Thursday, September 30, 2004

Editor's note:
Faithful readers will recognize the following Standard piece (to run this weekend) as something I've once again largely recycyled (and partially reworked) from the blog, but if you hang on far enough you'll see some semi-fresh material.

In the pithy vernacular of the American south circa 1928, I am a life-long ``yellow-dog Democrat'', meaning I'd vote for a yellow dog if it ran on the Democratic ticket, rather than for any Republican alternative.
And it was with that spirit in mind that I went to the United States Consulate last month to get an absentee ballot request for the upcoming presidential election.
It's the most work I've put into the democratic process since running for Class Clown in my graduating year of high school.(I lost to a guy who went on to shill used cars, so perhaps there is some cosmic justice).
Outside the consulate, democracy was already in action as a group of mostly elderly and sliding-quickly-into-that-demographic Fa Lung Gong followers were holding what appeared to be a silent vigil. They were dressed in identical bright yellow T-ahirts printed with messages in Chinese and English that basically told Beijing to eat dirt. While banned and at risk of torture, death and imprisonment on the mainland, they are free to plead their case in Hong Kong. Why, exactly, they were standing outside the American Consulate to do so wasn't quite clear ... maybe they just felt safer there.
I picked my way through the solemn FLG and after surrendering my cellphone and cigarette lighter to one security guard and passing the wand test from another, I went up to a waiting room on the next floor, went up a flight to a waiting room and took a number.It wasn't crowded -- more like a doctor's waiting room with obscure
outdated periodicals. I thumbed through a tattered copy of something called In Vivo(``A monthly newsletter covering the latest advances and news at Columbia University Medical Center'')while waiting and was heartened to see that many of my fellow Americans were also there for absentee ballot requests.
Perhaps with democracy's fragile status in Hong Kong, or maybe because of some pro or con ripple effect from the just-finished Republican convention in New York, we were eager to exercise our right to get an absentee ballot, providing we weren't convicted felons or ``adjudicated mentally incompetent''.
After about an hour and fifteen minutes I had a ballot request form to send to the Boulder (Colorado) County Clerk and Recorder. As we left the building, several of us were comparing notes and while four out of five shared a general loathing for President George W Bush, one of whom also took the opportunity to mock California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's convention speech, another fellow from Sacramento,
California stood up for both.
``Well, at least you care enough to vote. I guess we can just agree to disagree about for whom,'' I said diplomatically.
He smiled pleasantly and nodded.
Then I sucker-punched him in the solar plexus. As he collapsed, stunned and wheezing, a guy from Alaska and another one from Wisconsin kicked him in front of a speeding double-decker bus. Another, from North Carolina, picked up his ballot request and tore it to pieces, laughing and screaming ``Exercise this right, you wretched Republican weasel!'' as we cackled, whooped and watched his body flip-flop like a broken doll under the skidding wheels of the bus.
Except for the details regarding picking up an absentee ballot request, the concluding shocking confession is, of course, fictional and admittedly a tad mean-spirited.
But I blame the Republicans for inspiring it. When you've got the GOP vice-president of the United States using a barnyard epithet to urge a Democrat senator to perform an anatomically impossible sexual act -- as Dick Cheney did to Vermont's Patrick Leahy -- it's clear that the standard for reasonable, civil political debate in the US has been lowered a notch or two.
A few critics and many outraged Republican defenders have also accused documentary film-maker Michael Moore with such an offense in his scorchingly subjective work,
Fahrenheit 9/11, which will be released in Hong Kong on October 14.
I have mixed feelings about Moore, whose political leanings I share, but I also suspect he has let success go to his stubble-ridden jowls. I once saw him berate a hapless stagehand for some minor backstage miscue prior to an appearance in Colorado, and though I've since viewed his ``champion of the underdog'' persona with some cynicism, I was eager to see Fahrenheit 9/11, if only to reaffirm my feelings about Bush and his cronies.
Of course, the movie has already been playing in pirated form on DVD players here and on the mainland since moments after its US debut when somebody snuck a camcorder into a movie theatre, filmed it as it was projected on the screen, digitized it and sent it via the Internet to China. Once there it was processed on substandard equipment, packaged with a Dada-esque, nonsensical box cover and eventually sold to me for 6 yuan (HK$5.65) by an elderly woman who also offered throw in a battered copy of Thelma and Louise for an additional 4 yuan, the title of which, according to a Chinese friend, had been translated into Chinese as ``The Crazy Flower at the End of the Road''.
