A Christmas Letter from China


This is a brief glimpse of my life, and intended for family, friends, and those crazy people who actually enjoy my infrequent missives.


To recap: I came to China in June 2004 and have been living here ever since. I live in what you would call ‘Canton’, in a city called Foshan (pop 3 million), which is a couple of hours drive from Hong Kong. I am very happy here: I love my life here and all that is exotic, exciting and wonderful about this fascinating country and its mix of cultures. For me, it is the people themselves that make this such a warm and welcoming place to live. Apart from brief holidays I have no plans to return to the West. I currently plan to return to Blighty in June 2008 for a couple of weeks, hopefully taking with me my girlfriend and some close friends. We will see what happens.


China is currently abuzz with Olympic fever, and I can guarantee it will be an event the like of which has never before been witnessed on the world stage. One special thing is that the Chinese organizers have included two ordinary people as Cox’s for their rowing crews, with applicants being drawn from all over this country. It is a first in Olympic history, and something I highly commend.


I currently live in a very spacious apartment close to all the amenities you could ever dream of – it is very convenient. Unfortunately I will have to vacate before New Year as the Landlord wants to move back in, so we are currently looking at other gaffs nearby. I am not sure today which we will move into, as we have a choice of dozens. I quite fancy a similar apartment to our current one, which has 3 bedrooms and a real bath! I detest showers immensely. We can get this for £200 per month + bills (£30-ish pm). My girlfriend Siu Ying prefers a Chinese style 2 bedroomed place, which at £130 pm is much cheaper. Whilst this is fine and spacious, it is not my ideal, especially as I do need an office and would also like a spare room available for guests…


Update: Today we signed contracts for a different 3-bed gaff with walls and ceilings in embossed woods depicting scenes from Chinese culture and traditional emblems. There is a large glass screen separating the kitchen from the dining area which is covered with carp and complimentary graphics. This apartment also has 3 bathrooms, 2 being en suite. The owner is an English teacher


Time in China is not like in UK – things happen either: ‘Now’, meaning this precise minute; or at some indeterminate time in either the past or future. Today ‘The World and His Wife’ were focused on the ‘Now’ version of time and I have learnt not to interfere with this process, even by asking for a couple more days. So we should be in our new digs by the week-end, with wide views over New Asia Park and Lake + we will probably be able to see into the venues for the next Asian Games due in 2010.


So what have I been up to? Well I originally came out to China courtesy of my good friend Neal, and had a gentle introduction to China living in a local town 10 miles from where I now live. Thank you Neal for offering me the chance of a lifetime – one which I have embraced wholeheartedly!


After my original contract ended I decided to stay for a while, and have now developed a series of businesses mainly related to: Exports (Furniture and Bathrooms + many sundry items), jewellery, education, and dating. The majority of my time is spent either building or maintaining websites, or acting as sourcing and export agent for foreign buyers. Next summer I will also be running a summer school for Chinese kids on a nearby island, with reverse links to UK and other countries. We are also promoting ‘Employability’ with backing from local business. I can also offer great deals on trekking holidays and safari in Nepal via my good Nepali friend Dan. Last week I placed a teacher from Moscow with a local University to teach Russian language via English medium. I literally have very little spare time for relaxation, and have been working 16-hour days, 7-days per week – for as long as I can remember. It suits me well, and also reflects Chinese culture, as they work 24/7/365 also.


This year I have become very good friends with a great guy from Stafford called Dave. From some initial small seeds sown over a beer or three, we have grown our operation in China to become an international sourcing team employing 2 full time staff plus myself. We will open our first dedicated office later this week. What is weird is that Dave and myself played squash at GEC Stychfields during the same era, and played the same people – yet we did not know each other until he came out to China!


Regarding my personal life, I have made some very good friends, of which Eason is top of the list. He is a designer of condominiums and their interiors, in his early 20’s and a bit of a playboy. We simply get on with each other very well. He is a local boy and has reasonable English, and he is very good at teaching me the local Cantonese language, which we refer to as ‘Ba Wah’. He has also taught me a great deal about local people and how they see the world, especially concerning such things as relationships with the opposite sex, Chinese etiquette, and how Cantonese boys think and see their world. This information you have to experience and apply first-hand, although by reading these missives I hope some of this knowledge is now passed on to yourselves. Given our predilection for eating at outside tables of restaurants, drinking copious amounts of fluids (Beer) and chatting the girls, it is not surprising that we have become very close friends. It is through him that I met Siu Ying, as she was part of a group of girls, one of which he new. We had a great night + several others with this group, before I suddenly realized that Siu Ying was actually interested in me – well, the rest is history, and our full story is in another missive. Needless to say that our nights also involved meeting the girls for Disco and KTV, or seeing a live band. To this list I could add another dozen men and many more women, of which Candy Deng is most noteworthy. I hope you can meet these two when I do finally return to Blighty as we plan to travel as a group if possible.


