Passing the Torch
What a symbol represents depends entirely on your point of view.
I took a long deep breath, stood up, and bowed. "Wu an. I'm Mike Dorian, chief architect at Talex Entertainment. We're excited to be a finalist in this design competition for the world's greatest theme park, to be built right here in Shanghai; one that will be better than Tokyo Disneyland." Everyone liked the comparison--a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
I stood on a small stage in one of the meeting rooms of the Shanghai Imperial Hotel, which did night-duty as a karoake party room. The air had the faint smell of stale beer and tobacco, suppressed by lilac air freshener. There was a slight chill, the result of overworked air-conditioning. Top managers from the Chinese development company, along with some banking and government reps, sat at small cocktail tables.
The large projection screen behind me was normally used for sing-along videos. The first time I'd stood on that stage, I sang along too, surrounded by my drunken Chinese cohorts, teaching them the words to "New York, New York." But that was so many years ago--back in the twentieth century, before the Second Depression, before the world got turned on to Sino-Pop.
This time it was business, all business. I started my presentation by recapping the lessons we'd learned while designing smaller theme parks in Southeast Asia, emphasizing how the new Fantasy Wonderland would build on these experiences. It's important to name-drop your past successes; it provides reassurance.
And I needed reassurance too. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it wasn't a slam-dunk. We were competing against two Chinese design firms--one from Hong Kong, one home-grown. The Hong Kong firm was known for its cutting-edge ideas. I had to persuade them the American approach wasn't old-fashioned and outmoded.
I began leading everyone through my computer-generated 3-D model of the new theme park, Fantasy Wonderland, briefly describing the major proposed components. The basic approach was to whet their appetite, not bury them in detail. I'd learned some time ago that theme parks are sexy projects, enticing everyone to go into child mode and play dream-maker. That's okay. I'd intentionally left little gaps for them to fill, knowing they'd be more likely to buy into my design ideas if they were actively involved in its creation. I couldn't afford to be a prima donna. If I came up dry here, I'd be back beating the bushes again. With the U.S. and European economies in shambles, that would mean Asia--and I wasn't Asian.
I pointed out that the overall layout of the new theme park would follow the popular "hub and spoke" approach originally used in Disneyland, with the five themed sections of the park surrounding its visual centerpiece. At Tokyo Disneyland, that visual centerpiece was Cinderella's Castle; at Kings Island it was a one-third scale replica of Paris' Eiffel tower. At Fantasy Wonderland, it would be a replica of the Statue of Liberty, which would also serve as the anchor attraction of the American section of the park. During preliminary discussions over the previous few months, everyone had agreed it would be a great symbol of China's progress. Decades ago, tanks had torn down a small home-made version built by protesters in Tiananmen Square, but now it would be the centerpiece of China's premier theme park. I took comfort in their initial reactions. Of the three finalists, my firm had the only design with the Statue as the park's centerpiece.
I had a much more personal reason for picking the Statue of Liberty. When I was a kid, Granddad Dimitri would pick me up in Alexandria on his drive back from Miami each year and take me to his townhouse in New York for the weekend. We'd spend two whole days there seeing the sights, just the two of us.
The first time we took the Ellis Island ferry and passed by the Statue of Liberty, he smiled and put his arm around my shoulders. "Look, Michael, isn't she beautiful? Except for your Grandmother Maria, I think she is the most beautiful woman in the world. When I was a little boy like you, in 1943, my whole family came to America. Nobody wanted us in Greece. So we got on a big boat and sailed for days and days. There was nothing but water around us. Water as far as you could see. I was afraid, Michael. But then we saw her in the harbor. Her torch was bright, showing us the way. She wanted us and I was no longer afraid."
So my choice of the Statue of Liberty as the visual centerpiece for the new theme park was my personal tribute to Granddad Dimitri, for all the fun times we had together.
"Mike, what size will the Statue of Liberty be in the new theme park? I can't tell from looking at your computer model," Li Cheung asked.
Li, head of our prospective Chinese partners, was wearing an impeccably tailored dark gray suit. Stanford-educated, incredibly self-controlled. Shanghai's jade dealers wore dark glasses because their pupils would involuntarily dilate when they saw a real find. Li wouldn't need the glasses. He was one of the few people I couldn't read, and I admired that.
