This is a six part New Mandala series. Readers are warned that some of the content in this series is graphic and there is occasional coarse language. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 were published in recent weeks.
In 1992 a large engineering company bought out our little firm. We were massively losing money in the recession and so our young owner had sold us out instead of going under. The other company was doing well and rather than paying tax on their profit they spent the profit on acquiring our operation.
Not only did they buy us out, but they also shifted us to their huge compound in an Industrial Park in Silverwater near the Remand Centre. I was promoted to Production Manager as they had a grand plan of expansion for our operation.
My salary was raised to $48,000 a year and so I didn’t need to drive a cab anymore: I was happy and the wife and kids were happy too because I was at home during the weekends. We started making the expensive German manipulators we used to import. The group Managing Director, the old owner, managed us initially as a new division of his vast engineering group.
Within a few months the bright old man realised the main problem with our operation. Our Engineering Manager was a Dutchman and a good tradesman but he wasn’t a qualified engineer. I was always baffled by his technical decisions.
Here was a typical example we laughed about. If we had to purchase a hydraulic cylinder he would just pull out one of his catalogues and pick a suitable one without any design calculations. Let’s say a 4” diameter one. If that one didn’t work he would go for next one bigger. Let’s say a 5” one. That went on and on and finally we could end up with an 8” one that worked, and quite a few spare cylinders. As a result we had a few hydraulic cylinders lying around rusting away.
He didn’t know how to draw the Force and Moment diagrams. He didn’t even know the Bernoulli Equation for the relationship between the pressure of a flowing fluid and its velocity. So he didn’t know how the venturi-vacuum-valve works. He had no engineering degree. And he proudly said that if he has to hire an engineer he always handshakes the applicant first and if he does not have a calloused-palm he will not employ him.
So when it came to do the design work for our new German manipulators, which required a lot of complex strength calculations, our pragmatic old man gave the project to me knowing that I had a 6-year mechanical engineering degree, even though it was not recognised by the Australian government foremployment purposes.
I had to do the calculations and detailed drawings, send them to the Germans, re-did the design and send them again and again till the technically-fussy Germans were completely satisfied that our Australian copies would work.
I did the job well. I purchased the material, built them, and finally installed them at the client’s factory. The company made a handsome profit out of the project and the old man was happy but I made a bitter enemy out of the Engineering Manager. And he patiently waited over a year for his payback time with the help from our new Division General Manager, a migrant from South Africa.
Since the collapse of Apartheid in South Africa, or even well before that still-celebrated-event,South African whites have been moving to Australia. Their favourite suburb in Sydney was the very expensive St. Ives on the leafy upper North Shore. Most of them were decent new citizens of Australia but a minority brought with them the ugly racismof their homeland, and a deep hatred and primal-fear of coloured people.
My old workshop manager was one of them and even though he was a decent hardworking man his snide remarks towards me were really hurtful. He even used the derogatory word kaffir when he referred me in his conversations with other mechanics. I encountered some of them in my cabs and I could never forget the bitter experiences.
Once I got a man speaking Afrikaans to his woman companion in my cab and he lazily stretched both his feet onto the glove box beside me. “Excuse me, can you take off your feet?”, I asked him politely. He asked his companion, “what’s this kaffir monkey asking?”. I kicked them out of my cab.
And then the paranoid old woman. I picked her up from a posh Sydney hotel one night to take her home. It was cold and windy and I was wearing a black beanie and it might have triggered something inside her. She immediately dialled her mobile and started talking in Afrikaans from the backseat by the passenger side window. Her left hand was on the door handle as if she’s gonna open the door ready to jump out at any minute.
At first I didn’t know what was going on, then I realised she was telling someone at the other end the cab number and my authority number first, and then where the cab was at every turn along the way. I could hear the present locations. Clarence Street, Harbor Bridge, Warringah Freeway, Willoughby Road Exit, Willoughby Road, Penshurst Street, Archbold Road, Eastern Way, Horace Street.
I almost freaked out. When we reached and stopped in front of her steel-gated large compound in St. Ive’s two large men were waiting ready to pounce. “Are you guys from South Africa?” The older one said “yes”. “Sorry, my mother was once attacked by a Negro cabbie in Johannesburg”, the younger one with a slight Aussie ascent offered an apology.
Unfortunately I now got one as my immediate boss and he was hostile from the very first day. Our owner was too old to run our operation day-to-day so he assigned one of his General Managers to take over our division as well. He was very busy and he didn’t really have time to run our operation full time. So he relied completely on the Engineering Manager. They both had the middle name ‘Van’.
Based on the Engineering Manager’s advice he transferred the German Manipulator Project back to the engineering department and started talking to the owner about how my production department was wasting money buying too many hydraulic cylinders. He even brazenly told him and others that as a degree holder from an Asian hellhole like Burma I was not qualified to do what I was doing.
I ran a very tight shop and I had a skeletal staff of about ten permanent welders, boiler-makers, machinists, and toolmakers. I frequently used contract labour to bring in extra manpower only when we needed it. He didn’t understand the nature of our manufacturing and blamed me for the high cost of temporarily hired contract labour.
Basing on that accusation he’d taken away my hiring and firing powers. When I angrily challenged this decision, he told me to my face that I might be hiring too many employees of my own colour. I was totally amazed and extremely angry. He brought my nasty, disturbed side out into the open. I could kill a man for less than what he had done.
