HONG KONG IV: Hang(zhou) Time!


Wednesday 7th (Contd)

I am in an episode of The Hills directed by David Lynch. In a world of short Chinese people in drab designer clothes and Communist workwear, DeeDee (Euro-vixen and corkscrew-curled fashionista) and Bruce (American-obsessed Scandinavian style-icon) tower above like retro aliens. In their arms is the cutest ball of fluff I have ever seen- Popo the living teddybear. They are a power couple in the style of Brad and Angelina, so I am going to fuse their names and call them BreeDee from now on.
After I fumble my way through hugs and greetings (I am feeling shy as I haven’t seen them for over a year, and I am sleep deprived and spaced out), Popo is scooped up from the floor and we hail a cab. A wide, flat landscape of utilitarian concrete blocks slips past the Toyota windows, and I am feeling very far from home. Amidst the overexcited chit-chat, Bruce tells me that a Western guy was made an example of and executed two weeks ago for having an itsy bit of weed on him. I want to turn the taxi round and go home. But the driver doesn’t speak English and Popo has reached across from DeeDee’s embrace to lay his manicured paw on me, so I’m trapped.

“What’s the gossip from Sheffield?” asks DeeDee excitedly. I can’t think of anything. Sheffield is boring, that’s why I’m here.

BreeDee live in a 13th floor elevatored apartment heated by electric blankets and a looming aircon tower in the corner. Central heating does not exist here, and I get wafts from the toilet of that ginger-spiced ditchwater I overdosed on at Harvey’s hovel. It’s time to crack open the beer and toast my extremest Easternness yet. BreeDee’s friend AJ, a cool club promoter/all round nice guy comes round to stare at their new pet (me).

“What kind of music do you like?” he asks.
All I can think about is the last 3 songs I listened too, 30,00 feet over the Indian subcontinent.
“Tatu” I say
His face falls.
“Really?”
“And J-pop” I add
“Oh” he says, changing the subject.

My credibility is dead. I suppose what I just did was the equivalent of a Chinese guy coming over to Sheffield and saying he liked Irish Eurovision songs. I must remember that irony only works when the thing is taken out of context.

I have been provided with a lush airbed and am knackered, but Popo, who seems to have grown wings in the night, has other ideas. Every time I move or make a pre-snore sigh, he leaps elegantly out of the darkness onto my face before lapping feverishly at my ears with his ice-cold tongue. Eventually I hide myself under the duvet and the attacks cease.

Thursday 8th March

"Gently drizzle with smelly water until sodden. Leave for three months then serve."

It has been raining solidly for 3 months here, and the panoramic view of Hangzhou from BreeDee’s apartment is obscured by drizzle.

“Do you wanna try e-biking?” says Bruce
“I’m not very good with computer games”
“No, it’s like a moped but electric”

Hmm. My riding history is peppered with dysfunction and injury. I used to have a secondhand racer that I couldn’t get up on kerbs with; otherwise I used to borrow my friend’s sister’s bike which took the skin off my thumbs and bent my knees/masculinity out of shape.

“Go on then, but don’t tell Esther” I say. With my confessional impulses, it’s a more of a Note to Self.

An e-bike is basically a slow scooter that you can charge from the mains. They are all the rage in China where a generous third of the road is taken up with cycle lanes. Time to see if I can remember how to ride…

"Close my eyes and think of Chingland."

Battle armour at the ready: ironic hats (AKB48 for me; Russian furry with soviet badge for Bruce), camouflage ponchos, skinny jeans and fuck off boots.

“Oh and the brakes don’t work too great” he adds.

Oh well, what can go wrong in a cycle lane?

But this is China- and everyone is on a bike, moped or ebike. The lane is rammed with merciless speeding locals. I slow to let one past and suddenly Bruce is 100 metres ahead and disappearing in the melee. Shit shit shit!
I am going to have to grow some here. I speed up, overtaking, my bike wobbling with exertion.

Suddenly I’m flying!

Time to concentrate on the task. Everyone has stopped at the junction up ahead. I pump the breaks. Nothing happens. Oh my fucking God! Boots down; H&M plastic soles skidding, the friction nearly setting my feet on fire. Just in time, I slow to a stop.

Bruce points to the left. We are going across the road, through all the kamikaze minubuses and honking drivers. Oh god, I’m going to die. As I gather my wits, Bruce kicks off and glides across unscathed.

I am facing the wrong way and manhandle my bike to face his path. As I twist the accelerator, a minibus hurtles in front of me. The trouble is, and this is not something I learn easily today, as soon as you yank on the handlebar, the bike jumps forward like it’s alive. I find myself edging into the cars and trucks and buses which seems to be daring me to throw myself in front of them. There are tuk-tuks and ebikes and cyclists jostling behind me, honking. Their mini horns sound like melvined nerds compared to the horny bulls of the minibuses.

Bruce has disappeared from view. Unless I want to get lost in a megacity where no-one will understand my cries for help, I have to go NOW. The light has gone green, but that doesn’t mean much because people just go when they feel like it. I edge out, at first hesistant, then realising that the key to this is courage. I yank the handlebar decisively and weave across the road, aiming for the cycle lane opposite, making it and catching up with Bruce, who sits aside his vintage bicycle nonchalantly. His patience is going to be tested today, folks.