"The Statue of Liberty replica would be half the size as the original, the same scale as the landmarks at Shenzhen's Wonders of the World park."
"I'm sorry, Mike, but the Statue has to be full-size."
I started shaking my head. A change like that would be more than tinkering. "Li, if we go full-size, the Statue would dwarf everything around it. We'd have to double the size of practically every building near it and that'll really increase the construction budget."
Li was insistent. "We understand, but it has to be full-scale."
I tried a little humor to get everyone back on track. "Look, the only reason you'd have to go full-scale," I chuckled, "was if you were going to use the real Statue of Liberty. Otherwise, the extra cost needed to..."
At that moment, Li was static, as expected, but the two associates at his table suddenly got fidgety. One quickly locked his right foot behind the back of his left leg--a definite defensive position. Feet don't lie. The other started biting his fingernail. Subtle movements, but to my feelers it was like watching jaws drop to the floor in an old cartoon.
I tested the waters again by bringing up the indoor coaster, one of the park's top thrill attraction, planned inside the replica of the Statue of Liberty.
"Scrap it," Li said.
The coaster had been Li's idea. Something had changed in the last few days. But if a deal had just been ironed out, it would obviously be secret, on a "need to know" basis. And, frankly, I wouldn't need to know. As long I assumed a full-scale Statue of Liberty with nothing inside, it could be a replica or the real thing.
But I wanted to know. I decided to take the direct approach. "Li, have the Chinese somehow worked out a deal to get the real Statue of Liberty and move it to Shanghai?"
Like the sphinx, he answered without expression. "Yes. I must now remind you and your associates of the confidentiality agreement your company signed."
My boss, Barry Sloane, was squirming in his chair next to me, giving me the "let's move on" look. He didn't want me to say anything that would jinx us getting the project. But I was just stunned and blurted out, "Why'd you do it?"
Li answered, "Our government sees this as an historic coming of age. The British took the Parthenon's Elgin Marbles from the Greeks. The British sold the London Bridge to Lake Havasu in the U.S. And now we've acquired the Statue of Liberty. It's a symbolic passing of the torch from one superpower to the next."
Silence. I didn't know what to say. Then Barry stood up next to me and said "Well, this is certainly a surprise. But since the high top brass wants to do this, I'm sure we can make the necessary adjustments in our designs. Can't we, Mike? Mike..."
I was remembering how the Hanson administration blamed recent immigrants and minorities for America's social and economic troubles, but I'd always figured that was just political posturing. I was also aware the government was desperate for hard currency since the dollar recently took a dive. Who wasn't? But this?
Li added, "Our top government officials are very excited about this arrangement. They couldn't justify the cost of acquiring, repairing and restoring the Statue unless it's part of a commercial enterprise. And since the theme park will be financed by government-backed loans, we're excited too. The U.S. will receive debt forgiveness on some major loans. Even the French have agreed to this arrangement. And I don't have to remind you that your company has the only design with the Statue of Liberty."
I felt a sharp pain. Barry was giving me his typical "stop what you're doing right now" signal by stepping hard on my left foot, hidden by the podium.
But I just couldn't go back to talking about theme park designs. After a few seconds of awkward silence, I leaned forward to the microphone and mumbled "I'm sorry, I have to take a quick break, sorry," and walked off the stage. A pained expression would buy me a few minutes of privacy.
Barry caught up with me in the hallway. He had this uncanny ability to look both happy and pissed at the same time--he was demonstrating it at that moment. "Mike, you heard Li. We've got it, so let's get back in there and clinch this thing."
"I don't know if I want to. You heard what's happening."
"So what? Let them have the Statue of Liberty. It's just a relic of a time long gone. Keep your eye on the prize, Mike. Can't you see this is our ticket out? We can finally get our papers to move here to China."
"I'm not ready to leave."
"Why not? Don't you get it? It was the European century during the 1800s, the American century during the 1900s and now we're in the Asian century. I want to be where it's happening. Not moping and whining about the good old days. Don't you?"
I stopped arguing with him, it wouldn't have done any good. I'm not the arguing kind, and honestly, I would have had a hard time debating him.
