AIRMAIL: HONG KONG DIARY - Of Courtesans and Kings:
Pick up any travel literature and you will read that the greatest reward of travel lies, not in the spectacular view, sumptuous feast, or brush with history, but in the enrichment inherent to the journey. The kind of spiritual, emotional, or cultural enrichment that creates an entirely new perspective: one’s own world seen anew through the looking glass of the travel experience. And the more unusual and different the experience, the greater the reward, no?
But what, then, of the business traveler? Unusual and different are hardly the stuff of your typical business trip; rather, routine is preferred. After all, who wants surprises with their morning coffee or laundry delivery? Thus, many business travelers crave routine, never straying from that favorite hotel or restaurant even when exotica beckons just across the road. This is especially so in Hong Kong, with its majestic cityscapes, harbor views, and cuisine from literally all around the world. But even the most intrepid and engaged find themselves — time after time, trip after trip — on the same path, in bizarre routines in the same hotels and restaurants while thousands of miles and dozens of time zones away from home, myself included as I follow the whim of my clients.
Admittedly, part of the embrace of routine involves the basic human need for safety, which is highly sought after on the road — with good reason. When one veteran wishes “Safe travels” to another it is not mere shorthand or slogan, but based on shared knowledge of the pitfalls and potholes that await all travelers, including the most vigilant. If intrepid and engaged gets you time-and-a-half on an exotic jakes or a long stay in a short-staffed field clinic, that means valuable time lost. And that won’t do, either.
But still: I once spent time in Hong Kong with a buyer who simply could not resist the pull of the Outback Steakhouse around the corner, try as I might to entice her with such far-out fare as char siu bao and chow fun. OK, so pork buns and fried rice are not exactly life changing (one hopes, anyway!) culinary experiences, but even pedestrian fare such as that would represent a departure for many western travelers in China and Hong Kong.
Professor Say: there is no enrichment on offer at Outback, although I’m told the bloomin’ onion is not half bad with honey mustard. Then again — I hear you cluck — shouldn’t my fellow business travelers and I be in search of another kind of enrichment anyway? Like riches, for instance? Still, it can’t possibly queer a deal or kill a profiteer to squeeze in some new sights, experience new cuisine or otherwise allow one’s cultural bubble to be pierced just a bit, can it? Yet, there sit global travelers in their hotel lobbies, gnawing the rectitude of their Diet Cokes and talking of last night’s HBO special on the TV feed, when they could live like kings of the road.
In past columns, I have shared with you some offbeat paths I have taken on my own travels, so I should not be confused with those who seek conformity on the road. But because my travel schedule is so often tied to my clients’, I must suffer their routines in the name of commerce. Or let’s say enrichment. Then again, there are times that even the most hidebound can find themselves face to face with a completely different reality.
Take my last trip to Asia. I was traveling with three clients, and in making some convoluted point-to-point intra-China arrangements, Macao became the logical choice to fly into. Even though there was no business to be done there, it would serve as a convenient start to a long day of factory visits on the Zhuhai side of the Pearl River estuary. So in we flew from the north, on one of Xiamen Airlines’ pluckiest aircraft. As the crew bustled about with pre-flight preparations, a recording of English salutations and safety announcements came on, in a voice that could only be Charlie Chan channeling Cary Grant: “Thank you for choosing Xiamen Airlines — We look for-ward to serving you, ah-gain!”
I know what you’re thinking: Macao, city of intrigue, den of thieves, (hell, den of opium for that matter), land of gambling iniquity, where Bob Mitchum and Jane Russell once filmed a true Hollywood classic amid listing tramp steamers, driven around the set by coolies in listing rickshaws. Well, sorta, but also home to several egregious casinos including Wynn’s, Sands, and twenty-odd others farther down the seedy-o-meter. My intrepid group? We were booked at the gargantuan Hotel Lisboa, its lobby done up in mirrored walls and crystal chandeliers, the lower level a maze of local retail, and a casino floor filled with approximately 200,000 Chinese practicing synchronized smoking. Restaurant prospects were slim, except for a Robuchon outpost that was (luckily) fully booked — it was my tab that night — so we headed out into the evening mist of Macao, in search of some Portuguese food as would befit a former colony.
