If I’m So Smart Part Ten

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Allow me to digress and talk about the blog that you’re reading right now.

Hongkie Town got its start on December 4, 2004, over at Blogger. Let me tell you why I started it.

The first reason is the most obvious. I was reading a lot of blogs. And one day I told myself, “I could do this,too.” I wanted a creative outlet to contrast with my day job. The question was, what would I write about? What could I contribute that would be different from all of the other blogs out there?

The answer soon became obvious to me. Every book store at every airport in Asia has a section called “Asian Interest.” I spent a lot of time in airports and so I spent a lot of time in those book shops and picked up or at least looked at many of these books.

I felt that most of these books were essentially the same. They’d be written by some American,  Brit or Australian guy who came to Asia as an expat. Once here, each guy thought he was the Marco Polo of sex – that he discovered sex. And then his next thought was, “This is fucking amazing! I can’t believe it! I gotta tell the world about this!” Followed by, “I’m educated. I’m a lawyer (or a banker), I can write a book!”

Those books were almost always the same. A detective story. Pulp fiction. Expat goes to Bangkok/Manila/Hong Kong/Phnom Penh and falls in with a bad crowd, falls in love with a hooker, starts doing drugs or drinking heavily, goes missing. The wife back home hasn’t heard from the husband and hires a private detective to go find out where her husband is. The private detective goes there, falls in with the same bad crowd, starts doing the same bad things. At the end someone is always dead or a hopeless drug addict or a homeless bum. A morality tale.

This pissed me off. I knew plenty of guys who were living this lifestyle and not suffering any ill effects – well, at least nothing as drastic as was being portrayed in those books. Mostly they were just falling in love with the wrong women and spending way too much money.

So I wanted to tell a different story. I wanted to tell the story of what this life was really like, from my perspective and personal experiences - and not anonymized to any extent beyond changing the names of the people.

And so I went public. My first blog post appeared on December 4, 2004. As you might guess, it didn’t take too long for the blog to start catching peoples’ attention. And most of the feedback I received was positive. First of all, I was really interested in writing about the women and their lives and how they found themselves in this line of work, and I was pretty good at getting them to talk to me about it. I never posted any photos of women and I never referred to women as bitches or ho’s.

Something totally unexpected happened. I started getting emails from women who were curious to meet me. I even had one or two local feminists write to me – and it wasn’t hate mail.

I never wrote about the sex. I think I just didn’t see myself as a good enough writer to make that part interesting. People are interesting, everyone has a story to tell, and that’s what I concentrated on. Blog readers would write to me and ask me to describe the sex but how many different ways are there to write, “and then we fucked”?

Mostly the only hate mail I received was from guys who said I was giving away all of the secrets and screwing things up for them. How dare I tell the world what was the best bar on a given day of the week and time and screw up their good time? I ignored those comments.

Back then, I thought I had to have new content every day, in order to keep people coming back. I didn’t go out every night and even when I did, not every night was an adventure worth writing about. So I started “filling in the gaps” with other stuff – record and movie reviews, politics, basically anything else that was on my mind when I had a few spare minutes. I mean, it was my blog so I could write about whatever the hell I wanted to write about, it’s just that I ended up writing about a greater variety of topics than I’d originally expected.

That led to my having a regular column in BC Magazine for around 4 years, until the publisher and I had a major falling out. I’m pretty proud of that column, I think a lot of my best work was there.

When I started writing the blog, my idea was that I was going to stay out of relationships. But it wasn’t too long after I started writing that I found myself in a relationship, one that I did write about for awhile, in great detail. But clearly it wasn’t in line with my original intention.

Also, at one point I got “caught”. I’d written about a night with one woman and it turned out that one of her friends read the blog, was able to figure out who I was writing about and showed it to the woman in question, who was quite unhappy about it. No big scene, she just asked me to delete the post about her and of course I did.

But It finally dawned on me that one day I could just as easily get caught by someone who worked at my company. The blog was relatively popular and the stats showed that I had a truly global following.  If someone at my company found out, I would lose my job. Was this worth losing my job over? Definitely not.

And so I deleted all of the old stuff. I wish I could say I had saved all of it before deleting it – I thought I had, but a couple of years ago when I started going through my files, I discovered there were some big chunks missing. Some of it I’ve been able to recover, some of it is gone forever.

Of course the blog continues to this day. I still hear from people who tell me they “miss the old blog.” My response is always “thanks but I don’t live that kind of life anymore,” which is true. I moved on from that scene years ago. Regrets, I have a few, but I did what seemed right to me at the time, both in terms of the lifestyle I led and also in terms of writing about it publicly.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled program.

 

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Is Anyone Surprised?

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I mean, did anyone really think that Beijing was going to allow Hong Kong to have truly open elections?

That doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to be pissed off and to continue to protest. But anyone who was surprised by Sunday’s announcement must be living in an alternate reality.

(I wanted to write more on this but just no time at the moment. I didn’t want to let this pass without at least some sort of comment because it’s huge. It could be a tipping point or a watershed moment or whatever other cliche you want to apply.)

Just one other thing. I don’t get why people get upset about the earlier announcement that any candidate must love their country. Tell me an election anywhere where the candidate gets up and says, “The United States sucks, vote for me!”

It’s just the way in which Beijing defines patriotism. For them it’s unquestioningly following what you are told. Most of the rest of the world sees patriotism as standing up for what’s right.

Anyway, let’s see what rights Beijing takes away next, and how long it takes them to do it.

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If I’m So Smart Part Nine

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In 2004 and 2005 I worked on a massive project. Warner decided to do a home video distribution joint venture in Mainland China. I was involved in most aspects of the project, and it was a godawful mess.

The CFO asked me what kind of person we should recruit as MD of China. I told him it should be someone born in China, educated in the US or UK and with some western work experience before returning to China. This way the person would understand the local market and the western way of doing business. We found a great guy who matched this profile.

But for some reason Warner decided to put the global head of supply chain in charge of the project overall. He was a former head of sales and didn’t have a great understanding of how things operated in China. He thought it was like the U.S. – in the U.S. the stores couldn’t stock our DVDs fast enough and they were used as loss leaders to get people into the stores. In China, no one gave a shit about legal DVDs – our licensee there was charging the equivalent of US$15 for a DVD, compared to the $0.50 you’d pay on any street corner for pirate copies. The few stores in China that stocked legal DVDs didn’t put them up front by the entrance or the cash register, they were hidden away in the basement. This SVP thought he could dictate commercial terms on our DVDs to the major Chinese chains, all of whom told him where he could stick his DVDs.

Our China MD was great. He knew business – and he also knew how to work hard for 12 hours and then gather up everyone in the office and go out and party for another 6 hours. It would get to be 8 or 9 PM and he’d gather up all the women in the office (and me) and we’d go out to consume massive quantities of food, drink and fun. But he was getting frustrated. He’d ask me why we hired him, with all of his experience and knowledge, and then try to dictate to him how to run the business, especially when he knew we were wrong. He resigned after six months.

