June 06, 2011
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.
I lie on my three-star-hotel bed. Although I’m exhausted, I just can’t fall asleep. Down at the Suzie Wong Cocktail Bar just off the hotel lobby, the waitress looks decidedly like the Cathay Pacific stewardess from my flight. I offer to buy her a drink, but she snaps and hands me the bill.
“No drink! No tip!” she says. “I no stewardess. I paid waitress.”
All my childhood friends have long departed Hong Kong, have laid down sensible tracks in England’s better colleges, headed off to Wyoming or the Australian outback. In this megalithic wide-eyed-brightly-lit-buzz, the flashing neon of the busiest, most surreal metropolis in the world, I feel utterly alone.
I was born here and yet somehow I’ve come back again to reinvent myself.
How to Eat Your Way Through a Whole Chicken Without Blinking
They call him YY. Even after all these years his English is still of the Pidgin variety: short, clipped sentences; few verb endings; most everything in the present tense; and, he has this almost-cliché propensity to pronounce Rs like Ls, Ls like Rs. I cannot fathom why. As I later find out, it suits YY to misunderstand his big nose Da Bi Zi friends, those foreign devils like me. He plays this to his advantage de facto, particularly when he’s trying to seal a deal with his own dubious conditions; or if he happens to change his mind, something that occurs fairly frequently.
It’s only because he’s a billionaire that we keep our Why Oh Why jokes to ourselves. After work in the Captain’s Bar on a Friday night or in Wanchai watching Thai go-go girls spinning on polished brass poles. Unbeknownst, or irrelevant to him, YY becomes the brunt of a whole host of expat jokes.
First day, YY bursts into my newly-anointed office where someone has had the idea to plaster a giant alpine meadow on the back wall, and says: “Ah, Maac, you look just like your young father.” What he means to say, of course, is that I look exactly as my Father did when he was my age. My father made the mistake of working for YY too. This masochistic tendency obviously runs in the family
Lunch: He orders himself a 40-oz steak. He carefully slices the rare, bleeding slab into bite-size cubes, lathers them in half a bottle of ketchup, bibs himself with his serviette, then spoons each dripping piece down his gullet. Watching him dribbling, you’d think he hasn’t eaten in weeks. As the months wear on, I spend many hours observing his eating techniques—and they are all clearly acquired techniques, adaptations, no matter how crude. I’ve never before seen such determined eating habits. It’s almost beginning-of-humankind Neolithic stuff.
Honestly, this guy would eat anything—whale, armadillo, crocodile, bear, white rhino—if it had the right amount of creamy sauce.
He’s always hungry; between food and his constant conversation, his mouth works over 16 hours a day (burning essential calories). The noon meal generally consists of some form of meat. Beef is preferred, pork second best, but occasionally he opts for chicken; and when it’s chicken—Chicken Kiev, Chicken Cacciatore, or barbequed in some form of thick Texas-style honey-mustard-gravy—due to the limited size of his poultry choice, he normally orders two portions (at a bare minimum). In newly discovered establishments—of which there appear to be few, the waiters are utterly baffled, mostly coming up with another place setting for a person who never arrives. When YY’s eating he pays little else heed. Well before the appetizers arrive, he’s finished off three baskets of stale bread, breadsticks, olives or whatever else is lying around. Sometimes he eats the herb butter straight out of the pot with a spoon, like yoghurt.
When I was six years old, YY once visited our family home in Switzerland. The story goes that on his way from the airport, he got the taxi driver to stop off at a Swiss patisserie shop. He spied a delectable creamy doughnut in the window and purchased every last one in the shop—30 in all. Between leaving the patisserie and arriving at our home (around a 30 minute drive), he wolfed down 29 straight from the box. When he arrived at the door, he shouldered past my mother without as much as a hello, plonked himself down on the living room couch, took a half hour nap, then reappeared at the dinner table and finished several helpings of corn-on-the-cob with chicken wings. For dessert he polished off an entire watermelon that he’d lugged all the way from Hong Kong. My Mother had to mop the entire kitchen.
