Fiction / August 2009 (Issue 8)

Shanghai Stereotype #3

by Kok-Meng Tan

He went to boarding school in the UK because his father had decided it was a good idea. Strangely after he had left Hong Kong, he would wake up in his cold, damp dormitory room every Sunday yearning for the same weekly dim sum brunches with his family at the rowdy Causeway Bay restaurant which he had so dreaded in the past. With the gritted teeth and a practiced smile he had acquired back home at all those parties his mother had thrown in their mid-levels apartment, where he would be paraded out to showcase his not inconsiderable musical talent at the old upright Yamaha, he sat through tedious classes and boring canteen banter with growing determination. Every Tuesday night, he would write long letters to his mother in Chinese detailing what he had done for the week, while keeping what he felt strictly to himself. Of course he had no idea that this regular maintenance of his grasp of the Chinese language would become rather useful later when he moved to Shanghai. Eventually he went down to London to study architecture because his father was a developer. University days quickly passed without event with the same smile affixed to his otherwise expressionless face, except for three months of distraction when he had a crush on a pretty Japanese classmate that he now deemed to have been silly and unwise. He sailed through his design projects effortlessly. He had a knack for knowing which tutors would give him a good grade, what they looked for in students' work, and he knew instinctively where to find ideas without others knowing where they had come from. So armed with his UK degree, and an accent that could pass for British if one didn't know better, he finally came to Shanghai. His old man had put him under the tutelage of a family friend who was renovating some old French-styled villas into swish homes for the super-rich. They made a deal: he would invest in his friend's venture in exchange for his son's fast-track education in the Chinese way of doing business. Our man in Shanghai soon found himself plunged into the world of five-hour meetings with forty eight silent people nodding in unison at two leaders cautiously encircling each other like wolves over a fresh kill, prodding each other with words like sharpened fangs. After a year, he became a skillful player himself. He learnt the art of deciding nothing, doing nothing, but still never being out of sight or earshot of everything that was happening. He found that he had a natural talent for it. It was in the genes his father had planted in him, he reasoned. He did not resent the destiny his father had plotted for him from the day he had come crying naked with nothing into this world. Now he could see that he was going to have everything, if he did not make any wrong moves. To keep his business associates entertained, night after night, he brought them to chandeliered Chinese restaurants, clanging with glasses and crockery, followed by the whirl of songs, tits and ass in loud sweaty dark karaoke rooms. When the last staggering man was escorted back home, our man would direct the taxi back to his own Huashan Lu apartment, pour himself some gin, turn down his bedroom lights, put on his Japanese porn DVD, curl up in the soft folds of his comforter, and slowly pleasure himself to sleep.

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