Tuesday, April 26, 2005

...Discerning readers may note that portions of the following owe a debt to Apocalypse Now, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Simpsons. They would be correct.

The horror, the horror...
I was somewhere around Shenzhen on the edge of the Lohu-Hong Kong border crossing when the doubt began to take hold. I remember thinking something like "I feel a bit light-headed; maybe I should bag this assignment..."
The assignment, which I had chosen to accept, was to hang out in the exclusive Hong Kong Jockey Club Box for the Queen Elizabeth II Cup races at Sha Tin. Thorougbreds, both human and equine, were promised. It's a world in which I'm admittedly hopelessly out of my element in my native US, even more so in Hong Kong where names such as designer Lu Lu Cheung, model Balia Chan and second banana actor/director Kam Kwok-leung ("You may remember him from such classics as the 1974 Shaw Brothers film Killer Snakes and as 'the man in the restaurant' in 1991's Sisters of the World Unite") mean nada to me. Silent Witness, Hong Kong's finest horse, I was vaguely aware of thanks to a deskmate who covers the ponies.
But I'd been in Shenzhen for the weekend, waiting for the mission, getting softer. Every minute I stayed in there, I got weaker, and every minute Silent Witness dug into his feedbag or the likes of Chan tried on another designer gown, they got stronger. But I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do?
I was going to one of the poshest places in the world and I didn't even know it yet. Hours away, through two borders and many kilometers on an KCR railway line that snaked through the mainland and Hong Kong like a main circuit cable - plugged straight into Sunday afternoon decadence and frivolity.
I rendezvoused with my photographer at the Kowloon Tong subway stop where we experienced momentary confusion. Our briefing papers -- courtesy of a Hong Kong public relations firm which had organized this junket -- said we'd be picked up on a shuttle bus at "Kent Road" which didn't seem to exist. Several cell phone calls ensued and another two or three blocks walked until we found the bus parked next to a kindergarten and an adjoining love motel. "Very educational," quipped the photog regarding the free-spirited zoning plan.
On board an efficent, fey and almost overwhelmingly cheerful young male flak gave us our credentials, HK$100 in "Jockey Club cafeteria: coupons and an itinerary which included tidbits like "Socialites interview," and "Socialites photo opp with sports car Maserati"" -- a "very, very special Maserati" he stressed. The only other westerner I spotted was a woman who worked for The Hong Kong Tattler, a venerable society and gossip rag that dates back to the pre-handover days. I tried to plumb her for details but she was rather vague and confessed that many of the names listed on the pr release were also unknown to her.
"So what are we gonna say about them? What are we gonna say? That they were kind people? That they were wise? That they had plans? That they had wisdom? Bullshit, man!" I jabbered. Wide-eyed, she shrank back and pretended to intently scrutinize more press releases.
My only previous experience regarding mammal races and gambling was, sadly, confined to a dog track in northern Colorado that seemed to largely a playground for lots of desperate people who also rode Greyhound when they weren't betting on one. If memory serves, it was also rather small, a little larger than a high school football field. So the sprawling Sha Tin racing monolith, which resembled a battleship and easily dwarves the Denver Broncos playing complex came as shock.
Inside the media - a generally young, scruffy lot highlighted by a 20something Chinese female reporter whose low rider denim skirt continually revealed an appalling half inch or so of plumber's crack, or as one Aussie coworker later termed it "builder's bum" -- were led through several layers of security to the gilded clubhouse dining room stuffed with...overdressed living mummies; with many of the mummy queens sporting the remains of dead birds on their heads. Hats apparently play a big role in the QEII race and would even prove injurious as events unfolded.
I felt liked I'd warped through some space-time worm hole into a Victorian-era High Society affair and the cuisine descriptions at the buffet table only heightened the impression.
"Seabass mousse with pencil asparagus." "Tomato carpaccio with aged Balsamio. "Matjes fillet with beetroot and sour cream." I fingered the wrinkled cafeteria coupons in my pocket and then impulsively snagged a red wine from a tray-bearing waiter.
"I'm with the Pongs," I mumbled, hastily scanning a large seating chart behind him. "Mrs. Pong, table 10. Thankyew."
At that moment a young, near-anorexic looking woman in a form-fitting, sleevless, plunging light pink silk dress and about three expired birds worth of jet black feathers on her head swished by with the rest of the Hong Kong media in her wake breathlessly recording every turn of her rictus-like head with pens, recorders and many, many cameras. I swiveled to get out of their way and promptly knocked an abandoned champagne flute to the marble floor. The sound of broken glass seemed to echo throughout the hubbub followed by a sudden hush as the mummies stopped murmuring and directed their dessicated, starched 'n' parched gazes at the wine toting, sweating shlub.
"Um, er, sorry," I said stooping to pathetically begin to pick up a flute stem shard.
"No matter, no matter sir," said a waiter. "It's our pleasure."
It was my pleasure to flee from the scene of the crime outdoors to check out the race track, video feeds of the starting gate, which seemed to be about half a country away, and the incomprehensible, to me, tote board. Trying to get into the spirit of the affair, I ducked back inside and listened as a man of some obvious importance addressed his fellow mummies with betting tips.
He recommended numbers 10, 12, 5 and 1 in that order for race two. I scrawled them down and went to a betting cage next to the dining room where I repeated them several times to a woman who kept garbling them and paid HK$60 for a ticket. Race two commenced and only one of the touted nags finished in the money. Too embarassed to know if I'd won anything, I simply decided to chalk it up to experience.
Removed and insulated as my photog and fellow media jackels were from the common folk, it turned out that we missed one of the day's major two QEII race stories. It wasn't hard to miss one, Silent Witness galloped to an easy, world record 17th consecutive win. That was celebrated loudly and replayed repeatedly on the countless video screens.
What wasn't replayed or even acknowledged were the 21 race fans injured in a cheap seats stampede for free Silent Witness "limited edition" (10,000) baseball caps.
To my shame, I only learned of it the next day when I sat down next to my desk partner who'd covered it by phone.
"It's easy to have missed it," he consoled me. "The area you were in is another world away."
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