Finally we get to Westlake, which sounds like an American mall but is in fact a big wet lake.

There’s big group photo taking place, and I decide to do a Where’s Wally and stand at the back while Bruce captures my photo-bomb.

"Spot the lao wei"

I’m not very good at this game- clearly- half the front row spotted me straight away. Time to make like a local and zhou (groan)

We get a beer (this is an alkie’s holiday) and walk along the rustic wooden bridge, under the amused gaze of Chinese tourists, who have come for the rainy lake but find the perfect camera fodder in us, the freaky lao wai (Johnny Foreigners). Bruce’s communist badge was a particular hit, making girls giggle and old men grimace.

Mao’s regime is a serious matter, but only for those who remember it. For everyone else his ubiquitous Little Red Book and permagrin face are faintly embarrassing, like our Royal Family. Westlake looks like every picture of China I’ve ever seen; still water reflecting the jaunty angles of pagodas; a heron perusing its own shadow; flowerbeds seeded with ornamental cabbages (function over form at all times); a uniformed team of council workers raising and dripping a piledriver in spooky synchronicity. And a Starbucks slap bang in the middle.

The gap between rich and poor is huge in China. Every 1st world skyscraper is flanked by ramshackle 3rd world shacks. Gucci billboards look down on street sellers and labourers who snotgobble and spit as they go about their business. As in Hong Kong, the biggest industry is construction and the skyline is full of bamboo scaffolding and the ambient sound of knocking down and building up forever and ever until China is without end and penthouse suites have recompression chambers and a space view.

As we pose in front of a giant golden Buddha, hordes of tourists are drawn by the sight and snap away. Bruce stands with the confidence of a photogenic rock star, but I am awkward in the spotlight. We are exotic here; our height and old clothes and sallow complexions are anomalies.

"One of is a peace-sign pro. Clue: it ain't me."

I look even paler after BreeDee force me to watch Paranormal Activity just before bed, and I have to lie with my back to the kitchenette in case I see something move there. When exhaustion finally sends me to sleep, I hear a sound like cutlery being moved and sit bolt upright with the immortal words

WHAT THE FUCK!?

Which wakes BreeDee and Popo so they can have a jolly good laugh at me. It turns out that it had been Popo ringing the bell signalling to be let out onto the balcony for a wee. My nerves are shot.

Friday 9th March

Today was spent trying to find a Lolita Café that AJ mentioned. Apparently waitresses dress as Manga characters and debase themselves for your delectation. This is cultural curiosity, you understand, not perversion. This is a Japanese import, a land where men’s souls are broken on the brushed chrome of industry, and their sexual desire is regressed into child-worship.

I am becoming almost cocky behind the e-wheel, my AKB48 cap twisted to the side like a 90s street urchin, tipsy on the curiosity of locals.
We find the right street but the numbers are cut-off halfway along, and Bruce set off on his bike to find where and if the street starts again. I wait with the e-bike, plugged in and charging next to two old ladies pruning their miniature plants. After about ten minutes I have the jellifying realisation that should Bruce fail to return, I would be stranded in a vast metropolis where no-one speaks English, with no memory of where BreeDee live and no passport (back at the flat). The trusty e-bike would be my only friend in the world, and I sit on her soft seat forlornly.

I quickly hid the terror in my eyes when Bruce rounds the corner with the news that the street never carried on, and the Lolitas will have to remain a fantasy.

DeeDee finishes work at her fashion empire early and we go to Central Perk, an exact replica of the café from Friends. Upstairs, there’s Joey and Chandler’s room, complete with lounge chairs, and the girls’ flat with picture frame behind the door. The weird thing is that each room is full of Chinese twentysomethings who go silent when we walk in. I start to wonder if these are actually their private rooms, and we have just trespassed.

"My attempt to do hiphop hands leaves me looking like a spazz. Is that unPC? Well, so is China!"

Downstairs, the coffees are ridiculously expensive (£5!), and a pixellated screen plays endless episodes of Friends next to classic Chinglish graffiti in coloured chalk. This is kitsch from the other side of the screen.

"To be loved..."

May as well get our money’s worth- photosesh!

"America, re-imagined by China and enjoyed by passing Europeans"

Tonight’s dinner is at a Korean restaurant- I’ve eaten out every night on this holiday, and that’s the way Harvey and BreeDee live because it’s so cheap. Now I find out why- the food’s brought to you raw, and you’re expected to cook it yourself over a big hob in the centre of the table. There’s no point complimenting the chef, because it’s me (and I can’t cook)!

"We bring the food; You cook it!"

Westerners are still a rarity in Hangzhou, and they all go to one bar: Ellen’s. The walls and ceiling are covered in graffiti from Americans, Brits and continental Europeans. There is one toilet for the lot of us, and the place is rammed with drunken ex pats and TEFOL teachers by the time we get there.

BreeDee’s friends are a motley crew; the French Canadian happy-sad duo of Eddie and Jacques; Dutch-Chinese Harriet, Home Counties girl Claudia and her beautiful eyes, and Chinese-American Fran.

