Saturday, July 29, 2006

Desolation Row
Prior to hooking up for about the third goodbye party for a former editor who's leaving for a new gig in Manila soon, I met another former coworker for drinks and catching up in a hooker bar, Neptune II, in Hong Kong last night. As it happens, the USS Enterprise was also docked here for the weekend.
No Kirk, Spock or McCoy, but overall how surreal it was to to see all the 21st century US Navy swabbies and swabbettes cavorting on shore leave. I felt briefly as if I was in someplace like Chicago (my buddy is from Chicago complete with the honkin' accent) or just more or less anywhere in the US, except for all the Filipina, Indonesian and Thai bar girls.
I also felt like I was partially reliving my distant past as a waning Vietnam-era off-duty GI in Korea except now all the off-duty black troops weren't dressed in cheap Korean-tailored Superfly suits with stacked heels, pimp hats and grooving to the Chi-Lites, Temptations and Al Green, but were blinged out in baggy, saggy gangsta wear moving to 50 Cent, Beyonce with Jay-Z, and Eminem. The white guys weren't dressed like short-haired hippie wannabes and crunching to Black Sabbath, Grand Funk or Cream - most of them were dressed like the black guys and bumping to the same tunes.
The only thing that hadn't changed were the girls. Cleavage, rouge, eye shadow, come hither on steroids and for a few fashions that hadn't moved an inch since 1972, pants and white go-go boots.
I also kept thinking of Desolation Row:
They're selling postcards of the hanging, they're painting the passports brown/The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town.
Speaking of which, while I was walking to that bar I passed a group of five 19-and 20-year old sailors outside a notorious clip joint and about to go in. ("Happy hour! Nice girls! One beer free!") I tapped one on the shoulder and said, "You guys don't want to go in there."
He said: "Why not?
"I'm a local, more or less. I know this area a little and that's a clip joint."
"A what? What do you mean? A clip joint? What's that?"
"They'll rip you off. Leave you with an empty wallet and a hard dick and nothing to show for any of it."
"Where should we go instead?"
"I'm going to a place that has two-for-one Jack Daniels and, if you're into it, mostly friendly girls that will charge but won't rip you off."
"Sweet, dude! "Where? Can you show us?" So I did.
So, I thought later as they melded -- two-for-one Jacks in hand -- into the grinding, booming morass of Neptune, I have finally done my part.
I have personally boosted the morale of US troops by ensuring that they can get drunk and laid as economically and pleasantly as possible.
Can Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld say the same?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Hawks & Doves
I rarely blog about other bloggers -- which flies in the face of the Intl. Blogger's Code of Conduct, I confess, moreover I virtually never opine on foreign affairs or matters of international importance unless it involves cross-cultural sexual misadventures or loutish barroom behavior.
But a recent entry in one of my favorite blogs, EastSouthWestNorth (link at left) regarding a Hong Kong journalist's run-in with the Israeli consulate was semi-familiar.
Summing it up: Suzanna Cheung is a freelancer for, among other publications a HK Chinese language paper called Hong Kong Economic Journal. She'd written an opinion piece criticizing the Israeli invasion of Lebannon that had obviously been translated into English for the Israel consul general in Hong Kong, Dan Ben-Eliezer.
Mr Ben-Eliezer was apparently not pleased and, according to ESWN, "went to pressure the Economic Journal editor to stop Cheung from publishing essays critical of Israel. ''
ESWN then translated her (polite, passionate and puzzled) response on her personal blog. It can be found here under "Suzanna Cheung speaks out."
It puzzled me a little because, I too had had a recent encounter with Ben-Eliezer regarding The Standard's coverage of Israel and Lebannon and at no time had he demanded anything.
Here's how that came to be and why I wonder if something got lost in translation between the HK Israeli consulate and Economic Journal and Suzanna Cheung.
(Note: This just in from Roland Soong at ESWN. "Pls note that the report about her is based upon an email sent to her from the Economic Daily editor, so there may be some distortions.she has lived in Canada, England and New York City, so that cannot be any doubt about her English skills.")
Ben-Eliezer's secretary, a woman with the improbable name of Ernie Yeun called The Standard about two weeks ago to ask for a meeting with someone at the paper regarding our Israeli-Lebannon coverage. Since the consulate obviously didn't read our masthead they called the Metro desk, which is manned by two Chinese editors who can't find Israel on the map. Since I'm currently the last gweilo standing on the Metro reporting staff, the call was transferred to me.
