Banking on being able to do the business
It started about three months ago. An official from the Beijing diplomatic housing department rang to say my rent cheque had been returned. It was for a sizeable sum, as I have to pay three months rent in one go and accommodation for foreigners in the Chinese capital is not cheap. So this was a serious matter.
It was sent back, he said, not because the account had insufficient funds (it had). The Citic Bank branch in central Beijing where I keep my money had ruled that the autograph on the cheque did not quite match that of the specimen I had given when I opened my account a year ago.
Over the years my signature has become something of a squiggle, but it is a very recognisable squiggle and I have never had a cheque returned when living in Dublin or anywhere else for such a reason.
I often go to the same branch to cash cheques personally. The efficient and friendly counter staff know me well by now, and they know my moniker, so I was a bit puzzled that this had happened.
I duly wrote another cheque, inscribing it as legibly as I could without actually printing the name. It was cleared, but the whole process meant the bank held on to a tidy sum of my money for about two weeks longer than it should.
Then other calls started coming in. Cheques were being refused all over the place. I had to return one twice before it was cleared. My patience ran out and I rang the bank. They were only trying to protect me as in each case the signatures did not quite match, a bank clerk said.
I wrote an angry letter to the bank manager and delivered it by hand. "Please stop doing this," I wrote, pointing out that my signature had not changed and that I could not accept their excuse that they wanted to protect me, as my cheques with the same autograph had been accepted for months without question.
I resisted voicing my suspicion that this was deliberate policy to hold on to deposits as long as possible.
The manager rang next day. He would tell the staff to honour my cheques in future, he promised, but could I please call in to give a new specimen of my signature. Face is important in China, so I did. Smiles all round.
Some days later when I was travelling out of town I got an urgent message from my office. An important and sizeable cheque for an essential service to The Irish Times here had been returned.
I didn't need to ask why. Again the signature had not been accepted. I called the bank once more, got a new assurance it would not happen again and, as soon as I got back to Beijing, re-issued the cheque and posted it. That was last Monday. The same morning I dropped by the bank to withdraw some cash for Christmas shopping. As always, I signed my cheque with a ballpoint pen. It was a bank-issue blue biro, I remember, the one that is always there attached to the counter by a coil of plastic. The signature merited hardly a glance. As I said, they know me. They don't ask for my passport anymore as proof of identification and the clerk cashed the cheque immediately.
Later that morning I wrote another cheque for a person who had done some work for the office. He returned, embarrassed, in the afternoon. The bank had refused to cash it. "What reason did they give?" I asked, the blood beginning to boil. "Was it the signature?" "The signature is OK," came the reply, "but the bank clerk says all cheques must be signed in fountain pen."
The surface of Citic Bank cheques is quite glossy and unsuitable for fountain-pen ink but, that aside, this was a new one on me - and I had earlier that day cashed a cheque signed with the bank's own ballpoint pen.
In near despair, I fetched my fountain pen and wrote another cheque for him, signing it neatly and legibly in blue ink. Later that day we met and I asked if everything had gone OK. "Yes, they gave me the money," he said, "but they told me they would not cash such a cheque in future. They said it should have been signed in black ink."
Incandescent, I rang the bank. "What's going on?" I asked.
"There's a new regulation," an official said coolly. "The Central Bank of China has issued instructions that as from December 1st, all cheques must be signed in black ink using a fountain or a marker pen."
"Why had I not been told?" I fumed, but got only the equivalent of a shrug over the telephone.
Then I remembered that the important and sizeable cheque I had re-issued and posted that morning had been signed in blue, with a ballpoint pen. I rang the bank again. Would they make sure and cash it, I asked through clenched teeth? OK, they would, came the reply; as a favour.