• Hong Kong Redux

Hong Kong Redux

Clark Gable would understand - full story

For reasons I’m not sure of I went for twenty years without returning to Hong Kong, a place that had had a grip on me for years. But now I have found that the Hong Kong of my youthful navy days has faded away. The demi-Shanghai, the outpost of empire, the steamy fleshpot is no more. Like Tijuana, she’s grown up and got respectable. Unlike Tijuana, she’s now big, she’s thundering, she’s powerful. She’s a great shuddering machine and the ground trembles beneath her. She has become a giantess. Hardly anything of her remains on the human scale. They are not mere skyscrapers that shoulder each other on the harborside. They are behemoths, monuments, colossi, great monstrous temples to Mammon that dwarf the traveler. And all is clean and orderly and safe. The trains run on time. And the world of Suzie Wong is far, far away in mistiest memory. A lifetime ago I foolishly left a Hong Kong lady’s apartment at 3 A.M. I found myself at the Kowloon docks, hiding in the shadows from a prowl of Triads (Chinese Mafia) going about their dark business. The Triads still operate, but nowadays I think that if they discovered me in the shadows they would help me to the ferry, purchase my ticket, and wish me long life and prosperity. Murder might put profit at risk, and profit is the greatest virtue in Hong Kong.

I go barhopping. But there are no more of the old scruffy bars. They are all neon lit, air-conditioned, and expensive. They have happy hours and promotional sales of this or that European beer. There are no more dens of iniquity. Cub Scout dens perhaps, but none of iniquity. If there are any whores left, they are those in public office. The waterfront teems with tourists, not with hordes of horny sailors thirsting for beer, brawls, and broads. The seamy side is buried under the foundations of banks and brokerages, and the former crown colony is now a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. They call it the SAR for short. In starkest truth, Hong Kong has become Manhattan’s little sister, all grown up and possessed of Chicago’s big shoulders and LA’s air.

But not all is lost. The food is better than ever. Wine is abundant, if pricy. The entire world is here on a plate. The rooftops of Wanchai that used to accommodate brothels now sprout herb gardens to supply the trendy restaurants. And there are ballrooms with people practicing waltz and tango. But I confess that the shock of the change took some getting used to.

Indeed, upon arrival I was stunned. I felt robbed of an era of my life. Yeah yeah, I know, I shouldn’t expect people to stay mired in sin and corruption just for my gratification. But intellect and emotions do not always comport with one another. At least mine don’t. So I was pissed off, see? I was betrayed by the inexorable marches of history. I was dispossessed by progress. The book of my life had been suddenly and anonymously edited and thrown back at me thus reduced. And I was sad. Deeply sad. And that special loneliness of the road that can descend upon us even at the best of times fell with a special, ponderous weight.

My slumped shoulders would have revealed the burden as I trudged the streets of Kowloon looking for something, anything, comfortingly familiar. But of course the British and American navies rarely visit the SAR of the PRC nowadays. And the government frowns on every vice but greed. I found the venerable Peninsula Hotel to be now more shopping mall than hostelry, and its piano bar where I had met so many fascinating characters was closed till later in the evening. The Chung King Mansions didn’t even look hazardous to health anymore. Just sad. The skyline was obscured by new construction, and the harbor filling up with reclamation. And then, up on Hankow Road, I saw it, gleaming in the night like a lighthouse in a gale, saying “This way to safe harbor and succor. Come hither.” it was the Bottoms Up Bar.

You may know of this place from the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun. It’s a subterranean lair of five small cellular hexagonal bars all keyed into a central hexagon which actually dispenses the drinks. Each of the five surrounding hexes is furnished with a small circular bar, in the center of which, on a cushioned pedestal, sits a half-naked woman in the first bar, the red bar. Her name was Deirdre. She was English. She wore what amounted to the original topless bathing suit designed by Rudy Gerlich in the 1960s.

“Is this your first time here?” she asked, as I ordered a San Miguel beer.

“Hardly,” said I. “I met my ex-girlfriend in here in the 1970s.”

“Really? She was a patron of the bar then?”

“No. She was sitting where you are right now. She was English, too.”