Lucky for Ben-Eliezer that:
1. I was desperate for any excuse to get out of the office.
2. I was once married to a Jew.
3. I had a Jewish girlfriend after her and once spent about 5 days there as the lone goy in an unoccupied retirement condo near Boca Raton, Florida owned by her mother where I got my young white bread-and-mayo ass generally kicked in shuffleboard and paddle tennis by 70 and 80-year old guys with names like Saul, Morty and Abe.
4. Beyond that I am reasonably conversant on Israel, Judaism, Zionism etc. I once subscribed to The Forward (a prominent Jewish US weekly) and know what a seder and a mezuza are.
4. I also know how newspapers work or don't work.
Ernie and I arranged a day and time and I dutifully showed up at the consulate's sealed bunker in some tower in Pacific Place. Security, as you might expect, was tight, very tight.
I went through a metal detector and two guards, including one who looked like he was sent straight from central casting as a Mosaad agent. It was to him that I surrendered my passport and virtually everything else on my person except my belt. As the Mosaad agent examined my passport for visas and entry stamps to Syria, Lebannon, Iran etc I was escorted into the consulate general's office, accepted a glass of water and began to schmooze.
Ben-Eliezer was very polite but obviously didn't have the first clue as to how The Standard works. And why should he?
But he'd done some homework. He had several issues of The Standard marked with yellow Sticky Notes. One was an editorial cartoon by our freelance cartoonist Gavin Coates decrying the death of the Road Map to Peace. The others were wire service stories, all of which emphasized the deaths of Lebannon civilians etc, though none could be construed as anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli.
Then I played my "Jewish card," (see above) asked him about his previous work as consul general in Nepal (not many residential Jews, about 15, but hundreds of scruffy, stones Israeli backpackers) and then I explained how The Standard had become a "Chinese paper with English characteristics" since the management upheaval last February and installation of a Chinese Editor-in-Chief with no prior experience on an English language newspaper.
I told him that it's a safe guess that our editor has no interest in or knowledge of Israel beyond the usual Chinese observation that I've heard more than once here that Jews are "very clever and rich." I told him that the editor-in-chief's primary interest seems to be to turn The Standard into an English language version of something like Economic Journal or our sister paper, Sing Tao Daily.
I also told him how wire service subscriptions work, described the personalities of the editors who made the decisions to place the stories, described how limited our wire services are, the difference between an editorial and a news story and suggested that he contact the editor-in-chief for the next consulate event/cocktail party and invite him under the pretext of pushing stories about Israeli business in HK and chat him up that way.
Ben-Eliezer took notes, thanked me and then I listened to his impassioned statement about Israel's right to defend itself. He also told me he was contacting every newspaper in Hong Kong that had printed stories or editorials that he thought were unfair.
I wished him luck.
When I returned I mentioned the meeting to our Focus page editor who said she'd be happy to run anything in the way of an editorial or letter that he'd care to submit. The result can be seen on July 29 on page A29 "Israel as 'unique opportunity' to advance peace in the Mideast."
He's happy, I assume. I was happy to get out and about and explain how things work on a small scale. At no time did he demand anyone print a retraction or be banned from writing or drawing cartoons, so I'm not sure what was really said regarding Suzanna Cheung.
When I mentioned my peace-keeping mission to the lone Jew working here (he's leaving next week) he laughed.
''The part about the Sticky Notes is a little sad,'' he said. ''He obviously has too much time on hands."
Postscript/update: Ms Cheung, in addition to just blogging about being mugged and robbed in Nicaragua while on assignment (brass ovaries, fer shure) has found time to post a clarification regarding her "ban."

Monday, July 24, 2006

Among C's (left) many attributes is the coincidence that she bears a vague resemblance to a second tier Chinese TV and movie actress named Li Bingbing (right, below) -- very roughly, perhaps a Chinese equivalent of Jennifer Aniston minus the Brad Pitt factor. On occasion she's been mistaken for her better known doppleganger and usually either ignored the "Aren't you...?" question or good naturedly denied it. She loves the attention, does adore Li due to the resemblance but has never played along as I've sometimes urged her to do.
That is until last night. The trick was about half a bottle of wine before she and I went into a somewhat questionable Shenzhen bar in a district called Shekou last where she embraced her inner Li Bingbing with a vengeance. The place was also one frequented by some "chickens" (Chinese slang for hookers) and within about 10 minutes of our arrival every working girl plus customers, employees and the owner were convinced that Li Bingbing was in town.
She played coy at first and then admitted that, yes, she was "her" and in Shenzhen for about a week with an American scriptwriter (me) researching a role she was going to play for a US-Chinese film about a bar girl who finds ruin, redemption and ultimately love and riches.
We were briefly mobbed -- at least she was, I stepped out of the way to gawk -- as she signed autographs, posed for photos for cell phone-cams and other pics the owner took with a disposable camera in order to have prints made and enlarged to hang in the bar.