For dinners he proffers fish: two or three whole lemon soles filleted at the table. And, as with his meat, everything is heavily sauced: hollandaise, guacamole, blue cheese, whatever’s going. He’s not picky about his sauces; there just have to be buckets of them.
On the few occasions that I meet him for breakfast—a big mistake—he goes for the full-cooked American breakfast with bacon and a side of waffles. Again, two full portions drizzled in maple syrup. His sunny-side-up eggs are his chef d’oeuvre; he handles them quite tenderly, as one would handle delicate works of art: ancient Russian icons or original Hogarth engravings, spooning their whites to the centre of the plate (his main eating tool is a spoon), making absolutely certain not to damage the yolk.
And with his spoon, after everything else on the plate has long been mopped up with little tearings of toast, he starts chiselling away bits of the white until only the shiny, golden sun remains—like a star sitting alone in empty white space. He stares dreamily at the yolk for a while, as if he’s contemplating whether to eat it at all. Suddenly, in a flourish, following a big lug of iced coke (the only thing he ever drinks), he gently takes the plate in his fingers, draws it up to his thin, purple lips, kissing the delicate orange surface (it must be the only thing he kisses regularly, his wife is always complaining that he never fulfils his husbandly duties); and in some kind of mad lizard-like manoeuvre he sucks it down like a high-powered vacuum cleaner. Say what you will, but if anything, it has a certain sense of artistry to it. A DVD of this would sell better than Jackass: The Movie.
This breakfast yolk affair, as I’ve come to call it, is, in most cases, the restaurant’s morning spectacle; the customers are surely thinking that a piglet had been slaughtered in the back of the kitchen, a waiter possibly worries he’s just stepped on a lapdog’s tail. The best thing to do if you happen to be sitting with him at that very moment (his wiser associates disappear to the toilet) is to have a newspaper handy (anything will do). Raise it right up and concentrate on the words in front of you. Give it a minute or two after the deadly-restaurant-silence and then continue as if nothing happened. I guarantee you won’t recall anything you’ve just read, even if World War Three has just broken out.
YY is the only man I know who can eat his way though a whole chicken without blinking.
I Want Cartier
YY enjoys his Sunday shopping sprees. He is as regular about this as some are about going to Sunday mass. And he shops for anything really: furniture, a new suit, lamps, paintings, Hawaiian floral shirts, Y-fronts. He doesn’t like shopping alone, but since his wife has decided she will nevermore join him on these sprees—following, I’m told, some dreadful incident involving ladies underwear to which I am not privy—it’s either his daughter, his secretary—or on three, no four occasions, me.
His tastes are fairly gaudy, and much of the time, expensive—except for his socks and underwear. These he normally purchases en-masse from the Marks and Spencer’s near the office. Once when YY and I are on a business trip together, I stop by his hotel room to pick him up for dinner. I notice that he has a pile of dirty underwear in the wastepaper basket.
“Why are you throwing away your underwear?” I ask him.
“This no meaning,” he says. “Underwear hotel laundry more expensive than underwear. Better just buy new ones.”
He has a point.
Most of his suits are handmade by incredibly patient Indian tailors. Firstly, he has this thing about his zippers. They have to be extremely long, about from your fingertip to your elbow—or, shall we say, without exaggeration, eighty centimetres. And, it isn’t that he’s particularly well endowed—well not that I know of—mostly it’s the fact that he likes to ride his waist high above his belly; over it, in fact, a little below his chest, but sometimes reaching it. Much of the time, his unique trouser-fashion is not blatant, as he buttons his jacket even when seated, but when you catch a glimpse of this protruding silver mound (he likes shiny suits) pressed up against a teakwood desk, during some serious conversation involving raw material trends, it’s somewhat difficult to keep a straight face.
On numerous occasions Frank and I start giggling during a meeting. This elicits a significant YY-head-shaking, followed by the inevitable question: “Why? Why?”—which, as you might imagine, promptly sends Frank and I into further spasms. I remember having to dash off to the toilet once to control my laughter. When I return he sends me home for the day, as I am obviously not feeling myself.
