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The China Question, Part I: Down the Chute

The China Question, Part I: Down the Chute

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.


We arrived in China late fall of 2014 or 15. I am pretty sure it passed over American Thanksgiving (I remember it mentioned in the “when” negotiations and Christmas came out on top). During the day we visited lighting factory after lighting factory with a couple of enormous Chinese lighting flea markets mixed in along the way.

After hours, we toured the local hot spots to see what was really cooking and what all the action was about. With pockets loaded with Reminbi (Chinese currency) we moved and bopped from bar to bar finding all manner of crazy making. Things you would never see in the West (think Black Face Chinese dwarves lip syncing to Biggy Smalls and you will start to catch the vibe a bit).

As we paid in cash for cabs, food and booze I noticed that every bill I pulled from the wad bore the face of Mao Zedong. No Zhou Enlai or Deng Xiaoping or any other leader could be found on any piece of Chinese currency I dealt in. This seemed very odd to me, especially considering what Deng and Zhou had done for the place.

Those two personalities jumped off the pages of 20th century Chinese history – not free of guilt, but at least with what seemed like making the best of a shit situation. Why those faces couldn’t grace the odd equivalent of a C-note, a Benji or at least a Chinese sawbuck didn’t make any sense from anything I had read.

“No dice,” I guessed, “it’s just all Mao, all the time.” Even though the evil bastard had been dead for decades and by all accounts had ushered in the some of the most heinous human catastrophes of all time.

We befriended the Chinese owner of a bar that catered to Americans and Europeans in Shanghai. He sat with us and had a couple beverages between serving customers and barking around a few orders. We discussed the local vibe and what was actually going on. As we got into a few, the conversation became real and serious. He told us about what his parents had gone through and of the suffering the Chinese people had experienced. It was riveting and tragic and showed the true strength of a great people to endure unspeakable hardship.

It left me wondering how the same government could legitimately rule its people with any kind of credibility. But then it occurred to me that the Chinese government does not rule at the behest of the Chinese people.

China is a jail.

One big, 1.6 billion-person version of jail, with the keys still clenched in the cold, dead hand of its spiritual warden – Mao Zedong. The holder of the gruesome title of greatest mass murderer in human history.  The numbers become morbidly fuzzy when you start to compare, but probably more than Stalin and Hitler put together with the vast majority of his victims being his own Mandarin-speaking Chinese people.

The bar owner got up to leave, mentioning the business of his bar and bowed toward us, two hands together, the gesture of Asian deference.

“Hey man” I called out and he turned back towards me. “Is there a drink called the Mao Zedong? There has gotta be a shot or something called the Mao.”

He shook his head. “Excuse me, I no understand. What you want?”

“The Mao, is there a drink called the Mao Zedong?” I asked.

“I no understand you, you want drink for Mao?”

“No, man,” I laughed and grabbed his shoulders, pulled him close to me and yelled in his ear above the music. “The Chairman Mao, there must be a drink called the Chairman Mao!”

He pulled back “You want the Chairman Mao? Ha ha. No, no, no, no. You no want the Chairman Mao,” he said while chuckling sarcastically in broken English.

“For sure man, for sure we want the Chairman Mao.” Lips pursed, monotone, full eye contact. “FOR SURE!”

He pulled away and looked at me sternly. “You want the Chairman Mao? Ok six Chairman Maos,” he said as he straightened himself up and brushed himself off with a snuff.  “For you and your friends.”

Straight in the eyes and finger waving, I told him, “No, no, no, no, uh-uh…. seven Chairman Maos. You are having one too.”

Leaning in with a patronizing look and direct in my eyes he told me, “My friend, Chinese people no want the Chairman Mao. We no want taste that again. But you Americans, you need taste that.”

After several minutes he strode back with a serious face and six shots of green liquid on a waiter’s tray. As he put them on the table one by one, looking each of us in the eye he said, “This one I pay for, from your friend in China to you. Drink and know.”

We looked alternately at each other and the shot glasses neatly laid out before us filled with God only knew what. We stood up, and in the moment of the truth, I pulled a bill from my pocket. Gripping it between my index finger and thumb of each hand, I snapped the face of Mao for all to see. As each raised his shot, I lowered the bill to the flame. It began to burn, and I held it up, calling out a bogus toast.

“To Chairman Mao. Always serve the people wholeheartedly.”

Down the chute. I burned my fingers.


This is the first in a series of articles about Michael Colligan’s trip to China and tour of Chinese lighting manufacturers. Future stories in “The China Question” include a look at what Colligan calls “flea market manufacturing,” what looks like “made in America” isn’t really made in America, how the Chinese lighting employee is treated, and how the big names in lighting have their products “cooked in the same oven.”

Michael Colligan is an entrepreneur and inventor. He’s a subject matter expert in commercial and industrial lighting supply, lighting retrofits, and finding recycling streams for hard-to-recycle waste.

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