Abstract: In my 20 over years of travel throughout the Indo-China countries (Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos), Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand I have encountered many instances of counterfeit US dollars. Except for Thailand, the most used currency by a foreigner in these countries is the green back. The following post is one of my various encounters.
Mogok – The famous ruby land of Myanmar.
A couple of years ago Calvin, my second son, and I were in Mogok for a 6D/5N trip to the famous stone tract of Mogok in upper Mandalay, Burma. Mogok produces the finest and most valuable rubies in the world, and in the trade it is known as Pigeon Blood Ruby. Calvin had just recently graduated from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in New York City as a Graduate Gemologist (GG) when he was 18 years old.
So, I told him. Don’t ever be a desk-bound arm-chair gemologist. You had to go through the baptism of fire and worked the gems fields and mines, so that you can gain an understanding and appreciation on the up-stream mining operations and activities.
Thus, Calvin would often accompany me to the jade mines, the ruby mines and the various jade markets in Mandalay and Yangon. Travelling with Calvin was fun. He never complain when the going was tough, travelling for hours in a cramped jeep, sleeping in lousy hotels with no hot water for a bath, smelly rooms and rancid bed sheets, mosquitoes’ bites and flying ants, the air conditioner kept breaking down as electricity supply was erratic, even with the gen-set, very hot or clammy rainy weather, diarrhea, or when the food was not so agreeable we ate cup noodles for meals.
Anyway, it was a fabulous trip to Mogok. We travelled back to Mandalay for a night over to fly back to Yangon the following day.
That evening we had dinner at our favorite Western restaurant on one of the busy thorough fare streets of Mandalay. There were four of us, including two of my lady staff members who had been with me for many years.
Gosh! After the meal I realized that I had burnt all my Kyats, the local Burmese currency. On my back pack, I carried a sack full of kyats to Mogok and now I had a sack full of rough stones of ruby-in-matrix, sapphires rocks, cut rubies and sapphires and other gemstones specimens.
The bill came to about 75,000 Kyats, approximately US$72.00. I told the waiter I would pay in dollars. He grinned at me, a mischievous smile spreading on his face. Ah! most probably he would exchange the dollar himself and take a 15% cut on the exchange.
I took out a wad of US $100 bills from my inner pocket of my pant and peeled one out. Then I took out a pen and wrote down the serial number of the note of the Benjamin Franklin bill of US$100 onto the restaurant bill.
Immediately, I saw his crest fallen face. Bang! He could not exchange the dollar bill for himself, as his boss would see my inscription on the receipt.
Calvin was piqued. He asked, “Hey Dad! Why do you write the serial number of the dollar bill on the receipt?”
“Son, it always pay to be cautious.” I replied.
Counterfeit US Dollar
Then I regaled Calvin with one of my travel log episodes.
It was December 1992, a cold wintry night in Hanoi, Vietnam. I was having dinner at a French restaurant with two senior government officials and my Vietnamese point man cum interpreter cum consultant advisor. I was the head of a foreign bank in Cambodia and my responsibilities also included the untapped newly opened markets of Vietnam and Laos. Then, I was a regular flyer, traversing between Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Vientiane (capital of Laos), Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, looking for business opportunities for my company.
While we were having the ubiquitous Vietnamese ca phe nau, a strong brown coffee that dripped down from a silver metal filter into a cup, there was a commotion two tables away from us. A man was standing up, arguing with a waiter, his face was contorted with fury and he was gesturing wildly with the restaurant receipt in one of his hand. He was probably an American Chinese as he spoke with an American ascent. His companion, a young pretty fair lady, his wife or his mistress or his girlfriend or whatever, was sitting quietly with a cigarette poised in between her fingers, a bluish smoke trail wound lazily upwards to the ceiling fan.
The waiter holding onto the US $100 dollar bill kept on saying, “Sir, dis’ dollah no good!”
By now the commotion had drawn the attention of several diners in the restaurant and they were staring at the two men, who were like two belligerent cats on the roof of a house on a moon lit night, with their hackles raised, daring each other in a fight. From their heated conversation we learned that the argument was about the counterfeit US dollar. The American Chinese insisted that he gave a good US dollar and this was not the same dollar he gave. The waiter, with a calm and defiant countenance, stood his ground and repeatedly said that the ‘dollah no good.”