He was replaced by a guy from the UK who had been to China once as a tourist. But the new guy followed orders. I also grew frustrated with the supply chain SVP because he didn’t believe in using project plans. Our weekly conference calls went like this: Dept A: we are three months behind schedule. And then two hours spent with all the other department representatives asking how that would impact their project schedules. I kept asking for a consolidated project plan to make management easier. He kept telling me he didn’t like Microsoft Project.

I moved most of my Hong Kong team to Shanghai to work on the project and tried to move there myself, getting a service apartment near the office. Then regional management asked how I could manage the region from Shanghai (um, email? telephone?) and made me move back to Hong Kong.

One adventure (out of many) that I’ll share. There was this place, I think it was called Malone’s. Great burgers and a Filipino cover band. I’m there one night having dinner and I see this gorgeous Chinese woman at the bar. I also see at least 10 different guys hitting on her and all striking out, so I don’t even bother to try. A few hours later I’m at California, a disco owned by some of the same people who owned the place of the same name in Hong Kong. I knew one of the owners, so I had a member card. I’m walking past the dance floor and I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and it’s that same Chinese woman I’d seen earlier in Malones. We dance, we drink, we talk. She tells me she’s from Hong Kong, works in the fashion business, and is in Shanghai to meet some designers. I’m thinking, “Great, she’s hot, she’s from Hong Kong, maybe this can turn into something.” Around 3 AM we head back to my place. We get to my place, get in the door, and the first thing out of her mouth is “Amy no money.” Well, it’s 3 AM, I’m drunk and horny and open to suggestions. Except her suggestion was that I should give her 3,000 RMB. My suggestion was that she should get the hell out of there but she wasn’t leaving. We negotiated. We argued. I think we finally got tired and passed out. The strangest thing is that she kept texting me for another two years telling me how much she missed me.

Anyway, the project finally completed – my parts were done on time and under budget – and the office opens for business. Everyone flies out from Burbank for the opening party, including the CIO who hates my guts. He walked around the office, followed by his little entourage, inspecting everything, looking for something he can use against me. Finally, not finding anything else, he asks me why I chose the tax reporting system that was being used. I told him, “I didn’t choose it, the Chinese government told me which system I had to use.” But this guy was obtuse. “Well, surely they gave you a list of choices and you picked one from the list, why this one?” I told him there was no list, this is China, the government doesn’t offer a choice. He didn’t get it. We did the same dance three or four times, surrounded by people, until others also spoke up to set him straight. It became another reason for him to hate me.

Having the Shanghai office gave me a small advantage. I was able to enroll at Fudan University to study Putonghua. I could go to class for three hours in the morning and then work in the Shanghai office in the afternoon. I stayed in the Foreign Students Dormitory (US$400 for a month) and bought a cheap bicycle for getting around.

My first day at the school, they asked us each what Mandarin we knew. I knew only one complete sentence and I said that and they thought I was an expert. They put me into an advanced class. I had to beg for three days to be put back into a beginner class.

Everyone else in my class was a university student from Europe, part of a larger group, there for the summer. They’d all go out together after class, more than likely speaking their native language to each other all day long. I’d go out alone and had to use what I was learning. Lots of conversations with taxi drivers on my way to the office – they always figured I was a professor and were always surprised to discover I was a student. And when I’d tell them what I was studying, I’d get additional lessons in the taxi.

You probably won’t be surprised to find out that I managed to find a girlfriend in Shanghai, a sweet young woman who didn’t speak any English. This really gave me incentive to up my game. She would laugh like crazy when helping me study, telling me that it was the kind of basic stuff they teach to five year olds. Even though I ended up getting sick my last couple of weeks there and missing a lot of classes, I passed the final and got my certificate.

I also got to be friendly with Koji Hase, the co-inventor of the DVD. Koji was at Toshiba at the time. He was the head of their CD-ROM division. He had an idea – get the CD-ROM drive out of the computer and the office and into the living room. But he’d need software for that. At the same time, Warren Lieberfarb (the founder of Warner Home Video and its president for 25 years) knew that the rental business wasn’t cutting it for Warner. VHS tapes sucked and no one was buying laser discs. He wanted a new format. Koji called Warren and suggested they meet to discuss a new idea. Warren said that he would give Koji 30 minutes. Koji figured this was a big enough idea and he flew from Tokyo to L.A. for that meeting. He walked into Warren’s office – there were 2 sandwiches and 2 bottles of water on the table and Koji thought, “that’s it, I’m really only getting 30 minutes.” Eight hours, and several bottles of wine later, they had an agreement and the DVD was born. Toshiba and Warner would share the patents for the DVD, something which brought Warner billions of dollars. Warner later fired Warren for demanding his share of those profits (long story for another time, it involved the whole mess that got created when AOL bought Time Warner).

When Koji left Toshiba after 30 years, Warren hired him at Warner as head of Asia Pacific. Koji knew nothing about the business. Warren said, “Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.” And then Warren got fired. All of the other executives in the company looked at Koji, this brilliant sweet guy, and thought his English was funny and ignored him. Then Koji made what was seen as a major error – one which I won’t go into now but which cost the company a few million bucks in Japan. Koji was convinced he had done the right thing but the pencil pushers back at HQ didn’t agree. He was pushed aside as head of the region and given a “window seat”  - a job with nothing to do, the ultimate insult in Japan. He’d never much liked me; he thought I was pretty strange, and I probably was. But I always made it a point to stop at his office whenever I came to Tokyo to say hello. No one else was doing that anymore. “You know I never liked you, why do you always come to my office to greet me?” And I said to him, “You’re Koji Hase. I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for you. I don’t care about the others, I want to show you the respect you deserve.” We became drinking buddies, going to these expensive bars that I could never afford and letting the nights go by consuming bottle after bottle of whisky and soju, having what at least seemed like deep philosophical conversations.

With the successful launch of the China business, and my large role in it, I thought I was going to get promoted to VP. Then they promoted my counterpart in EMEA to VP but not me. I asked where my promotion was. And I found out that both the CIO and the supply chain SVP had blocked it. I’d made some pretty strong enemies.

So I started job hunting. I found something. Something that looked pretty good. Since my boss was a friend, I told him what was going on. He begged me to stay. He told me he’d get me the promotion I deserved. I turned down the other offer and stayed. He didn’t get me the promotion. To be exact about it, instead of being promoted to Vice President, I was promoted from Director to Executive Director, with no increase in salary. All I got out of the deal was a new business card.

(All of us Directors in the technology group in WB always had the same request – a business card that just said “Director” without mentioning our department or anything else. The request was always rejected.)

So I was pretty pissed off. But I managed to rationalize it. I was making a relatively large salary. I loved the people I was working with. My job wasn’t very difficult or stressful. (Asia represented around 10% of the company’s gross revenue. My boss was kept busy dealing with issues from the US and EMEA. As long as no one in Asia was complaining about me – and they never had any cause to – he basically left me alone to do my thing.) So I figured to myself, okay, I’ll just ride this out for a few more years. I’ll get my finances straightened out, sock some money away, and probably be able to retire when I’m 60 or 62.