I first saw the pirated version in a Shenzhen flat with the Chinese pal, who also happens to be an unenthusiastic and occasional dues-paying member of the Communist Party. His reaction was interesting, if somewhat predictable, and along the lines of ``Such a film could never be made here!'' and ``We already know Bush is a bad president. Why is this new to Americans?''
The sequences that grabbed him most were the sounds of grief and fury as Iraqi civilians mourned their dead and the now-famous scene of Bush blandly foregoing immediate action as he received updates about the falling towers while reading a book called My Pet Goat to a group of Florida schoolchildren.
``How can he just sit there?'' my friend asked. How indeed.
The pirated version, because it was filmed in a theatre, also unintentionally included a ``bonus'' -- the sounds of the US audience laughing and occasionally gasping in horror. Seeing it with my party member buddy, I spent more time explaining nuances like Moore's satiric flourishes with the vintage American TV shows Bonanza and Dragnet, and giving him a 90-second tutorial on Halliburton, than I did empathising with the digital audience.
As the only American who later watched a preview in a Tsim Sha Tsui theatre, there was more time to contemplate what my Hong Kong brethren in journalism might be thinking, as well as feeling more self-conscious about my country's image.
Despite any political differences with the current regime, one yearns to be proud of one's home when abroad. That's hard to do when your more or less un-elected leader is projected larger than life on a 20-foot Asian multiplex cinema screen smirking like a chimp and urging insurgent Iraqis to ``bring it on'' as the body count climbs and mothers from both countries keen and wail.
The best I can do is vote. I just received a postcard saying I should receive my ballot on October 5. Fahrenheit 9/11 didn't confirm what my decision will be. It only strengthened my resolve to mail the ballot back the same I day receive it via special delivery and hope I'm not alone.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Dark Side of the Moon
Tonight marks the Mid-Autumn Festival, a night with a full harvest moon, an somewhat incomprehensible legend behind it and a plethora of mooncakes, China's version of the fruitcake, to mark it.
The legend -- which explains why the Chinese see a rabbit on the moon, rather than the man the rest of us see -- involves a woman who steals a pill for eternal life from her husband and then floats to the moon with a rabbit. Questions to Chinese co-workers about why she ripped off her husband (they are ''happily married'' in the versions I read) and why she took the rabbit with her and what happened to the pill were met with shrugs.
"I had a pet rabbit when I was a little girl,'' one told me in a sort of non-sequitor. "But my uncle ate him.''
I was also ignorant of mooncakes last year at this time, though I'm not sure how I missed them. Much like the Halloween and Christmas geegaws that begin slithering into the US supermarkets in early September, stacks of elaborately packaged and sometimes outrageously expensive mooncake boxes began filling Hong Kong and mainland grocery aisles in early August. Mooncakes are a culinary atrocity -- as dense as iridium, usually the size and shape of hockey pucks, greasy and fried in pork lard and often stuffed with as many as four egg yolks, red bean paste and lotus seeds.
And the containers are an environmental disaster. An pollution study in Hong Kong says that each household buys about 10 mooncakes. 1.75 million of these mooncakes will simply be thrown out uneaten. Friends of the Earth says that 3 million mooncake metal containers weighing 750 tons will be tossed into landfills.
I tried one last weekend and after choking it down found it seemingly expanded in my stomach, sitting there for hours during which I had the desire to do nothing but pass out and wait for the mooncake to work it's way out of my system.
The packaging and cakes themselves can also vary - sometimes dramatically. There's a 1,800 yuan (US$217) box I saw that came with a certificate for a set of golf clubs. If you've got 310,000 yuan (US$37,554) to splurge you can get the cakes along with a digital camera, video camera, gold plated cigarette lighter, bottle of expensive Chinese booze, a Parker gold pen, tea leaves, health food (!) as well as the title to a 1,000+ square foot apartment.
You can have boxes shipped world-wide, too. There's a advertising poster for such a service in my apartment elevator that shows an spry looking Chinese granny with nicely coiffed white hair who is grimacing or smiling at the thought. From the corner of one eye falls what either appears to be a cloudy tear or pus from an eye infection.
