Sunday, November 28, 2004

Alice's Restaurants
Due to its North American-only status, Thanksgiving in Hong Kong is a small, specialized affair. Though the managment for the shopping mall in which I basically live erected a forest of tasteful purple-flocked metal Christmas trees about three weeks ago, one was hard put to spot any pilgrims, Indians, cornucopias, turkeys or sheaves of corn - purple or otherwise. That is until I went to a restaurant called California for a fixed price "Why did the turkey cross the road?" theme dinner complete with fixings on Thursday.
Inside I found an embarrassed looking Chinese bartender dressed in a turkey suit from whom I ordered a scotch and soda. Around me were Chinese "pilgrims" -- waiters in Australian bush hats with oversized pilgrim buckles adorning the crowns and "Indians", waitresses sporting child-sized Indian princess headbands. While I dined on roast turkey, cranberries, stuffing and lumpy mashed potatos and pumpkin pie with a short, rotund black British female jazz singer and another woman, a svelte Korean wealth management adviser, I was able to watch the Buffalo Bills get walloped by the Boston Patriots live. It was the first American football game I'd seen since the Super Bowl, though my dining companions seemed strangely oblivious to its appeal.
At another table a party of eight young "ABC" (American Born Chinese) engineers devoured turkey, guzzled wine and talked excitedly about statistical odds while their dates looked on admiringly. All in all it wasn't exactly a Walton's Thanksgiving, or even a Simpsons', but it was refreshingly different.
On Saturday in Shenzhen I celebrated it again at an Indian restaurant with my American pal, James the Temple Guy and another UN of sorts - two Japanese women, a Eurasian British woman, a female Spanish teacher from Spain who rolled her 'r's in correct Castillian expression and another American guy and his Chinese girlfriend. No turkey this time, though the Tandoori chicken, sapphron rice and lamb kebobs hit the spot.
Later that evening international relations ground to a temporary halt as a SZ taxi driver and my Chinese friend, C, began arguing over the fact that he'd taken quite a money-making circuitous route to our destination. The driver refused to provide a receipt and then refused the fare after we finally arrived. But he began screaming for us and the police after we took him at his word. Still refusing the fare while bellowing in Mandarin at C, a young woman who kept her cool, the driver kept moving closer and closer to her until he was literally in her face spewing invectives and saliva as a crowd gathered.
That's when I stepped in and began negotiations by politely inviting him to "suck all my wet monkey love you tired, thieving pig fucker!" while throwing the refused money at him (which he picked up between tirades).
Things escalated as we tossed compliments back and forth toe-to-toe, until apparently exhausted, he threw the money on the ground and stomped off as a cop looked on with bemusement.
Later I asked C what he'd been screaming at me. I expected something along the lines of "Mofo", "SOB" or a distinctively Chinese base insult, "son of a turtle egg." (A turtle is a term here for a cuckhold.)
She smiled a little. "No. Do you really want to know what he said?"
"He said that you should be ashamed of yourself for betraying your country by coming here to work. He said he does not want money from a traitor who does not love his motherland."
How did he know I voted for Kerry? I wondered.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Viva Las Vegas
Note: What follows is a column running this weekend in The Standard. It was born out of a misguided assignment for me to cover the 51st Macau Grand Prix. The Standard has no sports writers, but the assigning editor thought it would be a fine idea anyway. After going and realizing that sending me to cover auto racing would be like asking a 4-year-old cerebral palsy victim to go 10 rounds with Lennox Lewis, I begged off the real assignment and filed this instead. Apologies to my US readers about the British spellings and references. It's a newspaper style kinda thing here.

Macau Vs Las Vegas. Who's the king? It's a heavyweight question, kind of like King Kong Vs Godilla, Real Madrid Vs Manchester United, Ali Vs Frazier – or perhaps more like the 1966 cinematic classic, Billy the Kid Vs Dracula.