But as they say, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

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If I’m So Smart Part Eight

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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.

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If I’m So Smart Part Seven

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I’d always wanted to live in San Francisco even though I hadn’t spent much time there previously. It just seemed to be the kind of place I would like. I got a service apartment and started looking for a job. It didn’t take long. Coming from a VP spot at Merrill, it took me no time at all to get a job at Schwab.

They put me in charge of the decimalization project, when the U.S. stock exchanges were converting from fractional to decimal pricing. Their theory was that this was almost the same kind of task as a Y2K project, so I’d be well-suited for it. I put together teams to work on management and methodology. I got onto some Securities Industry Association sub-committees. I was kept pretty busy.

On the other hand, I found myself in the midst of a political tug of war. My boss was a genuinely nice guy. Meanwhile the head of trading fancied himself to be another Wolf of Wall Street, larger than life kind of guy. I was caught in the middle and just wanted to get my work done.

Meanwhile I rented a house in Twin Peaks, with the hope that my wife would decide to join me in SF. With the economy booming, it was hard to find a nice place to rent. I went to this house and there must have been at least 10 other people looking at it at the same time. The owner of the house was Chinese, so I showed her my HK ID card and said she should rent to me. She asked me a question in Cantonese, I responded in Cantonese, and she said “the house is yours.”

So I had a job and a place to live but on a personal basis I didn’t know if I was coming or going. I was lonely but I didn’t want to start dating anyone because I was hoping that my wife and I would reconcile. My spare time was spent going to strip clubs, massage parlors and Taiwan night clubs (a friend introduced me to this somewhat hidden scene), all of which probably only served to make me feel lonelier. At a Korean massage parlor, the girl looked at me for a long time and said, “I’ll bet you were handsome when you were younger.” It was the first time someone had ever said that to me, but not the last.

The political mess at Schwab was getting worse but the job market was booming and pretty soon I had an offer from a start-up that was too good to turn down. This company had just closed their third round of funding and had raised a total of $300 million from top Sand Hill Road VCs. They had a veteran management team and a product that they planned to sell at a profitable price. They were offering even more money than Schwab was paying me plus 40,000 options. I accepted.

Before I started the new job I took a quick vacation. I flew out to Hong Kong, met up with my wife, and we went to Cebu together. A more permanent reunion seemed possible.

The new company was called Yipes and they were doing metro area and wide area gigabit networks. They leased dark fiber in all of the NFL cities and were building out the last mile from the fiber rings to major office buildings. I was in charge of getting all of the internal apps up and running as well as all of the external and internal web sites. It was a pretty good gig for awhile.

They kept shuffling the management team around. My first boss was one of the founders and we remain friends to this day. He got pushed aside after a few months and they brought in someone from one of the big telcos. We all wanted to hate her. The problem was she was beautiful, funny and smart. We all fell in love with her. And then she got pushed aside and this time we got stuck with the guy who was the head of the network stuff, and he was someone who was brilliant with that network stuff (he had several patents and he’s now a big cheese at Google) but had absolutely horrendous people management skills.

A little more than a year after I left Hong Kong, my wife quit her job in Hong Kong and moved to San Francisco to be with me. I was thrilled. I got her a dog and a car and things seemed to be going well for us.

She didn’t work at first. She wanted some time to get used to the U.S., which seemed fair. Her days were mostly spent taking the dog to dog parks or to the beach. Eventually she felt settled and got a job. But overall she didn’t like San Francisco and, to tell you the truth, neither did I. I was feeling as if leaving Hong Kong had been a mistake. I couldn’t really acclimate to life in the U.S. again. Getting around in SF sucked. The public transportation system couldn’t hold a candle to Hong Kong’s, it was impossible to find a taxi and impossible to park. If we wanted to try some hot new restaurant in the Mission, we would have to include an hour for looking for a parking spot. The only things I liked about SF were that you could get decent Asian food there and it was close to both Napa/Sonoma and Monterey/Carmel/Big Sur. One day my wife told me that she wanted to go back to Hong Kong and it would be with or without me. I was fine with going back but I had no idea of how to accomplish that.

My hot little start-up was not doing well. Earlier they’d turned down a $600 million acquisition offer, saying they thought the value was more like $2 billion. But they were burning through their VC money. Every building they “lit” cost them $100,000.  They built a world class and very expensive Network Operating Center in Denver that I had to visit once a month. I joked that I used to have a job that took me to Bangkok and Tokyo and now I had a job that took me to Denver. They were trying to close a fourth round of funding but it wasn’t looking good.

My wife and I drove down to Los Angeles for a week of sight seeing. I had a friend from high school, Don, living there. I knew he was at Warner Bros. but I didn’t know what he was doing there. We met him and his wife for dinner. My wife bitched about the U.S. and I bitched about my job. Don said, “Send me your resume.” “Why, what can you do?” “You don’t know, so send me your resume.” It turned out he was a senior vice president there with more than a little bit of power.

Around a month later I got a call. “Hi, this is Warner Bros. We have a new position in Hong Kong and Don says you’re the only man for the job. Are you interested in returning to Hong Kong?” Yes please.

I went down to L.A. for a series of interviews that culminated with the CFO of the home video division. I sat in front of him in his humongous office while he took phone call after phone call. He barely knew I was there. I figured I had to do something to catch this guy’s attention. I looked around the room and saw these huge framed portraits of Hollywood stars from the 30s and 40s – and one of Nastassja Kinski. So I asked about that. He stopped, looked around, and told me he’d never even realized it.

Outside of his office he had these racks that had every WB DVD. He told me that DVDs were starting to do really well for them and asked if I had a DVD player. I told him that I had three, not just one, and I had a rack of DVDs at home that resembled the rack outside of his office. He realized that I was a true movie lover – and actually there weren’t that many of those in Warner any more but he was definitely one. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, it was the start of a beautiful friendship. He became my mentor and we’re still close to this day.

I went back to San Francisco. My company was doing yet another round of layoffs. I went to talk to my boss and asked him if I was next. “I don’t know,” he said. “Never mind, I’m resigning, I’m going back to Hong Kong.” He was pretty surprised.

Before I left, and before the bottom dropped out of the telecom industry, I did a very dumb thing. I exercised all 40,000 of my options. Remember that $600 million offer that the company turned down? A year later the company would be sold for $2 million plus $18 million in assumed debt. My 40,000 shares were toilet paper.

I did a quick trip out to Hong Kong to meet the people I’d be working with and stopped off in Bangkok for a few days before coming back home to pack. At which point my wife had a surprise for me. She wanted to stay in San Francisco a little while longer, so I could go out to Hong Kong and get everything set up and she’d join me a few months later. (It turned out one reason for this was because she was having an affair with a co-worker.)

