June 29, 2005

Working in a little, private hell

As I stated somewhere else, I am the general manager of a foreign invested group in Hong Kong, with factories in the N.T. and in southern China.
I am working in a private branch of hell, and I don’t say it because of the labour conditions in our Chinese companies, as my sensitive EU friends may believe:
In our factories I have applied EU standards of safety, services, working time and environmental conditions, and a decent working time and pay. Shareholders, earning huge profits, let me do (for the moment)
Our factory is not heaven (well, it is quite ugly), but it is much better than the place where they produce the puppet from your child’s preferred movie or the cool shoes you are wearing now.

My little private hell is the HK headquarter, where a smelling and sinister evil fog permeates walls as well as minds.
Please do not imagine that we have attention-grabbing and colourful monsters or pale but noisy ghosts walking around the offices.
Neither we have those bold, hairy (this is difficult to find in HK) and roaring bad guys you see in cartoons nor a really intelligent genius of evil or even a well educated sociopath : Those “evils” have , at least, their own greatness.

Our evil is of the most common kind: a shallow, drab and dull one.
It is an ignorant but persistent evil, made by a compound of lack of dreams and perspective, cold exploitation and fear.
You know: it is like to see a terminally ill, robbing a beggar of few cigarette butts.

In Hong Kong I have lost my previous and quite honourable Chinese title of laowai to become a gweilo (or gui lao 鬼佬,in serious Chinese), a kind of ghost. I am now free to look at my little hell as if I am a part of the background, a little fly on the top right of the canvas. This new status allows me to observe without being directly involved in the dynamics down in the circles.

As a fly, during my early times in HK, I observed with surprise the absolute lack of principles of my young and aggressive managers. I saw their daily struggle to become richer at any cost, with the only aim to buy symbols of richness (the latest gadget, that Gucci or Prada accessory) in order to show to the others their achievements and reach the climax in the comparison. I looked at them becoming poorer again, due to the price of symbols, and restarting the cycle.
It was a curious but not strange environment: it seemed to me that they were living an extreme version of consumerism joint with a snob attitude towards the less fortunate, a pinch of greed and a total lack of ethics: well, fundamentally Hong Kong was an old cove of pirates, then a colony and now a breeding house of rapacious tycoons, thus nothing new under the fragrant harbour’s sun.
At the beginning of my gweilo career it was even fun to see those apparently polite skinny people ripping off each other for few kuai or a grain of power, while pontificating about the backwardness and lack of rules in mainland China.
Now, more than one year later, I can’t laugh anymore and I am fed up:
- Half of the sales people spend an average 40% of their time spreading in my direction rumours about how the other half is taking advantage of company resources. Another 20% of their time is used in doing it (stealing). A further 10 % in bashing other colleagues (“that one is so dirty!”, “the other is living in a container yard, poor bastard”; “you know, her husband is a drunkard”, and a 10% in asking for more money. Only 20% of their time is used in selling our product to bad-paying customers in order to increase their commissions. The other half of them, behaves in the same way
- The financial manager, a shy guy, a kind of beguine new born Christian, after working time becomes a maniac harassing his staff with obscene phone calls and threatening contract termination if they don’t listen to him
- Most of them stay in office from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. in order to show their full dedication to the company, body and soul. What they do? Interesting things like collection of “Hello Kitty” badges (“It is an important brand”), playing solitaire or managing their investments in real estate, or the cousin’s sweat shop accounts down in Guangdong or even the bets at jockey’s club.
- They don’t have a private life: some of them wait for me at light rail in the morning in order to “reach the office together” and talk about that “little problem of my co-worker” forcing me to change timetable everyday to escape. Others never went to cinema with their family, or ate a cooked dinner (only instant noodles and similar rubbish) because they “have no time to loose”: but they try to invite me to cinema on Sunday early morning (to save on tickets cost) when I just want to f..king sleep
- I find an average of 10 trials per day of installing spy ware and key loggers on my laptop
- Everyone , everyday is trying to find a subordinate to submit and humiliate in public in order to show his power

Even so, for a kind of miracle, our company is doing really well.
Don’t be crazy for an MBA! You will learn nothing, spend a lot of money and meet ugly and boring people.
The only management theory that works is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The secret is in entropy

Now I have only three choices:
- I become a babbling paranoid and I escape back to relaxing (yes, relaxing and laid back, if compared with HK) Shanghai
- I accept the HK way of life and I become a triad big brother (or a tycoon, who is the bland but richer version), chopping the most boring of them into small pieces.
- I become really, really bad.

Considering plus and minus, I have chosen the third alternative: tomorrow, the finance manager will be fired. Commissions will be withdrawn and I’ll modify the organization chart in a Confucian style: one single paternalistic loubaan (老板laoban, in serious Chinese) and more than 200 little soldiers.


Blogger emma said...

You are already bad! Ciao brother, mi manchi un po'... e non è affatto male questo blog.
A big kiss

2:41 PM  
Anonymous resti said...

Ah... what a nice fly!

2:42 PM  
Blogger Gattomatto said...

caro, noway to enter the button of continue, will read it well when I am back HK.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Gattomatto said...

finally i have read your article. nice one. Sei bravissimo ;-)

3:19 PM  
Anonymous graham said...

Very deep and depressing article. I often criticize my friends and students from china in the hope that they don't become like this. Fortunately, they still have heart and care about each other. But they are not mba's. Was shanghai buisness as bad as this?
Possible solutions? bring in some people from singapore or china, people with economics degrees or history or linguistics
judging from my friend Fangqing's experiences in Shenzen, the buisness world there is very difficult,and office politics can be much the same.Kind people with imagination and ides and values( like her) will have a hard time being succesful or getting the respect of the bossess.Ambition, greed and backstabbing actually seem to work in most chinese buisness environments.
Poor Fangqing...she's going to starve to death...
this was a very good, honest article. i will be very interested to read of your further progress in making reforms.thinking about it a bit more I wonder ...have you tried talking to some of this people-do they have a more human side? are they just afraid of the new boss?I have met a lot of chinese like this, some are in the family. but some of them do have good qualities, too...still, chinese buisness culture can be so evil. Aiyah!

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