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.