“You want sex finish or you no want?”
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.”