“Chinese people get so angry with me because I look like one of them but can’t speak a word of Mandarin” says Fran.
“My Korean girlfriend is giving me grief,” moans Jacques like a sad puppy, his eyes permanently latching onto drunk voluptuous girls.
“I play blind-guitar” says Jacques, “I get a call saying they need a white guitarist for a gig and I meet up with whoever else they have called up and on the way there we try to figure out if there’s any songs we all know how to play. One time we played at a fashion show next to a swimming pool, and all we knew was Amazing Grace so we stretched it out all night. They loved it.”
“They call me the white goddess” says Claudia, “because I’m 6 feet tall and blonde and they’ve never seen anyone like me. They stop in the street and stare.”

After my travels with Bruce, I can imagine how this must feel.

Our destination tonight is KTV, another Japanese import: private karaoke booths, hundreds of them in a gold and marble palace with all the taste and restraint of Liberace’s bathtub. It has its own supermarket, where you fill your trolley with cheap booze; our party (BreeDee, Eddie, Harriet and Claudia) um and ah about how much of what to get, before deciding on 2 bottles of vodka, cans of Fanta and umpteen beers.

“Whatever you do, don’t forget which room you’re in” warns DeeDee, “I did one time and I wandered around for hours before Bruce came to find me.”

The corridor stretches forever; each room looks the same, each one filled with drunken singing and childlike, uninhibited laughter.

Now, as I have said before, I do not do public singing. I don’t even sing in the shower in case someone hears.

I start to down vodka oranges like there’s no tomorrow.
Before long, the microphone is shoved in my face to the sound of Bowie’s Heroes. I love this song, why ruin it with my voice? The mic is passed to Harriet who looks confused.
“I don’t know the words,” she admits.
From nowhere comes the urge to croon, and I grab the mic and am thrust into the sweaty, undying love of being a hero for ever and ever. Bruce’s perfect key keeps me afloat while I ham it up, fist in air and voice going up and down like an impassioned yoyo. I look round and instead of horror, I see amusement and even pleasure.
Yes! I think, this is GREAT!

"The importance of being earnest"

Sadly, everything I sing after this point is only an echo of this triumph. My attempt to sing All the Things She Said by Tatu is especially diabolical, since I can no longer remember the words or how the song goes even though I have listened to it 5000 times.
We are joined by Bubu, radical art student and babyfaced sweetheart who currently sports a monk’s haircut and robes. She sings Chinese pop with single-minded passion and I want to adopt her as my daughter/sister/teddybear.

"KTV siblings"

I fall asleep instantly when we get back to the flat, Popo probably having his way with my ears as I lay like a corpse, smiling inanely at the joy of my first public singing in, like, ever.

Hong Kong III: Communist Sci-Fi


Tuesday 6th

Harvey and I have begun to act like an old married couple. At about 9am each morning, he bursts out of his room and presents a question as a demand:

“Vienna! Are you awake!”

To which I either wake up or writhe dramatically to make it appear that I was asleep, before leaving it a few tantalising seconds before I blink innocently and reply;

“Yep!”

Truth be told, I have been awake since Chase’s pre-work tiptoeing at 7am. This morning, he dropped a handful of cutlery on the floor and cursed in American under his breath. Probably “Gee” or “Shucks” or “YidSpicNigger” in true deep South fashion. I chuckled quietly to myself, not wanting to make him think he had woken me. He would be a lot louder if he knew that I was partaking of generous dollops of his industrial sized TresEmme shampoo and shower gel each morning.

Today is visa collection day, but we seem to have wasted half the morning and the Consulate closes for 4 hours at 12, so Harvey gives me a dose of his finance dictator act: super efficient in an ineffectual already-late kind of way, and verging on rage at the stupidity of clocks. I can’t muster any concern at all even though it is my visa and my holiday (Part 2). Harvey instead is the very vision of a Communist bureaucrat, hissing orders and frogmarching me along, past the ancient temple (built to celebrate the builders of these hovels. Here’s to incompetent fools!), up the spiral stairway and onto a cramped minibus into the city centre.
As he sits there in frustration, I daydream out of the window. Ooh look, an advert for my favourite J-pop band, AKB48. “Official AKB48 shop, the Dragon Centre, Hong Kong” it says. I have to go.

Harvey has never heard of it or them and I presume he will dismiss this idea as the whim of an ungrateful guest, but a little while later he has done some iphone research and found that it lies vaguely in our direction today. What an uber-host!

The Consulate is still open when we arrived. It has its own x-ray scanner and you can’t take drinks in; there is a little table crammed with tourist’s half drunk drinks (all mineral water) in the corner near the entrance. My visa turns out to be a lame sticker on a page in my passport. I calculate it cost 20p for the sticker; £54.80 for the Communist party’s next office do, where I bet all these soldier bureaucrats dress up as Western bankers to get with local girls.

Next, on to titter-worthy places like Sham Shui Po and Mongkok to trawl the junk markets and bargain stores. This is the poor side of town, the only place that you can buy secondhand, because Chinese people are obsessed with the conspicuous display of wealth and love their labels (usually fake, because they are mostly poor). There’s a stall selling lazer discs! Of softcore Asian porn! They look like Shabba Ranks albums.

