Shanghaied by love - why one Dubliner made China his home
During nearly 25 years in China, Graeme Allen has endured surgical agony, thoughts of suicide and a difficult mother-in-law - but his family make it all worthwhile, writes Donal Lynch
There is an old Chinese proverb, which Graeme Allen is wont to quote: "A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials." And God were they trials - Chinese-style.
The septuagenarian Dublin man has lived in the People's Republic for the past three decades, running a variety of hotels and building his own pub business, The Flying Fox, in Shanghai. His book about the period - Is That Fat Foreigner Rich? - is crammed with stories of navigating Chinese concepts of petty corruption, scams and favours (known as guanxi), of dealing with grifter-ish Asian businessmen attempting to drink him under the table and of battling backstabbing bosses. It gives a brilliantly colourful insight into a culture about which we hear a lot - it is the new superpower after all - but know relatively little about.
The title of the book refers to a question - translated for Graeme, who doesn't speak Mandarin - that was asked by a local who was trying to decide what the point of an Irishman in China might possibly be. It was a conundrum which also deeply troubled the woman who Graeme hoped would be his mother-in-law.
She showed up at the hotel he was running months after his relationship with his then-fiancee Lee had become serious. It was Lee's charm and loyalty (plus great legs clad in extremely short shorts) which had helped Graeme fall in love with her. But she was also an only child - although she was born before the infamous one-child policy kicked into effect - and therefore the mother was very sceptical about potential suitors. We hear a lot in the West about Asia's 'tiger mothers' - and this one was especially tigerish. She all but ignored Graeme when they were first introduced, and his first impression was: 'what a dragon!'
At dinner she succinctly outlined her objections.
"This was all translated for me but she said, 'You're too old, you're a foreigner and you will take my daughter away, meaning I will probably never see her again. You're too fat, you don't have a steady job, you don't speak Chinese, and how can we communicate with you when you visit us and the family at Chinese New Year?' And she said I was bald but, tactfully, this wasn't translated until much later."
After much cajolery, flattery and ostentatious display of bona fides, the mother eventually gave a very grudging go-ahead, and what swung it for Graeme surprised and amused him.
"For the few weeks around that time I had been jogging in the morning around the lake near where we lived, and, coincidentally, Lee's mother had been taking a taxi to the train station when they passed what she described as a 'fat foreigner' running on the road. The 'fat foreigner' she spoke of looked strangely familiar and turned out to be me! I can't say for certain but I think she thought, if this guy is prepared to do this for my daughter, he can't be all that bad."
Graeme later found out that Lee had altered his passport to make him appear a couple of decades younger than he really was - just in case her beady-eyed mother didn't believe her. (Graeme later protested this to a Finnish customs official who let him go, conceding 'you couldn't make that one up'.)
Officialdom in China was just as sceptical about marriages between locals and foreigners - Graeme relates a story of one friend of his, who is married to a Chinese girl, being asked to pose naked before nurses in a hospital, "so they could see what he was made of", and of another friend having a sperm sample demanded of him, "to test his reproductive ability".
"He protested and was told, 'No sperm, no marriage'." Graeme and Lee were eventually allowed to marry, although he was shocked to learn that all the wedding presents had to be returned to the people who had gifted them (a Chinese custom - the gifts are just for show, apparently). Except, that is, for the whole frozen dog - a delicacy - which the couple kept in their freezer for a month before quietly re-gifting to another friend.
There is a sense, speaking to Graeme, that the Chinese odyssey is but the latest in a few he has lived.
He comes from a "relatively well-to-do" Quaker family in Dublin (his aunt is Myrtle Allen, of the famous Ballymaloe dynasty). After four years working in his father's textile factory, Graeme, then in his 20s, jumped into the hospitality field, building a small hotel in Connemara, which he ran for the next decade.
He spent the following three years working for the Tourist Board in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. During this period he was also married for the first time and had two children. The original marriage broke down and Graeme moved first to Australia and then to China, where he worked for a variety of hospitality companies. It all seemed to involve a tremendous amount of ducking, diving and generally riding his luck.
The book contains some delicious score-settling - he describes one company, which stiffed him out of thousands of euro, as "a pile of w*nkers". He mostly made good money but after leaving one particular job, was left almost destitute. Around that time he considered suicide, but he says that he didn't go through with it, "because I was too scared of not finding a painless way of doing it".
The redemptive power of love was also on the horizon - it was around that time that he met Lee.
"After I met her everything improved in my life," he tells me.