But like fruitcakes they are relatively inexpensive and purchased as quickie gifts and then passed on for years because like fruitcakes, uranium and Keith Richards' liver they have half lives of 760 million years and will be here long after we've departed this veil of tears.
As I write this, a young woman reporter is trying to foist Snoopy shaped mooncakes off on the rest of the staff with no success.
"Why don't you take them home?'' I asked.
She briefly made a face. "I already have six boxes there," she said. "All gifts. I can't stand them, either."

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Face the face
In the fearless (and some might say, foolish) journalistic pursuit of the public’s right to know, I have:
Skittered like a spastic hamster on a mammoth “Wheel of Death’’ for a circus expose;
Pulled 6.4 G’s, blacked out and then blown chow aboard a US Navy F-18 jet;
Cracked my tailbone after being thrown by a rodeo bull on a 2.8 second ride;
Shopped for Navajo rugs and sex toys on a date with a Japanese porn star;
And interviewed Lemmy of Motorhead during Thanksgiving dinner with my grandmother.
But until this week, I had never had a strange woman shove burning cones in my ears.
It was all part and parcel of a story assignment to investigate the mysteries of a male makeover at a Hong Kong skincare spa called Ziz. My assignment, which I chose to accept, came from the top and a HK$1,000 advance to cover the cost of a 2 hour, 15 minute “Complete Rejuvenation Treatment’’ which, in addition to deep cleansing, anti-aging treatment, lymphatic massage, freeze dried collagen mask and popping blackheads, included something called “ear candling therapy.’’
I am originally from Boulder, Colorado, an idyllic community that is also second to none when it comes to New Age hokum, so I was already vaguely familiar with ear candling, or “ear coning’’ as it’s also called. Always described as “ancient’’ with obscure origins in exotic civilizations such as Egypt, China, Tibet, the pre-Columbian Americas or Atlantis, it purports to gently suck wax and toxins from your ear canal and – defying basic anatomy and physics – also from areas such as your sinuses and brain using a burning hollow cone-shaped device, usually made of candle or bee’s wax and “organic’’ linen or cotton. Hardcore flaming cone-heads also claim candling can do everything from relieving vertigo and migraines, to purifying blood and sharpening your sense of smell, taste, hearing and color perception.
The “proof’’ adherents point to is the residue left after the candle burns. Believers say the goop is the toxins. But naysayers, who also warn of perforated eardrums, ear canals clogged with melted wax and external burns, say it’s like the Filipino psychic surgeon trick that turns chicken livers into tumors. In this case the toxins are melted wax, not burned off bad karma.
Me? I had a mild hangover, and wasn’t beyond hoping ear candling might help. Though I’d abandoned my usual outfit of faded cargo shorts, frayed Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops for attire more metrosexually suitable to Ziz’s posh Central locale, I wasn’t feeling as spiffy as I might have appeared. The bags under my eyes – something else that Ziz ‘s promotional material said it could address – didn’t help. But I stuffed my subway card and wallet in one and my cell phone in the other and set out.
I arrived at the Wyndham Street address and buzzed into the fifth floor office where a receptionist-cum-diagnostician/consultant had me diagnose myself on a printed form.
Cancer? No. Heart condition? Broken. Medications? None of your business. Skin problems? I pondered and checked the “Wrinkles”, “Sun damage”, “Dehydrated” and “Very oily” boxes while wondering why there wasn’t a box for “Gin blossoms’’. She studied my answers and then hooked me up to a device that resembled an “E-meter’’ that a Scientologist had used on me for a failed recruiting session back in the ‘70s.
“Hmm,’’ she said, studying a tiny meter as she ran a small wand on my sweaty cheek. “Your skin is dry, but not dehydrated. Not very oily, either.’’ She made some cryptic notes on my form and then asked about my current “skin care regimen’’.
“I wash my face every three or four days with collected air conditioner water drippings and detergent residue that I scrape from under the washer lid,’’ I replied with a straight face. “Then I shave with a potato peeler.’’ She nodded gravely, made a note gave me a short pitch for a skin care line I’d never heard of and then introduced me to the therapist who would rejuvenate me.
Prone on a long, comfortable and electronically adjustable lounger and listening to Enya and other New Age noodlers, I submitted like a stun-gunned sack of protoplasm to her tender ministrations, which included lovingly kneading my distressed lymph glands and gently extracting blackheads I never knew I had.