"Communist porn"

There are shops selling nightmare plants that look like half-human mandrakes (pull them up and they scream!) and pitcher plants that will gobble you up in the night.

"Get your hands off me you damn dirty ape!"

"Feeding instructions: Place unwanted relatives in the mouth and leave overnight"

There are weird sci-fi mushrooms, and mobile phone stalls where all the phone numbers with 4 in them have been crossed off- it means death to the Chinese.

"spaceshrooms"

There’s a city made out of batteries and it looks like the future. This is how I thought Hong Kong would look; it’s probably how Tokyo does look.

"Duracell City"

The Dragon Centre is the polar opposite of Mongkok. Instead of grubby stalls selling vaguely threatening produce, the mall is full of clean, cute boutiques. An advert near the entrance encourages you to “TAKE IT!” but I don’t think blaming Chinglish would get me out of jail if I went ahead and shoplifted.

"BOOM!"

On the top floor, past the mini-boutiques selling perfume from test tubes and wigs and DIY miniature room kits, the AKB48 shop is empty. A mega screen plays their videos endlessly, impossibly happy girlie fun flickering on the shrinkwrap of overpriced merch. I am overexcited and want one of everything. Harvey is embarrassed, and texts Asuka

“Vienna is an AKB48 fan!”
“He’s a weirdo” she replies.

AKB48 are the biggest band on the planet, literally. There are 4 teams with 62 “teen idols” in total. Before each gig, fans vote for which team members they want to perform. Pop politics.

"a whole series of X factor in one band"

The girls on the till look sullen and then I realise what they are seeing- a 32 year old sweaty paedo fingering their hermetically sealed innocence.
But still, I get a nice trucker cap and 2 sew-on patches, and go out feeling fulfilled.

Harvey is regaling me with tales of Claude, the evil Frenchman who rules the 100th floor of the ICC. Apparently Claude strolled in late to an interview, and propositions the candidate with;

“How much for the arm?”
“Wh-What?” quavers the interviewee.
“I want to buy one of your arms. How much?”
“Errr, $500,000?”
“Sold. How much for both?”
Making a quick calculation, the interviewee answers;
“$800,000”
“NEXT!” Claude dismisses him witheringly.

He’d failed Claude’s test by giving him a discount for the second arm. While a bulk discount seems like a good way to make a sale, this is a trap. Losing one arm is a major problem, but losing two renders you helpless. If vulnerability is an essential human quality, Finance has no place for it.

We meet up with Harvey’s friend from work, Joey who is sweet and innocent and I can’t believe he survived Claude’s regime. “He works in the canteen” explains Harvey. Ah.
“That guy is an asshole” says Joey when Claude is mentioned.
“Most of them are assholes, but Claude is an ASSHOLE!”
Joey’s English is nearly perfect, and as the evening progresses, his gentle ‘assholes’ turn into circumspect but precisely pronounced ‘t-wats’, said so nicely I want to be one.
Claude was there in the champagne bar on the first night, and now I seem to remember one of the swaying men was roaring in French. I saw him seizing one girl, guzzling his fizzy liquid money, and then mistakenly seizing another in her place. This game of musical fuckbuddies continued all night. T-wat.

“I don’t like hot food” I explain as I dither over the menu.
Harvey and Joey look on with pity. After AKB48 and ornithology, I’m getting used to Harvey’s ridicule.
“Ask the waitress to make his food mild” he says with a snigger.
As Joey explains this to her in Cantonese, he seems to be apologising for me and they share the look a smug colonial type would radiate down on a stunted native. Spices make my nose and sweat run freely, and it feels like I’m losing control of my body. So fuck you all, I don’t want pain and chaos with my food.

Harvey explains that when he first came to HK, Jonno took him out to show him the sights, ending up in a club where you can watch girls shower.
“It was crass” dismisses Harvey, “and they wear swimsuits” but my imagination and anal retentiveness have been set alight!

“Tell me more. How does it work, logistically? Is the same girl in the shower all night? Surely her skin will go all pruney? Or do they have a tag team? And do they use shampoo? What’s the point of washing with soap if you’re covered up?”
“I don’t know!” snaps Harvey, “But I suppose you want to go?”

The feminist in me clenches her fist, but there’s a sex tourist in there too, and he has pushed to the front.

“Let’s go!”

We taxi it there in the billion Toyota Comforts that roam the streets. In China, the car in front, behind and underneath you is a Toyota.

We reach the red light district. Crowds of Eurozone tourists spill onto the streets, and through the melee a girl runs to throw up in a drain; a fat middle-aged businessman walks past, flanked by two svelte Chinese girls, a gold-ringed hand on each of their outermost arse-cheeks. Welcome to the world of the blind, where the one-eyed trousersnake (more of a pickled worm) is king.
Outside the shower bar, a gaggle of dog-tired, bored girls suck despondently on fags, waiting for their next profane baptism.
I don’t want to go in anymore, I want to be taken away from all this misery.

