The biannual Canton Fair attracts thousands of visitors from every part of the world.
“He’s applying for the Export Executive position, and wants to manage the Hangzhou office.”
“I like his drive. Is he as smart as he is ambitious?
“He’s a quick learner. I sat down with him. I drew a circle in the center of the page with smaller circles, like a constellation, round the orb in the center. I taught him exactly the way you taught me,” Jay said.
Just as Mr. Tejwani had taught me. “And you explained CIF prices and made him practice them?”
Jay confirmed this.
“May Hua wants to get married,” June told me on one of my trips home. I learned that my oldest daughter had met Kwan Yee, a Malaysian Chinese man, while at college. It didn’t occur to me to ask June what sort of a man Kwan Yee was. I guessed that one son-in-law was as good as any other.
“Please go ahead and make the arrangements. You know money is not a consideration,” I told June. “Has the date been set?”
“Yes. Sometime in the middle of June.”
“That’s not a good time for me. This is the time our clients place orders.”
I noticed that June bit her lip.
“That’s also the time our competitors flock to our markets,” I continued. “I have to be with my clients, to stop the competitors from getting a toe in the door.”
“Vivek, I know. And I understand. But that’s the time May Hua and Kwan Yee have chosen.”
“Can’t the date be pushed back by six weeks?”
“No. My mother has talked to our astrologer. He says the stars are best for May Hua at that time. The next good time will be twelve months hence.”
June sent me frequent updates on the arrangements. It would not be proper if I didn’t attend my daughter’s wedding.
I flew in on the morning of May Hua’s wedding, attended the ceremony in the afternoon, said a few words at the banquet in the evening, and drank a toast. At six the next morning, I was on my way to the airport.
“Jay wants to get married,” June informed me one evening. I had just returned from Chile.
“So we’ll make the wedding as lavish for him as we did for May Hua,” I said.
“But, but.” June said after a pause. “He wants to marry a TV singer, Juliet Hu.”
“What’s wrong with that? Why are you bothering me about a matter like this?”
“Juliet Hu won the singing competition they ran last year on the TVB.” She briefly described Juliet’s performance on the Hong Kong reality show, The Voice.
June bit her lip. “I don’t know whether you’d want Jay to marry a…a public figure.”
I laughed. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
And so, disregarding June’s misgivings, the wedding was set in motion. I happened to be in town for the ceremony and spent most of my time watching the dazzling views of Victoria Harbor and the Wanchai district from a balcony of the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, where the reception was held. Pressed by her friends, Juliet Hu sang a few songs at the reception.
“She should not have done this,” June said. “She’s the bride, after all.”
Since I had money sitting in the bank, I decided to look for opportunities to invest. I’d worked for my money, and it was time my money started working for me. China, a growing power, was building high rises in over a dozen new cities each year. Developers and the rich in China and Hong Kong were buying up the buildings to rent or resell. I bought a twenty-story high rise in Tieling City and another in Kangbashi. The rents I collected on both places would be enough to keep my family comfortable for a very long time.
I noticed a change in Jay after his marriage. For one, he began to loosen his control over business matters. I had always believed and taught him that we must oversee every aspect of our operations. We should be able to tell offhand how many shipments were due in a particular week, how many orders were being processed, how many had been placed, how many inspections were needed.
“Jiejie de zhangfu, brother-in-law. Our business is on autopilot. You have given it such a strong foundation. Chang Chan Ming and my father and I know what is happening. We’ll talk about this matter when I return from Singapore.”
Juliet Hu was keen to develop a wide fan base. She wanted to become a Grace Wong or a Bianca Wu overnight. She contacted event planners and charities in neighboring countries and agreed to perform for a low fee or even gratis. Jay had not only to accompany her but also to finance these trips. He skipped two scheduled business trips to Brazil and Argentina for Juliet’s sake.
After May Hua’s first child was born, everything seemed to move more quickly. June cut back on her time in the office. Her father began to fly in from Guangzhou on the weekends and didn’t return until the middle of the week.
“My granddaughter. She so beautiful. She will grow up. She will want friends, not grandparents,” Mr. Yu said.
I developed gout. I didn’t eat rich food; I didn’t know why I should be afflicted with such a disease. The result was that I could not travel as much as I liked.
Juliet Hu felt that her husband belonged to the crème de la crème of Hong Kong society and persuaded him to join the best clubs in Hong Kong. The first of these was the Hong Kong Club, which, until 1970, admitted only white British citizens and until 1996, banned women from certain areas of the club. More memberships soon followed: the Hong Kong Football Club, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, The American Club, and the Aberdeen Marina Club.
Around this time our company received two big claims. A buyer in Argentina received a shipment of polyester fabric with colors he had not ordered. And the contents of a container to Brazil, said to contain umbrellas, were filled with cheap plastic toys. Neither shipment had been inspected; Jay said he had forgotten about them. We had to refund the full amounts to both clients, and the factories refused to reimburse us on the grounds that the documents, stamped by Customs, carried the right descriptions. These two claims carved a deep hole in our profits. When I called Jay to my office to confront him on the matter, he made a hurried remark that he would be more particular in the future, then left the room.
I had long dreamed of getting even with Ram maama. One of the first outings I took in my new Mercedes was to Kowloon, where I directed my chauffeur to Ram maama’s store.
