THE GREAT HONG KONG SEX NOVEL BY GEORGE ADAMS
ONLINE EDITION COPYRIGHT 2001
COPYRIGHT GEORGE ADAMS 1993
FOR TONY GILES
"He might sink into that degradation of life with which the word "colony" was once associated - a whisky-soaked Colonial, debauched by the wiles of Oriental women" - Austin Coates: The Road.
PSYCHIATRIC IN-PATIENTS ST CLARE'S HOSPITAL, HONG KONG
NIGEL PIERS TRELFORD
The patient, 38, British, single, barrister by profession, has lived in Hong Kong for seven years. He was referred to me by the Men's Psychiatric Ward of King Edward Hospital. The patient was found by uniformed police officers wandering amongst the traffic of Pedder Street, Central at lunchtime in an emotional and delirious state. He maintains he was being pursued by a gang of triads at the behest of "a vicious Chinese woman". Investigations showed that there was some basis of truth to his story but the woman in question has not been located.
When referred to me, the patient was intermittently anxious and depressed, apparently suffering from an acute nervous collapse. He was treated with benzodiazepines and mianserin. Physiological examination showed nothing significant. Somatic syptoms include lassitude, "fever", loss of appetite, aching joints etc.. The patient now accepts the conclusion of colleagues and myself that his condition is largely supratentorial in nature. This is despite his profound hostility to the medical profession, psychiatrists in particular.
The patient is an attractive and virile man, highly successful in his profession. Inferiority complexes of any kind are absent. The neurotic conflict, if there is one, is probably sexual in origin. Mr Trelford displays what feminists would describe as a chauvinist attitude to women, regarding them as objects for his own pleasure. On the other hand, he sees himself as a victim of Hong Kong and other Asian women, a judgement which has some foundation in truth.
I suggested the patient should write his recollection of important events leading up to his collapse and he produced the attached journal in weekly sections. He likes to write it. I do advise you, however, to read it with great caution.
Let me know how you get on with Mr Trelford. I think you will need a lot of luck and a lot of patience. You will also need to have all your wits about you.
Regards to Vera,
1. NIGHT IN A GIRLS' SCHOOL
Yes, I'm one of those. One of the dreadful expatriate types who has that inordinate desire for East Asian women and, somewhere along the line, I'll tell you all about it.
Now Jean Larteguy wrote a novel called, in English, Yellow Fever - a title I always thought perfectly descriptive of my condition - but it really isn't about you know what. It's a collection of reminiscences of Vietnam in the good old days. I remember finding a copy in a shop in Hennessy Road and skimming through it for something, well, salacious, something for a boring hour of the afternoon, but to no avail. Perhaps something got lost in the translation.
There are so many things to tell you apart from actually, you know, plunging or whatever you think sex is all about. I have heard sex described as adoration. Some people see it as a messy necessity between waking and rising a la Tristram Shandy. Others think it is like breathing, only noteworthy when things go wrong. A particularly serious homosexual, the type who dresses up in a sort of army uniform to go on Gay Lib. marches, told me it was the most important thing in life. I'll let you be the judge of that.
No, there are so many things around the subject, particuarly if you are as unlucky as I, blessed with a beautiful fiancee but still falling in love at every street corner, on every staircase, in every restaurant and subway train. There are all sorts of ways to torture yourself and love is perhaps the sweetest. It is certainly better than tormenting yourself with guilt, social ambition or the pursuit of money.
Which brings me to Hong Kong: where I have been, am and shall be, God and the Joint Declaration willing, to the end of time. What can we say? So much has been said, in the coffee table books, the guides, the historical sketches and the boring monographs by Hong Kong Univesity's leading lights. We all know it is glamorous - James Clavell and a host of hack writers have told us so. We all know it is corrupt and on the brink. We do not need the written word to tell us that. We can use our eyes and ears. And Suzie Wong. Everyone knows about Suzie Wong.
Well, someone told me, when I arrived, with my two enormous trunks of law books to take up a position at Scott, McFarqhuar and Chan, that "people in Hong Kong don't have time for sex. It interferes with the money-making". A Filipina told me that. She was the first to grin at me and give me that gaze which you can only describe as penetrating. I knew the moment I saw here what she had in mind. Filipinas let you know. This is not always the case with women. Anyhow, I digress. I will come to Filipinas presently. All in good time. There is so much to tell.