Regarding language – I admit I am hopeless! Perhaps it is because of people like me that English is now the default world language? I can speak some Cantonese, which is enough for me to order food and haggle in the local wet market; without having the need to mentally translate back into English. Some of my dreams are also in Cantonese. I can also follow general conversation with an overall degree of accuracy, although following a TV programme is still a little beyond my capability. I cannot do Mandarin full stop! For sure, Mandarin is the most important Chinese language (Of which there are 9 distinct languages and over 70 tongues + a different dialect in each city). Mandarin remains very difficult for me to pronounce, and is very different from Cantonese, which incidentally is spoken all over the world and in neighbouring provinces and countries like Vietnam. Why?


Well, throughout history, Greater China has tended to be an insular country, often barring contact with foreigners. Canton (Guangdong Province) is ringed by impassable mountain ranges, and is essentially cut-off from the rest of the Chinese Mainland. People here are physically and mentally different from most other Chinese, and tend to be open, adventurous, and outward looking.


About 30% of Cantonese words are extremely similar to Mandarin words, and some Cantonese phrases like ‘Mai Dan’ (The Bill) are now used in mainstream Mandarin. Mandarin speakers pronounce from the back and roof of their mouths, do not use nasal tones, have four levels of intonation, and can do tricks like roll their ‘R’s”. By total contrast, Cantonese speaker talk from the front of their mouths and have 3 nasal tones (M, N, and L). They have up to 9 levels of intonation and cannot roll their ‘R’s’. Most cannot even pronounce the letter ‘R’ and use a non-nasal ‘L’ instead. It is very different, and it suits me well.


Siu Ying’s native tongue is Toisan Wah as spoken in Tai Shan (Mandarin placename), which is extremely similar to Hoipeng Wah as spoken in the twin city of Kai Ping. This is a localisation of main Cantonese, but a bit like the analogy to Gorbels Glaswegian speaking English, when compared to … let’s say Cornish or Black Country (Great Worley) pronunciation. It is virtually the same language, but very hard to decipher if you have not heard it before. Incidentally, it was the peoples of this region that emigrated to USA and built the great railroads in the early 1900’s.


I do commend Beijing for inventing Simplified Chinese, which is the nationwide character set taught in all schools. This means that no matter what language is actually being spoken; it will be written using the same set of characters. Beijing are also becoming very proactive in preserving ethnic minority languages, cultures and traditions; such as dance, music, and foods etc. I am involved with similar projects at a more regional level. Traditional Chinese is the written form of Cantonese, as practiced in Hong Kong. Many of these characters are used in Guangdong, and I do need to know some of them. However, outside of Hong Kong, Cantonese remains a spoken only language, and there is little need to write it down most of the time. There are of course exceptions, and this is because Simplified characters are not always specific. Some characters only exist in Cantonese also, so we end up with a bit of a mixed bag really. It’s fine, it is China, and I simply keep taking the medicine and watch it all work out!


I now have a Chinese name, which sounds like “Mo Yur(t) Han” (Cantonese). Mo was given me by a friend from HK (Hong Kong) and is Mao in Mandarin (In honour of you know who). In Cantonese my name is pronounced ‘Mo-Ley-See’, as Cantonese do not naturally have the “R” sound, and use ‘L’ instead. Yur Han is basically John, given you do the Scandinavian thing something akin to ‘Yohan’ = simple!


In Chinese thinking, people from places like Taiwan, the Korean peninsular, and even Japan; are actually seen as different versions of Chinese peoples. Take a minute out sometime to think about it, it is enlightening…


But I ramble – as I am given to do…


I thank my Father for giving me the freedom to express myself, and my Mother for me being able to see both sides of any coin at the same time (It is a very Irish trait), and the Chinese for their un-ending hospitality and welcome.