Suddenly, I yearned to be an acne-inflamed teen once again, simply so she’d have more to work with.
“Your skin of very dehydrated, and very oily’,’ she murmured soothingly, directly contradicting the E-meter reading while confirming my self-diagnosis.
I didn’t ponder the mixed signals too long, though, because it was time to play with fire.
Under questioning, she admitted to having an unspecified “certificate’’ that allowed her to stick flaming sticks in people’s ears. Sounded good to me, as by now I was so comfortably numb that she could’ve given me Napalm therapy and I wouldn’t have flinched.
She showed me the instruments, two light yellow 18-centimetre long bee’s wax and linen cones and told me to lie on my right side to insert the first one.
“Mmm, your ears are very small,’’ she observed as she struggled to fit it in.
As I didn’t know if ear size – like hands and feet – is also alleged to correspond the size of any other part of a guy’s anatomy, I muttered an agreement. After all, she controlled the fire.
The cone was lit and what followed was … anti-climatic. A very slight hum, not unlike the “ocean’’ one hears with a shell held to an ear, but no heat, no whoosh, no sense of poisons fleeing my cranium.
After about 5-minutes she blew out the flame, plucked out the smoking stub and showed me the “toxins’’ inside the cone. There was lots of yellow dust that more resembled pollen than pollution, but I feigned amazement and did so again after the second ear was flamed.
Electro-shock therapy of sorts followed, with two tiny electrically charged wands moved around my upper face and under my sagging bags for more tightening and cleansing. The rejuvenation wrapped up with 25-minutes under a white “freeze-dried collagen mask’’ stuck to my face with gentle spritzes of “pure spring water’’. The therapist peeled it off and I looked in the mirror.
My face felt refreshed, a tad tighter but what stared out at me still looked startlingly like my elderly father, complete with baggy eyes – nothing like the trim bare-chested Adonis on the Ziz brochure. Though I noted he was casually gripping the top of his left ear with his buff right arm thrown behind his head, as if he was trying to conceal a misadventure involving ear candling.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Pretty Paper
One of the nice differences between Hong Kong and Shenzhen is that in Hong Kong you can pretty much count on a public restroom to have:
1. a sit-down toilet
2. toilet paper.
One of my Shenzhen Chinese pals has noted that I "think about toilets too much" but a recent cross-border experience as well as some recent news and propaganda items I've seen have convinced me that I am either not thinking of them enough or that some of the mainland has its priorities turned around.
In its attempts to ape Hong Kong and to be a "striving civilized, international modern cultural city of tomorrow" Shenzhen's priority at the moment seems to be, not basics like toilets or toilet paper, but an ultimately doomed campaign urging citizens to speak English fluently. Booklets with 100 handy English phrases have been distributed and while there I also saw a short TV skit on an English language "news" segment involving a cab driver. It was like no taxi driving exchange I'd ever encountered there, but I'll let the skit speak for itself.
Foreign barbarian businessman/tourist: "I would like to hire your taxi, please!"
Typical civilized Shenzhen cab driver (smiling broadly): "Welcome to my taxi. Please enjoy my clean uniform."
Barbarian (now also smiling broadly): "Yes. It is very clean. Thank you. I would like to go to the airport."
Civilized cabbie (positively beaming): "Yes. Welcome to my taxi! Please sit down!"
"Please sit down..." Sound advice in any car, I suppose. Though I was yearning for a more true-to-life rewrite of that script in which the cab driver says "Please allow me to drive you 20 kilometers out of your way after feigning ignorance of your destination midway through the journey in my clean uniform."
But if Shenzhen's mayor truly wants to bring civilization to his city, he'd be better off starting the restooms, as they appear to be doing in Beijing. I recently noted a story about a contemporary Beijing-based play simply called Toilet that addresses changes in modern Chinese society as seen through the eyes of a washroom attendant and the john's ever-changing cast of users. Another news item also caught my eye about Beijing's attempts to bring the city up to "international" standards for the 2008 Olympics by building a series of plush "super public toilets" and an announcement of a new policy specifying that toilets in Beijing hotels, restaurants and other such facilities should be open to the public, to ensure that you can find a toilet within 8 minutes walk of any place in the city.
Neither item mentioned toilet paper, however.
