In the run up to our move to Beijing, one issue loomed large: what to do with our two house cats, Tiny and Xiao Xiong.
Now, I can hear you thinking, cats is cats. No doubt they can be had a buck a bushel on any Beijing street corner. And you’d be right, although, to split things finely, the Beijingoise are more partial to little, yappy dogs than to cats.
Furthermore, you will be thinking, Chinese chefs are notorious for being able to conjure delicacies from the carcass of almost any animal. After all, kitchen-bound civit cats (not actually cats) were widely blamed for SARS and a stroll through any Chinese wet market will reveal that, with creativity, almost any creature can be stir-fried, braised or pickled in its own gastric juices. As the (possibly apocryphal) saying goes, if it walks with its back to the sun, the Chinese will eat it.
However, I believe that refers to the southern Chinese, who seem to be more gastronomically adventurous than the northerners who populate Beijing. Although dog is an expensive delicacy in Beijing, most local restaurants offer little more exotic than mutton and eel. Considering I’ve had fruit bat and squirrel in Singapore, that is hardly anything to get worked up about.
So I wasn’t really worried about my cats ending up in the stewpot. I was much more worried about animal import bureaucracy. After all, along with gunpowder, moveable type, paper money, neurosurgery, arbitrage, lip balm and the weather vane, the Chinese invented bureaucracy, and they’ve had four millennia to perfect it. When you consider that the national symbol of China, the Great Wall, is the world’s first government boondoggle, and it was an active project for 2000 years, it’s clear that bureaucracy here is world-class.
My company had thoughtfully recommended a local real-estate outfit to help me find an apartment. I asked them if they could provide information on pet importation into China. “Not recommended” was their official advice. I had the receptionist at our office do a little more research, and her results were more encouraging. With the appropriate documentation and inoculations, and a small fee for veterinary examinations, it should be possible to import the cats.
Meanwhile, my wife, Olivia, was busy researching the problem on her end. Singapore, it seems, has created a cottage industry to help expatriates get their fuzzy friends into and out of the country. After soliciting bids from a few such companies, she selected an outfit called Mitchville that claimed to be able to handle preparation of all necessary paperwork and inoculations and arrangement of shipping. Mitchville also assured us that, with appropriate documentation, it would not be necessary to quarantine the cats in Beijing, but that they would have to be restricted to our apartment for thirty days.
That was important to us. The idea of our cats in Chinese institutional care for a month was too horrible to contemplate. With our confidence thus bolstered, we decided to ship the cats to China to live with us.
Naturally, it did not go well.
First, Tiny sensed something was up and ran away the night Olivia left for China, forcing her to search the neighborhood to find him.
Then, after an uneventful flight, the real trouble began. As I waited in the international arrival area with our driver, I got a call from a distraught Olivia. The Chinese authorities were going to impound the cats for thirty days. Mitchville had been wrong. According to the customs official that Olivia was speaking to, the regulations had changed just two months previously, and thirty days quarantine was now mandatory.
While I waited helplessly outside, Olivia had it out with the customs authorities in Mandarin for an hour. She pleaded, cajoled, bargained, and made oblique references to “working things out” on the spot. It was all to no effect, and a morose and tearful Olivia emerged into the waiting area while an equally miserable Tiny and Xiong were packed off to Chinese kitty hoosegow.
Well, what do you do in this situation? Call the embassy?
“Consular services, how may I help you?”
“Uh, yeah, the Chinese authorities are detaining, well, um, my cats.”
“I see, sir. The ambassador has the gravest concern for your situation, and he will be in touch with the Chinese authorities immediately.”
“No, moron. Buy a freakin’ clue.” Click!
Maybe not. In fact, you do what we did, and call Mitchfield and read them the riot act and tell them to get their Chinese contact burning up the phone lines to find out what alternatives exist. We were pretty sure that thirty days in the Chinese hole would leave our cats dead or irreparably damaged, and Xiong, having been hit by a taxi in his younger days, was neurotic and spooky enough already.
After twenty-four hours, Mitchfield came back with the goods. As always in China, everything was, in the end, negotiable. The cats could be returned to us immediately. There was just one obstacle: six hundred US bucks in cash, if you please.
Once again, I can hear what you’re thinking. Six hundred bucks? Dude, it’s cats! They are practically free. Heck, ours are Singapore drain cats. They were free! That is, if you don’t count the thousands of dollars worth of lifetime vet bills, inoculations and the recent air-freight charges. But, then, why throw good money after bad?
Because, ultimately, they were our cats. And, god help me, I love the obnoxious, smelly, little beasts. And I was moving my wife to Beijing and she was going to be studying full time in the house, and I knew the cats could make the difference between her feeling like she was at home, and her feeling lonely and isolated.
So I barged my way into the Bank of China after closing time and wrestled the US dollars out of my account (no mean feat at the best of times). The next day Olivia handed it to a representative of the local moving company working with Mitchfield, and later that day two dirty, stressed-out but otherwise unharmed cats were delivered to our apartment. Net total detention: two days.
Ultimately, I’m glad we brought the cats to China. Although we were rewarded for our efforts and expense with month of ungrateful complaints (we can’t go outside; there are no lizards to kill; this place smells funny; I hate you; etc.), they do make our apartment feel like home. And my clothes wouldn’t be my clothes if they weren’t perpetually dusted with cat hair.
But if you are considering moving to China, and you ask my advice on bringing your pets, I have two words: