WT-purpleIt’s explained nicely in the blurb, by the way, but could you give us a quick premise/sum-up of your book, Over For Rockwell?

Okoye is pretty much a regular guy in his second year of college, which to him feels like a dead end. He wants to draw comics and he feels trapped doing the liberal arts thing. He’s also developed some romantic ideas about Hong Kong, based on movies and descriptions from a Chinese pal. So he drops out of school, goes on a whim, and from there his life explodes, in terms of excitement. Not that he gets much drawing done . . .

In Transit

By Dan Coxon

Travel

London Map

Our home slumbers in pieces, in boxes, in brown paper wrap. Room after room of brown paper wrap. Ridiculously oversized parcels block the corridors and doorways in the shape of sofas, free-standing multi-purpose bookcase units. Then there are the boxes. Towering, teetering stacks of brown boxes, their contents pared down to single words on the side. Bedroom; bathroom; kitchen; lounge. Check.

Part Two: A Bird in the Hand


Big Shot

YY strides into the office. He has a flip flop on one foot and a squeaky crepe-soled shoe on the other, but he’s wearing a light three-piece herringbone suit with its standard silver sheen.  I do notice, however, that his toenails could do with a serious pedicure.  It’s best not to look down.

This strange attire doesn’t seem to faze him in the slightest.  He tells me his doctor’s put him on a diet since his foot started acting up: no red meat and plenty of greens.  I can only surmise that due to his standard meaty-fare with creamy excess he’s developed gout in one of his feet.

Still, the first thing he says is:

“Maac, today we have lunch.  We meet Shenyang* Big Shot.  He like seafood.  We go to floating palace restaurant.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that YY enjoys talking in riddles.

YY Stratagem Number 1: Only ever give them enough to get their curiosity piqued.

YY’s secretary notes the lunch in her diary.  Shirley Luk is as meticulous and efficient as they come—everything has a paperclip, every file is marked according to date and priority with a typed strip of paper, every scrap of colored paper is recycled, each and every pen accounted for.

Shirley takes care of all YY’s English correspondence.  Shirley’s one of the few secretaries I know who can translate from Mandarin directly into English shorthand. She never wears even a little make up, not a dab; only, she adores her fingernails and manicures them every lunch break after eating her ritual peanut butter and blueberry jelly sandwich.  She paints her nails in bright colors: puce, hot pink, neon green and chartreuse.  Sometimes she adds a gold star or a rhinestone to her pinkie-nail.

I can’t help but thinking she should send YY to visit her manicurist—for his toes.

Along time ago YY knew Shirley’s father, some old-time mogul from Tianjin, at least that’s what Frank tells me, a couple of weeks earlier on a Sunday trip to Lamma Island**.  The trip is something related to Hong Kong University, on a beach, with a bonfire and a live Cantonese punk band called KooKoo.  Frank is staggeringly drunk and slobbers over some Australian girl, who, by the end of the night has finally had enough and tosses her beer in his face.  Frank still has to learn not to pinch women’s buttocks.

When he calms down, we sit on a rock overlooking the dimly lit power plant that reminds me of something straight out of a Ridley Scott flick. Frank, now slightly sobered-up, starts rolling a joint.

“You know Shirley is married to Richard, right?” he says taking his first toke.  “Well, YY forced him to marry her.”

“How could he force him?”

“Richard’s father worked with YY’s Dad in Shanghai.  YY took Richard under his wing when he’d just turned twenty.  They’re all beholden to each other.  Part of the deal was that Richard had to marry Shirley.  I mean look at her?  Who’d want to marry that?”

“Well, she isn’t much to look at, but she’s sharp as they come and she’s got great fingernails,” I say.

“So why is she just a secretary, married to some souped-up-clerk-come-plastic-bag-factory manager?”

Richard Kwo was recently appointed manager of YY’s polyethylene bag factory in the New Territories.  I know Polycore Enterprises ships container loads of these bags to China, though honestly I haven’t a clue what they’re being used for when they get there. There’s a rumor going around the office that YY is doing business with some shady Australian silicone-chip-smuggling-ring.  Frank reckons somehow the bags are collateral.  Though what would Frank know?  He’s a local sales clerk.  Deals in babies’ nappies and baby food.  It suits him down to the bone.

“It’s the first trick in the book,” says Frank, passing me the joint.

And here it comes: YY Stratagem Number 2, in Frank’s words:

Tie someone to you—through family, money, or some other underhanded method—and if you play them right, you have them in the palm of your hand for life. Everyone who has any decent position in YY’s empire is tied to him in some fashion.  Shirley’s Dad was beholden to YY, as was Richard’s.  Shirley desperately needed a husband, but that husband had to be someone who YY could control.  All makes sense, doesn’t it?”

I’m starting to think about my own position here at the Company.

“You never wondered why the evening entertainment when doing business in this neck of the woods is often more important than the signing of the deal itself?” asks Frank.

“I’m listening.”

