The Hong Kong Gong Show

Or, Que Uma Bela Vista!

Can just barely hear Retreat being played tonight, hitchhiking on a slight sea breeze all the way from the navy base - protocol (and ingrained training) says to stand and face the flag, or the direction of the music, and place your hand on your heart.

Thinking about it just now, I realize that very few people talk about sounds on the internet - it's almost all visuals, however gorgeous and enviable, and talk, tic talk, and dancing. I won't even mention the cute cat and daily adorable dog video deluge.

Two nights ago the fog horn off the Point - I'm not sure if it's on Rose or Goat island, bellowed forlorn and alone, warning and warning with its huge urgency until morning.

All winter there was a murder of crows overshadowing and doubling the bulk of the trees of Eisenhower Park, shrieking and ominous, putting me in mind alternatively of Poe and Hitchcock. Shrill and menacing, a voluminous flying foreboding of loud black awe, of incessant and insistent caw, caw, CAW!

I remember sitting in my office in Wan Chai many years ago and hearing the Noon Day Gun being fired on the waterfront at Causeway Bay, a three-inch artillery tradition started by Jardin Matheson in the 1860s, that became a daily ritual one-gun salute, I’m not sure to what. Boom! The China in the glass cabinets in the Chinnery Bar might have tinkled a bit from the blast, but implacable China across the border didn’t flinch an inch. Boom!

From Wikipedia: “The tradition originated over an incident in the 1860s. Jardines' main godowns and offices were located at East Point, and its private militia would fire a gun salute to welcome a Jardine tai-pan's arrival by sea. On one occasion, a senior British naval  officer became annoyed by this practice because he was new to Hong Kong and did not know of such a tradition. This was because such a salute was normally reserved for government officials and senior officers of the armed services. As a result, Jardines was ordered, as a penalty, to fire a gun every day at noon, in perpetuity.”

The gun was made famous in Noel Coward’s song Mad Dogs and Englishmen:

Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The smallest Malay rabbit
Deplores this stupid habit in Hongkong
They strike a gong and
Fire off a noonday gun
To reprimand each inmate
Who's in late

BOOM! Saturday mornings I’d watch the horse races at Happy Valley from my fourth-floor balcony in Raceview Mansions on Stubbs Road, and that familiar cheerful starting trumpet “Call to the Post’ would sometimes reach all the way up to my tin betting ears. I’d walk down to town, past the Love is a Many Splendored Thing villa, where William Holden and Jennifer Jones, the two lovers who kissed while the world stood still as Andy Williams moon, June, crooned. There was a bizarre bazaar on the steep steps going down to Cat Street, that not only had the usual slew of cheap chinky junk, fifty cent slave labor-sewn Mary Janes and rusty-canned good luck abalone, but also acres of cages of sinewy snakes for sale to eat obviously.

That race track deserves a book itself – the only horse racing I had experienced before that was the harness track at Foxboro, in the shadow of the old Shaefer Stadium, that I’m also pretty positive ran greyhounds on Sundays during the summer. It was so low key and low rent that the highlight of the day was either the cotton candy, actually losing all your money, or when Cheap Trick gave a concert in the parking lot and I happened to arrive just in time to catch their encore I want you to want me, with a cartoonish Nielson in a checkerboard zoot suit melting faces with his infamous double-necked guitar.

But the Chinese and the ear-popping roar and frenzied chatter of their manic gambling – fooking crazy! I can’t overstate how insane the electric and fibrous anticipatory volume was, the amplitude of greedy joy and then the boisterous weight of post-finish grief and ruin sounded – on a typical weekend the take at Happy Valley was something like a quarter of a billion U.S. dollars. Billion. I just looked it up and that’s no lie. And some of these people at the time (1986) were earning less than a thousand Yuan a month. The spin and thrust of noise and tension, the illogic uncertainty of chance – imagine I don’t even know the seating capacity of Happy Valley back then, maybe 50,000 – so imagine 50,000 Chinamen and women bleating in Cantonese at the top of their lungs for about a dozen or so furlongs, a dozen or so times throughout the day, dozens of days a year.

Culminating, crescendoing about four o’clock for the featured race, the Shan Pui River Handicap, or the Wu King Derby, that for most was a death of dreams, a mass, manic personal mourning of fortunes lost. All summer this madness and mystery continued – just try reading a racing form in Cantonese and then placing your bets if you think you’re so smart and believe the odds of the world aren't against you.

I was working for Ted Bates, an advertising agency that has since been bought out by BBDO Worldwide, but at the time was a third-rate operation of only about twenty-five – three gweilos and the rest Hong Kongers. Our client list was the best of the best: DeBeers, San Miguel Beer, Proctor & Gamble, and Hong Kong Shanghai Bank to name the most well known. We had just pitched and won the Mandarin Hotel account, and I was hired as the head copywriter on that re-branding campaign by pure, vertigo-inducing chance.

