This visit was followed by others, similar in outline but each excruciating in its own way. One factory had produced a bag which looked, to the naked eye, exactly like the prototype, but which had been reduced slightly in dimensions such that the 15” laptop it was designed to contain did not fit into it. At another factory, the Courier design had been abandoned entirely and replaced by one which the factory already had patterns cut out for. (It was a very popular bag, the owner assured. Kristy remained unmoved.) In the most extreme case, not only did the design presented not at all match the prototype, but the factory they toured clearly did not manufacture bags at all. Under heavy questioning, it was eventually admitted that the bags were being provided by the factory owner’s cousin. “From where?” was a question that no one was willing to answer. Kristy provided Sue with cash and sent her off to see if any one could be convinced to venture an opinion. “I heard a rumor” several were willing to suggest, when neither management nor Americans were in sight, that the bags were being produced in Vietnam. The outsourcers had outsourced in their turn. Despite Eddy’s objections, Kristy insisted that this factory be wholly terminated and the business given to another one.
The last two bags in the product line were manufactured by a factory so far from Guanzhou that it was necessary to make an overnight trip. The drive as long, the roads dusty. The factories themselves were highly primitive, but the results were in fact some of the most faithful to the original designs. Kristy felt a glow of accomplishment after her two weeks of factory visits, which was only slightly dampened as they pulled up in front of the hotel in which they would stay the night. It was not a gleaming tower on the model of the one in Guanzhou, but so long as it had a soft bed and a hot shower Kristy was willing to be forgiving. If it had a hotel bar, she was willing to be downright enthusiastic.
The bed, when she was shown to her room, was indeed soft. She turned on the water for a hot shower, undressed, and returned to the bathroom in a bathrobe, only to find that the water was no hotter than it had been before. She waited and checked again, the water was still cold.
Kristy got dressed again and called the front desk. A woman who spoke surprisingly fluent English expressed her apologies and promised that the water would be rectified immediately. Some moments later there was a knock at the door. Kristy opened it to find the woman from the front desk to whom she had spoken, a young man in a porter’s uniform, and a elderly maid. Kristy led them into the bathroom and showed them the problem. They contemplated the shower and discussed amongst themselves in quiet tones. They turned the water off and then on again, tried the sink, then tried the shower again. Time passed. At last they emerged from the bathroom. Kristy was sitting on the bed, knees together, arms folded, feeling tired and miserable.
“You will have the hot water now,” the woman from the front desk advised. She began to leave the room, the porter and the maid following her.
Relief flooded Kristy, but it was immediately followed by sickening doubt. She went into the bathroom, turned on the shower, and felt the water. It was cold.
She called out for the delegation of hotel staff to stop.
The woman from the front desk folded her arms and regarded her with an exasperated expression.
“The water still isn’t hot,” Kristy explained.
The woman from the front desk led the way into the bathroom. She turned off the cold tap and turned on the hot. Water came out. She pointed.
“Hot water,” she said.
Kristy put her hand in it. “But it’s not hot.”
The woman put her hand in as well and considered.
“It takes time to get hot,” she advised. She turned on the hot water tap on the sink and put her hand in. “See. Hot water. There is hot water here. It takes time.”
Kristy objected that she had given the water plenty of time and it had got no hotter.
The woman tested the water again with her hand. It was, she pointed out, not entirely cold. Indeed, it was a little bit warm. Could Kristy be satisfied with this?
It occurred to Kristy at this juncture, after the last two weeks of intensive negotiations with factories, that the Chinese solution at a time like this would be to secure some kind of compensation: money back, a discount, some sort of free room service. An accommodation was being offered. However, she did not want accommodation. The only thing she wanted was a hot shower. She remained firm: While the shower might not be as cold as it could be, it was not hot.
Her interlocutor now fixed her with a suspicious glare. Why was it that only Kristy’s room lacked hot water? No one else had complained. What had Kristy been doing to it?
Kristy was on the point of losing her calm completely at this accusation, but she saw the chance to make her own switch in tactics. Was this, she asked, not the largest and best hotel in the town?