I returned to Hong Kong in August, 2001, 2 years and 4 months after I’d left. It felt like victory. Plus the fact that I was managing technology for a movie company (okay, it was the home video division but it was still a major Hollywood studio) made it feel as if everything had come full circle from my days as a film student.

 

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If I’m So Smart Part Six

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Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Wow, this is going on far longer than I expected. And it won’t finish with this part either.

1996. I leave Sybase and go to work for Merrill Lynch. Getting the job was easy. I walked into the interview and sitting there with my boss-to-be was a guy I’d worked with just a few months earlier. “I know this guy, he can do the job,” said my friend. And the job was mine.

The job wasn’t that difficult. There was this application being developed for the Operations Department. It was taking too long and the users had lost interest and walked away. I re-engaged them, got the damned thing working and delivered and everyone was happy.

Merrill of course offered a better package than Sybase, especially in terms of rent reimbursement. That 500 square foot flat in Happy Valley was fine for just me, but for me and S it was too damned small. We moved to Mid Levels, a new building with a swimming pool, club house and shuttle bus down to Central. But within six months of moving there, there was construction going on three sides of our building, with those earthshaking pile drivers pounding the area 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. We were just counting the days until we hit 12 months on the lease so we could give two months’ notice and get the hell out of there.

One day we were walking around in Macau. I stopped in front of a hotel to look at the poster for their sauna. “You know, you can get a hand job in there,” she said to me. “What? Come again?” That’s how little I knew at the time. “Go ahead, give it a try.” See, she had this idea that all white guys in Asia cheat on their girlfriends and wives and that I would do it too. She figured as long as I was going to do it, she didn’t want me to lie to her about it. So she told me to go ahead but set some rules – don’t do it too much, don’t do it with anyone I know (only with hookers and sauna girls), tell her every time I do it, and don’t forget about her. Looking back on it now, I should not have gone along with this, but I didn’t know at the time that I would get so far out of control. More on this later, maybe.

Meanwhile, S was unable to find a job and she was getting pissed off. She was bored and every time we did a visa run, they’d give her another month but the questions got tougher and more personal. Finally she’d had enough and gave me an ultimatum – either we get married or she was going back to KL. So we started planning the wedding.

We did the usual Hong Kong thing: pre-wedding photos in a studio, ceremony at City Hall, dim sum lunch at Maxim’s at City Hall, 12 course dinner in a Cantonese seafood restaurant in Mid Levels. My mother flew in from the U.S. and at some point during the dinner, my now-wife pulled her aside and told her, “I know you don’t like me but I’m married to your son now. Anything bad you say about me to him, I’ve asked him to tell me. So let’s just get along, okay?” Or something like that. We were all pretty drunk and used the turntables on the big round tables to play drinking games until closing time for the restaurant. It was a great night.

Back at Merrill, with one successful project under my belt, I was promoted to Assistant Vice President. Someone resigned, I got their job, and suddenly I was in charge of all back office technology in Hong Kong. I was an AVP and I had VP’s reporting to me. So I got promoted to VP, got an office and got a bigger package just when it was the right timing to get the hell out of Mid Levels. We went to Kennedy Road in Wanchai, a great huge flat in an older building. Our flat had a sauna in it. No shit, a small room off the kitchen lined in whatever the hell kind of wood they used for saunas. Flip some switches, turn some valves, sauna. Our landlady, who liked to come to parties at our place, told us that almost every night she and her husband would be sitting in front of the TV and at some point he’d yell out, “I’ll bet that gweilo’s using my sauna right now!” Our landlady was pretty hot. She came to all our parties. And every time, one of my friends would get drunk, get to flirting with her, go a bit too far and discover that she was quite the expert martial artist.

At this point, Merrill also put me in charge of all technology support for all “tier 3″ countries in Asia. At the time, this meant Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India. I managed the set-up for new offices, trade floors and data centers in Manila and Taipei – both of which were completed on time and under budget and worked flawlessly from day one. Then I worked on the tech part of a merger after Merrill bought a bank in Thailand. And I traveled to Jakarta immediately following the anti-Chinese riots so I could sit with my staff there and make sure they were okay; they gave me a tour of the burned out areas because they wanted people to see it and tell the world about it.

So I was traveling constantly. And I was partying constantly. I was infamous in Merrill. It got to the point where guys would come home, tell their wives they had a trip to X, and the first thing the wife would say was, “Is Spike going? If he is, you can’t go.”

I was writing down all of my adventures and, since this was the 90s, I was emailing my tales to a select group of friends. Unfortunately, on one of those trips, my wife got bored, sat down at my computer, and started going through my Sent folder in Outlook. The marriage survived that – and I should have taken that as a sign of how much she loved me, but I was too stupid to realize it at the time. I also deleted everything in Outlook – no back-up. So all of those tales are long gone, except for a few memories.

Anyway, here’s one story I can share. The Thailand project was almost done and my wife had just quit her job. I told her to come to Bangkok with me, that she could spend all day in saunas and shopping and we’d go out every night and then we’d stay through the weekend for sight-seeing.

The first night in town she said to me, “Okay, I want to see what you do every night. Take me to the places you go to.” Gulp. I wasn’t about to do that. So I took her to Patpong and we went into one of those bars where the girls did things with ping pong balls and darts. We sat there for awhile and watched. She turned to me and said, “This is really boring. I can’t believe this is what you do every night.” Well, she had me dead to rights, and I confessed that it wasn’t. “Well, tomorrow night you better take me to where you really go!”

So the second night we went to my then-favorite spot, the Long Gun on Soi Cowboy. We’re sitting there and she says to me, “Some of these girls are really cute.” Duh. “That one over there, she’s not with anyone, call her over, buy her a drink, I want to see how you operate.” Um, no. “If you don’t do it, I will.” And she did. She brought the girl over to our table, ordered a drink for her, put the girl’s hands in my lap, my hands in the girl’s lap. And then she started talking to the girl. She wanted to know what it was like to work there, all the details. My wife could speak a little Thai and they started becoming friends.

Soon, this girl invited all of her friends over to our table. One of the other girls was having a birthday and before we knew it, we had 20 girls, birthday cakes and bottles of champagne. But all 20 of these girls were talking to my wife; they all completely ignored me. “See that guy over there,” my wife said, pointing at me. “That’s my husband. Next time he comes in here, take good care of him!” Oh joy.

The third night, she was sick and didn’t want to go out. I told her we could stay in and just watch TV. She wanted to sleep and told me I should go out, but she gave me two rules: don’t fuck anyone else and when I come back, tell her everything I did. So I went back to the Long Gun.

I walked into the bar and every girl in the bar came running up to me. “Where’s your wife?” “She’s not feeling well, she’s back at the hotel.” And they all ran away. Except for one. We’d spotted her the night before. Her face was so ugly and her body was so bad that we’d named her Optimistic, because the thought that she could earn a living this way with those looks had to be an act of pure optimism. So I let Optimistic sit with me and I bought her a drink. “Let’s go hotel,” she’d say. “Nope, sorry, cannot.”

