Friday, October 29, 2010

The Scourge of Burma - Part 5

A typical Palletizing Robot.

In 1992 a large engineering company had bought our little company out.

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 the profit they spent the profit on acquiring our operation.

Not only they bought us out 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 and I was happy and the wife and kids were happy too for seeing me 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 realized the main problem with our operation. Our engineering manger 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 picked 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 works and quite a few spare cylinders. As the result we had a few hydraulic cylinders lying around rusting away.

A Force & Moment Diagram.
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 not an 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 works 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 not recognized by the Australian government for the employment purposes.

I had to do the calculations and detail drawings, sent them to the Germans, redid the design and sent 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.


Hydraulic Cylinders.
Since the collapse of Apartheid in South Africa or even well before the still-celebrated-event the South African whites have been moving in large numbers to Australia. Their favourite suburb in Sydney was the very expensive St. Ives on the leafy upper-north-shore. Most of them were the decent new citizens of Australia but a minority brought with them the ugly racism and their deep hatred and primal-fear of colour people.

My old workshop manager was one of them and even though he was a decent hardworking man his snipe remarks towards me were really hurting. 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 his both feet onto the glove box beside me. Excuse me, can you take off your feet, I asked him politely. He said to his companion what this kaffir monkey was 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 realized she was telling someone at the other end the cab number and my authority number first, and then where the cab was every turn of 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. Ives two large men were waiting ready to pounce. Are you guys from South Africa? Older one said yes. Sorry, my mother was once attacked by a Negro cabbie in Johannesburg, the younger one with 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 for long run 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 a middle name ‘Van’.

A Pneumatic Manipulator.
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 for nearly three years now.

I ran a very tight shop and I had a skeletal staff of about ten permanent welders, boiler-makers, machinists, and toolmakers, all white Aussies. I frequently used the contract-labour to bring in manpower only when we needed. He didn’t understand the nature of our job-shop 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 he told me into my face that I could be hiring too many employees of my own colour kind.  

I was totally amazed and extremely angry. He brought out my nasty disturbed-side into the open. I could kill a man for less than what he had done.

So I started giving him shits 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 as nothing came out of the factory. 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 said. 

But you must work with him, even if you don’t like him, he is looking after my interest, he emphasized. 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 next day I resigned my job 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 then was 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 worse 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 could 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. Back to the Burma!

Burmese Prawns

Prawn meat in Ice Block.
The prawn is the most used seafood in the 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 afford their kitchen-hands to spend half their days peeling and deveining the stupid prawns. It was just too overly expensive. Not even in Hong Kong where the idea of shifting that process to the poor neighbouring countries with cheap prawns and cheaper workers has originated.

The prawn processing industry is well developed in mainland SE Asia. The big food conglomerates in Thailand export close to a million tons of prawn-meat every year globally. And Burma was now catching up since the military government dismantled the 27 year old socialist system and opened the economy after the 1988 coup. 

Private companies are formed and anyone with capital and overseas contacts are trying to export anything and everything. The Burmese Military itself has formed a primary holding entity called Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and 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 100,000 US Dollars for the first container.

If the price is right and if I am confident I can ship a container load of prawn to Sydney I have to call him. He will then open a LC (Letter of Credit) worth 100,000 US$ to the Burmese company of my choosing in Rangoon and I will have to finish the job. I have to come back Sydney once the container leaves Rangoon Port and wait for the arrival of the container as it will take about 3-4 weeks through Singapore. We then have to open the refrigerated container (Reefer) and if the goods are satisfactory I will get 5,000 dollars as my commission.

A Reefer Container.
I have to bear the cost of travelling back and forth between Rangoon and Sydney and that alone will eat the first commission. But once a reliable flow is established he will lift the volume and take at least 5 container loads of prawn a trip if I can find that many, and I will then make a decent amount of money. I could probably be earning 20,000 dollars 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 go 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 man years ago while I was still living there, he said. After many containers the Vietnamese guy I worked with then 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 HK 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.

Next day I flew to Rangoon via Singapore.

The Scourge of Burma - Part 1
The Scourge of Burma - Part 6