“This is how they do it if there’s no family connection, even with laowais*** like you. First they get you plied with Maotai****, VSOP or whatever other snakebite’s handy, then they see if they can get you to reveal one of your secrets.  Something about your ‘bit on the side,’ your illegitimate son, or that rainy day cash you have stashed tax-free in the Caiman Islands.  If that doesn’t work, they’ll drag you to the strip club or the karaoke bar and get girls to sit on your lap.  They’ll take snapshots of you with the hostess dancing cheek to cheek.  Even better, pay a hooker for you—especially if they know you’re married.  Before you know it, you’re chained at the wrist.”

I think about some of those late night/early morning business parties.  Most of the time I don’t even remember what happened the day after.  When I really start reflecting upon it, here in the Company most of us who do the legwork are bachelors so there’s not much customers or buyers can hold over us. I know there’s another YY stratagem at work here.

“What about the straight-out bribe?”

One of YY’s accountants comes to mind, Little Foo, he’s called.  Most of us call him ‘Little Fool.’  Maybe he isn’t such a fool after all.  Yesterday I saw he had a spanking new Breitling watch.  I make a mental note to keep an eye on him.

“Sure,” says Frank. “Course that can get you into jail.  Generally they’ll be subtler. During the course of the night they’ll hand you what looks like a sealed pack of cigarettes.  When you get home, you find someone’s slipped two thousand dollars in there.  What are you going to do? Give it back?

“Ever notice how YY doesn’t drink, and never attends any of those parties?  How he always sends you along instead?  Certainly not generosity, Marc,”  Frank sniggers.

“So how do you avoid it, without offending someone?”

“You don’t,” says Frank.  “If you’re middle-management or lower, you haven’t a choice.  That’s why it’s generally better to be in sales than in purchasing. You need to have a heart of stone to be in purchasing.”

And Frank goes on. This time he gives me YY Stratagem Number 2, in detail:

As far as I’ve observed, YY has three golden rules:  One: Connect everything and everyone as deeply as possibly, but connect them through you.  Two: Always make sure you are the most important link in the chain. And, three: Make sure they are always a hungry for more. In other words, always keep something they really want just within a hair out of reach. After many years, you’ll be forced to give them that carrot you’ve dangled, by that time though, you need to ensure there’s something else they want. And they always do.”

I can see Frank is going to make it far in the Company.

 

Bigger Fish to Fry

YY barges into the restaurant, ignores the hostess and plunks himself down on the biggest table—surely one for ten, rather than three.  He clicks his fingers and two waiters come running, each hand him a menu and he rattles a detailed order off in Mandarin without consulting what I might like to eat.  A few minutes later, a grey-haired Chinese man appears with two attractive ladies trailing behind.  One carries his briefcase; the other carries his mobile phone (a giant thing the size of a small loaf of bread; remember this is the early nineties).  He sits down next to YY and greets him in Shanghainese—nong hao rather that the Mandarin ni hao—which sends YY into spasms of laughter. (I know this guy is from North China, Shenyang, so the badly pronounced Shanghainese greeting is nothing more than a politeness, an effort to put YY at ease.)

YY points at me, then says, “Maac,” and rattles something off in Mandarin.

I’ve been told that YY’s Mandarin is—well, not poor—but heavily-Shanghai-accented.  Frank tells me that at times YY can barely be understood.  Be that as it may, I’ve never seen anyone acting offended in the slightest, from the lowliest busboy to the Vice-Secretary of the Communist Party.  I guess it pays to be a billionaire.

The man, whom I’ve now discovered is called Mister Sheng, seems to favor the same shiny silver suits that YY does.  In fact, from a distance, you’d be sure the two of them had the same tailor, only I know by his posture and bearing that Sheng is a Chinese government official, so it’s unlikely that he has his suits tailored in Hong Kong—far too expensive.  Or is it?

After pleasantries, we dig into endless platters that keep appearing on the spinning Lazy Susan:  whelks sautéed in vinegar and liquor and sprinkled with chives, mussels on the half shell with some kind of vermicelli noodles, scallops the size of my fist and a whole red lobster each.  The girls tuck in vigorously, slipping me a glance every once in while, then tittering under breaths.  YY and the man are gabbling away about some big business deal. Not a single word is translated for a least half an hour, until:

“Maac,” says YY.  “Tomorrow you go Shenyang.  You help Mister Sheng sell aircraft parts to Big Shot American buyers.  This is big business.” Mister Sheng smiles, but his mouth is full of lobster.  Unpleasant, but surely well intended.

I’m moderately stunned, but not really.  I’ve started to learn to expect snap decisions from YY.

“Then after Shenyang, two days, you go to our Beijing office to start some paper sales.”

Talk about getting tossed into the South China Sea without a rubber ring isn’t even in it.  For the last three weeks, I’ve been working with the marketing department on a new brochure, answering some correspondence with potential customers of China-made leather wallets and briefcases.  Now I am suddenly promoted to aircraft-component-salesman-numero-uno, and paper?  Of course, I didn’t breathe a word.


A City that Never Sleeps—Not Really

A Mister Jin meets me at the gate at Shenyang Airport.  He’s holding a great big white placard that looks like it may well have been used for resting teacups on it at some stage.  It reads in big capital letters:

MISTER MARʞ

The K is written backwards.  I raise my hand and move my trolley towards him.  He smiles a full set of gold teeth.  I think about telling him that I spell my name with a C, and besides, the K is backwards, but after due consideration, I realize it isn’t worth the effort.

