Hong Kong Journal – A Love Story

My Hong Kong adventure — and a love story.

This all started around 2009. Back then I hosted an internet video broadcast on a now defunct Web site called BlogTV, which anyone could use to host a show. I averaged thirty or forty viewers at any given time over nightly shows that lasted up to four hours. I’d sit and bullshit about current events and share stories. I also played my favorite music from an iPod. I often just sat there rocking out in alcohol-fueled absurdity as my audience posted on a live chat board while watching me.

Sometimes I shared the screen with a “co-host” joining me via a web cam of their own. People (mostly female, to be honest) appeared from all over the world. Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Israel. Even New Jersey. Most notable for this story, however, a woman from China named Lily often joined us.

She is a picture of delight, in multiple ways

Lily’s charm and personality jumped off the screen, and her unpolished English only made her more adorable. The audience loved her, me included. Soon the two of us began chatting one-on-one, and I considered a trip to China to meet her and see the sights. Perhaps take the world’s highest train ride, to visit Tibet while I was at it. This fledgling relationship lasted until Lily became jealous of live co-hosts, female friends joining me in my room, during shows. She faded away.

Fast forward to 2017, when I sent Lily a what’s up email, not expecting much. To my delight she responded promptly and seemed happy to hear from me. Soon we chatted away, this time on our smartphones via We Chat, a free international communication app.

We became enchanted with each other all over again. I soon considered Lily to be my potential wife and decided to visit her in Hong Kong (HK), a short train ride from her home of Shenzhen. I’d always wanted to visit the dynamic Pacific Rim metropolis, where East meets West. This was the perfect opportunity. The following is a chronicle of my trip.

Getting There

An insanely long day of transportation began with a Lyft ride — in a late model E-class Mercedes Benz. I took this as a good omen. Following a short flight from Richmond to Newark, I set up shop in a comfy United Club seat to endure a three hour layover. (Word to the wise: a one-time pass for this luxury can be had on eBay for roughly $20, a $30 discount.) I enjoyed chomping on good, light eats, slurping excellent coffee, and swiped a couple of bananas and muffins for my flight. I particularly enjoyed feeling above the fray, removed from the masses in the commoner’s terminal.

Sure the water cup was plastic, but you can’t have everything.

The fifteen-hour flight to HK found me frequently thanking God for spending the extra cash for Premium Coach seating. Legroom was abundant, and snacks and meals more frequent. I landed stress-free in HK on an early Sunday October evening. Customs was a breeze, and I gleefully entered another world.

The HK airport is noted as one of the modern world’s engineering marvels, and chock full of Asians for some reason. The space age, spotless facility occupies a massive man-made island, reclaimed from the South China Sea. It also hosts a sizable luxury shopping mall, boasting the likes of Gucci and Hermes as tenants. This part of the world smells like money.

No tsunamis, please.

An efficient and ultra-modern Metro train system serves the airport, but I opted for a twenty minute cab ride instead. Better to see the sights and perhaps gain local commentary from the driver on the trip to the Sheung Wan district, on HK island. I drew luck with my first cabbie, who was a jovial HK native of about forty, who spoke perfect English. I would learn this was no given.

Not far along the perfectly-smooth freeway, I saw the largest apartment building in my life. Forty stories tall, covering seemingly five city blocks, this monstrosity proved an apt early sight. Metro HK is nothing if not home to forty-story residential towers. There may be literally thousands of them.

I saw, like, a million of these.

My cabbie found my awe at the size of building amusing, as it had become part of the scenery for him long ago. I insisted I was no country bumpkin, too. I’d lived in Atlanta for twenty-eight years, for god’s sake. He still laughed at me, and I’m pretty sure he’d never heard of Atlanta.

The next sight of note on this awesome drive was the port of HK. Once the world’s busiest, Cabbie noted with chagrin that it now ranks a mere fourth. These docks featured at least two dozen gigantic cranes, and two miles of driving didn’t seem to cover the site from end-to-end. I wouldn’t be surprised if a luxury mall could be found in the middle of it, just like at the airport. That’s just how HK is.

* Not the view I had, but you get the idea. Nine terminals handle over 20 million containers a year.

