|The ravings of Hong Kong's most obnoxious expat
28 November-4 December 2004
|Sun, 28 Nov
The day gets off to an unusual start, with an urgent 7.30am phone call from the Big Boss. He is on his way to pick me up. Minutes later outside Perpetual Opulence Mansions, toothpaste still fresh in my mouth, I see the beige Rolls-Royce, licence plate BB2828, approaching. He has company, so I sit in the front next to Parker the driver. As we pull away I am introduced to the thin, balding, 50-something Cornelius V Roch, a reclusive American investor much admired by the Chairman of S-Meg Holdings. He seems extremely troubled. “Mr Hemlock, thank you so much for agreeing to help me,” he says sombrely, handing me a large, bulky envelope. “Here are all the details. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.” The Big Boss assures him it’s nothing and glances at me. I agree, trying not to appear too bemused. At the Shun Tak Centre, the Big Boss orders me out and follows me to one side. “Roch’s son went missing in Thailand in summer. Seems to be in Macau.” He looks back at the car. “He has to leave – I’m taking him to the airport. You know he’s looking for a China partner. It would really help if we find his boy, or at least he thinks we’ve tried.” I nod. “Don’t take more than three days,” he hisses as he hurries back to Rolls.
In the helicopter, I flick through photocopies of the 20-year-old’s passport, statements for his supplementary credit card and a brief resume with a photo. The name is Lucas. Blond, straggly hair, goatee beard, blue eyes. Nouveau-hippy look – should stick out a mile in Macau. Majoring in drama and psychology at a New England liberal arts college Left in July to do the dancing-on-beaches-on-drugs thing in Asia. (The delightful Thai expression for these backpackers, farang kee nok – foreign bird droppings – comes to mind.) Contacted home from Chiang Mai and Ko Samui in August before vanishing, since when he has used the credit card only infrequently to draw cash in large amounts in Bangkok, twice, and two weeks ago in Macau. He called a college friend last week – number traced to a Zhuhai resort.
At my hotel, I collect my thoughts in the business centre while I am waiting for my room. I email Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary TOP URGENT! asking her to collect my passport from my office and get it here by noon tomorrow, in case I have to go across the border. I jot down a shopping list – I need to buy some spare clothes. And I need to start hunting for Lucas. The only name in the English language that rhymes with mucus. Where would a backpacking rich kid go? To places with beer and other 20-year-olds, of course. There are lots of bars in this town. This is going to be a gruelling few days.
Mon, 29 Nov
So far, I have enjoyed a leisurely lunch sitting at a window table at the Algarve Sol on Rua do Comandante Mata e Oliveira. Sit here long enough, and you will see everyone in Macau walk past. A bowl of caldo verde, followed by roast cod and salad, followed by ice cream, followed by coffee, followed by a refill takes me two hours. Apparently not long enough. A few Lucas-free Internet cafes and trendy coffeehouses later, I envisage him strolling with backpacker friends along Avenida da Praia Grande. So it’s another window seat for dinner at Solmar – ribeye steak with curious, sweetish, Cantonese-accented gravy, which goes well with the fries. Still no sign of the prodigal son. What can I say? There are less pleasant ways of looking for a missing person. That said, they are probably more effective.
HONGKONGERS SUFFERING from Mainland tourist overload should spare a thought for their counterparts here on the Rive Gauche of the Pearl River Delta. In central Macau, at least 50 percent of the teeming humanity is on a cheap package tour from across the border. Fume-spouting, left-hand-drive busses disgorge them in their ruddy cheeked, greasy haired, peasant-clothed, gaping-eyed, chain-smoking glory. At least the Big Lychee has banking, trading, Cantopop, accounting, law, hill fires, a stock market, politics and protests. Macau is prostituting itself in its sad little entirety to the Mainland tourist. Whole streets, blocks and even reclamations are being surrendered to casinos, money changers, cosmetics stores and Chinese patent medicine outlets. Even if there were room on the sidewalks for local people, they would find nothing left for them.
TONIGHT I will prowl the Docks, often dubbed Macau’s Lan Kwai Fong – presumably by people deranged enough to associate LKF with HK$20 beer.