Now, my ex-girlfriend, Kelly, was a tall, slender, green-eyed redhead. Very athletic. Deirdre was dark eyed, about 5’5″, with skin the color of pale gold. She had a thick mane of auburn Titian hair that she casually tossed back from time to time. Her hips were full and her tummy nicely rounded. And of her …mammary endowment, I shall say nothing, but that they…caught my eye.  I began to be cheered. What healthy man of the heterosexual persuasion would not be cheered with a great pair of bazongas in his face, I ask you?

There were other gentleman patrons in the bar, but Deirdre ignored them, except when they called for drink, and gave all her other time to me. I thought perhaps she was interested in me as a living link with the history of her place of employment. We chatted for a little while, and a warm glow began to infuse my soul. I drank in her company like balm. She was tonic for care. With each toss of her mane her bosom would ripple. And with the changing temperature as the air-con ebbed and flowed, I could see her nipples rise and fall.

At length I became aware that she also had a face. Of course I had known this, in the far reaches of my consciousness, as I had heard words emanating from it. But at some point I actually looked at it. And it was very pleasant to see. I resolved to look at it more often. Especially when she spoke.

By this time the Bottoms Up had become a portal to bygone days. I had spent many an evening in here. I had met beautiful women here, as well as cads, curs, and heroes. The BU (for such we called it) was a bibulous crossroads for all manner of persons in those olden golden times. I met a profane priest here, Father Frank O’Shannan, whom we later rescued at the fall of Saigon in 1975. “Bless you, Dickie,” he shouted above the roar as I bundled him into a chopper, throwing a crash helmet in after him. “See you at the BU, laddie,” he waved as the bird gained the air. And there was the blue-eyed New Zealand heiress on a world tour. Thrusting her alabaster face into mine she told me that if I didn’t come immediately with her to her hotel suite she would, “ring up a male prostitute instead, and tell everyone about it.” Her name was Victoria. I took her to the old airport the next day. That was before Kelly, or neither of us would have survived. Roberto Shultz, the Austrian-Argentine news photographer and regular in the red bar (Kelly’s bar) once took an uninvited photo of Kelly’s bare bosom. With great and terrible Anglo-Saxon curses she made him expose the film under threat of breaking the camera over his head. He took it like a sport, though, and came back often. And then of course there was the divine and demonic Kelly, who alternately enraptured and enraged me.

With Deirdre’s beguiling bosom and dulcet tones I had allowed myself to slide into a warm pool of nostalgia. I was bathing in memories and beer. I was spiritually naked and unarmed. “Buy me a drink?” she asked.

Out in the harbor there is a flag mast to indicate weather conditions. A signal known as a T6 is run up to indicate small craft warnings. A T8 is a typhoon advisory. A T10 means a full gale is a’ brewing. My own personal T6 ran up the mast and snapped open in a now brisk wind. “It’s only ninety-nine Hong Kong Dollars,” she cooed. Ninety-nine Hong Kong dollars at the time was equal to fifteen U.S. dollars. No wonder she was ignoring the other guys.

In the old regime this kind of solicitation was strictly forbidden. The BU was a respite from this kind of liquid pocket picking. It was a civilized place. Of course a man, or woman for that matter, was perfectly at liberty to buy a lady a “Hong Kong Ice Tea,” but her asking for it was clear out of the way. And it didn’t cost ninety-nine Hong-Goddamn-Kong dollars!

“You buy,” urged the lady manager, pointing to Deirdre. “You can buy her one.” So they’d even descended to tag-teaming the lonely, helpless male. Hooked like a fish with beguiling bait they double up to reel him in. Betrayal in Hong Kong again. Betrayal most foul!

Now consider my dilemma. In my lonely state, the mere presence of the half-naked Deirdre has been like a security blanket. The riveting charm of her riveting charms has buoyed my spirits immensely. And her conversational attentions have been welcome and sweet. And of course there is the physical compulsion of the evolutionary imperative: In her infinite wisdom Mother Nature so perfectly designed me that I always give the correct answer to any question put to me by a beautiful woman with her tits in my face. Of course that answer is “Yes.”

