Monday, February 28, 2005

Pulling Teeth
Whether it's for me or someone else, a trip to a dentist's office never fails to exact a heavy primal toll from my already somewhat battered psyche. The smells, sounds, even the sight of a dental chair give me heebie jeebies that more rational beings might associate with being locked in an overflowing Port-O-Potty with a naked Dick Cheney and a pack of flesh-eating mandrills.
Me, I'll take Cheney and the mandrills every time, thankyouverymuch. But there are the things one does for love and one of them recently involved squiring C to a Shenzhen dental clinic to get a cavity filled. She'd found the clinic on the Internet and, according to the hype it was SZ's finest. I was just glad she hadn't chosen one of the guys I've occasionally seen on a street corner or in a vacant lot gripping pliers, clad in a dirty lab coat and next to a portable crude facsimilie of a dental chair and a battered tin can for spitting blood.
As it turned out the dentist's office or "Stomatology Unit" (A term I had to look up later. It's the "medical study of the mouth and its diseases.") was only a small part of Shezhen Bohai Hospital. I quickly discerned it was a quality outfit because of the enormous color photos outside that showed a woman dressed as a nurse kneeling reverently before a burning candle and a profile of her releasing a (presumably avian flu-free) white dove from her tender, caregiving hands. I wondered briefly if it was also a combination worship center/veterinary clinic.
The entrance sign set me straight, however:
"Shenzhen Bohai Hospital is named by its high technical medical programs development in China and abroad. It is awarded as National People' s Trust Hospital and Shenzhen 1 Million Citizens Honest. There are more than 300 excellent experts who have the distinguished responsibility and consumate technique includes more than 30 famous national specialists, PhD's and past PhD's."
Just what the doctor ordered, I thought. A defrocked PhD working on my girlfriend's teeth.
The dental chambers were easy to spot, located as they were next to the "Oral Disintection (sic) Chamber" and convienantly just down the hall from the adjoining "Lithotriptor Dept." and "Rectal Disease Dept."
Like all other medical/dental outfits I've seen on the mainland privacy was not a problem because there was none. Three rooms with large windows allowed anyone who cared to to gape at the patients as the dentists did their dirty work. I couldn't bear to look, however, and instead focused on the fascinating "Rectal Disease Dept." sign until C was finished checking in. The receptionist, based on the tray of bloody gauze and sharp instruments she held in one hand as the other filled out forms, apparently also doubled as a dental assistant.
Following a brief sharp exchange between C and the receptionist/budding surgeon over the fact that C was on time but would have to wait 30-minutes, we sat on chairs bolted to a wall until her name was called.
As it happens, C's Chinese name is similar to that of the late, reviled widow of Mao Zedong and that led to a another brief flare-up when the receptionist confused the two and more or less loudly announced that the Gang of Four's mastermind had risen from the grave for dental care. More than a few heads turned at the sound of the name - sort of as if someone in a German waiting room paged, "Eva Braun! Eva Braun!"
"I told her no one would be stupid enough to name their child that in these days!" C declared later after she'd had her work done minus anesthetic; a feat she shrugged off, but one that, as someone who begs for a medically induced coma just for cleaning, I found on par with a manned moon mission or not getting ripped off by a car dealer. Speaking of which, though it cost about US$50 for the filling, a bargain by American standards, it seemed extraordinarily high to us.
"Have you had it done before? What did it cost?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. "I always made friends with a dentist before and it was free." She sighed a little. "I think I will have to find a new dentist friend who knows my name."

Monday, February 21, 2005

Sympathy for the Doctor
I don't think I've felt this bad about the death of a cultural hero since John Lennon died. But an Aussie colleague - and one too young to have really experienced Hunter S. Thompson first-hand, when he was regularly shredding the pages of Rolling Stone - came over to my desk, crouched down and put his arm around my shoulder. I'd been cursing to myself and more than a bit melancholy to be among a pack of Brit-centric "journos" for most of whom Thompson had merely been a name or curiousity.
"It's a dark day," he said.
Indeed, I replied. We didn't have to say Thompson's name, but began exchanging what we could remember of his quotes.
