Category Archives: SpikeLife

Posts about me

Now I Feel Dumb(er than usual)

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So I got my iPhone 6 on Wednesday. On Friday morning, I dropped it. It dropped onto the pavement, screen side down. The above is the result.

Well, okay, people drop stuff every day. Just my bad luck that I dropped an iPhone that was only three days old. Made somewhat worse by the fact that I managed to lose my iPhone 5s less than two months ago (though I never spent any money to replace it, knowing the iPhone 6 would be coming soon).

Here’s the painful part. When I bought the phone, I bought one of those oversized Otter cases (the Otter Commuter). It’s a case that has one case within another case and edges that extend higher than the phone screen for maximum protection.

Then on Thursday I decided that case was too chunky in my pocket and got a cheapo slim plastic case. If I’d still been using that Otter case on Friday, probably the phone would have survived the drop just fine. (And no, I don’t mean this to be an advertisement.)

No, I didn’t want to go to Mong Kok and get some cheapie repair job done. Not for the screen, which is so important. And who knows if those shops even have spare parts (original or otherwise) for the iPhone 6 yet?

So I called Apple support. I was told that I couldn’t just walk into a store with the broken phone, I needed an appointment. Then the guy on the phone couldn’t locate the Hong Kong Apple stores (because the call center isn’t in HK, naturally). He asked me for my postal code. So I told him where the stores were. And all 3 Apple stores in HK are fully booked for the next 6 days (no big surprise really), which is as far in advance as that system can show.

Apple has third party authorized service centers, so the support guy gave me the details on those. I called them first to get the story. They’re not doing replacement parts, they’re just issuing new phones. And I would have to pay HK$2,920. And wait 3 business days. Well, either that or junking the thing, so of course I’m going to go for it. (And, when you think about it, it’s a decent enough deal that I can pay roughly 40% of the original price to get a new one when I’m the one who messed up the original.)

I get to the repair place. I go to the counter and show the girl the back of my phone first. “iPhone 6!” Then I turn it around and point at the screen. Her mouth drops open. I ask, “Am I the first?” And they all laugh.

Then the girl panics. I’m guessing she’s used to dealing with yelling foreigners and has already anticipated my response when she tells me what I have to pay. So I look at her and say, “I already know.” She lets out a huge sigh of relief.

So now … waiting for the call to get the replacement. And not going to cheap out on the case for the next one.

Sigh.

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If I’m So Smart – Afterword

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Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11, Part 12

Thanks to everyone for the kind notes sent to me throughout my writing of this series. I heard from people via comments here as well as via Twitter, Google +, Facebook, email and even other blogs. It helped encourage me to finish the series – and to get it finished in a relatively short span of time. When I started down this road, I had no idea that I would end up writing as much as I did. And yet, as I’m sure you realize, what I have written and published here is a very abridged version of the story.

So, I hear you ask, what motivated me to write and share all of this? There are many answers to that question.

For years, people have told me that I should write a book. And it’s not just friends – I’ve had one publisher tell me that he would be interested to publish such a book, should I ever finish it. I’ve given these suggestions a lot of thought on many occasions. There’s a million reasons to write a book but the question for me has always been why would anyone want to read a book written by and about me? As vain and egotistical as I can sometimes be, why would I put in all of that effort to write something that no one would read?

Of course there is a huge market for autobiographies from celebrities and historical figures. If Bill Clinton or Neil Young writes and publishes an autobiography, they have a huge built-in audience. But I don’t think having a blog that gets between 500 and 1,000 hits a day qualifies me as a celebrity.

There are plenty of other kinds of autobiographies as well. What is their purpose for existing? These books usually have to have some larger purpose. Such a book would need to impart lessons learned or reveal details of an interesting life to an audience hopefully eager to learn about these sorts of things, whatever they may be.

So in thinking about writing my autobiography, what would be the lessons to impart? What would be my elevator pitch, the blurb on the back cover that would get people who have never heard of me interested enough to spend a few hours in my “company”?