And so we head to an Irish bar where a history of homicide and poverty has been transformed into the cockle-warming sludge that is a pint of Guinness. I want to hear some English voices, but the bar is full of sozzled Russians. In the toilet, a monstrous gap-toothed Bolshevik looms next to me, singing in a voice that makes the urinals vibrate;

“Beer beer beer
Beer beer beer
Beer beer beer…”

The song sounds like a national anthem for a doomed civilisation. After the sights of today, I am almost tempted to make a fist over my heart and sing along. Almost, but as Esther has told me I am “the worst singer in the world”, I would rather die than perform a ditty.

And now it’s time for Part 2 of my holiday: 5 days with Party Horse in Hangzhou.
On the plane, statuesque stewardesses yank apathetically on their demonstration lifejackets, sleepwalking through the safety drill. As one passes, I look at her breast badge. Not her breast. Her badge.
It says;

“Emily Wong, Flight Pursuer”

I will never grow tired of surreal Chinglish (failed Chinese-English translations). She can pursue my flight any time, ooer missus.
She whips past me with an aloofness that tells me she will never, ever follow any part of me.
A quick look round confirms my paranoia- I am the only whitey on here, and I am wearing my AKB48 cap that reads as ‘paedo’ to any local.
Time for tea- but I’m given a sausage wrapped in sickly sweet brioche.
The Immigration form tells me,

“Welcome to the People’s Republic of China”

but the small print qualifies this-
…Unless that is, you are ill or psychotic, in which case you will be probed and imprisoned. A short video explains that there are heat sensor cameras at the airport that look for raised body temperatures before quarantining you indefinitely. Refusal to identify yourself as a plague victim constitutes a “crimecriminal offence” apparently.

The two hour flight has passed quickly in a cocktail of hormones and adrenaline, and I stumble into a new climate of icy rain. DeeDee and Bruce, and their ridiculously cute teddybear puppy, Popo, are all waiting for me complete with a “VIENNA FAMOUS” sign.

I have arrived!

Hong Kong Part Deux!


Saturday 3rd March (Continued)

Phallus Dei

The source of this obscene wealth is the obscene godcock, the ICC tower in Kowloon. Accustomed to Sheffield’s dizzying 33 storey nowhere-near-skyscraper, the sight of this behemoth shafting heaven with its colossal swaying girth made me feel like a silly silverfish scuttling in the cobwebby shadow of a robot taking its midnight micturition (a weewee to you).

I couldn’t even see the top for God’s sake. And to its left is a ridiculous building that stands on two legs and threatens to reboot into a doomsday machine at the press of a penthouse button. Never have I felt punier and more like a tourist in my own (first) world.

 

DESTROY!!!

Haggling is not my forte. It’s not polite to start at nothing, so I am usually forced to pick an arbitrary amount that I think will not earn me a beating- however once the haggling begins I realise that I am not willing to pay the price I started with and attempt to work down from it.

At Temple Street Market, I want to buy Esther a miniature gold horse stood on gold coins with gold reigns.

I point at it.

The woman whips out her calculator and types in “550”. I blink.

“Divide by 12.2” helps Harvey.

I divide it by 10 because maths is as foreign as the grunts she utters.

Time to get stuck in. But wait, I only have 100 in my wallet.

“100” I type in.

She shakes her head grumpily, whips the calculator away and tells me to fuck off back to ponceland (probably).

She punches in “330” like each key is my face.

I still only have 100. She’s going to hit me.

“100”

Fuck off you big smelly prick, she seems to jabber.

I’m a bit scared now and back away.

“Let’s get out of here,” says Harvey.

As I turn and walk away she yells “Ok. 100.” and I grab the horse and try not to think about her rickety children or her black magic powers.

“There’s a party in a cave tonight” says Harvey. “We might all get arrested but it should be fun”

“What?”

“The police raided the last one and arrested everyone. But I’m sure we’ll be fine” he soothes.

I toss up the possibility of indefinite detention in a sadistic Communist prison against a brief frisson of illicit fun.

“Let’s go!”

The instructions sound like an autodestruct Mission Impossible telegram.

 

“From Yau Tong station its 1 minute by cab to The Permanent Chinese
Cemetery entrance on Ko Chiu Road…

If arriving after 8pm I suggest getting dropped away from the gate eg.
Yau Tong MTR so not to arouse suspicion as you make your way up the
road. For people arriving after 8pm you will
have a steep 20 minute killer walk up a closed Ko Chiu Road past a
suspicious security guard and security cameras (not good).  If anyone asks you are simply doing a night hike up the Wilson trail stage 3!

"a steep 20 minute killer walk"

“Don’t forget” says Harvey, “the first rule about the Bunker Club!”

“What’s that?” I ask gullibly
“Remember…. the one rule about Bunker Club… you do not talk
about Bunker Club!” He quotes with nerdy satisfaction.

Hong Kong is half consumed by smog. Sticky sweaty smelly smog, like a fart filled sauna. The cave actually turned out to be a WW2 bunker and it was enveloped in this smog too because it was on the top of a ruddy great mountain. Glow sticks marked our way in the murk, and we found ourselves in a laser-lit tunnel with a bloke from Essex and a bloke from Hereford. Exotic. It was cold and there was techno and rubble and the vague smell of poo.

"The first rule of bunker parties is...don't panic!"