I got back to the hotel and my wife was sitting up in bed, feeling better. “Now tell me everything you did.” When I got to the part about sitting with Optimistic, she got real quiet. “What’s the matter?” “Okay, let me get this straight. You went to a bar with 50 cute girls and you chose the ugly one.” “Yeah, it was no temptation this way, I thought you’d be happy.” “You went to a bar with 50 cute girls and you chose the ugly one. And you chose me. Are you trying to tell the world you think I’m ugly?” She jumped up on the bed and started beating me and screaming. Each word was punctuated with a punch. “Next! Time! You! Go! In! There! You! Go! With! The! Cute! Ones!”

The happy times would not last. First, I was put on the worst possible project. I was put in charge of Y2K for the entire region. It was a miserable project that no one wanted to be involved in. Plus, I hadn’t realized that as an expat, I couldn’t remain where I was forever. At the end of 1998, my boss came to me and told me he’d done the budget for 1999 and he was moving me to Mumbai. I told him that there was no way my wife would follow me there so I didn’t want to go. He said that I wasn’t in the Hong Kong budget and if I didn’t want to go to Mumbai, I could go back to New York, but I didn’t want that either. So he did an incredible favor for me. The Asian financial crisis was starting to hit, they were laying off hundreds in the region, and he laid me off so that I could get a huge severance package, which included relocation back to the U.S.

Staying in Hong Kong wasn’t an issue. My wife was working steadily and I could have gotten a dependent visa through her. But it was, as I said, the financial crisis. There were no senior jobs to be had in banking IT in Hong Kong, at least none that I could find. I got tired of sitting there every day doing nothing and reading about how in Silicon Valley programmers were getting BMW’s as signing bonuses. So I told my wife that I’d be using my relocation package to go to San Francisco, where I had family and friends and there were presumably jobs to be had.

There was one problem though. She’d gotten very tired of my constant misbehaving. And I did something very, very bad at a party in our flat one night (which I won’t go into now). Just to be clear, the problems weren’t all caused by me. She had issues (it wouldn’t be fair for me to detail them here) that she refused to deal with and that had somewhat distanced me from her. So she said that she wouldn’t be going to the U.S. with me, she was going to stay in Hong Kong. We were splitting up. We divided up our stuff – half to go to the apartment she’d be renting, half to be shipped to the U.S.

I spent my last few nights in Hong Kong in a harbor view room at the Grand Hyatt, very depressed. My last night in town, I went to Ricky & Pinky in Wanchai and got my first tattoo. I just picked something off the wall – a dragon wrapped around a crescent moon.

I’m sitting there getting tattooed and this gorgeous girl walks in with four guys. They sit down and start talking. She comes over to me and says, very sweetly, with an American accent, “Excuse me, where are you from?” “I’m from New York City.” “Well why the fuck don’t you get your fucking tattoo in New York City then motherfucker?”  “Um, er, uh, I live here.” “Oh.” She went back to the four guys, they talked for a bit and left.

The tattoo guy asked me if I wanted any writing to go with the picture. I thought, it’s my last night in Hong Kong, I didn’t know if I’d ever be returning. I told him to write “Hong Kong” in Chinese.

And so, 1999, almost exactly four years from when I first arrived, I got on a plane and left Hong Kong for what I thought would be the final time.

 

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Are They Really This Stupid in China?

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From the SCMP:

The business community must be protected when Hong Kong introduces universal suffrage, which is why the nominating committee and functional constituencies are needed, a mainland legal scholar says.

Wang Zhenmin said the business sector could not be drowned out by the crowd when “one man, one vote” arrives, because their role in keeping Hong Kong prosperous was vital to the city’s future.

So I guess the answer is “yes.”

Because in countries that do have one-person one-vote, businesses are suffering?

Or perhaps because he thinks that people might vote against their own best interests, they might elect a candidate who might cause damage to their employers?

Or is he saying that the best interests of businesses are diametrically opposed to the best interests of people and that those business interests should be protected at the expense of people?

I mean, why the fuck would this dime store shyster law professor think that the best interests of Hong Kong are somehow different from the best interests of Hong Kong people?

My mind, it boggleth.

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If I’m So Smart Part Five

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aka The Never Ending Story?

Part one, Part two, Part three, Part four

This entry covers just one year. I tell people I was reborn when I moved to Hong Kong and I mean it. My first year in Hong Kong, despite some notable lows, was one of the best years of my life.

April, 1995, I arrive at Kai Tak with two suitcases and a backpack. I’m ready to start my life in Hong Kong. But when I arrived, my boss had an unpleasant surprise for me. In order to get the New York office to agree to transfer me, he had to agree to loan me back to them. So within days of arriving in Hong Kong, I was on a plane back to New Jersey. I spent several weeks in a miserable roadside motel in Jersey, right in the middle of the state, too long a drive to go to either NYC or Philly, night after night alone in that motel watching TV. I was feeling pretty miserable.

I got back to Hong Kong from that and within days they put me on a plane again, this time to Kuala Lumpur. I had never heard of Kuala Lumpur. I had no idea where it was or even how long it took to get there. I had to look it up on the Internet.

I went down there for some meetings with a Malaysian bank. We had one person stationed down there on the project, a nice Jewish Canadian guy and his wife, and they took me around a little bit, showing me the sites. The KL branch of the Hard Rock Cafe was in the lobby of the hotel I was staying in, so that gave me a place to hang out – and my first experience with an Asian hooker. I’m not going to go into any details here. I’ll just say that I was lonely, it was my birthday and I thought it would be okay to buy myself a present.

Finally in June I got back to Hong Kong and could start putting together a life there. I found a small apartment in Happy Valley. It had a view of the race track (everything except the finish line) and since my office was in Times Square, I could walk to work. It was a furnished 2 bedroom flat – they told me it was 700 square feet but I think it was closer to 500. The living room was furnished with all this junky stuff with plastic horses heads. The mattress was so bad that I had to sleep on the floor; finally I bought my own mattress but the landlord would neither collect the old one nor let me toss it, so it filled up the 2nd bedroom almost completely.

I started making friends in the office. I told the local guys, “When you go for lunch, please bring me along. You don’t have to go to any special place, you don’t have to order any special food, you don’t need to talk in English.” “Really?” “Really. I want to learn by going where you go and seeing what you do.”

There was also a Canadian guy in the office who’d arrived just a few months before me. He taught me his “restaurant game.” Pick a side of the street, pick a number – for example “left 5.” And then go to the 5th restaurant on the left no matter what it was. It worked out quite well for us.

There was, naturally, an incredibly beautiful local woman in the office. It was all I could do to keep my tongue from hanging out of my mouth whenever I saw her. I found out that her father owned the franchise for a major automobile brand in Hong Kong. I asked her if she ever dated white guys and she said no. I asked her why not. “If I dated a white guy and my father found out, he’d take my car away, and I could never let that happen.”