Both are international gaming meccas where folks can come for the gambling and stay for the loan sharks. One was founded 400 years ago by Portuguese colonists and the other in 19th century by Mormons whose influence is long forgotten, especially after an American gangster named Bugsy Siegel got the roulette balls and heads rolling at the Flamingo Hotel in 1949.
With the help of a recovered memory of three previous trips to Las Vegas and armed with a copy of Las Vegas Confidential 1,000 Naked Truths by Vegas nightlife writer Norm Clarke, I ventured to Macau for my first time on the eve of the 51st Macau Grand Prix in order size them up. What follows are the completely unscientific results.
Las Vegas is known popularly as Sin City and despite its makeover as a family friendly destination, the general spirit can still be found in one hotel's unofficial “Rollers, not strollers'' slogan. Macau has no nickname and its slogan, according to the Government Tourist office, is ''Be my guest, feel at home.''
Point: Las Vegas.
Macau's most famous casino, the Lisboa is a garish, canary coloured building shaped like an enormous bird cage that greets gamblers with signs that read ''No spitting'' in Chinese, English and Portuguese.
Vegas has garish resorts featuring replicas of New York, Paris, Egypt and Venice. No one has to be reminded not to spit, though you'll be spitting your teeth out if you welch on your debts.
Point: Las Vegas.
At Vegas you can see a show featuring an erupting volcano. During my visit to Macau, one could see a multi-story office and retail building billowing smoke and fire. There were no injuries and no lives were lost, but it was authentic and you didn't have to shell out for a ticket and a two-drink minimum for the spectacle.
Point: Macau.
Slot machines in Las Vegas feature the usual fruits, stars, bells , lucky sevens and ''bar” symbols that punters hope to line up auspiciously as they pump in their tokens and nickels. Some slots at theMacau Sands have historical and educational significance with symbols taken from an ancient Chinese tale called ''All Men are Brothers''. Instead of cherries and watermelons, there are wine cups and a tiger symbolising the tiger killed after the protagonist, Wu Song, got smashed on three cups of wine. I've never won on a Vegas slot, but lined up three wine cups and won HK$20.
Point: Macau.
At the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel you can get hitched quickly in a variety of themes ranging from Elvis' Blue Hawaii, featuring an Elvis minister and hula girls to the Intergalactic which beams Star Trek's Mr Spock into the ceremony with an illusion. If you prefer something more demur, the Princess Wedding Chapel will give you a Princess Diana theme wedding or Elvis-in-the-castle affair – but not Elvis and Di together.
While in Macau I asked two scantily clad models named Sherry Young and Jessica Law who were promoting Sony Ericsson mobile phones if either one of them would marry me quickly. I offered to try to find an Andy Lau impersonator to seal the deal but both declined.
Point: Las Vegas.
In Las Vegas it's not unusual for an attractively dressed and expensively coifed siren to ask you to buy her a drink. But what happens next might cost you even more than the price of a ''Sex with an Alligator” shot.
In Macau you can have two overweight, elderly women dressed in layers and hauling grocery bags stuffed with produce wheedle you for spare change when you ask them for directions to a taxi stand. There were no thoughts about anything happening next, they were happy with HK$5 each and I found the taxi stand.
Point: Macau
Las Vegas casinos feature buxom waitresses wearing virtual postage stamps who will offer you a drink on the house, especially if you're doing well at the slots or card tables.
The Macau Sands features young men dressed in traditional Chinese peasant garb, wearing straw hats and lugging large jugs of tea on their backs. The tea is free, whether you're winning or not. There are also waitresses dressed in what appear to be refurbished bell hop uniforms circa 1961 who will offer you complimentary water or tea. A request for a free bourbon and water instead was met with polite confusion.
Point: Las Vegas.
In Macau you can watch the Si San Kit Yee Tong Dragon and Lion Dance Group cavort. In Vegas you can go to Sapphire and watch 300 female dancers cavort in what has been dubbed ''the 52 double-D of nightclubs.''