Which brings me back to Shenzhen this weekend where after a lunch of spicy steamed crabs the creatures began to exact their revenge from beyond the grave while I was downtown with a Chinese friend. A McDonald's was spotted, usually a safe bet for paper and a sit-down experience. But a quick check revealed that - despite a bilingual sign warning against such experimentation - while there was paper, the Western style seat had been used in a traditional Chinese squatting manner with unfortunate results.
The friend, who used to work at a nearby furniture outlet, swore he knew of a restroom there. "Is it sit-down? Do they have paper?" I asked frantically.
"Of course not!" he replied. "Where do you think you are?"
Neither of us had any small plastic tissue packs routinely distributed at 1 or 2 yuan apiece in restaurants instead of napkins so I was left in the humilating situation of tailing him and trying to appear nonchalent as my midsection screamed and he hit up various furniture store clerks for spare toilet paper.
I didn't even want to guess what the conversations would have been translated as, but one clerk snickered loudly and I did comprehend the Chinese phrase for "no way in hell" and "foreigner" as my friend gestured at me. He swore he had packed his own TP while working there, it appeared that his example had not been followed since his departure. That is until we found a lone woman who smiled sympathetically, produced a roll from beneath her desk and then asked for 5 yuan - about 60 cents.
The smallest bills my pal and I had was some 20s, no coins and predictably she had no change. I briefly considered using a couple of the 20s instead, but the clerk finally relented and relief was found.
Now if they could just convince the cabbies to distribute complimentary toilet paper, it might be progress.

Monday, September 13, 2004

My Back Pages
Once in awhile the novelty of living and working on an overcrowded small foreign rock teeming with 90% humidity, Venusian lead paint skies, dengue fever bearing mosquitoes, relentless public service commercials warning against putting fresh chickens in your suitcase and visiting poultry farms while on vacation, and seemingly hundreds of small, wiry froggy men shadowing you hissing "Rolex copy? Fake Rolex copy, sah?'' gets to be a little old and you find yourself yearning for a taste of home.
So you hop on the MTR and head for Central -- more or less Hong Kong's downtown -- elbow your way through the hordes of expensively clad HK up-and-comers who look right through you and your Dead Kennedys T-shirt, faded cargo shorts and Japanese reed flip-flops and go to Al's Diner. Inside, except for the Filipina waitress, it's a dead-on replica of an American diner, complete with the (non-working) table juke boxes. You order the first Greek omelette, home fries and Texas toast you've had in a year and start listening to the piped in music.
It's an unintentional soundtrack for your life. Some good, some sad and the memories kick in. Goddamn Winchester Cathedral of all things. You're 13 or so singing that lousy song along with a neighborhood near-misfit Bill Kroeger who, barely 17 years later, would die of AIDS. Pictures of Matchstick Men and you're a 14-year-old Boulder Ranger digging hiking paths and listening to it on a Wards transistor radio as future semi-rock star Eugene Chadbourne lectures you on what a simplistic, but killer lead guitar riff it has.
Gimme Some Loving and you're a 16-year-old dishwasher in Boulder restaurant watching a lanky older waiter ("a college guy!') named Tom Wick do a killer Stevie Winwood impersonation and later sell you your first full lid of pot. Tom did a U-turn and bottomed out as a "Clown for Christ" a few years later. And you? Well, you've bottomed out a few times, but thankfully none of them involved Christ or clowns.
Go Now before the Moody Blues got cosmic. No real first-hand memories, but you're at a Paul McCartney concert with your second wife hearing ex-Moodies/then-Wings member Denny Laine rework it. You sure miss her.
The omelette tastes great, the feta cheese is fresh, there's just enough grease to coat the crispy home fries and it's real New Zealand butter to spread on the toast. Savor the small things, you tell yourself as the clatter and buzz of Hong Kong begins to reassert itself through the glass.
Then it's time to find Grossman Visa because your China visa is about to expire and you want to keep visiting the mainland. After a few days of calling various visa services, you settled on Grossman because, unlike the others they answered the phone; answered your questions; spoke fluent English and had a good Jewish name even though the guy who answered the phone and your questions wasn't named Grossman and was about as Jewish as Deng Zaopeng. He was also brutally frank and told you that due to tit-for-tat international relations bickering that China has raised the prices and stakes for US citizens who want multiple entry visas for the mainland. It's supposed to be a poke at Bush for making it harder for Chinese tourists to enter the US, but you're taking it personally and immediately pissed at both regimes.