Before descending into the Victoria Harbor tunnel, Cabbie pointed with pride at HK’s tallest building. International Commerce Center tops out at one hundred-eighteen stories, with a Ritz-Carlton and a nightclub on top. I made a note to hit that up at some point.

The tunnel led my cab to surface streets of Sheung Wan, where my western-style Holiday Inn Express awaited. (I’m adventurous, but not that adventurous.) As a former courier, driving a car throughout Atlanta for years, I find traffic behavior interesting. Even on this late Sunday evening, plenty of cars served as obstacles to my cab. Notably, however, even when Cabbie got boned by a motorist’s rude maneuver, he never honked his horn.

I asked him about it, and he laughed. “We only use horn to avoid sure collisions,” he explained. I started pointing out instances when most Americans would honk in response to an offensive driver, and Cabbie seemed amazed. The rest of the trip I marveled at the lack of vehicle horns sounding. I rarely heard a toot during my stay, even in Manhattan-level traffic during rush hour.

My hotel occupied relatively flat land, about six blocks from the famous HK harbor. After that, high-rise buildings continued unabated up steep hillsides. Victoria Peak was up there somewhere. The glittering towers provided a stunning nighttime view out the window of my room on the thirty-third* floor.

* Actually the 32nd floor. The building lacked an 11th floor, and a 34th floor. A mystery I never solved.

Oversized windows revealed a wall of lights from dozens, and seemingly hundreds, of tall residential buildings. The view was one hundred and eighty degrees, and from bottom to top. I grinned with exhilaration, as was often the case on this trip. Moving lights from cars could be seen traversing roads across the hillside between the buildings, which in the dark looked like some Jetson’s shit.

Spacey View.

A clean and modern room pleased me. The bathroom door doubled as the shower door, as in if one was closed, the other was open. A unique and practical space saving design. Most importantly, it meant the shower didn’t flood the bathroom as is often the case in Asia. Standing in a puddle while shaving is not my idea of Zen.

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First Explorations

I slept easily that first night, after traveling for twenty-four hours. I even arose in time for a delightful breakfast buffet. The hotel restaurant featured an outdoor patio, staffed by at least ten employees instead of the one beleaguered maid one might find in the states. Soft piano music played on the speakers instead of shitty 80’s music as I made my first voice memo describing my trip. Most of the other diners were stylishly-dressed instead of wearing sweatpants, flip-flops, and ball caps.

The food was a couple notches higher than a typical Holiday Inn Express serves. Ample fresh fruit and sliced melons greeted guests, along with excellent coffee, flaky croissants, and standard Western fare like eggs and sausage. It remained available after ten, too.

Ample wait staff in the background, ready to pounce.

I aimed to find a tailor on this first sunny, low-humidity day. I’d learned that HK is famous for reasonably priced bespoke clothing. Jim’s Tailor Workshop came highly recommended, so I set off for the Central location that seemed a reasonable walk away. Soon I learned HK is not the most pedestrian-friendly city, at least to the uninitiated. (I later figured out I could’ve taken a blocks-long underground tunnel to the harbor shore and used the generous sidewalks from there.)

Instead, I walked along thoroughfares as one would in most major cities in the US. Here, however, most streets feature railings as if along a stairwell to prevent jaywalking. Several times I found myself stranded, climbing over railings like some kind of hoodlum as double-decker buses and trolleys blew by mere feet away. Crosswalks were hard to find in the area I was in, too. And speaking of crosswalks, many in HK seem to be hundreds of feet wide. Never seen anything like them.

I found myself on Des Voeux Rd.Central, headed towards Jim’s. Navigation proved challenging, however, as I learned my LG phone could not run an international SIM card for internet. So I stopped often in various areas to score a WiFi connect to figure out where the fuck I was. Soon I found myself on a stretch that included a Patek Phillipe store, along with retail laps of luxury for all the other major timepiece brands.

“Sir, are you aware the “E” is not lit up?”

Soon I landed in Chater Garden, a lush oasis of a park in the middle of the most expensive commercial real estate in the world. It featured the cleanest public toilet I’ve ever seen, where I gladly pissed away my morning coffee. The sumptuous gardens nearly lulled me into relaxation, but I soon forged ahead with my mission.

