August 2001. I’m back in Hong Kong. One thing I should have mentioned in the previous “chapter.” When it came time to negotiate my deal with Warner Bros., I remembered what had happened to me after three years at Merrill and so I told them that I did not want an expat package. Of course I wanted them to pay for my relocation and of course I needed visa sponsorship, but I didn’t want the rest of the usual expat benefits – housing, tax equalization, home leave. When they asked me why, I told them the truth – that I loved Hong Kong and wanted to stay there and didn’t want to get moved around every three years. So no benefits but give me a higher salary to make up for it. They went for it.
The way my job was explained to me, I was going to basically be the only IT person in Asia (aside from a few junior support people here and there). I was to go around to each country in my region (which initially was Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Philippines, Australia and New Zealand) and send all their IT requests back to the international support team in London. My boss was against my traveling at all but the CFO understood that in Asia, things were done face to face and not over the phone. He called my boss and told him, “Spike travels where he wants, when he wants, you have no say in it.”
I quickly found out that their IT support model wasn’t working. The London team was so busy handling EMEA requests that APAC had service requests outstanding for a year or more. So together the CFO and I put together a plan to staff up in Asia. I thought I needed 15 people, spread throughout the region, to handle all of the application and infrastructure support and he agreed. I’ll come back to this in a little while.
The company arranged a service flat for me, two small rooms in a hotel in North Point. About two weeks after I arrived in Hong Kong, I was having dinner one night in the McDonald’s across the street from my hotel and my mom called. She asked me if I was watching CNN and told me that she heard something about the World Trade Center being on fire. I figured she gets a lot of stuff wrong so I didn’t pay much attention to it. After dinner I returned to my room, did some email and then switched on the TV just in time to see the second plane go into the second tower.
I went into a state of shock. How many times had I been in the World Trade Center? Having worked in banking in downtown New York, how many friends did I have who passed through that building every day? Between watching CNN and trying to call or email everyone I knew, I didn’t leave the hotel room for three days. When I finally made it back to the office, everyone asked if I was all right and tiptoed around me for a week.
I soon got back into the swing of things and started spending nights in Wanchai. Wanchai had changed since I last lived there. In the 90s, the so-called “pay for play scene” consisted of the rip-off go-go bars, night clubs and saunas. I think the Asian financial crisis in ’99 resulted in a flood of women coming to Hong Kong, mostly from Thailand and the Philippines, on their own or via a “manager” to work as prostitutes for however long as their tourist visa would allow them to stay. Many of these women were single mothers trying to support their families. Some had previously had their own shops or businesses that failed. All of them realized that what they could earn in one night in Hong Kong equaled what they could make in their home country in a month doing “honest” work. With my wife still in the U.S., I dove straight into the deep end of this scene.
After a few months on the job, I got a call from the CIO at Warner. He hadn’t been to Asia in more than 5 years and wanted to do a tour of offices in the region and wanted me to be his tour guide. He said he wanted to hit Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney and asked if that was enough. I told him I didn’t think it was. I thought he needed to visit a shithole to get a real idea of the challenges our people were facing in the region. He said, “Okay, which shithole should we go to?” I told him Manila and he panicked. Abu Sayyaf was pretty active in Mindanao in those days and I guess he thought he was going to lose his head. “Can’t we just go to Singapore?” “If you’re going to Singapore, you might as well just go to New York.” The CFO told him, “Spike’s right, you should go to Manila. Get a fucking map and get on the plane.”
This was a guy who was the CIO of one of the world’s top corporations and had never delivered a speech at a tech conference or published a technical white paper or book. He got out to Hong Kong and first he informed me that he didn’t eat seafood of any kind. Can you imagine that? I was going to have to go out for dinner with him every night for two weeks in some of the seafood capitals of the world and no seafood. Was he allergic? No, he just didn’t like seafood.
We did Hong Kong and then Tokyo and then got to Manila. He actually quite liked it there. It was the only place he agreed to go out for a drink after dinner. We went to the Hard Rock Cafe in Makati and two seconds after he got his beer, a girl came up and put her arms around him. He almost dropped the beer, told me he’d see me tomorrow, and ran back to the hotel (alone).