"'We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.'" I said. "'I remember saying something like 'I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive...' And suddenly there the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving ...And a voice was screaming: 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'"
It's safe to say that I wouldn't have plunged into journalism, covered rock 'n' roll, worked for the Weekly World News as Ed Anger or impulsively relocated to China and started this blog if it wasn't for Thompson's work. He was an inspiration for some of the best - and occasionally worst - moments and works of my life. I studied his writing style obsessively at times, trying to unlock keys to his vocabulary, influences and rhythms. There were other influences and factors, of course, but he and Mark Twain were primary until I found my own voice.
The Doctor was good for extra-curricular ideas, too. I told my coworker about a Fear and Loathing-fueled lost weekend circa '73 or '74 driving from LA to Vegas on blotter acid with two high school friends. We wound up fried and floating through the Circus Circus casino, pausing briefly to get harangued briefly by Don Rickles, who was holding court at a private cocktail lounge table surrounded by sycophants and clad in what I recall as a purple suede leisure suit with collar tips about 3-feet long.
We three were in regulation counterculture denim, two of us with shoulder length hair and though I - on leave from the US Army - sported a shorn pate I did have a Grateful Dead "American Beauty" logo stitched on the back of my jean jacket. We paused to gape at Rickles who smirked back and fired off a litany of (even then) hoary cliches regarding "hippies."
"Are you a boy or a girl?" "Keep America clean, get a haircut," etc. Rickles' slick sidekicks chuckled and we kept gaping, watching the tracers shoot around them as vibrating reptiles and bouncing, dancing dooh-dah devil dogs faded in and out of our chemically enhanced visions.
Security finally and firmly escorted us out to other adventures.
"Maybe he was just playing shotgun golf and it got out of hand," the Aussie Hunter fan said, interupting my reverie. We'd both just read Thompson's last column for ESPN-2 about the sport he and the Aspen sheriff had created which involved blasting golf balls on a fairway with double aught.
Yeah. Shotgun golf. I'd like to believe that's what it was.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Lost in Translation
Submitted for your approval: two raw, verbatim excerpts from recent stories written by the same reporter. This individual is so infamous that his surname has become a verb in the newsroom. As in "you've been '--'ed' if you're unfortunate enough to call up one of his stories. Due to the perils of blogging about the workplace, I've granted him more anonymity here than is probably his due. But he enjoys "senior reporter" status and reportedly has an MA in English. The first is from an expose about a perceived increase in Hong Kong porno. The second details a ferry-cargo boat "collusion." Enjoy.

A social worker Tammy So said, for example, a popular variety show featured with male and female artistes' passage of thin pieces of foods with their mouths as a part of team-playing.
The show is broadcast between 8.30-9.30 pm, or family time in Sunday.
She said the game might look funny to audience but this could misunderstand the youngsters than they could kiss other people as playing games.
She said this was dangerous because kissing with mouths was usually followed by even closer behaviours and such act was strictly only for male and females having close relationships.
Jess Chan, project officer of a religious group the Society for Truth and Light, said some popular news weekly included unnecessary sexy photographs and words in their stories continuous.
She said, for example, a news article on a magazine carried headlines of an anniversary celebration of a television station but gave a detailed description on the body shapes of female artistes.
Speeding and low visibility may cause a collusion between a catamaran and a cargo ship at Tsing Yi which sent 97 catamaran crews and passengers to five hospitals in Thursday morning.
At 8.10 am, there was a collusion between the catamaran taking nine crews and 156 passengers and a mainland-registered coastal vessel Zhong Hang 908 taking seven crews and bulks of goods to be unloaded in Hong Kong.
The collusion was occurred at the junction of Ma Wan Fairway and Kap Shui Mun Fairway which is the waters away from MOBIL Oil Depot at the southwest corner of Tsing Yi Island.
Within a hour after the collusion, police launches took off about 18 passengers off the catamaran and sent them to Princess Margaret Hospital.
``People sitting at the front rows suffered the worst hit because there is a big space. Most were fallen down from their seats and colluded to elsewhere at the moment when the ship was stopped unexpectedly,'' a unhurt male catamaran passenger told reporter.