“You’re the luckiest man alive, coming here on your second night in Hong Kong” they congratulated me. I resolved to double-check the meaning of luck if I ever made it back alive.

A little later I was sufficiently in the swing of things to gyrate and lift my arms euphorically. I got talking to a girl and a curious thing happened. The more I teased her and treated her with aloof sarcasm, the more she wanted to talk to me. I found the next day that she had inserted her number into my phone. “I don’t think so” I thought and deleted it. It must be great to be a bastard.

Harvey and I stumbled home around 7am and according to Harvey, I said “something loudly about foursomes” before banging on the delectable Chase’s door and demanding to tell him a blow by blow account of the evening. Luckily he had not had his morning steroids and so was forced to listen in semi-paralysis as I blathered on. I love a captive audience.

 Sunday 4th March

Nobody in China drinks tapwater, especially not 2 refilled bottles of it guzzled down in desperation in the early hours of a magnificent hangover.

After the regulatory 2 hours sleep recommended by Chairman Mao, Harvey exhumed me from my sweaty sleeping bag and we set off for a ferry to Macau. I was in a strange land with the dts and I had to be herded and cajoled into moving anywhere. The one cure for my world of pain came when I saw the glowing arches of McDonald’s in the ferry terminal and sank my chattering teeth into a double cheeseburger.

Oh sweet relief! The moment my flesh touched its flesh, my headache lifted and my eyes brightened.

Then I must have fallen asleep on the ferry because we disembarked in Portugal, complete with casinos and pastel coloured buildings and Chinese tourists. We visited a fort overlooking the city and I thought this a fitting place to confess to Harvey that I was a bird enthusiast.

Evidently, a keen interest in real, cute things is not cool to a theoretical physics nerd, and so I was ridiculed while trying to memorise the markings of fluttering things to look up in the book of Chinese Birds (Including Hong Kong) that Esther had bought me.

Macau, Portugal

The Euro-resort effect was complete when we had dinner at Fernando’s, a restaurant with geckos in the toilets and Spanish guitar playing in the bar outside.

Here Harvey forced me to drink port (one sip was too much for me) and endless beer, before we sat on the strand while teenagers on mopeds, packs of floppy-uddered wild dogs and the same woman in the same posh car circled round and round us. The journey home was punctuated by a panicked call from Harvey’s Japanese wife Asuka (translation: “tomorrow fragrance”- the smell of the future!) who couldn’t go home because of an evil cat in a bush.

 Monday 5th March

Today was Visa day. In order to visit my friends Bruce and DeeDee in Hangzhou, I had to get a £55 visa allowing me to travel from Hong Kong, China into Mainland China. My passport had only arrived 4 days before my flight was booked, and I hadn’t had time to get one in the UK. About a day before the flight, I found that the Chinese Consulate website said “You must get the visa in your country of origin”.

 “Is this right??” I IM’d Harvey in panic.

“Communist bullshit” was the reply.

Harvey has previously got in trouble with his free use of the ‘C’ word; he had been told he was against regulation when trying to use a snorkel in a swimming pool; “This is so Communist!” he’d replied before being told by a nosey old man that that was indeed one of the worst things you could say to a Chinese person.

China is going to rule the world because it applies a Communist dedication to capitalist greed. Looking down the queue at the military man who would look at my visa application, I realised I was in a nation of anal retentives with guns. Even lowly bureaucrats look like soldiers, and they all act with the utter exasperation of a robocop in a world of ex cons.

The rest of the day took in the zoological gardens where lemurs shrieked in existential rage and I chased birds (ooer!) trying to get a picture for identification purposes. I cooled my aching feet in a fountain (aah!), we caught a tram up to the tippermost smoggy top of the city (ooh!) and rewarded ourselves with Starbucks Mochas (mmm!) which I spilled all over my purple crotch (grr!) before a hike down the moutainside past Devo’s twin and innumerable slopes; each one, in typical Commie way, government registered.

"All unregistered slopes will be flattened"

This was a long and winding path and pretty soon it was twilight and as the path darkened, Harvey decided to scare me with tales of being hemmed in by angry warthogs and wild dogs. Finally, the city appeared again, neon and precociously tall. “That’s Aberdeen” said Harvey, and we made our way through a council estate of giant high-rises where I made Harvey stop while I peered at a tropical caterpillar, as an old man looked on in amusement, before finding out it was just a bit of fluff. “We need a boat with an old woman” said Harvey enigmatically, and we trawled the trawlers in the dock until we found one. Her toothless grin turned to a scowl as Harvey told her we would not pay more than 100 dollars (about £9) and she demanded that much each. Shame, because the boat only had two deckchairs for seating and would have been a real adventure. While waiting for the next legit ferry, we had a drink in a sports bar that played Avril Lavigne videos back to back on a giant screen. I liked the bit where she set a rose on fire. I like Avril, she’s easy on the eye and like black emo treacle in the ear.

