Generally speaking, to work abroad you need a visa in your passport. Something that says there’s a good reason why you deserve to get paid for doing something a local could do instead.
I’m a Canadian. I’m also a Brit. And I have two different passports to prove this bi-factoid. When the chance arose to visit China with my old pals Ash, of course I said yes. So I needed a visa – which means handing a passport over to an embassy to get processed. A few weeks before the Chinese trip however, we had to travel to Spain. While there, my Canadian passport was in London at the Chinese embassy. I gave them the Canadian passport because I wanted my British passport with me when I returned to the UK from Spain.
For some reason the Chinese officials took issue with my Canuck booklet. There was nothing in it to say I was a legit UK resident or citizen. Strange, I thought, that the Chinese should be concerned. I assumed as long as I entered and left China within a certain timeframe, my residency status shouldn’t matter. If I was China I wouldn’t care how I loped off into the sunset. Whatever. By the time this became a thing, Spain was over, and my British passport sat idle in a drawer at home.
So I sent them my British passport. Oh but that wasn’t going to do. Unknown to me at the time, they couldn’t simply restart an application for me — I had to be a Canadian and that was that. So I sent them some old Canadian passports, decorated with the precious ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ stamp. That should have proved to them (because it’s soooo important to the Chinese where I reside) that I’m legit.
In the end, for whatever reason, the visa didn’t ‘go through.’
Ah but there’s a work-around. According to ‘Jim’ (not his real name) at the Chinese embassy in London, there’s one option available to us. The 72 hour visitor/transit visa. Technically I’m supposed to be working in China, but when it comes down to it, the Chinese aren’t paying me – Ash are – which means the People’s Republic’s coffers are safe. Sound like shabby reasoning? But of course. Anyway, the plan goes like this: you can get a 72-hour pass (so long as you don’t stray from Beijing) because you’re… in transit. But I’m not supposed to be in transit, I need to stay in Beijing, so how did we blag this? We create a fictitious flight plan. I would fly to Beijing, then (wink-wink) fly to Seoul, back to Beijing, and back home. And those flights were actually booked. As far as the Chinese are to be concerned, I’m on my way to Seoul and if challenged I could prove it.
But the real plan was, once I got stamped with the magic 72, we’d cancel the Seoul flights, get the money back, and I’d still have the 72. Nothing illegal. I call it the Jim Plan.
WEDNESDAY – Larne – Belfast – London – Beijing
Ethically I had no problem with the Jim Plan; I’m not really up to no-good, I’m just tuning guitars and plugging stuff in. Hardly a criminal mastermind. However if I was a communist-type country, I wouldn’t want guys like me coming in and exploiting immigration controls to my advantage. After all, that sounds a bit like Capitalism. But what’s the worst they could do to me?
So I fly fly fly; a delayed Aer Lingus flight to Heathrow T2, a breathless transfer to T5, and 10 hours in the air to Beijing.
THURSDAY – Land in Beijing
Good morning China, this is my first time in you. I think I slept for a total of 20 minutes and I look like it. Soon after alighting the plane, passport control happens; it’s showtime.
‘I’m leaving the country tomorrow, honest geezah.’ I show a guy the fictitious booking to Seoul. But then… he makes me write the flight number and date on my landing card. My hand actually shook. I knew this wasn’t going to go well. But as long as I leave in 72 hours right?
It’s a muggy, 90 minute drive through smog and concrete to the hotel.
Little did I know, despite me repeating ’72’ several times, the immigration guy stamped me in for only a day. I hadn’t a clue. It was the hotel staff who noticed. As a foreigner in China, you’re advised to keep your passport with you everywhere. From the sounds of it, you can be stopped randomly and asked for ze paperz. The hotel reception staff check for stuff like this; they check for people like me. Everyone’s in on it; China ain’t dumb.