My buddy Ben and I were hanging out in Adelaide Australia – we had motorcycled across the Nularbor to watch the America’s Cup regatta, since I knew Dennis Connor when he lost in Newport in 1983, and once that fabulous recaptured glory and redemption was over with we decided to hop on a boat heading up to Hong Kong. The Klang Reefer was our ticket, and I finagled a berth aboard posing as a “journalist,” and Ben was my photographer. We were all set to sail but couldn’t clear customs in Perth because it was New Year’s Day and the office was closed.

So we caught a flight and arrived at Kai Tak around midnight that same day. Ben’s Honkers connection picked us up from the airport and before I knew it I was in a club called Sauvage buying drinks for Abstract and Rainbow, my two new best underdressed friends, and thinking but I’m still sunburned from our early morning windsurf in Adelaide, as Joy Division made it clear that love was going to tear us apart, at a certain-aneurysm-brain-death 120+ db.

We all went and had dim sum at some skyscraper basement mall the next morning, and I was soon rapping my knuckles on the table to ask for more tea like a native before the meal was up. Rap, rap. Everybody’s talking a mile a minute and the din is deafening and the knuckle rap is so you don’t have to stop talking but still need more tea. Rap, rap. Rap, rap, RAP – finally, more tea’s poured. And the constant din, the chingchowadilowhahwutzoweiiiiiijiin, loud lomochowhai, hohoho, hahaha creating a surround, somehow rhythmical euphony that never abates.

Ben’s dad had business in Hong Kong, so he had been coming for years, and Janice, one of his old girlfriends met us at the restaurant and we went back to her apartment since we never made it to a hotel, and didn’t have the money for one anyway. What did the poet Denise Levertov write once about her doctor dad groping his way home right after his night shift at the insane asylum? “He walked from madness to breakfast every morning,” or something like, anyway. We went back to Janice’s apartment on Electric Road in Causeway Bay, and it was a second floor walk up, with a gash-in-the-alley doorway right next to an electronics store called FONY. The apartment had an open area when you walked in, which was the kitchen/dining/living room, and two small bedrooms off of that. I’d say about 400 square feet. The larger of the two bedrooms had a family of four, and the smaller one also had four: Janice, her mother and father, and her father’s mother, who had spent her early married years in Nanking, and was there when the Japanese raped it.

We asked Janice where we were going to sleep and she pointed to the corner of the kitchen floor between the table and the bathroom door, if calling it a door wasn’t shamefully romantic and generous – it was a stained shower curtain thumb-tacked to the ceiling and one wall to make a make-shift toilet stall. Washing was done in the kitchen sink, dishes and swishes alike. We fell like cut timber dead asleep. I still had on my down-under/preppie mashup: surfing shorts, Brooks Brothers blazer, wrinkled oxford-cloth button down, and my tie was an old ice hockey skate lace that was so long I had to tuck it into the front of my pants. I woke up several hours later to an odd gurgling steamboat seethe and bubble. When I finally regained my hung-over senses, or at least some of them, I realized I was half-under someone’s stool, with their feet on either side of my head, and saw that the whole other family was eating huoguo or Chinese hotpot, and laughing and chattering and slurping like epileptic Halloween teeth. The din and shloop of an old air conditioner on that humid day with a motor clinking and choking on its last legs filled up everything in between their cronking and gulps.

I walked down to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club to see if there was anything going on, and the steward said that there were class boat races that afternoon. I asked if anyone was looking for an extra body, and, again, improbably, found myself crewing on a 420 – and we miraculously won the race. As we were sailing back to the dock I saw the hulking Klang Reefer waiting its turn to unload at the Kwun Tong container ship terminal, tourist tchotchke junks and noodle soup sampans like slender remoras suckling alongside.  

The next morning I told Ben that I needed to get a job as fast as possible since poverty and starvation weren’t my M.O., so I called up Ted Bates and the guy said come for an interview that afternoon. I did, and just like that he hired me on the spot. His name was Paul Quinlivan and in all my subsequent years in advertising I’ve never met a more perceptive, creative, aware, original and authentic, in-tune-with-the-rhythm-of-the-world dude in my life. He was charming and smooth too, and to this day I am forever grateful to him for the opportunity he gave me, a wretch off the street. So I come back to the apartment and tell Ben that I had been hired and would be starting the next day. He naturally thought I was kidding, since the last job I had gotten was in Japan years before, and Ben happened to be there too.