In the car, a twenty-year-old van which rattles so much I think the steering wheel is going to come off in Jin’s hands, he asks me, “So, you big aircraft parts salesman, eh?  Mister YY tell me you are top ace.”

“Top ace?”

“Top ace,” he repeats, then throws me one of his golden smiles and gives me a thumbs-up.

“Hold the steering wheel, please!” I shout, as Jin just about misses a bicyclist on the side of the road.

“No worry,” he chuckles.  “Bicycle move.  He doesn’t want be killed.”

“Neither do I,” I say, which, of course, sends Jin into rippling laughter.  Jin seems to laugh at just about anything out of the ordinary—or, out of the ordinary to him.  This includes more things he’s only ever heard of about laowais, or perhaps he’s caught a glimpse of on TV.

Jin likes to talk about sex, or rather with whom and in which fashion I enjoy sex.  He begins this deviousness slowly in the car, first asking about whether I’m married.  I say no.  He asks if I like Chinese women.  I say sure.  He asks if all western women have big breasts, not like Chinese women who are flat as ‘runaways.’

“Runaways?”

“You know airplane runaways,” he says.

I put my two hands together and make a motion like a plane taking off.  This sends Jin into raptures, and I have to remind him to keep his eyes on the road again.

It’s about nine pm when we arrive, and I could kill for a drink. After check in I ask Jin if he’ll join me, but he declines saying he has to get home to the wife who’s already angry with him.

“Why’s she angry at you?” I ask, certain I’m opening a can of worms.

He giggles.

“What?” I shake my head.

“Too much sex,” he says.

“She’s demanding, eh?”

“No,” he says.  “She doesn’t like it.”  Then he moves in a little closer and whispers, “I lie.  I no go home now; I go to see my other lady.  She never say no.”

I’m looking at Jin, this skinny chap, possibly in his early fifties, a full set of gold teeth and thick fop of greasy black hair.  You can see the dandruff flakes from ten strides away.  His collar looks like it hasn’t been washed in weeks, and there’s some kind of yellowish stain on the sleeve of his beige jacket.  It’s hard to believe how this guy could afford a second wife.

“How do you do it, Jin?” I ask smiling.

He puffs out his chest and says, “Superman,” then strides off into the hotel parking lot chuckling to himself.

There is a bar here and believe it or not, a lounge pianist too.  The guy seems only to know one single song: Bridge Over Troubled Water.  He plays it over and over again.  There’s one man, a foreigner sitting at the bar milking a beer.  I pull out the bar chair next to him.

“Mind if I join you?” I ask.

“Would you?” the man says in an Oxford English accent.  “Anything to break this damned monotony.  I’ve been listening to that fucking piano player for two weeks now.  I’m about ready to snap his bowtied neck.  Listen, I’m in a good mood, let me buy you one.  Just did the deal of a lifetime.”

“What’s that?”

“Just sold Shenyang Light Industry five complete shoe making lines.  Biggest deal I ever scored.  Bloody cost me my liver though.”

I take a sip of the lukewarm draft beer and raise my eyebrows.  “Your liver?”

“Bloody ganbei***** every single night.  I’ve got Maotai and cheap Tsingtao white wine flowing out of my ears.  Can’t you see it,” he laughs.

“Ah, the karaoke bars,” I say, thinking I know exactly what he’s talking about.

“Karaoke bars?  Here?  Impossible,” he says. “This town has about as much nightlife as my scrawny British arse.  Not a blimp, in two whole weeks.  Can’t eat the goddamned food.  No, mate, after nine o’clock the whole town just goes to sleep.  What do you think this is?  Hong Kong?”

“Just came today.  From Hong Kong.”

“Ah, that explains everything, the boyish eyes, the nicely pressed suit.  Outside of Beijing and Shanghai you won’t even find a girl in a tight dress.  Nada.”

“So what do you do for, er—entertainment?”

He laughs.  “You’re looking at it.”

“Guy who picked me up at the airport told me he has a girl on the side.  I guessed she must be a karaoke girl or a bar girl or something like that.”

“There are places, for locals. But listen. This is deep Communist China.  You know this place was once Mao’s largest munitions’ dump? Couple of years ago, I knew one lad who was kicked out of the country for pinching some waitress’ arse.  They blacklisted him.  In the old days, foreigners were arrested for less than that.

“Now Beijing, on the other hand,” he says, “is the only civilized city in the whole country. There are more Mongolian hookers working the Holiday Inn Hotel than there are in all of Ulan Bator.  Anyway, I’d better call it a night.  Got to work on the payment terms with those buggers tomorrow.  If you’re feeling up for it, meet me at the bar here around, say—seven.  I’ll take you to the most interesting restaurant you’ve ever seen.”


Winging It

The Shenyang Aircraft Factory, formerly the bus factory, formerly the ammunition factory, has laid on the works for my arrival.  The Swiss flag is flying at full mast and a gigantic banner hangs over the entrance, and says:

WE WELCOME OUR ESTEEMED FOREIGN GUESTS FROM
SWITZERLAND AND AMERICA IN BROTHERLY COOPERATION

Mister Sheng, whom I met in Hong Kong, greets me in the lobby, along with the factory’s General Manager and a whole retinue of unnamed others who follow us from workshop to workshop, including some guy with a video camera who I’m later told works for the local TV station.