I did not come with sex on my mind. Far from it. I never had any urge for Asian women before I arrived. Not in the least. I always thought of them as, well, not quite what we should expect to call a woman if we came to describe the sex. There really was something missing, to my mind. There is nothing so subjective as love so please allow me my opinion. I think it was largely the face. I still believe that it is difficult to find an Oriental face which does not repel me slightly some of the time. I can't say that of European women, at least most European women. I have always been able to see my betrothed, a stunning Englishwoman (yes, there are such creatures) at any time the week sends us: at breakfast, on Sunday afternoon, getting out of a taxi in the rain, heaving on top of me in the heat of passion - I have always been able to regard her with delight if not, as you shall see, with desire.
So, how did it happen? It happened like a lot of things, by degrees.
When women find out they are lesbian, they don't wake up one morning and think: "Dykes are in! Let's go out and get one!" You don't decide to become a lecher overnight, not even if you have the sharpness of mind barristers normally possess. The myth put around by feminists and local xenophobes that the red-faced barbarian men get off at Tai Kak with lust in their groins is simply not true. For many, it is just another foreign posting and their minds are full of thoughts of mortgages, property prices, school fees - that sort of thing. They have usually brought a wife with them, salvaged from Latin America, India, Europe or - God help them - the USA. And there are a great many men who don't respond to the, well, exotic environment of East Asia. They are happily married and stay that way. As I said, sex is very subjective and some people just don't prize it. Good luck to them.
No, it begins as a sort of bewilderment, I would say. You see, candidly speaking, the real problem is that in Britain or the USA, pretty women, young women are so thin on the ground that you sort of become used to seeing something special only once or twice a day. And then so many Western women (no this is not a cliche) are so into defeminization these days (and the complementary emasculation when they get involved with a chap) that you have to have a pretty good imagination to get excited by just looking at them. (If you want to see what I mean, go and look at some of the women that get onto the Lamma ferry some evenings.)
Not that the women in Asia are necessarily prettier. They just show what they have a lot of more. They know how to dress. And there are so many young women, after all. I've always said - and this has got me into a lot of trouble - that Hong Kong has some of the ugliest women in the world as well as some of the most beautiful. You just don't see the ugly ones. Of course, some brutes in bars say that all the women in Hong Kong are ugly but I don't think they mean it. It's a kind of rationalisation. Often, they just can't get any.
So, there I was, Nigel Trelford: smart, well-heeled, a darling gilrfriend, moving into my apartment above the shopping mall in Admiralty, wondering which clubs to join, where to work out, where to drink. Hong Kong looked just fine.
And then they started to waft into my life.
You may leave the house with the best of intentions, sated even, perhaps intensely worried, at any rate with your mind a thousand miles away from sex. But then, in the street, there is always one who strikes you, unawares, out of the blue, in a debilitating attack of lust. And you cast your eyes elsewhere, you sublimate, you look for other distractions. You are pleased to note that her face does not match her beautiful body, so that you can feel safe for a little while longer. But you are never safe for long in Hong Kong. You are a man alone in a girls' school for one night, many nights and the ugly prefects are all sound asleep.
I suppose that the first girl who became, in this sense, an obsession was my secretary, Dorothy. (Yes that is another sort of cliche but I will come to my less likely assignations later.) I thought she was rather ordinary when we first met but, as her clothes became briefer and less functional, my perception of her changed radically. She was always there for me and gave me a depth of support I had not known with other secretaries, or with other women come to mention it.
The first cases assigned to me, to break me in so to speak, were the tedious remnants of the last occupant of my office, a New Zealander who had decided to head off home before Hong Kong killed him (or caught up with him, it was rumoured). The office, I should mention, was a spacious one by Hong Kong standards, with a reasonable view of the harbour if you didn't mind craning your neck past a building or two. It was also reasonably quiet. I came to value that more than anything else.
Dorothy was introduced to me, smiling slightly, engagingly and, to me, disconcertingly. She was dressed, if I recall correctly, quite sensibly, not showing much leg and not plunging in her blouse (as she did not have much to plunge into, this was probably just as well). Her manner, as she went through the files, giving me as much help as she could provide from her memory of events with the New Zealander (a dreadful lawyer by the way), her manner was quite correct, showing perhaps too much deference, too much submission. Perhaps that is what hooked me first, before I had time to take in the features of her face (they didn't mean much to me then) and her figure (quite tall, very slim and well-proportioned). Then there was her voice. It was set somewhere at the beginning of the high range of treble with a slight breathless, girly charm to it, not as extreme as Japanese girls but along the same lines. That was what got me most. Auditory seduction. I don't know if Casanova wrote anything about voices but they are, to my mind, a true indicator of what is inside the person (really inside as opposed to what the person wants to show). You see, I am not as superficial as you may think. I did not pore over Dorothy, imagine her with no clothes or admire the way she sipped her coffee or sucked on her pencil. That may surprise you. Of course, in the end, I came to imagine all kinds of events with Dorothy, events involving her in a number of locations, costumes, poses and moods. That all came later, as I say.