``There were big chaos. Those did not fasten their seat belts and facing nothing in front of their seats suffered the most serious injuries,'' another unhurt male passenger Lai told reporters.
Lai used his mobile handset to take a photograph showing a white cavity pillar in the catamaran was damaged which was apparently caused by collusion of a human head to the pillar.
``We felt a sudden reduction of the ship speed which was so abnormal. I then heard horns made by the ship and saw a black shadow colluding to our vessel. Luckily, I was just fell down from my seat,'' another passenger said.
Questions 67 and 68
"Have you had many beers?" This was the second question from a young Chinese woman I'd encountered for the first time as we waited for the elevator to take us to our respective floors in the Lucky Number Complex this weekend.
Her initial query had been, "Do you live here?" to which I'd responded affirmatively and ever-so-politely without slurring, staggering, lurching or otherwise projectile vomiting. In fact I had consumed one and half after splitting the third with an expat friend at a Shenzhen lamb and clam BBQ shack and was going back to the apartment for perhaps another before retiring with a book in bed.
."Actually, no. Why do you ask?" I said as I watched the flickering elevator floor indicator slowly, painfully grind its way downward.
"Because it seems that your face is red."
My immediate instinct was to respond that my 15-minute walk back through the rain and 40-degrees of windy, whipped chill might have had something to do with my flush, and I hesitated to comment that her badly permed and fecal orange hair resembled a primary school science experiment gone awry after Miss Jeannie's Special Education Class had had their way with random bottles of lye, soy sauce, red wine and bleach. Not to mention her outfit which looked as if she'd taken her fashion cues from a Taiwan hillbilly who'd been overly impressed by a Ukrainian "Velibor of Hollywood" lingerie catalogue.
But that's SOP in the PRC. Questions and observations some - not all, of course - Chinese routinely disgorge are often ones we'd only ask or volunteer among intimates.
"It seems that you are fat," is another one often bandied about, perhaps just after the new aquaintance has inquired about your salary and rent details.
I call them the "It seems..." questions. The phrase is presumably intended as a polite buffer - it must be standard issue in the primary English language classes - but it does nothing to allay the unintended sting of what often follows -- "...that you smoke many cigarettes," "...that you have pimples," "...that you smell strangely," "...that your wife/girlfriend is having sexual knowledge of livestock."
But be the questioner male or female, Mao help the barbarian who responds with a question that would cause no flurry in the Western regions outside the Middle Kingdom. I still recall the hesitation and slight grimace that "Are you married?" or "So, what does your spouse/boy/girlfriend do?" or even "What did you do this weekend?" produced from SZ Daily coworkers, male and female alike.
I quickly stopped asking and stuck with impersonal basics such as "How much did you pay for that lousy haircut?" or "It seems that you have the manners of a civet cat."

Friday, February 11, 2005

"All the Federales say, they could have had him any day. They just let him slip away, out of kindness I suppose"
I was reminded of Townes Van Zandt's Pancho and Lefty this early evening in Shenzhen when I stopped by the covered outdoor "wet market" near the Lucky Number complex for some pirate DVDs on my way back from a food and beer run at a nearby 7-Eleven. C is out of town, some 2,000 or so miles away at her childhood home for the New Year holiday. It's nestled against the North Korean border, and she won't be back for a week or so. (I'd called her earlier today and she said she'd be spending part of the day midway on a border bridge between the two countries just checking things out. I asked her for souvenirs; with the recent NK statment boasting about having "nukes" -- as their official news release oddly put it -- I asked if she'd pick me up a small one. She demurred, but said she might be able to snag some Kim Il Sung/Kim Jong Il cigarettes and/or badges. Very cool. It's a little weird having a girlfriend who is spending her part of her holiday blithely touring the North Korean border, but another reason I like it here.
I had just concluded a deal for an eclectic assortment of illegal videos that included Finding Neverland, Sideways, as well as chestnuts such as Once Upon a Time in America, a French-Hong Kong production called Clean with HK star Maggie Chueng as a junkie and, surprise (until I see if it works) acclaimed Nazi 'ho filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Money had passed hands and they were bagged in the traditional little plastic solid colored black bag signifying that you've bought something shameful, unlike groceries, pharmacuticals, condoms, liquor or sex toys which all come in opaque plastic white, green, red or blue bags for all the neighborhood and apartment elevator partners to glimpse.