So I started giving him shit too. I refused to talk to him. I refused to cooperate with him. And the whole operation fell apart within three months from his appointment as our General Manager. The owner was very angry. He called me into his vast office and ordered me to cooperate with the new General Manger like I did with him. I was a good engineer and he was very happy with my past performance, he emphatically stated.
“But you must work with him, even if you don’t like him, he is looking after my interest”, he emphasised. “Do I have to leave here if I can’t work with him?” No, not really, I didn’t mean that, he tried to calm me down. But I wasn’t convinced by his reply and the next day I resigned and walked out of the factory. I’ve never taken no shit from nobody in my life and even if I had to give up my little house I wouldn’t give a shit.
And that’s how I lost my little house in Campbelltown. I didn’t have a reference from my last job and that was a hell of a time looking for a managerial job again in recession-ravaged Sydney, especially for some brown-skinned Asian with an engineering degree from Burma. Within six months I was forced to sell my house and I had to move into a two bedroom rented flat.
The worst was that in the middle of the recession the house was sold for less than the loan and I still owed the Home Fund money. I was so angry I refused to pay back the shortfall so the NSW government put my credit rating down into the shit. I was black listed with the credit reference agencies for at least 10 years and I would never be able to buy a house again in Australia. My stupid temper fucks me up real well. I had no house and no job.
Then one day I remembered old Mr. Woo. He was a Mercedes-Benz-driving Chinese migrant from Hong Kong and he was then managing a large cold storage in the industrial suburb of Botany near the Sydney Airport. One of the accountants from my old job was also a Hong Kong Chinese and I met Mr. Woo at her house-warming party. Once he discovered I was from Burma he told me the stories about his failed attempts to get regular shipments of raw prawn meat from Rangoon. He even asked me if I was interested in helping him.
So I called him and he asked me to come see him at his cold storage and that meeting turned my life again into a totally different direction: backward or reverse!
The prawn is the most used seafood in Chinese cuisine. Every Chinese restaurant buys a large quantity every day. Prawns do not normally come straight out of water headless and peeled and deveined and ready to be cooked. To be used as prawn meat it has to be decapitated and peeled. And the long shit line on its back has to be removed.
The process is a labour intensive one and for the Chinese restaurants in a high labour cost country like Australia they can’t effort their kitchen-hands to spend half their days peeling and deveining the stupid prawns. It is just too expensive. In Hong Kong the idea of shifting that process to poor neighbouring countries with cheap prawns and cheaper workers originated.
The prawn processing industry is well developed in mainland Southeast Asia. The biggest food conglomerate in Thailand, CP Food, exports close to a million tons of prawn meat every year. And, in those years, Burma was catching up since the military government dismantled the 27-year-old socialist system and opened the economy after the 1988 coup.
Private companies were formed and anyone with capital and overseas contacts was trying to export anything and everything. The Burmese military itself had formed a primary holding entity called Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and had been known to be running many small cold storages all over Burma.
Mr. Woo told me all I need to know about the prawn trade and showed me around his enormous cold storage facility that day. What I had to do now was go back Rangoon and find out if I could gather a 20-foot container load or 20-tons of raw prawn meat for his company. If I could, he wanted to know how much it would cost on board Rangoon port. He called it FOB price. He said the right price would be about US$100,000 for the first container.
If the price was right and if I was confident I could ship a container load of prawn to Sydney I would have to call him. He would then open a LC (Letter of Credit) worth US$100,000 to the Burmese company of my choosing in Rangoon and I would have to finish the job. I would have to come back to Sydney once the container left the Rangoon Port and wait for the arrival of the container as it will take about 3-4 weeks through Singapore. We would then have to open the refrigerated container (Reefer) and if the goods were satisfactory I would get $5,000 as my commission.
I had to bear the cost of travelling back and forth between Rangoon and Sydney and that alone would eat the first commission. But once a reliable flow was established Mr. Woo said he would lift the volume and take at least 5 container loads of prawns per trip if I could find that many, and I would then make a decent amount of money. I could probably be earning $20,000 bi-monthly. I was pleased and accepted his offer. Nothing could go wrong and I would be going home too, I was thinking. How wrong I was then.
Before I left his place he said he had to warn me before I went to Rangoon. So I sat back down on my seat at his desk. He then asked me to promise that I wouldn’t be involving in the heroin trade. It shocked me.
“Why would I be involving in the drug trade?”, I asked. “I used to bring prawn containers from Vietnam to Hong Kong years ago while I was still living there”, he said. “After many containers the Vietnamese guy I worked with hid heroin bricks from Vietnam in the prawn blocks without telling me”.
The Vietnamese got away with first few containers but the Hong Kong police eventually raided his cold storage and opened one of his containers. Every prawn block was broken and the cops found 20 kilos or 20 bricks of Double UOGlobe Brand pure heorin from the Golden Triangle and he was arrested. It took him many years and millions of Hong Kong dollars to clear his name and finally he had to leave Hong Kong for Australia.
He didn’t want the same thing repeating here and so he wanted me to promise that I wouldn’t be involving in the heroin trade as Burma is the main source of all the heroin in South East Asia. “Also please do not lie to me, truth always comes out”, he said. I eagerly promised and he let me go.
The next day I flew to Rangoon via Singapore.