Note: No benches.

Next came one of the few dilapidated buildings I saw on HK island: an abandoned shopping center that formerly housed a cell phone joint that might solve my roaming data issue. I assume this property had changed hands for hundreds of millions and would soon become HK’s 239th luxury mall.

Finally I located the Admiralty Mall and Jim’s Tailor Workshop. I planned to score a blazer, and a couple fitted shirts. First, however, I sought a seat in the mall area to take a break and people watch. Alas, the multi-level mall provided no seats in which to relax. This proved to be a theme in HK, along with the general cleanliness, even in parks. Everyone is in a hurry so there’s no need for benches or seats. I found this odd considering there are practically zero homeless types who might abuse such a luxury. Indeed, I saw a grand total of two clearly homeless people in nine days. And one of them was reading a newspaper.

Instead of public seating, I enjoyed a seat at the fabric selection table in Jim’s. A friendly Asian man who spoke excellent English, Jim spread out various for my inspection. I chose a supple light wool navy, before I calculated the exchange rate. I expected perhaps $150, but it turned out be $555.

Jim scrambled for something more affordable, and that came to $505. Abort mission. Besides the non-bargain price, I wasn’t game to track down less expensive but more risky tailors over on Kowloon Island. Returning a faulty item was not an option for a tourist like me. I planned on wandering around the town aimlessly on this day anyway, so no great loss. More money to gamble with in Macau.

I completed an easier shopping task in the same mall, tracking down an AC power adapter at a little phone kiosk. This took me a minute, because I’m not the most experienced international traveler, and I’m a dumb ass. I explained my problem to the irritable chap running the kiosk, and he produced the solution. To me, however, the adapter looked wrong. It’s face was not the American-style three holes. Instead, slots both too wide and too long for American-style prongs confronted me. They didn’t line up.

When I pointed this out to the busy clerk, he looked at me like I was Donald Trump or something. Like I was an idiot. “It’s the correct item,” he insisted, and gave the universal “get lost” hand flip. I started walking, feeling uneasy and shafted out of about fifty cents. Turns out my two prong charger could take root in over-sized slots after all. Now I’m an experienced international traveler.

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Next I wandered toward the harbor front, to the imaginatively-named Central and Western District Promenade. This vast patch of well-kept lawns and spanking new plazas offered sweeping views of Kowloon across the harbor, and the modern architecture of Central. Most notable was part of the Hong Kong Convention Center, which looks like a poor man’s Sydney Opera House — except the poor man is rich. In fact, HK currently enjoys a massive budget surplus, and it shows.

Sanitation workers are abundant in HK. In this case, older ladies with brooms that tended to the slightest litter. I half expected them to start polishing the miles of stainless steel railings next. Perhaps the lack of homeless in HK is because the city employs them to clean everything and house them with all the extra public money.

Next task: A toothbrush scrubbing between the bricks?

Joggers, sunbathers, and step/fitness gatherings mixed with idiots like me just sitting around drinking coffee. In addition to luxury malls, groups of (mostly) women marching in place along with an exercise class leader could be found practically anywhere there is space. Given the noticeable lack of fat people in HK, these seemed to work well. Also keeping people fit are hills throughout most of the island that make San Francisco look flat.

Speaking of hills, my next fun was riding the longest outdoor escalator system in the world. I headed there on a massive, blocks-long walkway, raised a couple stories from the street, which ran from the harbor piers to near the escalator entrance. No expense seemed spared on this convenience. The open air structure is covered from the elements, and the floor made of a smooth, cushioned rubber. The main strip, about fourteen people wide, featured numerous side paths that led to office buildings and luxury malls.

Oddly, the walkway traffic pattern ran opposite that of the HK streets and escalators. This is clear proof that human nature demands people walk (or drive) on the right, and the UK and her former possessions are silly to pretend otherwise.

Despite my phone’s lack of a data connection, somehow Google Maps began to function. This was important, because pedestrian signage in HK isn’t the best and the streets are not on an easily understandable grid system. At least one can gauge direction based on the terrain: downhill is usually north, towards the harbor. Even with my phone locating me, I still shot by the entrance to the escalator system twice.