Through it all, C mined her Li Bingbing trivia bank to answer questions about various TV series', films ("I never heard of one, but I faked it," she told me) a fiery love affair with some Taiwan actor ("I told them he was bad in bad") and what Harbin (Li's hometown is like). "Lucky that I've been to Harbin once," she whispered to me.
They bought us a couple rounds of drinks and then suggested that Li buy a round for the house. She's a big star, after all. No problem, right?
I had about 200 yuan left and a rough count of the employees and customers showed that I'd need about 500 more just for beers or soft drinks, never mind "specials." I began to see this charade being torn apart in minutes with "Li Bingbing" and her unidentified foreign companion savaged in Chinese gossip mags as thankless ingrates shortly after they were stomped within an inch of their pathetic lives in a Shenzhen house of red lights.
At that point "Li's" cell phone rang.
"Tell them it's a producer. We've gotta run," I hissed.
She did a masterful job of taking the call and signing off in hurry. The best acting I've seen anybody do on short notice.
We shot out with apologies and only regretting the fact that we probably can't ever return to see how they've hung the "Li Bingbing drank here!" photos.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Christian Life
Between ass-kicking assignments to rewrite press releases regarding "really good yarns" (my dimwitted assignment editor's phrase) like the Hong Kong Observatory's new web weather cams, I've been trying on my own to research underground Christian churches in Shenzhen.
It's been fitful progress primarily due to the fact that so far my only two primary contacts are essentially right-wing, evangelical foreigners - one of whom who has only been in Shenzhen for about a month and a half and the other a guy with a lot more Asia experience but who also seems to believe that the Vatican is the puppet master behind much of the world's troubles.
"He's a member of Opus Dei, you know..." he told me referring to Lord Christopher Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong and someone I had covered last week between extolling the glories of the new west-facing Victoria Harbor weather cam.
"How secret can Opus Dei be?" I asked rhetorically, praying to any god that might be listening that he wouldn't steer the conversation into a discourse on The Da Vinci Code. "I believe they're listed in the New York phone book, address and all."
He gave me one of those "That's what they want you to believe..." looks and thankfully jump skipped back to the topic I was trying to focus on.
It's all involved semi-clandestine meetings, a fake name or two, sudden whispery phone calls that turn into nothing and me trying to do my best to put aside my viseral dislike for right wing evangelical agendas without compromising my own rapidly growing belief that, maybe, Mao might've been onto something when he established an aetheist state.
China has a long history of religious meddlers from outside and generally it's led to nothing but trouble for the meddlers as well as the powers-that-be. God help the innocent followers. I'm no expert now or ever, but currently - if my Opus Dei fearing friend is correct - you've got the State-approved churches, the "house churches" (split into many camps, some who are politically minded, others who are not and some who are just plain cults with leaders promising instant prosperity and/or saying they are the new Jesus, etc) plus the Catholic camps (State sanctioned vs the Vatican) and baying at the Hong Kong border door are the Mormons, Moonies, and ladies and gentlemen, let's give it up for the Falun Gong, among others.
Between it all C has served as a translator and is becoming increasingly curious about what all this Christian stuff is all about. With as much complete neutrality as I could muster I skipped John 3:16 and gave her a very simplistic, short primer from Justin 10:26.52 as we rode the 5:15 SZ subway train yesterday.
1. They believe that Jesus was the son of God.
2. He died for all the world's sins but rose again after three days so that mankind will be forgiven for its sins and receive eternal life after death.
"So you can be forgiven for anything?
"Well, supposedly, yes. But you have to be sincere."
"But you could live your whole life doing bad things and then say you're sincere and believe in Jesus and you would be forgiven?"
"Yeah, basically, except for maybe someone like Kenneth Lay or George Bush."
"Who's Kenneth Lay?"
(A few minutes and two MTR stops later) "So what is the difference between the Catholics and the Christians?"
"Catholics are Christians, the first ones, actually. But then things got too complicated and other Catholics formed their own churches. Eventually hundreds, maybe thousands of them if you count the ones who play with snakes and the Mormons."
"Snakes? You have to play with snakes if you are a Christian?"
"No,'s complicated."
"Why do they make it so complicated?"
"That's the problem. That's the problem... Here's our stop."

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Ten Men Workin'
Whenever I read a dire neo-con op-ed rant concerning the dangers of a More Powerful China (usually with an arrestingly original title such as "The Sleeping Dragon Awakes," "Tickling the Dragon's Tail," "Dragon Rising," or maybe "Nudging the Grumpy Drowsy Vampire Panda" - nah, I made that one up) I wonder if these pundits have actually seen how it really works here. Or doesn't work. Or sort of works. As in, I'm supposed to fret about a menacing world power that doesn't even have the infrastructure to deliver and install an air conditioner efficiently?