Just as the deal was done, a low hum hubbub swept through the front entrance market crowd. The DVD pirate boyz immediately waved off other customers, shoved the out-of-container-goods back into the worn cardboard boxes where they'd been packed, and magically, impossibly melted into the fly-blown fish, poultry, veggies, beef, rabbit, pork, utensils, pots, pans and other sundries squalor within.
Outside a blue, beaten plainly marked SZ police jail van had suddenly pulled up. Standard issue here, they look like the paddywagons from the US/UK '20s-50s with a large cage rear, tiny vertical head-high bars on the padlocked exit door and a small cab. The driver was in a cop uniform, but from the passenger seat hopped an athletic, eager-looking 20ish guy in civvies, a cheap black and white acrylic horizontally striped sweater, brown jeans and worn blue tennies. SZ's version of an "undercover" cop, I'm thinking.
I wasn't wrong. He strode into the market entrance like he'd somehow magically hitched a ride in a cop van and was just dropped off and passing through and then began asking repeated questions in Mandarin that I didn't comprehend until I picked up the repeated phrase "DVD, DVD, DVD."
All still standing around ignored him or muttered "mei-oh" (basically, no-can-do) as I stood there with a black plastic sack full o' contraband gaping at this law enforcement charade. He finally shrugged ("No crime here, false alarm") and then hopped back into the paddywagon and they were on their way to another scene of no crime. It will all show up later, I'm sure in Official Shenzhen Law Enforcement reports regarding the miraculous drop in the pirate DVD trade here. Of course, it reminded me of the Barbeque SWAT farce (see: Rings of Fire 5/22/04) I'd witnessed last year and after I returned to the apartment I called my Temple Guy pal, James to laugh about it. He told me about a book another friend, Gary the Canadian Moondance owner, had read who'd just told him about what it said of the Opium Wars.
An emperor in cahoots with the trade had ordered his troops to "attack" the foreign pushers but not a lot, basically fire over their heads, and to retreat gracefully as they did so.
Apparently not a lot as changed.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Another Standard column, but with fresh non-blog material.
Stupid Cupid
Traditionally, Valentine's Day has brought out insipid mediocrity, and only occasionally true inspiration in me. On one hand, there were the sheepskin car seat covers I once gave a spouse after 11 years of marriage and a trial separation or two. Admitedly they didn't exactly spell L-o-v-e, but they were warm, fluffy and had been on sale when I stopped at the auto parts store for fuses on my way home from work on that particular February 14.
"Seat covers!" a female co-worker spat out as we compared post-V Day notes. "I'd kill my husband. El zippo! One dead hubs walking! Your marriage must really be on the skids." Her acumen was remarkable. I was divorced later that year, though I redeemed myself – if not in her eyes, with one who would become No. 2 – with a fresh edition of a childhood book she'd loved.
There were some other missteps, though, and now I've found myself single and affectionate again in a country that more or less observes two (or possibly three, if you want to warp it a little) Valentine's Days – February 14 and, depending on whether you adhere to a lunar year or not, either July 7, 4703 or August 11, 2005.
And, until I asked advice from a mainland pal who has experience in affairs of the heart and eagerly observes both western and traditonal Chinese holidays – though Groundhog Day still eludes him – I realized that I had a lot more to learn when it came to romance, People's Republic style.
"I'm thinking of giving her some flowers," I confessed to him. "What do you think? Flowers are universal, right?"
"How many?" His tone implied something I didn't want to deal with, like an envelope from the Inland Revenue Department or a vestigial thumb sprouting from my abdomen overnight. I decided to briefy ignore the early warning system that began violently whooping within me.
"I don't know. A assorted bouquet of spring flowers, a dozen roses, something like that."
"For a Chinese woman, roses are recommended and the number can be very important," he cautioned.
"Important? Like how much I spend?"
"It's a code," he explained patiently. "If you give three flowers, it means you love her. If you give nine, it means your love will last a long time. If you give 11. it means you love only her. And if you give 99 it means you will love her forever.