Barry's tone then became more like a parent than a boss. "Look Mike, you've always said you hated the business side. So just do your job and you'll be fine."
"Well, Mike, what are you going to do?"
When it comes to decisions, I'm not someone who ponders, carefully weighing out each option--many times I wish I had. I know people and I know ideas. So at that very moment, by instinct, I looked down deep into the depths of my own soul. And I knew what I had to do.
When we passed the men's room, I darted inside. The stall partitions were stone-tiled from floor to ceiling--sound-proof--a luxury hotel perk. With my back pressed up against the stall door in case someone tried to get in, I used my cellular phone to call directory assistance in New York. I got the number for the News Leader and called their informer line. I began telling the guy who answered what I knew about the Statue of Liberty deal.
"I don't want to hear this," he interrupted.
"It's true, you've got to believe me. I'm risking everything to tell you this," I said.
"No, I don't want to hear this 'cause you're telling me what's in today's local section. The story was leaked last night."
"What's the response?"
"There's some protesters down there, and some people are squawking."
"Will they stop it?"
"Nah. Done deal. I don't know how things are over there, but people have a lot of things to deal with here. We've got a depression going on if you haven't noticed. Thanks for calling."
Dial tone. So much for heroics. A hero was not required at this time. And I, looking like some two-bit spy, just felt foolish and old.
When I walked out into the hallway, Barry was waiting for me. He could tell from the expression on my face that something was wrong. I can read other people pretty well, but I never could hide my own feelings.
"What's going on, Mike?" he asked.
I wasn't going to lie to him.
He thought for a moment. "You called someone, didn't you? Talked about what's happening here."
I stood there, speechless.
Barry shook his head. "Stupid move. You know about our confidentiality agreement. You've just put the firm at grave risk." He now just looked pissed. "You're fired."
I didn't say anything; there wasn't anything to be said. I thought about going back to my hotel room, but I didn't want to be alone, so I headed to the lounge, found a small empty table, and had a beer.
After I'd finished my second Tsingtao, a voice came from behind me. "Mike, can I talk with you for a few minutes?"
I turned around. It was Li. I almost told him there was nothing to talk about, but I didn't. I just motioned for him to sit down in the chair next to me.
"I just spoke with Barry," he said, sitting down. "Why didn't you go along with the Statue of Liberty arrangement?"
"It's personal," I answered. And then I told him about my Granddad Dimitri. The whole story. How much the Statue had meant to him so long ago. I ended by saying "I thought the Chinese understood about honoring ancestors. But maybe capitalism has changed a lot of things."
Li hesitated before answering. This wasn't like him at all. In past talks, he'd been like a chess grandmaster, always thinking many moves ahead. But not this time. Silent.
Finally, he spoke, his voice a bit shaky. "My father helped build the Goddess of Democracy, modeled after the Statue of Liberty, that stood in Tiananmen Square in 1989."
"Was he one of the protesters who..."
"Yes. Having the Statue of Liberty here in Shanghai will reassure my mother of why she was left alone."
Li had been so good at hiding his feelings, I'd sort of assumed he was like a desert. But at that moment, I realized his facade was really more like a dam. Holding back an ocean. And there were tiny cracks under his eyes.
He handed me a plain manila envelope. Inside were some typed pages describing a new themed attraction in Shenyang that was still in the early concept development stage. I looked up, puzzled.
"It's not as prestigious as Fantasy Wonderland," he said, "but it needs your touch. It's yours if you want it. Sole source. The first project for your own design firm, perhaps."
I put my hand on his shoulder. "Hey, let's get out of here. I hear there's this new karoake bar down on Nanjing Lu."
As we walked out of the hotel, I turned to Li and said "Don't get too attached to the Statue of Liberty. You know the Greeks finally did get the Elgin Marbles back from the British."
"Yes. It took about 200 years."
"But things change so much faster today. Don't they?"
Li smiled. "Yes, they do."
John Gerner (email@example.com) likes to think of himself as a writer/songwriter, though the IRS considers him a consultant who does planning studies for new tourist attractions. He was a Clarion West '97 attendee.
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 10, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2000 John Gerner.