Monday, June 29, 2009

Watching the Detectives

About 12 days or so ago I first noticed two clean-cut looking young guys hanging out on the second floor of my apartment. I'm in room 2008 and they didn't seem to belong to any room, though I rarely seen my neighbors and initially didn't pay them any mind. My door lock is secure (more on that later) and aside from my passport there probably isn't much anyone would care to steal even if they did break in.

But when I nearly stepped on them as I opened the door to the stairwell where they were sleeping on a shared cardboard flat one morning I began wondering who they were and why they were making themselves at home - even if conditions were cramped.
They were neatly dressed in casual summerwear and kept their staircase condo tidy -- but they never seemed to leave.

Morning, noon and night at least one was there if the other was absent, presumably making a bathroom or food run, though I had no clue where they'd find a nearby toilet and sink except in one of the apartments.

Lacking enough Chinese to ask, "Who the hell are you and why are you living in the stairwell?" I could only wonder, as well as ponder why apartment security staff hadn't booted them.

My mood changed, too, from curiousity to irritation at having my way blocked through the stairs by their dozing forms. One evening I hurled a classic Anglo-Saxon ephithet at them as I clambered past, and was met by blank stares. Then one said tenatively, "Hello?"

I laughed and asked if he spoke English. No, and that was all I would know until a Chinese pal I'll call SJ was visiting three days ago. "Hey, do me a favor and ask these guys what the fark they're doing here," I asked her as we side-stepped them coming up the stairs. "They've been here for about 9 or 10 days, nonstop. They never leave. I'm dying to know."

A lengthy conversation began, punctuated at one point by one of my new neighbors who took out a long document in Chinese with a lot of numbers on it and jabbed his finger at one of the numbers repeatedly as his voice rose.

SJ turned to me after a few minutes of conversation and explained.
"They are enforcers," she said. "To have a debt repaid." The document was "proof."
It turned out the occupant of apt 2006 across from me (whom I've never seen) had bilked someone else out of about 500,000 yuan ($73,000) and they'd been hired at 2,000 yuan ($300) apiece to squat there until they nab him and/or the money.

I kept asking questions. How did they go to the toilet and stay clean? What did the apartment staff think?

They smiled and said they used an apartment employee restroom on the ground floor and that the security and cleaning staff were sympathetic to the point that the pair were receiving occasional food handouts. Yes, it was boring. Still 2,000 yuan was a lot of money and jobs weren't easy to find in their native province, Sichuan -- home of the catastrophic May 2008 earthquake.

We shook hands and after SJ left I went down to a local shop for a few groceries and bought two cold cans of Nanjing beer for the debt collectors.

The investment paid off two days later when I came home found my key didn't work in my door. A latch was jammed, making it impossible for the key to catch and turn.
My new enforcer friends heard my curses and fumbling and emerged from their half-square meter luxury nest to see what the problem was. Thanks to them, an apartment security guard showed up, who in turn called a locksmith who jimmied the door open for 240 yuan ($35).

I paid him off, pulled two more cans of Nanjing out of my fridge and took them to the baking stairwell. "Xie, xie, thank you, thank you!" they said.

No, thank you. It's good to have connections, even under the stairs.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I read the news today, oh boy…

Overseeing my paper’s Weird China (China Mosaic) page is giving me a very skewed look at Chinese life and journalism, I fear.

People routinely fall, jump or are pushed from high apartment windows or balconies only to miraculously survive.

Most street cleaners and trash collectors who find ATM cards with passwords for accounts holding hundreds of thousands or even millions of yuan routinely return the cards and are grateful for a $50 reward or simply a heartfelt thanks.

Many rich single women want a husband who will only be faithful and hardworking, and will pay for one if necessary.

China has a slew of miracle animals and agricultural products. Gold eels. Transparent frogs. Four-legged ducks. Rats the size of small vehicles. Trees that bear 12 kinds of fruit. Cats with “wings.”

Criminals are unbelievably stupid. They typically flee the scene to the nearest police station believing it is a public restroom or bar. Or they argue loudly and publicly over their ill-gotten gains and how to split up the proceeds – usually outside a police station. Or they ask a cop to settle the dispute.

Corpses are commonly mixed up in funeral homes, resulting in outraged mourners who discover that “grandfather” who died peacefully at home at age 103 has morphed into 22-year-old woman who flamed out in a motorcycle accident.

It’s a typical collection of tidbits gathered from Chinese newspapers and websites that due to my inability to read Chinese are chosen by reporters who translate the candidates for me and await my verdict.

A typical session goes like this: (all dialogue guaranteed more or less verbatim)

Me: Okay, what’ve we got today?

Reporter: This is a story about a 3-year-old baby who fell…

Me: Stop! Let me guess. Fell 9 stories out of an apartment window but lived because a policeman who was chasing a stupid criminal stopped to catch it, right? Then he grabbed the stupid criminal because he hid in the police car?

Reporter: No. It was 17 stories. The baby hit a soft tree.

Me: No more falling people stories. I’m putting an embargo on them until further notice. Next?

Reporter: A man has lived on mothballs and baiju (traditional high octane Chinese liquor) for 18 years.

Me: I like it. A lot. Next?

Reporter: The government has established standards for the perfect panda.

Me: Like what?

Reporter pauses, reads carefully: “The perfect panda must have round lips, a mild temper, have a clear division of black and white fur, be outgoing, capable of entertaining people …”

Me: Does he have to be a Party member?

Reporter (puzzled): No. Animals cannot be Party members. Except in Animal Farm. But why?

Me: Never mind. Just a joke. Ok, we’ll use it. With a picture of a perfect panda. Next?

Reporter: A criminal robbed an old woman and then ran into …

Me: No!! Wait. Don’t tell me. A jail cell, right?

Reporter: No. Another old woman’s home who was the mother of the village police official and …

Me: No. Next…

Reporter: A man has been hunting 18 years in the mountains for a large monkey man monster in …

Me (excited) : Bigfoot! A Chinese Bigfoot! YES!

Reporter, puzzled again: The man does not have big feet, he is …

Me: No, no. I mean does the monster, never mind. We’ll use it. Now, you got any UFO stories?