That’s not actually true. I’m on the USS GW because there’s some reception for some guy who did something and who apparently feels the need to talk endlessly about it before a crowd of people munching rubbery egg tarts and who could care less. All in all, it was interesting, just because I’ve never been on a ship that big (“Boy howdy!” I told my friend Steve, as our water taxi jolted and bumped its way up to the boarding platform. “They done landed planes on that there boat! You ever heard of such a thing?”) and partly because when we were wandering through the crowd, indigestible egg tarts in hand, we met a guy who was one of the first US students to study in Beijing after it reopened in ’78, who never left, and who went on to form an corporate detective agency that found, among other things, Imelda Marcos’s hidden money. And he wore a cowboy hat. In China. How cool is that?
Anyhow, by eight, Steve and I were tired of standing and grabbed a water taxi back to Wan Chai. This sounds elegant, I know, but the ship was out quite a ways, and the harbor was rough so the ride was like 30 straight minutes of bumper cars, only you’re on a boat the size of a UPS truck and what’s hitting you is not other little scooters with rubber sids, but the wake from 50-100 other boats in a confined harbor full of huge waves that have been cutting back and forth all day.
So we’re on the boat and we’re getting whiplash, and Steve knows I’m trying hard not to vomit, and we come up with the idea that, because it’s so early and we’re in Wan Chai anyway, we should wander around a bit.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this isn’t quite the same as saying we should wander around, say, Des Moines. Or Times Square. Or Las Vegas. If you get where I’m going here.
And if you don’t, let me help you:
Two months ago when I was having coffee with one of the Fulbright ETAs, she asked me if I’d been down to Wan Chai on a Wednesday night.
“Wan who?” I asked.
She laughed. “Oh my god, you have got to go!”
I laughed too, because I hate looking like I don’t know what’s going on. “What is it?”
And then she explained what it was: part red-light district, part club district, filled with bars and massage parlors and neon. It was crazy, she said. Insane.
“I’ve been to New Orleans. Is it like that?”
“Worse. Everything spills out onto the street. Everything.”
Ummm . . . wasn’t sure exactly what she was talking about, but figured it didn’t include washing the dishes.
“Don’t go alone,” she said. “The women are all wasted. They’ll be all over you. Seriously, you’ll need an escort.”
That night, I went back to the flat and told Ellen we had to go to Wan Chai.
I repeated what the ETA had said. Ellen gave me a funny look. “And this is good, why?”
“It’s an adventure,” I told her. “It’s part of Hong Kong. Besides, I’m a writer. I need to see this stuff.”
“First,” she said, “you’re not a writer. You’re a blogger. There’s a difference. And second, I’ll pass. You go without me.”
“You have to come,” I said.
“Because I’ll get mauled. Sarah said unescorted men are a hot commodity down there. The women just hurl themselves at you.”
She gave me another look, taking in my cargo shorts, my hairy legs, my too-large Clarks sandals that I refuse to part with even if they don’t fit because they cost me a hundred bucks. I was wearing my favorite blue shirt, the silk one that’s been dry-cleaned so many times it’s stiff as cardboard—and even despite all that laundering, you can still see the stain where I dropped the fried cheese stick three years ago.
“I’m sure you’ll be okay,” she said.
So we got off our water taxi and strolled toward the flaming neon of Wan Chai. Keep in mind, we had not interest in sex, mainly because of all those 3-lettered acronyms: STD, HIV, and MRS. We were in it purely for the spectacle: by this point I’d been in Hong Kong for two-and-a-half months, and was beginning to feel like I’d seen it all. I wanted to be startled, I wanted to be shocked, I wanted to be rattled. I wanted to be able to write home to friends and say, "Oh my god, you'll never believe what I saw!" Years ago, a friend told me about turning a corner while walking the streets of Bangkok, and seeing a gang of scantily-clad she-males dancing around a giant elephant lumbering down the street. “You haven’t lived,” he said, “until you’ve seen something like that.”
Now, I don’t know she-males from flying gophers, but I’ll tell you one thing: I’d love to see an elephant lumbering through the glass and steel of Hong Kong Island, maybe flattening an ex-patriot trophy wife or two in their three-inch heels and $7,000 blue-jeans with knit-sweater outfits.
But I’m getting off track. There we were, about to enter Wan Chai, Hong Kong’s hot bed of iniquity, its home of hedonism, its playground of pleasure, the answer to every fantasy you’ve ever had, even the one involving your high school geometry teacher, a 3-inch bit of rope, Ann Coulter, and that republican senator from Idaho who claims to have a wide stance.
And I must say, it started out great: Steve and I rounded the corner and almost tripped over a skinny woman in a bikini, straddling a stool outside a neon-bedecked nightclub. You heard me right: a bikini! At night! In public! And not a swimming pool in sight!
My god, people, where will it end?
Actually, though, she did grab me. Pressing a hand to my chest as I blundered past, she leaned in so close I could smell the marmalade on her breath and whispered huskily, “Watch where the hell you’re going. Jesus, are you blind?”
I threw a glance over my shoulder at Steve. He grinned. I did too. It was going to be a crazy night!