"A year ago? Six or seven months ago? Eeehh, no problem. But now, I'm not so sure we can do it. I'll let you know soon, maybe tomorrow and if there's a problem we'll try a, what do we say? Plan B?"
He's a naturalized American, law school grad and a member of the New York and Massachusetts bars. That's what the diplomas and certificates on the walls say, at least. So what's he doing back in Hong Kong pushing visas? And where's Grossman?
"He's in the States. His name, but I run the business. I am a defense attorney here, too - lots of drug cases, tong members, but ..." He stops and changes the subject and you don't press it.
You're just hoping if the visa doesn't come through he can use those tong connections for Plan B.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

'Stoking the star maker machinery behind the popular song..'
When my photographer and I hit the door of Edge nightclub Sunday night, it initially appeared that a terrible marketing error had been made.
Our assignment was to cover a rising Ukrainian girl group, a trio called Nu Virgos. Formerly VIA-GRA (get it?) the new name was the result of, shall we say, copyright
concerns. It seems that Pfizer Inc. didn't appreciate the coincidence that VIA-GRA is also a Russian acronym for ``vocal instrumental ensemble game''. At least that's how Nadya, Vera and the newest member, Svetlana explained it to me the day after their six-song Edge showcase.
But Nu Virgos' target audience is presumably teenage girls growing up too fast and testosterone-ridden heterosexual males, the same kind of 18-34-year-olds that subscribe to the likes of Maxim, Playboy and Penthouse.
Yes, it's safe to say that Nu Virgos - who have also posed for the Japanese
edition of Playboy - are not targeting gay males, which is what Edge was
packed with when most of the media arrived.
Cher, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler or Judy Garland, they aren't. They are melodic pop singers packaged as porn stars, a cross between another Russian sex-sells-songs group tATu and a spicier Spice Girls. The brainsirens of a producer named Dmytry Kostiuk and a songwriter called Konstantin Meladz, Nadya and Vera and an earlier Nu Virgo named Anya who was replaced by Svetlana after she became pregnant, were selected from 1,000 Ukrainian women craving a shot at show business.
Their current single and video is a saucy, irritatingly catchy ditty called Stop! Stop! Stop!. The video is heavily pixilated in Hong Kong, and hints at more than is ultimately delivered and emphasizes the "tease'' in striptease.
But my misgivings about Sony Music's marketing strategy were unfounded. Most of the sweaty, bare-chested males mysteriously and suddenly evaporated as the techno mix
music ceased and show time approached.
More media - mostly photographers and video crews - packed the stage lip and three enthusiastic middle-aged Russians, two women
and a portly guy who kept bellowing "Wow! Wow! Wow!'' between songs stood on chairs and competed with the emcee as cheerleaders.
Nadya, Vera and Svetlana put on a well-choreographed, enthusiastic show. In fact, Nadya almost pulled a Janet Jackson as she flounced and bounced through Kill My Girlfriend, but fortunately her well-designed support structure took the strain and there was no Justin Timberlake as an enabler.
It was hard to tell from my vantage point, but she may have had her freebie lingerie from the Private Shop in the Hong Kong International Airport to thank.
Upon their arrival Sunday the three had been treated to a HK$10,000 each ``Nu Virgos Shopping Tour'' in four pre-arranged duty-free stores courtesy of the Airport Authority and Sony. This drew more than 20 media types and featured the
strongest security I've encountered since covering a President Jimmy Carter appearance or trying to fly from Los Angeles with a one-way ticket to China on the second anniversary of Sept 11.
Seven stern-faced airport security guards - three women and four men in identical Men in Black suits - surrounded and kept pace with the temptresses as they were guided from Baccarat (no purchases), to Fendi (Sevtlana eyed, but didn't buy several pricey bags that resembled mutant furry caterpillars) to the unmentionables store where they and the photographers were finally in their element.
``Very small! Very small!'' squealed Svetlana as she stroked her hips and flaunted a pink and black thong and matching bra for the flashbulbs.
``Do you need to try it on?'' snickered one guy from a Chinese language publication.