I, myself, am very happy, and have never once dreaded getting up in the morning since I came to China. Can you say the same? Each new day for me is a new adventure, which is totally excellent for a naive Aries such as myself! It appears I have rambled on throughout half the night, and a new day is dawning. I actually like the person I have become, and knowing I am never perfect, I do know I am ok and a man of honour. Some of you may know I suffered greatly through some very black times, but this is done, and I now have the sun on my face and a new day to write what I like in the storybook of my life.


Allow me to relate what I have been up to during the last 7-days. It will give you an insight into my daily life and perhaps make you wish you were here? During the last week I have visited many places, conducted negotiations, ordering + confirming samples, confirmed orders for export, delivery dates and shipping with the following – lets use a list:

1.         1 towel factory

2.         3 bathroom factories

3.         Finalised details concerning a fully waterproof, UK spec, digital TV with integrated box (Sizes from 10 inch to 61 inch)

4.         Worked with partners to develop a sensibly priced pop-up TV for installation in hot tubs, baths, and as a mobile /ancillary unit – using the waterproof TV of course. The prototype is due for testing in January, but I am driving development hard, as otherwise times will slide by many months

5.         Confirmed specifications with a company that produces WPC wood products (Needs no treatment for 25 years outside). We intend to develop their range to include garden houses and gazebo’s – once I teach them how to make the planks in ‘tongue and groove’ format! Currently there range is only designed for decking = ‘groove and groove’. Hey-ho! Instead of paying for a new German extruder, I propose to buy a bench router and plane down one edge to leave the tongue. Job done at a fraction of the cost :- )

6.         Found a second reliable supplier of taps

7.         Visited a toilet factory

8.         Found suppliers of ridiculously cheap doors, complete with door furniture and frames

9.         Finally managed to locate a supplier of printer ink cartridges that are not Chinese copies = the ink sets solid if not used every day. The Boss of the shop travelled across the city to supply and fit these personally at standard cost. Excellent service!

10.      Bought a pack of 29 Jet Li movies for 40 RMB (£2.66 = 9 pence each!)

11.      Watched Die Hard 4 at the local cinema complex, complete with large popcorn – it was shown in English!

12.      Finalised models and product range on the Eago UK bathroom website I have built for Dave. You can find it here: http://www.eago.uk.com

13.      Meanwhile our new office is being painted and decorated, with 2 computers and desk sets due any day

14.      I have looked at 15 apartments for rent, and we have decided upon a 3-bed gaff with balcony and views over the New Asia Park and sports centre

15.      We have also finalised our summer camps promotion for 2008, adding two new venues in UK (One of which is all year round) + one each in: India, Ukraine, Vietnam, and Macao. We can now also offer Acting classes in Los Angeles. New brochures have been designed and are en route to the printers

16.      Summer Camps in China have been reviewed and extended to include Kung Fu, Adventure Camp + other options for Employability and Gap Year. Good stuff!

17.      Obtained quotations for large outdoor signs (12’ by 8’), complete with mounting on foamboard.

18.      Spent half a day with the Boss of a glass factory, where we confirmed final specifications of glass door sections for a shop front = prices ridiculously cheap, including reverse embossing! Note: these are now fitted in UK and working perfectly.

19.      Spent several sessions with my friend who runs a hole-in-the-wall marble factory. Again, excellent results, with samples of work surfaces ordered, and design for a disability solid granite shower tray accepted for production.

20.      Worked with two other factories to develop an exceptionally good walk-in bath, which is due for prototype testing in UK before Chinese New Year (February 2008)

21.      Met with a factory courier at 2.30 am on Friday night to receive a tap sample from a neighbouring city 2-hours drive away. Dispatched to UK that night! That is right, in the middle of the night! China is open for business 24/7.

22.      Signed up our first 4 clients for the dating agency (Marriage agencies are illegal in China) – this is not a con by the way, and very hard work actually.

23.      Produced a new place-setting menu/advertisement for the local Canadian restaurant, and learnt how to use Corel Draw in the process

24.      Almost finished designing his new 12-page menu, condensing the old one from 20 pages and attending to both Chinese and English spellings and descriptions.

