Two weeks ago, the general mood at the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA) annual conference in Shanghai was, for me, established on day one. I was having lunch with a French fertilizer distributor, who when not moodily pushing round the food on his plate with his chopsticks, was making monosyllabic utterances about the pretty dismal state of the fertilizer market in general, and his little corner of it in particular. A few Gallic shrugs later, I'd had enough. It was a long lunch.
By the end of day 1 I was pretty miserable too. And I had two more full days of meetings like this.
I could understand the misery. Last year, everyone was making pots of cash on the back of booming fertilizer prices, driven by high crop prices, and the mood was buoyant. Now, since the collapse in the financial markets, farmer credit has dried up, crop prices are uncertain and the fertilizer market has seen a near collapse. 2008 was already being consigned to history as a never-to-be-repeated aberration.
It was perhaps the spirit of this masochistic misery that I subconsciously allowed the rather scruffy looking man sitting behind me in a hotel coffee shop to expertly steal my wallet. Talking with friends and colleagues afterwards, it is quite true that, looking back, you realize exactly when it happened. I remember colliding with the suspect when I got up to go to the bathroom, inadvertently hitting him with my chair.
I like to think of myself as fairly savvy. I've traveled to some pretty dodgy places for work and pleasure and this kind of thing had never happened to me before. The lobby of the Shangri La hotel was not a war zone and there were two colleagues sitting at my table. Surely they would notice anything amiss while I walked to the bathroom, leaving my jacket on my chair?
Alas no. About 10 minutes later as I got up to leave and pay the bill, I realized what had happened. It is a sickening feeling. First there's the frantic call home to the wife, waking her up in the process to ask her to cancel all the credit cards. Then there's anger - what good to him is my gym membership card or my pass at the driving range, all of which needed replacing.
Then a curious calm descends upon you. I became quite sleuth-like, asking for CCTV footage - unfortunately the cameras did not cover the exact scene of the crime. Then I retraced my steps through the lobby, looking under tables and chairs, and getting a few odd looks.
This kind of news ripples through a conference pretty quickly. And the hotel bent over backwards to help. This included commandeering the bell boy, Irwin, who accompanied me to the Shanghai police station in the hotel limo.
While much of urban China has "modernized", let's just say its police stations are stuck firmly in the 1950s. It was like a scene out of a film. The police were clearly having fun with the bell boy. Poor Irwin was patiently trying to explain what had happened, but the policeman on the reception desk kept getting up, only to be replaced by someone else. It was clear a decadent westerner losing his wallet was of little concern to them. I decided to remain patient. Any sign of antagonism would only protract the whole process several hours.
After 20 minutes I was finally allowed into an interview room. Bare white walls, bare desks, no natural light. No air con just a fan which kept blowing my passport onto the floor. There was one attempt to lighten the place up. A potted plant stood forlornly in a corner, unwatered for several days.
There followed a painstaking review of what the wallet contained and what make it was. Time and time again my passport was checked. Fortunately, my visa said businessman rather than journalist. Otherwise I'd still be there today.
Then I described the suspect, my version of events as best I could recall them. This took an hour. At no time did any policeman make eye contact, or acknowledge my presence. It was disconcerting.
Eventually, I got what I had come for. A certificate with a crime number on it so I could claim for my losses back home through insurance.
I remained stoically British to the end, I thought, and went to shake the policeman's hand, who looked totally non-plussed, but eventually offered his hand.
Then the police disappeared to input all the data onto their computers. I was left alone with Irwin, who chirpily started talking about Premier League soccer. He was a Liverpool fan, which made it bearable. God bless Irwin (later in the hotel I filled in a card saying how he had "gone the extra mile" to help a guest). He's probably head bell boy now.
I resisted the temptation to steal a police cap from the rows upon rows of them I was passing as I left. It would have made for a nice souvenir and would have pleased my son no end.
It all certainly made the conference a little more memorable.