Taking One For The Team: Laundry in Liaoyang
It's Saturday December 11th, 2004 (or possibly just in to Sunday morning) at Kaserne Club, Basel. I've just watched The Delgados play a gig for the fourteenth and penultimate time. As always, a competent and enjoyable gig, though, tonight, something is not quite right. The band are always up for a few shandies after the gig, however, this time, Big Hendy isn't there. Which is a bummer, as my mate, Watson, has flown over from Edinburgh to see the show and has a hometown tale to tell.
Watson arrived on the Friday, armed with that day's edition of the Daily Record. There's a piece where the Clydesdale Bank erroneously dispatched twenties instead of tenners, and a photo of a guy at the ATM dressed in dressing gown and slippers. It is classic! The relevance being, this is in my, and the band's, home town. So, Watson duly makes the appropriate enquiry:
"Stewart had a bit of a big night in Bologna, last night" explains Alun. "Let's just say, laundry had to be done today", adds Emma. To be honest, he did have a rather quiet gig, I admit to myself. Now, Big Hendy will be the first to admit that he is neither Peter Hook, Cliff Burton, nor even, Mark King, as a bass player. However, he did spearhead the "Bertie Vogts- Get Tae Fxxk" campaign, so Top Darts to the big man.
It is exactly 120 weeks minus 7 time zones on from that night in Basel. Myself and Mike are nervously looking at the clocks on our laptops. Looks like we've made it, or have we? Seconds before the cut-off time of 16:30, Mr. Li arrives, with his customary grin on his face.
Our location is Liaoyang, Liaoning Province, China. We're contracted to work Saturdays, which we don't mind, however, on four of the five previous Saturdays, we have had a banquet imposed upon us. This maybe sounds elegant, however, this is a banquet with the Chinese government, and when you are on a gig such as ours, you cannot refuse a banquet with the Chinese government, no way. Last week, we did escape, down to nearby Anshan, and this is worthy of its own submission. However, tonight, we know what the drill is, and it ain't pretty, as Mr. Li exclaims "We celebrate again, so we need to have a banquet!"
What takes us to Liaoyang is the commissioning of a petrochemical unit using our company's licensed technology. Whilst work is work after all, it's been a frustrating time so far. We know that the client can make more money blending the main feedstock into petrol, rather than convert to the intermediate for use in polyester chips or fibres. But we do our best to have as many laughs as possible and we've already lent a copy of Viz, The UK's original adult comic, to our translators.
Mike is responsible for the commissioning of the oxidation plant, whereas I am responsible for the commissioning of the purification unit. We've already heard conflicting stories at our respective daily meetings, so we just have to grin, bear it, and see the gig out. One peculiarity of government-run factories is that the Plant Managers have beds in their offices, and often sleep on the plant. I've managed to catch the Personal Assistant, Miss Tang, of my guy, Mr. Lin, leave the room a few times, just before the 08:30 meeting, carefully adjusting the pin in her hair. Although, she's not an absolute stunner, to be honest, I certainly would…
Back to the banquet, and we are all in the familiar private room off the main dining hall. Our team comprises about eight people, the normal crew for this part of the commissioning phase. All are from the UK, except two technicians from Taiwan, and a naturalised Brit who is originally from Chengdu.
We know the drill with painful accuracy. Everybody starts off with a tumbler of Maotai, 150 ml. Then, all but one convert to the beer, leaving a solitary sacrificial goat to sit it out. Tonight, I have the honour.
For those who have not had the 'pleasure', Maotai is an acquired taste. For some reason, most Chinese adore it, and bottles are now exchanging hands for around RMB 1300; GBP 130 or so. It comes in various strengths, and tonight's is 53%ABV. It is part of the baijiu (white wine) family, being fermented and distilled out of sorghum. Sorghum is a single-cell cereal, whereas barley, the raw material for whisky, is six cell. It is no exaggeration that whisky is six times more elegant than baijiu.
This moonshine that tastes like kerosene would be bearable if the food was decent. Even the boy from Chengdu agrees it is laji, shit. So, the inevitable happens: getting hammered with the government, eating virtually nothing, a complete car-crash.
I wake up with several colleagues in my hotel room. I am face down, which is unusual. I ask if I have been sick, and the answer is no. Good! It's only about 01:00 in the morning. There's a bit of chat about last night, and how both the Taiwan guys, no more than 50 kg each, carried me up to my room. Well, perhaps, been there before, maybe…? Then, I start to raise myself, and I feel a sensation in my underpants:
Yes, I have officially shat(*) myself!
(*) You can put the verb 'to shit' through an online conjugator, yielding a different result. Trust me: the definitive past tense in Glaswegian is 'shat'.
I'm not that the worse for a hangover, really… So, I shoo my colleagues out the room, thanking them for their assistance, and assuring them, I am all right. Then, I chuckle to myself, and have to admit that, like Big Hendy, "laundry has to be done today"!
I admire you for being able to do this sort of thing, kowtow and be nice to people you really don't want to kowtow and be nice to. I guess that's one reason why I never will do the be-a-small-part-of-a-big-company-thing. I am just really, really bad at being nice to people I don't like and doing things I really don't want to do.