25.      Cooked beans on toast for breakfast = yummie!


During this period we also ate out about 70% of the time, one of which was at a Mongolian restaurant we love; entertaining a group of eight. Total cost for a great night out, and as much as you could eat and drink = £30


Mind you, there are some things I miss from UK; most notably ‘Fish and Chips’ with curry sauce and mushy peas, UK style kebabs, pies, and Chinese takeaway curry. I can get virtually everything else here, although the Cantonese have no conception of what cheese is, so I have to pay premium prices for imports of Anchor brand dairy products from New Zealand.


Oddities? Technically a tomatoe is a fruit, so you always find them in fruit salad = Yuck! I have to travel 5-miles to buy bread that I can eat, as out of the thousands of local breads, all are invariably sweet and never, ever, savoury. I also need to buy many spices from HK – especially Indian and Italian ones. These are available somewhere in Guangzhou, but that is a city of 14 million people and a very big place! I also buy lemon grass in HK, along with corned beef and Helmans. The latter is available here infrequently, and Chinese versions look pleasingly similar, but all have a ton of extra sugar added. Yuck!


By way of contrast, we do have an excellent Indian restaurant run by a very dark skinned and hospitable guy who is native of India (From Birmingham, UK). Excellent food, and totally English taste although a tad expensive. He even makes things that are not on the menu


The Western restaurant serves some excellent dishes including a delicious Shepherd’s Pie, UK style chips, real pizza’s, and something gorgeous along Mexican lines. Every corner has a MacDonald’s, KFC, or Pizza Hut … and no competition like Pizza Express, Burger King or Wimpey = where are you??? The meal deal in KFC is about £1.20, and I can now order this in Cantonese :- )


Last night, 11th December 2007, Siu Ying and I went for a wander around the local shops. I did have a little business to conclude along the way, but nothing much. At 8pm we were sitting at an outdoor table in jeans and tee-shirts eating some deliciously large Oysters under a fig tree. The temperature is still in the low 20’s most days, and it hasn’t rained since … … Late August I guess? A very long time anyways. Thanks to the bountiful Pearl River Delta, we do not live in a dessert, despite little rainfall. We are situated inside the Tropic of Cancer where the land is verdant all year round and criss-crossed with waterways and irrigation channels at every turn. Thankfully it is not as humid now as in the summer months, and this December probably equates to a good English summer.


I realize I have only mentioned in passing one very important person in my life, and she is Siu Ying. I am extremely happy with her notwithstanding we have very little common language in the conventional sense. We do have very good understanding and tolerance of each other, to the point where being together is our greatest pleasure. We have now been a pair for a little over 6-months, and are both very happy with what we have created. She has just turned 30 years old, is street-wise, and has a classic beauty that is Southeast Asian rather than traditional Chinese. I call her my Monkey, for she is so full of life and the unexpected. She calls me either King Kong or ‘Oliphant’ depending upon how good I have been hehe! After all, I am considerably larger than local Cantonese men. For sure, we are both a little crazy – but then, who is to say who is normal?


Christmas 2007 was a time of joy and chaos. Our new office opened on schedule, whilst I played Father Christmas for two nights at the local Canadian restaurant. I’m not sure what the local Chinese made of a Santa that smokes and downs lots of beers, but the nights passed memorably for all participants! My whacky friend Ng was in for both nights also – he is the local ‘Art student’ looking person who wears some serious glasses and plays extremely good acoustic guitar. Meanwhile I grab a sip of beer when I can, and hand out presents from Santa to kids, and generally we all have a lot of fun. Later all the patrons want their pictures taken with Santa, and I oblige even though I am sweating cobs in this red suit and false beard. I remember to take off the uniform before I wend my way homewards. Eason and other reprobates were also there the first evening, so that night we go for late drinks and food at our favourite local outdoor restaurant. I think I got home about 4am, but cannot be sure – as sometimes ‘time’ is a fickle creature.


So, we staff the new office the following morning, and I head off back to bed! Ho-hum! Later I throw some things into our large suitcases and with Siu Ying, walk them across the 4th floor to our new gaff. Oh! Ours is one of 6 apartment building, and called number 7. I never have found out which one is missing? But obviously one was never built according to the original plans. Here is China!


As with similar complexes, ours is an entire street block with all entrances manned by security. In traditional style, the ground floor is given over to shops. The planned supermarket that never happened takes over the 2nd and 3rd floors, whilst the forth floor is host to Building Services management office, and security accommodation. The rest of this floor is open, as the 6 tower blocks rise from this majestically. The open area is home to a swimming pool, kiddies play area (With things that young kids like to climb on and play around), and features a 5am Tai Chi class. Uggg! Anyway, the point of this paragraph is to illustrate that the 4th floor is a walkway and plaza connecting all the buildings and associated high rise blocks.