So here I am with YY one Sunday trying to find an appropriate gift for his wife. It’s her birthday the coming week, and YY is at a loss what to buy her, until I suggest something sparkly.
“All women like sparkles,” I say.
“Spa-kles?” I know YY’s still thinking about this Beijing building permit he hasn’t yet managed to nail. “What spa-kles?”
He means, what are sparkles? “Like stars,” I say blinking. I make a movement opening and closing my hands and looking up at the ceiling.”
“Ah. Stars for ladies,” he says in epiphany, nodding furiously. “Good idea. Your marketing skill…very good,” he says.
Now eccentricities aside, YY is never stingy when it comes to procuring trinkets for his loved ones, and when we enter the Cartier shop on Peddler Street, all heads turn—possibly because YY lets our a blinder of a fart, possibly because no one’s ever seen a man like this in the flesh. YY, ignoring the other customers in the shop, hones in on the most senior-looking sales clerk who is clearly showing some guy an engagement ring. YY points at the man, then says, “You need come, now.”
The baffled shop assistant follows reluctantly leaving his customer diamond-ring-in-palm. YY takes the guy outside on to the street, and then proceeds to walk on through the bustling crowd of Hong Kong Sunday shoppers. The shop assistant, not knowing whether he’s coming or going, stands there gawping in all of Hong Kong’s summer humidity. YY plods across two streets, down an alley and into a shopping complex, finally ending up in front of a poster opposite the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank. He points at the tiara that is delicately poised on the model’s head (Naomi Campbell) in the giant photo:
“I want two of those,” he says.
The shop assistant goes all ogle-eyed; he’s weak in the knees.
“Sir, that is a limited edition tiara: white gold with 40 24-carat diamonds. We’d have to order it in especially from Paris. We don’t have anything like that here.”
“You order from Paris. I give you deposit,” says YY.
“Are you sure?” asks the assistant a very serious trickle of sweat beading his brow.
YY whips out his envelope-sized wallet, tips it upside down facing himself so all the credit cards fall out in a long leather-patch-work-window-accordion, browses for the appropriate one. Between the titanium American Express and the platinum Swissair Visacard he finds what he’s looking for and hands the guy something gold.
The shop assistant is a Hong Kong native; and if you’re wondering why YY doesn’t speak to him in Cantonese, well the reason is quite simple really: YY can’t speak it. In twenty-nine years he’s never taken the trouble to learn it. He always tells me that it’s far better to speak to Hong Kong service-staff in English. They take you far more seriously. After all, YY could well be Japanese, Taiwanese, American or some Singapore billionaire, and Hong Kong sales staffs are keen-eyed billionaire-spotters.
Actually, YY is originally from Shanghai. He fled China with the Communist army on his heels over thirty years ago. At least, that’s what Frank tells me.
I spot YY’s wife wearing that very tiara at a cocktail party three months later. She’s the toast of town.
This is the incredulous YY story Frank unveils:
YY is the name the old boy adopted when he arrived in Hong Kong. His real name is Feng Liu Hua, and among Communist Party circles they still refer to him as Little Feng or Xiao Feng.
Possibly in those early days, when YY was trying his best to hobnob with Hong Kong’s elite, it was better to have emerged from the ether rather than come across as some vagabond political refugee from China. YY: the two letters he picked for his name, stuck, because, “there weren’t too many others using those initials in the HK telephone directory.” Decades later, he’s aware of the on-going joke surrounding his name, yet it stays. Even with China back in the world’s economic limelight, he’ll never go back to Feng.
Frank says, “Feng Liu Hua sounds like a Zhejiang provincial peasant. YY sounds like The Man.”
“The Shit,” I say to Frank.
Frank asks me if I need to use the toilet.
The Stowaway and the Ship’s Engineer
So somehow YY manages smuggle himself aboard a cargo ship headed to Hong Kong. Frank says they were transporting tobacco for the US army in Taiwan and that some Communist cadre was making a killing.
“Even back then, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, guys in China were making big bucks.” He says ‘bucks’ like it’s fallen off the back of a truck—which it probably has. “The tobacco was from Cuba—shipped in through Vietnam. Was a big racket. That’s why Nixon came to see Mao.”