Point: Las Vegas.
Las Vegas is famous for its cheap eats and sumptuous buffets, so much so that the Macau Sands features a ''Las Vegas Style Buffet'' for HK$141. It lives up to its name with a staggering spread – including the ubiquitous (in China) chicken feet and heads, as well as, er, unique drinks like celery juice. Vegas has virtually everything but no celery juice or fowl feet or heads on the buffet tables – only human remains buried in the desert.
Point: Macau
The results speak for themselves. It's a squeaker, but Vegas prevails 5-4. Rematch anyone?

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Brilliant Disguise
Well, I'm beginning to realize just what a small town Shenzhen is after you've hung around awhile. Thanks to a recent Hong Kong news report, I've learned that I have a tangential aquaintance with a figure in a major political and business scandal going down in what The Standard often refers to as "the southern Chinese boomtown".
Faithful Shenzhen Zen readers may recall an entry about a year ago (Rocky Mountain Way) wherein I waxed slightly hysterically about meeting a young Shenzhen author/budding film star whose pen name was Niuniu and who'd written a book (Sheep with Wings)and made a movie about her years as a high school student in England. The hook as far as I was concerned was that she'd also graduated from the University of Denver and I'd tracked her down just to talk about Colorado.
We spent about two and a half delightful hours basking in Denver-Boulder nostalgia. In particular Niuniu - whose English name is Jennifer - said she missed snow, the Boulder Mall and a great Vietnamese noodle restaurant that I also favored in Denver called Pho 97.
"You can't get decent Vietnamese food in Shenzhen!" she'd moaned.
I'd wondered how a 25-year-old could so easily get a book and movie made and Niuniu - delightful as she was - had been a bit coy about the process. Later, though, some colleagues at the Shenzhen Daily had told me her father was a high official in the city government and Communist Party. That was confirmed a month or so later during my ill-fated Chinese New Year homestay with a wealthy raging alcoholic (The Strawberry King) and his family, whom I learned were professionally and socially connected with Niuniu's folks.
As summer came and went I'd wondered what had become of Niuniu's film. She'd told me it was due for an August release and starred a well-known Hong Kong heart throb, Edison Chan, as the male romantic lead. August passed and I kept scanning the film listings but saw nothing about it until today when I edited a commentary column.
Here's the first paragraph: "A well-publicised corruption scandal involving a top Communist Party official in Shenzhen is jeopardising embarrassed authorities' efforts to introduce so-called ``sunlight'' rules aimed at cleaning up their government."
The official is Niuniu's dad, Li Yizhen. Turns out he was also, in a way, my ultimate boss at the Shenzhen Daily because his duties also include overseeing Shenzhen propaganda and media - and the Daily is the city government's primary English language media outlet.
Reading further, I soon discovered what had happened to the film version of Sheep with Wings. It was retitled Seven Hours Time Difference and it had been delayed until October when Comrade Li's office sent notices to parents of middle school students in Shenzhen requiring them to pay 20 yuan (US$2.40) for their children to see it.
The proud father's office also ordered all the schools to organize the students for viewings. In Mao's heyday it was normal for schools to order students to watch movies designated by authorities. Though the practice was discontinued years ago, Shenzhen parents nonetheless dutifully paid for the tickets ``What do the authorities want our children to learn from it?'' some parents were quoted as asking (by non-Shenzhen newspapers) after watching it with their children.
I guess they wanted the pupils to learn what a kick-ass talent Niuniu (real name: Li
Qianni) was. Not how a rich and powerful pop can make you an instant star.
The outrage has continued, with Comrade Li refusing to apologize or resign and then conducting an "internal investigation" (by his own office) which cleared him of wrong-doing.
But there's more: "Subsequent media reports noted that the daughter was also director and producer of the film, and she and Li's wife own three Shenzhen companies engaged in business, with the daughter's assets estimated at 7.69 million yuan."