Then the restaurant supervisor appeared and spoke in faltering English to the American Chinese. “Maybe we call the Cong An to solve the problem.”
For a while, there was pin dropped silence at the mention of the Cong An, the Vietnamese police. The lady companion suddenly stood up and with a dismissive gesture killed her cigarette, opened her handbag and took a $100 dollar bill. She then took out a pen, looked at the dollar note and wrote something onto the receipt.
While the men yelled at each other, the cool head of a young lady prevailed. There was a sigh of relief as the matter was settled and the diners went back to their meals.
My Vietnamese interpreter spoke to me, “Arthur, maybe the Cong An is in it too. A $100 is more than their 3 month’s pay. It’s a criminal offence to possess a fake US dollar here.”
So, I thought, the Vietnamese were a practical and resilient lot, having gone through a few hundred years of war. Most Northerners may hate the Americans during the Vietnam War, but they loved the American green-backs.
I looked at Calvin and grinned, “It always pay to be cautious. This is to prevent anybody from swapping a good dollar bill with a dude.”
Lesson: How the children learned about the international assigned code words for alphabets of A for Alpha, B for Bravo ….
Last couple of months, I was in the car with the two boys. William, the youngest son, was speaking to a staff member in Shanghai on his iphone, giving instructions in fluent Mandarin. Then I caught a word he spoke in English, SWIFT, Sierra Whiskey India Foxtrot Tango followed by some numbers. He was relaying instructions in some financial transactions and he was using the international call sign for alphabets.
Perhaps I would like to preen a feather or two here that he learnt the international call sign in London from his old dad when he was 9 years of age. This young lad here has a phenomenal memory.
Sojourn in London
I smiled inwardly as I reminisced those halcyon days in London. It was winter in the mid 90s and we were touring the United Kingdom, Her Excellency and me, eldest daughter and the two boys (then 12, 11 and 9 years of age). I had stay in London before while doing my MBA, so I marked out those places which we would visit and let Calvin, the second son, be the tour leader to find our way around. A quickie lesson on the London Underground Map was all they needed to know, East-West & North-South bound, the next station, the end station and the switching stations, the circle line and the color-coded lines as to learn the names of these lines would be a mouthful.
One morning at breakfast in the hotel, I decreed that we were going to China Town – Leicester Square and there was an Underground station on the Black Line. Calvin whipped out his Underground Map and the 3 kids pored over it. But nowhere was Leicester Square to be found as I pronounced the name the way an Englishman did.
So I spelled it out for them.
Slowly my daughter recounted and wrote on a paper serviette, “L for London, E for Edinburg, I for India, C for country, E for elephant …” then I stopped her. She knew of Edinburg because it was on our travel itinerary.
“Hey, you are mixing up the names of cities and animals and noun.” I remarked. So I wrote out the name and told them that Leicester Square was pronounced as ‘Lester Square.’
“Now each of you will give me the name relating to an alphabet as you have done in school.” I threw them a bone.
“A for America” Marilyna said. “B for Boy” William said jumping ahead of Calvin. “C for China” added Calvin, “D for Donkey” Marilyna echoed, ‘E for Elephant,” the reticent William spoke again.
I was stupefied, now there were a mix of countries, people and animals for the English alphabets.
‘F for … for …” Calvin was stumbling. Maybe he did not know a name associated with a country or perhaps he was about to say the 4-letter word.
Marilyna jutted in. “F for Finland.” She pumped her fist in the air jubilantly.
Phew! that was a close call. Her Excellency was paying attention to the banter by now and if I guessed correctly of what Calvin was about to say, then I would have gotten a great admonition from her with a good earful.
No, made it two earful.
Her Excellency would make a meal out of me if Calvin would say what I thought was on his mind. She just did not like the idea that the kids were using some foul language, while I was laissez-faire. She had a habit of attributing all the sins and transgression of the son to the fault of the father.
My daughter just saved my ass for the day, so to speak.
Then, I had an idea and it was time for a lesson to be learnt.
I took up another paper serviette and scribbled out the 26 alphabets as such.
