A Teatime Story from Hainan, China

Two couples happened to meet in a crowded posh tearoom (in Chinese this is called a “chaguan” and written 茶馆). The tearoom is to be found in one of the best hotels on the island of Hainan called Shangri-La Hotel Sanya. It is a luxurious hotel favored by wealthy travelers from China and Russia. It is a grand hotel, with big rooms and finely constructed details rich in marble, silk and fine wood.

The Chinese like it because Sanya has a strong cosmopolitan atmosphere. Hainan is a more liberal place because it has been a refuge for Chinese diaspora who want to return to the motherland after decades of living in the West.

Wealthy Russians like it too because the FSB do not have an office there, nor are Russian police or militia spying on them! Even these Russians also want to enjoy their holidays there too! It is one of the few places to spend all the bribes and kickbacks that are part of everyday life in Moscow and St. Petersburg!

The Chinese couple Xia Li and Bai Hu were recently married. Xia Li is a successful dress designer who has studied in Paris, and after 4 years in Paris she had managed to find an excellent job in a big fashion house in Milano that targeted rich Asians. Her newly hooked husband, Bai Hu, is an entrepreneur and owner of a big chip factory near Shanghai. The company had caught the interest of the government and now was enjoying a huge boost in revenues. After 5 years at INTEL in France as a system engineer, he returned to China in 2008, when the financial crisis slowed production. His father had suggested that he join a newly created chip manufacturer as CEO in Shanghai. The move had been a good choice because investors were eager to invest and there were plenty of young Chinese engineers who wanted to have a chance to earn good money in an innovative fast-growing company. Now after 15 years of hard work, he could enjoy a holiday with his wife on a honeymoon treat.

The Russians were a little older – both were in finance – Julia was a partner specializing in finance at a large firm of auditors, and he was the CEO of medium size bank in St. Petersburg specializing in corporate finance deals for growing industry and commercial customers. Oleg was well-connected and enjoyed a good life, the only drawback was that he worked almost 7 days a week!

The Chinese couple were sitting together by the window when two rather pale looking Russians of about the same age came over and asked politely in English if they could share the table – the tearoom was packed and there were no empty tables anywhere else.

The room was quite noisy or as the Chinese would say lively and colorful.

“Yes, please come and join us…”, say Xia Li.  She had to raise her voice to be heard over the din.

“We have two free seats here – my wife just noticed that you were looking so forlorn when there are no free tables! My name is Bai Hu ,and this is my wife, Xia Li.”

Julia and Oleg sat down relieved that the Chinese couple could speak English and had invited them to sit with them. They had been in the hotel for three days, and so far none of the Chinese seemed to notice them, or if they had they turned away quickly.

The Russians had been planning to take a holiday for three years but work, Covid and the war had put a stop each time they tried to buy tickets. Now at last, they had left the cold dark winter in St. Petersburg behind and now enjoyed the fresh warm air and the clear blue sea. Such grand resorts are seldom available for ordinary Russians. Travel abroad is limited to all but a few who had the right connections and a lot of cash!

Julia was accustomed to dealing with foreigners who were big customers of her company in St Petersburg. She immediately commented on Xia Li’s flowing yellow dress, while poor Oleg continued to look a little lost because all of this was rather new and quite strange. He had no idea of what to say to Bai Hu! They looked so different, self-confident and cool. Could he discuss the weather, the food, the drinks? Then he nodded, pulled himself together, and asked the Chinese couple and his wife, “What would you like to drink? I am dying for a beer. It is so warm here and we have been out walking on the beach.”

The drinks came and the men ended up talking about Sanya and its lovely beaches, while the women discussed jobs, clothes, parents and homes… The differences between them were not so big so they edged on to matters closer to politics. It seemed normal because they were from neighboring big countries and had already experienced living elsewhere…

“What do you think about Ukraine?” asked Baihu.

“It’s not something we discuss much because you never know who is listening…”

“But you must have friends or family who are involved?” asked Xia Li.

“No…” replied Julia, she was on uncertain ground, “No, we have almost no contact with anyone involved. It is mostly young people from the far East and North of Russia who are sent there to fight, and we have no friends in the military. The military keep to themselves – and they are not very well educated, except for some senior officers who just live in the Kremlin and never creep out! No, we do not mix with their type…”

Oleg jumped in seeing that his wife was explaining uncertainly and getting in too deep to a sensitive topic.

“The military live in their own bubble and keep us ordinary folk out. They do not want to share the winnings of war.”

“Who are these Wagner people that have gone to Africa and Ukraine?”

Silence was broken by Julia who glanced at Oleg and frowned slightly. Oleg hesitated to answer because he knew that the Wagner men were a scary bunch of thugs, but saying so could be dangerous. They had ears everywhere, and since their leaders were rich from looting diamonds and gold in Africa, he could now be within earshot of one of them.

“Who?” asked Oleg, “We have never heard about them – but perhaps you are referring to Putin’s special services. They are the para-military people who are used like the CIA from America. We never see them because they don’t even tell their wives bout their real job!”

The Russians fell silent and a little worried. Bai Hu spoke up to fill the white space, “War is terrible – we have had our fair share here but the only winners are the weapon companies and the fat generals who sit in their bunkers with young women to keep them warm in bed…” and he laughed until the tears fell down his cheeks.

“Come on you two – let’s go and enjoy a fine Chinese dinner together and then go dancing…”

Oleg thought, but did not say, “What a relief to steer talk to something else away from that fucking war.”

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