IT was in the late 1980s. Beijing was a very different world from my first visit ten years before.
Silently dynamic, it was changing at breathtaking speed while trying to appear eternally unperturbed, adamantly dignified. The country was reaching out in all directions to find its destined path — one which turned out to be so exceptional and experimental that it had to be first test-driven in Guangdong Province down south. Many restaurants were now open late at night instead of closing up by about seven to let everyone go home to spend time with families, read sensible books with educational values under a single lightbulb, and sleep early without TV induced nightmares.
This time, we stayed in the Wangfujing area where most tourists were, carrying crispy Foreign Exchange Certificates. FEC could be conveniently exchanged back into foreign currencies, and had become a welcome medium in Guangdong. In Beijing, however, some small vendors would stubbornly doubt its legitimacy and insist on normal Renminbi only.
Next morning, we went out looking for street-breakfast. An epic experiment to explore the upper limit of market tolerance and the lower limit of consumer intelligence had begun. Our hotel was charging an average Beijing worker’s monthly salary for a greasy breakfast buffet.
We readily spotted a bun seller in a nearby alley, hardworking profile partly obscured by an appetising billow of steam coming off his cart. Above him was a dreamy esquisse of smooth undulating grey clouds spreading across light charcoal sky. A small queue of customers had formed, hands in pockets, shoulders raised against the early autumn wind. We joined the line, looking conspicuously ‘foreign’ back then, accepting curious sideways glances.
When it was our turn, I ordered two buns.
‘Yi kuai’, said the seller without looking up. One Yuan for two? Fifty Fen (roughly an American nickel) each? It’s probably empty, filled with nothing but hot air, my suspicious side cautioned, managing expectation. Well, a doughy pocket of lukewarm air would cost more than that in Hong Kong. I handed him one Yuan FEC. He examined it briefly, tossed it into his tin-can till, and gave me two steamy buns in a gossamer plastic bag.
‘Xie Xie’ — thank you.
We ate as we walked.
‘It’s the best meat and veggie bun I’ve ever eaten!’ I exclaimed after reconfirming my impression with a second bite.
My wife nodded emphatically in agreement, mouth full. We stopped walking to focus on chewing. Naturally, we discovered plenty of room for at least one to two more each. We circled the block to return to the alley, and I went up to join the line again. With salivating anticipation, I witnessed one local customer after another before me paying only twenty Fens each for their buns. We had been overcharged 150%! To someone with a pathological sensitivity to percentage, that’s outrageous. Indignant, I decided we had had enough breakfast after all. I turned to leave, and felt deeply disappointed.
A decade before, one could leave a bag of money on the streets of Beijing, and it’d still be there the next day, waiting for the rightful owner. Some hotel rooms had no locks. Stern northern integrity cast by time, culture, and revolutionary ideals had evidently caved in. Proud Beijing folks had capitulated. At least some were emulating southerners — less principled, less honest, less uptight, more money.
The trivial episode somehow refused to go away. It flashed through my mind for the rest of the day. Something wasn’t quite right about my judgemental reaction.
It wasn’t the money, obviously.
The thirty Fen difference would have resulted in small change notes, most of them damp, worn, and tacky like spent tissues back then, semi-decomposed after an interminable and placid tour of duty in planned economy. Had I been given them as change, I might have actually thrown them into the wastebasket when back at the hotel. Why then did I get upset over something which had absolutely no value to me, but was additional ‘profit’ to the vender? And because of that, I regrettably forewent the chance of eating a few more of the best buns on earth.
I knew my bourgeois justifications well enough: It’s a matter of principle, of course! Folks who say this often believe themselves to be staunch defenders of integrity, honesty and fairness, especially when it suits them, and defending ‘principles’ poses no personal danger. I was no exception.
However, as I gloomily digested a lone bun in my stomach, it dawned on me that trivial ‘matters of principle’, even if consistently and equably applied — a rare occurrence not to be taken for granted — is merely petty-mindedness in disguise. Where should one draw the line of pettiness though? I asked myself. Simple: where common sense and generosity intersect. Not having either would be a different story — a personal tragedy.
Thinking down the ‘principle’ line, I started to realise my glaringly dubious standards.
I was a design-and-build contractor of sewage treatment facilities. Had someone asked me for a cost estimate of a certain size plant, I would have given him a conservative ball-park figure. If the enquirer said Hey, that sounds great, well within my budget, go ahead! I would have been grateful for his trust and questionable sanity, taken the office out to celebrate, and bought flowers home. Under barbaric competition, I might have to build the same plant for, say, a couple of million less, and imagine ways to dilute the concrete for survival.
Yet, no one could accuse me for having cheated or overcharged my happy hypothetical client — not legally, not ethically. I was maximising merited income from an appreciative customer who regarded my price good and fair. But how was that different from the bun transaction this morning? None that I could think of, except that the vendor was much poorer, and the amount involved categorically negligible. Somehow, I had expected poor folks to be voluntarily more ‘honest’. With the help of lawyers, plutocrats bent and cut legal corners all the time to make mega bucks; they were just being ‘clever’ in my mind. The bun seller took advantage of market conditions and made a few pennies more, hurting no one, and I became resentful of his ‘cheating’. What utter bullshit. I was suddenly ashamed.
This seemingly minor incident changed my perspective on many things in the years to come. I had since relayed it to friends when triggered by a relevant situation, such as in the unfortunate presence of someone making snobbish comments about how ‘unprincipled’ poor people are. It’s time that I write it down.
Meanwhile, Beijing has changed even more drastically. The future arrives in a rush, colliding with the ancient past, heightening hope and anxiety. Old Beijing-ren moan that street-buns are not as good as they once were, but ridiculously more expensive. Maybe it’s true, but they’ve been saying that since the days of the Emperor Qianlong. Those who remember the FEC have mostly retired. These days, all customers, wherever they’re from, pay the same price. Just scan the QR code with your phone, and press pay.
James Tam 2021.3.10