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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Bicycle Alley    

By Garreth Humphris
2013 Views | 6 Comments | 12/7/2011 3:25:18 PM

This weekend I ventured into one of the dark and deceiptful places in my city - Bicycle Alley.

For anyone interested in Chinese literature, I'd recommend an interesting book called The 36 Stratagems - originally referred to by Wang Jingze (Book of Qi), it has no doubt had many iterations in it's time - but primarily in it's pages are 36 tales of how to “use devious or unorthodox means” in politics, war, business and civil interaction. Try some of these - Deceive the heavens to cross the oceans, beseige Wei to rescue Zhao, kill with a borrowed knife, loot a burning house, make a sound in the East and attack from the West, hide a knife behind a smile, create something from nothing, replace the roof beams with rotting timbers, remove the ladder when the enemy has climbed on the roof....so you get the picture!

Now, I can tell you, those guys in Bicycle Alley have studied this book from birth and have probably written the next 15 volumes to boot... How did I get into this den of deception, well it is a long story over many years.

When I first came to China, electric bicycles were just starting to take a foothold in the city I live in - they have now literally edged out the traditional bicycle in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of accidents!

Being a big guy, I have troubles with e-bikes... I want fast and agile, and to put it mildly, 300lbs of fat and bone on an e-bike is neither. I would often find myself on a ’standard’ ebike caught mid-lane with burning batteries and a local bus bearing down on me with horn blazing and brakes squealing. I needed ’custom’... Big engines, big batteries, big frames... everything big. So I essentially found all the parts I needed in ’Bicycle Alley' a few years back with lots of assistance from a friend.

Well, a few months back my e-bike developed a grinding whine in the backwheel bearing and like most Chinese people with noisy ebikes I ignored it as much as I could. I packed it with lithium grease and just kept going! It lasted me another few months, but sadly, a few weeks back it decided that it could take no more strain and seized. There was nothing else to do but to pick up the failed bearing, wrap it in a plastic bag and progress to Bicycle Alley once again.

Although my friend wasn't around to help me, I still felt confident I could negotiate my way around it. I just wanted a set of bearings - I mean, how hard could it be?

I looked up the Chinese words I wanted in my dictionary and practised them a few times with my staff and the security guard at my house - so I knew what I wanted to say!

I put only small notes in my wallet so I couldn't be inadvertently tempted to buy the newest bike lock or ’really cool’ under body LED light kit, or fluorescent helmet!

I scribbled my home address on a scrap of paper and hid it in my sock in case the police found my body sometime in the next week.

I removed all valuables from my bag, just keeping the essentials (toilet paper, chewing gum and Double Happiness cigarettes to bribe anyone who needed bribing!)

I carefully trimmed my fingernails close - lest I look like a ’government worker' - and crammed dirt under them.

I took a taxi and got out a block early, confidently strolling with a cocky smile and a swagger. I could do this, I was almost local. I knew this place, I had survived before and I would not be beaten this time.

As I walked around the corner of the alley, my trepidation grew - I walked into the narrow alley past the two foremost yawning stores. Instinct said be wary - too much Yang (transparency) hides Yin (true ruses)... what you see you do not doubt, the first winning stratagem.

I saw the shop in front of me that I thought I needed, pictures of bearings predominantly displayed - should I approach directly, or use the second winning stratagem of ’besiege Wei to rescue Zhao' - speak to some of the other shopkeepers before approaching my true quarry?

They eyed me warily - although I had sullied my hands and cracked my fingernails I sensed they could tell I was not who I seemed - on one side 2 men eyed me with pale steely eyes, one spitting on the ground - should I approach them innocently and ask them about bearings? Employing the strategies of ’killing with a borrowed knife’? Have them scurry to the darkened alley to do my bidding...did I risk the first meeting with enemy stratagem, ’create something from nothing'? Would what I need miraculously appear or would I find a different model - a fake? Or would they employ the second Enemy stratagem, leading me on a wild goose chase, or ’were they hiding a knife behind their smile’? - I could not be sure. I moved on.

