Saturday, August 13, 2005

Hong Kong's by-products, Buy Products!!

Until I started working for GE, I have never traveled in my life. My first ever airplane trip was less than 2 ½ years ago. Over the next year and a half, I became very accustomed to traveling within the US making thirty or forty trips to various places for work. About a year ago, I made my first trip to another country. I read a statistic the not long ago that said over 95% of Americans don't even have a passport, until last year, I was one of those people. My first trip to another country was to Lima, Peru and it was pretty damn awesome. But the nerves that came along with that were unbelievable. I probably put thirty or forty hours into preparing for that trip. Since then, I have traveled to countless places within the US and 5 other countries, each time, the nerves become less and less. In a way, the nerves were a big part of what made the traveling exciting, the vast unknown, the communication, the visas, passports, airports, taxes, finding my way around, everything was part of the experience. In the last six months, I have become more and more lazy with my trips and worry less and less, consequently I have a tendency to get caught off guard and be unprepared. Going to Hong Kong was no exception.

The trip sounds so simple, how could anything be more easy? Hong Kong is part of China now, right? So I just made my flight reservations, hotel reservations and left, not really knowing what I was going to do. I even skipped the part where I call the hotel and have a driver come pick me up, I thought, I’d just figure it out. I was vastly uninterested and unconcerned about this trip. A big part of this is the fact that I had absolutely no desire to go. I’m totally swamped at work and totally frustrated with all the bullshit I’ve had to go through to get this stupid visa/work permit/residence permit and everything involved. A few things were known. Firstly, my required paperwork: 1. Passport, 2. my China-sanctioned medical report, 3. Two passport photos (note, this is the tenth set of passport photos I’ve had to acquire for all the paperwork and there ain’t exactly a Kinko’s on every corner in Langfang). Secondly, a girl whom I’ve had conversations with from Santa Fe Relocation named Emma Cheung was to meet me in my hotel at 8:00 am to pick me and my documents up, after that, I really want sure what was expected of me. I assumed I was to accompany her to get all of this stuff taken care of. Thirdly, my flight was at 7:00 pm that same day. I had no idea when I’d be done with my paperwork, so I was just picking a later flight and hoping I’d be able to blow in time to get there. Fourthly, I had a meeting at 8:00 am in Beijing on Friday morning. Because of the short duration of my stay (overnight), I figured I’d ‘rough’ it a bit and not bring any clothes, just my backpack, books, and computer. This becomes annoying later. Total trip planning time: one 20 minute phone call, 10 minutes to pack my bag and call the hotel for a driver (quite a difference from thirty or forty hours).

Desperate to extinguish my foul mood, I packed my bags on Wednesday while listening to Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key of Life. That’s a great pick-me-up album and seemed to do the trick. When you listen to as much music as I do, the song you sing to yourself all day is important. We have very little control over this phenomena, however, I have found a couple tricks that insure something not too annoying: No Spice Girls after lunch, unless it’s the Spice World movie of course (Scary Spice, I’m talking to you exotica…); Try to learn the words to as many songs as possible, nothing sucks more than singing a song that you don't know the words for; and listen to one whole album of a good artist, you increase your chances of having one of the songs stick. A similar phenomenon exists if you’re prone to sleepless nights and strange dreams (those damn Smurfs can be scary).

Quick recap: Langfang to Beijing, Beijing to Hong Kong, paperwork, Hong Kong to Beijing, meeting, Beijing to Langfang. Thirty-six hours of travel, thirty minutes of preparation.

Once I got back to Beijing from Langfang, I had about three hours before going to the airport for my flight on Dragon Air (sounds awful witch-crafty…). So I hit the Starbucks to get some reading done and a bit of work. Marlow, Marla and Laura all met me there and we had a little impromptu meeting, the contents of which I cannot recall due boredom induced sleep.

Got to the airport around 5:30 for a 7:30 flight, I still have no idea how long it should take to get to the plane, I figured two hours was enough with no luggage. In China, you fill out customs forms before even leaving the country, before even checking in. I didn't know this, so I had to fill out another damn piece of paperwork before even getting my ticket (the goal of this trip is to fill out paperwork, recurring theme?). Got all of this taken care of and got my ticket. Because I was early, the bumped me up to an earlier flight, which would get me to Hong Kong about 1 ½ hours earlier, I’ve been here for about two weeks now and am pretty much over the jet lag, but I’m still totally wiped out by 9:00 at night, so a couple extra hours of sleep will be nice.