More than a month ago, C ordered an air conditioner that was:
1. On sale;
2. A bargain because the sale supposedly only lasted one day.
No 2 was revealed as a blatant lie when she returned a week later to complain in person that it hadn't been delivered and installed (multiple phone calls were to no avail) and found the same model still "on sale" and was told by another clerk that the sale was only for that day.
Complaints to clerks and managers resulted in not much at all because of what is commonly explained to me as the "saving face" factor. Loosely translated: no one wants to take responsibility in case they fail the mission and lose face. I know that Chinese are historically justified in their fear and suspicion of Japan (except when it comes to Japanese cell phones, cars, porn and cameras) but they might do well to take a cue and simply suck it up and learn to save face after losing it by publicly apologizing and then, in extreme circumstances, killing themselves.
Which is what I began fantasizing about after listening to her end of the umpteenth phone call followed by an explanation that we had to hang around the apartment all day on the remote chance that either the air conditioning service people or magic electrical appliance fairies would miraculously appear to make everything right.
It all came to a head on Sunday when she got a call at 9am from, not fairies, but a delivery guy who first said they wouldn't be there because it was raining and, after prolonged negotiations, caved but wanted to know what bus to take to get to the apartment.
"Ask your boss!" she told him. "I don't know. And I am not paid to know."
It's moments like that when I fall in love all over again.
"These guys are hauling an air conditioner and compressor on a bus to get here?" I asked. "Don't they have a delivery truck?"
"This is China. This is how China works," she replied.
"So if Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao decides to 'deliver' a ballistic missile to, say, Silcon Valley, or more likely Taiwan, they are going to use a bus or maybe a fishing boat?"
"Maybe a fishing boat," she said.
Four hours later, just as she was telling me I was a "naughty, naughty cowboy" and "too big" and tying me up with silk scarv...wait, that's a different blog, anyway I mean, as we were about to give up and leave for lunch the doorbell rang. It was the delivery men with about 112 cubic feet of cardboard, hoses and tool bags.
Chaos ensued as I, a man who counts changing a lightbulb or a roll of toilet paper as a major engineering feat especially when done by myself, retreated to the bedroom with a book. I can bear the sight of blood, but the sight of someone actually installing home appliances gives me the kind of heebie jeebies that only years on a shrink's couch might explain. Maybe it's the memories of my father wrestling with hammers and wrenches as if they were pit vipers, but it's something I can barely bring myself to witness.
Drills, hammmers, clatter of all kinds continued for hours. Occasionally I'd peek out to see C instructing masterfully.
Finally silence. She opened the bedroom door and asked if I had 10 yuan as she only had 100 and the guys had no change.
"What's it for? A tip or something?" (Astute China hands will quickly realize the ridiculousness of that guess, as tipping has yet to penetrate China.)
"No it was for more hose. They didn't bring enough. But it's a bargain. If we want a receipt it's 20."
I didn't even ask but silently handed her a soiled, tattered blue 10 yuan bill.
She smiled wryly as she took it and started to say something. I cut her off gently..
"I know. I know. 'This is China. This is how it works.'"
She laughed. "You are learning."

Friday, July 14, 2006

Get Back Hongkie Cat
Note: Turns out that Spike has not left the building. Different format, different focus - or should that be 'foci?' as the topics range from Israel to a review of Superman Returns - but essentially same ol' Spike. Nice to know that his fans were able to sway his return. Otherwise, what I originally wrote here stands.
One of my favorite blogs just closed its doors and I'm a bit bummed, though I know the feeling. Written by a guy who called himself, Spike it was Hongkie Town (there's a link to it here, though now it'll just take you to a message that reads: "Comments have convinced me that taking this down is the right thing to do and probably long overdue. I may do something different in a short while but this one is finished") and mostly detailed his agnonies and occasional ecstasies while trawling bars in Wan Chai or his largely fruitless dates with Proper Women.
'Twasn't all hookers and heartache, though. He'd hold forth on music, film, food - all with a sense of humor, a lot of heart and more than a little soul.
I began as a fan and later got to know him some and was glad to see he was as advertised. Funny, neurotic, frighteningly honest with peerless taste in pop culture and a CD and VCR collection that resembled an adjunct to the Library of Congress.
I called him up a few minutes ago to ask why he'd pulled the plug.
