Business Ethics - Oriental style
Selkirk thought he knew his way around Hong Kong because it was just ten years since he'd been there, in 2020. He was wrong. Being able to read a few thousand chinese characters gave him little advantage, because western script, specifically English, was everywhere. Most of Central district had been cocooned in a two-level air-conditioned mall in which those buildings which had been preserved from before mallization were unrecognisable at street level, while their upper floors were hidden from view above the mall roof. Like many new developments, the complex was double-insulated and clad in photo-voltaic cells, which together rendered the cost of air-conditioning the mall to a fragment of the energy expenditure that would have been used in the "old" days prior to 2025. In daylight hours, most of the illumination was provided by light pipes that sucked light from the surface to deliver it where required, supplemented by low power LEDs. After a slow start, China had proved itself ingeniously responsive to energy constraints. Selkirk spent half an hour trying to get his bearings among the international design boutiques, the exquisitely tempting consumer electronics outlets and the many mysterious polished establishments which did not advertise their trade. He gave up when he realised that even those streets which survived under the canopy had had their names changed. Feeling chilled in his light shirt and trousers, because of the mall's efficient, even over-enthusiastic, climate control, and despairing of finding his way back to the hotel easily, he hailed a trishaw and had himself conveyed there.
Balwant Singh sat in the armchair in Selkirk's hotel room and laughed loudly through his beard when he heard. "You should have called me in the first place, old boy," he chuckled, "Didn't I used to be your Hong Kong wallah?" He was a tall, broad-shouldered man who used his booming voice, his British Indian lingo, his turban and his whiskers to enhance his presence, which was already considerable. "You won't get to see David Lee without my invaluable assistance."
"Yeah, yeah. I didn't know how fat you'd become, though. Whisky?" Selkirk already had an appointment with Lee, but Balwant Singh might make things easier.
"Whisky? Thanks, I don't mind if I do. I may have put on a few pounds, but I can still look after myself... and after you, white man. Anyhow, you're looking a bit grey on top, aren't you, eh?" Selkirk was increasingly aware of not only greyness, but baldness, though he retained his youthful wiry frame at forty-five.
Balwant Singh knew the way out of the mall all right. His height and his white turban meant Selkirk could stay quite a long way back and still follow, although thousands of other people were between and around them. Selkirk was supposed to be attending the meeting alone. Balwant had agreed, for a fee, to be guide and bodyguard, but to keep his distance. The tall Sikh was a familiar figure in Hong Kong. No-one would be surprised to see him.
When they emerged into the open air from the chemically-scented cool of the mall, the clammy heat engulfed Selkirk and moisture condensed in beads on his super-cooled person. He looked up. The slot of sky visible between high towers was an unhealthy, bruised colour. He was perspiring a rivulet down his back by the time Balwant started to climb the steep streets up the hill. Selkirk was sure it was Ice House Street, but it had been so rebuilt that he did not recognise it. He closed in on Balwant. The narrow streets and inter-building walkways offered more restricted sight lines. In places like this, it is important how a person walks, because if you show indecision or unfamiliarity with the environment, you're dead meat commercially.
They were now passing through an area that was almost entirely offices and up-market apartment blocks. This was where a lot of the old workshops and sweat shops and marginal enterprises had previously clung to the steep northern slopes of the island. Odd corners of ancient masonry, pavements and kerbs occasionally broke through the polished surfaces of new development. Balwant and Selkirk were heading for the labyrinth into which these freelance traders had been displaced. No-one knew how many kilometers of passageways had been hacked out of the very fabric of Hong Kong island. Rock from the constant tunnelling was secretly sold to firms who were reclaiming land from the shore. These construction firms had been accustomed to importing rock by sea. Now it was a domestic product. Occasional fatal tunnel collapses went unremarked.
From time to time, they passed incongruous, foul-smelling handcarts being guided down the perfectly formed walkways of the hill, usually in the charge of some wizened oldster.