She and the others demurred, but purchases were made there and more suitable duds were tried on and wrapped at the final destination, an upscale Sino-fashion shop called Shanghai Tang where tourists Sam and Ruth Glauber of Long Island, New York, watched with fascination and not-a-little bemusement.
``Who are the models?'' Ruth asked as Sam began furiously photographing Nadya.
``A Ukrainian pop group,'' I explained as Sam elbowed his waythrough the authorized press to document Svetlana who was vamping while trying on a floor length Chinese
robe. ``They're called Nu Virgos.''
``Never heard of them,'' Ruth said a little dismissively. ``What is their music like? Just noise, I'm guessing. Enough pictures. And this place is too pricey. C'mon Sam! We've got a plane to catch, honey!''
Sam pulled himself away from focusing on Vera, who had caught his eye as she caressed herself with an expensive red silk blouse for the lenses.
``Tell Sam the blonde is named Vera!'' I shouted as she hauled her husband out toward the departure zone.
``So finish!'' barked an impatient burly Russian handler who had been assisting the airport folks. The voice of authority had spoken and was obeyed. Shopping bags and photographers in tow, the three headed for the Harbour Plaza hotel in Hong Kong
where we would meet for a post-concert group interview early Monday afternoon.
With the assistance of a local Russian-English translator, Galina Papakule, and wearing not much more than they had the night before, Nu Virgos up close and sort of personal were the only featured attraction at the Harbour Plaza other than a salon conducted by a former Kashmir prime minister about a India-Pakistan
foreign ministers meeting. It wasn't hard to tell who was there for what.
Solemn looking, formally clad East Asian men and women went in one direction while casually clad, mostly young adults with cameras and tape recorders and Nu Virgo CDs and press kits clustered a floor above and waited a brush with Ukrainian pop
``She says, `I'm Svetlana,' ''Papakule said by way of introductions."'I am ambitious, emotional and a very happy person.''
Nadya was introduced as ``a person of limits she can go into depression or be very happy very quickly. She says it is either black or white for her.''
I considered suggesting medication, but Nadya looked like she was in a ``white'' mood at the moment and I didn't want to spoil it for her or the rest of us.
`` `I'm Vera. I'm very happy and we want to conquer the whole world!'
Other tidbits I gleaned were that prior to becoming Nu Virgos, Nadya was a former primary school English teacher, Vera majored in accounting and Svetlana has been singing all her life, once starred in a Ukrainian stage musical and hoped that her status as a new Nu Virgo would be permanent.
There were also the hardball questions, like the one from a local radio reporter who wanted to know, ``What makes a woman sexy?''
Svetlana, in a blue jean mini-skirt and plunging purple leopard and floral print bustier that would be the envy of any Wan Chai hooker, volunteered that ``it will come naturally. If you have inner sexuality you will, of course, be very sexy.''
Vera tossed her blonde mane back, briefly adjusted her horizontally striped black and white micro-mini skirt, smiled and added:``You need to relax and let emotions rule you.''
Wise words, I thought. But free posh lingerie doesn't hurt either.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Up on the Roof/'Those Ukraine girls really knock me out...'
As is my wont, I found myself flipping between two extremes on Saturday and Sunday evenings. Saturday night I was on a rooftop on a small, lush island called Sai Kung enjoying charcoal grilled steak, red Chilean wine, mixed greens salad and listening to Andrea Bocelli and Dire Straits on a boombox with three expats, a South African reporter, a New Zealand coworker and an English artist.
Below was the first lawn I had seen in a year and above were the first stars. As the lights of Shenzhen and Hong Kong are too bright and the smog is too thick, constellations are unknown except, I suppose, in astronomy textbooks. And even on Sai Kung, which is a 40 minute or so bus ride from my shopping mall cum, residence past a maximum security prison, a few tidy used car lots and many small, quaint looking stores and homes, the stars were few, but the few I saw were memorable and bright.
Sai Kung itself recalls the small beachfront/harbor California towns I've seen in real life or the Mexican and Greek ones I've only read about or seen on screen. White stucco homes and apartments, small bars and eateries, a butcher that sells thick sirloins cut right in front of you for blissed-out, sun-struck expats and even a Jehova's Witness Meeting Hall for others, it's surrounded by an overwhelmingly lush green tropical growth that seems poised to swallow it all. Adding to the Eden/impending green death feel are snakes, and even a large, yellow and black diamond backed Burmese python or two, which aren't uncommon, said my colleague.