“Do you think I’m pretty?”


“Are you a bounder and a knave?”


“Will you serve me like a dog?”


Truth to tell, fifteen dollars didn’t seem so bad. I figured she would probably go through one drink in fifteen minutes, or four in an hour. At sixty bucks an hour, well, I don’t think you can get psychotherapy for that. And in therapy you don’t get tits. Or beer. And I’ve had psychotherapy before. I’m here to tell you, it’s not nearly as good as tits and beer! But as the two women reeled in their line, the T6 came down and the T8 ran snappily up the mast. Now I was déjà vu and pissed off all over again. And their hook stung. I looked Deirdre squarely in the nipples and said, “Not tonight, sweetheart.” I drained my glass, and getting up to leave said, “Hasta la vista, baby.” Well, I didn’t exactly say that. But I thought it.

A small triumph in a big world. So I had just said No to Knockers. It must have been the first time. Hmmm. Not really something for which to pat myself on the back, but still, I had left the BU with my dignity intact. Sort of. It would have to sustain me in my gloomy hour. I shortly found myself in front of the Peninsula Hotel again, and I determined to try the piano bar once more. It was open. And empty but for the bartender. Clark Gable introduced the screwdriver to Hong Kong in this very bar in the early 1950s while shooting the movie Soldier of Fortune.  He taught bartender Johnnie Chung how to make the drink. I’ve met Johnnie any number of times in the past. He’s mixed me many a drink, and he always remembers the nuances of how an individual bibber likes his liquor. He still works at “the Pen” but, now in his seventies, only part time, and not at night.

So now the duty barman, Edward, smiles as someone finally walks into his lonely station. Now he has a purpose. “Do you know Johnnie Chung?” I ask him as I survey the empty room.

“Oh yes. Johnnie is famous here. Though he is quite old, and doesn’t work much. But he won’t retire. He says he’ll die on the job.

So maybe something remains of old Hong Kong. At least for a while. Until Johnnie dies. I order a martini, teaching Edward to make it just the way I like, hoping he will remember as well as Johnnie. Bombay gin poured generously over ice. Not too dry. Give it a good splash of vermouth. I like a cocktail, Edward, not a straight shot. Now shake it into submission. Shake it till it cries for mercy. Shake it so that when you pour it into a chilled glass a patina of ice crystals floats upon the surface. Now garnish. Ahh, we have genuine Spanish olives. Those were hard to find in the old days. We usually had to have a twist. Now taste. Mmmm. Perfect, Edward. Perfect.

I gaze into my drink, and listen to the silence of the empty bar. I think of Astaire and Sinatra singing “Set ’em up, Joe. Make it one for my baby, and one more for the road.” I look up, and see that Edward has disappeared, off on some errand, no doubt. And so I am well and truly alone, and the silence is palpable. In my glass, the crystalline patina has resolved itself into a shivering cold pool, and in its mirror surface I can see my right eye, startling in its clarity. I wink to myself in the gin. “I showed Deirdre,” I assure the spirituous reflection. “And that smarmy manager. Fifteen dollars! If Gable were here again he’d say I did the right thing. Gable never paid to talk to some dame, not in any stage of undress. I’ll bet there were plenty of dames that would have paid to talk to him” I imagine him sitting there, right where he taught Johnnie Chung the elixir of the screwdriver. Women sighing over him. Gable would never be lonely. Would he?

I sip gin and vermouth. The coldly warming potion helps to bring Gable’s image into view. I look surreptitiously about to see that no one is watching, and then lift my glass to the King of Hollywood. “Fifteen dollars, Clark. But I showed her, Clark. She couldn’t snag me. She was a looker, and a charmer, and I was sorely tempted, but I wouldn’t let her take me like that. I hope you approve, Mr. Gable.”

Edward returns to tell me that it’s about closing time, setting my bill before me in a silver tray. “I won’t be a minute,” says I, and I start to knock back the remnants of the drink. I see that Gable is still sitting there, dangerously handsome. So I leave the last gulp for him. I pick up my bill. With service charge, ninety-nine Hong Kong dollars.