A crack of thunder was followed a few seconds later by a deluge that was pretty welcome to Selkirk, cool rain replacing sticky sweat in his shirt. Shortly thereafter, a torrent of dirty water cascaded down the hill towards them, carrying all sorts of floatable garbage. It was as though everyone above here had seized the opportunity to ditch that wooden crate, that wastepaper bucket, those plastic dolls' heads. It didn't smell too good, either. Selkirk's shoes, socks and trouser cuffs were saturated before he could take evasive action. He saw one of the handcarts deliberately up-ended into the torrent by its owner. The contents appeared to be sewage. Balwant leapt for a low decorative sculpture in concrete that adorned the solar panel-clad façade of a bank building and Selkirk sprinted to join him.
"Is this sewage from the tunnels?" Selkirk asked.
"Probably. Some of the sewage and other waste is fermented to industrial gas inside. The rest is transported out of the tunnels in hand carts, and disposed of in a thousand incidents like this one. A little pungent for the Sahib's delicate nostrils, is it? You should try Delhi, man!"
The shower and subsequent rush of water and debris soon passed, and they continued up the hill together. Somehow, Selkirk had expected the tunnel entrances to be secret, clandestine as they certainly were. But a large gateway, decorated in the traditional fashion of Chinatown gateways the world over, bordered the uneven cave opening in the cliff face. Dirty water trickled out at one side. Loops and festoons of black cable and blue translucent plastic piping were roughly suspended along the rock, disappearing inside the cavern.
"The public part of the cave," said Balwant, interpreting Selkirk's surprise, "Is completely above board. But it is only one chamber."
The narrow crack whistled with a warm draught, almost a gale, filled with the smells of humanity, vegetable-based hard plastics and Chinese spices and remedies. The aperture widened almost immediately into a well-lit, high cavern of white rock, possibly a natural phenomenon. Numerous market stalls were ranged in rows and levels, starting with those against the rear wall, up to the nearest rank almost blocking entry to the cave. Most of the stalls offered food and drink, but there were also multiple competing music stalls demonstrating their ripped wares; a medical shop with attached acupuncture, selling the body parts of extinct and endangered animals - "Guaranteed Genuine" but more likely grown in tissue cultures from cloned stem cells; a booth set up as a stage in which the traditional story of "Journey to the West" was being performed by the most ingeniously designed puppets dressed in rich, stylised costumes - not conventional marionettes or hand puppets, but apparently controlled by radio from behind the backdrop, a development of the rather pointless Japanese toy robots so popular in Selkirk's childhood; a massage parlour in which actual massage was taking place in full view of the shoppers, administered by hefty, muscular men who would not have looked out of place in a wrestling ring; another massage parlour in which the treatment was delivered by robots that looked like recycled machine tools and assembly turrets. Selkirk was sufficiently versed in the ways of the Far East not to mistake the stall with live snakes, dogs, turtles, birds, lizards, exotic fish, insects and monkeys for a pet shop. These creatures were on sale for human consumption.
"This wind is the ventilation, I take it," asked Selkirk.
"Yes, indeed, I believe so. They talk of a convection system where the hot air in the upper galleries draws cool air from sea caves and underground stream beds. But also there are pumps and fans, of course, driven by stolen electricity. Without these, there would be more of those distressing incidents in which whole corridors fill with carbon dioxide and everyone suffocates."
"Very encouraging, Balwant."
"Please do not disturb yourself. David Lee inhabits an area of these caves favoured by the nabobs and pukka sahibs of the community. Aha! Here we go, I think."
Balwant led the way into a shop set up on the back wall of the cavern. Hundreds of electronic gadgets were on offer, most of them duplicates of well-known brands. Ignoring the merchandise, Balwant entered the office at the back of the shop, where a cupboard stood open. He entered the cupboard, and Selkirk, following, saw that they were now in a broad tunnel. After a few paces, they passed through an open iron door set across the passageway.
