The Fire Extinguisher Salesman
The office where I first worked in Hong Kong was located in Printing House, in Hong Kong’s Central District. The entrance was on Duddell Street, but the opposite side of the building faced Ice House Street, with a small balcony and view of a green slope often visited by flocks of noisy white cockatoos.
Ice House Street, traditionally Hong Kong’s equivalent of Wall Street, was so named because of the ice-filled warehouses located there during the clipper ship era, awaiting cargos of furs, ginseng, and other perishable items shipped in from the New World and elsewhere.
1974年的香港中环街景 / Hong Kong’s Central District, 1974
One early afternoon, while my boss was out and the receptionist was having a day off, a very talkative salesman made his way into the office. He was well dressed and carried a smart leather attaché case. He talked a mile-a-minute and was well into his sales pitch before I had any idea what it was that he was selling.
His performance was so captivating that I did not interrupt him until some time after he had pulled a sample of his product out of his leather case: a fire extinguisher. By the time I wanted to let him know I was not the decision-maker on such a purchase, I couldn’t get a word in edge-wise.
He built up to a crescendo of reasons why his fire extinguisher was a “must-have” item, and seemed determined not to let me voice any objections or questions.
Finally I had no choice but to interrupt him rather emphatically and tell him, repeatedly, that there was no one in the office capable of buying his product, and as far as I knew the office already had fire extinguishers anyway.
Once my point was made, his demeanor changed from sunny and effervescent to dark and menacing. Scowling, he asked if I, my colleagues, or any of our loved ones had ever personally suffered the pain, agony and loss associated with a fire. He embellished this question richly with descriptions of the ruinous devastation which fires can cause. On and on he went.
His line of questioning seemed to me to be just short of threatening, so I decided to ask him to leave. He initially resisted, even trying to demonstrate his product off the edge of the office balcony.
I thought he’d well and truly crossed the line, so I bluntly asked him to leave, which he finally did.
I placed his business card on my desk and tried to get back to work, but I was distracted by his extraordinary and disturbing approach. Momentarily I wondered if he really was from the company listed on his business card, which was a well-known trading company with its roots in Holland.
So I picked up the telephone, dialled his company, and asked for the manager in charge. In short order, a Dutch fellow was on the line.
I first sought to confirm whether the salesman was indeed their employee. Yes was the answer.
I then said I was calling to say that the salesman had used thinly veiled threats to sell his fire extinguishers, which I found disturbing and unprofessional, to say the least.
The manager made all sorts of sympathetic noises and expressed his profound apologies on behalf of their firm.
He then asked whether or not I had purchased any fire extinguishers.
I said I had not.
He went on to say he was probably going to have to consider letting the salesman go.
“You mean because he used this kind of threatening sales pitch?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “All of the sales people use that approach, but despite this one also using it, he still doesn’t sell many fire extinguishers.”
OK. Got it.
Now I knew this naïve Midwestern kid was swimming in a much bigger sea and should be prepared for all kinds of surprises.