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The China Question, Part 2: Take the Ride, Buddy

The China Question, Part 2: Take the Ride, Buddy

By Michael Colligan, Get A Grip On Lighting


Publisher’s Note: Lighting distributor Michael Colligan toured China to find out more about the lighting products he sells. In a series of articles for lightED, Colligan will take us inside his visit, and give you a look at the lives of the people who make lighting for customers all over the world. Read Part 1 here.


The average American can’t fathom the scope of a place like Shanghai; this lack of understanding cloaks a danger. The city has 25-30 million people living in it officially – probably more like 32 or 33 million packed in if you consider the Sino system of Hukou (denying illegal internal migrants public services because they are not officially registered to live in whatever city. Basically, they don’t get shit and they don’t get counted). This means that Shanghai is bigger than New York, LA, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Austin, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Columbus, Fort Worth and Charlotte combined. And it is way safer than any of the cities I just listed. You can’t drink the water from the tap, and they mean it. But give them a break – think about all that sewage!

Whether San Francisco or Shanghai, you’ve got to deal with the people that are there, no matter how the hell they got there. Having false statistics to preserve meaningless counting systems just sets you up for bullshit. People still shit, whether or not their defecation counts officially.

Greg was already brushing his teeth when I came too with a brutal headache

“Get up bub” he said looking back from the sink in his underwear.

“What the hell happened last night. Where did you go after that crazy circus show? I lost you.”

“I ended up at the wrong hotel. Took me two hours to figure it out. I was worried about you.”

“Thank God I had that card with the hotel address on it in my pocket. Nobody speaks English here,” I told Greg as I was climbing out of bed. “Dude why did you let me have that second Chairman Mao shot?”

“Buddy, that is your problem. Chairman Mao himself couldn’t have stopped you from doing anything last night. Dude, I puked and cried and I haven’t done either one of those things in 15 years. I told you that you were fucking crazy but you forced the bartender to drink the one the Scottish guy wouldn’t drink and he told you he would only do it if you did another one. Why did you challenge him to an arm wrestle?”

“What did I do?”

“Nevermind. This Gatin guy is gonna be here in 20 minutes.”

“Wait, what the hell is this guy’s name?”

Gatin or Geetan or Gaton or something.”


“I don’t know dude,” looking exasperated “he’s French, look it’s on my phone.”

He throws his phone on my bed and I swipe up.  “What the hell is that? Gaétan? What?”

“You’re Canadian, you’re supposed to speak French. I figured you’d know what that’s about. Anyway, apparently he knows everyone in Shanghai. He is going to take us to some factory. He’ll be here in 20 minutes.”

I managed to pull a tie on.  The walk from the room to the elevator lobby was a little shaky. The only cure for Chairman Mao’s revenge is Advil liquid gels and a decent cappuccino.

We were just settling into the java when we hear a screech and some commotion out front. Into the hotel rushes this wiry thin dude with a serious face; barking in mandarin at the bell hop and pushing his hands up and down forcing the guy to wait and back off.

He rushes up “Ello, you are Gregore-e?” with an impatient French accent.

“Yeah, it’s Greg, man,” shaking hands. “This is my associate from Canada Michael Colligan.”

“Hey Miiike,” shaking hands. “I’m Gaétan. We got to go. Allez. We got to move it go quick. Allez Vous.”

“Nice to meet you man,” perplexed “What is your name?”

“Gaétan. GAY-Than. We move it, go quick. Allez. Allez-vous. Duh parking situashon in Shanghai, is, uhh, less den ideal.”

We grab our coffees and head out the door. Before I had the door shut the car screeches off at top speed.

“What the hell, dude, is this a heist or something? Chill out.”

GAY-Tahn looks over with two hands on the wheel. “I drive duh way I drive,” looking back at the road. “Don’t like it? Don’t come, reste ici if you like to talk about my drive.”

GAY-Tahn was clearly a man to be reckoned with.

“I’m coming. But if I die in some crazy accident in Shanghai I’m going to fucking kill you. WHOA dude, chill out, you almost hit that lady.”

“Dat wasn’t even close.”

I check my seat belt and start indexing the airbag situation. In my head I am thinking “Ok there is an airbag on the dash, does this thing have side impact?…”

As we pull onto the expressway, the traffic swells and slows.  Brakes get jammed and GAY-Tahn swerves the car on the shoulder, drops a couple of gears, and guns the accelerator.

Dust flying everywhere with the sound of rocks and debris smashing the car and being kicked up by the wheels “What the fuck dude, you are driving on the shoulder. Greg what the hell?”

“Take the ride, buddy. You heard the man. He is our French Capitan.”

