Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Expat Culture in Taiwan: Pierre and the restaurant I

Pierre did actually open his French restaurant; lower priced French food aimed at the TGI market had always been a good idea, the only thing we had been worried about was whether he would pull it off.
He did. It was a big pity.
It was already three months since the restaurant opened and we had eaten there five or six times a month. If you wanted to meet Pierre he insisted it had to be in the restaurant. We ate for free in exchange for having to say how much we liked the food every two minutes, tell him what a good job he had done, and agree that they were lucky that he had reserved a table for us. There was a game: although he had invited us, he would look surprised, then stressed because ‘he had promised the table to someone else’, make us stand for twenty seconds, and then he would miraculously find us a table. While he sat he would stand at the bar surveying the scene with an extremely serious look on his face, and, every time he caught one of our eyes he would shake his head, and then seek recognition for the fact that it was all just too fucking busy and, yeah, it was lucky he was there. Finally, he would come to the table every twenty minutes and apologize profusely for the fact that he was unable to sit down for long. He didn’t say why, just pulled his take a fucking look around you face.
“I am thinking about expanding soon,” he said. “I am starting to look for other sites…four within the year. I think that is possible.”
It was fortunate he only ever had five minutes at a time because his tales of success had made him insufferable. First night he had spent 10,000 NT on flowers as was the tradition for a newly opened business, his partners had got an appropriate date and lucky gold characters from a fortune teller, and then he had made the unprecedented step of hiring a queue of people to stand outside – Taiwanese have a magnetic attraction to queues – and business had boomed since, even making his name in the local papers.
“What about your partners?” I asked. “What do they think?”
“They follow everything I want to do. They know who has made them successful,” Pierre replied.
“Have you got a contract sorted out yet? Man, you know these people fuck each other over all the time,” asked Eric, probably right on this one, but not through any balanced judgment of his own.
“Ours is a verbal one. You know contracts are no use in this country,” he replied.
“Well, yes and no, man,” pushed Josh not learning from the mistakes he made with his girlfriends about trying to help.
The truth was illegal work and non-contract work was still extremely common – When you arrive and teach you probably have one legal contract job but then all your privates, advertising work, translation, and other small bits of this and that are all cash in hand. But that is only half the story as it is not a story of marginalized foreigners having no choice. In fact, the locals were as equally guilty of not getting contracts: almost all small businesses didn’t give contracts to employees and few had contracts within partners. It was horrifying and mind-boggling to hear the stories because almost everyone had one of how they invested 10,000 US dollars in a business and the partner ran off. It was a kind of tax in itself: the at least once in your life, rip-off tax.
The common misconception is the idea that, for the older generation they were brought up in an era when it really was the case that the contract was no use. This is not entirely the truth as there has always been a legal system in place for these kind of small cases, especially the last twenty years or so, and while it may not be perfect it is not much worse than most countries – Bear in mind that getting your money back is a long and usually difficult process anywhere in the world, yet we all insist on contracts.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers for why they did it, but here are a few factors.
It can be pretty feudal at times - Things are usually simple and what makes the Taiwanese so friendly and nice also proves to be their downfall in business. Talk to them and they always refer to their business partner as their friend, insisting on muddying clear business relationships with personal connections. Go for an interview at a small company and their No.1 priority is to try and work out if you are a nice person or not, whether you will fuck them over in future. (Tip for getting a job: They want the guy who appears stable, not the hot shot). It is a disease for them: they will have a dispute with a business partner and it is all the more hard to separate because they intertwined their families, but a nasty bust-up will happen. They will talk about keeping the next relationship strictly business, then you will see them, and they will introduce their next business partner. For example: “Uh, this is Mr. Chang…He is a really good man…You know his great grandfather used to live in the village next to my mother’s aunt. He has two sons and a daughter, I have already fixed up his second son with Little Mei…You know, my sister’s daughter. You know both his sons went to such-and-such University they are very smart. Mr. Chang is a Pig (Chinese zodiac animals) and that really fits into my animal. Mr. Chiang lost a lot of money in China and he talks about how lucky he is to meet us. He now calls me step-mother. I went to see a fortune teller and he says that October is a good time for us to launch the business…”
I would go and bang my head against the wall very hard.