Mostly burn out, he said plus the stress of more or less living his life in public. Though he wrote under a nom de blog, I could relate. I use my real name and as a result also do some self-censoring. I have also occasionally deleted posts that I realized would only cause more problems than I already have. What I admired about Spike's Hongkie Town was that he seemingly held nothing back and did it well, even if it writing about being too drunk to fuck or about toting a stool sample through Hong Kong's posh, plush Central district.
"Also dropped off some shit (literally) at the regular doctor. Yeah bad enough I walk the dogs and end up carrying two bags of shit to the trash bin, today I was walking through Central with a bag of shit. Walked into the doctor's office, handed the bag to the woman at the desk, she started giggling and said "goodbye." I said, "wait, do you even know who I am?" She picked up a card from her desk with my name on it. I guess she wasn't expecting any other gweilos to give her shit today."
He'll be missed by most, as comments on his final post The Shape I'm In, showed. Here's one: "Dude - don't stop your blog. Genuinely hilarious, fun and insightful. In fact yours is the first (and still pretty much only) blog I read regularly. Good luck with the relationship and don't stress too much about your situation. In the great scheme of things, you have a pretty good arrangement by the sounds of things. Finally, as a good doctor in Singapore once told me as he was prescribing extra-strength painkillers, "you'll know when you get there." Good luck man, keep blogging and remember that you really do have some people out there who like what you have to say."
Hongkie Town is dead. Long live Hongkie Town.

Monday, July 10, 2006

This is gonna be one of those bleating foreigner rants, so bear with me or just click the mouse 'til next time. (Assuming Andy Rooney nasal whine)..."Didja ever wonder why..." so many Hong Kong subway riders find sitting next to a foreigner seemingly offensive, uncomfortable or threatening?
I do. It happened twice today to me and it's not even 3pm yet, though in fairness sometimes I'll go almost a week before sitting down on the train only to have - even under very crowded conditions - a passenger next to me suddenly up and move and it's not because they've reached their stop. I've seen this enough to watch them pointedly move to another seat or simply stand rather than endure the terror of sitting next to an alien with hairy white arms.
I shower at least twice daily in the summer. I possess no open sores nor stigmata. I keep my mouth shut and avoid speaking in tongues. I don't poke, prod, twitch or convulse. I am larger than many of my fellow riders, but I make a point of scrunching up and pulling out a book or magazine and focusing soley on it until my stop. No communicable diseases, sexual or otherwise unless you count the twice-yearly cold sore courtesy of some sleazoid encounter circa 1973 or so.
But I am white. Or I could be black or brown. I've seen it happen to other foreigners who aren't caucasian.
I mentioned this to two Chinese coworkers today and their (separate) theories were: "People are scared you will talk to them and they don't know what to say" and simply: "People are afraid of you."
"But I don't talk to anyone," I protested. "I don't suddenly go 'BWWWAAGGH!'and lunge at them with a bloody cleaver. I just sit there quietly reading."
"It doesn't matter," one said. "They don't know. They don't follow your MTR behavior daily."
"It's not like Hong Kong has no history of foreigners," I said. "They've had plenty of time, like 140 years or more, to get bored with us."
We agreed it was not easily explainable. I suggested bigotry. No, they said. They kept citing simple fear of the unknown or the 'what if' factor as in "What if he asks me directions and I don't know what to say?"
At that point, I resisted the temptation to go into my "Why I'd rather rip my tongue out with rusty pliers than ask directions from strangers in Hong Kong" rant and changed the subject.
Can't Find My Way Home
What follows is a (lengthy) piece that I wrote last week about a Thai guy who has been trapped in Hong Kong since 1999. He's no angel as the story points out, but surely doesn't deserve to be in the limbo he's in.

Imagine having a home and no way back. And no way to prove that it's your home or to even prove your identity. Then imagine that you never saw a traffic light, stop sign, elevator or skyscraper until you were 29-years old. Todd Salimuchai is such a man.
He is stateless; literally a man without a country who has been in diplomatic limbo in Hong Kong since 1999 when he made the biggest mistake of his life at the behest of his northern Thailand tribal village elders.
Salimuchai freeely admits he came to Hong Kong as a would-be drug enforcer. Born a Lisu hill tribesman in an ill-defined border area of the Golden Triangle between Thailand and Burma, Salimuchai's village -- a place of 200 farmers he calls ``Hazen'' and a locale not found on any known maps-- raised poppies for the opium trade.
As he told the story, once a year for many years a Hong Kong drug lord would come to Hazen to buy poppy seeds and pay in cash. But in 1999, Salimuchai said the man brought a check for US$800,000. The villagers were suspicious, Salimuchai said, but were assured ``any bank'' would cash it. They reluctantly took him at his word.``Check was no good,'' he said.