The most embarrassing guilty pleasure I have, and something that I’ve been putting off since getting to China is Harry Potter. I got the new book a week ago and was looking forward to start reading it. I had planned this trip to Hong Kong as my chance to read the entire book, away from distractions and co-workers who are in contact with other co-workers who like to poke fun (Franzen, Morley, Utley, Schrunk, Meserole, pretty much the entire software department, and the night cleaning guy). It’s a three and a half hour flight, plus the same back, that’s seven hours of reading, plus hotel time could easily double that, more than enough time to read a 650 page book. I was salivating for getting on the plane to start the book. Plus, this is a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong, which made it a pretty good chance that whoever was sitting around me wouldn't speak English. This is good for two reasons, one is they wont talk to me. I hate talking to people on airplanes, I generally have nothing to say to anyone and they don't have anything interesting to say to me, I often wear headphones with the jack tucked into my pockets just in case. The second reason I was looking forward to the language barrier, is that they couldn't see what I was reading and wouldn't wonder why I was laughing out loud, crying and cussing Snape for three hours. Plus, they couldn't ‘out’ me to my friends and family (which this essay is effectively doing). I have been reading Alexandre Dumas and Hemmingway for two weeks, and now I’m reading a kids book about wizards and looking forward to sitting on a plane for three hours. Then sat down Clive.

Of course I didn't know his name when he sat down, but I could tell he was white (because I’ve got cat-like perception), which meant he probably spoke English (because I’ve got Sherlock Holmes-like deduction skills), which meant he may try to talk to me (because I’m me and I’ve got broken-mirror type luck). Clive started by asking me if I lived in Hong Kong, of course I told him no, but I couldn't think up a good place to tell him I lived to improve my story, so I just said Kansas City, but in Beijing for work for a few months. He said he lived in Hong Kong for 11 years. This is great and all, but the thing that jumped out at me even more, this guy was fucking British! This is a triple-quadruple whammy. No language barrier, lives in Hong Kong and likes to talk about it and he’s English, there’s no way I could get Harry Potter out around this guy, he’d lambaste me. The fourth smack is that he’s interested in talking to me. Usually, if you can make it all the way to take-off without talking to someone on the plane, then you’ve effectively got the no-talk-flight in the bag. Clive was talking before he even got his seat-belt fastened.

As bad as I felt for not being able to read and sit alone, he was a really good guy and we had a great conversation. Of course, it mostly revolved around me quietly realizing that I was not at all prepared for going to Hong Kong. Over the course of the next couple hours, I realized I had vastly underestimated the amount of preparation I should have made for Hong Kong. I’m pretty lame when it comes to international knowledge (culture, customs, currency, location on the map…. Did you know China has a billion people?), so some of the stuff I didn't know is pretty embarrassing and of course I’m going to divulge a few of the face-reddening details. Did anyone know that Hong Kong has different money than China? Did I know that Hong Kong was actually an island? Did you know that Hong Kong still isn’t technically part of China? Did you know that people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese instead of Mandarin (not that it matters to me, whom speaks neither)? Did you know that people in Hong Kong drive on the other side of the road? Basically, if I hadn’t talked to Clive, there’s no telling what would have happened to me. Of course, I acted like I knew all that shit, and if anyone asks me how to get a cab in Hong Kong, I’ll laugh at them for not knowing, everyone should know this stuff, damn. Everything that has to do with transportation or going sight seeing for the rest of this chapter are directly because of Clive’s suggestions (even though he doesn't know it, because I told him I knew all this stuff).

After exchanging a couple hundred Chinese RMB for a couple hundred Hong Kong dollars (thanks Clive), I hit the train that goes from the airport on Lantau Island, to Tsing Yi island, to Kowloon and finally to Hong Kong Island (thanks Clive). It was about a half hour ride to Hong Kong Island, where my hotel was at. I still hadn’t figured out how I was going to get to the hotel, but I figured, getting on the island was a big step. It was 11:00 at night and dark, so I couldn't see much coming into the city (also because the train is underground and under water most of the trip). The train station (Central Station) was pretty much empty because not many people are going out that late on a Wednesday night (I found out later, that I was actually early for a Wednesday night). I followed a sign that said ‘Taxi’ with hopeful anticipation. As I stepped out on the street, I saw a line of about 200 taxis, all identical red and white, all on the wrong side of the road all lined up. I grabbed one and just said “Grand Hyatt Hotel” and off we went. I assumed he understood what I meant .