The woman from the front desk drew herself up with pride. It certainly was.
Did she not then think, Kristy asked, that the best hotel in the town ought to have hot water?
She felt almost cruel at the way that the woman sagged at this attack. Yes. It should have hot water. She was sorry. She did not know why it did not have hot water. What could she do? The water was cold. She shook her head sadly and made her way towards the door. At the door, she stopped and turned back. The hotel did have an engineer. He was responsible for things like pipes. He was on his dinner break right now, but if Kristy would like she would send him up when he returned.
This renewed hope was unlooked for. Sudden the hotel seemed less dingy, the town less remote, the world better. Kristy thanked her with real warmth. Then shut the door behind her erstwhile helpers.
She contemplated waiting till later for a shower, in hopes that the engineer would appear and work wonders with the water temperature, but she simply felt too grubby and tired after the long hours in the back seat and the tour through the hot and stuffy factory. She resolved to take the briefest possible shower now, then if the engineer appeared and was successful, to luxuriate in hot water later.
Some minutes later, still shivery but feeling freshened by clean self and clean clothes, she ventured downstairs to investigate questions of food and drink.
Eddy and his assistant had gone off in search of a karaoke bar. Sue had expressed an intention to eat in her room and go to bed early. Kristy had thus expected to eat alone — either truly so or alone in a crowd. The hotel restaurant had only a few customers in it when Kristy entered and she was surprised to see, sitting by herself eating a bowl of noodles, a blond woman about her own age who looked vaguely familiar.
Kristy approached her. “Hi. My name’s Kristy Nilsson. With Aspire Brands. Do you mind if I join you?”
The woman looked up and replied in a reassuringly American accent, “April Holland. No, go right ahead. It’s quiet here tonight. And it’s not every day I see someone from home.”
They discussed the menu and the town. Kristy ordered. Discussion of home followed — which for April was Seattle. Katie couldn’t shake the feeling that she looked familiar, but they could not definitively nail down any common acquaintance or milieu. Talk centered on home, and once dinner was done Kristy suggested drinks. She had been determined on at least a drink or two after her long day, and April was not opposed. Katie consulted the bar and found that although it featured a few expensive brands but no very wide selection. She ordered a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label and over it the two women became increasingly effusive. April was an “old China hand” and provided story after story of factories, hotels and street vendors.
“How about you,” April asked. “Is this your first time in China?”
“No. But it’s the longest I’ve been here. I’d never been for more than a week before and now it’s been almost five. And this is the first time I’ve been here for Aspire. You wouldn’t believe it… I hadn’t even started yet. I’d accepted their offer and I get an email from Bryn: ‘Do you have a passport? I need you to go to China next week.’ Hoo!”
“Aspire Brands… Are you working on the Courier brand relaunch?”
“How’s it going for you?”
Kristy rolled her eyes. “I’ve learned a lot. I can certainly claim that. I hadn’t realized how protected I’ve been working with huge electronics manufacturers. This project we’ve seen all kinds of things.”
“Getting your own share of China stories?”
Kristy demonstrated that she was, indeed, becoming a ‘China hand’ with her own trove of stories, concluding with the factory which had so very obviously not been designed for making bags at all, and the detective work which had revealed the Vietnam connection.
“It’s almost enough to make you wonder sometimes,” observed April. “Are we actually gaining anything by manufacturing here? By the time we deal with the cultural barriers, the intellectual property issues, the quality fade… What do you think?”
Fortified with several glasses of Johnny Walker and a sense of comradeship with her fellow businesswoman, Kristy was prepared to consider herself an expert. “Look, there’s a huge amount of drive and entrepreneurial zeal here. It’s inspiring to see. But it’s true. By the time we deal with all the cultural barriers, the tendency to focus on the short term of getting orders rather than the long term of being known for quality, the double and triple checking… I don’t know if the savings we get by manufacturing here always make up for the unresponsiveness, the quality issues and the lack of stake in the company. You have to ask yourself. Is following the dollars — not even dollars, the cents — always the right thing to do?”
April raised a glass. “I’ll drink to that, sister.”
For Democracy to Work
8 hours ago