Salimuchai speaks broken English and some Cantonese and Mandarin; the former he said he learned from American drifters and ``GIs'' as a child and the Chinese from his years in Hong Kong, some of which have been spent in prison.Salimuchai, whose parents are dead but has two older brothers in Thailand, said he and an unnamed accmplice were dispatched to Hong Kong, smuggled as stowaways aboard a boat in March 1999 with instructions to find the drug lord and get the money.
It was a fool's mission. ``Stupid,'' Salimuchai said. ``Very stupid. I wish I never come.''
Upon arrival they may as well have landed on another planet. With no idea of how to find the man who'd stiffed them and in a place where they didn't speak the language or even comprehend elevators or traffic signals, Salimuchai said the pair were taken to a safe house in Wan Chai.
For almost three months they searched unsuccessfully for the drug lord. But in June 1999 Salimuchai was arrested in an ID check in Wan Chai and shortly thereafter jailed for almost a year. Beginning in March 2000, Salimuchai claimed he also spent 40 days in two Shenzhen jails after Hong Kong immigration authorities put him on a bus with mainland offenders.
``I don't know why,'' he said. ``They say I look Chinese.'' But initially he was elated, he said.``(Police) say, `Todd, you go home!' I'm so happy when they put me on a bus, but then I see different uniforms and I say, `Where am I?'''
The answer was ``China.''
Salimuchai said he was beaten, questioned and stunned with an ``electric gun'' during his 40 days in Shenzhen. ``They touch my tongue, my feet, my `here' with electric gun,'' he said pointing to his crotch. ``I want to die.''
As with all questions directed to the Hong Kong immigration department regarding details of Salimuchai's case, a spokesperson replied: ``We do not comment on individual cases It is our policy to remove illegal immigrants to their place of domicile as soon as practicable.
``It is the illegal immigrant's own duty to provide the full and true information about his identity and nationality such that removal arrangement can be expedited.''
Upon his release in May 2000, Salimuchi said he was at his lowest point. His friend had disappeared but had left HK$2,000 for him at their safe house. It lasted less than three months. ``I don't have any friend, I don't have any money for food, I don't have passport. I just want to go home. No one will help me.''
That's when he made the second worst mistake of his life and after obtaining a replica pistol, Todd Salimuchai gained the dubious honor of being the first and only person to attempt a hijacking at Hong Kong International airport.
In those pre-9/11 days, it was easier.
``I know how to use a map real well,'' he said. So on July 31, 2000 he went to the airport and studied a public wall map from which he figured out a way to sneak into the cargo handling area. Shortly after 10pm made his way into the airport's cargo handling area with the ``gun.'' When security guards spotted him, he pointed the fake pistol at them and grabbed a woman cleaner. He then forced his way onto an empty Cathay Pacific Boeing 747 with his hostage.
According to news reports at the time, Salimuchai -- who was then identified as ``Burmese'' -- held police off for 21/2 hours before he surrendered.
His original plan had been even more desperate. He said he had learned to pilot small, one seater helicopters in Thailand and hoped to find a helicoptor to chopper himself home.``I see helicoptors but they are too big and too far. I don't have time. So many policemen! The lady [hostage] is screaming and crying. I say, `Don't worry. I won't hurt you. I just want to go home!'''
Salimuchai pleaded guilty to false imprisonment and using a fake firearm with intent to commit an offense. He was sentenced to five years in prison in February 2001 and released in December 2004.
He's repentant and sincere sounding when describing the hijack attempt and his past as a poppy farmer.``Stupid! Very stupid,'' Salimuchai said of the hijack. ``I am so sorry. Yes, I was a poppy farmer like many hilltribes. But in prison I look around and see much more men than myself serving long sentences for drugs. I couldn't help feel guilty that I have in maybe contributed to their problem.
``No, I am not proud of who I was,'' he said ``I am not a drug user, never have used drugs and if I can help it I'll never grow poppies again. I will tell my villagers give up growing poppies and start a new life. ``I will tell them what's outside the world. It's not opium that pays for clothes, medicine and food.''
His daily routine since has been calmer, if no less frustrating. Though Salimuchai now has documents provided by the immigration department attesting to his identity and must register weekly with them, he is prohibited from working and lives a generally numbing daily existence courtesy of charity provided by a guarantor, local NGOs and a high level government official who prefers to remain anonymous.`
`I wish to work to support myself while I await repatriation to my home village or another country ... and am prepared to accept any conditions or limitations on the nature and type of work that I do,'' he said in a November 2005 petition (as yet unanswered) to Chief Executive Donald Tsang that was prepared with the aid of a supporter.