Not quite sure I believe him, but it gives the whole thing quite a spin. I’m thinking of ‘Nixon in China,’ the opera by John Adams. The image of Pat Nixon and Chiang Ching (of Gang of Four fame) burns in my mind: “The Red Detachment of Women,” a socio-political ballet depicting the downfall of a cruel ‘imperialist’ landlord.
According to Frank, YY cowers three days and nights in the dank hold of the cargo ship. The rats are running circles around him. He’s spent every last penny of his family’s money just to get on board.
YY’s family were once gazillionaires in Shanghai. The Japanese and the Nationalists have wrung them dry. The last kick up the pants is Mao and his ‘Long March’ buddies who send YY’s father to an internment camp in Heilongjiang Province, then run YY out of China for good. YY starts again from scratch. Frank says YY’s brother, HT (another initialed billionaire), makes it to Taiwan alongside Chiang Kai Shek. HT is now one of the biggest audio electronics exporters to the USA. YY calls him once a week to talk business. According to Frank, YY bankrolled the whole caboodle. Stereologic is what they call themselves. Rings a bell, but doesn’t seem that much logical about it.
“YY had a friend in America. The triads in New York,” says Frank. “After Mao took over, they spread all over the world: New York, London, Sydney, Hong Kong. Someone told me that one of YY’s cousins was a Ma Ma San (a Madame) in a brothel in Cuba during the 50s. Now she lives in the States and her daughter runs one of YY’s companies over there.”
Years later YY manages to finagle his own Ma Ma’s passage out of China. Much to Mrs. YY’s dismay, Ma Ma now lives with them permanently. Ma Ma is responsible for ensuring that the two kids have the best care possible. At the age of ten, YY Junior already looks like a Sumo wrestler.
Frank says that in the stifling heat of the ship’s hold YY becomes so desperate he drinks from the engineer’s toilet. This sends YY into spasms; he’s lucky he doesn’t end up with Hepatitis. Or perhaps he does? (Interestingly, YY has a regular doctor’s appointment every Friday morning for two hours. It’s pencilled into his secretary’s agenda. He always looks decidedly more rosy-cheeked on a Friday afternoon; and he doesn’t drink, so it can’t be the Friday night cocktails he’s looking forward to.)
The ship’s engineer takes pity on YY and upon arrival in Hong Kong, he dresses the young scallywag in a blue-ship’s-issue-boiler-suit.
Arm-in-arm the two of them stagger through the employee customs-line with the rest of the ship’s employees. With the engineer’s help he manages to get himself a job in the back kitchen of some gigantic floating restaurant. Nights he spends swatting the Oxford English dictionary twenty words at a time until his English is passable enough to have a basic conversation. He never sleeps more than five hours.
Somehow YY convinces the engineer to lend him enough money to buy a suit and a new pair of shoes, and as soon as the opportunity arises, he applies for a job as a salesman in one of Hong Kong’s largest foreign-owned trading houses: Jardine Matheson.
“Did you never see that ancient Cantonese man who comes to visit YY in the office on Wednesday afternoons? Ever notice that YY always has lunch out on Wednesdays?” says Frank. In between sentences, Frank stares into his Martini. We’re chewing the fat at the Captain’s Bar.
Now Frank mentions it: “Ah, yes. The skinny old guy in the red tie with the walking stick who all the secretaries fawn over.”
“YY calls him Ba Ba, even though the old guy is nothing of the sort. Still, I guess when YY came to Hong Kong, a ship’s engineer and his wife was all he had.”
“He never talks about his real family.”
“You noticed that too,” says Frank.
That Old China Backhand
Originally founded in Canton in 1832, Jardine Matheson is one of the first and largest of the original Hong Kong trading houses, or as they are called, Hongs. In the bad ole days, they made their name on Indian opium, silver and the tea trade. Jardines, as it’s now commonly referred to, has subsequently moved its headquarters to Bermuda for tax purposes, and remains one of Hong Kong’s largest companies and largest employer after the government. In 2006, they had a turnover of over US$ 27.1 billion.