On Lamma Island, our destination, we chose a random greasy caff in a shanty town of many. As I ate my chow mein and gazed over the bay, I felt a deep melancholy, maybe homesickness, maybe hangover, and maybe the sight of so many legless ex pats lurching like jaundiced ghosts in the distance. We talked about the future: a PhD and travelling for Harvey, and a bestselling novel and a less grumpy Esther for me, and when we moved to a bar there were three men beyond the sociable stages of wastedness, shouting soliloquies at each other like:

 “I met Frank Zappa once…he was a cunt”

“I found my thrill, on Blueberry Hill”

“Turn this up Cecilia, it’s Frank!”

“ON BLUEBERRY HILL, I FOUND MY THRILL!!”

“No, you don’t understand! Music is the ONLY way to beat the MAN!”

My blueness was deepening. Harvey’s answer, as to all things, is to buy beer so we got some Sapporo and some Chang and ran willy nilly back for the last ferry, where Harvey fell asleep and I stared morosely at the foreign sea blubbing beneath us, wondering if its infinite indifference to me was a kind of happiness.

WELCOME TO HONG KONG!


Wednesday 29th February

“I think I’m going insane” declares Esther. “I don’t know what I’ll do while you’re away. I might do anything”
This vague threat sets my imagination on fire.
Every time I’ve been away before, Esther ended up injured in some freak accident or has temporarily lost the use of a limb. I am in a whirlwind of misery now, torn between the excitement of flying halfway around the world and the horror of what I might find when I get back.
The next day, Lisa tells me that Esther had confessed to her that she is trying every trick in the book to get me to stay. I confront her with this.

“Are you trying to manipulate me?”
“Yes of course I am, I don’t know what to do- you’re not doing what I tell you any more!”

Finally I am wearing the trousers. And now they have skidmarks.

Thursday 1st- Friday 2nd March

I work out that this will only be my fourth flight, and it’s longer than all the others combined. I spend the day gathering food and entertainment because I am terrified of boredom and the misery of waiting to get someplace. By the time I am queuing at the departure gate, I have with me:

1. A 4 pack of Tunnocks Wafers
2. A Pack of Sainsburys Double Choc Chip Cookies (the doughiest I could find)
3. 2 x packets of crisps
4. A multipack of More Magazine and Heat. These are picturebooks for when I am bored of words.
5. A Puzzler magazine. I only like crosswords but it seemed too risky to buy just a crossword book. What if I go off them?
6. 2 short novels (Death in Venice and Les Enfants Terrible- chosen just because they were the smallest on my bookshelf)
7. My fully charged, newly filled ipod.

In the end, I don’t consume any of these on the flight.
I find myself in the Economy Class window seat beside a pale haggard woman and a chatty bald scouser. His chattering filters in and out of my consciousness like a lullaby as I try to remember if I am scared of flying. I have the window seat, and so will be the first to see the wing fall off. As we taxi and the g-force takes hold, I start to grin. The woman beside me grimaces and half closes her eyes. The scouser’s babbling goes up a pitch.

It turns out he is a self taught writer and he has spent the last 27 years working on a sci fi novel about the future where robots rule the Earth and we are bought and sold as commodities. He is a mild mannered but deranged conspiracy theorist. He has a wife and child back home, but has told them he has to go away to Thailand for a month to stay sane. And they let him, the fools.
“Emirates welcomes you to our Entertainment centre ICE” a woman croons. Over the next 6 hours, I watch The Big Year- a comedy about competitive bird-watching starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. Oh, and the Britney episode of Glee. My Sue Sylvester one-liner of choice:
(To Santander’s new boobs) “Take your vine-ripened chest fruit and get out of here!”

As we fly over the Arabian Sea to Dubai, I can see dawn dithering uncertainly on the horizon like a butler who discovers his master masturbating. There are trawlers and fishing boats lighting their way in the murk down there. I’ve got that allnighter feeling, and everything is slightly surreal. Gradually, a salmon pink land mass emerges made up of desert and buildings that look as substantial as sandcastles, formed in geometric blocks with toy trucks driving between them. Each block is marked by a façade of buildings that flattens out into nothingness. The desert is winning.
“Welcome to Dubai, home of Emirates” the pilot says, and a CGI plane tots up the distance we’ve travelled from Manchester: 6,000 miles. Bleedin’ Nora!

Cat napping deliriously before the next flight, I am no longer sure whether I really watched a movie about competitive birdwatching. Who would make such a thing? At the end of it, Owen Wilson travels to China to fulfil his dreams of seeing the birdlife there. Really? Nah, I must have made that up. I see my first foreign birds (ooer missus!) outside on the runway, they must be exotic…nope, they’re sparrows. Nuts.

Part 2 of the trip sees me also with a window seat but this time memory has deleted my fellow passengers. I watch Tower Heist and laugh out loud, but it’s 10am and I haven’t slept so I couldn’t care less. My boots come off, to hell with the smell. This time around, there’s no hesitation with the flannel and I whip it round like a pro. I watch The Immortals and want to sob at the symmetry of it. I really need some sleep. This plane is so much nicer than the last one. The hostesses are smiling more, the DVD screens are cleaner, and the walls are covered in beige tigerprint. I could get used to this. Sleep has its way with me and before I know it, we’re touching down in the future…

Friday 9.40pm HK TIME

Harvey is waiting for me at Starbucks, Terminal A of Hong Kong International Airport. It is at least 3 years since I have seen him, and he is dressed like a banker: light grey chinos, open necked baby blue shirt and a tanned grin.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” he says “You’re not supposed to be here!”