It is quite usual to take one's secretary out to lunch, especially in Hong Kong where eating has reached the status of religious observance. I don't know why exactly the local people are so transfixed by ingestion. Ideally, for me, eating would take about twenty minutes a day (and it has in the past for long periods). I soon realised that I would have to mend my ways. One can be a crazy gwailo as long as one wants in Hong Kong but not if one wants to find one's way to the hearts, and the beds, of the locals. Die Liebe definitely does go durch den Magen as the Germans say.
Dorothy, unfortunately, was a muncher and a slurper. She evidently hadn't read that little book I was to find in all the MTR bookshops about Western etiquette and table manners. To be fair though, she knew quite a lot about Western things, much more than I did about local mores, but the open-mouthed chomping was more than a little off-putting at first.
" Do you like Hong Kong, Mr Trelford?"
She put down the big soup spoon by the side of her plate and looked at me pleasantly, ritualistically, not expecting the non- small-talk reply which, I suppose, verged on rudeness.
" Sometimes. When I'm in a good mood."
I don't know why I said that. As so often, Dorothy said nothing after I had said something unusual.
" I mean, sometimes I like it. When it's not too hot and not too noisy or crowded."
" Yes. Hong Kong is crowded."
" But that isn't a real problem for the foreigners. I don't see how they can feel crowded. They're so different from the crowd. And anyway. Some people feel crowded if they don't have a hundred acres around them. It's all in the mind."
Dorothy looked at me in an interested way. I didn't quite know what to make of it. Was it admiration? The boss and his secretary? Of course, a lot of that had come my way in my previous office life in England and Germany. Running through my mind at that time was what I saw going up the staircase, slightly behind Dorothy as she raced for the lift. Her legs. Of course, I had noticed them crossing and uncrossing in the office a number of times and delicately averted my eyes. But such propriety was now cast aside in favour of that irritating feeling of lust which begins to invade everything, so that you begin to say the most ludicrous things just to avoid saying what is uppermost (or undermost) in the mind.
" Yes, you are right, Mr Trelford."
" Don't say I'm right if you don't agree with me, Dorothy. And call me Nigel. At least, outside the office."
When Dorothy's large brown eyes wrinkled at the corners and her mouth spread into a smile that lunch time I guess my goose was cooked. The itching was now less an intellectual idea than something manifestly physical working on the nether regions.
" Dorothy. We've been working together now for several months and I still feel I don't know anything about you. Do you live alone?"
" Yes. In Shatin."
" And you have no plans to get married?"
" No. I don't have a boyfriend. He died last year. In Italy."
" Oh, I'm sorry."
" No. It's all right. Actually, I didn't like him that much. He always wanted me to be with him. He always telephoned and said: "I want to come round". He even came to the office. He always wanted to know where I was. I was very unhappy when he died but now no more."
" And you don't see other... boys now?"
" No. They always ask. They want to come round to see my flat. They want me to help them with their legal problems. But I say no. I don't think I really like Chinese men. They're so...small."
So I started dating her. I suggested she show me something of Chinese culture: some meals, some museums, some movies. I've often noticed that mixed couples (usually a Western man and a local woman) are often seen at the cinema. The delicate courting of thigh against thigh and the wandering hand. Is it wandering for the packet of sweeties or to something more intimate? That is the thrill of the wide screen for me, at any rate.
I would time things so that Sam, my fiancee, never noticed. Most of it took place between five and seven, that time which is lost in most people's lives for some reason, when they are either commuting, working late, shopping. They are the magic hours of illicit romance.
A rule that was to stay with me was the hand grip rule. The first time you reach for a girl's hand, what is her response? Does she hang on to you limply or does she grip you firmly? Or does she avoid you altogether? I think that's probably the make or break transaction and eveything that follows is just the unfolding of that moment.