“This is the international call sign for alphabets. It is used by the navy, army, air force, hotels, airlines, government agencies, private sectors as well as all foreign voice to voice call so that all alphabets are standardized.” I placed the paper on the table.
“Tonight all of you are going to memorise it and you are going to memorise this for life. No A for America or Australia or B for Boy, now A is for Alpha, B is for Bravo, and so on and so forth.” I sniggered. “Only when you are speaking to those who does not know the international call sign, then you are to switch to whatever names are convenient.”
So, for that day we had a good time at Leicester Square.
The morrow found us at our breakfast table again. I asked Calvin, what was in it for us today.
“Today we are going to Kilo Echo Whiskey Gardens, which is on the Green Line, south bound.” He said, as he pulled his cap backwards.
I was caught off-guard for an instant, then I realized that Calvin was just telling me that he had memorized the whole table of call signs.
In between mouthful of scrambled eggs, Her Excellency declared vehemently, “I am not going to any Whiskey Garden today!”
Immediately, there was pin-drop silence among us and I was refraining hard not to roll my eyeballs heavenwards.
Just the other night, I took them to a pub before the off-office rush hour of 5:00 pm. So we got ourselves seated as the pub had not been filled yet. I had the idea of regaling them kids some tall tales of my previous stay in London, some pub crawling episodes, some cranky jokes that always accompanied a few pints of Foster beer and a way of showing off too. Pub hoping indeed, I was as poor as a church mouse as I was on a tight shoe string budget then. Anyway, it was always a good feeling to feel awesome in front of them kids, and I was hoping that the pub would play my favourite of Mary Hopkins, “Those were the days.”
A big bosom waitress appeared in front of our table, with a somewhat unfriendly attitude. “Children are not allowed in pubs.” She said in a stern manner.
“But I will be the one drinking beer, the children will have a coke each.” I smiled coyly and trying hard to avert my eyes from the cleavage on her ample bosom.
“This is the law, children are not allowed in this premises.” She added.
Her Excellency was agitated by now, and before she could bare her fangs, I quickly bundled them up, apologized profusely to the big bosom waitress and left. Two women quarrelling was bad news and it was better to leave the party. What a pity! The bosom waitress had just rained on my parade, but a law was a law.
Ah, maybe Her Excellency was still smarting for being booted out unceremoniously.
“We are going to the Kew Gardens, mum.” Marilyna told her with a giggle.
On the train, I was seated with Calvin. He whispered to me, “You are a nincompoop, Dad!”
“Pardon me.” I looked at him, but Calvin knew that I always let him speak up to me. And he learned fast from all the cockney and colloquy English words and some great phases I always used when speaking to them as I took immense pleasure to display my command of the flowery English language, including some vulgar swear words too.
“O Ye of little faith!” Calvin said. Now, this was too much, as this little fella was quoting me word for word. I was sure he didn’t read the Bible as yet.
“I was going to say F for Florida yesterday and not what you think of the 4-letter word.” He smiled impishly.
Praise the Lord for the small mercy in life, this was a clever son in deed and in words.
“Why Florida?” I asked.
“Please take us to Walt Disney Land in Florida next year. I heard from my friends that is Agreat fun”. He looked at me with pleading and expectant eyes.
“Alright, let it be said and let it be done, son.” We slapped our palms, bumped our fists and the contract was signed, sealed and almost delivered.
Sure enough, the next year I took them to Walt Disney, but it was in Anaheim, near Los Angeles.
Further to this post, Three Suckers Are Born Every Second, the girl and the two boys were exuberant about their winnings, three big stuffed toys and an assortment of smaller toys, because they saw the opportunity that there were a lot of uncollected winning tokens in the children’s gaming machine. All they did were to push the button and out came a bunch of winning tokens.
We were onto the third night in Las Vegas. Calvin buggered me to go to The Excalibur Casino Hotel again, probably at the insistence of William.
“Hey Pop, we want to go to The Excalibur again.” He said.
“We have been there on the first night, why do you fellows want to go again?” I asked.
“We want to have another roll. We want one more of that big stuff toy.” Calvin said. He was almost pleading, subtly shifting his eyes onto William and of course I didn’t miss it.