We have fortuitously engineered a week’s overlap between moving out and moving in, if that makes sense? Basically I have the keys to both apartments for one week = 22nd to 29th December. On 26th we have Siu Ying’s friend Tong Lin (Tang Leng) stay with us, and at 3am the girls decide to start the moving process. So off we go with wheelie suitcases and what we can carry, cross blocks across the 4th floor, and dump whatever in the new gaff. We do this for a few hours, and it seems to have been very successful.


I do have timing concerns, as I am a webmaster, and also a businessman, so timing the move of critical equipment is crucial. The internet to the new gaff was connected on Christmas Day (Not a Chinese holiday, although they love it as something very special), so it only remains to remove my private office before transferring the pc’s (Yes, I have several of the blighters!).


Having started the night before, we move the next day…


Tong Lin is busy this day (Hmmm?), and so Siu Ying decides we can move the rest ourselves = Crazy! I think she has overlooked the fact we have a large fridge-freezer, washing machine, and some extremely heavy boxes! After a bit of a tussle, I convince her we need the services of some guys with muscles. She eventually relents after I ask her to pick up a large box of brochures = mega heavy, even for me. Hehe! Boys will get their way with girls, one way or another ;- )


She departs, and 5 minutes later arrives back home with a couple of muscley guys in tow. Not quite what I was expecting, but you see, I made this a ‘Now’ thingymagig – so it is happening now. We haven’t half way packed everything yet, so as the lads drag out the first load of boxes, I frantically start throwing things in boxes and whatever is to hand.


By contrast, my wife hasn’t quite got this yet, and is dithering about taking her time over minutiae. Hmmm! The guys rock back up a few second later (Or so it seems), and are ready for the next lot to go. Fortunately we have the lift constraining their activities to a certain volume of goods and our possessions. We just about get them away full, and then Siu Ying realizes what else we still have to pack. Good girl, she throws herself into the task at last, and we are actually waiting for their return … if only by a few seconds. Phew!


Otherwise the move is non-eventful, and everything is ok. I pay the guys a couple of quid each for their efforts, and they go away happy. I have he computers back up and running within a couple of minutes, connect the washing machine … and we are moved. Ah, time to relax…


… Ring, ring, ring. Bill has had a surprise booking, and needs me to play Santa again – like inside 20 minutes. I say ok, and the evening and the morning become the next day. Siu Ying flakes out, but later reappears and we have dinner out together after midnight. Eventually we get back to our new home and try out our new bed = we go to sleep!


The next day I have a business meeting in Guangzhou, but it only takes a few hours. I wake her upon my return, and we play with boxes for a while, putting things into cupboards as appropriate. The apartment came semi-furnished, so our landlady went out and bought for us a new 3-piece suite (1 x double settee, and a second hand dining table with 2 chairs). This is actually excellent, but we are both settee people, so a second is required. Having agreed upon what we want, Siu Ying disappears off ‘to see a man’. Some while later she calls to say I have to go and meet her. It is dark by now, and 7-ish I guess? She leads me into the catacombs of old Foshan where we meet Mr Super-Supply Backstreet Furniture Guy. He then takes us to his store, which is a backstreet lock-up in a very condensed housing zone. Blimey! He has a western style and proper 3-piece suite, and a lovely dinner table with four ironwork chairs. I take both for Y400 = I don’t know, say £32. They are delivered within 20 minutes to our new gaff, whilst we race home to get there first. China really is like this – it either works or it doesn’t. Well, Siu Ying arrives home and sorts it all out. By chance I bump into Eason on the street corner, and we go for a beer. No, Siu Ying sends us to go and drink beer. I think I like this girl very much! Siu Ying joins us a few hours later, and the only comment I get is ‘No ploblem’. Cool!


We eventually get back to our new home at some grotesque hour of the clock, and I switch on TV, only to begin watching a Jackie Chan movie in Cantonese, then I proceed to fall asleep almost instantaneously on our new sofa. Part of the furniture then I guess.


So I hope to see you next time on ‘A Letter from China


I am very content with where I am, and who I am. My daily life is always a new day to treasure and give thanks for


I wish you the same, and may your god walk with you - Here is China!