We had gone to the local “Sushi Heavin” and got paralyzed on hot saki, and all I remember of that night was throwing gyozas down the hatch at a sidewalk food stall at dawn and drinking flat Sapporo beer out of the bottle on the way home, while the gas station attendants across the street from my apartment called out irashay, irashay, irashay as they washed windshields and pumped gas and bowed low and often in their matching coveralls and logoed service caps and white gloves.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have any money, and I only had the unfit outfit I arrived in so we went to Esprit on Causeway Road, overlooking beautiful Victoria Park and I bought a pair of pants and some shoes. I washed my shirt in the sink and hung it to dry in front of the air conditioner, and slept on the kitchen floor under the table, while Janice’s parents and a few of their friends played mah jong, a finger dance of perfect mathematical marching, click-clacking and laughing late into the night.

No sooner had I gotten to work, filled out the paperwork and settled at my desk than Priscilla, the account executive for DeBeers said that she had a meeting in about an hour and that I should come along since I would be also working on that campaign. I said fine and we went down to Jaffe Road and she hailed a taxi. I got in and had a panic attack – I didn’t have any money, and what happens if she asked me to pay the fare? I haven’t been afraid many times in my life, but I remember being mortified – kicked to the curb before I even had a chance to embarrass myself. We arrived and Priscilla paid the cabbie just like that. I’ve always said that worry is misplaced imagination, and it was never truer than it was right then. Lesson learned. We entered the building, which was the diamond giant’s headquarters for all of Asia, and before I knew it was sitting in a conference room on the millionth floor overlooking all of Hong Kong, the harbor –  I could even see mainland China in the distance.

Tea, coffee, whatever I wanted. My new pants and polished pleather shoes, which I was so proud of putting on just an hour earlier, made me grasp the underlying psychology of the imposter syndrome in an unpleasant, suicidal flash.  I chuckled to myself imagining the looks on their faces if I told them I had slept under a kitchen table in a second floor walkup on Electric Road that I was sharing with ten other people, eight of whom had no idea who or why or what the snoring gweilo was doing there. The sheer asymmetry of different scales, the immeasurable imbalance rebalanced based on a fortuitous phone call, one day to the next, seemed like an amusing and cruel fiction, a plot twist doomed to end in failure and a theatrical comeuppance.

But it didn’t. I was in the meeting, as present as possible, trying to act professional and hoping to not sound like a hayseed straight off the boat when and if I was called on. I’ve never been guilty of false modesty, and I did end up writing a lot of great ads for DeBeers – my favorite was for an engagement ring: “If it’s the thought that counts, here’s a brilliant idea.” But then again, that’s back when marriage and the family was considered a desirable if not crucial institution and children were the bulwark against the totalitarian and indifferent murderous jackboot of the state. Nowhere more so than Hong Kong, with the handover back to the British looming on the near timeline, at least in terms of China’s long history, and making a free, capitalist, and patrilineal people nervous, like rats poised to abandon a listing ship.

I made it through the first day without incident, and enjoyed my time at Ted Bates enormously. I worked with a small creative team: Paul, who I’ve already mentioned, Stuart, a short, sharp, acerbic Jew from Chicago, and Peter McGrath, a brainy and urbane cynic from New York. Howard Wong was the art director, and a wise old soul, like our very own Mr. Miyagi. Whenever I’d present Howard with an idea he didn’t like, he’d always tell me that it was great but it wouldn’t translate well into Chinese, to save face and end the argument without an argument since he knew I thought all my ideas were genius, but I didn’t speak Cantonese. Clara Wong was the account executive for Mandarin Hotels – she was from a prominent Hong Kong family, went to private school in England, and I just found out recently eventually became the CEO of BBDO Asia. We all had the hots for her and teased her mercilessly, but she was only amused – her undisguised disdain and exquisite boredom with our amateurish overtures was both elegant and masterful, but lost on us obtuse testosteronal zombies.

Once or twice a week we’d all go down to the local dive for lunch, which was just around the corner from our office. We’d cut through a side street and go in the back door, instead of walking all the way around, and one day I saw a jury-rigged wood and wire cage next to the dumpster, full of dogs. I had never noticed it before, and when we went back to the restaurant later that week there were fewer dogs in it. I asked Clara about this and she smiled at my wide-eyed wonder when I finally put two and two together. “But at least we don’t eat cats” was all she said, implying that the barbaric Koreans or the medieval Japanese did. I later found out this wasn’t true. In Guongdong Province, which is just over the border from Hong Kong, cat meat is a main ingredient in the traditional dish ‘dragon, tiger, phoenix’ (snake, cat, chicken), which is supposed to be somehow fortifying and rejuvenating.