When I was growing up, I would look out of my apartment window at the people on my block. These were mostly people who would be born, grow up, get married, have kids and die on the same street. I didn’t want to be one of them. I wanted to get as far away from them as possible – and I succeeded. I got to travel to, see and even live in fabulous places and have friends from across the globe. I got to be as comfortable on the streets of Taipei, Tokyo and Shanghai as I was on the streets of my native New York. I got to meet, date and have sex with more beautiful women than I can begin to count.

I’ve told myself, more than once and only half in jest, that the theme of my autobiography would be the tale of someone who got to live a life he wouldn’t have even dared to fantasize about when younger. And through it all, I remained a person who learned absolutely fucking nothing.

That might make for a good read.

Another reason for an autobiography might be to present a story that has a beginning, middle and an end, a story that contains a clear emotional arc, hopefully a story that might be of interest to some portion of the public out there.

Looking back at my life, one story that I feel could stand relatively on its own and that might make for an interesting read would be the story of my relationship with “T” (and long time blog readers will know exactly what I mean). That’s a story with a beginning, a middle and an end and definitely an emotional arc. There was also a lesson learned, perhaps more than one – although it wasn’t until a few years after the story ended that I truly comprehended what a colossal asshole I had been during all of this and how much of the insanity was my fault. But there is an arc there, there’s a description of a lifestyle that few have or will encounter, and there are lessons potentially worth sharing with a wider audience.

My inspiration is Henri-Pierre Roche. Most of you have little idea of who he was. He was a French journalist, art collector and dealer. He sold his art gallery when he was in his 60s and wrote two books. The first was published when he was 74 years old and it was called Jules and Jim.  It was a thinly fictionalized remembrance of a love triangle from 50 years earlier in his life. The book came out in 1952 and it didn’t sell very many copies. It seemed destined for remainder bins and landfills. But one day Francois Truffaut came across the book and in 1962 released a film of the same name starring Jeanne Moreau and Oskar Werner. The film is one of the great films of all time and in the ensuing 50 years, Roche’s book has been translated into dozens of languages and has never gone out of print.

I find this story inspirational on many different levels – a man who gave his life to commerce creating a piece of enduring art before he died; a work of art that was ignored for a decade and then discovered and has stood the test of time.

So I pulled together all of the material I could from my earlier blog and other sources. I loaded it all on my laptop. I’ve spent three years re-writing the introduction – and a good part of that time just on the opening sentence.

So by positioning this “If I’m So Smart, How Come I’m Not Rich” thing so publicly, it forced me to knock out something in a brief span of time. Of course it’s only a summary and I have completely omitted key events that I don’t want to be so public about – at least not for the time being. But it gives me a rough outline to work from and a treatment (along with some sample chapters that will not be posted) to show to a select audience.

Almost everything I write for the blog is a first draft. I’m not the kind of writer who does a first draft and then edits and edits and edits until something is all polished and shiny before I click the “publish” button here. I finding writing very easy. I finding editing agonizingly painful. I understand why it takes Leonard Cohen years to finish a song. I can stare at a single sentence for two hours debating the structure and the choices of words. I will work it and rework far past the point of normal obsession. And I look back at everything I write and publish here – even this stuff from the past ten days – and I’m appalled by the mistakes I’ve made, not to mention seeing 2,000 things that I could have written better. A grammatical error here, a missing detail there, an adjective repeated one time too often, a phrase that could be vastly improved upon.

Writing this, reading it, editing it is a step in confronting the issues that have held me back in life and in coming up with a plan to deal with these issues.

I understand that a combination of factors has held me back in life. The first is fear of failure, coupled with the fear of not being any damned good at anything – or worse, being unable to recognize and properly exploit those things that I would be good at. If I’ve thought about being a writer, a musician, a photographer, a fireman or an astronaut … I never fully committed to any of them. I have drifted like a tree branch in a river, going wherever the current takes me.

The second thing, very much aligned with the first, is that I’ve got too many interests. I’m a dabbler instead of a specialist; the wandering contents of this blog across ten years are undeniable evidence of that.  My attention has been so divided between so many different things that I haven’t been able to become truly great at anything or been able to exploit just one to its maximum potential.

So I regret not picking and sticking with one thing – and I regret not being good enough to take my crazy bits of knowledge of so many different things and not figure out a way to earn a more satisfying living from that. But the fact that I haven’t done it yet doesn’t mean I can’t still do it.

