The Ecphorizer

A Telephone Installer in China - II
Tod Wicks

Issue #57 (May 1986)

{Note:  This article continues the story begun in our last issue.]

I work in the international division of a large supplier of electronic private telephone exchanges (PBXs), and recently volunteered

A woman who smokes is equivalent to the worst hooker.

for duty in China. The first stop of my three-month assignment was Hangzhou. My associate, KC Ho of our Hongkong office, and I began our stay at rather austere, stark hotel in Hangzhou.

My early impressions of austerity (the vast lobby being completely devoid of furniture and plants and people) were soon dispelled, as I found that the hotel hadn't officially opened; it was going through a "field trial" during which it didn't have to pay [quoteright]any tourism taxes to the local government. I also discovered that most of the other rooms provided such things as refrigerators, shower curtains, and bathtubs, whereas my room was a transient worker's room. I was put up there because we were working for the Wanghu Hotel, installing their PBX, and they were paying for our lodging. As the Hotel approached its official opening date, more and more plants and furnishings appeared in the common areas downstairs. New personnel appeared almost daily: doormen dressed in spiffy uniforms, young ladies calling the elevators, and waiters and waitresses sporting new outfits. The tables in the dining room suddenly sprouted colorful tablecloths. It seemed that every effort was being made to soften the earlier starkness.

The hotel thoughtfully provided evening entertainment in the form of English-language movies on an internal channel. Even though the films changed each night, they were repeated each week. I have now seen enough James Bond, Indiana Jones, Mary Poppins, and Maria von Trapp for more years than I care to mention.

Most of my time was spent working. We were up at 7:30 o'clock and quite often worked until 8:00 in the evening. I had brought several large crates from America, containing telephones, an enormous AC/DC rectifier and battery charger, cables, and the PBX. After arranging the transport from Shanghai harbor by astute gifts of cigarettes to local customs bureaucrats, we saw it all arrive on a flatbed truck early one misty evening. Besides KC and myself there were numerous roustabouts employed by the hotel, several Customs officials, and a sizable contingent from the local phone company, including Madame Tang, the director of PBX operations for this section of the province.

Picture in your mind a chilly, damp evening. A crane lifts the crates off the truck. Customs wants to inspect the contents. Madame Tang is on the loading dock, resplendent in dark blue trousers and Mao jacket, directing the activities of everyone around while her chief technician holds aloft a bare 60 watt light bulb. For several minutes, the roustabouts try unsuccessfully to pry off the sides of the crates with screwdrivers and hammers. I get impatient with this useless charade and find a flat piece of iron, using it as a lever to open a gap in one crate. Next, I manage to get everyone out of the way and grab the free boards with my hands, ripping them away. This is no great feat of strength for me, but it astounds the crowd.

On another occasion, we had to move an 800-pound PBX up five flights of stairs for the People's Bank. There were plenty of roustabouts, and an equal number of theories about how to do it. After much discussion, we hit upon a combination bamboo-rope technique. We looped two pieces of rope under the machine, in front and back. When stretched on both sides, the loops were just about shoulder height. We then inserted bamboo poles through the back and front loops on both sides, enabling many more men to apply lift to the box. We wound up with five or six on each side, and ten men on the downhill end.

Aside from work, we did make it into town once in a while. I am 5' 10" tall, with a barrel chest, blue eyes, and a full beard. Even among other Westerners I stand out. In China, I felt at times like a freak. People didn't just sneak glances, they gaped at me. Wherever KC and I would stroll, traffic would stop. Once when we were standing on a blind street corner, I heard "Jingle Bells" in the distance. KC heard it too, and told me not to venture out into the street. It turned out that in this part of China, "Jingle Bells" warns everyone that the watering truck is coming to clean the sidewalk. A small crowd of folks were so interested in me that they didn't heed the warning and were thoroughly doused as it came around the corner.

On another occasion I was working in the International Building Hotel, which was far from finished. There were no facilities for life's little necessities. I had been drinking a good bit of tea all day and hadn't gone back to my hotel for lunch, so I was feeling the need to see a man about a dog. Upon inquiring, I was directed to the public toilet down the street. It appeared to be clean, so I went in. I walked toward the trough and was about to unzip when I noticed that a crowd of some twenty men and the cleaning lady had gathered around me. It was obvious they were there just for the show, and the cleaning lady was right up front! I suddenly lost the urge, spun around, and left.

In Hangzhou, some of the people I worked with smoked like chimneys. But only the men. I discovered that they have no regard for women who smoke — even Westerners, of whom they are normally quite tolerant. I heard that important business deals have fallen through because a member of the sales team was a woman who smoked. Ordinarily Chinese women enjoy equality in jobs and society nearly unrivaled elsewhere in the world. But a woman who smokes is equivalent to the worst hooker.

The fifth (and last) week that we were in Hangzhou, the managing director of our Hongkong office stopped by for a visit. This was the occasion for several banquets. First the local phone company hosted one for us. Then our director hosted one for the phone company. As he had to return to Beijing, he left me to sign a contract with a new customer. After the signing we were treated to yet another banquet. The day before KC and I left we hosted one more banquet for the local phone company and two customers.

These banquets are good feeds where nobody walks away from the table thirsty. Not only is there hearty local beer, but there are bottomless glasses of brandy, which is used for the seemingly endless toasting that goes with a banquet. I learned a great technique for staying sober from Madame Tang: simply use a little misdirection by waving your empty glass in front of everyone while you discreetly bring your napkin to your mouth and let it absorb the unswallowed brandy. That's how this great lady appeared to drink everyone under the table. When I first tried this ploy, however, most of the brandy slopped into my beard.

The only thing that tasted awful was what the Chinese passed off as white wine. Remember Shell Oil's gasoline additive called TCP (that was not so affectionately called Tom Cat Piss)? Well, the taste and smell of Chinese white wine brought back memories of TCP.

After the last banquet, KC and I just barely roused ourselves in time to make it to the airport the next day for our flight back to Hongkong. 

Globetrotting phone man TOD WICKS is presently in Australia, installing exchanges among the wallabies and kangaroos. As a dedicated home brewer, he is also actively trading beer and ale recipes with the natives.

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Tod Wicks

Long time Ecphorizer and current Editor of all things Ecphorizer, Tod enjoyed a varied career in telecommunications having cut his teeth at Ma Bell, then getting in on the ground floor at Rolm working on digital PBXs, getting a light workout at Raynet while installing fiber optic transmission systems, and finally working at Cisco Systems prior to retiring.