My jaw dropped. This charming fresh-faced, pig-tailed, snow-loving sprite I'd had coffee with was also a businesswoman worth nearly $1 million US dollars. I still have her mobile phone number, however she's probably not taking calls from the media.
But maybe she'd be up for bankrolling a decent Vietnamese restaurant in Shenzhen for me after the smoke clears.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Freeze Frame
While in Shenzhen last weekend a friend I'll call "C" asked if I wanted to accompany her to a photo studio so she could get some publicity shots done for a TV show that she is auditioning for. I imagined a typical US set-up, of course, one or two rooms, some lighting equipment and some background screens of different colored paper - perhaps some fake scenery, too. A one or two hour job at most.
Of course, it turned into a different beast. We arrived at "Lovers is Forever Studio" at 3 pm and exited at about 9 pm and in between I spent long hours watching an amazing array of brides, bride grooms, JonBenet Ramsey-like Chinese daughters, two apparent hookers, and my friend go through an elaborate, expensive ritual involving many cosmetics, hair designs, costume changes and small stage sets.
There was the Shanghai cafe and home circa 1930 or so, a Japanese sake house, a modern bathroom with shower and toilet, a modern bedroom, a grocery store, a magazine stand and - my favorite - a American Southwest white-washed adobe and log beam exterior capped with a Moroccan skyline featuring mosques. At one point, one of the hookers posed in front of it with a cowboy hat, red leather hot pants, skin tight T-shirt with red leather vest and what appeared to be an old pair of Gene Simmons' knee high red leather boots with 6-inch stacked heels from a 1979 Kiss tour.
Two photographers were working shifts with all the groups, so as the hooker did her best "Why don't you come up to my Navajo mosque and see me sometime?" pose, a young married couple beamed at their overly made-up 3-year-old daughter awkwardly vamping as Chinese court princess four feet away.
There were costumes to go with all the themes. While many choices looked like a Fredrick's of Hollywood close-out sale, two bridal couples posed in modern western wedding togs, as a traditional Japanese wedding couple, as a Tang Dynasty Chinese couple and as something resembling a 17th century aristocratic French couple as envisioned by Salvador Dali and Liberace.
In between costume changes, a small army of beauticians freshened makeup, combed hair and pinned on wigs and falls in order have the heads roughly approximate the clothes.
C wisely brought several changes of her own clothes for the standard face and full body shots, but couldn't resist playing dress-up after the staff told her she was entitled to more photos for free.
While she was delighted to pose as a geisha, French courtisan and slinky Shanghai Chinoise I grew restless and was getting hungry. The staff ordered a sandwich and a beer in for me and after it became apparent that we were going to be there at least another hour, offered to shoot me once for free.
I thought about it, but declined. They didn't have the right costume for "clueless foreigner" and I didn't feel that my own get-up of ratty cargo shorts, an Elvis short sleeve shirt and shredded bowling shoes needed to be documented.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Catch Me Now I'm Falling
Well, the election returns don't look good as I write this. My mostly non-US coworkers (a variety of Brits and UK-related types, as well as Chinese, Bangladeshi, Singaporites (?), etc.) are stopping by my desk to offer condolences and to ask if I'm going to go turn in my passport at the US consulate in protest tomorrow.
On the other hand, being one of only two Yanks in the newsroom tonight, I'm also catching some jibes.
"What's wrong with your country, no common sense or what?" asked one fellow, a rolly-polly thick-tongued Brit originally from a rural Northern English village.
I kinda groped for a witty rejoinder beyond "Don't blame me, I didn't vote for that clown" when he suddenly shifted gears.
"What do you reckon Ray would say?"
"Ray" referred to Ray Davies, frontman and creative spark for the Kinks. My tormenter and I had discovered a few weeks ago that we shared a mutual passion for Davies and the band, though we share little else beyond the same employer.