A small guy shuffles up to me and gives me his hand, “I am your official translator,” he says.  “My name is Zhu, but you can call me JohnsonJohnson.”  I look around for Jin, who dropped me off, but he’s nowhere to be seen.  Suddenly I catch a glimpse of him in someone’s office sipping a cup of tea.

“Nice to meet you…JohnsonJohnson.  How did you get a name like JohnsonJohnson?”

“My English teacher gave it to me,” he says proudly.  I don’t dare tell him that she probably meant John, not the shampoo.

Mister Sheng and the General Manager motion me to follow them through the workshops.  There’s the turning shop with at least fifty lathes producing sprockets, engine parts, and long threaded spokes of aluminum.  Surprisingly it’s as clean as a whistle.  JohnsonJohnson later tells me that the whole factory has been on non-stop clean up for the last three weeks.  Apparently, Mister Sheng even flew in some sanitation consultant from Singapore.

We move into the stamping workshop that appears to be producing segments of aircrafts’ wings.  The gigantic presses are mostly operated by young women wearing what look like 19th century bed caps.  I cringe watching them deftly moving their fingers in and out of the monstrous presses. They have no eye or ear protection.  I know I’ll have to try and resolve this.

JohnsonJohnson nuzzles in every once in a while and explains technical terms to me like, ‘that is a special alloy steel imported from Germany;’ or, ‘notice the precision;’ or he pulls down a clipboard hanging above the machine and points out that the quality control in his factory is absolutely excellent.

In each workshop there is a chalkboard indicating targets to be met, and it looks to me like they all read zero defects in the last ten days, which, of course, is an impossibility.  Each workshop appears to have its own slogan written both in Chinese and English.

One reads:

WORK EFFICIENCY IS THE PARADIGM OF A WELL-OILED MACHINE!

Another reads:

THE WORKERS ARE THE HEART OF THE FACTORY –
WORK HARD! BEAT HARD!

After the factory tour, we sit down in the meeting room, me on one side, five of the factory staff plus Mister Sheng on the other.  JohnsonJohnson translates for the General Manager, but first Mister Sheng gives us all his long speech—and, believe it or not, I finally find out that he is the mayor of Shenyang, and that he has all his hopes pinned on this new business.

He rests assured that I am ready for the delegation of American buyers who are set to arrive tomorrow.  After all, he says, what more could a factory want other than a Swiss salesman? the very embodiment of quality and efficiency.  (JohnsonJohnson translates very as ‘veritable,’ once again, well intended.)

This speech is followed by the General Manager, who basically says exactly the same thing in different words, throwing in a few metaphors and some kind of an allusion to an ancient Chinese folktale about bears and birds.

I want to ask, who is this delegation from America?  What the hell am I supposed to be selling?  Why in God’s name am I here in the middle of nowhere?  But I simply smile, cringe a little inside and decide I have only one choice: stick to YY Stratagem Number 3: When in doubt, play it by ear.

(To be continued…)

~

*Shenyang is the capital of Liaoning Province in Northeast China. The city served briefly as the capital of China in the 17th century and has been a center for heavy industry since the late 1800s.

**A picturesque island Southwest of Hong Kong proper once known for its wild weekend party-scene.

***A Chinese liquor that is extremely popular at Chinese business banquets.  Distilled from fermented sorghum, it and packs a quite a pungent punch at over 50 proof.  Drinking copious amounts ensures a serious hangover and a sweetish, slightly sickly fragrance exudes from the pores the morning after.

****Colloquial Mandarin Chinese term meaning foreigner, literally: ‘old foreigner.’  It has come to be considered a pejorative term by expatriates living in China in the same fashion that ‘gringo’ is considered such in Mexico.

*****Literally, ‘Bottoms up’—a very popular custom at Chinese business banquets, normally involving never-ending bottles of liquor or wine until someone ends up under the table, collapses from alcohol poisoning or throws up over his host.

I never want to accept any invite to attend any organized event, ever. Yet, I always do accept and I almost always go.

Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking.

For one, saying “yes” feels good. All non-sociopaths want to please other humans to some degree, and accepting an invite usually engenders good will between the inviter and the invitee.

Fear is also a critical component. If I say “no” too much, will I cease to be remembered? Upon my fiftieth declination, will my phone number and email be deleted from every contact database the world over? Will the walls of my silly little bedroom collapse on top of me, as the North American Coalition Against Bad Excuses files away every last memory of my existence? All photos, commendations, and birthday cards slid into a tattered manila envelope containing only Hootie and the Blowfish singles and Palm Pilot owners’ manuals?

“Luke? Luke who? Let me check the Shit No One Cares About envelope. Oh, yes. He was invited to Beth Maloney’s sister’s medical school graduation party and said he had a dermatology appointment. That was number fifty. Yes, I’m afraid there are no more invites for Luke. Not here, or anywhere else for that matter. That scoundrel. That poor, inconsiderate bastard.”