I approached the store 'stomping the grass to scare the snake’, the first attacking stratagem in order to ’entice the tiger to leave his mountain lair’. It worked, out came a huge Chinese man - as tall and as round as I was, a waist encircled with screwdrivers and wrenches - he stood before me, arms crossed.

“Ah, Laowai! are you lost?”, he asked.
“No, Master. I am not lost"
“So why do you come to my store?”
I knew one may need to ’toss a brick to get a jade gem’ - I replied, “Master, I wish to give you money for some small items you may have’
“What would they be?” he asked
“Bearings, only bearing"
“We have no bearings here, Laowai!”

What, I was crestfallen - no bearings? The signs, the displays, everything pointed to bearings but I had been fooled by the second chaos stratagem - ’disturbing the water to catch a fish’... Creating confusion in my soul.

“So Laowai, what do you hope for now”, he asked me, in my obviously confused state.
I thought quickly - my stratagem of ’obtaining safe passage to conquer the State of Guo’ may work.
“I need your help to secure these items, is it possible?’

He sauntered off - had I done it? Was I able to ’make the host and guest exchange roles’....I waited.

Presently a pretty girl came from across the alley, but luckily I recognized the ’honey trap’ technique of the Desperate Stratagems, and I firmly resisted her questioning smile.

Presently my new ally returned with a handful of bearings - comparing the shards of my destroyed bearings with the new ones, we were able to determine the correct size bearings required. My ruse had worked - the man had what I needed in his hand.

I decided that if i wanted the prize, i may have to ’inflict injury on one’s self to win the enemy’s trust’ - to put in a slightly higher price than I expected. “So Master, these bearings would be around 20RMB then?”, I inquired. “20RMB”, he roared, ”and the rest! If you want these bearings, these high quality bearings, you will need to give me at least 70RMB.”

I swallowed, hard. 70 RMB for these inconsequential pieces of metal - come on... I needed another tactic. ’replace beams with rotten timbers' - yes, that would do it...undermine his authority, go deeper myself, not rely on his good grace... “oh Master, too expensive, I believe I can find a better deal in this alley”. “Ok, you try!” he retorted, turning his back on me.

Just now, the ’honey pot’ girl sidled up to me...”we have those, from the same source, highest quality... only 30RMB”. I turned to her - “follow me, over here, look, look!”

Indeed there was a display of bearings in the shop front she motioned to - and I dropped the 3 sheets of money in her hand and pocketed the bearings before thanking her and walking toward the exit.

As I left the alley one of the steely eyed men motioned to me, “Bearings”, he asked “how much did you pay?”
“Only 30RMB”, I responded. “Hahaha Laowai, only 30RMB for bearings worth 10RMB, you are a great negotiator”.

As I left Bicycle Alley with peals of the steely eyed man's laughter in my ears and for hopefully only a few more years, I couldn’t help but remember the final stratagem “if all else fails, retreat”.

Copyright owned jointly by Author and CyberCupid Co., Ltd. Breach of copyright will be prosecuted.
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(Showing 1 to 6 of 6) 1
#2011-12-07 23:41:19 by panda2009 @panda2009

if all else fails, retreat
Hi, Garreth, you done well, just lose 20RMB.
I think that I also have to retreat from Blogs here. Sooooo tired these days. English writing is so hard for me, and my topics seems offensive and private, and Laowais' comments are longer than my blogs. I'm too nervous to continue. I'd never found myself in a bellicose vein.
In fact, It is very difficult of cross states marriage. I must retreat from this dream.
Maybe I will write a blog, "Men love 18 years old girls forever." I'm willing to write blogs, but don't expect Love coming.

#2011-12-08 11:06:23 by aussieghump @aussieghump

Oh dear Panda - all I know is the most wonderful experiences happen when we least expect them! And that we should try to see the good in every thing we try to do in our life.