Tue, 30 Nov
Despite my absence for several days, Hong Kong seems to be thriving. Property developers are to demolish a brand-new, never-occupied but ugly complex of 2,470 apartments. Environmentalists ask how we can explain this to our children. Easy – the Government had the flats built to make housing more affordable and then kept them empty to make homes more expensive again. Simple enough. Still, I share the greens’ anger – the HK$6 billion profit the developers will make was priced into their stock prices before I had a chance to buy. It’s a drop in the bucket of wasted taxpayers’ money compared with civil service pay, minuscule cuts in which have been ruled unconstitutional by the courts. I feel a National People's Congress ‘interpretation’ coming on. As a great man once asked about the Basic Law’s guarantee of civil service conditions, “what does ‘less favourable’ mean in a document in which ‘right of abode’ means ‘no right of abode’ and ‘high degree of autonomy’ means ‘low degree of autonomy’?” If Beijing ruled that the Hong Kong Government can slash public-sector pay, the NPC would be greeted as saviour of the Hong Kong people, and the civil servants who sued would provide us with something easy to explain to our children - don't cut off your nose to spite your face.
THE DOCKS, I found last night, is a small and bland strip of bars and restaurants. None of the Filipino serving staff recognized Lucas’s photo. I don’t blame him for not frequenting the district. I spend a few hours this morning in Zhuhai. The last time I passed through the place, it was simply a grid of wide streets surrounded by bare earth. They have since constructed buildings and planted greenery, but it remains sterile and uncrowded. It's a bit like Singapore, except you’re allowed to spit. I visit Lucas’s last known haunt - a hotel that sees fit to call itself Yindo (Grand Jasper). It is less than half a mile from the border crossing and strikes me as the sort of place someone would stay for a night in order to re-enter Macau and get a fresh passport stamp. Grand Jasper’s buffet breakfast is fine - dimsum, congee, the works. As a jazz rendition of Greensleeves plays in the background, a waitress brings me a slice of toast. Mainland Hotel Management 101 – gwailos must be fed toast daily, preferably in the morning.
Back in Macau, I decide to walk from the border all the way to my hotel. It’s rather like going from Lo Wu to Central on foot, but it takes well under an hour. Strolling through dingy side streets, I see a dark-skinned girl sporting a T-shirt honouring Southeast Asia’s favourite soccer team, Manchester United. She enters a restaurant with a striped flag flying over the door. Across the dark, narrow street, there is an ethnic grocery store, and next to it a beauty parlor called Cleopatra, with signs in the window written in a Sanskrit-based alphabet. I stop and stand. A Bangkok thought hath struck him. What does the City of Angels have in common with the City of the Name of God? Thai hookers.
I sample a few spring rolls in the restaurant and show a pair of off-duty working girls the photograph. “Brad Pitt,” one suggests. At another Thai place, I nibble squid salad and get a positive response from one of the staff. He has been in the restaurant a few times with a Thai girl. Bingo. The same girl each time? Think so. At Thai eatery number three, I sip lime juice. The waitress looks at the picture and is vaguely positive she has seen him. There are more Thai restaurants around, but I’m too full to go on.
Wed, 1 Dec
According to the Yellow Pages, I have at least a dozen more Thai restaurants to visit. Off the top of my head, I reckon there is a 0.6333 (recurring) percent probability of Lucas and I being in one at the same time, and that's assuming he doesn’t occasionally cheat and go for a burger or an African chicken. Early lunch at my first port of call consists of a pork and chili omelette. I am the only customer. The young man in charge says he’s seen the blond farang in the picture somewhere, but not for a while. Expecting a long afternoon, I pace myself and order only a guava juice at the next little place. It's a hole – a loud aircon, a picture of the king on the wall, incense and a string of little flowers in a shrine behind the counter. With four customers, it is nearly half full. To my relief, the waitress's eyes light up when I show her the photo. “Wa! Luke-ah,” she says with a big smile. A couple of girls two tables away put down their cigarettes and Cokes and come over. “Ah – Luke-ah,” they purr, admiring the little passport-size shot. “Me friend him girlfriend,” one of them squeaks. Wonderful, I reply. Luke is an old friend of mine, I explain. His girlfriend was in Bangkok, right? Yes, they say, to see her children. But now she's back. With Luke-ah!