The Jim Plan is in jeopardy, and China ain’t dumb, so we act like it. Surely the immigration guy got it wrong, yeah? We’re digging a deep hole here; we need to abandon the Jim Plan. How do we explain it to the promoter’s reps? ‘Yeah this guy doesn’t have a visa, so we just made up a bunch of stuff.’ I’m unfamiliar with Chinese culture, but explaining the Jim Plan might be like telling a Japanese promoter how you stole a load of pens from reception. Not the done thing. I figure the Chinese are into rules, and we swan in making our own.
Tomorrow is a public holiday. We need to sort this out today. I’m still in yesterday’s clothes. We plan to meet back in the lobby in an hour. Shower. 20 minutes kip, I think. Before I know it we’re heading back to the airport. Another 90 minutes through a grey-brown mist.
We’re going with the idea that it was the immigration guy who got it wrong. Along the way our promoter rep phones people and she hands me a bit of paper: page 4 of the Jim Plan, showing the flight out of Beijing back to London. ‘You didn’t show them this!’
I’m still playing dumb. ‘Well what did I show them?’ I knew exactly what I had shown the immigration guy: page 2. It and page 3 were crumpled in my pocket.
Airport. We mill around an info desk in a hot, muggy area. Ten minutes later a guy approaches; he may be dressed in crocs and track shorts, but you know he’s the business. I stay out of the way. At this point it’s best to leave the powers that be to try and get me my 72 hours. After ten minutes of not much, and me pretending I don’t know what’s going on, we move to a Starbucks where it’s air conditioned.
More calls, more translating, more digging holes. The crocs guy has an iPhone. It pings. He shows me a photo of a hand, holding MY landing card – there’s a thumb in the shot. Someone somewhere has dug my lie out. I recognise my scrawly print: KE858, 1 May, the fictitious flight to Seoul. Crocs asks me – his command of English dwarfs mine of Chinese – ‘Is this your writing?’
Caught out. Damien (not his real name) is on the phone about 50 feet away. If Jim was the architect of the Plan, Damien supplied the bricks and mortar. He doesn’t know about the incriminating photo.
What else can I do?
‘Is this your writing?’ (DIDDY MAO!!)
I nodded to Crocs, in that way you do when you know the game is up, but my eyes said, ‘Wasn’t my idea Guv.’
Damien returns; he’s been speaking to London. He’s still acting, talking this and that. I whisper to him, hoping there’s no direct translation for, ‘We’re rumbled.’
He mutters back, ‘I reckon we are.’
Crocs can’t do anything for us. If I was him I’d stick me on the next flight to a work camp, but we’re still within the law. KE858 is real, and I could get on it if need be. I’d miss the gig, but that’s better than getting into real trouble.
We’re driving back into town. ‘To the administration,’ says the rep. I envision a brick tower wrapped in barbed wire. Damien searches his phone for a scan of the original ‘invitation’, a list of names for the visas. I’m listed as a Canadian. The passport being flung around today is my British one. This makes me look like a jewel thief.
Rep: ‘Where is your Canadian passport?’
‘In my hotel room.’
Chuckles, rolled eyes. They don’t think it – they know it – I’m a dumbass.
More phone calls.
Plan: grab my Canadian passport, bring it to the administration. Lots of options were thrown around and I could swear one of them was: stay for the three days, but face ‘punishment.’
A five year entry ban. Phew. Better than getting yourself a nice prison boy. All the same, I’d rather avoid both options. It’s around 3 p.m. and the traffic is – I’m seeing a pattern here – the usual crawl. Various visa, passport, and punishment permutations are bandied, I really need a pee, and all I see in my immediate future is nodding off in a tiny room while gloved officials massage my prostate.
Grab passport. Drive. What they call ‘the administration’ is a passport office, totally pedestrian, no rifles or cattle prods. Our pushy reps get to the head of a queue somehow. I fill out a form; ‘Which passport should I use?’
‘Leave that blank.’
Ten minutes later while Damien and I discussed plans for a Japanese trip later in the year, the final word comes down: denied. I’m going to Seoul. For a day. Then here again. Then back home. The Jim Plan is now in effect, for real. The whole point of me being here was for the gig tomorrow night and there’s no way I’ll be able to be there. I suppose this was always the risk with a Jim Plan. Beware fiction, for it can materialise.