Before my brain melts, I realise he is being metaphorical and merely expressing the unlikely sight of his Sheffield BFF in this exotic location.

My first sight of HK is an advert for Manchester University on the back of every seat on the tube through Kowloon (the finance district).

I’m getting very confused. As we step off the train, I’m hit by a wave of steam. Hong Kong is a smelly neon sauna. I thought Harvey was joking when he said bring shorts. I may as well throw my suitcase away.

We get a bus to Harvey’s hovel. To pay for the journey you throw your coins down a hatch. It doesn’t count the money. What kind of land is this, where transactions are based on trust? The only trust you get back home is a trust fund…
Everything here is on a slope. Harvey lives at the top of 400 steps, and getting there feels like punishment. With burning thighs and jellified calves, I am let into his ground floor flat. It smells of ginger sewage. My mattress is on the floor in the corner next to two cockroach traps. Home sweet home.

Harvey has just quit his job in finance, half way up the tallest skyscraper in HK, so high it sways in the wind. He is moving on to a life of bumming around India while attempting to sweet talk his way back onto a PhD. His last one was at Cambridge under Stephen Hawking no less, who used to invite him round for Chinese takeaway until Harvey discovered that applying his talents to online gambling was more rewarding. Having bet away his soul, Harvey was invited to work in Hong Kong by Jonno, another Cambridge student made good to, and was swept up into the high rise and low morality world of finance, among the other ex-pat FILTH (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong).

Harvey takes me to a favourite bar for bankers. I am frowned at and told to roll down my purple “I’m on holiday” chinos at the door; inside is a migraine of black marble, UV and booming 4-to-the-floor beats. Oh Lordy, it gets messy. Harvey’s work chums are here, staggering around a table awash with champagne glasses and giant bottles of Don Perignon wallowing in melted icewater. Every 30 minutes, a new bottle is brought by the downtrodden and harried staff, the bottle born aloft with a firecracker spewing from its neck like a miniature hellfire. The bankers are all white aged 25-35 and built like tanks. As the eurohouse responds to the drunken melee, they pump their hands and utter animal cries, answered by the twitchy swaying of local sluts who gather in shoals around each table of sharks, offering themselves as bait. The muscled forearms alternate their pumping with clumsy gropes at the girls’ various mounds throbbing with repulsed desperation underneath velvet and elastane. “Welcome to Hong Kong” says Harvey, and we raise a toast, and another, and another. It’s free after all.
There’s one thing missing from this picture.

“Where’s your mountains of coke?” I ask Jonno, “Surely you’re all hovering it up?”
“Nah. You get executed round here for that kind of thing”

I want my mummy.

On our way home I have a moment of exhilaration and kiss a poster of a fresh-faced freckly American model. “I used to do that kind of thing 15 years ago,” says Harvey wistfully. “So did I” I reply. That was an age when we were incapable of touching real women; now I am Esther-ified and Harvey has a wife. Somehow we both managed to find someone weird enough to love us.

Saturday 3rd March

Day 2 begins with a sore throat. Weasel and Kung Fu claim that bubbly never leaves them with a hangover. Balls to that! I feel like I’ve bathed in balsamic vinegar.
“Do you want a shower?” asks Harvey. It’s not my shower night, I think. Since I was a teenager I have only washed twice a week and yet here it is so sticky that I must have one immediately upon waking.
As I step out of the shower, I meet Harvey’s housemate, Chase, a fresh faced farm boy from Arkansas. As we make chit-chat, I can’t stop staring at his glowing complexion and his impeccable grown-out bowl cut. What with the he-men last night and this young whippersnapper, I am really going to have to suck my belly in and tense my puny arms around here to fit in. Health and wealth are lovers and here in Hong Kong they are on a bonkathon.

Time for brunch with Jonno and Stu, who lurk in the upper echelons of the ICC tower that looks down on Kowloon like a sinister older brother with a thyroid problem. On the way, we walk past four dolled up trolley dollies posing for a photoshoot. Like you do.

The café is famed for its cured meats. Jonno is a shaven headed British bulldog with beautiful long eyelashes. Stu’s hair is a little longer

“You made my maid cry” accuses Jonno.
I blink. Did I hear that right?
“Did I?” retorts Harvey.
Jonno addresses me conspiratorially, “He told her to go and clean his house out because his mate from school was coming. I got back from work and she was still there cleaning my house. “You’re here very late!” I told her. “I’m sorry Sir” she said, “I had to do your friend’s house, and it was so horrible!” and she got so distressed she had to sit down. What have you got to say for yourself?”
“I’m sorry,” says Harvey. “I’d already given it the once over and I thought it wouldn’t be too hard”.
I shudder to think how it smelt before this frenzied makeover. Maybe the ginger scent was an improvement.
“I can’t believe Jonno’s got a maid,” I tell Harvey later.
“They’ve all got them. When you’re earning a million US$ a year, it’s easier that way”

Jesus Frappuccino Christ.

TO BE CONTINUED…