I'd churned out a fair amount of work count over the last couple days, but I both wanted the chance to revise and expand parts of this, and I had a specific idea of where I wanted this section to end, so this is a bit longer than some of the previous. Total wordcount is now just over 27,000. I'm hoping I can produce another one to two thousand tonight before all is said and done, but I can't keep the kind of hours I have been lately as I'm starting the new job tomorrow.
Aspire had taken a penthouse hospitality suite in the hotel for the two days of meetings with Trade Winds — a venue design specifically for such business entertainment purposes, featuring a conference room, dining room and several large open rooms with scattered seating and panoramic window views. Kristy went up slightly before the appointed time in order to see that the hotel staff had everything in a suitable state of preparation. All seemed in readiness. The largest of the panoramic sitting rooms had been selected for the meeting and two young women, wearing uniforms which consisted of a mandarin-collared variant of the “little black dress”, stood ready with an elaborate tea service to provide refreshments.
Todd Williams made his first appearance with the slightly antic vigor one sees in someone who is attempting to overcome severe jet-lag by sheer force of will.
“Great venue here,” he observed. “The view… Don’t do things half way. Is the tallest building in the world somewhere here in China now? No, no. I guess not. Still...” He trailed off for a moment, extreme tiredness seeming to show through for a moment, then shook himself. “Right. So what’s the plan? They’re due shortly. Is it paper signing and business first, then dinner and getting-to-know-you kind of things?”
“I’ve lined things up to go a little bit more Chinese-style, so we’ll start with a tea service and typically that initial conversation is fairly social. Then we have a tour of one of the factories and dinner. So today is primarily social. Tomorrow morning is the business session starting at nine in the morning. Then dinner again in the evening to close things up.”
“Socialize first, then business, then socialize again. Got it. Glad I’ve got an old China hand to guide me through this. You seem to know all about it.”
The Trade Winds delegation arrived exactly on time. It was led by the husband and wife who owned the company, the chief of sales, and Eddy, their own account manager. A half dozen other men and women, whose functions within the company were never made clear, followed in their wake to round out the party.
Tea was served, hands were shaken. Todd showed a video which had been prepared by the Aspire Brands communications department, which sought to express the overall brand character and culture of Aspire — complete with buzz word bedecked executive sound bites, a pounding soundtrack, and plenty of wildly camera-angled runway footage relating to Aspire’s fashion brands.
The wife from the couple owning Trade Winds, who insisted that people could call her ‘Amy’, stood up and gave a brief speech of thanks. She handed out glossy brochures which showed the Trade Winds and Aspire Brands logos intertwined, with a background collage that included images of a factory floor more glistening than any that Kristy had seen, the Great Wall of China, and the Guangzhou skyline.
She and her husband, Amy explained, thought of Aspire Brands as part of their family. They were grateful for their business and were proud of their partnership. Her husband gave a slight bow of a agreement and said something sufficiently unintelligible that it was unclear whether it was intended to be in English or Cantonese. Amy then produced a camera and insisted on her assistant documenting the event: Amy and her husband flanking Todd. Amy planting a matronly kiss on Todd’s cheek. Amy, her husband, Todd, Eddy and Kristy all arm in arm. Finally everyone was ordered to crowd into the frame and one of the young women from the hotel staff was asked to take the picture.
Once this photographical ritual was complete, Amy and her husband led the whole group down the elevators into a small fleet of waiting Mercedes to drive to the factory.
The factory was owned by a heavyset, middle-aged man who went, inexplicably, by the name of “Uncle”. It was his factory which had, on Kristy’s initial tour, provided her with production samples which were visually perfect but had been reduced in size such that laptops did not actually fit into them.
Uncle greeted them at the factory gate. Kristy immediately noticed that a large “Joint Venture” sign had been mounted above the gates showing the names of Uncle’s company and Trade Winds and that of Aspire Brands as well for good measure. Todd seemed impressed by this detail.
