01. Saving Face

  1. 01. Saving Face
  2. 02. Authentic Beijing
  3. 03. Great Men and Spoilt Brats
  4. 04. Great Walls of Ire
  5. 05. A Breath of Fresh Air
  6. 06. Luxury & Sexy
  7. 07. Hurt & Seoul
  8. 08. My Korean Family
  9. 09. Trafficking in Manila
  10. 10. Paradise Last
  11. 11. Something for Nothing
  12. 12. Getting In and Getting Out

Getting a Chinese visa can be something of a bureaucratic nightmare, although in recent years they have streamlined the process considerably. Their application is one of the few government forms on which I hesitate to lie, given that particular government’s propensity to use bullets now and send the bill later. Anywhere else I enter my occupation with the highly innocuous descriptor “accountant”, even though I couldn’t be called an accountant with any accuracy since, well, ever. But on my China visa application I honestly and not without irony entered “public servant”, and where required, checked the “government official” box, too.

Departing Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport, I was unprepared for the Aussie Customs and Immigration official to quiz me on this, especially at six in the morning, before I had had my second cuppa. “What agency are you with?” he asked with some jocularity.

I stared at him blankly. “Huh?”

“Your agency,” he repeated, suspicions aroused. “It isn’t a tough question…”

I had no idea what he was after. “Huh?” I explained.

“It says here you are a public servant,” he noted, now sternly. Where do you work?”

“Oh, THAT. Sorry — I am the Governance and Performance Officer for the Sophisticated Communications Measurement Program of the Power Sector Improvement Office of the Utilities and Mining Capital Division of the Department of Commerce, Development, Productivity and Expansion. Um, that’s Victoria.”

It was his turn to stare at me blankly. “Really? That’s your title?”

“Yep. All 74 syllables.”

He shook his head and decided it was probably best to let the Chinese have me.

Frank Lee and I were in the Qantas Club swilling some nice bubbly by 7 am before our 9:30 am flight to Hong Kong. By 8 am I had consumed more than twice the calories a man of my age and weight should consume in a day, at least half of it in champagne.

This would be my fifth trip to China, if one includes Hong Kong, and China does. Although none of my previous visits were longer than a week, I have come to understand a fair bit about negotiating with (that is, getting what I want from) the Chinese. It all came back in the flash during our 90 minutes between flights in Hong Kong.

The gatekeeper at the Qantas Club refused to let us in. The Qantas Club has developed a Byzantine set of rules to prevent the admittance of Australian Qantas Club members to the international Qantas Club locations except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. I can understand the commercial drivers of that policy. Nevertheless I found it absurd that as a member who had just alighted from a Qantas flight and was about to board another flight booked through Qantas on a partner airline that Qantas chose, I was not entitled to enter. I pointed out that I had called ahead to ensure that I was entitled to enter (I had) and had been told I was entitled to enter (I was); no dice.

With little choice left, I decided to play the “face” card. Frank Lee provided the perfect opportunity. Frank began to interject something, enabling me to interrupt him sternly with “No, sir, please allow me to handle this!” Then I turned to the gatekeeper with “You are embarrassing me in front of my colleague.”

It worked a charm; we were in. This is the hidden gem in the often inscrutable “save face” imperative of Asian cultures. While it is certainly true that you never want to cause anyone to “lose face”, by the same token they cannot allow you to lose face. Convince them they have embarrassed you, and they crumble into a heap of apologies and concessions. Well, sometimes.

We arrived on time in Beijing at 10:30pm, having sobered up on the flight from Hong Kong, not a moment too soon. It was midnight before we had cleared customs and the taxi queue. As we climbed into the cab, Frank Lee said “Allright, an uneventful trip!” I grimaced, as I had been a bit less than forthcoming with him. Out of everything planned for this trip, this taxi ride, and finding this hotel was the thing most likely to end in fiasco.

I thrust the hotel’s map towards the driver, wide eyed and hopeful. He erupted in colourful language, throwing up his hands, apparently not only illiterate but ilmaprate. He waved the taxi rank officer over, who immediately demanded the driver’s papers, sparking a loud and animated conversation in unfathomable content. It would be the first of many such conversations involving this driver I would witness this night, not a few of them including animations of my own.

The worst thing I could do, I told myself, was embarrass the driver. Respect, dignity and trust were the catchwords. Fingers crossed all around, we hit the highway.

It takes about a nanosecond in Beijing to realise this is not your Grandma’s China. Beijing’s now-famed foul-aired grittiness, epic freeways, and traffic jams slap one with a vigour that would do LA proud. An hour later the driver pointed out with obvious pride and excitement “Tian’men! Beijing!” We weren’t far from the hotel.

Kelly’s Courtyard Hotel is deep in the labyrinth of hutongs (tiny streets and alleyways) in Beijing’s Xicheng district, just west of the Forbidden City. Indeed, one doesn’t get any deeper, as our hotel is on the dead-end of an alley barely wide enough for a bicycle, and 200 meters from a street wide enough for a taxi. Our driver had a chat with every waking soul in central Beijing at 1 am before arriving at a point where, he made it clear, we were getting out, as that was as far as he could go. He motioned us down a dark, dubious looking alley. I instructed Frank Lee to stay in the taxi with the luggage – even if I could find the place, at 1:30 am, there might not be anybody there to let us in. This did not please the driver.

Our hutong by light of day
Our hutong by light of day

Off I went into the dark. 200 meters later, showing some locals the map, they pointed me down another even darker more dubious looking alley. There I found a place with a sign with two words in the Roman Alphabet: “Boutique Hotel”. After ringing the doorbell several times, an irritated but polite woman answered, nodded at the map, and pointed me down yet another still darker, still more dubious alley. “Last door” she assured me. “Respect, dignity and trust” I repeated to myself. At the last door at the end of the earth, I rang again – and a pleasant young man answered. “Frank Lee?” he asked.

“You have NO IDEA how happy I am to see you!” I answered.

After running back to collect the actual Frank Lee and our baggage, we paid the driver and were in our room in minutes. Frank fell asleep instantly. I was wired and trembling, finally getting to sleep at about 3 am, listening to the dulcet tones of the neighbours’ snores through the Chinese walls. What I had I gotten us into?

Note to self: stop arriving in unfamiliar cities in the middle of the night with bookings at tiny obscure boutique hotels in the back alleys of poorly lit neighbourhoods with street signs in a foreign alphabet, if they exist at all. No matter what TripAdvisor says.