1994 – Pudong District, Across the Huangpu River from Shanghai, China
The demo squad’s pickup truck bounces and swerves along the gullied, pot-holed dirt road, spewing up yellow dust in its wake. The workers who are holding on tight in the back, coated by the dust, look like six very uncomfortable terracotta warriors.
Finally their truck comes to a stop at the village they are assigned to destroy. No people meet them in front of its mud-brick and wooden buildings, just a few chickens picking in the dirt, and a short-haired dog that glances at them warily before sidling off out of sight.
The village is too small and too poor to have a proper name. On the demo squad’s hit list, it’s referred to only as “Number Four.”
Squad foreman Wang Yinpeng clambers down from his relatively comfortable passenger seat and stretches to ease his bones back into their sockets. “It shouldn’t take us long to flatten this sorry pile,” he tells his crew. “Get yourselves ready while I walk ahead to see what we’ve got here.”
The driver of the second truck in the convoy attaches ramps at the back of his trailer to unload the squad’s bulldozer. Meanwhile, the drivers of the last two trucks, a front loader tractor and a dump truck, sit cross-legged on the ground beside their vehicles, smoking cigarettes and awaiting further instructions.
As Wang Yinpeng walks past the village’s outdoor toilet that’s shielded by a rough fieldstone enclosure and a swinging thatched door, and an abandoned pigpen right next to it, large black flies rise and swirl above both, and then settle again.
Nearby he notes a dirt-floor patio with several outdoor wooden tables and stools, apparently Number Four’s restaurant.
Farther along, inside a windowless shed, he sees plain wooden tables and benches lined up in front of a blackboard on which “We Stand for Self Reliance” was scrawled in crudely written characters.
Wang Yinpeng had heard that the rebellion in Number Four started when Communist Party cadres came by to announce confiscation of the villagers’ land to provide space for New Shanghai. Villagers were informed that they’d be compensated by the Pudong Centre for Land Reserve and that some of them, the more able-bodied, could apply for construction jobs. When they discovered how little money they’d receive, they accused the cadres of corruption, pelted them with pig dung, swatted them with pig-herding sticks, and chased them out of the village, hurling rocks after their retreating vehicles. Then helmeted police descended on the village and beat everyone within their reach. A man who resisted his beating was dragged off. His body turned up later in a Pudong District hospital with bloodied nostrils, broken thumbs, and burnt skin on his feet and genitals. He had died unexpectedly from a heart attack, according to official reports.
One of Wang Yinpeng’s crew yells, “Fuck!” and calls out to him, “Foreman Wang, you must see this!”
He retraces his steps to the village restaurant where his crew has now gathered. They stand aside for him to enter the cooking area, a small space with a dirt floor, a bare table, and an iron grate resting on a semicircle of fieldstones over charred wood and ashes.
The mortal remains of a man and woman hang on two ropes strung from hooks in the ceiling, their bare feet motionless above tipped-over wooden stools.
Ten years later, in 2004 – Hong Kong
The only son of one of the richest men in Asia takes little satisfaction in the world-class view from his fortieth floor office window. As he gazes down at Hong Kong’s bustling harbor, all he could think about is the phone call that he will have with his father.
No-one but Edward Woo understands how lonely it is to be the son of Woo Jian-Min.
Although people greet him with smiles, behind his back they scoff, “The good luck of his birth gave him all that he possesses; his big house on Victoria Peak, his country house in Bali, his top-of-the-line Mercedes, the business his father bought for him to run.”
It was time for Edward to prove that he is more than just the son of a rich man. He will be respected. And, he will be feared. The old man seemed inclined to live forever. It was almost too much to bear, to have to grovel for money that is rightfully his.
Edward’s desk-phone buzzes and he jabs the intercom button, “Yes.”
“Your father’s assistant is on the line.”
“Put her through.”
“Is this Mr. Woo?”
“Please hold for your father.”
Then Woo Jian-Min’s voice comes on, blunt and to the point, as usual, “Edward, is there a problem? Your message said it was urgent. How is the family? The girls?”
“They are fine, Father.”
“Is there a problem at TelePhase?”
“No, the business is doing well.”
“Good, Edward. Why then…?”