His second floor apartment, with a sea-view balcony, sits on a small patch of land that includes an even smaller square of tidy lawn, perhaps 15-20 feet by 10-12 feet. A stooped, elderly Chinese woman was patiently and repeatedly sprinkling it with a large watering can for part of the afternoon as a white cat and a piebald one batted one another and lazed about in the afternoon heat. As I marveled at Real Lawn, I asked my friend if the caretaker cut it with scisssors.
"It never gets cut," he claimed. "Some kind of Chinese miracle wonder grass, I reckon."
About 24 hours later I was down from the rooftop and on stool in a Hong Kong gay bar called The Edge waiting to see a Ukrainian girl group formerly named "Via-gra" (get it?) and now called - due to, er, legal difficulties, Nu Virgos. Individually, they are Vera ("I'm Vera! I'm very happy!"), Nadya ("I'm Nadya. I'm a person of extremes!") and Svetlana ("I'm Svetlana. I'm ambitious and emotional!"). They dress like Wan Chai hookers and would like to be the next Spice Girls, but if Sony Music Asia keeps showcasing them in gay bars, let's just say it's not likely they'll be making the leap, like Bette Midler did, from the queer crowd to the mainstream.
More on Nu Virgos later, though. I'm writing a feature for The Standard and will put it (or a reasonable facsimilie) here in a day or two.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

'Vote for me and I'll set you free...'
I went to the American Counsulate today to get more pages for my passport which was rapidly filling up with China/Hong Kong border stamps due to frequent trips to Shenzhen and - more importantly - to get an absentee ballot request.
It's the most work I've put into the democratic process since running for Class Clown in my graduating high school class. (I lost to a guy who went on to shill used cars in Longmont, Colorado, so perhaps there is some cosmic justice). The counsulate is a 30-minute subway trip and then a sweat-soaked 10 minute hike up a steep road to what amounts to a bunker-like fortress build into a Hong Kong hillside. Probably due to terrorist concerns, there's no US flag waving or Marine guards advertising its presence, only large metallic letters set into a concrete wall identifying it as the United States of America Counsulate.
Outside a group of mostly elderly and sliding-quickly-into-that-demographic Fan Lung Gongites were holding a silent vigil. They were dressed in identical bright yellow T-shirts printed with messages in Chinese and English that basically told Beijing to eat dirt. While banned and at risk of torture, death and imprisonment on the mainland, they are free to plead their case in Hong Kong. Just exactly, though, why they were standing outside the US Counsulate to do so wasn't quite clear...maybe they just felt safer there.
I picked my way through the solemn FLG and after surrendering my cell phone and lighter to one security guard and passing the wand test from another, I went up one flight to a waiting room and took a number.
It wasn't packed and more like a doctor's waiting room with obscure outdated periodicals such as In Vivo ("A monthly newsletter covering the latest advances and news at Columbia University Medical Center''!) but I was heartened to see that most of my fellow Americans were also there for absentee ballot requests. Perhaps with democracy's fragile status in Hong Kong being constantly at risk due to Beijing Big Brother - or maybe because of some pro or con ripple effect from the GOP convention - we were there to exercise our right to get an absentee ballot providing we weren't convicted felons or "adjudicated mentally incompetent."
After about an hour an fifteen minutes I had more passport pages and a ballot request form to send to the Boulder County Clerk and Recorder. Thank gawd I don't live in Florida, I thought. Odds are it would never reach the right office, or if it did the odds are about as great that the ballot wouldn't arrive on time or would be "damaged" and "invalid" by the time it did. As we left the building, several of us were comparing notes and while four out of five shared a general loathing for Dubya and one mocked Schwarzenegger's convention speech, one woman from - surprise! - Sacramento stood up for both.
"Well, at least you care enough to vote. I guess we can just agree to disagree about for whom," I said diplomatically.
She smiled pleasantly and nodded. Then I sucker-punched her in the solar plexis. As she collapsed, stunned and wheezing, a guy from Alaska and another one from Wisconsin kicked her in front of a speeding double decker Hong Kong bus. Another, from North Carolina, picked up her ballot request and tore it to pieces, laughing and screaming "Exercise this right you wretched Republican hag!" as we watched her body flip-flop like a broken doll under the skidding bus's wheels.
All in all, a good day for democracy.

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