"Is this the secret part?" asked Selkirk.
"One of many."
"But surely the police have found this entrance by now."
"Absolutely, but there are multiple entrances, and only a few are open on any day, you see. Also, if a raid begins, signals can be sent ahead and some doors will be locked ahead of them. It will need to be very important before the police try to break down these doors. The industries under the mountain here are useful to the nation, because many of the products earn foreign exchange by export or are less expensive replicas of international designer goods for the domestic market."
Selkirk was temporarily silenced by this comprehensive reply, and followed Balwant Singh for what seemed like three or four kilometres of winding, branching, rising passageways. There were people everywhere, but the others largely ignored them. Every few yards, the corridor wall was pierced with an alcove, a side cave, a door, a gate, a shop-front. One "street" was given over to the manufacture of wheelbarrows from sheet metal to finished article, another was filled with little workbenches at which workers, mostly women and children, assembled, painted and dressed puppets like those Selkirk had seen earlier. Many businesses appeared to be electronic assembly operations. Primitive food stalls were inserted wherever there was room to accommodate them. Handcarts, tiny rickshaws and wheelbarrows were everywhere. There appeared to be no mechanical transport in the walkways themselves, though Selkirk caught sight of what appeared to be access points to freight elevators and rope-propelled railways in the larger caverns. And there was no apparent shortage of cheap manual labour.
Lee contemplated Selkirk politely, but without apparent enthusiasm.David Lee's office was a rarity down here - a cave with a gold lettered, red lacquered, real wood door and toughened glass window letting onto the corridor, but no apparent commodity on sale. Balwant repaired to a nearby food stall for a bowl of the spicy soup that he insisted on calling "mulligatawny".
Selkirk knocked and entered Lee's office. He was expected. A willowy secretary, dressed in what appeared to be a brocade evening dress, welcomed him, ushered him the few steps to Lee's visitor chair, and disappeared behind a screen. Selkirk was surprised by Lee's relative youth and his open, friendly face, as they shook hands. A monkey sat on the desk, examining the framed photograph of a woman and baby with wise brown eyes, turning it in its little hands. It glanced at Selkirk as he sat, but never met his gaze.
There were similarities between David Lee and Balwant Singh. Like Balwant, Lee harked back to an age of British rule that neither he nor his parents could have ever truly known. He affected an English "Christian" name preceding his Chinese family name. He dressed in a wool suit, striped cotton shirt and silk tie with what appeared to be Savile Row labels.
Lee contemplated Selkirk politely, but without apparent enthusiasm. However, his eyebrows rose very slightly in surprise when Selkirk asked in Cantonese which Chinese dialect Lee would prefer to speak. Lee expressed his preference for English, taking an antique Swan fountain pen from his pocket and making a note on the single sheet of handmade paper in front of him.
"I understand," said Selkirk, "That you are the man to talk to about supplies of counterfeit micro components."
"The word 'counterfeit' implies something inferior which masquerades as the real thing. Any manufacturer with whom I would put you in touch would prefer the expression 'clone', as his components will be indistinguishable from the so-called real thing in appearance and specification, right down to any errors the original manufacturer may have unintentionally built in to the component. The only difference is that my suppliers are not licenced to make or to sell these parts and do not pay a royalty to the patent owner."
"I expected you to be less direct in your description of these goods. Where do you fit in, Mr Lee?"
"A little history. The People's Republic of China took over Hong Kong from the British nearly fifty years ago. At the time, Hong Kong's illicit operations were run by gangs. These gangs were generally, and with varied accuracy, known as Tongs, containing rough fellows with tattoos, who fought each other with meat cleavers, and ran drug operations and prostitution rackets with bloodthirsty efficiency. At the expense of some thousands of casualties on both sides, the People's Army eliminated all the Tongs but one - ours. We behave ourselves and pervade the ruling classes of all China to an extent, and in Hong Kong in particular. You may regard me as the head of the Chamber of Illicit Commerce in Hong Kong. Most of the businesses under the mountain operate under my protection and you will find no administrative problem that we cannot together solve to our mutual satisfaction."