“Hong Kong Wireless rejected the buy-out offer from the Singapore group.”
Silence on the other end.
“So HKW is in play.”
More silence on his father’s end. Edward asks, “Are you still there?”
“Edward, you must know that I can’t comment on such a rumor. I am on the HKW Board.”
“It’s more than a rumor.”
“Father, if HKW is in play, I wish to buy it.”
“I am inviting you to join me as an equity partner.”
“You mean, you want me to finance your bid.”
“It’s a good business opportunity. You’ll make money. I’ll make money.”
“There will be other opportunities that are more manageable for you.”
“You think that I can’t handle this one?”
“That’s what I’m telling you.”
Edward suppresses an angry rejoinder that would only cause Woo Jian-Min to grow cooler and, Edward is convinced, more contemptuous towards him. So he strains to speak calmly without revealing the resentment that burns in his throat like acid.
“Father, this deal is important to me. Buying Hong Kong Wireless will earn me respect.”
“You are respected now, Edward.”
“Not like you.”
“You must be patient.”
More silence on his father’s end. Edward waits out the silence and finally Woo Jian-Min says, “Edward, I am proud of the way you have taken charge of your life. You are running a real business now. By all accounts, you are controlling your drinking, and you stopped acting the fool with gamblers and whores. You have become a good family man.”
“You said once that my wife was one of those whores.”
“She is the mother of your two children, my grandchildren. People can change.”
“Yes, including you.”
“Father, I need your answer, will you join my bid for HKW?”
“No, Edward. My answer is no.”
“Because Hong Kong Wireless is too important to Hong Kong. The government will take an interest. Difficult questions will be asked.”
“We’ll answer their questions.”
“Just run your business. Learn.”
“Father, I am bored as dirt with my business.”
“There will be other deals, Edward. Wait.”
“If you won’t join me, I’ll find another business partner. There’s plenty of money on the mainland that’s seeking investments in Hong Kong.”
“Take care, Edward.”
“What do you mean?”
“Not every investor in China is a suitable partner.”
“Money is money.”
“Some money leaves a stain that you can’t wash off.”
“You don’t need to worry about that. Who I pick for my business partner will be my decision.”
“Last chance, Father.”
“My answer is the same.”
“Then I’ll go ahead without you.”
“If you do, you will regret it, Edward.”
2005 – Shanghai
Accountant Chen Qiwei walks out of the Shanghai medical clinic a dying man.
During the time he has left, he resolves that he will exact revenge on the criminals who destroyed his village in Pudong, among so many other villages that they also destroyed, and then erected their shiny new city over the ruined lives of the displaced villagers and farmers.
But he can’t kill them all. Even if he makes it past the bodyguards to reach one or two of them, he’ll surely be stopped, and the others will escape justice.
There’s another way. The greed that made them rich also makes them vulnerable. They could never explain to the Authorities how they amassed so much wealth once it was exposed for everyone to see.
Chen Qiwei knows that the criminals have “invested” their money in the New China Properties Fund, which they’ve set up to hide their money while it provides them with well-laundered returns.
Chen Qiwei also knows that it would be useless to approach the Authorities directly with his information. He’s only an accountant of limited means, and he looks it, being thin and sickly and shabbily dressed in his worn-out suit. For accusing his betters, he might well be sent back to labor camp where he would surely die, having accomplished nothing.
However, the Fund itself can be counted upon to create the opportunity that Chen Qiwei needs. Always hungry for its next business deal so that it can launder more dirty money, before long it surely will find one that’s as big as its appetite, big enough to attract public notice. Then he will present his information about the criminals in a form and manner that no-one can ignore.
Unlike Chen Qiwei, these arrogant cadres and officials, and their sleek businessmen paymasters, and the strutting families so proud of their exalted status, and the politicians spinning their webs, are not tormented by the ghosts of Pudong.
But soon they will be.
Then Chen Qiwei can die in peace.
2005 – Hong Kong
Takeover Bid for Hong Kong Wireless
Hong Kong – Edward Woo, Chairman of Telephase, has announced a bid to acquire Hong Kong Wireless, Hong Kong’s leading mobile phone operator. The multi-billion-dollar deal will be financed by an equity investment from the Shanghai-based New China Properties Fund.