We strolled up one side of Lockhart Road. Sure enough, every other door has a sign saying “Dancers!” or “Massage!” or “Topless!” or “7-Eleven!” In front of most of these places sit older ladies with plucked eyebrows and ratty perms. They gestured and hollered to passing men, “Nice girls! We got nice girls!” Beside them, sometimes, were younger women—anywhere between 18 and 38, I’m guessing, but it was hard to tell—in short shorts and tube tops. There were sailors, too, lots of them, in stiff blue-jeans and bad hair cuts. Half of them looked like crazed baby wolves, or spoiled rich kids at Christmas. The other half looked dazed, unsure whether they should grin or blush. Many of the latter seemed to spend most of their time walking into lamp poles.
Between the clubs stood wine bars, wide doors thrown open and tables and ferns and stools spilling out into the sidewalk. These were filled with all variations of young people: the usual crew-cut sailors, young women that looking dumpy in empress-waist dresses, Caucasians, Asians, wanna-be I-bankers, and working girls. It was rowdy, but really no worse than your usual Friday night down at the Southern Inn in good-ol’ Lexington, Virginia. I remember seeing one sailor in particular, a big blonde guy sitting on a stool, struggling to keep his lids up and his head erect, as he stretched out a long arm into the lap of a woman I’m guessing his mother wouldn’t have approved, but who, I hope, got monthly check-ups from that special doctor only women get to visit.
When we reached the end of Lockhart Rd., we turned around and went down the other side, those same expectant grins still pasted to our faces. Adventure! Spectacle! Bizarreness! We were ready for it! Bring on the dancing girls, the champagne bottles, the juggling clowns with giant blue codpieces! Let it come! We were two married guys who’d just spent three hours on a ship with a bunch of diplomats and Republicans! Sure we were married, but for the next twenty minutes we were foot-loose and fancy free! Bring it on!
At one point, Steve actually stopped and grabbed my arm. “Look at that!”
“What?” I leaned forward, trying to follow his gaze.
“There,” he said.
I looked. “Who?” I said. “What?”
“There,” he said. “That neon pussy cat. Pretty cool, huh?”
Then I saw what he was talking about: a giant neon figure of a nude woman with a feline head reclining on an elbow, beneath the words, “The Pussy Cat Club.”
“Crazy,” I said.
“I know. You know how hard it is to make neon that big? And look, it’s all one piece.”
“Geeze.” A 1/3rd naked Filipino woman in a striped tank top brushed past us. She was working it in her denim shorts and cowboy boots but the fact is, I’ve actually seen less clothes on the faculty at my school.
We continued on. More wine bars, more night clubs, more signs for foot massages (I have to say, that was tempting), more old women on three-legged stools, more sailors, more bored looking girls half-heartedly trying to flirt young men into their club. At one point, one of them touched my arm, and put her fingers in the pocket of my jacket, but then her eyes traveled up to my face, catching sight of my gray hair, and then burst out laughing—not a mean laugh, really, just a, “Well, we both know that was stupid, don’t we?” kind of laugh that made me laugh too.
Soon we’d completed our loop, and were standing at the intersection near the MTR stop. I looked at Steve. “What do you think?”
He’s a big guy, and he swiveled his head from side to side, jaw out, trying to crack his neck. “Interesting,” he said.
I nodded. My jaw isn’t quite as good as his, but I stuck it out anyway. “Yeah,” I said. “Interesting.” Then I looked at him, an idea popping into my head. “You know what I’m thinking?”
He looked at me, eyes gleaming. Then he said, “I suspect I do.”
“Good,” I said. “Because I’m starving.”
He jerked his head down a side street. “There’s a pizza place that-a-way.”
“Nah. Messes with my stomach.”
“Something with the cheese. Won’t be able to go for weeks.”
We looked around for a bit, considering our options. A thin woman in a gray cotton sweater dress and spiked heels sauntered by, gold chain clinking on her wrist.
Steve pointed. “There’s a tea place over there. Maybe they’ll have cakes or something.”
We went in. It was a bright place, with patterned tile floors, cherry-colored mahogany trim, and straight-backed chairs with red cushions. A woman in her mid-forties came over and handed us laminated menus, in English. Jasmine tea, green tea, the usual. I watched her move away, admiring that beautiful, perfectly smooth, black black hair that all Hong Kong women seem to have.
“She’s pretty,” I said to Steve.
“It’s Hong Kong,” he said, not even looking up from the menu. “They’re all pretty.”
“I think I’ll have one of those green cakes.”
“I’m going to pass.” He patted his stomach. “Gotta get control of the monster.”
“You going to have some tea?” he asked.
I glanced at my watch. 9:15. “Better not. I’ll be up all night.”
“Yeah. You too?”
He shook his head. “Diverticulosis.”
He gave a big shrug. “I know. Crazy, man, huh?”
The hostess came over. “Water,” I said. “With lemon.”
“Me too,” said Steve.
Her eyes hardened. She considered us both. “That it? No tea?”
I felt heat rise in my face. Steve stepped in. “How about we split one of those cakes?” I nodded and the waitress went away. We both watched her. Even from the back we could see her eyes were rolling.
“You know who she reminds me of?” I said.
Steve squinted, struggling against a yawn. Watching him, I felt my own jaw start to stretch. I put my hand over my mouth.
“Nah,” he said. “My wife’s prettier.”