Like Hong Kong, Macau is now an SAR (Separate Autonomous Region), that, after over four centuries of Portuguese rule, went through its own hand-over to Chinese rule in 1999. Because gambling is illegal in China — with exception of a government lottery available at 7-Eleven and mahjongg in the privacy of your own back alley — Macao casinos always did a thriving business with both Chinese and Hong Kong people. (Hong Kong, too, only allows betting the horses at state-run tracks and OTBs). But the 1999 hand-over brought relaxed travel restrictions for Mainland Chinese who swamped the original nine Macao casinos and triggered a building boom. Today, despite western namesakes, casinos old and new cater to the Chinese market, and so, apparently, do neighboring restaurants.
After an hour of trudging past dreary Chinese restaurants and dodgy street stalls, we humped back to the Lisboa, tired, hungry, and wondering where in the hell the restaurants were, let alone intrigue? But this was not a group inclined toward the wild side, so we settled finally into the hotel’s Italian restaurant (don’t get me started on the amount of Italian food westerners eat in China) for some passable, if predictable, fare.
With dinner over, my Hong Kong mobile phone rang as we waited for the bill. It was my furniture supplier Kennie, on the next day’s schedule for a visit to his factory. Kennie was also in Macau for the night, and he invited us to come out for a coffee. But given our earlier failed attempts, my clients begged off, content to repair to their rooms for the night. So I declined; we would meet the next morning, per the original plan, and Kennie and I rang off.
Two minutes later, another call. Kennie again, but this time with lots of background noise — he was moving about. You stay at Lisboa? he asked with some excitement (he had recommended the Wynn, next door).
Yes, it’s fine, Kennie. No problem — momentai, I assured him. What a guy, that Kennie! Always looking out for his old Professor, I thought.
Then, his voice rising: You should know that there are THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS OF HOOKERS in the basement of the Lisboa!
His maniacal laughter rang in my ears as I asked him to repeat what he’d just said. Once more, with feeling: There are THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS OF HOOKERS in the basement! You have to see it for yourself!
A great man once told me that keeping your mouth shut is the better part of discretion. Or something like that. I shouted back thanks for the heads-up, closed the phone, and reached for the bill.
That was Kennie, I blithely reported to my three clients. He says the basement level’s pretty wild here, real local color. Said we should check it out, I offered with a nonchalance normally reserved for bloomin’ onions.
It had been a very long day, and it was late by our jet-lagging standards, so one of our party took that as his cue to go straight to bed. But the other two — let’s call them the entrepreneur and the ingenue — were curious. Local color? Maybe a little?
The Lisboa Hotel is built on several labyrinthine levels, with tacky additions tacked onto the original structure over the years that make for improbably placed stairways and sloping floors. It is easy to get turned around, but there was no mistaking when we finally reached the basement level, which makes a continuous circular track under the hotel’s original footprint.
We came through a sloped corridor and turned a corner. There, moving in clockwise direction, was a veritable cavalcade of courtesans: wave after wave of hookers walked along, most of them alone but some in pairs and sometimes three or four together. Some held hands, other talked on tiny cell phones, and all were working on eye contact. There were the very young, and the not-so young. The fashion ran from outlandish to everyday, if bouffant wigs are outlandish and microscopic jeans are everyday sights for you.
Entrepreneur, ingenue, and profiteer all stood agog. This was rubbernecking at a new level — the basement level — and a hilarious display. It was the motion of the cavalcade proper that mainly caught the eye, instead of individual displays of putative pulchritude.
And then after a bit more gawking it was not so hilarious. We saw the same women over and over as they coursed the circular track. Soon the young ones began to lap the oldsters. After a few laps, old and new simply ignored us, no more eye contact with mere guilo window shoppers. Fresh faces would somehow enter this coursing stream of courtesans as others dropped out to ply their trade, but the sheer mass of humanity kept moving, all in that same clockwise pattern.
It was too much. Not fun, not funny, not tempting, and certainly not enriching. Rather, humbling to consider how so many women came to be there in the basement, and after how many difficult situations, bad decisions and wrong turns did they find themselves taking the ultimate wrong turn?
We retreated — our routine now properly shattered, courtesy of yours truly — for a nightcap in a remarkably deserted lobby bar. And there, in the yawning ballroom adjacent to our table, were dozens of Chinese couples engaged in ballroom dancing instruction. Yes, more synchronized motion, this time reeking of propriety and with a musical score, if not less choreographed. Dizzy with contrast, disturbed and a little drunk, we called it a night.
Back in my lonely hotel room, I opened the smoke-stained curtains to see Macao’s streets darkened for the night. Or was it the giant Wynn’s neon display that blocked out all other light? I couldn’t guess — my jet-lagged brain was quickly turning to cotton candy. As I performed midnight ablutions in embrace of my own routine, I wondered: would there be any surprises with my morning coffee and laundry delivery?