Mr Fixit gives lesson in the fax of life

Every time we went to China Mr Tam was there. Mr Tam was always fixing and I called him ''Mr Fixit''. He was a mainlander, didn't speak Cantonese or English.

He didn't wear a suit, but he was quite smart. He was quite tall for a mainlander.

He could fix anything. One day we were hanging around in our hotel room in [a major Chinese city], talking about the competition, thinking our bid was in trouble.

The next thing I know, the boss walked in and said to me ''What do you think of this?''.

He handed me a fax. It was a fax sent by the competition. It had their specifications, bidding price, right down to the sub-units.

''Where did you get this,'' I asked.

The boss replied with just two words:''Mr Tam.'' You know, unless they've got a factory or something most foreign businesses operate out of hotel rooms. And only from a small number of hotels, which have a fax room.

I reckon that the government takes copies of the faxes anyhow. I guess Mr Tam had bribed a member of the hotel staff to find out where the room was and did the same thing again to get a copy of the fax.

We had their prices, everything. From then on, we based our presentations on the stuff in this fax.

Mr Tam didn't just fix faxes. He fixed meetings with officials, restaurants, hotels, everything.

Sometimes we'd just hang around the hotel, doing nothing. Maybe changing a presentation on the PC, or we'd go for a short walk.

Sometimes we'd spend two or three days hanging around the hotel, while Mr Tam was out fixing, trying to get us to see some cadre.

Then Mr Tam would appear.

''Get your suits on,'' the boss would say. We might have a meeting in 30 minutes, perhaps in another hotel room, that Mr Tam had fixed.

We didn't give out cash. That might be seen as bribes. We were camera people, hotel room people, banquet people.

We also had someone else, a government official. He received a salary from the government, but he was our ''friend''. Even when we were in a different province this guy would turn up to our seminars.

Then there was this other guy, another official, always asking awkward questions. Obviously, he belonged to the competition. He would always turn up too, even when we were not in his province.

This guy was really beginning to cheese me off. He'd hog the meetings, asking awkard questions.

When we had a banquet, this guy would sit on our table, the top table. He wasn't meant to, but he'd turn up early.

Eventually Mr Tam was asked to shut him up.

It was a bit like a Western political campaign. You had your supporters and you had your spies in the opposite camp.

Mr Tam came to Hong Kong a couple of times. The last time I saw him he had a black eye, maybe two. I was told he'd had an argument about getting into a taxi or something.

But the equipment had to meet their requirements. If they'd bought the wrong stuff heads would roll.

IF you turned up to Hong Kong you'd never get a policeman to get you a cab. But it happened to me in Guangzhou.

We'd gone up by train, but got off at Tianhe instead of Guangzhou main station, and found ourselves five kilometres from the main station.

I wanted to get a taxi, and asked the taxi drivers how much? They asked for HK$100, an outrageous price, probably because the trade fair was on.

I started arguing with them, but the price wasn't coming down. In fact I noticed it was starting to creep up. After five minutes it became apparant that the idea of spending the rest of the afternoon being entertained by a Westerner speaking medoicre Cantonese was the best entertainment on offer, and they started chatting to me about my job, my companions, and life in Hong Kong.

After 15 minutes there was a crowd of 30 taxi drivers around me, and a public security officer came to look.

He asked me what the problem was. I told him I wasn't going to pay $100 for a short taxi ride, trade fair or no trade fair.

He tried to tell me about buses, but he had been posted in from another province and I couldn't undertsand his Cantonese.

Suddenly he had a bright idea. He marched into the middle of the road and halted a cab. He leaned into the passengers and told them to get out. He bundled me and my companions into the cab, leaned in to rest the meter, told the driver not to overcharge us, and waved us off.

Looking behind we could still see the family that had been the previous occupants of the cab standing by the side of the road, dumbstruck.

The characters siu geen door gwai mean ''things that seem strange because they are so little seen''.

Anyone wanting to tell tales of doing business in China can ring Gren Manuel on 565 2236 or fax 565 1624.