Saturday, June 02, 2007

A Million Kuai

I'm waiting in China Merchant's bank, and two kids in front of me are taking out a million Renminbi.

Yes, you read correctly, a million kuai. That, with the new mark of the RMB against the dollar, is roughly $US 130,890.05. Enough to buy a nice house in the town I went to college, the next ten years on an island in Laos, or about a dozen United-Colors-of-Benetton orphans for Angelina Jolie.

And yes, you read correctly: kids. They look to be about 19. They could be brother and sister. They're big, shuffly types, with droopy faces. The guy keeps looking over at where we're sitting and grinning sheepishly. Behind the plate glass, six or seven bank employees are running hundred kuai notes through counterfeit detectors, then binding them up. Bundles of ten thousand are stacked up on several counters, like books of an over-worked librarian.

Based on where we are, there's a certain logic to big money transactions happening here. We work in Dongfang Guangchang, a big mall with office buildings attached to it in the center of the city. Big business is everywhere. We're in a building that's mostly occupied by Ernst & Young. On the first floor is a Lamborghini showroom, or some such ridiculously luxurious car like it. But just down the road the other way is the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square.

It's day two in the bank, and I'm sitting with my colleague who's there to help with the arcane paperwork. The day before I'd waited for an hour or so, only to be told I couldn't pay a fee because I didn't have my passport. (I need this to pay a fee!?) We're both sitting dumbfounded, watching the million kuai materialize in front of our eyes. My colleague tells me that he overhears the kid saying they could buy a better car if they could get three million.

"Okay, this is what we do, " I say to my co-worker. "We follow them out, and then we hit 'em and steal the money."

He looks befuddled for a moment. Then he gets it. I secretly wish I weren't joking.

We talk about what we'd do with the money. We both agree: buy a house. Something about a man reaching a certain age and he wants property. For 19-year old Chinese kids with a million kuai to take out of the bank, it's a car I guess. What kind of car are they buying? I wonder...Well what would Jesus drive? Or the Chairman? I have a momentary vision of the Chairman driving a convertible Corvette or Porsche or Lamborghini, the wind whisping through the remaining strands of hair, he replete with bling and sunglasses, girls in the car laughing...

I snap back to reality as the kids finish and begin loading the bundles of money into several backpacks. The guy shoots one more grin our way, and heads out. I watch them go wistfully. But we're up. Finally, after four months of delay, I may be able to buy eleven photographs for a book I'm writing - for 1500 kuai.

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