Thursday, June 24, 2004

Money, it’s a gas/Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
I've just tried to open a simple checking account at three Hong Kong banks and have found the process akin to trying to join Skull & Bones or the Illumunati. Not that I wasn't warned. A coworker at The Standard had told me she had been asked for four forms of ID when she opened an account here. I've only got two - a passport and a Colorado ID. Oh, and an expired University of Colorado employee ID from a short-lived teaching gig and my Louisville, Colorado public library card, but there's no picture on that one.
What spurred this rash decision to convert my bank from an old pair of shorts in which I was stuffing two forms of Asian currency (Chinese yuan and HK$) and shoving them to the back of a closet for security purposes was a check I'd just received from The Standard. It's not an outrageous amount but it would be a nice start on an account and a way to revive my atrophied ATM skills. And, yes, I need the money.
After waiting in line for about 25 minutes at Bank A (recommended by three out of four expats, the naysayer saying simply "They're scum") and showing the acne-ravaged new accounts clerk my passport to explain why I don't have a HK ID, I was told that I'd need an "Introducer."
"A what?"
"An introducer," she replied. "A person of good standing who has had an account with Bank A for at least a year who will affirm your good character."
"But I'm simply trying to give you money. To. Give. You. Money. Why do I need someone to introduce you do it? Can't I just give it to you?"
Instead she gave me a six page Personal Account Opening Form that included the space for the Introducer to fill out their account number and one for "comments." (I imagined someone like Mrs. Engleman, my 5th grade teacher: "Very bright, but does not perform up to potential. Is a distraction to others.")
There was more items of required information that seemed, shall we say, a bit curious when one is simply trying to open a checking account.
My marital status and education level were two as well as one "for new customers only": "Expected Normal Monthly Activity. Total credits per month, total debits per month, total number of transactions."
Maybe there are people out there who can actually predict and budget their monthly spending habits down to the last 'nth - but they've obviously never been seized with the overwhelming impulse to drop a week's worth of grocery money on a 15-disc box set of Tangled up in Blue Suede: the Dylan-Elvis Sessions or had their budget unexpectedly shot to hell because the transmission dropped out while on the way to the hospital after their child was attacked by a wolf/dog hybrid at 4th grade show and tell.
At Banks B and C I never got as far as the application forms because I don't yet have a Hong Kong ID and/or couldn't produce three months worth of rent and utilities receipts.
"How could I have paid three months worth of rent and utilities without a Hong Kong checking account?" I asked.
This was met with the kind of response that a zen koan might evoke: "What is the sound of one bank account opening when rent is not paid from an account that no one hears at all because it has fallen in the forest." A blank face followed by: "I'm sorry sir, but it's our policy."
So, as it stands I'm back to Bank A searching for an Introducer. Maybe I'll just stand outside collaring random customers, beeseeching them for an introduction to the Dark Mysteries and Enlightened Brotherhood of Hong Kong Banking.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

If you've gotta a warrent, I guess you're gonna come in...
Life in Hong Kong has not been as eventful and unpredictable as my early days in Shenzhen when I was being held captive by wealthy widows and force-fed goose guts. But I was in a small police raid last night, which gave me some hope for the future and material for this blog.
Because I'm working 4 p.m.-midnight or so my days are spent waking up to the sound of construction clatter about 10 a.m. and slowly puttering around the confines of C-3 on the 24th floor of the Tak Bo Garden apartments. After gazing out the living room window and checking the progress of the mammoth building project next door for which some developer has ripped out the side of what appeared to be a perfectly good foothill (viewed from 24 floors up, it resembles a Cecil B. Demille set for the pyramid building shots in The 10 Commandments), I gaze vacantly at meager TV offerings and usually settle on something like the Voice of America channel before finally folding myself into a fetal position in the World's Smallest Bathtub where I attempt to cleanse myself using a handheld sprayer that alternately spits stinging needles of red hot spray and frozen drool.