The economic miracle effect – For those just arriving in Taiwan this is hard to understand as Taiwan has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years. When I first arrived the country had just had twenty years of 8% economic growth and there was an incredible optimism. They would tell you how they had lost a fortune and made it back several times and such was life. It was clear: as long as you could get hold of a pile of money to invest and networked an opportunity would arise. If said opportunity wasn’t offering you a contract then you thought about it for a while and invested anyway, because only a fool would miss this opportunity. After all you had met his family and he seemed a good guy.
Chao and confusion doesn’t equal clarity – While ego, self-interest and damn right dishonesty did play a part in the disappearance of your funds, the answer often wasn’t so intentionally evil. Take two or three or four people who don’t know much about business, invest their savings together, don’t sign a contract, and are too polite to hammer out key issues of who handles finances, division of labor, responsibilities and company direction, appealing each time to their friendship or skirting issues. The result isn’t organization. And then when you are about to lose your house you grab what is left first and run for the door.
What about for the young people? Well, just because you know what your parents did wrong, it doesn’t mean you can stop yourself repeating their mistakes. If you are thirty or more you grew up with these tales of how all you had to do was work hard, take a risk, and the money would come in. How your father was introduced to this guy who was had been looking to meet a good man. How they both liked Johnny Walker whiskey and they shared the same radical in the third character of their name. And they made a fortune together. There might be contradictory evidence in front of you as your father was now driving a taxi and you were paying the mortgage and the costs of his fancy imported American anti-depressants. Circumstances hadn’t quite gone your way because you graduated from university but then, just as daddy was going to help you pay for that degree in America he lost everything. Now you are just an ordinary college graduate without that all-important foreign degree to break into the international companies and the really big leagues. You still know your father is talking nonsense but to admit that to yourself is not being a good son - besides, delusion rescued you from the knowledge that all your money for the next twenty years would be going on paying your father’s mortgage. Roll the dice. Give it a go.
So what has this got to do with Pierre? Well, like any system in the world there was a positive angle to their particular way of doing things. In this case, it involved lots of: back-slapping and arms around shoulders, deals in late night drinking dens, talk of how you were going to beat the system, large piles of cash changing hands, hand shakes and talk of trust and friendship; it was romantic, it was very gangster film, and it didn’t involve spreadsheets. In the old days the atmosphere was infectious and we were affected to some lesser degree. Pierre loved this idea, but he was also broke and lazy, meaning he had no choice but to go out on a limb.
Back to the conversation:
“You ain’t going to be able to kick the fucker’s asses,” said John. “It is their country so when push comes to shove they always have more gangsters than you.
“You have naked photos of their wives? Anything similar?” John liked to tell us a story about the security camera video of him with the manager of the Kindergarten in the playpen one evening. That was his bargaining chip if he had any problems. We assumed he was lying about their being a video, but he had told his manager the story, the event happened, and there was no way she was going to question the security guard. This, of course, is the other way you make sure you get your money and have no problems.
“But you don’t know how to handle the Taiwanese like I do. Make them your friend and it is okay. Besides, they need me they wouldn’t be so stupid as to squeeze me out,” said Pierre bullishly before downing half his bottle of beer and pulling far too many facial expressions.
We sat saying nothing before its was Josh’s turn to air his neuroses.
“Pierre, isn’t that your ex behind the counter? You gave her a job…And she isn’t…giving you problems?” he asked.
“Of course,” replied Pierre. “Why should she?”
“They are not all crazed stalkers,” said John. “You were unlucky, get over it.
“Besides, there is always usually a way out. This week I had to let one go so I started speaking Chinese to her – Wo. Yao. Xue. Jong. Wen. She stopped answering my calls.”
“But that was a little –,” said Josh.
“Sneaky. Yes. But think about it – If she was so sincere she would surely have been happy to speak to me in Chinese.”
“Hmm,” said Josh.
“Hmm, what?” said John. “You want to tell us what a pathetic bleeding heart liberal you are.”
Half an hour later we were in the taxi into the center. Josh was sat in the front seat repeating to himself: ‘they broke up and are now friends.’
I was struck by the image of Pierre seeing us to the taxi and looking a bit like a mother when her children leave.
“He is fucked,” said John.
“Nah, we don’t know that,” I replied.
“Have to find somewhere else for dinner on a Saturday,” we both sighed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great stuff!