–South China Morning Post
2005 – En route to Hong Kong
After my six hour flight from Boston and ninety minute layover in the San Francisco International Airport, the next stage of my journey to Hong Kong would add fourteen more hours in the air, and I was keen to get on with it.
Eventually my United Airlines’ Boeing 747-400 was opened for boarding. I showed my boarding pass to a flight attendant standing just inside the doorway, climbed the stairs to the upper deck to take my window seat, stowed my carry-on, blue blazer, and laptop, and settled in.
A woman arrived to claim the aisle seat beside me. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, slim, good-looking, with red hair that was cut short gamine style. She noticed my glance and said, “Hello,” smiling politely. I replied, “Hello,” and returned to leafing through my copy of UA’s glossy Hemispheres magazine, thinking less about its words and pictures than about my new seatmate’s emerald green eyes.
We took off over San Francisco Bay and then turned west to clear the South San Francisco hills. Soon we had climbed high above the wispy clouds and the fog layer that covered the Pacific like white felt.
Once we reached cruising altitude, two flight attendants worked their way down the center aisle handing out warmed cashew nuts and our choice of beverages for our first feeding of the flight.
I selected a channel on my personal video screen showing a trailer for the recently-released comedy Wedding Crashers, where Vince Vaughn sprawls groaning on the ground having been upended during a spirited touch football game by an over-bred New England “Lodge” played by Bradley Cooper.
“I love that movie,” my seatmate said, looking over at my screen. “Especially the Isla Fisher character, Vince Vaughn’s girlfriend.”
“Is that because she has red hair?” I asked.
“That’s not the only reason,” my seatmate said. “I won’t spoil it for you.”
In-flight etiquette does not require chit-chat with your seatmate. On most flights, I exchange no words at all with whomever the airline reservation system has appointed as my close companion for our shared journey thirty-six thousand feet above the ground. Even when one of us needs to squeeze by the other in order to get to the aisle, our request is likely to be communicated solely through apologetic gestures.
However, now that my seatmate had broken the ice, I asked, “Are you staying in Hong Kong or just connecting through?”
“Staying in Hong Kong,” she replied.
“For work or pleasure?”
“Work, but I hope some pleasure too.”
Our conversation lagged, then she said, “My name is Erin Haig,” and put out her hand, and I shook it, my arm raised to avoid the half-full glasses and small bowls of cashew nuts on the seat divider between us.
“What do you do, Harry?” Erin asked.
“I’m a consultant, specializing in telecoms. We have a project in Hong Kong. I’ll be there for about a week, depending on how it goes.”
“Who are you with?”
“Blair West International.”
“Named after you.”
“I’m a co-founder,” I said. “What about you, Erin? What do you do?”
“I’m a research editor for the Asian Business Journal.”
“Really? I just read one of your articles on my PC.”
“We have a reader! What’s the article about?”
“A takeover bid for Hong Kong Wireless.”
“I did research for that article,” Erin said.
It was pure coincidence that Erin was my seatmate on our flight to Hong Kong but I would have seen her article in any case, given its topic.
The project for which I was on my way to Hong Kong was to help the Director of the government’s Communications Department, our client Shih Chai-Ming, to evaluate the same proposed Hong Kong Wireless deal.
When my business partner Stephen Blair had called me about the project, he told me that the takeover bid for Hong Kong Wireless had been sitting on Mr. Shih’s desk for a several months. “He put it off as long as he could,” Blair said. “Now his higher-ups are demanding a decision, either bless it or reject it. He’s in a bind because the would-be purchaser is Edward Woo, son of Woo Jian-Min, one of the richest men in Asia. So Mr. Shih has to tread carefully.”
I always start a new consulting project by assembling a Casebook, a digital compilation from Internet searches of articles, papers, and snippets that shed light on the project’s key players and issues.
The keywords “Edward Woo,” “Hong Kong Wireless,” and “Woo Jian-Min,” had produced numerous hits.
One article, “Woo Princeling Swoops In,” reported that Edward Woo’s offer caught Hong Kong Wireless by surprise, after HKW had just rejected an earlier bid from a Singapore investment group. The article profiled Edward Woo as an ambitious second-generation businessman eager to expand his telecoms business, called Telephase, beyond its fiber optic cable to China and its paging service in Hong Kong. It noted that acquiring HKW would make Edward Woo a leading player in Hong Kong business circles.