Okay, delete delete delete several paragraphs of morose self-pity. I’ll save it for the movie. Get up with it!

Failure is not an option. Neither is being happy with the status quo.

It’s just slightly too soon to go public with the details. Writing this, reading it, thinking it over, convinces me I will be doing the right thing. Remember back to Part 3, where I wrote:

I asked my friends what they thought I should do. All of them, even my female friends, told me the same thing. “As long as I’ve known you, you haven’t been happy. You’re still young. Do something that makes you happy.”

The fact is that I haven’t been happy in a long time (with the exception of my marriage). I have to make a change. I have to find, well, call it my “happy place” or my “mojo” or whatever term you like. I’ve lost my mojo and I need to get it back.  I’m not stupid enough to think that staying my current course will suddenly give me some different result from what it has given me over the course of the past five years. I can’t keep doing the same thing hoping things will change, that some deus ex machina will swoop down from the sky and change my life. I have to do something different.

So recognizing the need to change, I’ve put the the wheels in motion. I’m both nervous and excited by what’s coming next. I’ll tell you about it soon.

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If I’m So Smart Part Twelve

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Continuing from the previous part, from 2011 to 2012, I had the job from hell. This place was simply unbelievable on so many levels. At the most basic, someone could be fired for going home and leaving a sweater hanging on the back of their chair. If they brought in a small potted plant to put on their desk, they’d get a warning. The bulk of the company’s business came from having a small army of people creating reports by cutting and pasting out of various Internet databases. These people had to work 12+ hours per day and frequently on weekends in order to meet their quotas. I got yelled at more than once for not requiring more weekend work from my team. The head of the company didn’t believe in giving annual raises just to match inflation. He didn’t believe in bonuses for anyone but the senior management team. And he didn’t believe in stock option grants.

mine

(Sorry for the cat photo but it really fits.)

I was expected to have monthly new product releases for 15 different software products, even though I had only 4 or 5 programmers on staff – and just 5 analysts to write up requirements and documentation, and just 3 QA staff. I could go on. I managed to get a lot done and I was quite proud of what I accomplished, especially considering those adverse circumstances. The turnover rate for staff was greater than 30% – and even higher on the senior management team, which saw each position being filled and re-filled multiple times within the company’s very short history.

After a year, I was fired, with no prior warning or notice. “You were warned, weren’t you?” asked the company’s HR director the day she gave me the news. Nope, I never got any warning. I reported to the head of the company and he made damn sure that he was out of town when I was given the word – no phone call, no email, basically just a “don’t let the door hit you on your ass on the way out.” He also made sure that my laptop was taken and all of my accounts were closed before I even had a chance to send a “goodbye” email to anyone else in the company.

To answer the question you’re going to ask, yes, I had indeed been searching for a new job for months – not the easiest thing to do when you’re working a 60-70 hour week under intense scrutiny but I did what I could. I’d spent months searching and in that period, not even one interview. Recruiters I’d talk to would see where I was working and they’d all say the same thing. “We know this company. We get CVs from people working there every day. What’s wrong with that place?” Or I’d be talking to a recruiter and the conversation would go like this:

Recruiter: So you work for XYZ. I know the head of the company, his name is Joe Blow, right?

Me: Yes, I report directly to him.

Recruiter: So why are you looking to leave?

Me: Joe Blow

Recruiter: Say no more, I understand.

So now I’m out of work again. I got a few interviews here and there but no offers. I tried to put myself out there as a consultant or a contractor until something more permanent came along but, as hard as it may be to believe, I was not successful in marketing myself. I picked up one gig from a friend which was good for about HK$5,000 per month. I picked up a freelance thing writing web site copy, another couple of thousand per month.

I reached out to everyone I could think of, both in Hong Kong and globally. Some offered to help – and did – and others were indifferent. I knew that I had hit the point where my age had become an issue. I was competing for positions against people 20 years younger than me. In many cases, I think the depth of my experience scared companies off, some thinking that I’d be too expensive and they wouldn’t be able to afford me, so why even bother to talk to me? Also I think that my self-confidence was at an all-time low, only natural coming from a job where I was abused on an almost daily basis by a tyrant whose main interest was building up a company on an unsustainable business model to the point where he could fool someone into buying it and give his staff a final screwing. As one friend put it, I was starting to smell desperate, and that’s never a good thing when you’re looking for a job.

