The Wild West of Asia

Hong Kong in June.

The temperature was 98�F and 98% humidity at 8 p.m., according to the pilot as I left the plane in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has a wild west feel to it and I was to stay for two weeks. Everyone I met – expatriates and locals alike – had gambler’s blood. I went to a casino, where I saw a Chinese man dressed in rags at the high stakes table. I watched him all night. He whipped out a huge roll of US$100 whenever he needed more dough. I began to invent his life story. The best gambler in a small town in China, he had gathered his family’s life savings, and that of his friends and neighbors, to strike it rich for them all in the casino. While not dressed like Bond, while I watched he was up pretty well against the house.

In Hong Kong, I met a Chinese fellow seeking an agreement with China to extend the service life of many DC-3 aircraft in China; no small feat, as the DC-3 began service in the 1930s. Another Chinese businessman had built a condom factory in Thailand and was following it up with a factory making a single-use disposable needle. An expatriate was trying to build a cellular telephone network to Micronesia. Another was failing at trying to import fruit from California into Hong Kong (the mafia controlled the distribution, according to him). Entrepreneurial punters each of them. Each had a vision of a way to improve other people’s lives, and in the process of so doing, enriching himself (or do I have that backwards?).

Hong Kong is an economically stratified society, a city of millions with an overclass of thousands, in equal measure Anglo and educated Chinese. But I was invisible to the millions. The Hong Kong I experienced was rather like a small village, which seemed to contain about 20,000 British and another 20,000 other western expats.

Upon arrival, my only contact was Ian, a Scottish attorney who was a friend of a friend. He introduced me to several people and encouraged me to call them. I networked my way into free lunches at the posh American Club and the Hong Kong Jockey Club. I set up lunches with journalists, bankers and traders. I visited a warehouse of a Chinese manufacturer (among the coolest things I saw in Hong Kong). I was invited to a bachelor party on Friday.

Why would Ian invite me to a bachelor party for his Welsh mate, who was leaving the Far East for the UK? Of course I accepted. About 20 of us took a hovercraft to Macau, a Portuguese colony south of Hong Kong. Macau is a seedy place of debauchery, filled with beautiful architecture and unbelievable depravity.

Our evening started in a hotel restaurant. After a fine Portuguese meal, we were drinking heavily. Successively, we cleaned out the hotel’s vinho verde, table wine and then its port. Glasses of port were downed as a part of British drinking games I did not understand. The vision of Ian’s boss, a knobby-kneed, corpulent fifty-something partner in the law firm, being required to stand on the table, drop his pants and sink a glass of port, will forever haunt me. While he was on stage, Ian said in his brogue or burr or whatever the Scots speak, “You know…he is the greatest corporate attorney in all o’ Asia.”

Ian, though a junior attorney, was clearly the master of ceremonies. He passed out two condoms to each participant, “for our trip to the whorehouse,” I am told. We were instructed to place one over our head and blow it up. He demonstrated, placing the stretched prophylactic over his crown and down over his eyes, until he wiggled it to below his nose. He then breathed in through his mouth and out of his nose, inflating the condom above his head, giving him the look of a nine foot tall dickhead. The condom burst, leaving shreds of rubber and lubricant shrapnel everywhere. Distasteful, but certainly a first for me.

Indeed we do end up in a Macanese whorehouse. While most of us were in a drunken stupor, my memory is clear. There were dancing girls who would “dance” with you for some dough. They carried a meter, which ran while you danced. They would sway, insipid and bored, incapable of feigning interest, in front of their partner. The Chinese prostitute holding pen was a disturbing sight. The prostitutes were behind plexiglass, on carpeted tiers. The Chinese girls (and girls they were, for they were quite young) were uniformly dressed in a floral pattern dress, very tight, designed to show any cleavage they possessed at their ages. Each girl had a number, attached around her neck on a card. Customers would go to the door between the dance floor and the prostitute pen and negotiate the price, identifying the girls by number. It was thoroughly degrading, and I was shocked to learn that four of our number hired the prostitutes. Needless to say, I did not.

I will spare you the details of my, er, health status the next day. Despite getting back at 4 am, I made dim sum brunch the next day at noon, though I had to excuse myself on more than one occasion to the men’s room. That afternoon, I took an employment test at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.

I am struck by the ease of sliding into the expat community. It is filled with swashbuckling rogues and enterprising businessmen, and all were very welcoming. Hong Kong is truly a weird and wonderful place.