“We already have 3 biggies and an assortment of smaller ones. I don’t know whether we can check in all that” I said. “Why do you want another biggie?”
“William saw a little girl at our hotel lobby and she was pointing to the Goofy I was holding. We wanted to do some charity and give the girl a gift. We saw her a couple of times and she was just having a lollipop stick, no toys,” Calvin replied. “So we want to win another one and give her a present.”
“Charity is something which you already have and you treasure it and you give it away to the less fortunate. It is not giving away something which you do not want or giving away something which is not yours yet and is dependent on a game of chance.” I said. That was a mouthful but I knew that these kids absorbed what I said like a sponge soaking up water.
I laughed inwardly at the naivety of their innocence and it was a good opportunity to dispel some of their myths about charity. A lot of people were dreaming of doing charity big-time contingent upon winning the Mega Jackpot. This never happened in real life.
Anyway, off we went to The Excalibur again. This time My Excellency and I wanted in on the action too.
We went into the main entrance of the Children’s Entertainment Center in full swing.
Two ladies in red with collars up to their necks and attired to the hilt immediately came up and greeted us. They were prim and proper, more like teachers in a high school. They were unlike those leggy Bunny Girls in the main casino area, wearing bunny brownish head gears with two pointy ears, vivid war paint on their faces and skimpily dressed-to-kill. The job of these Bunny Girls were to dish out drinks (on the house, of course) to players on the gaming tables, entice them to stay longer and to have a few more rolls, collect some tips and tuck them onto their highly visible cleft of their mighty bosoms.
This was glittering Las Vegas, remember, the Sin City and the Neon capital of the world where it never slept.
In a corner two Men in Black suddenly appeared. They wore dark reflective sun glasses as if there were suffering from photophobia, stood akimbo with straight faces, legs astride, unmoving and staring ahead and occasionally twitched their lips menacingly. They were more like statues on display, mean, lean and hard men ready to break a leg or two to anyone who was going to crap the casino.
This was too pat, too close for comfort, I thought. We were being watched.
I whispered to Calvin, “Hey boy, are you a lefty or righty?”
“I didn’t cheat, Pop,” Calvin replied curtly. Meantime, my eldest girl and the younger boy were puzzled and could not understand what we were talking about. Later Calvin would explain to them. Calvin was always the patient one.
I had already ‘invested’ another $30 with the three kids for tonight’s action. As we moved around there was not even one ticker coupon jutting out from any lips of the games machine. However, the girl and boys still fed some quarters in, just to maintain our stance or our innocence.
Good fellows, they knew it was very hard to win and they pulled back.
“Pop, let’s do a tactical retreat and re-group.” Calvin said. Wow, using some military jargon as I taught him. So the things I told him were never in vain, it went into both ears and were retained onto some grey or white matters in between. What about the wisdom from My Excellency to the three kids, probably it never goes into their ears, or it just went through their ear canals from one end and exit from the other end. Really, I didn’t know and it was better not to ask.
We left the Children’s Entertainment Center empty-handed, no biggie stuff toys and not even a kitchen magnetic sticker. We bought some drinks and sat on a bench outside the Excalibur. The air was still hot and sultry, Las Vegas being a desert in the middle of nowhere.
We were not disappointed with the turn of events. In fact, we were pretty much jolly and joked about the whole episode. Calvin started to narrate what had transpired between the two of us.
I was an avid reader. Whenever I came across items which were of interest I would tell Calvin. My favorites were his favorites too, like WWII, ‘Nam War or some adventure stories. It was a book I read by Nicholas Pileggi entitled ‘Casino’ in the era during the 60s and early 70s when Las Vegas was ruled by the Mafia Mob.
At one time a card cheat was caught at a table when he was winning big. A waitress spilled some hot coffee onto his shirt accidentally and the card cheat was quickly hustled away to a room behind the gaming tables. He was then strapped onto a metal table amidst his screaming and struggling to free himself from the two muscled men. One of the men clamped his burly hand over his mouth and the card cheat shut up. The pit boss walked in, probably he was also the enforcer.
“You bastard! Are you a lefty or righty?” the pit boss shouted at the card cheat.
“Righty” the card cheat was trembling and it took some time for him to answer.