Dorothy and I left the office one evening, just as dusk began to descend on the pencil towers of Central and the streets were becoming awash with pretty women. I remember Baudelaire used to devote a lot of writing time to dusk. I'm sure he would have loved sundown in Hong Kong: the night club hostesses scurrying to work, the office girls emerging from captivity, the expatriate lechers stalking Pedder Street. Anyhow, I think it was in the lift up to the restaurant that evening when my hand brushed more than it should have done against the sensible, slightly worn office suit of Dorothy, against the support panty hose and finally against her soft, slightly lanolined hand. Michaelangelo's sistine chapel ceiling. The spark of lust. The corners of my knuckles gripped the folds of the skin around her middle finger joint and her hand cupped mine. There was no recognition on her face save for a slight wincing under my gaze. We were crowded to the back of the the lift and our hands were invisible. This saved Dorothy from blushing for many Hong Kong girls do not like to express love in public, sometimes not even by a smile. Chinese girls,as I was to be told over and over, do not do such things.
With the door of romance so clearly ajar, what followed in the restaurant did of course verge on public obscenity, if, that is, anyone had observed under the table. Above the thick linen table cloth, Dorothy sat primly, even expressionless, her long hair shimmering slightly in the halogen lights suspended above her. Below the table, my knees gripped her right leg whilst her right hand reached as far as physically possible up my thigh. I think you can guess the pleasant physical sensations engendered thereby. What happened next was bound to happen, of course. Dorothy was attacked by guilt. She withdrew her hand from my receptive thigh, gently prised my knees apart, crossed her legs and ordered an ice cream. I don't think there was anything deliberately coquettish about the manoeuvre. On the contrary, there seemed to be real feeling behind it.
What I actually said to girls on such occasions escapes me now. I suppose I gushed as usual about my past life, my travels, told them stories about how difficult it was to find the right girl, how European women had never really interested me, how Chinese girls were so pretty and all the other verbal armoury of the apprentice seducer I then was. Some girls were unbelievably gullible. Others nodded along as if the seduction were expected of one but was not believed for all that. Putting one's cards on the table, as I have done on occasion, is vastly gauche for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it makes the poor girl lose face. She may know that you are a playboy but she must not be confronted with the fact. Deviousness is expected of one. Of course, it may be that the deviousness was only in my mind. I still do not quite know whether Chinese people are naturally difficult and contorted in their thinking. They do appear to be so, making difficulty in relationships where there need not be any. On the other hand, I may have got it all wrong. Perhaps they are just too straightforward for Westerners to take.
A week after the restaurant interlude, I invited myself to Shatin, that German-style new town behind Lion Rock, on the pretext of an urgent consultation with a client. Dorothy picked me up and led me to her pleasant Canto-European style flat on the fifteenth floor of a new block whose only disadvantages seemed to be an appalling uniformity and an oppressively low ceiling. Her furniture was like the set of one of the local TV soap operas but slightly less dazzling. It was all there: the battery of remote controllers for the entertainment machines (the showroom stickers still adhering to the corner of the TV screen and the display of the karaoke mixer); the generously-cut leather sofa; the lacquered display cabinet full of trinkets; the protective plastic still clinging to the lampshade and the high-backed, pseudo-Italian dining room chairs.
" You want to play?" she asked, pressing one of the myriad buttons on one of the consoles to initiate a game of electronic tombola.
" Not quite yet," I replied.
The remains of a take-away curry pizza lay on the dining table, the air conditioners had reached the point of rheumatic inducement and the last rays of that day's sun were sparkling on the deserted communal swimming pool I could glimpse through the narrow chinks of Dorothy's grey plastic Venetian blinds. All in all, it was an unlikely setting for romance but lust is blind. I edged my way along the sofa, wrinkling the leather uncomfortably below me in my impetuosity. It emitted a low-pitched imitation fart.
" Dorothy," I began and placed my left hand on her fiercely clamped knees. The knees opened slightly and I pursued their invitation.
I will not bore you with the bedroom details, suffice to say that Dorothy enjoyed the proceedings enormously, almost as if she had done little else since a very early age. Once again, as we sat in our underwear on the sofa afterwards, wet towels strewn on the sealed parquet floor before us, I became keenly aware of the disparity between Dorothy's general demeanor and her actual behaviour. My behaviour was merely deceptive. Dorothy's always verged on hypocrisy.
" Did you enjoy it?" I asked, reaching for my glass of now flat Carlsberg.
" I don't want to talk about those things," she replied and meant it.