In a handwritten letter prepared for him by a fellow ex-prisoner shortly after his release from prison, his plea is less formal, if more painfully eloquent.``The immigration department not allowed me to work. This city is not my village. If I am hungry I am getting food from the mountains, or get fish from the Mekong River. Here anything needs pay.''
``His case is unique in my experience,'' said Tim Elwell-Sutton, an outreach worker for the Inner City Mission in Chung King Mansion where Salimuchai has spent much of his time since his release eating free meals, surfing the Internet for pictures of Lisu tribespeople and attending Christian services.
``He doesn't qualify as a refugeee because he's not in fear of going home,'' said Elwell-Sutton. ``The big problem in Todd's case is that no one officially wants to take responsibility for him.''
Indeed, in the petition to Tsang, Salimuchai wrote: ``To date, 17 countries have refused my entry ... I have been waiting a long time for repatriation and given the number of countries that have refused my admission, I excpect to have to wait for a lot longer. The Director of Immigration alleges that I have not been cooperative in telling him where I come from and what my identity is. I deny that; my problem is that I came here without documents and come from a very small village, which does not appear on usual maps.''
Salimuchai -- who said he has been interviewed at the Burmese, Thai and Vietnamese consulates in Hong Kong, but has no idea what the other 14 countries are that the immigration department claimed have refused him -- has another problem regarding his birthplace. Most of the estimated 550,000 Thai hilltribe people don't have birth certificates, which means they have no citizenship, no ID cards and no legal identity as Thai citizens.
``Right now, hilltribes are still regarded as non-people to (Thai) officialdom (and) bureaucracy,'' British Ambassador to Thailand David William Fall said recently in connection with a UNESCO project to gain citizenship for the country's ethnic minorities.
Language is another barrier. The only language Salimuchai speaks fluently is his Lisu dialect and, as human rights attorney Mark Daly, who is working with him, said: ``Who else speaks it in Hong Kong? No one that we know of.''
The Thai consulate in Hong Kong declined comment, though the newest human rights organization in town, Belgium-based Human Rights Without Frontiers, said it recently turned to Thailand in hopes of ending Salimuchai's stalemate.The group's director Willy Fautre hand delivered a plea on Salimuchai's behalf to the Thai foreign ninister on June 20, World Refugee Day at the Thai Mission at the European Union.
``His case is very complicated but we believe with the kind consideration from the Thai government, he could be allowed to return to his village in Thailand,'' said David Rose, of the group's Hong Kong office. ``Perhaps a temporary travel document could be issued in this case. It is not an option for Todd to remain in limbo forever in Hong Kong. He simply wishes to return home and he should be allowed to do so as soon as possible.''
Attorney Daly, who has been working with Salimuchai since the Hong Kong office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees rejected him due to his non-refugee status, said: ``Todd's been in limbo for a particularly long time and the government has had an equally long time to figure out a strategy for him. Currently we are looking at legal arguments to get him some form of regularization in Hong Kong, including the right to work.''
In his office Daly pulled out a copy of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights written in 1948 and pointed to articles 13 and 15.
``Article 13 says: `Everyone has the right to leave any country (including his own) and to return to his country.' Article 15 is simple, too. `Everyone has a right to a nationality.' That also includes Todd.''

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Rum, Sodomy & the Lash
Among Hong Kong's sputtering attempts to reach the last half of the 20th century has been a Supreme Court (here they call it "High Court") case wherein an openly gay guy had the terminity to challenge the consitutionality of the city's antediluvian age of consent laws.
I'll break it down as simply as I am able. The basic age at which a Hong Konger can can legally engage in sexual activity with another person of the opposite sex is 16. If you're a lesbian or female "bi-curious" 16 is okay, too.
But until Billy Leung challenged the law, if you were a gay guy you had to wait until you were 18 and one could conceivably get life in prison if the government really wanted to make a case out of it. Last year, a lower court judge found for Leung's argument that the law was unconstitutional and discriminatory. Duh.
Then there's what they call "buggery." Really. Most of the rest of us call it sodomy, anal sex or riding the Hershey highway, I guess, but bugger me if it's actually called "buggery" here. That's another weird bunch o' legal crapola. Buggering is okay only at 21 and that goes for everyone. Even in private among consenting under-21 buggerees, buggerettes and buggeroos.
But the government being what it is and hating to lose as it does has mounted an appeal -- the first day of which I covered yesterday.
What interested me more than the fact that the HK Dept of Justice's case was pitifully weak, resting as it does on vague, bizarre ''what-if" scenarios and technicalities, was that it was the first courtroom I'd been in where the lawyers and judges wore wigs. Up close, they are grotesque and crude looking, woven out of what appears to be bleached horse hair or perhaps cast-off twine from an Albanian-Urantian radioactive twine manufacturing joint venture.
