Diary of a renovator: chemical warfare

Xiu Fang

The Art of War has been used in business management, political campaigns and sport. Former Australian cricket coach John Buchanan insisted his players read the 6th century BC Chinese military classic before their 2001 Ashes tour of England. I decided to seek wisdom from its author, Sun Tzu, before my own battle.

Unfortunately, it was too late to use his 'winning without fighting' strategy against my adversaries - termites. The interlopers were already sumptuously entrenched because whoever built my home had not taken precautions. Above the false ceiling on the ground floor they had built a palace grand enough for their king and his Great White Queen.

Another of Sun Tzu's tactics had to be employed: 'If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will fight without danger in battles.'

To familiarise myself with the royal couple and their multi-tasking workers, soldiers and 'reproductives' (termites can change 'caste' as the need arises), I consulted the internet and identified my adversaries as Formosan subterranean termites. Natives of southern China, they are among the most destructive termite species. Not only do they possess a bottomless stomach, they are also indiscriminate in their choice of home. High-rise flats are as desirable as boats or village houses.

Without further ado, I booked an appointment with Rentokil. No doubt other companies in Hong Kong provide adequate pest control, but I wanted an international brand with a representative who would be equipped and supportive throughout hostilities. Patrick, whose bug-like eyes conjured unkind thoughts of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, dropped by the following day with a torch and mobile phone.

His advice sounded like a recording, which is why he often had to start over if interrupted. 'We will drill 2cm-wide holes in your floor at 18-inch intervals, into which we will inject termiticide. We will also spray each beam twice within 10 days and return to treat new wooden fixtures.'

Which seemed fine, except that Patrick's use of metric and decimal systems proved distracting. So too was the fee quoted (HK$15,000 for 1,200 sq ft plus the terrace), as was the problem of what to do with the holes to be drilled. There were two options: cover them with the tiles I'd just bought or somehow plug them so they could be redeployed for treatment in five years.

'Most of our customers don't think that far ahead, so they just tile over the holes,' Patrick said.

He obviously didn't know me. Neither did he realise I was starting to imagine feelers sprouting from his head. But then he brought me back to earth by pulling up a chair and asking, without blinking, 'How much did you pay for your house?' He was probably just trying to make friends, I decided, waving away his question as though I were brushing off an insect.

My mind marched back to The Art of War. I had laid plans, waged war and attacked by stratagem. Victory, I hoped, was assured. Australia's Ashes win seven years ago gave me succour. The tourists had secured success by aligning with Sun Tzu. With him on side, I judged, we would rout my unwelcome visitors.

I wasn't so sure about Patrick. Entomological dysplasia had turned Kafka's protagonist into a cockroach. Perhaps, I mused, my pest-control programme should protect against not only shape-shifting termites.