Sunday, October 30, 2005

Happy Birthday Free Bird
Last Wednesday marked my 53rd turn around the sun and I was able to observe it in extreme fashion as is my wont. It began with dinner with a woman I'd met recently while researching a story on Playboy's (to me) inexplicably huge popularity as a fashion brand on the mainland where the magazine and all things Hef-flesh are banned.
She'd launched and was the editor of the Taiwan edition of Playboy in the `90s and has since gone on make her mark as a playwright, poet, novelist and social commentator for mostly Taiwan and Hong Kong publications. Very witty, erudite and I found myself thinking it's too bad she's married to a creative, wealthy Romanian banker and I'm living paycheck to paycheck as a ink-stained tabloid hack and committed to C.
After that she left for her posh flat I was off to Hong Kong's only biker bar in to attempt an interview with some of the Mad Dog MC biker club members. I managed to engage the club's vice-president, a Kentucky native who goes by ``Mingo`` when he's wearing his leathers and not working as an engineer for a printing company in some idle talk but balked at his insistence that he be able to read the story before it's printed. A big no-no in journalism as I know it. Even while at the Weekly World News I never let the talking mermaid found in the tuna can see what I wrote before it hit the supermarket stands...
I found Mingo somewhat pretentious -- much more so than the wealthy Chinese biker/dentist I'd interviewed at the HK Royal Yacht Club. Despite Mingo's badass posturing (``We've been burned by the media before and no one will ever, ever burn me or my brothers again!``) I kept thinking: ``Hey, you've got a Master's degree in engineering and work 9-5 in a suit -- Sonny Barger you ain't.''
Halloween weekend was spent back in Shenzhen where my old paper was hosting a spook `n' ghoul party at a hotel. C and I went with me hoping to connect with some old coworkers, but the only ones I found were a woman whose name I'd forgotten and two others who were still somewhat puzzled and a little hurt over a light-hearted commentary I'd written for The Standard about Shenzhen's inflated sense of civic pride and the paper's shameless efforts to pump it up even further.
I kept apologizing and explaining over many beers but despite many attempts at explaining ``irony'' and ``satire'' I finally left it with the ``It's not funny if I have to explain it.''
C does not hold her liquor well, drinks rarely but had uncharacteristically decided to get into the two-for-one vodka spirit of the night. After watching her ride the Absolut bus for a little too long, I managed to wrest her out to another venue where she stole a hard plastic severed hand and arm used as a Halloween prop and began repeatedly jabbing it in people's faces screaming ``whooooo!''
It was mildly funny the first time, not so much the 27th time when she almost put out a large Australian man's eye with a fake bloody digit. But between trying to convince her to unhand the arm I did manage to get in some dancing to a US, Australian and Filipino expat bar band (a rarity in Shenzhen) that included Mustang Sally and Free Bird in their mix.
Never thought I'd want to hear Free Bird again but something nostalgic and far from home hit me hard as the Filipino guitarist did his best Gary Rossington and I grabbed my lighter, flicked it and waved my burning freak flag high.
The singer -- an American about my age -- took note and cracked up briefly.
A good night.
The next day C and I sloughed off her hangover in a park with a small picnic and on the way back I noticed a roly-poly middle aged fellow dressed in immaculately pressed and clean blue flannel pajamas and polished brown dress shoes selling corn on the sidewalk.
``We need corn,`` I told C.
``No we don't. We still have four ears at home.''
``Yeah. But we don't have any that I've bought from a guy in pajamas and dress shoes on the sidewalk. I must have it just to say I've done it.''
``You're weird.''
``And a guy selling corn in pajamas and dress shoes isn't?''

Monday, October 24, 2005

Born to Be Mild
It was exactly two years, two months and 24 days ago that I first glimpsed the Hong Kong Harley Owners Group. Julian and I were in a shuttle van on our way from our Shenzhen teaching gig to the Hong Kong airport to return to the States when I heard rolling thunder.