How YY got the job remains a mystery. When he took the interview he was a poor-pidgin-English-speaking nobody, a Commie refugee in a cheap suit.
“Blagged his way in,” says Frank. “Convinced them he was going to help Jardines reclaim their former glories in China business.”
And he did. YY turned his trade department into one of the most profitable in the entire company—in the space of two years. He was wheeler-dealer of the month on several occasions; at least that’s what Frank says. Ah Ku, the office cha-lady, who’s been with YY since the early days, apparently told Frank.
“When he got the job, he managed to convince his boss at Jardines to give him an advance: two or three months. Borrowed some money from his surrogate dad, the ship’s engineer, set himself up with a respectable pad, then he hired a Filipino maid who had perfect English. He practiced with her weekends and nights, until he was able to talk his way through anything. Some say he had an illegitimate child with her.”
“One wouldn’t know it,” I say. “YY’s English is despicable.”
“It’s part of his act,” says Frank. “You know, he can read Charles Dickens. He’s got a copy of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in his desk in the office. He uses his Pidgin English to keep foreigners, even us Cantonese at a distance. It’s his buffer. It gives him a chance to think, to pretend he doesn’t understand, to let you sweat. Actually, he has all of us sussed out.”
Back in the good old days of Shanghai, when the city was a veritable den of iniquity: whores, dancehalls, casinos, racketeering, YY’s Father had been a big-man-about-town, a rent-collecting landowner by all accounts. In 1936, with 3 million inhabitants, Shanghai is one of the largest cities in the world, and YY’s real dad is one of the movers and shakers.
“At that time a Shanghainese owning so much property can only have been a gangster,” says Frank. “I mean YY’s got the stride, the big-ass shuffle with the jacket-draped-over-the-shoulders-thing. He must have inherited that attitude from his old man.
“Now, if you think about it, YY most likely arrived in Hong Kong sometime in the mid-50s. His Father therefore would have had to have been at the height of his career in Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s. Those were the boom years. What Chairman Mao came to call the bourgeois, imperialist kleptocracy.
Chiang Kai Shek led the Nationalist army against the Japanese, at first in cahoots with the warlord factions, the gangsters, and, also, in fact, with the Communist army—until Chiang and Mao had their falling out. International Shanghai, run by a consortium of British, American, Germans, French, Russians, was basically left to its own devices. The international settlement was policed by Indian Sikhs imported by the British, the Chinese settlement was run by a handful of influential thugs, we now call them triads: the Red and Green gangs.”
The whole point is—to Frank and I in the Captain’s Bar—that YY must have come from a gangster family. Stowaway or not, YY still had major connections throughout China (despite or perhaps in spite of the Communist Party); and irregardless that Mao was steering China on the road to Stalinist perdition, YY was going to put them to good use. Strangely, even though there never has been more of a Capitalist, YY much admired Mao. To a certain degree he even styled himself on the Chairman: same haircut, similar stature and surprisingly similar gestures.
I believe that he secretly wanted to don one of those Mao suits, especially if they’d been available in a shiny silver-grey.
YY once said: “Politics and business, capitalist or communist. All the same. All about money and power.”
Sometimes I bet he regretted not joining the Revolution. He would have flourished.
(To be continued…)
* Sha Ji Xia Hou, (Killing the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys) is an ancient Chinese idiom meaning to frighten a larger enemy by punishing a smaller one.
The origin of this idiom comes from a parable, which goes something like this:
There once was a man who raised monkeys. As they multiplied and grew up, they became more unruly, destroying many of the man’s precious things. One day the man went to his chicken coop and grabbed a clucking hen, which he showed to his exasperating monkeys. He said, “If you don’t behave, you’ll end up like this hen.” The man promptly chopped off the chicken’s head. The monkeys became obedient from that moment on.
** Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing was an American movie set in Hong Kong in the 50s, starring William Holden. It tells the love story of a married American reporter who falls for a Chinese doctor. The lovers are ostracized from her family and Hong Kong society. It doesn’t really end that well.