The other night on CNN news they mentioned "money-laundering" through Macau casinos. A memory surfaced. A light went on.
During my two years with a small outfit in Beijing, I made two trips to Hong Kong. The first was linked to a possible return home after realizing the position I held was not at all what I had been led to expect. (That 2007 journey is chronicled as "Hong Kong with Bags" on this thread.) This second trip in 2008 was strictly to relax and enjoy.
In chatting about my travel plans with my employer, I mentioned that this time, being a sucker for slot machines, I intended to spend a day in Macau. Boss Jim smiled his usual friendly smile and told me he was going there too, that he'd join me for the day. That sounded convenient since he was familiar with all the ferries and regulations involved.
We met at the main ferry terminal. Once we landed, I wanted to see a couple of historic landmarks before we went to the casino section, so we walked around the ruins of St. Paul and the hillside fort beside the church facade. Photo opps aplenty, but it was too late to spend time at the museum close by.
Jim was anxious to show me the old hotel with which he seemed very familiar. I don't remember the name, but subsequent reading reveals that it was probably the Lisboa. I was captivated there by a vaulted-ceiling-high artificial tree covered with thousands of individual leaves; the entire tree rotated while the leaves changed colour with the seasons. Technical wizardry at its best.
Jim, however, was very anxious to show me where the young prostitutes walk around in the circular hallway, quietly advertising their business. I found it in very poor taste for a "boss" to take a grey-haired woman to stare at these incredibly young girls. Jim found it hugely entertaining. I was ill at ease, commented that I found it rather sad that girls so young should have to prostitute themselves, but knew Jim well enough by now never to know exactly what to expect. I was more than happy to leave for the central terminal where free buses ferry visitors to casinos.
We boarded the bus that would take us to The Venetian. There was an incredible amount of construction going on in the area, but the Venetian was complete and VERY impressive with it's huge high ceilings and natural, soft late-afternoon daylight system. We took a stroll beside the indoor canal, looking at wedding parties in real gondolas, before we hit the gambling rooms.
Jim deposited me at my machine of choice, then excused himself, saying he had to go to the cashier before playing at one of the tables. I didn't pay much attention. The cashier wickets were off to the side and I kept him in view as I changed machines. The place was quite empty except for only a couple of tables. Jim was back within the half hour; I had already lost $50 and was beginning to realize that, since there were no quarter machines, feeding these beasts was going to be totally hopeless; there was just no payback.
As usual, Jim had his black satchel over his shoulder. I told him I was losing and intended to look around to find less hungry slots. Jim seemed a little more nervous than usual, edged in closer than usual, and said quietly. "Well, I have to be a little bit careful now." Big chesire cat smile as he patted the satchel. "I've got more than a million US in this bag now."
As is my usual reaction to something totally unexpected, I said and did nothing. Was he joking? If not, I remember thinking, telling me about the money was just as inappropriate as taking me to watch the prostitute parade. It was the kind of information I really didn't want or need to know. But this WAS China and Jim was Jim, so we simply carried on.
He decided to join a gambling table. I checked on him again in half an hour (I had lost another $50 on machines), but he said he was winning and didn't want to leave just yet. I assumed he knew that one usually initially wins at casinos; that's how you get sucked in. This wisdom did not seem to apply to the machines, however, and I was already beginning to feel pretty stupid about feeding them. Still, Jim was on a winning streak, so I agreed to stay a bit longer. Wasted another 100 bucks and was now really feeling stupid and ready to leave.
I found Jim's table again. This time he got up immediately. As we walked out to get some fast food before the return trip to Hong Kong, he made another nervous comment, saying his brother would be very angry because he had just lost thousands. Once again, truth? Or another ploy to impress me? How does one ever know? And there really was no point in trying to impress me, of all people...
When I think back now, after hearing that CNN news report, I wonder if Jim might have been "money-laundering". If you take your cash to a Macau Casino, you avoid tax, right? These things always take me by surprise. I am so unsuspecting (aka "Canadian") that you occasionally have to hit me over the head before I realize what's really going on... And, since I was working for the man, I really didn't want to know any of this. Every time I found something strange going on, I was simply told that "this is how things are done in China". So I had learned to ignore it all and carry on with the joyous work I was able to do there.
It all makes sense in retrospect. Within a month or so of arriving in Beijing, I had learned that the little apartment school I worked in was not lisenced. This became clear when I was informed that our children were to be kept as quiet as possible when playing in the courtyard for fear of someone reporting our school to authorities. We were also not able to put up advertising in our windows. We were to be careful about who we allowed in. All this played into my nervousness and near escape during the first year when my visa ran out.
At that time Jim had promised that my visa would be arranged by "passing envelopes", but, at the last minute, it hadn't worked out, and I was suddenly informed that I would have to travel to Hong Kong to renew. Jim himself had already had left the country to visit family and was not available. I panicked at that point, throwing all essential belongings into suitcases and heading to the airport fully intending to return home.
It was while sitting in the in-transit lounge in Shanghai that I had time to stop and re-consider. I checked for an Air Canada counter and discovered I was not in the international airport; I would have to cab to Pu Dong if I were to head back to Canada. Shanghai was familiar territory, but moving again with my bags would be a huge headache. What the heck. I had a ticket to Hong Kong and had made arrangements to stay there for a week. Since this would probably be the only chance I would ever get to see that city, I might as well go there and make a final decision during the week. I had never been such a nervous wreck.
Once settled in Sha Tin, international colleagues convinced me that I was missing an opportunity by going home, that this is simply the way things are done in China. Basically, that I was over-reacting to what I viewed as inept and illegal.
It was the opportunity argument that won me over. For all that I could object to, this was a chance to put everything I knew about kids and teaching into play. To produce a program that was Asia-specific and inclusive of every child. Although it was already evident that Jim had lied about hiring me to a position of authority, my little school was separate; his other teachers would be free to do their own thing anyway. "My" parents were warming to me, the kids were happy and making excellent progress, and my professional rationale seemed to be on track. I could not give up this opportunity. Professionally, I was in hog's heaven.
Now I realize that it's quite possible, since, during that second year while I was writing curriculum and producing materials in addition to teaching the largest groups in any of Jim's schools (while being paid only as a teacher), that Jim was making big bucks off my efforts. It is also possible that he was taking the proceeds to Macau to avoid paying taxes. I wouldn't have thought it would amount to that excessive an amount, though. Our school was definitely popular and good, but just not THAT good. So I'm not saying that I generated all the cash; but, no doubt, some part of it.
That Macau morning, though, we had stopped in Hong Kong Central to have a quick breakfast with Jim's brother. Did more cash get picked up there? Don't know. Wouldn't have wanted to know. But now it all fascinates me.
Was I really an actual witness to actual money-laudering?
Ah, the places I've been and the things I've experienced. I have to wonder how much else has gone right over my head...