Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hong Kong-Memories from the 80's

I have many good memories each time I visit Hong Kong. I lived here for 5 months in the middle 1980’s working for a company that was put together for the purpose of selling color picture tube technology to the Chinese. An enterprising Greek man, who formerly worked at Zenith, somehow associated himself with a Chinese man and woman who formed Lotus Engineering. Nick hired me after an interview at the Hyatt near O’Hare due to my 18 years experience at RCA and having worked in the Soviet Union providing technical assistance setting up color tube manufacturing plants spanning 3 different cities. That is another rich tale that deserves a future exposure.

I was unemployed at the time and living in Rockford, IL and my future job opportunities looked extremely dim at the time. So I jumped at the chance in spite of having to leave my three children in their early 20’s to fend for themselves.

In those days, a trip to Hong Kong on United Airlines from Chicago required a flight to Seattle first, then a plane change and depending on the head winds, a refueling stop at Midway Island or Guam. The old Hong Kong airport was one of the most difficult to negotiate with surrounding buildings and a short runway.

Soon after I arrived I found permanent lodging in a high rise in Discovery Bay on Lantau Island, which was accessible only by boat. My view over looked the beach below and the western end of Hong Kong island. There were always boat of many sizes anchored between Hong Kong and Lantau islands, and a constant variety to the panoramic view. At times the mist and fog prevented any view at all, especially in the mornings. The best vistas were always contained a small amount of sea mist which always helped to promote the idea of mystical intrigue and adventure were available to all that dared venture out.

There are two modest size hover-craft boats that transport residents of Discovery Bay to the main island. This is how I went to work 6 days a week and return to my apartment except when the hover craft broke down. Normally, the ride is about 20 minutes but in heavy seas somewhat longer. After disembarking from the hover craft, I take a short walk to the Star Ferry terminal and board the ferry to across over to Kowloon. Then, either a 10 minute walk past the historic Peninsular Hotel or a 5 minute bus ride is chosen to travel to the South Seas Towers in Tsim Sha Tsui and then up the elevator to the top 10th floor, and I was at my desk.

The Hong Kong I experienced is long gone. Street food vendors once tempted passer-bys with charcoal fired woks emanating aromas of garlic, peanut oil, fried pork or chicken, bok choy and other exotic vegetables or fruit. If you weren’t too facetious, in 5 minutes a delicious meal could be purchased at a very reasonable price. And you got to watch the chef all the way.

Gone is the Hot Lips Bar romanticized by an article in the New Yorker magazine referring to reminiscences of the movie “World of Suzie Wong”. One executive guest, I took around to see the city, wanted to go there. Soon after we entered the Hot Lips, we sat down in a large booth, the required escorts came and sat down next to us, the obligatory watered down drinks came and we of course we gladly paid. The escorts were definitely not comparable to Susie as their glow of youth had now to be applied with brushes, but they were reasonably attractive and had good teeth.

Soon after the second round, my visiting exec began to negotiate with mama-san to pay her for the loss of the escort’s time the rest of the evening. He slapped down some bills and soon he walked out with the seamstress by day, mystery woman by night.

Sure this sort of thing still goes on, but the circumstances will never quite be the same. The Hot Lips Bar is gone, but not the memory.

Most of Tsim Sha Tsui had changed into brightly lit modern shops with clean floors and spaced out merchandise. There are no places to buy ivory anymore, not that I ever wanted to buy any. Fake Rolexes and other counterfeits were openly displayed although in the rear of the store. Shady street people appearing on almost every corner could offer a nice looking watch for about a dollar. I always had the feeling of knowing I was going to be ripped off if I bought anything and was always careful to find an honest merchandiser.

Tailor shops abounded on Nathan Road and a man of Indian descent always stood outside enticing me to buy a silk suit made in one day. It was always assumed I was a tourist and had to leave in a couple of days. There were warnings that getting a one day suit would not fit as well as one that took 3 days and had final details ironed out on the 2nd day. I did buy a silk tailored shirt that was made to my longer than normal arm length but the warm weather of Hong Kong didn’t make owning a lot of suits an attractive deal.

