Not everyone on the street in downtown Hong Kong is talking about money on a cell phone-only 99 percent. You don’t need to be an investigative journalist to realize this place is all about dough. I’ve been ashamed of my generic Thai black pants, white shirt, and black jacket since the moment I arrived. I don’t know why I didn’t think to bring my consigliere wardrobe; of course, it was because I’m not here on Vikorn business, am I? Never mind, I am armed with my Armani cologne. I’m staying at a three-star hotel on the Kowloon side, but Johnny Ng, I have discovered, is a jeweler-socialite based on the island itself. I know from the local society press that he is a leading member of the gay community here, and the only leverage I have is that he may not want it known that he was once married to a woman. He is in his midforties and, judging from the pics, still pretty. I have also discovered that everything happens around food over here. The local gem traders’ guild is throwing an over-the-top buffet supper at the Grand Hyatt tonight, which I intend to crash. In the meantime, I’m sightseeing in the world’s biggest shopping mall: central Hong Kong.
Most people here are Chinese, of course, but there are plenty of farang, too, whom the locals call gweilo (meaning “foreign devil”: I don’t know why we didn’t think of that-just teasing). I think it’s a mistake, though, to talk about race in this city of the future; clearly the citizens here are genuinely color blind, as long as you’re a millionaire. Everyone else is second-class, or worse. Here the smiles don’t fade on shopkeepers’ faces when they see I’m Eurasian; it’s the generic jacket and black pants that turn them hostile. Just now I went to buy a necktie for tonight and the sales assistant put all my personal details into a computer before he would hand it over, so they can flood my e-mail account with special offers of three-hundred-dollar ties for the rest of my life. The clerk was so much better dressed than me he could not withhold a sneer as he handed over the long gold-embossed packet containing the tie that cost me more than a thousand Hong Kong dollars. It’s a one-off Japanese design which might someday fetch a fortune at Sotheby’s; am I being na"ive to think it will compensate for the rest of my inadequate wardrobe? No, not na"ive, just bloody-minded: I knew I had to have a tie, so I bought the most expensive one I could find, to confuse the hell out of them; for the rest, I’m having an allergic reaction to capitalism and cannot bring myself to buy better clothes. In fact, I don’t want to buy anything. The prices are so inflated and the sales clerks so precious, I’m feeling nostalgic for lazy Thais who don’t give a rotten durian if you spend your money or just hang around window-shopping for a week.
But guess what-the tie works. I used a fantastically high-tech public toilet that looked like a bathroom out of Home & Country to put it on, then tried it out on another sales assistant in another men’s clothing store. The clerk offered me a complete new wardrobe-except for the designer tie. Thank Buddha I’ve brought my Nokia N95 (eight-gig) cell phone, or I really would feel like a third-world refugee. The tie apparently being my sole claim to membership in the human race, I decide to sightsee before attempting to ambush Johnny Ng at the buffet banquet tonight.
Ghosts of the departed British colonial power are everywhere, especially in street-and place-names. Victoria and Stanley are the biggest haunters, with George and Albert as runners-up. Now I’m on a funicular railway climbing a mountain called Victoria at about thirty degrees to the vertical. I get off to do the famous walk on a path called Stanley, which, at a certain point, overlooks a town of the same name. The path is circular, so you end up staring down at a harbor also called Victoria -but it’s a magnificent view. High-prowed green fishing trawlers compete for sea space with giant oil tankers, luxury yachts, sailboats, and high-speed ferries plying between here and Macau, where you can gamble legally. You can gamble illegally in Hong Kong to your heart’s content, but those homemade roulette wheels are notoriously easy to fix and inevitably lead to fights-better to take the forty-five-minute trip to the former Portuguese enclave where Siberian whores will wipe your brow after every loss, assuming you are not attracted to the local girls.
It’s a near-God experience, up here above the mighty throbbing silicone heart of the tiny city-state which took over China ten years ago. (Haven’t you noticed how Beijing looks more like Hong Kong with every passing minute?) Your sense of divinity decreases as you descend, though. In the backstreets of Wan Chai, a red-light district that has the effect of making me feel more at home, the clacking of mahjong tiles is deafening, like a heavy sea shifting gravel right next to your ear. And I can’t say the local personal habits quite live up to the sartorial elegance. Just now I watched a well-dressed Chinese man in his sixties expertly blow the snot from his left nostril while pressing with an index finger on his right at exactly the point in his stride when he was leaning somewhat to the left, thus ensuring the turbocharged mucus would hit the pavement (or someone else-these streets are jam-packed 24/7) rather than his person, then perform exactly the same maneuver with right nostril, left index, right-inclining stride. I guess in the Asian city that never sleeps people don’t have time to blow their noses on tissue.
I’m told there’s a good Thai restaurant on a street called George, just off a street called Stanley, so I decide to leg it over there so I can speak Thai. Kathmandu never made me this homesick, and I’ve only been here three hours. It takes me a while to find the Sawatdee restaurant. When I get there the food is perfect, but no one speaks Thai; the owners and staff are all Filipinos. I say, “I thought you people were experts at imitating music?”
“Filipinos can imitate anything” is the proud reply. “In America, Europe, and Saudi Arabia we imitate nurses all the time and nobody notices. Next challenge will be brain surgery. What are you doing in Hong Kong?”
“Imitating jewelers,” I say.