"Ninety nine! What's three again?"
"Three is usually from a man who has many girlfriends but cannot spend a lot."
"Is there a number that says, 'I love you a lot but sometimes things change that we can't control, and if they do you can have the couch and washer and I can keep the DVD player and Sansui speakers?' ''
"Maybe in Hong Kong," he mused. "They are a little more modern. But I have not heard of it here, yet."
"How about 'Things have been great and I hope it lasts forever, and it will if you stop nagging me about my weight and cigarettes?'''
"Mmmm. No. Not even in Hong Kong, I think."
So caught between seat covers and with no rare first editions of Pippi's (Fi Leng) The Bright Wrong Path or even the Little Red Book in sight, I cautiously sounded out my beloved about numbers, flowers and Valentine's Day.
"You know my favorite flower, of course?"
"Ros...I mean, tuli...lillies. Yes. Lillies," I said confidently, as I focused suddenly on the oversized vanity portrait she'd had shot of her smiling visage amid a bouquet of pink ones.
"Okay. Yes, just know I believe in forever, not in a number."
"So, I can keep the speakers just in case?"
"Never mind. Forever it is. Now, and in July or August, too."

Monday, February 07, 2005

Annie's Song
Before going home tonight, a reporter at The Standard was idly leafing through a posh promotional booklet touting a planned upscale retail development near here when something caught his eye. The project -- bankrolled by one of Hong Kong's wealthiest developers -- has a European theme and in the "Amsterdam" sub-division map, near the Van Gogh Restaurant, and next to the Windmill City Shop and Vermeer Shop was...the Anne Frank Bar.
A portion of the awkwardly written hype reads: ''Amsterdam is widely known at the "Venice in the North" where you can get a glimpse of this maginificent city along with its canals. When the curtain of night hangs down together with the neon shade and melodious music all around, this area will be a popular night spot.''
Of course, with journalists being the cynical fucks that we are the sick jokes began flying. "Is it in the attic?" "Every night is Kristallnacht at the Anne Frank Bar!" "Where's the Mengele Massage Parlor?" "Two-for-one Zyklon B shooters for happy hour!" Jokes aside, he's already on the story, though we won't be publishing a paper on Wednesday due to the Chinese New Year holiday. But the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles, as well as the Israeli and Dutch consulates in Hong Kong can probably expect calls soon.
"Unfortunately, it's par for the course for Hong Kong," a co-worker who has lived here for many years told me. "A lot of these people just don't have a clue."
Indeed, in 2003 a Hong Kong fashion company finally removed Nazi-themed clothing from its 14 stores after receiving complaints from the Israeli and German consulates spurred by reports in The Standard.
'``We don't want to upset anybody,'' Deborah Cheng, marketing manager of the retailer, said. ``We were a bit politically insensitive. We don't wish to make any race unhappy.'' Cheng had said earlier the company did not believe many Hong Kong customers would be offended by the Nazi T-shirts and other items, but acknowledged that executives had not counted on getting such a response from foreigners.'"
I wonder if is designing the Anne Frank Bar waitstaff outfits. Something cutting edge in jackboots, perhaps?
Patriot Games
Unlike last year, my Super Bowl viewing time was officially sanctioned and no silver-tongued deceit was needed to see it. What follows is a story I wrote and co-reported with a young Aussie reporter with the amazing name of Paris Lord for The Standard today. It's an admittedly unremarkable Super Bowl bar scene color piece that, except for the first portion, could have described the scene in any US town. And, US readers, forgive the Super Bowl 101 tone. Remember, I'm writing for many folks for whom it's largely unknown. What was irrelevant to the story was how the marketing flack at the second bar loaded me down with cheap Miller beer generic Super Bowl swag after noticing I was from The Press, and I had to get up at 6am to do it after going to bed at 3:45am because I got sucked into watching The Godfather on cable upon returning from work after midnight. But what's more American than beer swag, The Godfather and football? Still, I'm a minor mess today...