Looking at GAY-Tahn “Dude what the hell are you doing?”

“Duh traffic is to tick. We going to make a move here and der.”

Alternating between looking at me and the shoulder in front him, “Grab duh, oh shit handle der above duh window. It will make you, ahh, feel a little better.”

Reaching for the oh shit handle and looking over at GAY-Tahn “Fuck you.”

Laughing, “Voila, I like you man. Dis is going to be fun.”

We drive on the shoulder for what feels like 20 or 30 minutes.

Then brakes slam. Lucky I was holding that handle. GAY-Tahn swerves back into the traffic and heads towards some sort of a checkpoint.

“We almost out of duh citee. Just trou here and we are good.”

“Thank God. You know I have four kids, right?”

“Grab dat handle.”


GAY-Tahn drops the car into a low gear and wheels around all the cars waiting, into some emergency vehicles only lane, swerving around uniformed officers of some kind who are shouting and waving at us to stop.

“Are you fucking crazy man?” I spin around in my seat looking back at Chinese officers shouting and waving their hands but fading quickly into the distance. “Aren’t those cops that just told us to stop?”

“Non non non. We can non stop. If we stop, were fouked.”

“What dude?”

“I don’t have duh correc papers. I am not permitted to drive in Shanghai.”

“Big surprise man. You drive like a fucking animal. If I get thrown in jail in Shanghai China because of you, I’m going to fucking kill you, you know that right?”

“Yo gotta do duh chill out man,” gripping the wheel like a Formula 1 driver. “If we wait in dis traffic it will take us 5 heurs to get der. I’m going to get us der in 2 heurs. Just taket teasy. Dey are not going to chase us.”

I look back at Greg in the back seat. “Apparently, they are not going to chase us. I was hoping to catch some z’s on this drive.” Greg responds with a conspiratorial wink. “You think this is funny dumb-ass?! The chance of you dying in Shang-fucking-hai just went up like 10,000 percent bro.”

Greg and GAY-Tahn laugh.

“Do some emails on your blackberry.  It will make you feel better.”

“Fuuuuck you buddy.”  I turn back, look forward and make the sign of the cross.

“You guys, you want to talk about duh chance? You are luckee.” Looking over intensely. “Dis is duh first time I have seen duh sun in 5 years in Chinois, China.”

“What are talking about man?”

“Shanghai, duh sun is usually cloud by a tick mist of pollewshon.”

“What, like London Fog or something? Smoke from industry?”

“Dey manufac-ture a lot of duh stuff here. It iz disgustin.It clog up duh troat. It’s all duh pollewshon from duh industree.”

“Really dude?”

“Oui man. Drive by duh U.S. Embassee. Dey post duh actual pollushon in duh city. Way higher dan duh official number from duh Chinese guvarmint.”

“Wait… wait… the Chinese government says the air is clean and the U.S. Embassy posts a meter contradicting the official number? Come on, I don’t believe that.”

“It’s dah trut. We go dere for sure. You will see.”

Greg, leaning forward from the back seat, “Look, I don’t know what the air quality of Minneapolis is and I sure as hell don’t know what the Chinese government thinks of it.”

“Yeah, but that’s because the government of Minnesota doesn’t lie about air quality.”

“Precisely,” insists GAY-Tahn “and to add to dat, duh guvernmant of duh U.S., dey don’t lie about duh water and duh air. Chinese – dey lie about everyting. Dey most lies is to each udder.”

“All governments lie, dude” said Greg monkeying around with his phone. “Can I get a hotspot to your phone, Gatin?”

“Not while he is driving at 160 Kilometers per hour.”

“What the fuck is Kilometers per hour, dude you gotta speak to me in miles.”

“My name is Gaétan. GAY-Tahn and non you cannot use my phone for duh hott-spott.”

“Why is the air clean now.”

“Der is some internashonal confearance in town. So dey clean duh air with duh fire crackers and dey shut down all duh factories.”

“Yeah, Greg, you know I read that the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in town hanging out with the new Chairman Mao. G20 shit or something. Dude’s name is Xi Jing Ping.  Apparently, he fancies himself a real badass.”

We get used to the speed and settle in to the drive. I don’t know how but Greg snoozes for a bit in the back seat. I watch as we drive by factories and rice paddies and then what looks like a bunch of brand-new empty buildings.  Weird scenery.  I take it all in.

“So GAY-Tahn, tell me, how does it work?”

“How does what work?”


“It does not work, it’s the corrupshon from duh top to duh bottom.”

“Yeah it works. You wouldn’t be here if ‘IT’ didn’t work.”