A few months went by and I was sent back to Kuala Lumpur again, this time with 3 other guys from the Hong Kong office and this time for a month. The first great thing about this trip was that the hotel was a block away from Jalan Alor, a famous night time food street. We went there every night and ate like kings for very little money.

One restaurant on the street was called Fatt Tuck Choy. We sat outside and I noted that our waitress was extremely cute. We came back two nights later and before we sat down, I walked up to her and asked, “Did ya miss me?” and without missing a beat she nodded her head and said “yes.” The next time we came back she came right up to me and asked, “Did ya miss me?” and I said, “Of course, that’s why I’m back!” I thought this might get interesting.

Our first weekend there was a three day weekend. We woke up the morning of the holiday and decided to rent a car and go up to Cameron Highlands. We went to various car rental agencies, none of which had cars available, which left the four of us standing around just cracking insane jokes. Then I said, “Hey, our hotel has a travel desk. We’re staying there for a month. They have to figure something out for us.” The woman at the travel desk was wearing the shortest possible skirt and the tightest possible blouse. Every joke we made, she threw right back in our faces and topped. And after telling us we were all insane, she somehow managed to find a rental car for us. This woman, S, would become my second wife.

So we get in the car and for some reason everyone decides I should drive. I had only driven right-side drive once before in my life and that was ten years ago. Within 15 minutes, I managed to hit a bus – a bus that was standing still. The entire left side of the car was smashed in, but not bad enough that we couldn’t still use it for the weekend. We had our weekend in Cameron Highlands, driving through rainforests and touring tea plantations and staying in little shacks. It was great. When we returned the car, S just looked at us in disbelief. I paid for all the repairs and it was all cool.

Every time I’d go through the hotel lobby, if S was at the travel desk, I’d stop and talk with her. At the same time, I was also trying to pursue the waitress from Fatt Tuck Choy. It turned out her family owned that restaurant. She was going to university during the day and waitressing at night, and would only agree to meet me in the afternoons for coffee.

For the following weekend, one of my companions and I booked a package for Langkawi. But before the trip, one night, my 3 co-workers went out without me to a nearby bar. When they got there, they saw S, who was ruling the pool tables. They each took turns playing pool with her, buying her drinks and hitting on her. They all struck out. But they told me she asked them, “Where’s the other guy, the crazy one?” That was enough for me. I had to ask her out.

When I went to the desk to pick up the Langkawi tickets I asked her out on a date. She said she was working half a day on Sunday, she knew what time my flight landed, and if I could get back to the hotel before her shift was over, she would consider having dinner with me.

Langkawi was a pretty strange place. The Malaysian government was trying to pitch it as a tourist destination but there wasn’t too much there at the time. The first bad news was that the hotel had screwed up the reservation. The only room they had for me and my friend had just a single queen sized bed, which we had no choice except to share. It was especially pleasant the second night, when he started having stomach problems.

Anyway, the first night, I’d noticed a sign for some sort of disco. I walked half a mile down the road back to that sign, which pointed to a trail that led through the woods. After walking through the forest, I came to a barn. There was a guy sitting in front of the barn wearing a sport jacket and tie. I paid the cover charge and went inside. There was a stage, a lot of tables and sofas, a few waitresses and me. After awhile a band came out on stage and played a song by Fleetwood Mac and a song by Santana and then everything after that was Malaysian pop songs. After an hour, not many people had shown up and I left. I got back to the main road and got chased back to the hotel by a pack of wild dogs. I stopped in at the hotel bar where there was a Filipino band playing American country and western songs.

The next night, my friend was sick and there didn’t seem to be anything to do or anywhere to go. I walked across the street from the hotel to this small roadside restaurant. Everyone was sitting outside watching a really bad VHS bootleg of a really bad movie. I stood there for a few minutes. No one saw me. Finally I cleared my throat. Everyone jumped up and stared. “Um, er, can I get a coke?” They got me a coke and got me a chair and put me in the front row and I sat there and watched the rest of the movie and played with the kids.

Finally, Sunday, fly back to KL, taxi back to the hotel, me staring at my watch hoping I’d make it back in time. S was still there and we went out for dinner and talked non-stop through the evening. The next day, I called her to ask her out on another date. “There’s something I didn’t tell you last night,” she said. “What? You’re really a man?” “No. I’m married.” Oh. She went on to explain that she liked having western friends because she liked the western sense of humor and if I wanted to go out with her as a friend, that would be great. Oh.

And then, back to Hong Kong. I was ready to take my first Asian vacation and decided to go to Phuket. I also signed up in advance for a scuba diving course. And then I thought to myself, “Hmmm, I know there are girls in Bangkok but maybe there are no girls in the rest of Thailand. Maybe I should invite someone to join me.” So I called the Filipino girl I’d met in February. I told her that I would pay for everything. I also warned her that I would be taking scuba lessons every day but she would be free to sit by the pool and order poolside service to her heart’s content. She agreed to join me.

I got there a few days before she did. I was staying in Patong Beach. Yeah, I figured out what’s up there pretty quickly. Two days later, my friend came to join me and I also figured out pretty quickly that inviting her was a mistake. She did nothing but complain and we couldn’t wait for the trip to be over and to get away from each other.

Back to Hong Kong and back to Kuala Lumpur. S saw me at the hotel and kept after me to go out for dinner or a drink. I kept trying to get out of it but she kept after me and finally we started going out as friends. I kept thinking that I liked her too damned much and thought that maybe her marriage was on rocky ground, or perhaps I was just hoping it was.

About a month later, we went out for dinner and got pretty blasted. Then she took me to a nightclub where her best friend worked as a hostess. I was surrounded by gorgeous women and had to work overtime not to stare at anyone other than S, and these girls were trying their hardest to distract me too. And then, around 2 in the morning, S ended up back at my hotel room.

So now I’m back in Hong Kong. S and I are talking on the phone for hours every night. There was no Skype, no nothing, I was spending thousands per month on phone bills. Every weekend I’d fly back to KL. The problem was that since she was a travel agent and her husband was a tour guide, they were both known in every 5 star hotel in town. So we stayed in love hotels and snuck around hoping that we wouldn’t be spotted by anyone she knew.

But one night she said she wanted to take me to her favorite restaurant. She said they were like family there, that she had known the family that runs the place since she was a little kid and played mah jong with them on a regular basis. Can you guess which restaurant it was? Yeah, it was Fatt Tuck Choy. We get there and the whole family comes running out but they all ignore S and coming running up to me and hugging me. All except for that waitress, who refused to come out of the kitchen the whole time, just sticking her head out now and then to stare at us.

A few more months passed and S decided she was going to get a divorce and move to Hong Kong to be with me. I told her that I figured that even though she had no college, since she spoke ten languages she could probably find a job easily enough. This did not turn out to be the case and so every month we were doing visa runs to Macau.

Meanwhile my work was now keeping me in Hong Kong. I did little bits and pieces of things for the Hospital Authority, the Police Force, Octopus Card and the Jockey Club. I wasn’t working on anything substantial and I was getting bored and it probably showed.