After greeting them with a brief speech on how pleased he was to be working with Trade Winds and Aspire Brands, and how his greatest priorities were product quality and providing good conditions for his workers, Uncle called in an assistant with a bottle of whiskey and a tray of glasses and proposed a toast.
The tour itself was fairly brief. Kristy’s more practiced eye noticed that while the workers were all busy with Courier bags, one side of the factory was busily removing piping from the bags while the other half of the factory was taking these denuded bags and sewing the piping back on again. Todd, however, did not seem to absorb this detail, and since these were doubtless the under-size bags which did not fit Aspire’s spec anyway, Kristy felt no need to bring the issue up either.
“This place is so clean!” Todd marveled. “Look at the white uniforms and new sewing machines. I’m glad we’re partnering with someone top notch.”
“Top notch,” assured Uncle. “Very top notch. Everything top notch.”
He bragged that his workers had more room and better light at their work stations than other factories, and that he had had an internet cafe and karaoke lounge installed for them.
“Do you have a system for dealing with worker complaints?” Todd asked. “Our customers are very concerned to know that the workers who make our products are treated well.”
Uncle shrugged. “There are never any complaints.”
“Of course not. My workers know there are lots of peasants who would be happy to make as much as they do. No complaints.”
Having showed them the wonders of the factory, Uncle took them into his showroom, where all of the products which his factory was capable of turning out were on display. Kristy briefly wondered if this would cause concern, since a number of these items were in fact pirated designs from other, more famous bag designers. On the contrary, however, Todd was very much impressed. He pulled Uncle aside and explained that he had promised that he would bring his wife a thing or two from the famous pirated merchandise markets. Could Uncle advise him where we could find his wife something that would impress her?
In response to this, Uncle cheerfully loaded Todd down with a half dozen of his best pirated merchandise. What did his wife like? Uncle knew many other factory owners who produced products with the very best brand names. Shoes? Clothes? Watches? Jewelry? What was her size? Todd demurred at this offer, but accepted a purse and wallet to take to his wife. Uncle then provided everyone with another round of whiskey and another toast, and the whole group loaded back into the cars (Uncle joining them, now, as well) and drove off to a restaurant for dinner.
Dinner ran long, and concluded with round after round of whiskey.
Near the end of the evening, Todd leaned close to Kristy — indeed through some minor accident of balance found himself leaning on Kristy — and explained in what was meant to be a whisper, “There’s a lot of drinking going around here.”
Kristy nodded. Whether through some notion of politeness or due to personal preference, Todd had been alternately accepting rounds from Uncle and Amy’s husband, making him by far the furthest-in of the party.
“Luckily, I have a pretty strong head,” Todd confided. “And most Asians can’t hold a lot of liquor. Or I might find myself getting into trouble.”
“I don’t pretend to be an expert,” Kristy advised, “But the factory owners I’ve met over here are all accomplished drinkers.”
“But not quite in my weight class!” Todd countered, giving his gut an appreciative pat. “I’ll be fine.”
Not long after this, a suggestion was made that the group decamp to a karaoke bar. Kristy had no great desire to sample the delights of Guangzhou karaoke, and knew that the primary focuses of such an expedition would be alcohol and karaoke hostesses, so she excused herself. She reminded Todd that they had a 9AM meeting the next morning to negotiate purchase orders, but he was bent upon getting the full Chinese business entertainment experience. Amy was leaving too, and offered Kristy a ride back to the hotel.
With Todd in China, the usual 5AM call with Bryn was cancelled. Kristy allowed herself to sleep in until the seemingly luxurious hour of seven. Showered, hair blown out, made up, dressed, she arrived at the hospitality suite twenty minutes before the meeting was to begin with Trade Winds and availed herself of the coffee and American-style breakfast which had been provided.
At five minutes to nine Amy arrived, her male staff in tow, though looking a little tired and puffy about the eyes, her husband not in evidence. Greetings were exchanged. Amy politely enquired whether Todd was perhaps suffering from the time difference. Kristy professed ignorance and excused herself for a moment, dialing Todd’s cell number as soon as she cleared the door.