The post-work nights haven't been too much more exciting. I did discover a small bar called Pacific about 5 minutes from my apt. recently, though. It's no MoonDance, won't have a liquor license until July, only serves soft drinks and fruit juice on the premises but it does boast a saucy, flirty Flipina/Chinese manager/bar wench named Polly who - if you'd prefer something stronger than Fanta orange - will give you a red plastic bucket and escort you out the back door into an alley to a guy in a hole in a wall who will sell you 4 bottles of San Miguel for $87HK. You put the beer in the bucket, go back with Polly to Pacific and she'll throw some ice in the bucket, give you a glass and open the bottles for you as needed. She'll also throw a bowl of peanuts in front of you and ask for $20HK. If you don't want the peanuts cuz you don't want to pay for them or aren't hungry, she'll pretend to misunderstand and plonk down a bowl of fish flavored noodle chip things, also for $20HK. She'll also make you feel like you'd be taking her to the moon and back if you accept the fish noodle things, so you cave in and pay up.
So it was last night when suddenly Polly's eyes - which had been widening with appreciation when I told her about a Byrds song called Pretty Polly which she'd of course never heard of - widened even more at something behind me. I was sitting with my back to the door, but thanks to the mirror at the bar I could see five figures with weighty belts, badges, hats, tan uniforms and holstered pistols coming inside. The Canto-pop that passes for music was mercifully and suddenly cut off, the bar lights went up and I turned around to see one of Hong Kong's finest lock eyes with me and then smile.
"Hello," he said. "Welcome to Hong Kong."
"Uh, yeah. Thanks. Hello," I replied.
I turned around and whispered to Polly as the 16 other patrons - mostly all 18-20something Chinese - tried to look calm as the police squad, headed by a woman sergeant, fanned out and began demanding and scrutinizing IDs.
"What's wrong? What are they doing?"
"OH! Nothing wrong. Just checking. Nothing wrong at all," she said under her breath, while beginning to make eyes at one of the middle aged male cops.
They were looking for underage drinkers and while I would've been flattered to be carded, I didn't have my passport and I don't know if a Colorado driver's license would've sufficed.
The whole process took almost 40 minutes due to a natural law that seems to be in force in both mainland China and Hong Kong that states it takes at least three able bodied people twice as long to do a simple task that a blind, arthritic monkey butler could do in half the time.
The cops left with no suspects, the Canto-pop cranked up, lights dimmed and I swallowed the last of my San Miguel, said goodbye to Polly and walked home wondering how the hell that cop knew I was new to Hong Kong.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Sweet Home Hong Kong
I just rolled a Hong Kong vagrant for HK$20 in order to afford the minimum 1 hour stay at an Internet cafe to post this. Damn, the air conditioning is fine but the other users - mostly kids in blue and white school uniforms on their lunch breaks or playing hooky - are avoiding me and making what I presume are rude remarks in Catonese. Probably because I look and smell like a squid that's been rotting on a rusty hook for two days outside a HK fish market. That what happens when you've been living under a subway bridge for several days and nights...
Nah, actually I've landed more or less on my feet and have found temporary, comfortable, furnished housing with AC, basic cable and a fridge within walking distance of a free shuttle bus to The Standard.
It all came together late last week when an editor asked how my housing search was going and I broke down in tears and writhed and flopped like a beheaded chicken on the stained newsroom carpet describing a fruitless 3-hour wait in a real estate agent's office as she tried to track down an apartment owner. She spoke little English. I speak as much Cantonese as I do Mandarin or Esperanto, which is to say none. (Unlike Shenzhen and most of the rest of China, the majority of HK's denizens hablo Cantonese which has several more tones than Mandarin and is as incomprehensible to most mainland Chinese as it is to the rest of us.) This rental impasse all made for strained feelings on both sides as she kept clucking and redialing her cell phone and I kept sighing and looking pointedly at her office clock.