Our perambulation of the shopping mall afterwards was similarly memorable. Local people always react to seeing a mixed couple. If the girl is attractive, local people may display hostility. If she is ugly, she is acceptable. Luckily, Dorothy was not quite stunning enough to call forth the most vehement of emotions yet the undercurrent of aggression towards us was nevertheless palpible. Groups of schoolgirls sporting their first clumsy application of lipstick would cease their helpless collective mirth as we walked by, their faces taking on a not unattractive pout of protest. Shopkeepers would look up from their tills and silently analyse the possible reasons for the unfortunate predicament the evidently respectable Chinese girl had placed herself in. Housewives eyed me, then Dorothy, with a look of soulful jealousy and outrage. Dorothy, I felt, was enjoying the notoriety. When we sat down in the restaurant, wincing at first in the fluoresence and cacophony, she insisted on ordering in English and explained to the waitress that I was quite skilful with chopsticks and did not need a knife and fork, thank you very much. She also saw to it that we were given the regular rather than the toned-down foreigner's menu. Already, I was being protected as well as being claimed. Suddenly, I felt less of a stranger, less on the sidelines. I always lost my foreigness with a local girl.
" You're very pretty now," I said as we attacked the array of gleaming dishes before us.
" Not for a Chinese girl."
" No, I think you are prettier than most Chinese girls. At least you don't have a figure like an ironing board."
" Yes. Some people say I have a nice figure. Some people think I am half-and-half, not Chinese at all."
" But you are Chinese?"
" Of course!"
" Is your family from the North? You're a bit taller than most Cantonese..."
" No, they're from Guangdong. I'm a local Chinese girl."
" And do local Chinese girls usually go with engaged foreigners?"
" I don't want to talk about those things."
And we didn't talk about those things.
Riding home by marathon taxi through the Lion Rock Tunnel, I confronted guilt and deceit like details from a solicitor's brief: interesting and disturbing in some respects but ultimately abstract and distant. All lawyers have the capacity for that sort of double-think. The Nazis had it in Nuremberg. They produced their recollections of the war years like dusty and irrelevant records of someone else's actions. It's what you call a sort of situational morality. But I didn't think about such things at the time. All I could think of was how well I felt and how life could be good at certain moments.
But there was something running through my mind, underneath that is, not quite in focus. I remembered a joke made by a client I got off a charge of embezzlement some years ago. It stuck in my memory and I often recalled it at sticky moments.
Question: How can you tell when a lawyer's lying? Answer: His lips are moving.
The joke still hung in my mind as I kissed Sam in bed briefly before turning on my side and surrendering to somnolence.
2. CANDY YEUNG AND THE EMPIRE OF LEGS
Sam was quite delighted to move into our flat above the mall at Admiralty. It had everything a woman could want in the way of convenience and Sam liked convenience. She loved the maids, the shopping that arrived miraculously by order and which was stowed by yet another miracle more or less exactly where it should be. After a month, she decided to join a health club because she just wasn't getting enough exercise. When she saw that wasn't going to solve the boredom problem, she took a ridiculously underpaid job as a property negotiator. It got her out of the house, she said.
I'd known Sam for seven years. She's a stunning blonde girl, about five foot eleven, very slim and with an angelic face. In Britain, she was quite a prize. In Hong Kong, she slowly took on the status of an admirable separate species. My love for her became in the end almost purely abstract. Yet even when the Oriental women took over completely, I always respected the quality of her mind. There was nothing abstract about that. With the Chinese girls, I admired their bodies more than their minds. To be perfectly honest, their minds seldom entered into things. From quite early on, you see, I was the perfect chauvinist.
Now there are lots of jokes about men being only able to remember a woman's body rather than her mind and character. I'm as guilty of that type of chauvinism as the next man. This part of my confession is offered in mitigation. It is the story of Candy Yeung.
I met Candy in the lift up to the office one day and took a liking to her legs. Without the high heels you would have to say that they were short and on the fattish side but that doesn't give you the whole picture. We men are so brainwashed by the media that we think only those long slim Californian legs will do. This is to ignore the diversity of the human species and the differing styles of legs actually available for appreciation. Unfortunately, East Asian women are squeezing themselves into suffocating Lycra and having their fat sucked out by horrendous and painful machines. This is a pity as East Asian legs have qualities all their own.
Something really nice about Candy's legs was the way they curved unexpectedly above the knee and then lower down, just below the calf. It was easy to imagine the gorgeous proportions of the upper thigh region even by the cursory examination which a shared lift journey of fourteen floors decently allows time for. The extra four floors to where I worked formed a time of acute absence and eager reflection. I quickly took a liking to such journeys and after I found out that Candy arrived at the office between 8.58 and 9.03 every morning, I acquired the habit of arriving early too.