A $20 cab ride and 10 minutes later, we stopped at the hotel. As I got out, he said “Thank you sir, enjoy your stay in Hong Kong” with an English accent. That’s when I first realized that I was in a vastly different world than what I had just left.

The hotel I was staying in was supposed to be one of the top two or three hotels in the city, and sure enough, it was pretty pimp. They gave daddy the Rain Man suite and it was pretty swank. It was pretty late, so I ordered room service instead of finding somewhere to eat. Afterwards, I decided to go on a walk-about, check out the town, see and be seen, something like that.

About three blocks from the hotel is the Central Bar street. Every other one was a strip club and every one had people outside trying to talk you into going inside. The marketing move reminded me of South America, but it was way more in your face. Grabbing arms, stepping in front of me, following me, girls across the street waving at me. Apparently, I stood out a bit. Not nearly as much as I do in Langfang, but these people’s job is to spot a sucker, and even though the city is a haven for foreigners, I stood out. I ended up stopping at a bar for a couple beers. The bar ended up selling beer but specializing in bongs. After a couple beers, I decided to go back to the room. It was about 1:30, I was sweating my balls off and had to meet Emma at 8:00 am.

Now, keeping in mind that the only thing I brought with me was a computer and about three hundred pounds of paperwork, I was forced to make a sleeping decision that I hate. Sleep in the clothes that I’ll be wearing the next day (probably two days) that are already soaked in sweat, or choose a slightly cooler and greatly more embarrassing form of sleep (unless I wanted to sleep with my computer, which, being GE property, they probably would have fired me for an integrity violation). I typically enjoy wearing some clothes in the sack, but I had to stretch my only set of clothes out at least one whole day, so I hung everything up (everything…) and hoped the sweat was dry by morning and fell asleep dreaming of a hotel fire and losing all my clothes.

Seven am, phone alarm blasting in my ear and the room temperature dropped to about the temperature of a Quick Trip freezer and once again, I’m wondering what city I’m in and where my clothes are. I quickly put two and two together and arose just in time to dress and meet Emma to take off on my visa extravaganza that was the only reason I was in this damn city for.

Emma met me and looked at my paperwork and said “Ok, I’ll be back by 6:00 pm to drop everything off.” You mean I don't have to go with you? I’m in these clean and dry clothes just for you Emma (two lies, face saved).

She basically told me that I just needed to wait for her and suggested I go see the sights. So, she set off and I had a bomb breakfast and pondered my next move. Since I didn't have anything with me, I was afraid to take a shower and wash off the last remnants of deodorant and risk a worse odor than I already have. So I just decided to take off and walk to the biggest building I could see.

This was my first sight of Hong Kong under the light of day. The island of Hong Kong is packed to the hilt with unbelievable skyscrapers. These things are crazy big and all over the place. The biggest is the International Finance Center. The thing is 88 stories and nearly 1,500 feet tall (Clive…). I could see it pretty well from the hotel so I took off walking to it.

The thing about big stuff, it’s very hard to judge distance, especially when you really don't know how big it really is. It took me nearly an hour to get there, and this sucker was big. I walked up to the corner and took a picture straight up the side of it. After my first picture, a security guard came up and told me I couldn't take pictures from that close, that I had to go across the street (I think he knew I was a Saudi Arabian spy from my adidas shirt and Jurassic 5 hat). So I took his picture and moved on. It was about 9:00 am by now and I was drenched with sweat. Luckily, the place has a mall attached to it, so I went in and kicked it in the air conditioning for an hour or so before making the trek back to the room to cool off. This place was just like an American mall (completely different than Beijing malls), all of the stores had huge pictures of American models on the outside sporting sunglasses or designer underwear, I kept expecting to see a picture of my old roommate on one of them. It also had very American prices on everything, including the two Starbucks in the building. I had to get out and get back to the hotel. If this was the kind of place Hong Kong was, then I wanted nothing to do with it. I’ve been around that kind of shit for 30 years, I don't need to go overseas to see more of it.