Last, there are my delusions. Time and time again, some scheming agent in my withering brain mounts a dendritic pummel horse and performs dazzling gymnastics routines. After his dismount, I see speed networking events as “useful”, aunts’ birthday parties as “important”, and high school reunions as “chances to reconnect”. I think pummel-horse man operates in the same cognitive space that houses every “getting ready to go out” movie montage I’ve ever seen because, for a split second after agreeing to go somewhere, I picture myself thumbing through rows of fine suits in a cavernous walk-in closet, oblivious to a well-engineered soundtrack that seamlessly blends the din of Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City with the street noise of my imaginary perfect Park Avenue block. This will be fun. This is what people do. Who knows what the night holds?!

The thing is: I do know.

There have been very few instances where I haven’t forecast every thing that was going to happen before it did. Speed networking will always consist of sweaty palms, poorly formatted business cards, and allusions to the Cape’s unpredictable weather patterns. Aunt Paige’s birthday will always leave me longing for a time when every woman in my extended family wasn’t divorced and dating fifty-year-old mortgage-brokers who offer little more than made-up stories about how close they once came to qualifying for the American Express Centurion card. High school reunions will always be a lot like Aunt Paige’s birthday, except with soon-to-be mortgage brokers struggling to remember the names of their “favorite” single malts. I know this, and I still go. To everything. Always. In fact, it was for all these reasons that I accepted a dinner invite last Saturday. Little did I know, that acceptance would be my last.

I’d planned on a night in: a hot shower, a jar of Nutella, and a healthy Netflix Instant Play queue.

But my phone buzzed and the plan changed.

A text message from Annabelle, a quasi-work-friend with whom I occasionally grabbed a bite: “Any interest in coming to dinner with me and a few others?” it read.

My psychosis sprung into action. Desire to please? Check. Fear of being forgotten? Check. Fantasy? Maybe. I needed more information.

“Sure, where?” I replied.

Pastis.”

Ah, yes. An overpriced, up-its-own-ass Manhattan restaurant that I can’t afford. But maybe my ill-fitting cardigan will catch the eye of Mike Bloomberg or, better yet, an infertile Russian Oligarch looking for an idiot, American heir. Delusion button pressed. With a “Yes I’d love to” text and a desperate, “Please come with me” plea to my best pal, Sam, I was headed downtown.

Annabelle met Sam and me at the hostess stand and lead us to her table. We sat next to an expansive bar that made me wish I knew how to make even one drink with vermouth in its recipe.

Three others were already seated at the table when we arrived. “The friends.” They seemed harmless. Cornell graduates. North Jersey suburbanites-cum-West Village aficionados who probably clutched their New York Magazine “Best Of” issues like wading remnants of the Titanic’s freshly splintered deck. They smiled, and shook hands, and asked about where I lived, and recoiled when I said Queens. Then, one with a gold Rolex and a puffy red face sympathetically mentioned she had an uncle from Park Slope, Brooklyn. Another mentioned her family’s “small vacation home in Sagg Harbor” in a fine display of counterfeit humility. I let it roll off my back. All was still subtle enough. I pressed my knee against Sam’s, silently communicating my guilty thankfulness.

Then the last friend arrived, and all hell broke loose.

He bent down to kiss the female dinner guests on their cheeks, the shawl collar on his red cashmere sweater flapping against his face with every overzealous dip. I could tell right away that he was something extraordinary, something awful, something for which I never could have planned. Then, he extended his hand to me: “David. A true pleasure.” I looked into his eyes and I knew: I had encountered pure evil.

The things that came out of David’s mouth were stunning. His pretension seemed limitless. It was as if the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald replaced David’s brain with the entire contents of This Side of Paradise, and then destroyed the concept of irony.

 

-“I can’t believe they gave us this table. I’ve been back from Hong Kong, and in New York City for over a week. I’ve been to Pastis four times already. I should think that’s enough to get a decent table. I mean, we’re at Pastis, not M. Wells for Christ’s sake.”

 

-“Waiter, waiter, I’m not sure what this is, but it’s certainly not lamb. Grace, try this. Please. Does this taste like lamb to you? Well, does it?!”

 

-“There’s nothing quite like owning well-positioned retail properties.”

 

I couldn’t be sure anything David said was true or even factually accurate, but I guess he knew that. And that’s why he kept going.

 

-“Sideways be damned, I don’t mind Merlot. What else would you drink with a filet mignon…if trying to adhere to a certain price point, that is? Oh, Lizzy, I’m sorry. I know you’re a Chardonnay fan. No, no. Enjoy it.”

 

-“I swear, sometimes this city makes me wish I were an American.”

 

He clapped his hands, and laughed the way I imagine Boss Tweed would have, if he were pretending to be a foreigner. Inappropriately timed, forced blasts. I asked David what he did, and he replied only, “I deal in the markets.” Soon after, he referred to Zagat guides as “dining papers of the proletariat”.

I looked around the table to gauge my companions’ reactions. Surely, even this group of tip-toeing braggadocios would show some shock. None. Only Sam, my loyal friend, looked back at me terrified, his suddenly sunken eyes beaten in by the endless barrage of David’s insanity.

I became numb. Claustrophobic even. I feared that if I listened to David much longer, my exploding skull would ruin the steak tartare he ridiculed me for ordering. Like a panicked soldier foolishly lured over enemy lines, I resorted to desperate measures. I put down my water glass, placed my napkin beside my plate, took out my phone, and conquered my crippling desire to please.