Of course, she noticed. Candy noticed everything with her sharp eyes, the most archetypally Chinese you can imagine. This was another reason why I fell hopelessly in love, I suppose. The epicanthic fold and the pupil lost in the iris. That is where the mystery really resides.
It began with a smile, with a look from her so ingenuously gorgeous that it robbed me of any claim I might have made on my memory banks of manoeuvres. I simply had to smile back. Now, of course, there are all sorts of smile. There is the smile of the older man seeing something sweet. Candy was ten or fifteen years younger than me so that sort of smile would have been decorous. There is also the smile of the superior, an indulgent flash of the dentures (mostly) to prove that you're really a nice sort of guy underneath all the harassment and exploitation. Then there's the business smile, a kind of Dale Carnegie homicidal grimace, the sort lawyers like me do so well. Some members of my profession even grimace to their wives and best friends, if they have any.
I think I smiled a sub-lecher smile tinged with little boy at the fairground. It seemed to work because Candy kept smiling after that and the dresses seemed to get shorter and tighter. Now, elevator seduction has never been my forte because I am, underneath it all, a very shy person. The idea of slipping a girl my business card - or anything else - between floor five and floor ten somehow makes me blush down to my Guccis. That sort of behaviour might be all right in the USA - perhaps with the Californian girl who has the long slim legs - but I don't think it would do for meeting local girls in Hong Kong. Even if they were panting for you, I don't think they would want to get introduced in that way. It makes them look too cheap.
Luckily, Candy helped me along. One morning she arrived carrying a pile of computer manuals tied up with flimsy nylon cord. Cavalier by nature, I instantly offered my assistance.
" Thank you. You are so kind," she breathed in a voice set somewhere down low but with a lot of high treble frills. I felt something stirring in the Y-fronts even then.
"You work in the same building. I've seen you many times. I'm Candy Yeung."
There were only a few people in the lift at the time and frankly I didn't care whether they listened or not
" I'm Nigel. Nigel Trelford. Who do you work for?"
" Taylor and Bradford. I am only a secretary."
" I think you're a very nice secretary."
" You are very kind."
And that was my portion of intimacy. Lifts in Hong Kong ought to be slower. I thought it would have been going too far to help her to the office so I let her struggle out on the fourteenth floor. As Candy knelt down to gather the manuals, her knee joints flashed before me. Then I saw beyond. Tapered, voluptuous, unblemished, with just the barest trace of youthful embonpoint but no hint of flabbiness, her thighs - what I could see of them - were Temptation. Before she had quite gathered the manuals, she looked up to me, her feline eyes sparkling, her teeth regular and only slightly discoloured, her cheeks dimpling slightly, her tongue protruding onto her lower lip for a fraction of a second.
" Goodbye, Mr Trelford."
That morning was a bit of professional disaster. Thigh-like shapes kept appearing before my eyes and Candy's face was on every woman's in the office like a ghostly aura. That morning, vividly and keenly, I knew what love was.
Lunch time presented my only opportunity for further spontaneous rendezvous. Fortunately, there was a stand-up sandwich bar next to the office lobby where it was not unusual to see suits such as myself enjoying a tuna fish sandwich and an Icelandic spring water for lunch. Candy was a rice box person and took it in turns, I observed, to fetch six or seven of them for her colleagues. Some days, especially Fridays, she would emerge from the lift lobby with four or five of her colleagues to form a giggling group which meandered crab-like along the sidewalk oblivious of everyone else, like all the other groups of Hong Kong. In my lover's infatuation, I fancied I could see that she wasn't really part of the meandering group of office girls. I saw something distinctly deferent, even distant, in her behaviour towards the other girls. She also seemed to wear less make-up, have classier clothes, a different walk, a quite untypical way of holding her head and arranging her hair.
Of course, in the end, she noticed me. She had stepped out one lunch time to buy one of those mysterious feminine necessities from the drug store opposite and was crossing the road in her gracious but circumspect manner when she saw me sipping a Perrier water in the window of the sandwich bar. She giggled for some reason and came inside.
" Mr Trelford," she said. " Do you always have lunch here?"
" Yes. Quite often. I just have to get out of the office at lunch time. What about you?"
" Oh, I often eat in the office. I have so much to do at present."
" But you might find time to have lunch with me some time?"
