The door opened. Mei's assistant, Gupin, tumbled in, looking like a cooked lobster. Without a word, he dashed over to his desk in the entrance hall and drained a glass jar of tea that had been there since morning. He slipped the army bag from his shoulder and dropped it on the floor. "Was that Mr. Shao, the King of Hair-Growth Serum, I saw leaving?" He looked up, catching his breath. He spoke with a faint but noticeable accent that gave him away as a country boy.
"Are you going to take his case?"
"I told him I would, but now I wonder. There is something odd about that man."
"He wears a toupee." Gupin came over with a small packet wrapped in newspaper. "I've collected five thousand yuan in cash from Mr. Su." He smiled. His face, still red from exertion, shone with pride.
Mei took the package and squeezed it gently. It felt firm. She made space for Gupin in front of the fan. "Was he difficult?" she asked. Gupin was now standing next to her, his bare arm almost touching hers. She could smell his sweat.
"At first. But he can't scare me or distract me with his tricks. I've seen weasels like him before, and I've traveled many roads. I know how to make sure you get your fee, Ms. Mei. People get worried when they see a migrant worker like me in that kind of place."
The word "weasel" sounded especially nasty in Gupin's accent. Mei smiled. At times like this, she couldn't help thinking how right she had been to hire him. And how odd it was that she had her younger sister to thank.
When Mei had opened her agency, Lu, her younger sister, was critical of the idea. "What do you know about business? Look at yourself -- you don't socialize, you can't cope with politics, you have no Guanxi -- none of the networks and contacts you need. How can you possibly succeed? Contrary to what you might think, my dear sister, running a business is tough. I know; I'm married to a successful businessman."
Mei had rolled her eyes. She was too tired to fight anymore. Since she had resigned from the Ministry of Public Security, everyone seemed to want to lecture her.
"Well, I suppose you are at the end of your rope," Lu said at last, sighing. "If you can't hold on to your job at the Ministry, what else can you do? You might as well work for yourself. But I can't watch you jump into a churning river without knowing how to swim. Let me find someone who can teach you the basics of business."
The next day Mr. Hua had called to invite Mei to his office. There, she sat on a dark leather sofa and was served coffee by his pretty secretary while Mr. Hua talked about Guanxi, about which procedures could be avoided and a few that couldn't, about creative organization and accounting, and most of all, about the importance of having sharp eyes and ears.
"You need to be sensitive to the change of wind and policy," he said. "Make sure you always watch out for people who might stab you from behind. And one word of advice" -- Mei had quickly learned that "one word of advice" was a favorite expression of Mr. Hua -- "don't trust anyone who is not your friend. You want to succeed, then make sure you have a good Guanxi network, especially in high places." Mr. Hua topped up his coffee for the fifth time. "What about secretaries?" he asked Mei.
"What about them?"
"Have you thought about what kind of secretary you need?"
Mei told him that she had no plans to hire a secretary, not before she had any clients.
Mr. Hua shook his head. "You can hire someone for very little money. There are plenty of migrant workers from the provinces willing to work for almost nothing. The cost of having someone answer the phone or run errands is small, but the benefit is considerable. Your business won't look right without a secretary. If you don't look right, no one will come to you. Look around and tell me what you see."
Copyright © 2008 by The Eye of Jade Limited
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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