“Sam!” I said, grabbing my confidant’s shoulder in manufactured alarm. “I just got a text message from my landlord. A pipe broke in my building and my entire apartment is flooded. We have to go. Now!”

“Oh God, let’s go. Oh God, do you have renter’s insurance?!.” His reaction was pitch perfect. He knew.

No goodbyes. No extended explanation. Just a lie. A well-placed lie to extricate myself from the worst commitment I’d ever made.

That dinner was rock bottom, and it changed me. My desire to please is gone. My fear of being forgotten, a thing of the past. And the allure of my movie montage, “getting ready to go” fantasy? Fin.

Sam and I left the restaurant and hopped in a taxi.

 

I turned toward him. “Are we sociopaths?”

 

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think so.” He opened the cab’s window and let in the blare of a passing fire engine. I breathed deeply as I let it drown out my last regret.

 

“Oh well,” I exhaled. “There are worse things to be.”


Part One: Pidgin Power

 

 

Hong Kong is a Many-Splendored Thing**

Hong Kong.  It must be 1991 or 92.

Sixteen hours.  I arrive with terminal jet lag.  The ground is still moving. In 20 years, Hong Kong’s become some kind of Fellini movie, only there are no Italians—at least not here in Causeway Bay.

It’s impossible to know whether the world is going the way of China or China is going the way of the world. An uncomfortable layering of capitalism and communism on top of one another, as embodied by the city of Hong Kong, is not the answer to this question.

Hong Kong is the question.

Sandwiched between ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’, is Hong Kong the model for the city of the future?:

An ultra-policed, liberalised economy surrounded on all sides by a paternalist one-party state to which money flows mostly one way.

Porous borders into and out of a two-tier system in which the obscurity of the local language, even to visitors from other parts of the mainland, creates a huge industry catering for those unable to decifer it.

Boundless vertical density for a theoretically unlimited population over a maximised geographical area, perfectly positioned at the heart of the land and sea infrastructure of the world’s busiest commercial area, The Pearl River Delta.

At a superficial level, Hong Kong is like Kafka and JG Ballard getting together on a UK Garage remix of Two Tribes, with Beckett on the ones and twos.

As a reluctant British ‘subject’, it melts my head to see just how far the UK went with its economic experiment in Hong Kong; still the freest economy in the world. The creation of Hong Kong is the equivalent of devolving Anglesey from the rest of the UK, installing a mercantilist quango presided over by Nelson Rockefeller and demanding an exorbitant stipend for use of the road out.

I feel justified in complaining about most of this because we went there uninvited, peddling smack for tea, and started pissing about—so the guilt’s on the heads of my father’s and my grandfather’s generations, when all is said and done.

But territories that have been forced to adopt western systems, papering over an iron-strong, unique and irrepressible vernacular culture, as in Vietnam, Japan and Hong Kong, will simply not be beat.

The degree to which the forms and elements of commercial excess are pushed in places like (The) Ho(le) Chi Minh city and Hong Kong is testament to the resilience and the individuality of the cultures we’re still desperately trying to subsume with our hackneyed bullshit. In the case of Hong Kong and the larger cities of Vietnam, it’s as though someone local at the top finally snapped at some point and started having some fun with it.

Just like in central London, the complete absence of seats, benches or any horizontal surfaces at human level in Hong Kong is the perfect expression of the ethically-palsied western shopping ethos taken to a demented degree. The private corporation that owns the underground system also owns all the malls and luxury apartments built above the stations; designing the exits from the underground trains to route passengers into the shopping areas, whether they want to go there or not. You can’t even stop, never mind stop shopping.

Most of Hong Kong Island’s ‘public space’ has a six-lane blacktop scything through the middle of it, in spite of the fact that the city has arguably the best public transport system in the world. There’s a genuinely C21st subway, light railway and ferry network and a reasonably efficient tram system before you even get to the busses and the taxis. I would love it if someone could explain to me just where, exactly, everyone is driving to and why they would even dream of investing so much in such flash cars to do so in?

Anyone who has ever spent any length of time in the city of Birmingham in the UK will find themselves fighting off an unusual sense of deja vu on arriving in Hong Kong. To someone steeped in the culture of Great Britain (by fair means or foul), on the surface, the place feels like Manchester occupied and lightly retro-fitted by the Kuomintang. The civic architecture seems based around the model of a municipal lavatory teleported from a British seaside promenade in the 1950s, and purposely renders the entire place into a much warmer suburb of Central London.

The Chicago Loop c/o Creative Commons

The absolute dominion over the place by roads makes every intersection into a subtropical spaghetti junction; delineating with metal crash barriers oceanic concrete islands that necessitate proficient parkour to make any meaningful progress on foot.

Of course, 50-grand sterling for a Maserati for no other purpose than driving around the M25 corridor at rush hour, occasionally stopping off at convenience stores for processed snacks, is everyone’s idea of nirvana, isn’t it…?

It’s possible to tell a lot about a people by their attitude to space. Hong Kong doesn’t have any, so once it’s occupied, it jolly well stays that way, thank you very much. Turn around anywhere on Hong Kong Island with your arms extended even slightly proud of your body and you’ll be touching someone else. Lift up your feet and you’ll find somebody standing on the back of your sandals. Alter your walking pace even minutely and a concertina of bodies hits you from the rear.