I craned my neck out the window to see an orderly procession of Asian men straddling full dress sparkling hogs and wearing clean, bright blue denim vests adorned with equally spiffy Hong Kong Harley Owners Group patches.
They were all wearing shiny, smallish safety helmets and equally clean jeans and leathers; The Far East chapter of Hell's Angels these guys obviously weren't but I was intrigued and filed the memory away.
Flash forward to this afternoon. I'm in the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club gnawing on the driest, longest awaited (40-minutes from order to table) club sandwich in human memory and taking notes as my host and the president of the Hong Kong Harley Owners Club (HOG), Dr Raymond Ma -- a dentist by trade -- is filling me in on the group's history and plans for a November rally on the mainland.
I'd met him at his office and he'd driven me to the club in a Smart car made by Mercedes Benz. Apparently popular in Europe, it's the size of a very, very small bathroom if you don't stand up, which you couldn't if you tried, of course. Dr Ray kept emphasizing that it was made by Mercedes. I kept wondering why he didn't take us there on one of his three Harleys. His Suzuki GSXR600 and his Westberg Italian scooter were out of the question, obviously, as they didn't befit the story's theme.
Nonetheless there was a white Harley Soft Tail parked at the yacht club that Dr Ray casually mentioned belonged to another HOG member who also owns the yacht formerly helmed by Hong Kong's last British governor.
The club was sprinkled with mostly elderly expat mummies who looked like they were still waiting for the sun to set on the Empire while stoned on gin and Valium.
Dr Ray, a courteous and genial soul, told me about the club's history and about the numerous problems and financial shakedowns involved in organizing a rally ride to mainland China. He also gave me an overview of the membership -- a combination of Hong Kong Chinese, European and American expats -- which is, as one might surmise, is wealthy though the dues are reasonable and have been dropped recently in order attract more potential Harleyites.
He's never been to the legendary Sturgis rally and I almost fear the worst for him if he and other HK HOGgers go as they hope next year.
``I imagine it will be like what I did when I went to the Boy Scout World Jamboree. I think Sturgis is almost the same with everybody coming for one purpose for one week from all over the world.''
I'll be meeting more HOG members later for this story, but what really intrigued me was his polite description of seven ex-members who had had dropped out to form their own group.
``They were in the old group, gweilos (foreigners) who were what you might expect. Wild, with beards, long hair, noisy. They behaved like a hard-core Harely rider. That's the best compliment I can say. But they didn't like to ride in a convoy and we always ride in a convoy. To them we are too gentle.''
They have since formed their own group, he said. ``They changed their name to Mad Dog,'' he said.
Back at the office I googled around and found indeed there is a Mad Dog MC club chapter in Hong Kong. Formed orginally in the Philippines, the HK group is the newest and their website is a lot more interesting than the HOG site -- babe'o'licious as the cliche goes. Plus, they meet at a comfortable bar I've been to before and had some fun at. I see this story taking a turn....

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Eat the Menu
After awhile here one becomes almost oblivious to the Chinglish menu descriptions, but I've recently compiled a few mostly literate English language offerings from a Hong Kong University cafeteria and my own employee site o' fine dining.. It's not the language, but the culinary combos that continue to shock and awe me.
Dried bean curd and egg
Apricot kernel, whole fungus and pear.
Tangerine peels, lily bulb and red bean.
Western Set
Fish fillet and sausages. Boiled Spanish lettuce and lunch meat. Chicken a la king with ham. All come with a choice of rice, spaghetti, or french fries.
Soups: Vegetable melon with dried squid and pig bone. Papaya with beans and spare ribs. Carrot with whole fungus and spare ribs.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles
Those that know me intimately (and occasionally otherwise) know that I harbor anti-German feelings. I attribute them to my mother feeding me a steady diet of Holocaust literature as a child, taking me to see Judgement at Nuremberg at age 9 and a visceral dislike for lederhosen, Zyklon B and oompah-pah music in general.
