Visiting the Triads: Part I

Note: I recommend anyone reading this also read Finding Finex, as it pertains to my eventual conclusions.

It’s two weeks into my third trip to Yunnan province when Ben asks me to join him for tea at the local bookmaker’s studio. I’ve been designated with the task of seeking out a print shop for a friend — hopefully cheaper than what they can find in the US — so this feels like a prime opportunity.

When Ben and I arrive, everyone is already tipsy from shots of baijiu. They’re passing around some green tea, which I’m grateful isn’t going to get me overpromising and under delivering. The chat is convivial, joyous, filled with laughter for 20 or 30 minutes. Then it turns to the local owner of a bakery — we’ll call the bakery Tasty Bakery and the owner Yong — and he is very excited that I’ve decided to stop by. In fact, he’s so enthused he decides to call for another round of baijiu, which the crowd is happy to oblige.

Having lost a tooth to an overconsumption of baijiu during my last sojourn to China (story for another time), this doesn’t please me. But being polite in China requires a certain amount of… fortitude, so we clink glasses, throw back the shots, and get down to business. Getting down to business entails one simple proposition: how do I feel about working for Tasty Bakery, full-time?

I don’t know how to respond at all. It isn’t a question I’d expected, let alone been prepared for, and I blink too many times and stay silent for too long. Ben makes some conversation in Mandarin while I think about an entirely different life, a new set of circumstances, leaving America behind. Ben turns to me: “He says you don’t have to decide now, but he’d like to take you to the central bakery tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” I ask, watching another round of Baijiu get prepared.

“Yeah. I can’t come with you, but it’ll just be overnight.”

“Overnight? Where is this?”

He turns away from me and they talk in Mandarin again. There’s laughter, they point at me, laugh more.

“Not too far,” he says, “a few hours south. He’s going to pick you up at seven.”

And with another shot of baijiu forced into my hands it’s decided: I’ll be on the way to Tasty Bakery Central Headquarters at seven in the morning.

Never got a chance to talk to the bookmaker.

Yunnan

I wake up at six, slightly hungover from the three shots of baijiu (the stuff really doesn’t sit well). Yunnan is quiet this morning, only a few birds chirping, low-hanging clouds hugging the mountains. It’s peaceful. I manage to avoid the distractions of Twitter and my unfruitful investigations and sit with three cups of coffee and two cigarettes. The day has started out splendid.

Then Yong arrives ten minutes early. He expected me to be waiting outside. I grab my suitcase and rush out. Yong is driving a pitch black, perfectly manicured, new Mercedes-Benz. He’s standing next to it, back passenger door open, smiling, then takes my suitcase and speaks to a translator.

“He looks forward to you seeing the bakery.” The translator says.

I smile and nod, “I look forward to seeing it, too.”

The translator repeats this to Yong, who smiles and nods in return, then hands my luggage to the translator, who puts it in the trunk. As I buckle my seatbelt, I can’t help but think this trip, however brief, is going to be incredibly tasking.

My intuition proves correct. For the first hour of the drive Yong tries to make conversation through our translator. He asks about my life in Los Angeles, or, as he knows it, Hollywood. He asks how many years I was a baker. He asks if I enjoy baking. The questions are gimmes, and soon I start in with similar throwaways.

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from Nanjing.” He replies.

“Oh?” I’m surprised by this. Most of the people I’ve met in Yunnan are born-and-raised locals. “What brought you to Yunnan?”

There’s a pause, and he eventually says, “Because it’s pretty.”

I can’t help but laugh. “Because it’s pretty”? This logical fallacy, while possible in some parts of the world (maybe), isn’t the response you’d expect from a multimillionaire Chinese entrepreneur. Any number of answers would have sufficed, “government subsidies,” or “cheap real estate,” or “a friend told me about an opportunity.” But pretty?

He nods, “Yes. Yunnan is much prettier than Nanjing.”

The statement is true, but as a reason for establishing a string of businesses… the commentary feels dishonest.

I run through more niceties: how many bakeries does he own in Yunnan, how many years did it take to build the business, does he still visit Nanjing? His answers are short, and the car falls quiet. In my backpack is American Pastoral by Philip Roth. It’s almost impossible to focus on what I’m reading, but a single sentence sticks out:

“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense.”

A small, dilapidated, but still operational shop located next to an enormous factory — a common sight in southwest China if you venture far enough from the big cities

The sun is setting when we arrive at a Chinese-Myanmari border town, but I can still make out clues that poverty is rampant: unpaved roads, fruit and vegetable stands on every corner, literal tin shacks. This isn’t what China generally presents to foreigners. This is something different.

We pull into a long, perfectly paved driveway and park in a vast, empty parking lot. In front of the Mercedes sits the factory. It’s new, pristine, built with steel and glass. Though I’m by no means shocked by the three-story behemoth, I am impressed — just with the outside. It’s all-encompassing, and Yong looks proud.

We step out of the car and walk into the storefront. The floor is unspoilt linoleum tiles, the glass cases are spotless, “everything as it’s supposed to be.” There’s a young Dai kid, 18 tops, manning the empty cash register area, and his much older manager, 40s, glasses, hovering behind him. They’ve been waiting for us.

There’s a clamorous greeting for the owner. Yong immediately takes the manager aside and starts a vivid discussion. I look at my phone: six. There’s no way we’ll be spending any time at the bakery. It’s far more reasonable he’ll want to ask questions and-

Wrong. “Why don’t you make something?” Yong asks me.

Like a nervous tic, I check my texts and email, hoping against hope that some excuse will present itself. “Are you sure we have all the ingredients we need?”

“Let’s check,” Yong says, hovering over me, staring at my screen, waiting for some sort of checklist that he can’t read to appear.

Fraud. Fraud everywhere.