“Whu?” asked a sleepy voice after several rings.
“It’s nine o’clock, Todd. The Trade Winds team is here. Are you not up?”
Todd let out a burst of profanity which suggested rapidly increasing consciousness. “I must have set the alarm wrong. I’ll be up in ten minutes.”
Kristy hung up, reflecting that it was among the insurmountable inequalities between the sexes that a man could somewhat credibly make it from bed to business attire in ten minutes.
It was, in fact, closer to fifteen minutes later that Todd burst into the hospitality suite, hair damp, suit somewhat wrinkled as if it had reposed on a chair overnight rather than being hung up, and a large dollop of shaving cream behind one ear. Kristy tried to indicate the problem to him, but her look and gesture only caused him to look wildly over his shoulder as if he expected to see some one or thing sneaking up behind him.
“Hold still,” Kristy ordered. She retrieved a tissue from her purse and removed the shaving cream. “Come on.”
“Thanks,” said Todd, rubbing the now clean spot behind his ear from which Kristy had wiped the shaving cream. “Guess it takes a woman’s touch.”
The Trade Winds team was quietly sipping coffee. Kristy and Todd each grabbed a cup and led the way into the conference room.
The negotiations which followed were hardly worthy of the name. Amy had a sheaf of notes meticulously documenting all of the changes which Kristy had insisted on in the various factories. Each of these became a point of negotiation, with Amy insisting in each case that the changes which were requested would cost more money, and thus required a higher per unit cost be passed on to Aspire Brands. Todd was alternating sips of coffee and ice water and seemed to be struggling to understand the objections Amy raised, much less counter them.
Although it was, in theory, Todd’s responsibility to deal with all cost related negotiations, Kristy became increasingly frustrated to see Amy winning nearly every point, and at last opened up her own front in the campaign, repeatedly pointing out the ways in which the production samples Trade Winds had provided had failed to match the prototypes they themselves had produced, and which they had promised to provide at the agreed on price. Amy seemed little pleased to find a less pliable person entering the fray, but was clearly equal to it. She began to lay out the difficulties faced by Trade Winds and their manufacturing partners at ever greater length, explaining why it was a simple business necessity that they be compensated more for meeting such detailed and unreasonable demands. Indeed, she hesitated to state things too bluntly, but if things became too difficult for them they might simply have to pass on the business entirely. They did not want to do this, for they felt deeply the awkward position it would put Aspire Brands in if their China partner backed out so late in the process. Why, they might not be able to launch the Courier line on time. Trade Winds was mindful of these things, but if they were pushed to the brink, what could they do?
Amy then re-presented her demands, this time as a middle ground between some unthinkably painful concession and Kristy’s unreasonably inflexible position. She appealed to Todd to intervene and see that this middle ground which she had selected was ideal, was really the best for all involved. Todd, whose grasp upon the situation had clearly not greatly improved during the long flood of verbiage followed his most basic instincts and aligned himself with the middle. Surely both Amy and Kristy should compromise, and it did indeed seem as if the middle ground which Amy described was the best point for both parties to meet.
Outmaneuvered on ground not of her own choosing, Kristy elected to abandon the field of battle and leave Todd to his fate. She fell silent and allowed Amy to display her ability to both lead Todd to metaphorical water and make him drink.
The negotiations finally concluded in the mid afternoon, and all parties decamped to a restaurant for a celebratory meal.
“Bad luck feeling under the weather for something like this,” Todd confided as he and Kristy got into one of the cars. “It’s a good thing Amy was willing to be so reasonable. She seemed eager to meet in the middle on everything.”
Kristy refrained from comment on this and instead asked about the night before.
“I didn’t realize that the Chinese took karaoke so seriously. The bar they took us to was very nice. Like a private club. And they’re all just really into it. I’d thought Amy’s husband was a pretty quiet guy, but he was belting out songs. And there were these girls there who were huge karaoke fans: jumping up and down, and cheering, and hanging on guys like they were pop stars.”
