China – Pragmatism Over Style

Posted on October 30, 2006



I was recently in Shanghai for a client workshop. It was one of those crazy “get-on-the-plane-in-Singapore-at-midnight-land-in-Shanghai-the-next-morning-jump-into-a-car-to-take-you-to-the-venue-run-the-all-day-workshop-continue-with-pitch-meetings-for-another-project-in-the-evening-go-to-the-hotel-at-midnight-sleep-for-a-few-hours-and-fly-out-again-early-the-next-morning” kind of trips. 

Anyway, the client’s secretary had booked me into the Holiday Inn Vista in Shanghai, which I found out about too late. It turned out to be a real dump. To make matters worse, I was booked into a smoking room. And if you haven’t been to China and don’t know how much people smoke in this part of the world, you’re probably happily oblivious to the fact that the difference between a smoking room in a Chinese hotel and the gas chamber in Sobibor are very fine indeed.  

My eyes turned violently red within seconds after entering the room and my throat dried up just as fast. So I went down to the front desk to complain. Firmly. A young, distressed Chinese woman replied that all the non-smoking rooms were booked, but that they would send house keeping to clean the room. Great, I said…I’m sure that’s going to help a lot given that the entire room: walls, ceiling, furniture and carpet are completely permeated with the lethal smoke. Two breaths of the air in that room is worse that smoking 2 packs of unfiltered Lucky Strike.  

Tired and more than moderately irritated, I went to one of the hotel’s mediocre restaurants for a big feed and a couple of decent Tsing Tao Beers. When I got back to my room…stuffed…I found a big UV-lamp sitting on the desk at the far end of the room. It looked like a sun tanning lamp from the 50’s or 60’s – the kind may have seen one in an old movie or found one in your parent’s attic. To my astonishment, however, the air had lost most of it’s skin and organ-piercing smell. I could still smell a bit of it, but the improvement was dramatic. I was genuinely surprised. Someone, it seemed, had had a physics lesson with the hotel staff and taught them how UV light can split large particles/pollutants in the air, leaving the air “fresher”.  

(On second thought, that’s not the case at all. The physics logic would have been omitted from that lesson. “Put this lamp in that room” would have been the essence of the lesson in genuine Confucian pedagogy style). 

To me, that little silly lamp looked completely harmless sitting there at the far end of the rather large room so I lost my clothes, crashed on the bed and was asleep within 15 seconds.  

The next morning, when I was having breakfast in the hotel restaurant, the right side of my face felt a bit weird, very weird to be honest. The skin was tight and almost numb. I actually felt empathy towards Sylverster Stallone for a few seconds. My right arm was also itching and the skin was cardinal red.  

A really sad thought started to take shape in my mind. I had gotten sun-burnt in a smoking room at a Holiday Inn in China from an old sun tanning lamp from the 1960’s. I had become a victim of Chinese pragmatism at its very best. Ironically this is the same pragmatism that is driving this nation towards world domination once again. Watch out!

Posted in: Personal