The editor suddenly remembered that the paper had leased a furnished apartment for an intern who had postponed her arrival by several months - thus my new digs.
Yes, I am sleeping in a fetal position on what amounts to a large shelf, but it's a small price to pay for a place to go after leaving the office.
The neighborhood is a mix of traditional HK shops and whatever the 21st century mostly has to offer. The most notable landmark is the infamous Amoy Garden apartment complex- SARS Ground Zero- a place I'd imagined from the States as a decaying slum crawling with diseased rats, curs and swine. In reality it's several modern unassuming towers that, like much of HK's architecture, looks like mammoth Legos stacked sky high. No sign of SARS or any aftermath.
Speaking of signs, I am happy to report that while the English literacy level is noticably higher here (thank you, British colonialists!) there are still plenty of random messages on T-shirts and shops to amuse a foreigner: "Famous Hoolywood Pet Gromming" sits near my place, as does a large home furniture chain called "Homely Furniture." I peeked inside and discerned that there was indeed truth in advertising.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

The Song is Over
Today was my final working day at the Shenzhen Daily and it was spent pretty much like most of the others. I "polished" some articles, chuckled to myself at some Chinglish ("Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Frosty"), made small talk with Chinese colleagues and Jeff and cleaned out my desk.
What do you do with 250 old business cards? Including 10 for one of my old rent-a-foreigner pseudonyms: "Michael Rymsha: general manager, Xingli Bamboo Products Company."
I'm going to miss the people here, and with nowhere nailed down yet in Hong Kong I'm also beset with some angst about that transition. Instead of beginning to pack or do anything else that resembled responsible behavior one night last week, I cracked a Tsingtao made a list of all the moves I've made in my life. Counting childhood relocations, army transfers and crashing for weeks on friends' couches during my first divorce this will be my 30th address in 51 years.
I was thinking of that again while in Hong Kong house hunting, also last week. I've heard horror stories of finding affordable, clean shelter in New York City and I can relate after seeing what HK has to offer so far on my still-limited budget.
"Furnished" is a very elastic term in the Hong Kong rental market. In many cases it means a folding chair, a listing card table and maybe a particle board book case with one bowed shelf. "Bed" has mostly meant something that resembles a padded shelf perfect for an 87 pound, 4'-8" Cantonese but not an 187 pound, 6' barbarian.
A refrigerator? Don't be silly? A working air conditioner? You're mad, man! Get a grip! But look! Here's a dusty Beta video machine hooked up to a filth-encrusted TV that seemingly hasn't received a signal since Bruce Lee was alive.
Meanwhile I thought: "What the hell am I doing? What went wrong? I've got friends about to retire with loving spouses in real homes with lawns and comfortable furniture and I'm halfway across the world with two blasted marriages, no home in my home state, wiping the sweat out of my eyes and squinting through tri-focals trying to decipher signs like "Luk Fuk Kok Lung #31" and hoping it'll have a sit-down toilet with a working flush."
So it goes...
I'm going to Hong Kong for two more days of apartment hunting and logging in some work time at The Standard before returning here to figure out how to pack and ship the contents of the Lucky Number over the border.
Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Gimme Shelter
Long distance house hunting is not easy in the best of circumstances - but trying to find an affordable "flat" in Hong Kong when you're stuck in Shenzhen with the Manchurian blues again, well it would try the patience of a Shaolin monk.
Leads and agents provided by a sundry group of mostly friends of friends have so far given me no hope that I won't be sleeping under a Hong Kong bridge 12 days from now.
Uncertain phone connections, cultural, social and linguistic gaps also present some, er, stimulating challenges. As does the fact that, despite several forays to HK and some intensive map scrutinizing I have little idea of where, say, my future employer is in relation to "that cool little shop where I bought a Cultural Revolution-era figurine of a Red Guard chopping off a capitalist's head."
