I have been in China twenty-four hours and no one has mentioned the crisis. Perhaps it is just too cold to talk, as the temperature is a bladder-shrinking minus 15°C. Even so, the locals generally go hatless, while I have brought my woollies, and have trouble with the zip on my North Face wind-cheater. My Chinese business manager has to do me up like a toddler, but at least I am ready to do battle. At the metal plant, the only heat comes from the furnace and a cup of green tea. It is not good negotiating weather but it’s fun to be as close to North Korea as I am likely to be for a while. Later we check into the Petroleum Hotel. Who says the romance of travel is dead?
Macro-economically, I am supposed to be depressed. Years of Chinese growth have come to a stuttering halt and the Shanghai Stock Exchange has been limit down for three days. In the UK the media reports are hysterical about the Chinese dumping steel. But was it not the West in 2009 that blocked the $19.5 bln Chinalco bid for a stake in Rio Tinto’s aluminium, copper and iron ore assets? Today, Rio’s Iron Ore division is engaged in a race to the bottom, upping production and lowering prices to close out competitors before the upturn. The result – cheap steel imports into Europe and job losses blamed conveniently on China. The steel market as a whole is about 1.5 bln tons a year in size. The metal I am here to sell has a supply-demand of about 55mt per year. Minor metals might be regarded as a micro business, but so long as you are not trading an element that China produces, there is no need to order the Prozac.
The Polish gentleman next to me on the flight home had been sent over from his firm in Stevenage to set up a crisps factory. You’d be hard pressed right now to find an obese Chinese on the street – but with the export of our buns, cakes, lattes and crisps, who knows? Food & beverage symbols in China are everywhere – on the skyline, as per London where we have a gherkin and a cheese-grater, here they have the bottle-opener and the mixer. In fact the 101 storey bottle-opener (home to the Shanghai World Financial Centre) only became a bottle-opener after objections that the spherical top of the Japanese-funded tower looked too much like a rising sun. Memory of the atrocities on the Nanjing Road in 1937 are too fresh in the memory.
No, not the unauthorised possession of empty property – I refer now to our favourite scatological activity. It is all too easy for Europeans to look down on the Chinese squat loo from a great height (literally). In actual fact, as we all know, squatting is, physiologically, a much more effective posture for an evacuation. That is not the issue – it is really all about the knees. Most of us have not squatted regularly since potty-training and managing to tuck the trousers, underwear and belt (not to speak of the overhanging bits of a jacket) while clutching something stable on a train moving at 300 km per hour is, to put it mildly, difficult. For this reason, I try to plan my comfort breaks around the prospect of a sit-down loo appearing on the itinerary. My Polish colleague tells me that Adam Henryk Malysz (b 1977) not only inspired a generation of Poles to take up ski-jumping, but also gave his name to the posture which in Polish is known as ‘Na Malysz’.
The Brits like to think of themselves as the generally preferred global conqueror, although it is difficult to know how to measure this. One pointer, I always think, is the residue of empire; what colonialists leave behind. The Soviets, in their part of the world, left a decent railway system and common language. The Brits left the same. But one of the gentler legacies is the British proclivity for gardens. E. James Hogg’s, in Shanghai, now called the Zhongshan Park, which was taken over by the Shanghai Municipal Council in 1914, is a haven of peace amidst the city’s roar. Here the elderly perform their morning exercises jiggling elegantly to music from a ghetto-blaster, old men fly kites and play Mah Jong, or just argue. In one corner, two women play different instruments with different tunes seemingly oblivious to each other and not more than ten foot apart. A young bride and groom come here for photos and are asked to pose in a loving kiss for the photo with eyes closed. When they open, the photographer is gone. I just stand there and stare like an old person at sparrows (a sight long gone from English gardens).
On my last day, I visit the Ohel Moshe Synagogue in the Hongkou district of Shanghai. It is now a museum to something I knew nothing about – the approximately 14,000 Jews who found sanctuary from the vicissitudes of Europe from as far back as the 1870s. But this is also a place of memory to the Chinese Oskar Schindler, one Dr Feng Shau Ho, Consul General of China in Vienna in the late 1930s. In 1938 he issued 2000 visas that China neither requested nor needed but which the Austrians stipulated in order to allow Jews to leave. My mother, who was born in Vienna in 1924, and 14 years old in 1938, was not one of the lucky ones and went to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Belsen and Salzwedel where she was liberated by the American 84th Division on April 14th 1945. After she got back to Vienna and joined my great aunt in London, she found that she had been granted a visa to go to Palestine. But the letter had arrived too late. The exhibits show how Jews with little or no money set up shop and started to trade. I suppose, as a metal merchant, still wearing out the boot leather in business travel, I follow in the footsteps of those for whom trade meant survival.
Published January 27th 2016 on www.lord-copper.com