“Those are karaoke hostesses. They’re paid by the bar to do that.”
Todd looked affronted. “No, I don’t think so. If they worked for the bar I don’t think they would have been so… I mean…”
“This isn’t the US, Todd. That’s what they’re paid to do. Treat the customers like pop stars.”
“Oh.” Todd lapsed into silence for the rest of the drive as he contemplated this.
Amy’s husband rejoined the group for the celebratory dinner. Whatever ill effects of the evening before might have kept him from the morning’s negotiations, he seemed now in a boisterous temper, though his remarks were primarily delivered in Cantonese and the other members of his party were not always forthcoming with translations.
The dinner itself seemed almost planned to include as many things unknown to the American palate as possible. Todd seemed convinced that it was necessary to at least sample every dish that was put before him. Kristy had no such qualms. As the courses progressed, whiskey was brought in between each offering, and toasts were offered aplenty.
As the dinner finally drew to a close, it was proposed that they adjourn to a night club.
“The American Club,” Amy’s husband explained. “Everything American style.”
Unlike the night before, Amy was clearly going too, so Kristy assumed that this was not a male-only venue. They piled back into Trade Winds’ trio of black Mercedes and tooled out through the glittering Guangzhou night.
The cars stopped and let them out before a fairly typical-looking sky scraper, with revolving glass main door and marble floored lobby. The group crowded into an elevator glistening with brass fittings and Amy pushed the button for the 22nd floor.
The lobby they issued forth into was specific to the American Club, as indicated by a sign with the name of the club in giant block letters, above which flashed outlines of the Empire State Building, Hollywood Sign, and Mount Rushmore in flashing neon. In the center of this lobby stood an eight foot tall statue of Marilyn Monroe, garishly colored as if in technicolor-made-real, holding down her plaster skirt in a vain attempt to keep it from blowing up to expose her famous legs.
Amy’s husband and Eddy insisted on Todd posing with them for a picture in front of the statue. The three men stood arm and arm, with Todd in the middle, with the over-sized Marilyn’s skirt billowing around them at shoulder height. “Okay, ready? Ready?” Just as the picture was being taken Amy’s husband reached a hand back to tickle Marilyn between the legs. “For luck!” he shouted. The attendant who had taken the picture rushed forward with it, and the three men examined the preview on the camera’s screen, Eddy and Amy’s husband doubling over laughing and slapping each other on the back.
At the entrance to the club itself, they were greeted by a hostess wearing daisy dukes and a cowboy hat and a waiter sporting a football jersey, sideways baseball cap and large gold chain bedecked with dollar sign. A cacophony of memorabilia covered the walls. The immense room was round and shaped somewhat like an amphitheater, with semi-circular tiers descending towards a wedge-shaped dance floor opposite the entrance. The wall beyond the dance floor was all glass, allowing the dancers and those seated at the tables and booths arranged along the tiers a view across the glittering downtown Guangzhou cityscape. At various points on the tiers larger pieces of Americana stood on platforms: a finned, pink, Cadillac; a stuffed Texas longhorn; a Harley Davidson motorcycle; a plaster Statue of Liberty.
At the lowest level, in the very center of the club, between the tiers of seating and the dance floor, stood an immense round bar above which slowly rotated a replica of the General Lee, its resplendent orange body and confederate-flagged roof reflecting the lights of the disco ball that hung from the ceiling above it.
Their party occupied a booth and a waitress dressed as a low-necklined Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz arrived to take their orders. Eddy asked Kristy and Eddy what a good American whiskey would be and Kristy reeled off the names of the most expensive bourbons she knew, determined that some aspect of the night would be to her taste.
After several rounds of bourbon had been consumed the Trade Winds contingent suddenly decided it was necessary that more pictures be taken to memorialize the occasion. The various objects de American seemed the obvious venue.