I admire your persistence in writing a blog in English - I could hardly do anything so bold in Chinese! I skate around the edge 'playing' with the language - my target should be to write some of my blog in Chinese. While tiring, it must also be rewarding.

I sympathize with your feelings about finding a partner - as we age we feel we are being left behind by younger, thinner, prettier, more energetic people! But we have something they don't have - a rich experience, amazing achievements, strong personal victories over struggles others can never know! Your life is unlike that of the youth, they do not know struggle like those of your generation - the do not have the perseverance, the conviction, the unerring restraint, the passion, the calmness of mind that comes from your life story!

Some people try to hold onto youth by trying to 'date' it - that is true. But they are probably not people you would find attractive anyway!

I can tell you, your blogs are not offensive - they are personal observations from your own viewpoint...just as mine are! You should feel encouraged that foreigners are reading your blogs and trying to discover the ways in which you think, commenting on your observations, measuring their own feelings and thoughts against yours - for most foreigners, you are probably one of the only chances they get to see of the thoughts of a strong, articulate, mature Chinese woman before coming to China - and your comments and observations are amazing insight to what to expect. You reveal insights that my girlfriends have not been able to! I am more 'culturally aware' of Chinese women through your writing (and the other Chinese lady bloggers) in the last few months than my previous 10 years in China - this is a great achievement on your behalf - don't be discouraged, be empowered.

In many ways, I am a coward... writing silly stories about a life in China and not exploring deeper feelings about love and marriage and dating in China. But this is my way of life... laughing with it!

So, stand tall, fine Chinese lady, face the wind although it brings tears to your eyes, what you seek is out there somewhere and it will arrive at the time you most need it!

#2011-12-08 13:02:50 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

Garreth,
Your story brings back a lot of memories of China--not particularly good ones either. But I would say that paying three times what locals pay is doing a pretty good job of bargaining - at least it's a lot better than what I ever did. And at least you actually got what you wanted. A good day all in all. I would add one more thing to the epigram with which you ended your saga: "If all else fails, retreat... and declare victory."

Panda, while it is true men may lust after 18 year old girls forever (we can't help ourselves. It's a purely biological reaction) more mature men are looking for much more in a relationship than a 18 yo (or even a 25 yo) can give. And a lot of us really are looking for a relationship with a woman of substance. Hope you keep writing--and keep looking for love

#2011-12-09 04:01:32 by bmccull @bmccull

I do not want to hijack Garreth's blog, but I have to say I would be very disappointed if Panda were to stop writing. She gives us a great insight to the mind of a Chinese lady.

#2011-12-09 15:21:53 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Garreth - I found this hugely entertaining - loved the interposing of the "Chinese Strategems" into the seeming daily shopping battle we encounter here everyday. My brother, sister-in-law and another couple are here visiting and I showed this to them. They enjoyed it as much as I did.

Panda - you shouldn't retreat from either blogging or finding a western love.

Your best blogs are the ones you write that are your thoughts in your words - those are the ones so appreciated by the members as evidenced by the comments above. Keep them coming and by all means feel free to write them first in Chinese, followed by an English translation. I think that will make it easier for you to get your thoughts into English.

Your love will come when it comes - when you least expect it. Pursue your art, your career, your families health and well being as your primary goals, pursue a western love as a pleasant pastime. If you truly take the time to enjoy travel, then the trip is worth taking even if you never reach your destination. I think that's the way we should look at the pursuit of love.

#2011-12-10 21:42:50 by panda2009 @panda2009

John, I had drunk two caps of coffee when I listened the PMP course yesterday afternoon. Maybe I had a little excited last night, I wrote blog in my dream, it was crazy that I knited my words in English. In fact, writing and saying are all expression which are easier than listening and reading. I'm always in a passive position when I listen English saying or read hard articals in English. For example, raybaby40's long comment is not kind, I was too slow to understand that he try to teach me some physical words. So my English level at present is not enough to live abroad. Confusius told us, "The ignorant fearless." I hope that I become fearless after I am knowledgeable.

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