The two muscled men forced open his mouth and gagged him with a dirty oil cloth. The pit boss took a hammer from a metal tool box, placed the hand of the card cheat onto a side iron table top and whacked hard. Blow by blow, he whacked and whacked until the right hand of the card cheat turned into a pulp of bloody tissues and small whitish bones, blood slowly dripping on the floor.
“Now you are a lefty!” the pit boss shouted. “Get the f*** outta here and don’t I see you no more!”
The two muscled men released the harness and the card cheat stumbled down. Groaning and taking short breadths, he covered his bloodied hand with a handkerchief and scampered out.
“If you ever come here again I gonna cut your balls off and hang ‘em on me Christmas tree!” The pit boss said vehemently and with a last sadistic gesture he hit the card cheat hard on his kidney with the hammer he was still holding. The card cheat made haste and quickly limped out.
That was the time when the Mob ruled Las Vegas, where cash of bill notes and coins were not counted but weighed in huge weighing machines simply because the volume was so huge. Turf wars between rivaling fractions of the Mafia for control saw many died by the guns or knives, knocked over by cars, crippled or just disappeared into the desert.
Well, something like that with some melodramatic spices, salt and pepper sprinkled generously. But Calvin always loved this story.
And the kids laughed and laughed. Good vacation when everyone would laugh and laugh.
Next Post: Charity is giving away something which you treasured.
As a jeweler, if one sells a fake, it will come back to haunt that person, perhaps years later when one least expect it.
Or if a person is a qualified gemologist and is running a gem lab performing such services as identification of diamonds, colored stones or jade and the issuances of certificates and Identification Reports, it will also come back to haunt that gemologist if certificates issued are not in conformance to stringent laboratory testing.
It was through a hazardous journey of buying fake gemstones and jade in Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma (Myanmar) that I decided to quit my cosy job in Burma in the late 90s to do the Graduate Gemologist(GG) at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in New York City. Jade and gemstones are in my blood and I thought that after being fleeced so often, it is better that I can identify genuine stuff from the fakes. I was the oldest student in my class at age 43.
Then when my daughter finished her High School at age 17, I packed her off to the Big Apple on a cold December day, to follow my footsteps if not my shadow, to do the GG at NYC. A young girl who had to throw away her dream of being a lawyer, living in a big metropolitan city all alone, and who had not stayed away from home for more than a month in her whole life. She was soon followed by her second brother and third brother. Sort of a do-re-mi, one key note after another. They were the youngest students in their class, all graduated before they reached 18, and all three did extremely well, at most times they could eye-ball a stone and made a call to its identity. Since young they have being sorting my gemstones which I brought back from those God-forsaken countries that I travelled and worked, all for the cost of a Macdonald or a Kentucky Fried Chicken meal.
So I often remind them: “Sell a genuine stone and you sleep better, sell a fake and it will come back to haunt you soon or even after years when you least expect it.”
Or if a person is in the business of a gem lab, especially for a small proprietor-own laboratory, it is easy to cut corners and skip some important tests and to conclude a stone as genuine or fake. I have seen a number of collusion between a gem lab and a jeweler to call a stone a fake when it is genuine or as genuine when it is a fake so as to run down a jeweler store in order to direct business to the gem lab proprietor friendly store.
(Note: The word fake is used loosely here.)
After completing their GG, the eldest daughter and second son went off to do Jewelry Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the youngest did his bachelor of finance at Baruch College, all at the Big Apple. They worked part time and full time as diamond sorter, diamond grader or sales assistance at some jewelry retail store at TriBeCa, China Town and at a Gem Lab in mid-town Manhattan.
So these 3 kiddos have being telling me their war stories, how to get the attention of the customer, how to handle irate customers, how to deflect questions to the boss when the store was selling fake items and how to think fast on their feet. It was also a learning process for me as well, an old dog needs to learn some new tricks too though at a slower pace.
In the next few posts I will share my experience with readers on some ass of a gem lab where they did a lousy job of jade and gemstones identification and thought that they could get away with it, after a number of years.
A very wealthy Mandarin in the city of Suzhou was throwing a grand banquet for his patriarch father to celebrate his 91st birthday. As a way to flaunt his wealth as well as to show his filial duty to his patriarch father, all the scions of the society, rich and powerful landlords and important Imperial officials were invited to the feast.
