“Please step forward and accept this probe into your ear.”
Ahhh when dreams become reality… but no it wasn’t a little grey man with big black eyes saying this to me telepathically; but instead a very prim and tidy Chep Lap Kok airport official, sternly looking at the faint smile that had crept to my lips at the thought.
I had heard that if they suspected you had SARS, you could be detained for 10 days, no arguments. I was on my way to China via Hong Kong, and I’d imagine that upon arriving ten days late in Shanghai I would be marched off to the local capitalist interrogation unit to ‘compose my apology’ to my new Chinese boss. And likely a fair amount of bollocking to go with it. “You capitalist fool, you are late! Nobody in the whole of China has been late since 1950! How did this happen? Western debauchery will not infect our socialist paradise. We will teach you the error of your ways…”
As interesting as that experience would doubtless be, I wasn’t in the mood due to feeling very queasy, tired and increasingly sweaty after a heavy night on the Arak and Bintang in Bali the previous night. Damn you layabout surfers and your lifestyle you are an evil temptress, you shall not turn me into a lotos eater and I will go to China and live without your beer, sun, women and ocean and ‘fun’. And like it.
My ear behaved itself and didn’t betray me to the authorities so I had twelve hours to kill in Hong Kong before my plane left for Shanghai and a likely interrogation/ear bashing for being too tired. Too short a time for a hotel, too long for hanging about the airport. What to do at nine in the evening in a new city? Go for a meal? Take a famous Hong Kong tram? Go up the hill for a view of the most beautiful harbour in the world? Meditate and ‘purge my body and soul’ of the last weeks toxins and carcinogens…no, go find a bar and see what happens. Genius.
The ultra-efficient tourist people assured me I would be able to get back to the airport any godforsaken hour of the morning I chose – “Hong Kong never sleep!”, although I caught a couple of arched eyebrows from them as I walked off, admittedly in the wrong direction. After negotiating the light rail to town, banging humidity and a network of raised walkways I finally set foot on Hong Kong Island proper. Heading away from the harbour I soon found a neon draped entertainment strip with a choice of bars containing fat drunken expats and good looking Asians.
People seemed to be oddly giddy, poking each other in the ribs and so on. But I guess that since SARS is practically gone they are allowed a little ‘mischief’ on their minds instead of worrying about masks for their ballet-dancing children. A smile from a young man talking on his mobile on the pavement outside a swanky looking bar called Stormy Weather induced me to go in. Smiles from young men don’t normally produce any reaction in me other than averted eyes and rising nervousness, but there was something heady in that air and so in I went.
Within ten seconds a twenty-something western man came up and offered to buy me a drink. Did I actually come all the way from Bali and walk straight into a gay bar? Well this could be interesting, but one hour into a new country, my defences were up.
All I could come out with on the spur of the moment was “Emm, what is this place?” He happily ignored the obvious stupidity of my question and said “Oh been running about two years, restaurant upstairs”, and he handed me his card; Shannon Bridgeford – Bar Manager. This had the desired calming effect, and I sat at the bar, ordered a pint and watched the golf. It played on my mind though as these things do when you walk into a bar for the first time on your own. This is great; the manager of the bar has just bought me a drink…but Shannon? What kind of a name is that? His name is probably Shane Brown, and calls himself Shannon Bridgeford on the Hong Kong drag circuit and is going whip out his wig and ‘rouge himself up’ at any minute. Stormy Weather? If only I could understand gay code…
After counting heads to get a rough male:female ratio and observing that most men were trying to pick up Asian girls I told myself to shut up and watch the golf. On closer inspection, there was chalked on a mirror “Send the wife and kids out of town, singles night Thursday, ladies drink for free!”, which settled it. This being Hong Kong rather than Thailand, ladies generally were ladies here.
Pretty friendly guy, this Shannon, gave me a shot of kamikaze before I was a third of the way through the beer. Turned out he was South African, which explains the girly name. South Africa is a country that has never been averse to doing things differently; why not name your sons with girl’s names? Alice Mandela.
After two more free beers and two free sambucas my stomach was happy again and my disloyal brain was rapidly pushing out the Balinese surfing community in favour of new horizons. Yes, the possibilities are endless; Asia is my oyster and I will…
“You ever try party 151, Brian?”
Gay code again. My guard was not completely down yet…
“Emm, no, never heard of it!”
“Here, try some” said Shannon/Shane, proudly showing me the warning label on the back of the bottle advising of its extreme flammability. He cracked the seal and poured me a healthy measure of Cuba’s finest 151% proof rum. Is this the ‘price I had to pay’ for a free night on the piss courtesy of Shannon, Bar Manager? Well, I’m never one to let the side down in the drinking stakes, and so down it went, my gut thankfully long since paralysed and sporting a fresh coat of sambuca to insulate against this new elevation of evil liquid.
