Jack Ross, ed.: brief 25 (October 2002)
Hong Kong – 2001
Streets thronged with revellers. Massive neon Christmas celebrations. Cops wave us down, then through. The driver wears a heavy fur jacket. He’s the worst bus-driver in history – accelerate, free-wheel, accelerate, free-wheel – keeping to a steady 60 kph whether the speed limit’s 80 or 110. He does get us to our hotels with minimum fuss, though. Helpful bellboy, brusque unhelpful desk clerk. Jack ever on the lookout for incipient rip-offs …
Tuesday, December 25 [9 a.m.] – Christmas day at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, next to the Kowloon ferry terminal:
sparkling watersstrange Sydney Opera House
of Victoria harboursimulacrum opposite
Confetti twirls past in the air. There must have been one hell of a party down here last night – graffiti being scrubbed off the walls, rubbish being swept up by innumerable old woman with brooms.
In accordance with the advice of the police, this
pedestrian walkway will be closed at 6.00 p.m.
Please choose other locations for leisure.
Thank you for your attention
“Please choose other locations for leisure …” Does copying down these signs constitute sneering and condescension? Chinoiserie?
Take Part in Art
a pilot project of
the Hong Kong Cultural Centre
A long line of fishermen with hand-held lines (one with a pole) crouching alongside the barrier. Poised like dancers. It looks incredibly uncomfortable.
Graffiti in the New World Centre:
CAN’T STOP CHRISTMAS
We design happiness for the world
This place is big – and rich – and expensive. I guess what I’m trying to do is scale it down to Jack-level by judicious selection of absurdities.
[12 noon] – Eating lunch in the sculpture garden, watching five girls rehearse disco line-dancing routines.
So far I’ve done two things I shouldn’t do: brushed my teeth using local water, and eaten a cold, congealed bacon roll from a bakery. Right next to a mosque, too! I must look like such a peasant – scruffy trainers, not to mention the pants! No wonder people keep on trying to sell me suits. Lots of faces here that don’t look Chinese: Filipino?
Christmas parties going on all around: mostly groups of girls eating cake and giving each other presents.
I managed to escape the local carol-singers before they could extort any money from me [“Round yon veer-jee mudder ‘n’ chile”]. Now in the park – like a big zoo without animals.
I’d sat down to rest for a moment, when I realised I was being addressed. A pleasant-looking, not-too-old not-too-young woman had asked me where I was from.
“New Zealand,” I replied.
“Oh, I thought America,” she said.
This led to more desultory conversation. She was from Manila, staying with her cousin, as her brother worked here in Hong Kong (more of him later). In fact, he was planning a trip to NZ, so could I perhaps oblige with some details of where to go, what to see, etc.?
I did so, to the best of my ability, though she scarcely seemed to be paying attention. I asked her to recommend a good cheap place to eat. She did so, then asked if I would be averse to meeting her brother later, after lunch, to tell him some more about NZ and Australia (having previously ascertained that I had no particular plans for the afternoon).
“Why not?” said I, my suspicions aroused. What if this were a scheme for drawing me into some back alley, compromising (or coshing) me, then running off with my hard-earned traveller’s cheques?
Nevertheless, when one o’clock came round, I was in the appointed place. Why not, after all? “Open to experience” – Smithyman’s mantra. It might be interesting, at least.
My acquaintance Gaby arrived a moment later, and led me off the main drag, down many smaller streets, to see her brother. He lived in a tiny room off an apartment filled with Filipino maids.
“They are here for a Christmas party. Their one day off. Domestic servants,” she said.
From the moment we entered the room her brother Joe took charge. He sat me down and, with a combination of judicious questions and fluent chatter, segued into a most interesting subject: his aunt, who was suffering from leukaemia, and the money required to keep her in a nearby hospital. (All the time he was chain-smoking little, pencil-like cheroots; the room was full of overflowing ashtrays.)
To look after his “patient,” as he called her, he was forced to promote games even on his rare days off. Last night they’d been playing Mah-jongg till 4 in the morning, and that morning he’d taken $US2,000 to the hospital. His real job, however, was as a dealer in a casino, where with his “special skills” he protected the house’s interests. (Enforcer? I asked myself. He didn’t look strong enough). The pay was good, but he needed more, and for this had taken on a partner, a black man, to whom he gave 30%. The partner was now growing greedy, though – wanting 50%. Soon it might rise to 70%.
And how did their particular scam work? Why, just out of interest, just to show me, you understand, he would illustrate. A table was quickly set up: cards, counters (mah-jongg counters), and the lesson began. How do you win at poker-blackjack? Why, the dealer shows you the next card as he shuffles them (the chances of this escaping the camera monitors seemed slim, but that was the reason for the 30% which went to his superior, he explained). This is not enough, though. You must also know what is in the banker’s own hand – in the hidden card-bunker.
- closed fist = 10
- thumb and forefinger closed = 6
- ring and little finger closed = 5
We practised. I made mistakes. He corrected them. All was going swimmingly …
At this point, another person appeared, a rather portly, cheerful Thai businessman. The Mah-jongg game was due to start at 4 p.m., and the guests to arrive from 3.30 onwards. This man had turned up at 2.20, elated by having won so much ($US16,000, he boasted) in last night’s game.
Joe immediately started a spiel about how much I’d lost to him that morning, and tried to promote a game of poker. Was this the real scam? With mounting terror, I saw the cards being set up, money produced, the possibility of big losses from my non-existent investment.
“My sister can play – you watch,” he said to me, having drawn me aside to discuss the new deal in the walk-in shower. However, when he required my signature on a statement of the stakes, I decided it was time to decamp.
Gaby showed me the way out, and we parted with a few general and insincere words of farewell. I might have won $US30,000 if I’d persevered with his tuition. I’d have lost far more through sheer anxiety, though.
[3.30 p.m.] – What a classic mark I must look! Travelling alone, bumbag and tourist appurtenances, dopey expression … On the way back to the hotel I was accosted by a bearded Indian who told my fortune with much circumstantial mumbo-jumbo: “One who is close to you is very false – sweet to your face, not in the heart. You very good man – think too much – do very practical work, very hard.”
I left him to it when the subject turned to money. Enough is really enough.