I tried switching over to pre-sales but it wasn’t a great fit either. Then things went seriously south. We had a client in Hong Kong who was having a huge performance problem. It was something that I could have solved in a one minute phone call. But the sales guy on the account wanted to sell them a consulting engagement and I was forbidden to just give them the solution on the phone.  All I could say was, “Yes, I know how to solve it, you have to pay US$2,000 a day and I’ll come in and fix it for you.” And they couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t do it for free. So they called up the general manager and complained.

He brought me into his office along with the sales rep. He started yelling at me, saying that I can’t talk to a big customer like that and that maybe it was time that I should return to New York. You’d think the sales rep might have spoken up at that point and said, “he was just following my instructions.” No, that dickless wonder sat there and stared at his shoes.

So the GM finished his explosion, the sales guy was quiet and I said, “It’s okay, I’ve got another job. I’m giving you my notice right now. And by the way, ask idiot over there why he’s not telling you that all I did was follow the instructions

I hit my one year anniversary there and my boss said it was probably time for me to go back to New York. I told him, “That’s okay because actually I was going to resign today. I’ve got another job.” And I did.

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Translating Hong Kong

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I’ve been told that Hong Kong slang changes so rapidly that machine translation cannot keep up with the pace of change. I keep encountering these translations when I’m looking at reviews on Open Rice. I don’t put much stock in any of the reviews there – I use Open Rice for addresses and opening hours and usually the photos are enough to tell me what I need to know.

Anyway, when I was in London I had this Swedish cider one night, Kopparberg, and I really liked it. I didn’t think I’d find it back in Hong Kong but sure enough it’s here. They’ve got an ad in this week’s HK Magazine listing the bars that stock it. One is a restaurant in Tai Wo, just 10 minutes away from me. The restaurant name is Loosen. I don’t think I could come up with a worse name for a restaurant if I tried. User ratings total out so far at 3 yummy, 5 OK, and 4 get me out of here. No English language review but several in Chinese. Google translated them for me. Here are some of the reviews, with some bits I’ve put in bold.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

After the first one, such as the left front of spaghetti.

amount Wusuan much, but because the Department of Cream Sauce relations department, the Department for me to talk about Lebanon just good, but if a man should eat Well enough! 
first bite down to taste …. 
@ @ Link salty o both?! 
taste salty, but how many have expected, there are a lot of mushrooms with bacon, and finally I have tan lines food dish …

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This restaurant location is not in the downtown area, unless it is the gall bladder, or are more difficult to find, has opened half a year, always wanted to try - decoration good, very style.

Honestly not clear hand in hand to fight what is not hit big difference, this is a soft cow Hamburg has gravy, hash browns is to the other ingredients and is not due to a folder, dispensable. Postprandial attached coffee produced by the coffee machine, do not fall under the expectation is not bad, a little smell of coffee, it is easy to drink. The price of lunch at Tai Yi injustice, we can say value for money, but not excellent.

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Department of Noma it really incredible, the first tease to fight food critic! Not even a fitting beginning to see a mistake, recite try to live it. I have to have four people sitting on a low left unattended for some time over the menu and I have to, to be called the canal until the first carry than I can count, you see new restaurants are considered secondary.After Dixia seats are a few cards GOD Figure attract, and then Dixia prices are Wusuan level. Honestly, the Department of Tai Li stresses eating a grilled meal $ 178 $ 98 food a Spaghetti Wusuan department level. You sell it a price I Do not ask you to take food, but the department should not even hard to eat. I left two to four people called three mature mature generous pork chop a generous eye of a seven day activity Alessandro Carboni spaghetti, after dumping dollars on the side of the side and so on. Waited and waited 20 minutes left Ciwu Duo, etc., began to have a little patience Well. Why is a soup-resistant neither Li Han, I have to pour more than five minutes. Well is preparing to ask the Drainage can be left GOD soup to drink than I lived generous first time, LOADS OF JOY Link canal began to slowly tighten over Lebanon. A soup generous big fine …… Well critical, a generous drink slightly warm near freezing. Count, I waited soup Nuisance baa requirements Haonai finally left on my way La generous entrees.

 It is not a Noma, no longerhuffyhuffyhuffyhuffyhuffysadhuffy

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Well, you get the idea. The idea I get from the reviews is that people are accusing them of serving frozen food. Whether that’s true or not, there are 490 restaurants in Tai Po and those that are serving western food mostly range from acceptable to horrendous. (Backyard Bistro the sole exception in my experience.) At this point even a branch of Ebeneezers would be a step up.

 

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If I’m So Smart, Part Four (!)

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Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

And the story continues ….

So it’s 1994 and I get the call that my dream is coming true and I will be going to Tokyo. Ten days, all expenses paid, teaching two classes at a western bank. I’m giddy with excitement.

And then a moment of panic. I’ve never had sushi in my life. It didn’t exist in the U.S. when I was a kid and it wasn’t something I sought out as an adult. It was something I made bad jokes about. (“If I’m going to eat at a restaurant, I expect them to cook the food.” Rim shot.) But I figured I didn’t want to embarrass myself in Tokyo and I’d better do something about it before I got there.

I got in my rental car and drove down to Atlanta from Norcross and stopped at the first sushi place I could find. I sat down and told the waitress, “I’ve never eaten this in my life. Give me an assortment and don’t tell me what anything is.” I was afraid that lifelong built-in prejudices would kick in if she told me that something was octopus brains or guppy gonads. She brought me a plate with 8 different things, I ate them all – and liked them all. “Okay, tell me now, what was the pink one, what was the white one ….”

When I arrived in Tokyo, I was the epitome of the dumb American tourist. “Oh look, they have trees!” My hotel was on the dividing line between Shinbashi and Ginza, if I recall correctly. I dumped my bags in the room and hit the streets. It was night time. I walked around with no idea of where I was going. I met some Japanese businessmen. They were already drunk and it was a scene from every guidebook you’ve ever read. “Can we practice speaking English with you?” “Okay.” Laughter. “Where are you from?” “America.” Laughter. “What do you think of Japan?” “It’s beautiful.” Laughter. Apparently I was the funniest person they’d ever met. But not funny enough for them to invite me to join them for a drink. Oh well.

I got to the office the next day just in time for lunch. “We’re going out for lunch. Do you eat sushi?” “Of course!”

It turns out I wasn’t supposed to go to the local office. They were quite unhappy to find out that the Hong Kong office had booked a Tokyo job. Well, no one warned me.

There was one American working in that office and he took me around Roppongi that night. Mogambo, Geronimo, Motown House, Baccarat, all the popular gaijin spots.  It was really easy to meet people and make connections. There weren’t as many westerners there as there are today. So if you were in a bar and saw another white guy, you instantly had something in common and would start talking. And one other thing I found out – white guys were in season. We were the latest fashion accessory for Japanese girls. Having a foreign boyfriend was seen as a desirable thing, and they went out in packs in Roppongi hunting for us. At least, that’s what I was told.