Basically you had a lot of self-important looking officials -- the foreigners mostly bloated, florid and reptilian-like, the Chinese who looked as if they were at "United Kingdom Judiciary Dress-up Day" -- in flowing black robes and wearing what looked like prehistoric animal skins on their heads. Some of the wigs, mostly on the older men, also appeared to be stained or dyed with urine, casting a glowing yellow pallor that I've previously only seen in pictures of terminal hepatitis victims or while pissing after eating a lot of vitamins. I was told later by a veteran HK court reporter that it's a point of pride for a long-time lawyer or judge to have an especially filthy, discolored, ratty tangled one as it shows they've been parsing legal matters and using their wig to scour bus station toilets for ages.
But the best part was when they began discussing "buggery" and "gross indecency" in sonorous, solemn Brit/Aussie accented tones -- in particular one government shill, a pompous lizard I'll call "M" whose stained head nest was slowly sliding to the left off his patchy haired head ("Gross indecency is preparatory, if you will My Lord. A stepping stone, as it were, to other acts, such as buggery") -- and I felt as if I was an extra in a Monty Python movie.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Hey baby, it's the Fourth of July (Dave Alvin)
While Monday was The Standard's official move-in day, I managed to duck it by combining a much needed journey to HK Immigration for a visa renewal and new ID with a late afternoon interview. After sitting from essentially 10am-5.30pm in the immigration building waiting with hundreds of others for our papers to be pushed, processed, stamped, stapled and filed in sextuplicate, it was a relief to interview a lawyer. And that's saying a lot.
The Fourth found me navigating my way via subway to the eastern edge of Hong Kong to a place I'd never been before and a building I'd never seen before. Within two hours of finding the site, I'd discovered there was no smoking room and was hit up for a loan by a near-sobbing coworker who told me he needed it for his wife who is hospitalized in Shenzhen with severe vaginal bleeding. The guy is also a notorious gambling junkie -- supposedly once did time for some bookie related hijinks -- and I'm short myself already this month. But I'm also nothing if not a frigging sucker, so I gave him about the equivalent of US$60, though he says he needs much, much more.
I also learned that a perfectly competent, hard working, part-timer had been suddenly laid off after she'd worked like the proverbial dawg to help move her department. No reason, no pity. No job. And she needed it more than I'm sure my debt-bound coworker needed his loan.
It got better, though. A lunch time stroll revealed that our new neighborhood is a real, honest-to-gawd funky, cozy enclave -- unlike the scabby, rusty soul sucking vacuum we just vacated. And while we have no cafeteria as in the old digs, it's jammed with modest eateries -- sushi, Chinese, yes, a McDonalds and Pizza Hut, a working black smith shop, dessert shops, bakeries, CD and DVD shops, two -- count 'em two -- temples, one Christian church, florists, funeral supply shops -- and very few high rises save our building.
Our office also faces a harbor and the view is spectacular what with the boats, ocean and mountains. But there's a dark current, too, I discovered while dining on a traditional American Independence Day meal of flat noodles, brisket, fish balls, french toast and a 6 oz bottled Coca Cola with two Chinese coworkers and an American intern.
''Two people have also quit already,'' one announced after telling us about the part-timer's savage layoff.
"Bad feng-shui!," she replied. "They say our new building has bad feng-shui. They say that the bad feng-shui will also cause all the employees' parents to die early. But (owner, publisher, tobacco and press baron) Charles Ho's parents are already dead so it doesn't matter to him."
This elicited a grimace and a snort of amusement and disgust from me, something I kind of regretted after the other Chinese coworker looked hurt asked why I'd made "such a face."
"Well, my mother died 11 years ago and it wasn't from feng-shui," I said. "It was from smoking, drinking and wayward genes."
"It is part of our culture," she said.
"I know. But it doesn't mean I have to admire it, believe in it or even sympathize with it." Lifting some instant wisdom from Stevie Wonder, I added, "As one of America's wisest blind sages once said: 'When you believe in things that you don't understand, you suffer. Superstition ain't the way.' "
"We are not suffering," she said. "And it isn't superstition. It is Chinese science."
"That's like saying 'American peace keeping in Iraq.'''
Point taken, she agreed. Then she asked why me and the other American were eating a shared order of french toast off of the same plate.
"Why not?"
"It is so intimate. I have only seen foreigners do it and it always fascinates me. I thought maybe only homosexuals or lovers would do this."
I turned to the intern and faked a deep, soulful gaze. "Nick and I more than friends," I told her. "We are countrymen. And we're declaring our independence from feng-shui and our right to share french toast off of a single plate."

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