“You are showing your face after so many years,” Ram maama said when he opened the door. “My sister told me that you have been in Hong Kong all these years.”
“I have not come to meet you. I’ve come to order half a dozen suits and shirts. Please show me your best material.”
“Of course, of course.”
“I’d like to get a fitting before the final stitching.”
“Of course. Of course.” He told me the dates on which I could come for the fitting.
“I won’t be able to come. I’ll send a car to bring you to my house.”
When the date arrived, he stepped into my house, gaping—at the furniture, the drapes, the dining table of Italian marble, the chandeliers. I watched him singe with jealousy.
One desire had been fulfilled.
I had one other desire. This, however, took me a few more years to accomplish.
I wanted to be an Honorary Consul. I contacted many small nations that were not represented in Hong Kong. Finally one of my largest buyers in the Pacific used his influence to get me the coveted designation. I pretended that my concern for the poor children of the Kingdom of Tonga in the Pacific had moved me to set up a charity there. I guaranteed the charity a certain amount every year.
As an Honorary Consul I could use the diplomatic channel when entering Hong Kong. After my passport was stamped, I made it a point to tell the officer, “The first time I came here, one of you almost denied me entry.” I said it like a joke and added a little inoffensive laugh after it.
I loved to see the open mouth, the expression on the officer’s face. No two expressions were ever the same.
Not long after attaining my status as Honorary Consul, a stroke confined me to a wheelchair, and even the pleasure of taunting the immigrations officers was denied to me. Jay and Juliet continued to throw lavish parties at the clubs they had joined.
I watched their extravagant ways, all the while seething inside. When I could stand it no longer, I expressed my discontent to June.
“You need to knock some sense into your brother’s head. He has to cut down on his trips. We’ll lose our clients and our markets.”
“Well, he has trained up Chang Chan Ming well. Chang’s first two trips have been very successful.”
“What, is Chang Chan Ming travelling instead of Jay? Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?”
“We did not want to trouble you in your condition. It is your time to rest,” June said.
“Also, isn’t it an unstated rule in our company that no employee other than family goes on a trip or meets a client?”
June didn’t say anything in response to this breach of company principles.
“We are not earning money as fast as Jay is spending it.” I had watched the rate at which our accounts were hemorrhaging, and it horrified me.
“How can you say that? The millions you put into the buildings you bought in China are as good as gone.”
Although I was surprised at her outburst, what she said was true. Both the cities in which I had bought property, along with many in other cities in China, had become ghost cities. The reasons were many—they were located far outside the main cities and were priced too high, their declining profits the result of faulty planning. The millions I had sunk into them would take generations to recover.
The center was splintering. I could do nothing. I sat in my wheelchair at home near the bay window watching the boats passing by, parodies of the pageant of life.
The house quiet as a coffin on weekdays, I would hear of Jay and Juliet’s trips round the world. Servants wheeled me to the dining room at mealtimes, and the bank statements were handed to me on the weekends.
The bank balances were melting like wax from cheap candles.
As quiet as it was the rest of the week, the house came alive on Sundays. May Hua, Kwan Yee, and their child spent Sunday afternoons in our home. Juliet and Jay joined us Sunday evenings, if they were not overseas. Jay would talk of how Juliet had impressed audiences, even though the rate at which her popularity charts were rising were only a fraction of her hairdressers’ bills. The evening usually ended with the family eating dinner at one of the clubs.
But today, a Sunday, the house was quiet and Jay was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s Jay?” I asked.
“Shortly after he landed from Bangkok yesterday,” June said, “he rushed off to Guangzhou.”
“But our offices are closed on Saturday.”
“He said he had urgent work.”
Jay returned on Tuesday.
June and her father, Mr. Yu, joined us the in the living room. I was surprised they were not at work or at May Hua’s home.
“Jiejie de zhangfu, brother-in-law,” Jay said. “I entered our Guangzhou office and I found everything in order.”
“Why did you think anything would be wrong? Why did you rush off to Guangzhou as soon as you arrived from Bangkok?”
Jay looked at June. June look at Mr. Yu.
“As you know,” Jay said, hesitating, “Chang Chan Ming went on a trip to Brazil on Wednesday.”
“No, I didn’t know about this particular trip. No one tells me anything anymore.”
Jay ignored my testy tone. “Just as we were leaving for Juliet’s show at the Siam Pavalai Theatre,” he explained, “I received a call from Chang Chan Ming. He said, ‘You need to go to our office in Guangzhou. I’ve sent you a fax. It’s urgent.’
“‘I’m in Bangkok,’ I told him. ‘Tell me now if it’s so important.’ He said, ‘I can’t tell you on the phone’ and hung up. I called him throughout the rest of the day and also the next day, but he never answered, so I had to go to the office.”
“So what did the fax say?” I said.
“There were two faxes. He had sent two to make sure I received it.”
Jay took a piece of paper from his pocket, looked into my eyes for a few seconds, and read:
I’m sorry to give you this news. I’m resigning from your company. I have started my own company. Not in Guangzhou or Hangzhou, but somewhere in vast China.
Thank you for teaching me all that I know. I have fulfilled my dream of being the head of a chicken.