" Oh, yes. I mean...when are you free?"
It had been that easy.
There were two days before the day we had agreed upon. These were the days when the empire of legs descended upon me and seized me like a vice. Standing at the roadside at Central, waiting for the red to change to green, my eyes dismembered the crowd of women waiting opposite. Legs were, surprisingly, of every shape in Hong Kong: there were long, thin legs, smooth and elegant or verging towards the scrawny. When does elegance stop and scrawniness begin? I suppose it is in the ratio of muscle, or flesh, to bone. Some girls' bones shone white through their sensible panty hose which sagged a little at the knee. Their delicate blue veins could be discerned at their shin bone or bulging at their ankle. The elegant leg stretched the nylon, smoothed it into shape, suggested grace and rightness rather than deprivation and austerity. Other legs were a little too short, were pressed into the wrong shoes so often, so inelegantly, so charmlessly. The tendon at the heel was not distinct, there was no gathering of flesh above the knee.
There were also Japanese legs. I can usually recognise a Japanese girl just by her legs. At first I though such legs were misshapen, dumpy, truncated even but at last I saw their harmony, their charm, the contrast they so often presented to the grace and svelteness of Japanese girls' torsos. Many legs were set too low down, were hardly given opportunity to be legs at all. East Asian people are often not generously limbed. Yet... in Central at lunch time, in the MTR or watching pairs of legs alighting from taxis and trams, I knew I was in a favourable galaxy of legs, in a fertile plain so to speak.
In summer the braver girls threw away their torturing panty hose and exposed their skins to Hong Kong's urban rays of sunshine. Chinese girls are heliophobes, shielding themselves from ultra violet like sufferers of malignant disease. Leprous white is in, is sexually stimulating, is a prize of some kind of breeding. I often suspected some racial motivation in Asia aimed towards paleness. It had been suggested to me that Japanese women have operations in Harley Street to make their bodies produce less skin pigmentation. In Hong Kong, there were preparations in the beauty shops for "natural paling" and tubes of heavy make up which so many of the tai tais and pop stars smeared on themselves in thick unconvincing layers. Thankfully, this Elizebethanism did not usually extend to legs. In legs, I saw the true Hong Kong woman.
I tried to choose somewhere unassuming for lunch but in the end I decided to impress Candy slightly, not by wealth because that would have been vulgar. It would have said something about my intentions and she could easily have been frightened away. Instead I chose an elegant tea room in Pedder Street which attracted a wide range of interesting clientele. The food was very colonial English and quite different from what Candy ate in her lunch boxes or in her local restaurants. I would have an opportunity to be a little snobbish there for I felt already that Candy had some pretensions to culture. In fact, I was quite wrong. Candy was not pretentious at all.
Candy was wearing, I could see, an outfit which was calculated to be attractive without compromising her appearance of correctness in the office. The top half was some blouse and jacket whilst below, invisible when she sat at her desk I presumed, was a tight matching skirt adjusted to the outer limits of acceptability.
" What a delightful place to meet," Candy said. I was pleased she knew words like "delightful". It meant I would probably not have to simplify my English so much.
" Yes. It does have a certain atmosphere."
Candy was easy to talk to because she listened so well, soaking up every word I said and making something out of it. Whatever angle I used to approach her though, there was always a distinct echo but very little else. She was shrouded in mystery.
Candy lived with her mother in Western district. Her father had died some years ago and her mother was also something of an invalid. She liked her job, sometimes, and hated it other times. She had no particular boyfriend and no particular plans. She stayed in some nights and went out others. She wanted to travel but she liked Hong Kong. And so on. I, on the other hand, supplied a great deal of information about myself which Candy drank in, her bright eyes flickering every now and then as she memorised a detail.
" Might you be free for dinner later this week?" I asked at last.
" Call me in the office," she replied. Candy was a busy girl with her English course, her Mandarin lessons, her squash and her dancing classes. I wondered when she found time for love.
Lunch finished, Candy's legs uncrossed themselves slowly and she rose to descend the wooden staircase. Although we had talked a great deal, I knew as little about her as when we first met. When she shook my hand in the street below, her full smile again made me warm inside, despite my not knowing what it exactly indicated.
Next morning I called her to arrange dinner. I was amazed at Candy's passivity, her amenability at best, which always put the ball in my court. I decided where to meet, what we would eat, what we should wear, where we might go afterwards.