The Mandarin also invited a Zen monk, a famous calligrapher and who was very much revered for his Buddhist teachings in the city, to give
blessings to his father and to the continued well being, happiness and wealth for his family.
At the banquet the Mandarin requested the esteemed Monk to pen a calligraphy of prosperity, longevity and happiness to commemorate this great and auspicious occasion.
With the scroll of rich red vermillion rice paper laid out on the beautifully crafted antique rose wood table, the Monk rose to the occasion, his countenance now serene, tranquil and with a single-minded focus to the task on hand. The whole banquet hall suddenly fell into pin-dropped silence and everyone waited expectantly for the delivery of his great masterpiece as most of them would be the first time witness to the works of this legendary calligrapher.
With elan and flourish the Monk rolled up his right golden saffron sleeve to his elbow, dipped the thick paint brush onto a jade inkpot filled with black scented ink and with elaborate penmanship of a single, bold and powerful stroke the calligraphy came up thus:
“Grandfather, Father, Son Dies”
As the Mandarin looked on aghast, the Monk ordered a serf to hold up the scroll, turn and pan it slowly round to the audience. The audience of the whole banquet hall grasped in horror. How could a reverend Monk do such an incongruous and demeaning act to the gracious host on such a happy and joyful occasion as the celebration of the great patriarch birthday?
This was insulting and might bring calamity and misfortune to the family for the whole year round.
However, the Mandarin being a well learned and wise man realized the palpable tension and the volatile atmosphere might turn unpleasant if he reprimanded the Monk. The Mandarin would lose face and appear as uncouth in front of all the societies honored guests and his subjects.
He smiled and politely requested the Monk to interpret his calligraphy.
The Monk said, ”For us to enjoy peace, harmony and happiness the events of birth and death in a family should happen according to nature’s sequence order of natural death. This way the older generation would not moan over the death of a younger generation. Would it not be bliss then?”
The audience broke into a thunderous applause.
I have on a number of occasions attended funeral wakes where grieving parents sent off their sons or daughters who died suddenly in car accidents, of ill health and freak accidents or simply been caught in the wrong time and wrong place.
Their initial reaction when faced with the sudden departure of their loved ones is one of shock and disbelief, yesterday the son was alive and well and today he laid stiff in a casket coffin laced with lavender and white lilies. Lying serenely in the tight confines of the wooden elongated octagonal box with a rectangle glass opening, his cadaverous face still smiled impishly, the eyes closed in a perpetual state of eternal rest and the body covered in soft white satin. Kith and kin, relatives and friends from near and far came to say their last goodbye and tears flowed in their eyes as well as in their hearts. Such heart wrenching scenes will leave one numbed and one would realize that a life can be as fragile as a gossamer’s thread, suddenly broken and never to be joined again.
The grieving parties will not have the space and time to grieve during the wake as they have to attend the rituals of the religious ceremony of sending off the dead. When the funeral wake is over, when their friends go home, when all one carried back from the funeral home is the photograph frame (and a few days later the urn containing 6 or more pound of ashes, if the deceased is cremated) and when one is at home then the full import of the loss suddenly dawns on them. It is really painful when one has the luxury of time to grieve.
At first it is self-denial, refusing to accept the situation that the loved one has left us. Then one will take numerous guilt trips, blaming oneself for the sudden death, imagining and creating a number of ‘ifs’ situation where the deceased would not be in such a place when he met his death and the whole nightmare will not happen. After a long while, time still heals but it will never be the same again. Most parents never recover from the death of their children.
My cousin passed away a couple of years ago when he was 49. His mother, my father’s sister, was 87 then. At that time she was still sane. At the funeral wake she refused to acknowledge the death of her beloved son. She sat outside with friends and talked normally but refused to go inside to view the coffin. Her mind actually has snapped and she was in a state of denial. It was so pitifully to see an old lady in such great pain. One year later she died of grief.
My parents also have sent off my eldest brother in China and a sister too, but they were infants then and the wounds healed faster.
So in my daily prayers, I pray that my parents do not outlive me and I do not outlive my children.