By Justin Mitchell and Paris Lord
A good Super Bowl party isn't always easy to find. An unoffficial national holiday in the United States, ``Super Sunday'' as it's known, is a major social affair usually featuring an orgy of alcohol, food and occasionally quarrelsome friends, fans and relatives.
It's become so big that the ritual has also spawned several urban legends, including one that the winning team is an indicator of whether the stock market will rise or fall and tales of metropolitan sewage systems crashing due to the enormous number of toilets being flushed simultaneously at halftime.
But overseas it's a hit or miss affair and, of course, no big thing for those who prefer their balls round and their athletes helmet- and Spandex-free.
In Hong Kong, though, the place to be is Dan Ryan's at Pacific Place where they've been hosting an annual early morning pigskin gala for 16 years since the San Francisco 49'ers triumphed over the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 in Super Bowl XXII.
Which is why we began at the Kangaroo Downunder bar in Wan Chai for No XXXIX featuring the 2004 champion New England Patriots and Cinderella underdog Philadelphia Eagles. Resourceful investigative reporters that we are, we'd placed a pre-game phone call to Dan Ryan's that revealed it was booked to capacity. ``You can take your chances,'' was the succinct answer.
Not so at the `Roo, where our chances were unlimited. While it was Super Sunday in the US, at the Wan Chai pub it was more like Mortuary Monday where the atmosphere at 7.30am was underwhelming to say the least, and restrained at best. Two expat couples tucked quietly into breakfasts, and a sprinkling of solo American sports-minded males nursed coffees and beers while absorbing the pre-game hoohah.
Obviously still stinging from last year's Janet Jackson Nipplegate controversy, the NFL appeared to have taken a leaf out of the Chinese Communist Party's hints on how to rewrite history by deleting any references -- audio or visual -- to the dreaded ``wardrobe malfunction'' in its smooth salute to past Super Bowl halftime extravaganzas.
While generous footage and interviews of previous performers, such as U2, Aerosmith, Britney Spears, Kid Rock and Shania Twain was featured, there was nary a peep of or about Janet and her unindicted co-conspirator Justin Timberlake.
``I guess Janet never happened, never existed,'' one patron cracked.
After a lackadasical first quarter -- highlighted at the `Roo with an obviously bored and baffled Australian bartender's question to an American, ``How long do these American football quarters last, anyway?'' -- the game stood at a respectable 7-7 by half-time. While the atmosphere at the game's site in Jacksonville, Florida was festive as Sir Paul McCartney belted out three Beatles chestnuts and the post-Fabs Live and Let Die amid grand pyrotechnics, the sedate air was beginning to become stifling, so we made a break to Dan Ryan's where it was standing room only, packed as it was with several hundred partially inebriated and completely football-mad expatriates, tourists and locals alike.
``I've been coming here for 10 years,'' said Larry Robbins, a land planner originally from San Francisco who was rooting for the Eagles. ``It's my Super Bowl home away from home.''
A stuffed American bison head looked down over one of the three televisions, while in another banquet-style room folks dodging work and craving 4 /2 hour televised global communion tore into breakfasts, bloody Marys, beers and coffee while watching the back-and-forth struggle on mammoth wide-screen TV.
In a corner of the bar, a sign reading ``No working during drinking hours'' summed up the feeling.
Clad in a customized Philadelphia Eagles jersey bearing the name ``M.Williams,'' Mike Williams of Philadelphia was taking that advice seriously as he watched his team's hopes sputter and burn while the final seconds clicked down to the Patriots 24-Eagles 21 finale.
Williams, who works for a construction company in Shenzhen, was nursing a shot of Irish whiskey, his sixth drink since 6am, courtesy of a jubliant -- but sympathetic -- Patriots' fan with the same surname as New England's quarterback, Tom Brady. ``I'm in a whole lot of agony, but this helps,'' Williams said.
``His agony is my joy, and the Brady name does me proud!'' Boston resident Chris Brady responded. A tennis instructor, Brady said he was ``just traveling through'' Hong Kong on his way back to to the US.
While the two backed different teams, they said they bonded over a mutal love of football and alcohol.
``We're old-school football guys. We both come from drinking towns with football problems,'' Williams affirmed, while he and Brady hoisted their shot glasses in a toast.

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