Navigating the approval of the mother-in-law wasn't the only roadblock in his union with Lee. There was also the issue of his fertility. Graeme had had a vasectomy in 1983 but he and Lee were determined to start a family together. She took him to a specialist in Nanjing, the capital of China's Jiangsu eastern province.
"She'd heard of a doctor in the local hospital who could perform an operation to take live sperm from me and then impregnate her. She was hopeful this would work and we went along to a clinic where I was a bit suspicious to see a razor blade in the operating theatre."
What followed was fairly gruesome and the gentlemen may want to look away at this point.
"I was screaming once they started, I was so confused, I didn't understand what was happening and the anaesthetic didn't seem to have kicked in. So with Lee holding me down and me screaming like a wounded animal they went ahead and extracted some sperm, which turned out to be dead."
He later found out that at this time the custom in small regional hospitals was that you took your own anaesthetic or else they expected you to white-knuckle your way through the surgical pain.
Graeme had to spend a few days walking with his legs apart, as he recovered from the ordeal. After trying again, this time with full anaesthetic, doctors implanted some of his healthy sperm into Lee but she, too, was traumatised by the experience, and they decided to go another route instead. They badly wanted to adopt a child. "But we were told that it would be impossible in China because of my age," Graeme recalls.
"We tried Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam but it was the same story there." Lee then discovered a loophole would allow her to adopt if she was single. "After a lot of discussion and soul searching we decided that the best thing would be if we obtained a quickie divorce, she adopted the child alone, so to speak, and then we remarried and carried on as normal."
At the divorce hearing, Graeme tried to look as sad as he could and the couple were asked if they were only going ahead with the divorce so Lee could buy another property. Lee told the judge that it was because they wanted to adopt a baby girl - and he said: "Well, that's OK then."
They eventually adopted a little girl, whom they called Katie Grainne, now three-years-old (the book is dedicated to her) and Graeme says that it has been an incredible, life-giving experience to become a father again, even if some of his own Irish family were "scandalised" that he would begin parenting a small child at his great age (he will be 74 in July).
"Most of them were very happy for us though," he says. "I mean, I am aware that it's unlikely that I will be around to watch [Katie Grainne] get married, but I can give her a loving father and a good education in the time we have on earth together. She brings me joy every day of my life."
These days Graeme and Lee own and run The Flying Fox - a popular gastropub in Shanghai - although Graeme concedes that Lee "does most of the day-to-day work".
He and Lee have flown a number of staff to Cork to learn about cooking with Graeme's cousins in Ballymaloe. Lee herself eventually trained under Darina Allen at the famous cookery school, where Myrtle ominously warned the Chinese woman that, based on their experience of the previous chefs that The Flying Fox had sent to Cork, there would be ructions when she - Lee - returned to try to change the pub's food culture.
Most Chinese chefs don't like to taste western food as they cook - because they don't like the taste and checking a recipe is considered a loss of face in the culture. Sure enough, the culture clash generated huge acrimony, leading to a walkout. At one point Lee bluntly told Graeme: "Your Quaker principles don't work in China."
Graeme felt he was being "stabbed not only in the back, but all over", by his staff. There eventually was a court case, which he couldn't even attend, as it would have invoked the perception of a foreigner exploiting a Chinese person, but in the end, while not exactly 'winning' the case, they did manage to escape without being thoroughly fleeced. Still, it was one of a plethora of jaw-dropping anecdotes of dodgy dealings.
These include one that involved the contents of the pub's septic tank being stolen to make fertiliser ("you even have to keep an eye on your sh*te in China," he quips).
Other stories were more sinister. One involved his daughter being threatened in her old Montessori school and of the adult culprit writing a spiteful review of the restaurant when cornered. Corruption and a sometimes baffling system of payments and favours abounds in China. You often need what the Chinese call 'a yellow cow' (a fixer) to get things done.
Graeme describes other incidents of customers going completely postal - including one where Lee had a plate smashed from her hand. He says that when things really kick off it is almost always to do with the dreaded loss of face, but you have to be careful how you deal with people because you never know who has guanxi with whom.
It all might make you wonder would Graeme and Lee not be tempted to pack up shop and come 'home' to Ireland. But he says that he doesn't think that will happen - unless the cost of private education, which is already high, spirals even further.
"You know in many ways China has been so good to me," he says. "I arrived in China almost broke in 1994 and things got so much better.
"The country has come on a lot too. Education is expensive but we've very good friends and a good life. It's been an adventure."
Is That Fat Foreigner Rich? An Irishman in China by Graeme Allen (Murphy Brothers Publishing) €14.99