Foreigners find a friend in home away from home

Updated: 2012-06-07 02:26

By Cao Yin (China Daily)

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Editor's note: After the launch of Beijing's campaign against the illegal entry and employment of foreigners on May 15, China Daily submitted a request to follow exit-entry officers carrying out their duties in areas with a large presence of expatriates. This is the first in a series of stories on the subject.

Foreigners find a friend in home away from home

Zhang Tao, a police officer in Sanlitun, tells Luca Fidanza, an assistant restaurant manager, to call him at any time. Zhu Xingxin / China Daily

When I was asked by the official at Beijing's exit-entry administration which community I wanted to spend time in, the answer was easy: Sanlitun.

Chocked full of Western-style bars, restaurants and stores, as well as 25 embassies, it is to many expatriates what Chinatowns across the world are to Chinese, a home away from home.

Yet, it is also one of the few places mentioned by name on May 15 when the capital's public security bureau announced the launch of its 100-day crackdown on immigrants who enter, stay or work in the country illegally.

I arrived on Sunday at the gates of Sanlitun police station, behind Sanlitun Village North in central Chaoyang district, at about 9 am. Zhang Tao, the foreign affairs officer for Beisanli community, was waiting for me.

"My area has a residential precinct with more than 11,000 people, including 1,100 temporary residents, as well as a bar street and several foreign embassies," he said as he led me to his office, which is 100 meters away under a large poplar tree.

A tall, stocky 44-year-old, Zhang has held his post for six years and clearly enjoys what he does. As we walked, he exchanged friendly waves with several residents, Chinese and foreign.

"I'm here from 9 am to 9 pm and on 24-hour call two days a week," he said, adding with a smile: "My personal cell phone number is an open secret around here."

At the entrance to Zhang's office, which he shares with his 52-year-old assistant, Jin Guiqin, are piles of pamphlets in Chinese and English on visa applications, accommodation and general tips for foreign residents. There is a printer and passport scanner, which means expats can register there as soon as they arrive in Beijing.

Posted on one wall is a large color-coded map of the community's apartment buildings that Zhang made in 2008.

"The colors show me how many people live in an apartment and what nationality they are," he explained.

One particular compound has more than 50 expats, including Norwegians and Italians, and most are managers or owners of bars and restaurants, Zhang said. Their apartments are marked in blue.

"We update the map once a month and often call to confirm how long residents will stay," he said.

Jin, his assistant, added that he will regularly text foreign residents or post messages on doors to remind them if their visa or accommodation documents are about to expire.

Equal treatment

We had been chatting for a while when I asked Zhang about his nightly patrols, which usually take in the alley behind Sanlitun Village North, popular for its drinking spots.

"It's common to see drunk people at night, and there are thefts and fights," Zhang said, adding that he recently caught a gang from Mongolia stealing cell phones from restaurant diners.

Most crimes are minor, he said, but foreign residents and tourists who commit offenses still need to be treated equally under Chinese law.

He recalled an incident in 2008 when a drunk British man knocked over a rack of CDs in a store and tried to run away. "The owner was furious. I caught the offender and made him apologize, as well as clean up the mess he'd made," Zhang said.

"Actually, in my experience, most foreigners totally understand our work and feel guilty when they realize that their behavior is not appropriate," he added.

Zhang also deals with civil disputes between Chinese and foreigners, which often prove complex due to language and cultural barriers.

To demonstrate his point, we walked over to Hosen Japanese Restaurant on Sanlitun Beixiaojie to meet owner Izumisawa Shigeki, who was recently embroiled in a row with an elderly Chinese woman after his pet pooch, Tailang, bit her dog.

"She asked me for compensation, which I paid, but she still wanted more money. It was unreasonable," said the 52-year-old businessman, adding that the woman began to regularly visit his restaurant to bang on the windows. "It became a hassle. She affected my work and life."

Zhang eventually settled the matter after several rounds of mediation. "It seemed like a simple case, but I had to go to the restaurant many times," he said. "I had to make sure I explained everything clearly to both sides."

Knowledge of cultures

Zhang started work at 16 as a soldier and was assigned to stand guard at several embassies. Over the years he learned about the customs and cultures of a number of countries, and developed a keen interest in languages.

He can speak basic sentences in seven languages, including Arabic, he said, but admitted that more training could be given to people in his job to improve their communication with foreign residents.

"I'm not good at English, but I try explaining regulations to foreigners," he said. "If someone doesn't understand me, I'll show them the service guide and turn to pages in English."

Shigeki, the owner of Hosen, has lived in Beijing for about seven years and speaks good Chinese. I was keen to see how Zhang interacts with foreign residents in English, so I joined him for his nightly patrol, which he does after 6 pm.

While passing through Nali Patio, I suggested we visit Mosto, an Italian restaurant on the third floor, where we met 48-year-old Luca Fidanza, the assistant manager, who said the owner was unavailable and that he did not speak Chinese.

Zhang said in English that he was patrolling the area and distributing English-language leaflets about accommodation and employment. He then moved on to talk with the Chinese employees.

As he did so, I chatted briefly with Fidanza about the role of foreign affairs officers. "Zhang coming here is a good development. He has useful information for newcomers to Beijing," he said, adding that he supports the work of the police.

After leaving Mosto, we went toward the embassy area, and I asked Zhang to stop at Schindler's, a German restaurant also on Sanlitun Beixiaojie.

General manager Thorsten Eckert welcomed us with open arms, literally. He hugged Zhang before offering him a seat.

"Zhang's friendly, open-minded and helpful," said the 48-year-old, who has been in Beijing since March 2011. "He has told my colleagues, and I, how to solve passport problems. We have a good working relationship."

With that, my first tour with the exit-entry administration was over. Zhang said goodbye and headed back toward the bright lights of Sanlitun Village North.

"See, my work is not just about managing foreign residents," he said before leaving. "I'm also here to serve them."

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