That part was easy. Davies is versatile and I immediately seized on a song from a 1979 called Catch Me Now I'm Falling in which the character, Captain America, asks for help after years of helping others in need.
Here's an excerpt:
I remember, when you were down
And you needed a helping hand
I came to feed you
But now that I need you
You won’t give me a second glance
Now I’m calling all citizens from all over the world
This is Captain America calling
I bailed you out when you were down on your knees
So will you catch me now I’m falling

"Catch me now I'm falling," I shot back.
He knew the song, of course, and smiled for the first time.
"Damn right," he replied.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Jesus at McDonald's
While some bemoan Ronald McDonald's evil global grip, it was on a Saturday daytrip with my Shenzhen expat friend "The Temple Guy" (James Baquet, formerly "The Barefoot Fool") that I saw truly how far the leering cholesterol-pushing clown's reach has spread, and why it's not necessarily a bad thing.
As you might fathom from his self-titled moniker, James is somewhat temple obsessed and this was the second time I'd tagged along with him to Tien Hou Temple, a peaceful sanctuary dedicated to a sea goddess, Tien Hou, that lies between an enormous, dusty gravel strip mine and a sprawling, clogged shipping container port in Shenzhen. He'd also convinced four unwitting, but willing female language teachers to come - two from Japan, one British Eurasian who went to school in Luxemborg and a young giantess from Ghana. Together we looked like an old Benetton ad.
Inside the worship/altar area where the offerings are laid and incense is burned, there were the usual piles of fruits, beverages, cooking oil, etc. all intended to invoke the goddess's tender mercy. But on closer scrutiny one offering stood out.
Nestled in a bowl of bananas, apples, a tangerine, melon and a muffin was a familiar small red and yellow cardboard container - a McDonald's apple pie.
I only hope that Tien Hou super-sized her reply to the worshipper's plea.
You can see a photo of what James calls "Saint Mickey D" at .

'You've got to pick up every stitch'
The mysteries of modern mainland Chinese medical care continued to deepen last weekend when I returned - twice - to "Shenzhen's best hospital" in what proved to be fruitless attempts to get my stitches removed.
The first time, on a Friday evening, my Chinese speaking companion was told that "the special doctor who removes stitches is not on duty" and that no other options were available. Come back tomorrow, we were told. Looking around, I noticed that the same dried blood stain under a waiting room chair was still where it had been a week ago. Amazingly the same lifeless looking elderly woman slumped unattended in a wheelchair was also still there - also seemingly waiting for 'special' care. Hope was fading.
"Wow. You have to be a 'special doctor' in China to clip stitches," I remarked not a little bitterly, as we left. "In the U.S. a Special Olympics competitor could probably do it."
We returned on Saturday where I noted the same blood stain but the absence of wheelchair granny. Maybe she was having stitches removed by the special doctor?
The receptionist looked irritated when she was asked and virtually snapped a reply back to my pal. He tried sweet-talking her, which lead to a near 2-minute diatribe on her part.
"I'm guessing 'not today','' I said, as I had understood "mei-oh", the Chinese phrase for "no way in hell, never ask again!". You hear it a lot here. A lot.
"She says the special scissors are not here. They are locked up in a case in another part of the hospital. Only the doctor has the key and he is not here, either."
"Special scissors? Never mind." I sighed. "I'll get it done in Hong Kong, I guess."
Sure enough, today at 12:30 pm I walked sans appointment into the office of a "Dr. Chan" (trained in the UK, according to his signage) about 50 yards from my apartment, filled out a short form, took a number, leafed through a current issue of Forbes in the clean waiting room with no near-corpses in wheelchairs and after handing over HK$224 (US$29) and consulting briefly with the good doctor had them clipped out by an efficient, friendly nurse. All within 40 minutes.
Not bad for a place that, according to the mainland dogma "struggled under the British colonial boot heel" for 99 years. They could learn a little when it comes to special doctors and special scissors, though.

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