"I see," said Selkirk. "That seems satisfactory." The monkey abruptly dropped the photograph on the desk and climbed onto Lee's knee. Lee stroked its head.
"However," Lee continued, "I am puzzled. The traditional sources for such items are Singapore and Taipei. Some are even legitimate, and, therefore, less expensive."
"We are also talking to a Singapore firm," said Selkirk, "Though Singapore is a really dangerous place to break the law. It's the death penalty there for supplying tobacco, and a flogging for smoking in public. God knows what it is for patent infringement." He fished from his pocket a small box. He opened it to reveal a microchip of antique design. "How old do you think this chip is, Mr Lee?" The monkey flinched as Selkirk held the box across the desk.
Lee glanced at the contents. "The fact that it is large enough to be seen with the naked eye indicates to me that it is either immensely complex and quite old, or of medium complexity and extremely old. Judging by the primitive pin configuration, I think it must be the latter."
"Correct. The chip is called E122, and was designed in 2002 or thereabouts. Now, how much do you think it is worth?"
"A few dollars when new, a few cents when in full production or recycled from scrap circuit boards, a few dollars again for its rarity value today if unused."
"Wrong. I would conceal this from you if I could, because it ruins my bargaining position, but you can easily check. On the open market, these chips are changing hands at ninety dollars each or more."
"Incredible. What is so special?"
"The company I represent - I see no reason to hide their identity, because a few enquiries would reveal it to you - is Vertical Dynamics. Vertical designed this chip into the stability module of an early version of their signature product."
"Yes. The stability module in the Manlifter personal flyer, a bank of electronics and a gyroscope in the platform that together make sure the whole thing doesn't flip over as physics says it ought to, and drive the rider into the ground head first, like a fence post. At the time, and for years afterwards, the E122 chip was in full production and very cheap. More recently, Chiporama has had only this one client for the E122. Vertical Dynamics bought five million a year, one per Manlifter plus spares. Chiporama wanted Vertical to switch to a new chip, but it had never been worth Vertical Dynamics upgrading the module it was used in because it had cost years and casualties to perfect."
"And I could waste half an hour explaining what went wrong. In summary, a succession of management errors, mistakes, delays and accidents have resulted in Vertical needing up to two million E122 chips to tide them over and Chiporama being unable to supply them. Vertical need to design, test and get safety approval for a new stabiliser circuit. They attempted to buy as many of the old chips as possible on the open market without creating a scarcity price. They bungled that, too. And then there's Unicorn Lifters."
"Ah. Pepsi to Vertical's Coke."
"Quite so. Unicorn became aware of Vertical's problems. They mounted an efficient operation to corner the market in new and recycled E122s, and succeeded in buying the patent for the E122 from Chiporama, preventing Vertical from obtaining them legally. So here we are. It's my job to source these chips in such a way that Vertical cannot be proved to have deliberately forged them. By the way, your monkey is about to eat a ninety dollar E122 chip."
Lee held his hand up to the monkey, which dropped the chip in it. Lee returned the chip to its box and snapped it shut. "I can obtain a quotation for you. Do you have the specification for this..."
"E122. Yes, we have." Selkirk handed over a personalised DM wafer.
"You are staying where?"
"The New Mandarin. Name Selkirk."
"And this is your cellphone number, printed on the DM?"
"I shall contact you." Lee stood up, extending his hand, and the monkey jumped back onto the desk.
Selkirk rose, grasped Lee's hand, and shook. "When?"
"Soon. A day or two. Then we talk about money and samples and a supply route.