All of which leads to phone queries like these. The first was to a man with the unfortunate name of Fok. The second to another agent with the equally unfortunate surname of Poon:
Mr. Fok
Me: "Hello, Mr. Fok? I got your name from a friend in Shenzhen who said you might help. My name is Justin Mitchell. I need a furnished flat, one bedroom anywhere in Hong Kong as soon as possible. I am in Shenzhen now and need to move quickly."
Fok (British accent and in a tone that suggests I am calling from a Bangladeshi leper colony): "Shenzhen? Oh. Well. Where would you prefer to reside?"
Me: "Almost anywhere. As long as it's no more than $5,000 a month." (Readers note: That's Hong Kong dollars and not a lot by many HK standards.)
Fok: (sniffs audibly in contempt) "I do not have anything at that, er, rate. May I suggest Amoy Garden?" (Note: SARS Ground Zero).
Me: "Uh...thanks anyway." (To myself as I hang up) "And Fok you, Mr. Fok."
Ms. Poon
Me:(shouting into office phone cuz it's free long distance to Hong Kong; coworkers in background stifling snickers while pretending not hear): "YES, HELLO! HELLO? Is this Ms. POON?"
Poon: "Wei! Wei! Nei-hou!"
Poon: "Who call? Yes! English yes! Who call?"
Me (very slowly): "I am Justin Mitchell. Lilian Ko gave me your number. You are a real estate agent?"
Me (assuming psuedo-therapist/crisis counselor tone): "No, I am not Miss Ko. I am also not a Tong member. Miss Ko say your name. I am Justin. In Shenzhen. You can help find flat? You know Miss Ko?"
Poon (more alarmed): "OH! SHENZHEN! NO! (Flurry of Chinese) MISS KO!" (Sound of phone dropping, line suddenly goes dead).
Me: "Hello? Hello? Ms. Poon? Hello? Nei-hou?...Nei-god-damn-it..."

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Little Good NewsThough I'm still physically in Shenzhen and at the paper for about another week, in my head I'm already in Hong Kong. It would help to have a place to live nailed down, a small detail that hasn't been resolved yet.
Nonetheless, I'm going through the motions at the Shenzhen Daily but my heart really isn't in it. Soon-to-be-ex foreign barbarian coworker Jeff has been out with a bad back and I've been working both shifts and assuming his duties, one of which is attending the afternoon news budget meeting where stories for the next day are discussed.
While I will miss headlines like "Man sweats green sweat" and "Compensation for civet cat traders", I won't miss these confabs and today's was a reminder of why, upon leaving most of them, my immediate urge is to head for the nearest bar or to the nearest wall in order to repeatedly pound my head.
Besides a long, labored discussion on the pros and cons of going to the nearest post office to get a "new standardized national envelope" to photograph for a blockbuster story on the same subject, there was also some serious editorial soul searching about whether we should run a story about four men arrested for killing and robbing a family of five in Shenzhen last weekend.
(Or as the proposed original headline read "Four-member robbery clique nabbed." Before I'd edited the story the fact that the family had been slaughtered was two paragraphs below the fact that they were robbed.)
Printing it is a no-brainer, you might think. Admittedly it's not as compelling as the envelope blockbuster, but still...
But the staffer who headed the meeting (Faithful SZ Zen readers may recall her as "The Comics Lady") advised caution.
"We have a notice from the city publicity bureau not to write it," she said.
Another staffer pointed out that we hadn't "written" the story. Our version came from China's official news agency, Xinhua - a source that can easily trump the Shenzhen "publicity" bureau, though normally the two march in lock-step. And yet another dissenter noted that every SZ paper but the Daily, in other words all the Chinese language papers here, had already run versions of "robbery clique nabbed."
"So, it's OK if Chinese readers know that there was a mass murder here and that the killers have been caught, but the 'publicity' bureau doesn't want foreigners to know?" I asked only half rhetorically. "That doesn't seem very polite." There was no answer, of course, just some embarrassed laughs.
But the good news is that the story will run, albeit not on the front page.

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