My take on the Chinese is that they aren’t anything like the conformist, law-abiding, group-think Japanese, who can, admittedly be just as racist, brutal and ruthless in times of war, and peace too. But I was never able to step inside the Japanese time, which is as necessary in boxing as it is in life – otherwise you either get knocked out immediately or are beat up mercilessly throughout and only technically knocked out. The Japanese act polite and solicitous to conceal, misdirect, and deflect, all part and parcel of their culture of face-saving, which I found indecipherable and exasperating. I soon realized that the Chinese, in contrast, are sons of bitches all the time, and upfront about it, with a cruel black sense of humor, as mean and cheap as any pinched Yankee hysteric, but I got along with them like a house on fire because I knew exactly where they were coming from. They’d look you in the eye and lie, lie, lie and then steal your money, mostly figuratively speaking, while telling you that that was what they were doing, and then laugh about it, sometimes at enormous cost to themselves, too.

For example, a Chinese friend told me he was on a trip back to his village and had to take a ferry along the way. He was on his bicycle, which was packed to the gills with his baggage, food, gasoline, chickens, rice, bottles of beer and cigarettes and plastic net bags full of oranges that he always brought home as gifts, since they symbolize safety and good fortune  – basically everything but the kitchen sink. Back then most Chinese  never dreamed of owning a car, and even their rubbish Flying Pigeon bicycles cost them a small fortune, if they were even able to get on the long, long waiting list to be able to even purchase one in the first place. The ferryman told him it was twenty-five extra cents for the bicycle, mostly out of envy and spite (there's nothing more tyrannical than a provincial lord), and after a protracted, indignant pantomime, my buddy hoists the bike up on his back with a superhuman effort, carries it onto the ferry, and keeps it up there the whole way across. You wrecked your damn spine for twenty-five cents, I say? I’d have done it for two cents, he says.  

I’m was going to digress a bit and talk about my experience with race hierarchies and history in Asia in general, and China in particular, but I thought I’d finish this monograph off with some sounds and recalled impressions instead: mimesis, memories, moods and music since that seems to be the de facto theme and the only glue unfortunately holding this atonal ma non troppo Gonzo journalistic pastiche together.

I was having dinner at the Hotel Bela Vista, which sits atop Penha Hill in Macau, on the famous balcony with its arched balustrades, overlooking the South China Sea one misty dusk with my sidekick Stu, when I suddenly felt like I could have been magically teleported to Caxias or Cascais on the Estoril Coast. We had taken the high-speed ferry from Hong Kong after work, and the lightening whoosh and confounding physics of the hydrofoils was mesmerizing but puzzling to me. After all, I was a sailor, and displacement boats were what boats were, what boats did – none of this space-age gimcrackery and flying-saucer stuff made any sense to me, except for airplanes and rocket ships. I had never been on one before and it felt like science fiction.

We went to the casino in the Hotel Lisboa, a giant blighted concrete pineapple, to do some low-key but come to find out high-profile slumming. We had no real money to speak of, and neither of us was a gambler anyway, but we were well-dressed and white, so we got a lot of attention, mostly because our slouchy insouciance was misread as ‘These guys must be uber-wealthy since they act like such idiotic slobs,’ whereas it was really an unintentional double-bluff. The drinks were flowing and free, and the cigarette girls, and they still had them back then, were flirty and attentive in their short, seductive, candy-colored saloon-style skirts and pillbox hats.

It was evening all afternoon as Wallace Stevens once said, and we sat there, after the perfect peasant fare of fried balcalhau and chicken piri piri dinner, drinking our two fingers of Port until it became as dark as his thirteen blackbirds. “We could be in Portugal,” I said, since most of the liveried Chinese waiters spoke Portuguese, and the air had the slightly-passe sadness of ancient regime, the fans circulated slowly overhead and the creak and groan of rattan punctuated the muggy thrust of night as a sea nimbus was settling in.

We smoked Sobranie Black Russian 100’s, even though I was dubious about that misplaced apostrophe, a habit I had picked up from Peter, my aforementioned copywriting cubicle-mate and fellow sophisticated cynic, who said as long as you’re going to smoke you might as well make your death as classy and expensive as possible. Why kill yourself with the cheap Double Happiness or the crap cancerous Candy, favorites of the tactless bastard commie masses? he said. Black with a gold tip, lit with my trusty Zippo, with the familiar slitch, whoosh, light, and bright closing clink, they were like inhaling Lauren Bacall’s laugh. And the tales that lighter could tell today, man. We were finishing our Port; the restaurant was emptying.

Beethoven, the utmost king of symphonies, was playing his No. 6 for us, only for us. There were a few wooing couples and tourists loitering in love on the Praia Grande down below, and I could hear the moon happy.
June 28, 2020 — Johnny Mustard