Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Drawer #3.4: Our Founder or the Laoban Brand

A miasma, according to the dictionary, is "a poisonous atmosphere formerly thought to rise from swamps and putrid matter and cause disease" and today Shanghai is wrapped in one. My lungs hurt and my head is thick. I’m hacking like a local. 

I duck into the closest Family Mart to pick up some lozenges & there's the Ricola right next to the cash register. But no, I think, what I really need is “Golden Throat.” A box of which I find in the rack of chinese remedies across the way. I’m a little shocked, a little stricken even, to realize that my preferred brand of throat lozenge is a local one. It might be a sign that I have been here too long, that I’ve actually acculturated.

At least I think it’s the Golden Throat Dule Lozenge [sic] but the little portrait photo on the box is All Wrong. 

Who’s this woman? What’s become of the black & white guy, the one with the comb-over, whom I've come to trust as the almighty reliever of cold misery? My suspicion-wrought-by-fakes meter kicks in: maybe it’s not Golden Throat at all but an imitation, an ineffective pirated version. But, on close inspection, the colors of the box, the [entirely un-soothing] moire striping of green & yellow & blue & white, seem exactly familiar & so I purchase the box. Inside the box, in the gold foil wrapper, the lozenges are in hermetically-sealed packaging rather than in their former sticky glob but the old soothing vapor is still the same & my hacking subsides…

Once, in my first months in Shanghai, I bought some vials of lord-knows-what for their stripy packaging & the grainy pokerface portrait that graced them. “Who’s this guy?” I asked a friend, thinking I’d learn of some cultural icon, some Chinese Betty Crocker or Quaker Oats guy.  But no, after scrutinizing the portrait, the friend handed back the container & shrugged, “Lao ban." (老板.) 

Lao ban is the Chinese word for boss and/or proprietor and also the title by which you address said person. It's a word you learn early on & use all the time: is the laoban here? Laoban, how much does this cost? Lao 老 is the word for old but in an honorific sense: if you, in your transaction with the laoban, are the lao pengyou (老朋友/the old friend), you get a sweeter deal. 

If it’s a woman boss, like our new Golden Throat chickie, she’s a lao ban niang/老板娘. Sometimes - it comes with another twinge of shock - I overhear our driver referring to me as the lao ban niang.

There’s a portrait of another lao ban niang on the awning of a restaurant that's on my bike route.

                      Before                                             After

I think of her as the Lao ban niang of Pig Sty Alley before she let herself go, maybe when she was just beginning the training that transformed her into the ferocious Kung Fu Mistress of Steven Chow’s hilarious send-up, KungFu Hustle. 

The force of that lao ban niang’s “lion’s roar” can bring her whole neighborhood to a stand still & she’s hell on her meek little husband.  [Spoiler alert: she's secretly one of the Good Guys.]

My chest’s feeling a little clearer after a few dule (?) lozenges but my stomach’s a little queazy. Maybe it's just Pig Sty Alley on my mind, but what’s the Golden Throat lao ban niang done with the lao ban? A hostile takeover? Or something even more nefarious?  And this, ladies & germs, is how the Cabinet turns into Historical Record: for soon maybe no one will even remember the Lao ban with his big forehead & his aviator glasses. Soon even I might think I made him up. But here he’ll be in the drawer of Lao ban Brands, preserved for however long plastic foil might last… (oh but why ever didn't I save the box?!?)

Drawer 3.4 from the top: 

1. You know, I still have no idea what these are: shreds of something jerky-like that tastes vaguely licorice-y, vaguely sweet, vaguely salty...The large character on black background is tian meaning heaven which these are not exactly. Yo! Late breaking news! I just read/translated the characters for the very first time in 12 years (I am sooo slow!!) : wu hua guo gan. Dry fig!! 

2. Also no idea but it's here for the poetic look of the laoban with his classic chinese round eyeglass frames (known at our house as "PuYi style" after the ones worn by the last emperor of China.) The back of the box is graced with little "putti," a very un-Chinese image. Manufactured in Hong Kong so the characters are written in traditional Chinese characters, not the simplified ones used on the Mainland. 

3. My man, Laoban Golden Throat, may he rest in peace. 

4. Close-up of the portrait in #1: why would something that looks like a mug shot of the Cambodians done away by Pol-Pot seem like a enticing sales pitch?        

Photos: Full drawer, Bruno David; all others are mine.

1 comment:

  1. Great post...your gushing laoban affection is quite filial, honorable daughter. After 12 years, you seem to have picked up some essence of the 3,000 years of culture that makes using a mug shot for marketing a sublimely good idea.