There were still rickshaws that operated around the Star Ferry back then. The men were old, wiry, skin and bones, men that probably escaped from China during the Cultural Revolution and had no other skills to offer. I never used one as I thought it looked too bourgeoisie. But there were always a few tourists who would at least get in one to have their picture taken.

Lantau Island is now home of the new airport and is connected to both Kowloon and Hong Kong Island with new bridges, roads, and tunnels with the addition of hotels and convention centers that usually surround major international airports. Even Disney Land is there now. When I took my hover-craft to Discovery Bay, there was nothing to see except green hills and ocean.

When I lived in Hong Kong, I ate twice on the floating restaurant, the Sea Palace that sets just of the town of Aberdeen. I took a bus to Aberdeen, walked a little to the water front, where there was a water taxi that could sit six. After disembarking from the taxi, and walking up the ramp to the restaurant, I walked past a smoke filled room and first heard then saw Chinese playing Mah-Jongg. Believe me the Mah-Jongg solitary computer game is nothing like what they were engaged in. This game is like American poker, with lots of bets and money at sake. The restaurant provided a great decor and good food; taking a boat to a boat to have dinner that was the novelty. (Note: I still have the chop sticks from my last dinner there and use them often to eat any noodle dish)

Then there was the trip to Stanley which is also on Hong Kong Island. Stanley is famous for its markets and bargains to be found. I took a double-decker bus that climbed over the mountains to the other side of the island. I bought Xmas presents there at very reasonable prices.

These two unique places are things I want to keep in my memories just as they were, and I hope I am never tempted to return to them.

Probably what I will remember most about the old Hong Kong are the disco clubs which introduced me to a sub culture within the country. As exotic and exciting as Hong Kong to be sometime, there was no one to share things with and life was definitely lonely at times. I resorted to going to one of my favorite past times, dancing. There I met the maids of Hong Kong. They were mostly Filipinos in their late twenties or thirties and not only do they like to sing, but they like to dance also. I found some favorite dance partners who also became my friends.

Many people could afford maids in Hong Kong and many of them lived in the place where they were employed. Maid quarters consisted of a small room that held a bed and little else, about the size of a walk in closet in the States. The women would send what was left over from their wages back home where the money greatly helped their parents and younger children.

What made making friends so easy was that they spoke English. Josie became my girl friend and sometimes we would sleep together. She has a Catholic and a virgin and wanted to stay that way until she married. Since I knew I wasn’t going to marry her, I respected her wishes. We would sleep spooned together and I think we were both happy to feel physical and emotional contact with another person. She was a sweet kind hearted sole.

When I returned to the States I wrote to her for a while and two other Chinese from work, Bill and Amy.. There was much concern as to what life would be when Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese control. It happened in 1997 and by that time Bill Wong had emigrated to Canada and I soon lost track of him and the other two also disappeared from my life.

As it turned out Hong Kong is under Chinese control, but it is a separate country and has its own government. There is no Great Internet Wall in Hong Kong and information about the rest of the world is freely available. Perhaps China will become more like Hong Kong in the future.


GETkristiLOVE said...

One of the results of being left to fend for myself is the ability to forge your signature.

I remember visiting you there and laying out on the beach of Lantau island and raising an eyebrow. The fully-clothed Chinese would walk by, point and stare and the British nannies would sort of scoff at me and not let the kids get close.

I want to go back again some day but am afraid I won't recognize anything. I can't image big planes landing on the island where you used to live.

Dad E said...

I remember you went with me to Stanley and the floating restaurant and taking the tram up to Victoria Peak. The airport is on the back side of Lantau, something I never saw

Anonymous said...

Navy ship visited HK in '63, so we called British Military Hospital for dates for 8 of us, went to Kowloon, rented 4 rickshaws for the night, and hit every nightclub in Kowloon for drinking and dancing including the great Firecracker Room in the President Hotel, Filipino bands playing the Beatles. Gpt back to ferry landing at 5am and had to rent a sloop to get back to ship on Victoria side. Most fun of my life.