The two ladies from the night shift go back to their seats and I ask the waitress discreetly what Luke's girlfriend does – probably not investment banking, but I better be sure. Does she work in a restaurant? A gentle shake of the head. Is she perhaps a dancer? Another slightly embarrased ‘no’. She does massage, maybe? I rub my shoulders. She grins and gives a hasty nod. Alright. Decision time. Saying I'll be back in five minutes, I leave my bag and walk down a couple of streets until I find the sort of shop I want. Not ideal, but it will have to do. I buy a children's stationery kit - yellow paper and envelopes with cartoon elephants on them. Back in the restaurant, I write a note, seal it in an envelope with Lucas's full name printed on it in capitals. “Very, very important,” I tell the waitress quietly, with my back to the customers. “You must give this to Luke, OK?” I raise a finger to my lips. She takes it and nods. I give her a 500 Pataca bill and a pat on the arm.
“Very important,” I tell her again as I leave. For the ferry terminal.
|Lucas - we haven’t spoken for several months now. I know you’ve been listening to your heart a lot. And of course you’re old enough to make your own decisions. But come on – think about this. You’ve dropped out of school. You’re living off your father. Don’t get me started about the woman. OK – great experience. Now it’s time to go home. Get it? GO HOME.
|Thurs, 2 Dec
I wake up to find myself in Hong Kong, not feeling in excellent condition. Memories of last night slowly return. Arriving back from Macau late yesterday afternoon, I was met at the Shun Tak Centre by wild American friend Odell and two of his wastrel friends, who insisted on dragging me to Lan Kwai Fong. We must celebrate, they said, because the Hong Kong Government is to drop French from the list of approved subjects that can be taught in secondary schools. It seemed like an excellent reason for a drink. In its attempt to undermine our way of life in the Big Lychee, the insidious Gallic menace has even linked up with the evil dietary perversion that is veganism. It is heartening to see our resolute leaders decide to fight back. In the pub however, one drink led to another, and I became entangled in a giant struggle of wills with the Nepalese waitress. In my change, she gave me a grimy, wrinkled old green 10 dollar bill – stained by a thousand greasy fingers, and probably covered by a million deadly bacteria and viruses per square millimeter of its surface. The next time I bought a round of drinks, I gave it back to her. The next time she brought me change, she gave it back to me. It passed between us at least half a dozen times before I noticed the approach of midnight, when Odell’s brain turns into a pumpkin. “This is her tip,” I told everyone as I tossed the putrid, diseased banknote onto the table and left.
I call Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary. “I’m still in Macau,” I announce. She starts blathering away about how she has caller ID and can see I’m at home, but I interrupt her. “I’ll be in late…” Click. “…tomorrow.”
|Fri, 3 Dec
Approaching the newsstand in Queen’s Road this morning, I detect a strong smell of shoe polish. The stench becomes overwhelming as I pick up my copy of the South China Morning Post and pluck out a special section on the annual DHL/SCMP Business Awards. And the Business Person of the Year is… Tung Chee-chen, boss of shipping line OOCL and, as it happens, brother of our very own crop-haired Chief Executive, CH. The list of previous winners is interesting Dickson Poon (who went on to rip off minority shareholders); Allan Wong Chi-yun (whose cordless phones/educational toys company VTech subsequently tanked, and has done so again in recent weeks); Richard ‘Stanford’ Li (Li Ka-shing’s number-two son, whose PCCW has since proved to be just another moribund former phone monopoly). Why am I writing this when corporate sage David Webb provides a comprehensive list? The fact is that the DHL/SCMP Awards are a kiss of death – as accurate a contrarian indicator as the bullish and bearish front covers of Business Week at market peaks and troughs, respectively. CC Tung is a pleasant, and actually witty, man – but what can I say? Sell OOCL.
Turning the page of the supplement brings no relief from the odour of obsequiousness. Executive Award goes to Sing Wang, head of the Tom Group, Li Ka-shing’s contribution to the dotcom craze in 2000, which had half a million demented taxi drivers and elderly women pawning their valuables and fighting in the streets to get a slice of the initial public offering. After falling foul of Li a while ago by pointing out that Hutchison’s 3G phones were rubbish, the SCMP has been furiously shining his footwear on every possible occasion. A lesser man would enjoy such public displays of sycophancy, while an average man would be embarrassed. KS doesn’t even notice.
|HONG KONG further consolidates its position as Asia’s cultural, creative and design hub, as Not The South China Morning Post art director Hugh Janus launches his own website. Miracle toast, phalluses, toads, the rear ends of farm animals… Nothing’s missing.|
|The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of childhood into maturity
- TH Huxley