But wait. Damien throws his hands up. ‘Let’s just get you home mate.’
Back to the hotel, defeated, and it’s 4.45 p.m. Here’s a quick sum of my mind-state: door-to-door it took 18 hours just to get to the hotel in the first place. I’ve been driven for hours through the black lung, and now I need to do some soldering and restringing because I can’t do the gig. With a measly hour to spare before dinner (I’ve eaten almost nothing since the plane) I took, at best, a 15 minute nap at 5.30 before a promoter rep knocked on my door to donate some beer and wine. You know, for later. Because the festival is a bit teetotal. I’ve been in motion for over 24 hours, and sleep is not happening. I feel stateless.
Dinner was a buffet; I ate lots of steamed rice, some salady things, chips, two boiled eggs, and finished with some green tea cheesecake. That reminds me. A good cup of tea would be smashing right about now.
After dinner we drive back up the road, past the airport, to do a soundcheck. It takes 90 minutes to get there. I nodded off somewhere after the traffic thinned out – an amazing feat in itself.
The festival stage thronged with people, none of whom I knew and few of whom spoke English. With gear pushed waaaay upstage, it was a challenge to communicate how to get everything forward, and a little tighter. Thankfully all the hired backline worked, but there was a power issue, an earth potential of 110 volts at the microphone; Tim would’ve received a nasty shock to the lips while singing and playing guitar. Someone had powered the guitar amp into a UK-style socket with a European cable – no earth contact. But anyway, after a combined hour of flapping hands we were ready to clear the stage. At last, a respite from the camera crew who haven’t been the least bit shy following us around.
I played bass in soundcheck because Mark isn’t due in until tomorrow. I have no idea if his monitor mix was okay. Around 11.15 p.m. we labeled the stage, packed away some gear, and ensured we had a couple of guys to step in as emergency stage techs for the show.
Thankfully it was only a 70 minute drive back to the hotel. A big cold beer, and finally, some time to breathe and socialise in our group of five. What a day of ‘dick and balls’.
I sat on the bed and looked at my watch: 2 a.m. Alarm set for 7. Luxury. Around 33 hours after leaving my house, I was under the covers. Out like a light. The air conditioning barely works and I awake periodically, bathing in sweat.
FRIDAY – Go home
7 a.m. Crap, where am I? Oh yeah now I remember. Let me the hell out of here. Yesterday feels like two days ago.
7.35. One last van, one last trip to the airport. What happens to the band on stage tonight is in the hands of the gods. Traffic is the usual Kevlar-knit of cars on the… ‘What do you call this road?’ I ask the rep accompanying me. He asks the driver and translates: “Highway to the airport”. How imaginative. I’ve seen too much of this road. Wanna go anywhere north? Highway to the airport. Wanna go to the festival? Highway to the airport. Wanna go out of your friggin’ mind for a day? Yep.
Check-in was easy, immigration and security were a bit slow, and they do this weird two-stage passport check that doesn’t make sense. Maybe they have two different departments looking for different things, i.e. people like me, people like Jim from the Chinese Embassy in London, and people like Damien; those of us who think no one really follows the rules to a T.
I got out. The Chinese are done with me. I’ve passed through security into the land of airport commerce. Here on the other side they have Costa, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Kraptucky Fried Life, and the usual duty-free tat.
I never feel more caucasian than I do in places like this where shabbily-dressed, stubbly, lanky white guys stick out like sick bamboo. I try to make an effort. I don’t actually achieve the effort, but I try. It’s hard to look composed, running on bingo fuel and wearing a film of sweat. I can’t wait for Irish weather: cold blue skies and individual clouds. I can’t wait for my bed.
China didn’t break me. But it beat me trying to beat the system, and I learnt the following:
1) I’m a terrible con artist
2) Chinese officials read detective novels
3) Jim from the embassy is high literally all the time.