“The bullshit covers up some underlying principle of Chinese social cohesion. When people believe lies, it is because they are functioning with some other deeper truth and they agree upon the surface lies. Maybe truth and goal are the same word in Mandarin….”

“What dey hell are talking about man? I taut you come here to check out duh lighting man!  Here it is duh factory. You want to go in or you want figure out all duh fucking problems wit duh Chinese govarmint.”

“I want to go in.”

“Fine, good. Allez vous. Let’s go. Take duh chill pill, eh?”

“Yeah, fine. But I’m not some stupid guy who is here for a quick buck.”

“Dat is what duh chill pill your friend Gregoree took is for. You see? He sleep. No problam wit duh driving. Voila!”

“It’s Greg, man,” waking up. “But whatever, Mike chill out, you are driving Gatin crazy.”

“It’s GAY-Than, but whatteever pour vous.”

“Alright, you got those pills?”

Sitting in the parking lot of the factory and looking for chill pills. Man, the place wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Pretty swanky looking from the outside, and huge. If it wasn’t for the giant Mandarin characters above the English name this place could have been in Ohio, California or Baden-Württemberg. We shut the car doors and I start strolling towards the reception.

“Non, Non, dat’s the wrong way. We go dis way.”

We turn away from the main reception and start walking down a path that leads around the back. It is a long walk for a foreign country with a factory this big.

“Dis is duh one. Duh big one. Dey make everybady MR16.”



“This is obviously not an official visit.”

“Dis is China man. Dey do tings differently ici… here.”

“For sure.”

GAY-Tahn pulls out his phone and starts chatting in Mandarin. A door swings open and we walk into what is the aluminum foundry portion of the factory. It is bigger than it looked from the outside.

“Wow. Molten aluminum cool. Can I just walk up to that vat and look in?”

Walking up to a machine that looked like a telephone booth attached to a fancy Ikea bathtub.  Molten aluminum – looks like something from the Terminator movies.

“Wow, this is where they forge the aluminum for the MR16 bodies. Fucking cool, man.”

“Oh, oui, taosonds everyday. Tens of taosonds.”

“Yo, Greg, is that Chinese dude wearing flip flops.”

“Dude they’re all Chinese.”

“No, no. Look at their feet, that dude working the molten aluminum smelter thing is wearing flip flops.”

“Holy shit, you’re right. They are all wearing flip flops.”

I pull out my phone to take a picture of this Chinese dude’s feet when two guys rush at me yelling in Mandarin.

“Sim sow leh ho mah, Som sing dow ching wong!”

“What the fuck dude, back off. Yo GAY-Tahn, tell this guy to get the fuck outta my face. Don’t touch my phone. What’s his problem?”

“Dey are telling you to put away duh camera. No photos,” he says patiently, with a smirk on his face.

“I didn’t know dude, take it easy,” turning to GAY-Than. “Tell these guys that it’s not safe to walk around in here in flip flops. That’s fucking crazy.”

“I’m not telling dem dat. You tell dem dat.”

“Dude,” pointing at workers feet, “you can’t be wearing flips flops and working with molten metal. You could really fuck up your feet.”

The Chinese guy looks at his feet and smiles and while laughing proceeds to take off his flops and stand in his sock feet.  The Chinese manager dude steps back in my face “Sim song song sim ching wong ching chuh.”

“He is telling you to put away duh camera. He says der is a sign out front dat say non camera. It is in Mandarin. Put away your phone.”

“Ching song wing wow do, song ching woo.”

Gay-Tahn laughing, “He just asked me why you want to see his workers feet.”

“Fuck it.”

“Let’s go over der and watch duh producshon.”

We walk for about 10 minutes past dozens of aluminum smelting machines and Chinese dudes with all sorts of tools and forklifts working in flip flops with a complete absence of other personal protective equipment.

We move over to rows and rows of enclosed conveyor belts where literally hundreds of MR16s whizzed past every minute.

“Dude, did you see the names on those lamps?”

“Yeah bro, that’s a who’s who of the lighting business.”

“I tol you. Deh make everybody’s MR16.”

“Do they make yours?”

“Of course. Deh are a contrack manafacture. Mine will be run demains – tomorrow.”

“Mikey, do you remember the NAILD convention in 2013?”

“Nope. I quit for two years remember.”

“Oh yeah, shit, after you got asked not to be on the executive committee. I forgot.”

“That wasn’t the reason.”

“Okay buddy, we are not going back there. Anyway, at the convention, Cocolamp, Blue Destiny, and Cyberlume all unveiled the same exact exclusive PAR lamp at the convention.  They all entered it for the Best New Product award.”

“Should have given it to the factory in China.”

“Yeah, it’s all this ‘our factory in China BS’.”