Now we’re sitting in Sydney. The last night of the two week trip, we’re having dinner and he finally says to me, “I’m told you want 15 headcount for Asia. I’ll give it to you. Just tell me which 15 people in London I should fire.” I was almost at a loss for words. I told him that he shouldn’t fire anyone; that the people in London were already 110% busy dealing with supporting Europe, and that Asia would never grow unless the company invested in it. “As sure as I’m sitting in front of you,” he said, “I swear that you will never have any headcount in Asia.” Two months later I had 15 headcount – with no one fired in London. He never forgot that and held it against me for the rest of my time at Warner.
Anyway, he got back to the U.S. and I got just one email from him. “Spike, while we were in Asia, everywhere we went, I saw a sea of flat screen monitors. In Burbank you have to be a VP or above to get a flat screen. Heaven forbid someone travels out to Asia and sees all of that. How can we stop it?” I wrote back and told him I would be happy to enforce any corporate standards and that he should send me a list of them, knowing full well such a list didn’t exist. (This guy also declared that one needed to be a VP or above to have a company-paid Blackberry. I was traveling more than 50% of the time and thought I needed one and had to escalate around and over him to finally get one.)
A few months later, I was managing the set up of a new business in Taipei. I sat down with the newly hired Managing Director of Taiwan to go over what was needed. He told me he wanted everyone to have flat screen monitors. I said to him, “I have to tell you that the company policy is that only VP’s and above get flat screen monitors.” His jaw dropped. This was Taiwan, where flat screens were made. They were half the price of the older CRT’s, used half the energy and generated far less heat. Then I said, “However, you are the managing director of your territory. You tell me what you want and I’ll get it for you.” I was very popular with management in Asia, perhaps not so much back in Burbank.
After a few months, my wife told me she’d be returning to Hong Kong. It was time to get out of that service flat and find a place to live. I rented a place in Sai Kung, a house right on the water, something that I couldn’t really afford, but I assumed that she’d go back to work and between our two salaries it would be easy. But once she arrived, she announced that she didn’t feel like working. The rent on this place was 40% of my salary but she wouldn’t budge on her decision. I was less than happy about that, to put it mildly.
Time passed. I hired my 15 people and turned them into a team. I upgraded all the systems in Sydney and Tokyo, did two office moves in Manila and helped start a new business in Taiwan. The work was good, my team was great, management in the region loved me. And most of the executives from the U.S. loved me because they knew that when they came to Asia, I could help them find what they were looking for.
But my marriage was on its last legs. As I look back on it, both of us would have been better off if we’d stayed split up after 1999. Now I was traveling 50% of the time and when I’d get back to Hong Kong, we weren’t spending time together. She’d gone back to work and a night out for the two of us generally meant going in separate directions. We moved from that expensive house in Sai Kung to a flat in Kennedy Road (same building we’d lived in before but a different apartment). She asked me to cut out all the fooling around. And, as bad as I know this will make me look, at that point I weighed the options and told her no, knowing full well what the outcome would be.
Our split was not an amicable one. She’d sold her apartment in KL years ago when we got married. Now she wanted me to buy her a new one. She also wanted a lump sum of cash as well as monthly payments. This worked out to almost all of my savings. I told her that the law said we should split things 50/50 but she didn’t care about the law. She wouldn’t budge. I realized that I was going to lose the money either way – if not to her, then to a lawyer. I wanted things to be over. I figured I’d sooner give the money to her than to a stranger. I felt guilty and thought I owed it to her. So I gave in, we got divorced and she went back to KL. The only thing I wouldn’t give her in the settlement was the dogs (we’d brought the one over to HK with us from SF and got a second dog in HK). She held this against me for years. It was only after the first dog died and was no longer between us that we could become friends again.
Now that I was single again, there were no restraints on my behavior. When I was in Hong Kong, I was in Wanchai almost every night, and of course all day on Sundays. I was as bad as one could possibly be – and publicly bad, as I started writing about it on the Internet. At first I was contributing to various nefarious forums but in December 2004, I started blogging. I wrote about everything I did. Everything.
But I’m not going to repeat those stories here. That’s for another place and another time.