Can it really be over 20 years ago that I last set foot in the City of Five Goats (and, at that time, several million bicycles?) It was Christmas 1989, and I sat in my room and watched President Ceausescu of Romania getting shot on CNN. That was at the up-market hotel; on previous visits I had stayed at the Dongfang, the Stalinesque structure nearby with faded photographs in the foyer celebrating half-forgotten Sinophile guests like Edward Heath, Julius Nyerere and, indeed, Nicolae Ceausescu. (It was just 10 years earlier, as a stray teen, that I had made my way through the benighted Balkan dictatorship. Main memory: a dead horse in a roadside ditch, with bloated legs reaching for the sky.)
The massed ranks of S-Meg Holdings’ dynamic management team are assembled here in a small conference centre for the signing ceremony of our exciting new partnership with Shiti Enterprises. This win-win mutually beneficial joint venture is all about nylon mesh: high-strength safety netting, of which Foxconn alone is ordering 1.5 million square metres. S-Meg Holdings and the mainlanders – the latter with their access to thousands of nimble peasant fingers and a desirable manufacturing site on conveniently vacated farmland – see strong growth ahead in this sector, with demand from schools, shopping malls and anywhere else hope runs out on high floors.
After hostesses pin gargantuan flowers to our lapels, we smile for photographers, dispense business cards to our gruff new friends, try to make small talk, clap politely after tedious speeches… and the more lateral-thinking among us organize an escape committee.
After a break in the proceedings, three of us strangle our mainland minders with our puce, lime-green and brown-striped company ties, dump the bodies in a toilet and shimmy down a drainpipe to find ourselves in the middle of Shamian Island, the place where Western merchants were confined during visits from Macau back in the days before Hong Kong was taken.
It is half-unchanged from 20 years ago. The tree-lined cobbled streets are still there, with their low-rise colonial buildings housing the gloomy and dusty headquarters of obscure state cultural and commercial bodies. But it is being Macau-ized with a vengeance. The old houses are being painted in lurid colour schemes, and more and more space is being occupied by incongruously pristine flower beds, ugly trendy statues and the inevitable chain stores.
The area also seems to be the base for what is perhaps a form of revenge on Westerners for the opium trade – the Chinese baby-adoption industry. At least a dozen self-conscious American couples stroll around tentatively pushing their fresh-out-of-the-package little acquisitions in buggies.
Fearful of the Shiti Enterprises henchmen undoubtedly hot on our trail, we make our way over the small bridge and into the city. It is full of cars these days, plus Africans buying stuffed teddy bears by the gross, plus teenage girls in lace-trimmed micro-dresses and shorts teetering on high heels, plus endless multinational fast-food joints.
But the side streets have been left behind, with crumbling concrete buildings held together by green mould and telephone wire, and figures silently squatting down at the far end of dark corridors eating from enamel bowls. And, eventually, we find a place to sit down, with RMB5 dumplings – that’s per basket of 10 – while we try to phone our driver.