A few patrons who were discreetly watching the 151 party discreetly enquired about my health to which I replied with a deadpan ‘Grand’ as my stomach did a back-flip and triggered sneaky chemicals to punish my disloyal brain. After the saliva glands under my tongue had stopped flooding my mouth and I had licked the surplus off my lower lip, I was accepted (just for the night, mind you) by this cliquey group of six-figure fat barfly expats and was liberally plied with drink.
It’s not the first time I’ve felt like a pub laboratory experiment, the objective being to test the fabled Irish drinking capacity. The other memorable time was with a six-figure not fat Wall Street dealer who was going out with my cousin at the time in New York. Ah well if they want to waste their money, fine, I’ll take my fill and leave before I start to party like its nineteen ninety-nine; and they shall not have their tale of the drunken Irishman at their Monday morning cocaine meeting in the trading floor jacks.
However, my new companions were merrily steaming, and I was well on my way to joining their airy level of altered consciousness. One English thirty-something currency dealer begged Shannon to put on ‘We are the Champions’ by Queen to get a rise out of the Aussies at the back of the bar. The Australian national rugby team apparently had been beaten in their own backyard by the ‘mother country’. His motive seemed to be more pointed than your average ‘baiting the Aussies over a sporting loss’. It was more like a mean father who teaches his son a lesson by eating an ice-cream in front of him after the child has dropped his own one, while pointing and heartily laughing at the unfortunate tot. I didn’t know that these imperialist fools still existed outside Buckingham Palace, but they do in Hong Kong.
At one point he actually said in a serious manner “Britannia still rules the waves, you know old chap”, the rugby victory obviously providing the justification for this madness. “The Australians know it. Although there are nationalist elements present there, they are mostly the foreign immigrants, dammit. Ma’am is still at the head of it all and rightly so. They did get a bit uppity when she dissolved their government in the 70s, though they re-elected our man the following year.” ‘So they gave you the rugby victory to say ta ta for their head of state?’ I didn’t say. “Yes, we are the same, you and I. British. Ah I know you are a ‘republic’ over there, haw haw, but you are still British. British Isles. We undoubtedly reside in the civilised part of the world (empire he didn’t say), unlike these Australian creatures living on a piece of driftwood that Cook picked up in the South Seas”.
Normally, I would be contemplating violence in the face of this insolence: but it truly was hilarious, especially with his loquacious American mate cursing him to hell; being from an ex-colony himself he was firmly on my side. I actually felt honoured to meet this gobshite, it was like meeting Scooby Doo, Donald Duck, Mr. Magoo or any other cartoon character/caricature you may have knocking around in your head. My dream/reality focus was getting blurred again, partly due to the surreal scene unfolding in front of me and partly due to the weakened state of my body and mind but I wasn’t at the ‘talking pig drinking a Manhattan’ stage yet, which I was thankful for.
As Imperial-Buffoon was very drunk, it was quite easy to ‘wind him up’, and within ten minutes I had him behind the bar serving me drinks, happily staggering about with napkin on arm, the irony of the situation being totally lost on him. I flipped him a couple of pence for good service which he caught in his mouth, and let out a demented roar/belch; a perfect stereotype of Western/Asian expat culture. I got a waft of a post imperial hangover, but maybe he just liked the Simpsons.
“So were you here when Hong Kong was still British, Imperial-Buffoon?” I said to keep him happy, as you would scratch a dog behind the ear to distract him from licking his balls. With a look of distant sadness, he put down the fishing rod with which he was currently trying to injure the Aussies (“Will that fat fackin Pom ever fack off??”) and said “No, just missed the handover, dammit. And now they’re sending me to Tokyo”. He left shortly afterwards, a little dejected, presumably to have a quick fumble with his Filipino housemaid before falling asleep, only to get up in three hours time and further erode the values of our pensions and investments. I wonder what the Japanese will make of him. For the sake of his concept of reality, I hope they put him on a big log with those kamikaze monks and send him rolling down a hill, thus restoring his senses instantly.
I got back to Cheep Lap Kop after somehow falling asleep on the right bus. However, the enigmas of the English continued to trouble me as I staggered foolishly around looking for the left luggage depot, totally lost in Norman Foster’s giant airport at about 4.00am. Why are you doing this to me Norman? My legs are tired and probably riddled with deep vein thrombosis. If building giant airports in old colonial outposts is your ‘thing’, well more power to you – maybe the empire is not lost after all. But don’t forget to put the signs up for the rest of us will you?