The escalators are like NYC’s High Line: a great place for a tourist checking out a city for the first time. Twenty separate sections of moving stairs and three moving walkways move pedestrians past myriad cafés, shops, and pockets of residential neighborhoods. I wandered around at many of the transfer levels, and got back on to rise to the next. Most were spots I’d never bother to check out otherwise. I made excellent tourist progress.

Prison Writing Contest

I submitted my labors of love to Olive Oyl, the awkward programs director, with great pride. She seemed surprised to receive contest entries at all, presumably because prison isn’t exactly full of writers. Or perhaps my inmate brethren shied away from entering for reasons I’d yet to learn. Whatever the case, I’d cleared the first hurdle since the statewide contest had a per-camp entry limit. Let the games begin.

Feeling bold, I thanked Olive and invited her to critique my work before submitting them for the contest. Besides free editing, this friendliness might set me apart for future special treatment that might come in handy. I swaggered through the next few days, buoyed by a sense of accomplishment and feeling less like a loser. Having produced high quality material, I was already considering frame styles for my Winner’s Certificates.

Two days after my contest submissions, the intercom blared: “Garrett Phillips, report to the sergeant’s office.” My heart entered my throat. I embarked on the cross camp walk.

If you’ve been called to see a school principal, you know the dread of going to a sergeant’s office. In prison the reason is often harmless, like to receive legal mail or a box of books someone sent. However, sometimes disciplinary action looms, or instructions for an unwanted bunk switch. Worst case is notice of a death in the family.

Rutherford’s sergeant office featured a walk-up window, and I noticed Olive in it before I got there. I exhaled, assuming she intended to congratulate me on my fantastic writing.

She was flanked in the background by a sergeant seated at one desk and a CO at another, both seemingly interested in my arrival. Olive abruptly shoved my writing contest pages through the window and into my face. She spoke with a southern accent common among stilted wenches.

“You cain’t be serious with these, and you should be ashaymed of yerself!” she spat. “There’s profanity in awl of them, and you cain’t write about bowel mooovements!”

Given the laughter from the COs behind her, I briefly wondered if Olive was joking. Apparently she was a black belt in Southern Baptist, however, because she clearly took my prison writing contest entry personally; hardly with humor.

“You know, the contest guidelines don’t . . .” I offered, only to be cut off.

“No one wonts to read about your duuump! Or yew comparin’ a bowel moovement to a slot machine jackpot!” she huffed.

Whether she was offended by the deuce-dropping or the gambling machine was unclear. I would’ve asked, but Olive had closed the window on the episode − both literally and figuratively. She slammed it shut. Rattled but undeterred, I buzzed back to my bunk and began the necessary revisions to my masterpieces.

As I changed words like hell to heck and shit to stuff, I heard my name shouted from around the corner. I walked to the CO desk by the barracks door as dramatic murmurs from my fellow felons filled the air. And there stood Olive, still so red-faced that she’d come in person instead of summoning me via the intercom. She greeted me with a glare. You’d think I sold her dog for parts or something.

“Give me those entries back,” she commanded.

I returned to my bunk and grabbed the pages, thinking someone talked some sense into her and I’d be in the contest after all. As I placed writings into Olive’s trembling hand I said: “By the way, the contest guidelines don’t ban profanity, you know.”

“I doubt that’s going to help yew!” Olive spat, and stormed out the door.

I took this to mean my entries would be entered in the contest, despite her disapproval. Or Olive’s co-workers insisted she retrieve them so they could read an entertaining story about some inmate’s dump.

The assembled barracks crowd jeered and whooped it up. “Damn, Homie! Bitch was pissed!” So much for me staying low-key at this camp.

Word of my debacle quickly spread, and repeating the story felt like holding dozens of press conferences. Guys were dying to read it too, but I had already mailed the first drafts back home for safe keeping. Even COs asked about it. Evidently most of them considered Olive to be especially uptight, and enjoyed watching her freak out.

The following day as I sat signing autographs, another announcement came. “Garrett Phillips, report to the sergeant’s office.”