I’ve made the comment to several people about parts of Langfang and Beijing being just like the city from Bladerunner, the dirty air, fog, sounds, neon signs in another language, pimps, prostitutes, miscellaneous food being cooked and consumed on the street. All this time, I kept hearing the voices of several people telling me how much Hong Kong is ‘really like Bladerunner’. Bullshit, Hong Kong is really like a big-ass city that’s about to be destroyed when China takes the fences down in Shenzhen in a few years and 150,000,000 Chinese people flood the island; desperate to hang on until the last minute and desperate to price gouge anyone in sight.

On my hour walk back to the hotel, I passed six Starbucks and four McDonalds. Hong Kong is such as waste of energy, it’s no wonder prices worldwide are through the roof on anything energy related. Pretty much every building I passed had air conditioners pointed out to the street. The air was cold for about three seconds before it condensed and turned into humidity. I was sweating profusely by now and every clothing item I had on was soaked to the bone. I decided to get back and risk a shower, all I really needed to do was scrounge up some deodorant and I’d be cool.

After spending $50 on deodorant (because the hotel doesn't have the cheap free shit), I took an ice cold shower and my spirits began to rise. Because my room was still freezing, my sweaty clothes were standing in the corner. It’s hard to dry frozen underwear. So I had to free ball it around for a while. Now, I have the body of the Michelin Man with the body hair of a mid-transformed werewolf. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the good men and women of the Grand Hyatt Hotel Hong Kong for forgoing the traditional wall paper in leu of wall to wall, floor to ceiling mirrors. I’m pretty much the most uncomfortable person in the world about my naked body, and mirrors make me feel pretty awesome about why I’m single. Just talking about this makes me blush like a eight year old girl.

I bought a map on my earlier walk and was looking it over and realized that on the other side of the bay, there was about 10 art galleries. This is what I need to be doing, so I dressed in my still soaking wet clothes and took off. The ferry ride costs about a quarter and provided a good view of the concrete jungle of the island. Kowloon is about one kilometer across from the main island of Hong Kong, and is part of the mainland. The map said there was the Hong Kong cultural center right off the boat, so that was my first goal.

Sure enough, there it was and in I went. To my surprise and dismay, all that was inside was a bunch of advertisements for plays and art exhibits that were coming to the city (mostly plays). There was no art, no culture, just advertisements. This place was huge, every door was locked, the art gallery was closed under construction. So with my head held low, I took off down the pier. The ‘pier’ was actually a huge sidewalk with Hong Kong’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Stars, that kept my attention for about five seconds (but people were flocking to these pentagram-shaped stars like flies to potato salad).

I pulled out my map (total tourist) to locate the other galleries in the area. It pointed me to a few blocks north of where I was at, so off I stomped. Apparently, this is where the Bladerunner references are that people kept throwing back in my face. Nathan Street in Kowloon is about ten square blocks of store upon store upon sign upon street vendor upon dirt upon smell that makes up the street sales district. It was pretty cool to walk around, but nothing that made me fall in love with the city. Every shop was owned by a different race of people. Food was typically local, electronic stores English and local, but the really annoying ones were the suit stores. These were ran by middle eastern men. Every store had people outside trying to get you in, but these pricks were the worst. They’d follow you a whole block (larger pursuit radius in Hong Kong) trying to get you to come in for a custom tailored suit for $200 US in one hour. “Hey, you’re a good looking guy, but just think how successful you’d be with a new suit.” “Hey peckerhead, how often do you think I wear a suit? This place is hot as fuck and the last thing I need is three more layers of fake silk and linen, back off Habib.” They’d grab you, corner you with another guy (insert funny stereotypical middle eastern name here). It made me want to tell the US government that Kowloon sits on a oil field just so we could napalm the bitch.

After a couple hours and several unsuccessful attempts of finding any sort of art museum or gallery, I decide to head back to the hotel to see what my odds are of getting out of town that night instead of the next day. Walking through a park back to the pier, someone shouts out “HELLO” to me. It happens to me so much, that I barely bat an eye, but I always say it back with a smile on my face (even if it is a bit forced at times). The difference here was that it was actually yelled at me by two older ladies about five feet from me. It actually scared me a bit. They were both staring at me and then one of them said “You’re so Taaallll!”. Thus a conversation began.