You kind of expect it in the Far East, but David Lee was true to his word, and, three months down the track, a secure supply of E122s was flowing, apparently from a recycling facility in North Cyprus. No-one, not even in Vertical's assembly plant, doubted that they were authentically recycled, as they bore a variety of imprints, slightly bent pins, traces of connector bonding and random scuffing, all carefully applied on the Hong Kong production line, a thoroughly professional job at a good price, thanks to the handsome fee paid to Lee's organisation.
The weak link, as it turned out, was Balwant Singh. Perhaps someone should have greased his palm more thoroughly, and Selkirk blamed himself for Balwant's clumsy attempt to extort several thousand dollars from Vertical as his price for silence about the illegal supply. Selkirk spoke to him on the telephone, but Balwant sounded tense and resentful, demanding his reward. E-mails went unanswered. He had left his home and was presumably holed up somewhere safe.
When Balwant Singh finally turned up, Selkirk was sent back to Hong Kong. Balwant had been found in a locked hotel room, the only access to which had been the bathroom ventilator. The ventilator grille was lying on the floor of the shower. Detailed police investigation had also revealed a tiny hole in the wall of the room. In theory, someone could have watched Balwant Singh from the next door suite.
It appeared that Balwant had lost his mind, was blind in one eye and was partially paralysed. Someone had rammed a sharp instrument through his left eye socket into his brain and stirred it around a little. He was raving constantly, and kept yelling "Monkey!" No sharp instrument was present in the hotel room. There was a crazy theory going around that a monkey had been prompted to crawl through the ventilator and attack the victim.
Selkirk paid another visit to David Lee, this time guided by a man sent to his hotel by Lee. Again, he passed the market with its souvenir shops selling framed models of villages carved from cork, water colour paintings on simulated silk, and figurines moulded in ivory-like plastic; the noisy, high stakes mah jonng games; the puppet show; the health stores; the food shops.
Selkirk, led on every previous occasion by Balwant Singh, had visited Lee's office several times since the first occasion, and had taken the trouble to bring a pocketful of peanuts to all subsequent meetings. This time, the monkey, named, as Selkirk now knew, Salome, took on a sinister significance for Selkirk, in view of the lurid rumours about the manner of the attack on Balwant Singh. The monkey recognised Selkirk as usual and immediately sprang over Lee's desk to explore his pockets.
Selkirk went straight to the issue that was concerning him. "Should I be worried about Salome?"
"In what regard?"
"Balwant Singh's 'accident'."
"You think I might have silenced the Sikh by getting Salome to crawl into his room and poke him it the eye with a stiletto? Absolutely not. She might bite you if you teased her, but she is a gentle creature, as you know. And she could not be trained to do such a thing."
Now he was here, Selkirk had to agree. Salome had retrieved all the nuts and was messily peeling them on Lee's immaculate desk with serious concentration. The theory was, indeed, ridiculous.
"So, what do you think?" asked Selkirk.
"About the Indian? Well, I am not sorry that he has been neutralised, and, I suppose, neither are you. Whoever has done this has earned our gratitude. Do you agree?" Lee scraped together the discarded peanut shells and dropped them in his wastebin, then fastidiously cleaned the desktop with wax polish and a clean duster. Salome sneezed.
"Yes, I suppose so. I can't help feeling sorry for him, though. He was a good friend and ally at one time."
"Yes, I know. Greed, eh? Cheer up," said Lee. "I have a gift for you." He produced a long box. "It may take you some time to master it. The instructions are in Chinese, but that will not present you with any problem."
Selkirk was surprised. He took the lid off the box to reveal one of the Chinese radio-controlled marionettes he had admired in passing. "It is a fine present. Thank you."
"You have mentioned the puppet show more than once. This is a character from the traditional play - Journey to the West. He is called Sun Wukong, but is commonly referred to as The Monkey King."
The marionette certainly had a rather simian face, a prominent tail, and was dressed in an elaborate costume, covered in symbols and glittering with gold thread.
But Selkirk only had eyes for Sun Wukong's long, sharp little spear.
© Gil Williamson 2008 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 18:10 Fri 19 Feb 2010
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