Hong Kong is an expensive place to live. We downsized – we moved to a cheaper place, we stopped going out, but I was burning through my savings at an alarming rate – and I had never saved a lot to begin with. I didn’t touch my pension plans but I went through everything else and soon I had to borrow money from my mother.

I ended up being out of work for nine months. Finally I came across a job posting on LinkedIn from a company I knew. I called up one of the founders and said, “what about me?” We met for lunch the next day and the following day I received the job offer. The thing was, I told them what I was making in my previous job and was initially told that it “shouldn’t be a problem.” But when the offer came through, it was 25% lower – which meant that I’d be earning almost exactly 50% less than I had been making 5 years earlier. But I had no choice. There were no other offers or even interviews coming up. I had to accept this one, and I did. It was painful – I’d downsized a lot but not quite that much.

I will say this about my current job. The place is run by humans and run for humans. In the balance of things, I learned long ago that given the choice between a pleasant place and tiny salary vs. a hellhole with a larger salary, I’d opt for pleasant almost every time.

December 2013, I got married for the third time. We went to Paris for our honeymoon in January. I’m determined to make this one work if for no other reason than I’m too old to start over again if it doesn’t!

This more or less brings me up to the present time. Stay tuned for an epilogue or afterword in which I’ll discuss my reasons for writing this twelve-part series and in which I might reveal some of what’s coming next for me.

 

 

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If I’m So Smart Part Eleven

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During the 00′s, in all those years when I was being as bad as I could possibly be, I kept telling myself that I was looking for a relationship. I dated a lot of women, but I always ran away from them on even the slightest pretext. I went through this phase of dating women in Shenzhen because I could spend the weekends with them but they couldn’t come to Hong Kong and see what I was doing the rest of the time. I dated several Hong Kong women and I dated a TV star in Guangzhou. But none of these lasted more than a couple of months. I wasn’t ready to be in a relationship yet but I was fooling myself.

As time passed, I realized that my lifestyle was starting to yield greatly diminishing returns. I was going out more, I was drinking more, I was spending more money, but I was enjoying it a hell of a lot less.

My mother didn’t know very much about what I was doing but she asked me an unexpected question: Don’t you miss intimacy? I told her I didn’t, but the question stayed with me. I thought about it a lot and I realized that I might be ready to make a change.

The change finally happened because of K, a fabulous woman – beautiful, educated, “age appropriate” – whom I met at the end of 2007. For a brief while it seemed as if she might be the one. I think even she saw it that way. Any time she would drink more than a couple of glasses of wine, she would look at me and say, “You’re going to have to marry me.” But the next day she’d always deny it.

I wrote a column about our relationship in BC Magazine.  I even took a solo trip to Bangkok (medical reasons) in which I pointedly did not have sex with anyone, in part to prove to myself that I could do it.

But the relationship onlyly lasted for six months. Looking back, I think the novelty of the thing was what fueled those first few months. We were each so completely different from anyone the other had dated before. Once that novelty started to wear off, perhaps the writing was on the wall. She had, early on, told me that she didn’t want to date an only child when she found out I was one – “they’re so selfish with their time,” she said, and that probably turned out to be true, although I denied it vehemently at the time. She had two young children and they scared me. She dumped me, we reconciled, and then we parted again.

But this at least told me that I really was ready for a relationship again and not just saying it. I think I’ve been better in each relationship I’ve been in. I’ve matured from a selfish asshole into a not-so-selfish asshole. I’m more able to put myself into the shoes of the person I’m with and treat them as human beings and not just as objects or accessories.

This is something I just read tonight, from I’m Your Man, a biography of Leonard Cohen that I am absolutely loving:

“Everything changes as you get older,” Leonard said. “I never met a woman until I was sixty-five. Instead, I saw all kinds of miracles in front of me.” In the past, he had always viewed women through his own “urgent needs and desires,” he said, “and what they could do for me.” But in his midsixties – which roughly coincided with Leonard leaving the monastery and his depression starting to lift – “that started to dissolve and [he] began to see the woman standing there.”