They converged upon the Cadillac. After some argument Amy and her husband climbed into the front seat. Eddy took control of the camera and boisterously shouted instructions in Cantonese. Amy’s husband, still clutching a highball glass with a generous portion of bourbon, first mimed wild driving, swinging the steering wheel one way and another while Amy leaned back against the seat impassively. Eddy shouted some instruction and Amy’s husband let go the wheel, turned, and planted a huge, drive-in-movie-teenager style kiss on Amy, flinging bourbon across the backseat as he did so. The camera flashed, the image was shown around, backs were slapped. Amy smiled benevolently over the increasing pandemonium.
Next Eddy and Trade Winds’ head of sales were to be photographed with the Statue of Liberty. Several poses were tried, with Amy’s husband manning the camera, and at last they settled on each kissed one of the Statue of Liberty’s cheeks. As the camera flashed Eddy grabbed one of the reproductions over-prominent breasts, to the hooted approval of the assemblage.
Next Todd, urged on by the others, mounted the Harley Davidson. He gamely cranked at the throttle and made motor noises, to the amusement of the others. This, however, did not seem to fit the spirit of the evening. Eddy had the necessary inspiration. “Biker girl!” he exclaimed, indicating Kristy. “Get on the Harley with him and be a biker girl.”
“Have some fun,” Eddy urged. “Biker girl. Just for fun.”
“You should relax a bit,” advised Amy, with a smile that lifted only one side of her mouth.
“Come on,” said Todd, with an aw-shucks grin. “What happens in Guangzhou stays in Guangzhou.”
“Nope.” Kristy returned to the booth and poured herself another glass of bourbon instead, angry at having been persuaded to join the expedition, though considering that with a certain liquor-induced distance it might have its amusing side so long as she remained strictly a spectator.
Looking back towards the Harley Davidson she could see that the group had persuaded one of the hostesses, this one wearing a Mad Men-era dress with flaring skirt, to sit astride the motorcycle with Todd as Eddy gleefully took pictures. This accomplished, the group milled around briefly, and Kristy feared they might return to the booth, but just at that moment the lights dimmed, garishly colored spotlights began to search the room in dizzying circles, and a sequined Elvis impersonator took the dance floor to lead the assembled masses in a set of rock ’n’ roll favorites. This proved more than any of the Trade Winds group could resist in their current state, and Kristy was left in her preferred solitude.
Time passed. Another club emcee took to the dance floor. Dressed in hip hop pastiche and waving around a golden microphone, he led the crowd in a spirited Chinese cover of “Jump Around”.
Kristy had begun to slip into a half-waking state, and so it was a feeling of movement next to her rather than sight which alerted her that Todd had slipped into the booth with her.
“It’s late. I’ve been sitting here zoning out,” Kristy said.
“What?” Todd leaned in close to hear her over the thumping music.
“I’m tired. I wouldn’t mind getting back to the hotel soon,” Kristy said more loudly.
“I wonder if we could commandeer the car that took us here. The Trade Winds folks may want to dance all night, but I’d rather go to bed.”
“That sounds good.”
“You must want to get to bed at a decent time too. What time is your flight out tomorrow morning?”
Todd did not respond, and Kristy became aware that he was leaning closer to her a moment before she felt the unwelcome presence of Todd’s hand exploring her thigh. She pushed his hand away sharply.
“Todd! Stop it.”
“Oh come on.” He didn’t return his hand to her leg, but he was leaning over her, hands planted against the booth-back on both sides of her shoulders. “First you lead me on, being all couple-y with me this morning. Then you play hard to get over the motorcycle. We don’t have time for games, it’s my last night here.”
He lurched towards her, and his lips briefly made sloppy, bourbon-tinged contact with her own. Kristy shoved him away hard, his head hitting the booth back with an audible sound. She extricated herself from the booth and left the club rapidly without pausing to see what effect her rebuff had on him.
It was fully dark outside on the street and there was a chill in the air. The Trade Winds cars which had brought them there were not within sight. Several taxis were idling by the curb, however. She climbed into the nearest one and showed the driver the card for the hotel. He nodded and swerved off into traffic.
The cruelest month, a few days early
8 hours ago