Articles about Woo Jian-Min, Edward’s father, invariably reminded readers about his great wealth and pointed out that his holding company, Beaver Hall Holdings, managed assets in Asia, Europe, and South Africa.
In Erin’s Asian Business Journal, the article titled “Woo Bid for HKW Raises Concerns” noted that corrupt mainland Chinese officials were acquiring assets in Hong Kong as a way to launder illicit money. Thus, it was cause for concern that Edward Woo’s bid to acquire Hong Kong Wireless would be financed by the New China Properties Fund, a secretive equity fund based in Shanghai that had attracted the attention of anti-corruption investigators in Hong Kong.
I said to Erin, “You imply that the HKW bid is a front for money laundering.”
“That’s why I’m going to Hong Kong,” Erin said, “to help with research so that we can connect the dots. More articles are coming.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for them,” I said.
“Thanks. So, Harry, tell me about your consulting project.”
“We’ve been engaged to evaluate a proposed telecoms deal.”
“Which telecoms deal?”
A golden rule for consultants is not to talk with strangers about your projects, especially when the person asking is someone like Erin who is attractive, friendly, and clearly interested in what you choose to reveal to her.
“So, you can’t tell me,” Erin said. She shot me a sharp sideways look. “You’re not working for Edward Woo, are you?”
“Is that the truth, Harry?”
“Yes, it’s true,” I said. “Blair West International has not signed on with the dark side.”
“Although if the dark side offered to pay us enough, we’d definitely consider it.”
“Spoken like a true consultant,” Erin replied, still sounding a bit miffed.
Erin’s gaze drifted back to her video screen and I returned to Wedding Crashers. Events continue to unfold at the “little place on the shore” to which the privileged Cleary family retreats on weekends to escape the pressures of Washington, D.C. Vince Vaughn is seated at the Cleary dinner table next to Isla Fisher and she has taken matters – his matters – in hand under the table while he tries and fails to maintain his composure and Isla grins naughtily beside him.
I paused the movie when the flight attendants rolled their carts down the aisle distributing pre-dinner-service appetizers and dinner menus. After consuming our dinners, Erin and I each pushed back our seats and turned off our reading lights. Erin slipped on her eye-shade and I re-started Wedding Crashers.
Rattling noises jerked me awake. Flight attendants were assembling breakfast trays in the galley. Soon our cabin lights came on, a service cart was in the aisle, and the flight attendants were asking in low voices for passengers’ breakfast choices.
Outside my small round window, the sun had cleared the horizon above the clouds and fog that still carpeted the Pacific just like when we had departed San Francisco.
Erin removed her eye-shade and raised her seat-back. She stretched, to the limited extent that was possible while still in her seat.
“I guess I was tired,” she said.
“Only five hours to go on our flight.”
“Yep,” she said, yawning.
“Where are you staying in Hong Kong?”
“At the Sheraton in Kowloon. What about you?”
“I’ll be at the Furama in Central, across the harbor from you,” I said. “You can see it from Kowloon.”
“I look for it when I’m taking in the view,” Erin said.
“I may have free time while I’m in Hong Kong,” I said. “Would you like to get together for coffee or dinner if a time opens up?”
“Sure,” Erin said. “I’d like that.”
Just before we arrived in Hong Kong at 7 P.M. local time, Erin handed me her business card: Erin R. Haig, Research Editor, Asian Business Journal, 1212 Broadway, New York, phone and fax numbers, her email address ErinH@ABJ.com, and on the back, she had written, “Sheraton Kowloon, Nathan Road.”
“And the ‘R’ stands for…?” I asked.
“Erin Rose Haig,” I said. “That has a nice lilt to it.”
I handed her one of mine: Harry F. West, Ph.D., Principal, Blair West International, Inc., Suite 301, Andleman Building, 599 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts, phone and fax numbers, and my email address Harry@BlairWestInternational.com.
“The ‘F’ is for Forrest,” I said. “In case you’re curious.”
Erin put my card in her wallet.
“Call me,” she said. “Harry Forrest West.”