A bit too egotistical for me to compare myself in any way to Leonard Cohen? Of course. Yet those words and sentiments describe me as well.

So in the summer of 2008, I proceeded slowly with someone I had met a year before. We accidentally bumped into each other on the street one Saturday afternoon and later I thought to myself that I would take a chance with her. See, it’s easy for me to find someone I can be with for an hour or a night, but I have always found it difficult to find someone I can be with for more than a couple of days at time. We started with a weekend, then with a week, then with a month. The first year was difficult, the second year even more so … in December 2013 we got married.

Work continued on as it always did. Except things were changing at Warner. My boss, roughly the same age as me and someone I considered a friend, died in his sleep one night. My mentor, the CFO, left Warner after decades there.

Meanwhile, people had stopped buying DVDs. Just a few years earlier, home video accounted for 60% of the studio’s revenue and making DVDs was a lot like printing cash; people couldn’t buy them quickly enough. But now DVD sales were falling through the floor and neither digital nor Blu-Ray was picking up the slack. Warner had to make drastic changes.

First, they shut down a significant portion of their operations in Asia. With the exceptions of China, Australia and Japan, all of the other affiliate branches were shuttered or converted to digital-only. A few hundred of my friends got laid off.

At the same time, they made the decision to outsource almost all of their technology support globally. I could understand outsourcing infrastructure support but they also laid off all of the application support people, people who had a better understanding of business operations than most of the business people there. More than 1,000 Warner technology people got the axe … and I was one of them.

I was treated very fairly throughout this entire process. I was given six months’ notice and a huge retention bonus for sticking out those six months, as well as a more-than-reasonable amount of severance pay. I was told there was no job for me with Warner in other locations (I didn’t really want to leave Hong Kong, but I asked anyway) and because I’d been hired on what were essentially local terms (and because by now I had HK permanent resident status), there was no relocation package.

But I wasn’t too bothered by this. First, I used some of my severance pay to join some friends in opening a photography studio, PASM Workshop. At the time, I did it in part to support my friends and in part to give me a place to hang out that wasn’t a bar. And hanging out at the studio re-awoke my interest in photography and gave me another creative outlet.

Also, the former president and former CFO of Warner were starting up a new business. They had signed deals with almost all of the Hollywood studios plus Microsoft and Intel. They told me that once it got off the ground, they would hire me to run Asia for them – not technology in Asia, the business in Asia. This looked like it was going to be a dream job for me.

And then a few months later the entire thing imploded. It was not going to happen. I was left feeling pretty crushed – and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

I’m not really superstitious, but sometimes I think I must have done something to give me seven years bad luck – let’s say it started on the day I got notice of the upcoming layoff at Warner, roughly March 2009, so sometimes I fear I’ve got another two years to go before my luck changes. No, I know, you make your own luck. But it seems to me that in the years since then, good breaks have been few and far between. There’s been the photo studio. There’s my wife. But very little else.

So now I had to find another job. Something came my way rather quickly and I took it. I shouldn’t have, because it was with a local Hong Kong company, but I had never worked for one of those before and I didn’t realize what that might mean. I think I should have held out for something in a multi-national. But I knew several of the people at this company and it seemed like an interesting opportunity. So despite a huge cut in pay from my previous job – roughly 35% – I went with it.

I spent a horrible year there. First off, I was in “operations” rather than technology. The duties of the job were poorly defined, the landscape kept changing, and I wasn’t really allowed to do any of the things I might have done well. Second, I think I was pretty horribly treated at this place – I’ve written about it in some detail before.

I did catch a break of sorts. I got my next job before I left this place, so there was only a week between jobs. Another low-paying job with a local company that treated its staff like shit, it actually made the previous place appear reasonable. To put it another way, this is pretty much a direct quote from the president of the company to me. “When I ask you why you didn’t do the thing I told you not to do, and you tell me by quoting my own words back to me, it makes me feel bad, so stop doing it.” That was one of his better moments.

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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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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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Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6, Part 7

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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Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6

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 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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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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