The ladies were from the Philippines and were the greatest people I’ve met in the country. They were on vacation and mainly just wanted to work on their English. They spoke great English and were totally awesome. I ended up sitting with them for about 15 minutes chatting with them. They invited me to Manila to meet their daughters (How about tonight?), I told them about my Pilipino roommate and how we call him a Mexican and they (luckily) thought that was the funniest thing in the world. Very cool ladies and I got a much needed good impression from the city that was supposed to be so great. Hong Kong is a melting pot of thousands of different cultures. It may be hard to see culture in such confusion, but that’s what’s made it what it is. It’s an area that is very important to the western world, and as long as it’s that way, it will always be a mish-mosh of languages and people.

I ended up getting on a flight back that same evening. No Clive, just me and Harry Potter. However, there was still chance for one more way for my unpreparedness to come back and bite me. I have learned to keep a hotel business card in my wallet, so if you need a ride back to the hotel, just flash the card to the driver and off you go. This in mind, I didn't arrange for a car to pick me up, I was just going to pick a cab out from the throng in front of the airport. By the time I got back to Beijing, it was about midnight on Thursday and I was still pretty stinky and sore, plus they played Chinese elevator music over the speakers on the plane for the last three and a half hours, so I wasn't in the mood to screw around with anyone.

Outside of the gate in the airport I announced that I needed a driver and about seven guys surrounded me offering my services (not gay hooker, taxi, gentlemen, taxi). I pointed to one of the remaining three guys and said ‘You, take me here..’ and showed him the hotel business card. He said no problem and started walking me out to the car garage. About halfway there, he whipped out a card that stated their standard rates for taking me into the city. The trip to the airport was $60 RMB (about $8 US), this card said $450 (about $40 US), I was like, listen dude, you’ve got to be kidding me, there’s no way in hell I’m going to pay that much. He said that it’s late and dangerous, plus I was getting five star driver in an Audi. I said, I’m looking for a ride, not to buy the damn thing. I’ll give you $100. He looked at me like I was crazy. We eventually settled on $200, which is still a sham, but I’m super tired and want to go to bed.

We get to his car and there were actually two guys and it was no Audi, it was a broken down Toyota, but like I said, my laziness made these guys a lot of money that night. The whole way home, he kept trying to barter me up to like $300, I stood firm at $200 and was getting pissed. Plus, it was a bit nerve racking. I could see the potential for trouble; I was with two guys, in a city that I could never find my way in, these guys could take me out and whip my ass and take all my shit. The driver asked me if I needed a driver over the weekend at the hotel and that they’d be able to do it for me. Yeah right, these guys are professional price gougers. Then I had another bright idea of the ‘punk asshole’ sort.

I told these guys that I had a friend coming in the next night and I needed to arrange for a driver for him. They were all over this. I had them hand me a piece of paper and a pen so I could write down his flight details. I said that he was traveling on the company credit, so he’d have no problem paying the full $400 RMB. These guys were getting excited, yes, yes, yes, we’ll do it!!

So on the piece of paper I wrote my friends name down and the time of his flight. To them, Ted Nugent is just another person to gouge, to me, it’s the Great White Buffalo, the singer of Cat Scratch Fever, the author of Kill ‘em and Grill ‘em. But to them he’s getting into town at 5:30 pm. I made sure that these guys knew that they’d have to write his name on a big piece of paper and wait outside the gate and that he’d be there, I also said he’s pretty hard of hearing, so they may have to shout his name a couple times (all those years of rockin’ can cause permanent damage to the inner ear). Then I made a fake call on my cell phone to ‘Ted’ to tell him that I’ve got a driver all set up for him.

This gives puts a much needed smile on my face. After the last 30 hours of sweating and hating people and crowds and elevator music, I’m dead tired and have to turn around and have a big tourist weekend in Beijing. It’s really the simple pleasures that keep me going.

I have no doubt that these guys will do exactly what I asked, this city is dissolving to a desperate greed that abounds in areas of poverty. Honor and pride mean less and less every day. I know these two are just trying to make a buck, but they caught me on the wrong day. This city revolves around money to a level that I’ve never seen before. Nothing is free, everything is for sale, and it makes me sad and angry. My heart is a volcano and it’s not surprising that flowers cannot bloom in my hands.

1 comment:

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