The most over-populated island in the world, Ap Lei Chau in Hong Kong, has so many people on it that if they all came out of their homes at the same time, they would begin falling into the sea.

This, I can only pray, may one day start happening to England.

Blessing Lost

By Erika Rae

Memoir

She was unapologetically beautiful with ocean damp hair and breasts that pressed two dark spots into her pink camisole.Light freckles on her nose matched her sand crusted toes and she walked the leaf-shadowed path as if she bore the weight of a hidden royal past.

Copy Watch?

By Ryan Day

Travel

“Sex finish?”

“Ummmm…”

“You want sex finish or you no want?”

“Ummmm…”

Suddenly the slapping and moaning from behind the curtain to the adjoining booth lost the innocence of some thin skinned newby to the Thai massage. I should have known something was up when my masseuse kept awkwardly letting her vagina rest on my upturned palm as she persisted in giving me what may have been the least effective massage a person with hands could give. But, you know, I thought maybe she was just one of the oblivious people. I sat up and unconvincingly waved off her offer while forcing a smile of disapproval. It may have been more tempting had my coworkers not been waiting in the lobby having just finished massages of their own. But even then, I wasn’t entirely sure this was one of the life paths I was willing to open up. I buttoned my shirt slowly, wondering if I was going to change my mind.

“It okay… You no have to.” She said with a smile. I was relieved. For a second there I thought it might not be up to me. But I left the booth, self-respect intact, even if my will had been called into question.

My coworkers were waiting in the lobby, looking refreshed from their massages. “How was it they asked?” I squinted and gave it three or four seconds of earnest thought. “Good.” I said. And I meant it.

This was Hong Kong in a nut shell. The night we arrived a friend and I asked the clerk at the hotel which was the best neighborhood to find a beer. He gave a sly smile and told us we had to go to Wan Chai. We looked confusedly at one and other, trying to divine the meaning of his smile, but without any other information to go on, and being a pair that prided ourselves on traveling guide-bookless, we took him at his word and started off on the walk to Wan Chai. It looked harmless enough. A big city neighborhood. It could have been anywhere really. We walked into a bar that had all the charm of an Applebees, because after a month on the mainland the prospect of a beer that wasn’t Tsing Tao was enticing. We looked over the full page beer list with stupid grins. I ordered a Hooegarden and my friend asked for a Pilsner.

I scanned the bar to see if there were any potential English speakers. I was hungry to have a conversation that wasn’t about the price of my taxi back to campus or trying to explain why I didn’t want pork in my chow mien without knowing the word for pork. But as I looked around it wasn’t potential English speakers that I noticed, but the fact that there were old business men at every table and every one of them was surrounded by young women. I’m not totally sure what doting looks like, but I think these women might have been doting. Still, nothing concrete registered. I looked at my friend and he looked back at me with an equally quizzical expression. “What’s going on here?” I asked him. “Don’t know. Must be rich or something.” Or something.

It was just about then that two women, two absolutely stunning women, came up to our table to bolster our denial of the situation before they shattered our illusions of being what my Chinese students might call luck-lucky boys. “Hello,” says the first. I have a prepared answer for these occassions which is to turn my eyes groundward, give a nervous giggle and mumble an indistinguishable “hi.” Fortunately, my friend was a bit more suited to these sorts of interactions. He asked them if they wanted to sit with us. They sat. They ordered drinks, expensive drinks and the bill was handed to us. My friend and I looked at each other and shrugged. Hong Kong’s not cheap and teachers don’t make a lot of money on the mainland. Still, here we were with two beautiful girls interested in us. We awkwardly did the chivalrous thing and offered to pay for half. We were met with silence and in a panic paid the whole thing.

“So,” said my friend, “what do you two do in Hong Kong?” They looked at each other and laughed. “Business women,” she said matter of factly. “We come from Manila.” “Oh,” I respond with all my previous suaveness intact, “Manila. That’s where they have all the…” All the what? Think fast. Faster. “Coups.” I hoped they hadn’t understood, but the immediate deflation of everyone’s giddiness led me to think that they had. “And fried bananas,” I added, my voice trailing off amidst the bars sudden silence. “So what sort of business are you in?” Asked my friend. Good one. The girl next to me opened her mouth and I could see that she had a pretty extensive set of braces. Still though, she was pretty. She paused, showing off her crooked, acrylic-coated teeth. “We good fockers,” she said plainly. I nodded. I always feel rude when I can’t understand somebody’s English. “And what’s a good focker do?” I asked. The girls laughed again. This time it had the distinct feeling of at-rather-than-with. My friend seemed to have processed things faster than me. He looked at me incredulously and somehow that drove the whole thing home. “Ohhhh,” I said.