Yes, I briefly owned a Volkswagen as a teenager and adore dachshunds, but it's one country I've no desire to visit and a Beamer or Benz ain't never gonna be in my future no how. (An easy vow to keep given my lifetime hand-to-mouth financial management plan.) Admittedly, occasional contacts with real-life Germans have proved positive, though that never stopped me from a cheap, snide asides about lampshades, soap, invading Czechoslovakia and Kristallnacht.
Addtionally, a marriage to a like-minded, witty Jew only aided and abetted the syndrome.
Which is all by way of confessing that I accepted a freebie press invite from a friend at The Other English Language Paper in Hong Kong last night for an Oktoberfest affair sponsored by Luftwaf, I mean, Lufthansa Airlines held at a swanky Hong Kong hotel.
What can I say? Free. Food. Beer. Free.
Ethics? Moral qualms? Can I spell h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y? Everyone has their price and mine was cut-rate, especially when the alternative was another bleak night with instant noodles, the Beam or Daniels boys while fitfully switching between CNN, Turner Classic Movies, badly subtitled Hong Kong '80s flicks and Japanese porn (no subtitles needed) on cable.
The brats, pretzels, roast lamb, pig knuckles, sauteed salmon, German beer, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes flowed like the Rhine and were served up, er, well, very efficiently. With machine-like precision one might say. Almost, oh...yes, `Panzer-like' in the presentation.
And, yes, the entertainment. Folks, you haven't lived until you've seen several hundred beer-goggled Chinese snake-dancing and writhing ecstatically to tubas and accordions.
The high (or low) point came when the (authentic German) band took a break and reappeared clad in shades, black dusters and fedoras and solemnly began a tune I recalled only very dimly, a mawkish, treacly ditty circa 1959 or `60 called The Three Bells. For those mercifully unaquainted with it, it traces the uneventful life of a simple small town fellow named Jimmy Brown who is born, gets married and dies as the villagers sing at each crucial event: ``Lead us not into temptation, May his soul find the salvation, of thy great eternal love.''
That's it. Yeah, I don't get it why it was briefly No. 1 on the Billboard chart either but the band found a way to visually pump it up.
At the chorus they opened their coats to reveal nothing underneath except cow bell-like gongs strapped to their groins which they rang by shaking their flabby hips which in turn swung clappers -- hanging from cords tied to their lower thighs -- up to hit the bells.
``Ticky-tacky! Ticky-tacky! Ticky-tacky!'' the bandleader shouted, urging them and the audience on.
``Ticky-tacky!'' the liquored-up Chinesischs Völker echoed joyfully in return.
``Tacky-tacky!'' I muttered. ``Just tacky.''

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Old Man
``It seems someone last night saw him fall, but I saw him still going around slowly today.''
The speaker was a Chinese Trappist monk named Father Clement who was calling from a monastery on Lantau island here. The falling man in question was another monk, Father Nicolaus Kao. At 108 Kao is the world's oldest Catholic priest and probably (no official records are supposedly available) Hong Kong's oldest man. I was trying to arrange an in-person interview at the monastery.
``Shit,'' I thought. ``I hope he doesn't kick before I get there.''
Then I spoke. ``Well, Father Clement, I'm very sorry to hear that but I am very glad to hear that Father Nicolaus is still walking. So, when do you think can I see him? Umm, like tomorrow?''
The lord or a reasonable facsimilie was apparently with me. I was up the next morning at the ungodly hour of 6:30 in order to catch an 8am ferry to an island village of Peng Chau.
Then, according to Father Clement's somewhat vague instructions: ``Get off the pier, then look right. There's a smaller pier with a small boat to the monastary. It stops in two places sometimes. Sometimes not. Anyway, if you look across the sea from Peng Chau you can see our monastery.''
I had imagined some wizened, leathery skinned, rail-thin bare-chested guy in ragged shorts and a straw hat with a pole or oars in an enlongated boat who would ferry me gently across a small bay to a small, sort of Southwest American mission-style monastery nudging the Lantau shore.