The next day I started work. Midway through that morning, an earthquake hit. It was the first earthquake I’d ever been in. It was a small tremor, nothing to worry about, but my heart leapt into my mouth as my students all ran to the window to watch the other buildings sway back and forth. I got over it quickly enough. The next time there was an earthquake and everyone jumped up, I looked at them and said, “What’s the matter? It’s just an earthquake. You have them every day. Sit down. Back to work.”

Nights were a drunken haze. For most of my first week, I was the ugliest Ugly American ever to go to Tokyo. Every night I got drunk and every night I acted like a total asshole. It took about a week for me to settle down. I scolded myself. “What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you acting like this? What gives you the right? Just because you’re in a foreign country? Because these women are Asian?” I calmed down and went back to being myself and almost immediately after that I found myself a Japanese girlfriend.

Actually, she found me. The temperatures in Tokyo were running above 40 degrees, even at night. One night I barely made it up the stairs to Geronimo. I walked in, closed the door, and collapsed against the wall in a puddle of sweat. This woman at the table right next to where I was schvitzing invited me to sit with them. She was cute but her friend was even cuter. The only problem was that she was passed out. She woke up eventually and the three of us went to Gas Panic to dance. And at some point the cute one, the one who was passed out earlier, asked me if I wanted to meet her the following night.

My friends told me, “She’s Japanese, she’s not going to show up to meet a gaijin alone. She’ll bring a friend.” She showed up alone. And we were together a lot after that. She was a nihilist. She always dressed all in black and wondered pessimistically what was the point in almost everything. But she was also as sweet and as nice as anyone you could hope to meet. One thing I remember – one day we went walking through a Japanese garden and an elderly Japanese man came up to us. She translated for me. “He’s wondering if you, as a foreign barbarian, can appreciate the beauty of a Japanese garden.” I smiled and told him I thought it was really beautiful. That made him happy.

I finished my work after ten days. I didn’t want to leave. I had some vacation time coming so I just stayed on. I moved to a cheaper hotel with a tiny little room that didn’t even give me enough space to open my suitcase; I had to drag it out into the hallway. Every morning I’d check my bank balance and my vacation balance and push back my return flight by another two days. I met a much-younger Jewish Canadian woman and started spending a lot of time with her. I was surviving on McDonald’s every day, the cheapest thing I could find, until I finally discovered ramen shops. I think I had ramen 3 meals a day for the rest of my stay there.

I don’t remember exactly now, but I was there for somewhere between 3 and 4 weeks. I finally ran out of money and ran out of vacation time and had to go back to my empty life in New York. I said goodbye to my new friends and told them I’d be back.

As it turns out, it was four years until I got back to Tokyo. I stayed in touch with both of those women via letters for years. I never saw the Canadian woman l again. It was 4 or 5 years until I saw the Japanese woman again, and at this point I was married to my second wife. We still traded emails from time to time until she got engaged. Her fiance found out about me and somehow felt threatened by our platonic friendship and wrote to me, asking me to stop emailing her. I figured if she found someone and she was happy, I was happy for her.

I was determined to find a job in Tokyo and move there. I called headhunters like crazy. I sent my resume everywhere. Nothing. Not even a nibble.

And then 5 months later, someone pointed out to me that the company I was working for had an opening in their Hong Kong office. The job requirements fit me to a “t” – they wanted a Principal Consultant who was also an architect. As near as I could tell, I was the only person to apply for the job. I think I was the only Principal Consultant in the company who was single and free to make that kind of move. Plus the Hong Kong office remembered how well my Tokyo gig had gone for them.

I thought to myself, “Well, it’s not Tokyo, but it’s closer to Tokyo than New York.” I told my company that I’d never been to Hong Kong, I wasn’t sure if I would like it, and would they fly me out there for a week so I could check it out and see if I really wanted to move there. They agreed.

So in February 1995 I made my first trip to Hong Kong. I felt comfortable from the minute I landed at Kai Tak. I knew no one in Hong Kong, but someone in my office in New York had a friend there. He gave me his number and wrote to the guy to tell him I’d be coming. My first night in Hong Kong, that guy brought me to Wanchai. At Rick’s Cafe, he ran into a girl he knew, and she was there with a friend. That friend and I hit it off pretty well. My friend dragged me to more bars until finally I told him, “I’m still thinking about that girl at Rick’s. I’m gonna go back and see if she’s still there.”

She was still there. We drank and talked some more. She was a television producer from Manila, visiting Hong Kong on a business trip. We went to the MTR to head back to our respective hotels. On the train she turned to me and said, “I’d invite you back to my hotel but I’m sharing my room with someone.” To be honest, I’m not sure that the meaning of that sentence really registered with me. Without stopping to think, I replied, “I’ve got my own hotel room.” And she said, “Okay.” And came back to my hotel with me.

So now my first day in Hong Kong is over. I’m thinking that I’ve lived in New York for decades and can’t meet a woman to save my life; I’m in Hong Kong one day, I know no one, and I’m getting laid. Yes, I can live here.

Of course I wasn’t going to tell them that in the office. I wanted to let the entire week go by before announcing my decision. My future boss decided to play tour guide and show me some of the other benefits of Hong Kong. One day we were walking around Aberdeen. He suggested we should go to Lamma for seafood. We just missed the ferry so he suggested that we get a sampan. We found one, got in, and the woman took us out of the harbor. Then she put on her coat, rubbed cream on her hands, handed me the tiller, pointed out into the fog and lay down and went to sleep.  So now I’m driving a sampan through one of the most congested shipping lanes in the world and it’s so foggy I can’t see where I’m going let alone what’s around me. Somehow we made it to Lamma. We had to wake the woman up because we couldn’t figure out how to cut the engine. She asked if she should wait to give us a ride back. “What, you’re gonna want another nap?” I asked.

I’d made a little list of ten things to do to see if I could survive in Hong Kong on my own. One thing on the list was to have a dim sum lunch by myself. I walked around Causeway Bay and Wanchai and couldn’t figure out which restaurants served dim sum or would even speak English. Finally I passed a restaurant that had a “Welcome” carpet in front. “English! I’ll try here!” I went upstairs and waited. I saw other people coming in and getting seated by the hostess. I thought to myself, “Jeez, is this like Tokyo, they don’t want to deal with foreigners?” I went up to the hostess and said, “What about me?” “I thought you were waiting for other people,” she replied in perfect English. Of course. Because who goes for a dim sum lunch alone? She seated me at a big round table already occupied by a couple in their 70s. They saw how clueless I was and helped me order and showed me how to eat, even sharing some of their food with me. Yes indeed, I could live in Hong Kong.

So that was it. Back to New York and two months to get ready for the move. I got rid of a lot of stuff and put almost everything else into long term storage. I arrived in Hong Kong in April 1995 with just two suitcases, ready to start my new life.

 

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