So we headed back to the Chungking Mansion, our residence of necessity, all on our own. If you are not familiar with the Chungking Mansion I encourage you to become so on your first trip to Hong Kong. Book it for one night, and have alternatives. It isn’t for everyone. The ground floor is a haven for fake Rolexes and pushy tailors alongside samosa vendors and imitation ipods. You can’t get two steps without someone lunging in front of you, then suddenly becoming discrete, leaning in quietly, “Copy watch?” If you express an interest you are led through some back alley, up six flights of stairs and into an apartment. The best thing I saw on sale was a pair of spy glasses that had utterly indiscreet cameras half-heartedly attached to the sides of blu-blockers… Just so you don’t look creepy when you’re trying to video tape strangers from behind dark, over-sized lenses with AA battery sized recording technology dangling from your temples.

Anyway, there is always a long line for the elevator. Yes, the elevator, which has a capacity of four and serves thirty floors of hostels. The line is sort of like a low rent model UN. Drunk people from every corner of the globe await their opportunity to ride four by four up to their tenement style residence in an elevator that averages three vomits an hour and a cleaning every eight. Low and behold while standing in line after having taken our own fair share of beverages, we met another couple of interesting characters. This time they were from Dublin rather than Manila, and male as opposed to female, but the temptation of English drew us in. On their advice, we abandoned the line and headed back out to the bars on the promise that after five am the elevator line was always vacant, which for future reference, is a lie.

The place we went to was crowded. As we got up to the bar to order I was fairly squished against a white haired man with coke bottle lenses in his glasses. He looked up at me as if it took him all the vision he had left just to penetrate his bifocals. He stared and then his head bobbled, He opened his mouth as if he was going to talk, then closed it, reeled his head around to the bar tender and shouted something indistinguishable while pointing at me. The bar tender brought me a scotch. I thanked the man with a nod. He waved his hands over the five cups in front of him and I noticed for the first time the menagerie of beverages he was selecting from. A whiskey, a tequila shot, a glass of wine, some sort of clear mixed drink and a beer.

He began to tell me about himself in almost unintelligible English. What I gathered was that he was the Vice President of a major US financial institution. I believed him… I think. Then he showed me his bullet wounds from his stint in South African intelligence. Maybe the two things were not mutually exclusive. I don’t know. I like to believe that he was who he said he was, because his decadence, his lonliness, his confusion, his blindness, his misguided pride in his violent past, hell, even his immigrant status seemed to me the perfect allegory to the American Financial institution he was claiming to be in charge of, and as coming days would show, that institution was just about as drunk as he was.

Everywhere I went there were people like this man. Sometimes younger and more put together, but those circumstances were only light cover for the vapid state of their industries and by extension their selves. I don’t believe that you necessarily are what you do, but surroundings in which you spend a vast majority of your waking hours must certainly make an imprint. By the way, the quickest way to end a conversation with a Hong Kong business type, is to say the sentence, “I am a teacher.”

I don’t want to simplify the whole of my experience in Hong Kong to the fetishization of commodity, or to the commodification of women, but I can say that it robbed whatever lingering sexiness there was for me in designer clothes, the lateset in electronics… well, even that pure and loveless sex that’s sometimes called fucking. I know several people in Shantou, where I live, who take regular trips to Hong Kong for the latest copied iphone, Omega watch, Italian shoes and oftentimes these people make a stop or two in Wan Chai for the girls from Manila.

I don’t have anything special to articulate about the relationship between the desire for material and the desire for sex; the desire to ease loneliness and the desire to surround one’s self by the newest and most desirable products; the connection between the seeking of copied products and that of imitated passion. I just want to point out that it is all there, bubbling around in the same pot.

I don’t think that prostitution is a capitalist invention, nor do I think that capitalism is the root of all evil, but I’ve certainly been brought back to what was an instinctual knowledge when I was younger: the pursuit of material is one without end. That simple conundrum, if such a thing can exist, may be the inescapable prison in which contemporary ideology has locked itself. But, even as you acknowledge your own confinement, it’s tough to completely disavow yourself from its appeal. And so I drank my scotch and let this man drunkenly vent his frustrations in his mostly indecipherable English for what turned out to be a very long time.

I had lost my friend. He was nowhere in the bar. I started back alone, but soon came across him stumbling back towards the hotel. “Hey!” I yelled. “Wait up!” He turned to me with a dopey smile and then fell limply forward without so much as putting out a hand to protect himself. His head went hard into the brick surrounding a storefront window. He was bleeding pretty badly. I flagged a taxi and we went to the hospital in the hopes of getting him repaired.

On our last night, my friend’s head all stitched-up, we sat scarfing nachos and margaritas, listening to French hip hop in a bar owned by a Malaysian Elvis impersonator. I was at a loss as to whether I felt empty or full, moral or depraved, predatorial or preservationist. All I felt for sure was hungry, and that if someone asked me how my trip was, I would probably squint at them, and after a little earnest thought tell them, “It was good.”

Not too long ago, I had a shot at enlightenment. And despite the fact that I live right outside of Boulder, CO – the enlightenment capital of the universe with the exception of Sedona and perhaps the chocolate aisle of the World Market – I cannot say that I have yet had the privilege of sitting in God’s palm. So when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it.

I was living on Lamma Island, just outside of Hong Kong – already the consequence of playing chicken with Fate – when I met Jack. Jack lived down the street from me and was the friend of a friend. He is of medium height, has sandy blond hair and comes from Liverpool. (Read: cute with an accent).

He looks me over, waiting for our mutual friend to arrive and extends an invitation that would change my life.