What I actually found after disembarking from the deluxe Hong Kong ferry and looking to my right was a lot of small unoccupied motor and row boats bobbing in the bay and another pier with a smaller shabby ferry boat. Unlike the HK ferry this one had no blue plush leather seats, but a few hard red plastic small seats and wooden benches nailed to the walls. A handpainted sign said ``Trappist Monastery ferry'' on the pier entrance. Across the wide bay I saw no bucolic Santa Fe mission, but a large, white modern building topped with a enormous cross about a gadzillion feet above the shoreline on a heavily forested mountain.
``How the hell am I ever going to get up there when I get there?'' I thought.
At the dock the lord provided a van driven by ``William,'' an wizened, leathery skinned rail-thin guy in a white T-shirt, khaki shorts and a floppy straw hat.
``Welcome. You are our visitor? From the newspaper?''
Thass me. I climbed in the back with four other middle aged Chinese worker-types and William got in the driver's seat, gunned the motor and we scooted up a steep, winding paved road cut through a lush, tangled semi-tropical forest. The air was much cleaner and cooler here and I smelled real foliage for the first time since my visit to the States several months ago.
Along the roadside the only things marring the view were numbered wooden pictures of a tortured, weary Christ nailed to trees along the way _ apparently a Stations of the Cross. They quickly erased a brief, witless fantasy of converting to Catholicism to live out my days as a Trappist monk cocooned in greenery and clean air.
We arrived after a 4-minute ride and I was quickly transferred to another faithful laymen handler who cautioned me to talk quietly and told me twice that I was ``very, very lucky to be in this area. (The monk's quarters). Outsiders are almost never allowed.''
Father Kao was in a black and white cassock and sitting at his desk in his tiny, cramped cell when we knocked on the door.
I was immediately charmed -- and shamed. I have more lines and wrinkles at 52 then his 108-year-old smooth, virtually unlined face. Born in January 1897 in China, he's a thin, gentle and good humored guy with a full, flowing white beard who walks with the aid of a three-legged cane and peers at the world through large tortise shell rimmed spectacles, A large amature-painted portrait of him on white tapestry cloth hangs on a wall beside his tiny bed. The rest of the room is jammed chockablock with boxes, books, newspapers, magazines, tracts, photos, religious pictures of beatific Mary and pain-wracked Jeebus, 100-year birthday greetings from Pope John Paul and a collection ceramic cats.
``Cats are my favorite animal,'' he said through the translator. ``We have eight here and caring for them gives me determination to carry on. Some people play mah jong. Cats are like my mah jong.''
He showed me a sepia photograph of him and his mother, father and three brothers all in formal, traditional Chinese dress taken in 1922 and told me to guess which one he was him.
I studied the photo carefully and then scrutinized his face. The nose knows, I decided, as one of the brothers had a long thin nose like Kao.
``This one,'' I pointed to my pick.
He nodded and smiled widely and spoke to the translator.
``You're right,'' the translator said. ``He said to congratulate you. Most visitors cannot guess or guess wrong.''
In a life that has spanned three centuries, Kao said he has lived through ten popes, two Chinese emperors and proud to have voted for Sun Yat Sen as president of China in 1912.
The biggest change he has seen in mankind? ``People are becoming more violent,'' he said rather sadly. ``But the technology is wonderful,'' he added, though he doesn't use a computer and rarely watches television except for ``major events'' such as the funeral of Pope John Paul.
His years, which have taken from from the mainland to Taiwan, Malaysia and finally Hong Kong, have not been without peril. In a photo-copied summary of his life he wrote: ``Six times I have been rescued from fatal accidents: sea, land, knife, rock and mountain.''
He credits the Virgin Mary for saving his life each time and as such Kao has erected six shrines in her honor, three in Taiwan, one in Fuzhou, China (later destroyed by the communists), one in Malaysia and the shrine in Lantau.
Kao also has a slight flair for the dramatic. When pressed on what ``knife'' attack he escaped, he said the blade referred to a successful operation he underwent at 107 for colon cancer.
His siblings are long dead and seven fellow priests are in graves previously reserved for him, he said. ``But four generations of my family live in Hong Kong and visit regularly,'' he added. ``And now I reserve the eighth tomb for myself.''

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