Olive was again at the window, only slightly more composed than last time. She explained that not only were my contest entries rejected, but I was to be written up for obscenity for me use of profanity. “Obscenity?” I sputtered. “With all due respect, my essay lacked taste, but it wasn’t obscene at all.”

This sent another surge into Olive, one she had probably prayed to avoid. She grabbed the offending pages and applied her reading glasses. “I quote: ‘my body − or more specifically, my sphincter − screamed: No! This is too tall a mountain to climb!’ That’s clearly obscene!”

“Probably not to inmates,” I countered. “And it’s our writing contest, right?”

Alas, this was not a discussion or negotiation − I was a heathen being chastised. Olive ignored me and continued, to the delight of two COs seated behind her who failed to stifle laughter. “And  your short story has a murder in it! How . . . how can you think describing a stabbing with a sharpened AA book cover would be okay?”

“This is a writing contest for prison, not a garden club.”

This cracked up the peanut gallery, but Olive’s demeanor resembled that of a church pew. She told me to expect a formal write up and then slammed the window closed with authority. No “Good day, sir,” and no compliments on my paragraph structure or for the snappy phrases I coined in my writing.

The farce continued two days later when I was called to the mail room/disciplinary office for an arraignment. An affable young CO named Hastings had been dumped this paperwork duty, but at least he was entertained. He laughed often as he recited and typed up my charges.

The official indictment referred to a “’dangerous weapon (hunting knife),” and contained the phrase: “comparing his bowel movement to inanimate objects.” This was erroneous, however, as I had compared a human being − or at least Rush Limbaugh − to the result of my bowel movement. Not the physical act. If word semantics were a defense, perhaps I had a chance.

I was far more worried about denial of a Winner’s Certificate than official punishment. Almost everyone figured I’d draw a suspended sentence, to be struck from my record if I behaved myself for a few months. I assumed even better: that someone in the appeal process would stop laughing long enough to dismiss all charges.

The next step in my persecution involved meeting with the warden, a portly gentleman who was as pompous and humorless as out of shape. His doughy index fingers pecked out my Incident Report on a keyboard, followed by me presenting my side of the story to him. Clearly the facts and logic were unimportant in this case. The warden barely paid attention, and rolled his eyes when he did. He was not going to side with a smart-ass like me over his director of programs, regardless. The warden pronounced me guilty, so I appealed.

I returned to the same room a couple days later to face a theoretically impartial Disciplinary Hearing Officer, employed by the state. Surely he would halt this debacle. Instead, the guy might as well have been Olive’s brother. He read aloud: “a turd frozen and fashioned into a hunting knife” through a smirk, with eyes narrowed.

“You are hereby offered a suspended sentence for a profanity charge. If you decide to appeal further, I will add charges for insubordination and obscenity.”

I had planned to appeal as far as possible, and perhaps alert the media as a last resort. I envisioned my story becoming a cause célèbre among creative minds, at least on a slow news day. The Man not only took my freedom thanks the indefensible War on Drugs, but now artist creativity was under the pressure. I figured my oppression could not stand, tasteless topic or otherwise. Poop humor is art too, after all. Someone had to go to the wall for shit jokes. Otherwise where would the tyranny end?

Instead, my resolve crumbled in the face of escalating penalties like a stay in the Hole if continued appeals failed. In other words, The Man broke me. I wussed out and protected my ultimate goals: a transfer to the state’s best prison camp, in Asheville, and a good work-release job there. Also, better to not have the current authorities pissed at me, to avoid retributions such as a shitty bunk assignment.

The next day I accepted a suspended sentence for the flimsiest inmate violation imaginable: profanity. Turns out official prison regulations forbid “profanity of any kind,” so its lack of mention in the contest guidelines was irrelevant. My only consolation was a poor man’s Writing Contest Winner’s Certificate: the official document that includes numerous quotes from my disqualified works. I will display it with pride.

The final ruling was as disgraceful as a smoking ban on all government property in North Carolina. Tobacco built the state, and Sir Walter Raleigh would surely choke on his chaw if he were alive to witness the outrage. Odds are the next penitential regulation will prevent inmates from expressing lust towards their wives or girlfriends, both verbally and in letters. This would probably suit Olive and her ilk just fine.

Just a Little Light . . .

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