“Eh, man, it’s not duh bullshit. We all got duh factori in China it doesn’t mean it’s all duh same. Dat was my lamp and we got screwed. It almoss took us out. Duh company in China took our design and just gave it to everybady else. In China, man, you got to know what you are doing.”

“Do you know what you are doing?”

“Ha, I like you, man. Nobody knows what dey are doing. But really, dey can make duh lamps different. Duh bottom line is dat anyone can come over here and make duh lamps. You just pay duh money and dey make de lamps. But you need to know what is actually going in duh factori. Udderwise, you get duh rip off. Deez Chinese guys, dey don’t care dat much about duh relashonship if dey don’t know you. My design get rip-off, and everybody copy and unveil at da NAILD show.”

“So that is why we need someone like GAY-Tahn over here in China. Driving like a fucking maniac and keeping China under control.”

“Maybe, my friend. Or maybe you come over here and tell all duh people to stop wearing duh flip flops.”

“I wonder how many of these places are out there.”

“Taosands, but des guys, dey are duh best and dey keep my technologie secret. Dey are good.”

We see the shipping and walk around the factory for a while, watching the same lamp get put in different brand boxes. The major difference between Canadian and American factories (Greg and I have both been in 1000s assessing lighting systems) is the amount of people. There were so many people everywhere. At least 5 times as many.

“You guys ungry?”

“Shit yeah,” said Greg rubbing his belly, “What are you saying?”

“We got to git back to Shanghai. I show you my lab and office and den we eat.”

“No, first we eat, then we see the lab, then we eat again. Ain’t that right Mikey?”

“Not as hungry as you and still working through those Chairman Mao’s from last night bro, but whatever floats your boat.”

“What is dis Chairman?”

“Long story, I’ll tell you in the car. Can you take it easy on the drive back? I feel like I am going to puke.”

“Oui. Duh trafik back it twill be faster. We take it easy.”

“Awesome. I want to catch some ZZZ’s.”

We get in the car and start the trek back to Shanghai. Greg quickly falls asleep in the back, but I can’t, even though I put my seat back. We drive for a while and I feel uneasy and troubled.

I sit up and turn to Gay-Than. “I am trying to figure out what I just saw.”

“What do you mean?”

“I am trying to figure what my role in all this is. It feels wrong.

“Everyting in China is wrong. It’s a place to come and make duh money and git out.”

“What about the people?”

“What about duh people? It tis not my problem. I am not in charge of dat.”

“It’s not just the Chinese people. We are giving up our industry, our factories in Canada and the U.S., so we can make our products as cheaply as possible without regard to safety or privacy or anything. It feels immoral.”

“It’s not about dat. Dis is duh globalizashon and it is not my problem. You tink to much.”

“Well, what is different about your lamps? I saw CocoLamp, Blue Destiny and Cyberlume’s lamps rolling off that conveyor belt by the thousands. Getting stuffed into boxes. You say your lamps are tomorrow. Why are yours different than theirs?”

“Ours are better and we use duh different chip and duh different optics and a better warranty.”

“So, the warranty is just marketing then?”

“No, it’s not duh marketing. It is legitimate. Duh assembly is nuting. It tis duh easiest part. Duh hardest part is duh design and duh optics. Assembly is nuting. Why you care who do duh assembly? Duh lamps are different. I can tell you for sure.”

“I believe you, dude, I just don’t feel right about it. If it is cooked in the same oven it’s gonna have the same flavor at least.”

“Flavour. Good word. Try to sleep. We gonna have a fun night. I promiss dat.”


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Discussion (6 comments)

    Steve Masterman April 15, 2019 / 1:18 pm

    Love this, are there more to come?

    Scott Costa April 15, 2019 / 1:52 pm

    Hi Steve – Yes, there are more parts coming. Michael and Greg went on an extensive tour, and we are planning to continue to show you what they saw here on “lightED”. – Scott Costa, Publisher

    ted April 15, 2019 / 2:48 pm

    THIS is the quality of writing for TEd?
    I’m embarrassed for you – Ted Konnerth – Egret Consulting

    JMB April 17, 2019 / 2:57 pm

    Operating a Company in the US and China, I didn’t find this remotely funny or accurate. I’ve always held TED in high esteem, but publishing this makes me wonder who the intended audience is, 14 year olds? – Jason Barbour – Start Lighting

      Scott Costa April 18, 2019 / 7:37 am

      While we accept that there are some people who may not appreciate the style in which this series is written, tED stands behind the accuracy of the facts involved, the conditions under which Chinese workers exist, and the way lighting is manufactured in China. – Scott Costa, Publisher, tED magazine

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