Mei looked around. The office was big and full of expensive-looking furniture. "You've got a great place," she said.
"Exactly. What I have here is what people call a 'leather-bag company.' I invite foreign investors to become part of a joint venture. All foreign firms are required to have a Chinese partner, as you know. They come here to meet me, they see a grand setup, the best address. But they don't realize that I have no factory or workforce of my own. They think I'm important, the real thing. I go and find factories only after I receive money from the foreign firm. If I can do one deal a year, I'm set. Two, I can take the rest of the year off.
"You see, making money is easy. The difficult part is getting people to pay up. That's why I like to do business with foreigners. It's much more difficult with the Chinese. One word of advice: When you hire someone, think about payment recovery and make sure your girl is tough enough to do the money chasing."
Seeing the sense in what he was saying, Mei advertised for a secretary. Among all the applicants, Gupin was the only man. Mei had not considered hiring a man to be her secretary. But she decided to interview him.
Gupin had come from a farming village in Henan Province and was working on Beijing's construction sites to get by. "I finished at the top of my class at our county high school," he told Mei. "But I had to go back to my village because that's where my official record was. I wanted to work in the county town, but my village head didn't agree. He said our village needed a 'reading book man.'"
It took Mei some time to get used to his accent and understand what he was saying.
"My ma wanted me to get married. But I didn't want to. I don't want to end up like my brother. Every day he gets up at dawn and works in the field all day. By the end of the year, he still can't afford to feed his wife and son. My da was like that, too. He died long ago from TB. Everyone says there is gold in the big cities. So I thought I'd come to Beijing. Who knows what I can do here?"
Mei watched him. He was young, just twenty-one, with broad shoulders. Packs of muscle were visible under his shirt. When he smiled, he seemed bashful but honest.
Regretfully, she told him that he couldn't do the work she needed. He didn't know Beijing, and his Henan accent would put people off. "They will assume many things about you and probably about this business, too. Some people may even think that I'm running some sort of con. It's stupid, I know. That's how people are, though. The same would happen to me if I were to go to Shanghai. I'd probably be cheated by taxi drivers and given all the wrong directions."
But Gupin was persistent. "Give me a chance," he begged her. "I'm a quick learner, and I work hard. I can learn about Beijing. Give me three months, and I promise I will know all the streets. I'll get rid of my accent, too. I can, believe me."
In the end, Mei decided to give him a chance. She remembered what Mr. Hua had said, and she thought Gupin would make, if not a brilliant secretary, at least a more threatening debt collector than anyone else she had interviewed. He was also by far the cheapest.
"I'll give you a year," she told him. "You have no idea how big Beijing is."
Over a year later, Gupin had proved to be everything he'd said he was: hardworking, smart, and loyal. He had spent much of his spare time riding through the hutongs, narrow alleyways, and streets of Beijing on his bicycle, and he now knew more about certain neighborhoods than Mei did. He became another pair of ears and eyes for her.
"Well done," Mei told Gupin now. "Mr. Su is not the sort of man to part with money easily. Let's finish up."
They packed up and checked all the locks on the door. It felt cooler in the dim corridor.
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