We met for dinner some days later in one of the Kowloon harbour front hotels. It was a beautiful evening and the lights of Hong Kong across the water were a brilliant sight. Candy was no longer the functional office lady I knew. She was transformed:in a formal silk dress, made up like a dream and her hair framing her radiant face like two perfect shining waterfalls. I talked of my past, my dreams, my likes, my hates, my future. Candy smiled, laughed when it was appropriate, looked serious when I frowned.
" What are your dreams?" I asked, suddenly aware that I might be boring her.
" My dreams? I have no time for dreams."
I decided to pursue the question.
" I used to dream a lot when I was younger," she said at last with a smile.
" What about?"
" Many things."
" Such as?"
" Oh. I liked animals a lot. Do you like animals?"
" Some. Dogs especially."
The theme of the conversation reverted to me again as it did so often though the evening. I was filled with frustration. I had not told her the whole truth but I had told her a lot about myself. I had no idea what she wanted from me or whether she wanted anything at all.
Fortunately, I soon lost interest in conversation.
We were side by side on the Kowloon harbour walkway in front of the hotels. It was really a very busy lovers' lane and we were lucky to find a pitch. Some couples stood against the railing engaged in petting so intimate as to be embarrassing. I wondered why they didn't go home to relieve their tension. I said as much to Candy. She turned towards me. My hand brushed against her leg. She looked up to me, into my eyes. I kissed her, slightly against her will at first but she quickly responded. We kissed for some minutes. Each time, she withdrew from me nervously with a slight laugh as if she had been surprised by my impetuosity. She leant against me and my hand gripped her thigh. It was a wonderful thigh. Even through the stocking it gave sensuously in the most remarkable places. Candy sat down on a bench, hoisting up her dress a little as she did so. In the lights of the harbour and the hotel windows behind us, her knees shone luminously, round and alluring like giant pearls in her white stockings. I put a hand on one of them. Candy did not resist. My hand proceeded up her thigh. She protested. A point had been made and I did not pursue the matter.
" I think I really must go, " she said, pulling out a small lipstick case and hair brush from her handbag as she spoke. " You are a very dangerous man."
I scandalised all Hong Kong on my way with Candy to the Star Ferry. The couples we passed looked dismayed, even more resentful than when I was out with Dorothy. Passing two policemen, I felt I was about to be arrested. " You are obviously too pretty to be allowed," I said to Candy as I kissed her goodbye. She smiled briefly and ran off. She did not wave or look round as she went through the turnstile. I was not surprised. The Chinese are not great leave-takers.
All next morning I thought I had blown it with Candy but when I called her just before lunch she was as friendly as ever. Walking together through the lunch time crowds, I was conscious that we had reached a turning point, that point in a relationship when people become just friends or take their clothes off. I don't like platonic relationships with women so I was hoping to get some sign from Candy that intimacy was just around the corner. It didn't come that lunch time. Candy was as poised and as distance as ever.
I invited her to a concert. The local orchestra was doing bits of Wagner including the beginning and end of Parsifal. I don't think there's anything more moving or mysterious in music than just those bits: the passionate yearning of the overture and the sublimely ethereal ending. We were squashed in some good seats downstairs and as the leg room in the Cultural Centre is limited for big men, you have to slant your legs to the left or right. This brought me into contact with Candy's knees again which were, this time, draped in sheerest black. As the lights dimmed my hands gently felt them both.
Something really got into the orchestra that evening and they gave a fine performance of the Parsifal finale. The music was brilliant and convincing even without the choir. I looked at Candy's face to see what was registering under such an onslaught of emotional sound. There was no shock, no bliss, no tears.
" What did you think of the Wagner?" I asked her afterwards as we sipped a drink in the Peninsula.
" It was very nice. Like in a film."
The last time I saw Candy was several weeks later. I was despairing about getting anywhere. I supposed she was a virgin and inexperienced with men. It was going to be a long haul and I felt very sad. Luckily, something happened to brighten my mood. A lawyer friend lent me his car for the weekend because he was afraid it might be stolen whilst he was away in Bangkok. I hadn't driven for years so I was a little apprehensive. Then I thought of Candy and how nice it would be to drive up to the New Territories and indulge in a little groping, perhaps even a little more.
" Would you like to drive out to Sai Kung, " I asked her over mega-MSG noodles and grey beef in a bad Japanese restaurant that Friday lunchtime.
" If you promise to be a good boy."
It was a beautiful day, none too humid when the sun was shining. All through the drive past the dreary suburbs of East Kowloon, my hands were growing more daring and this time Candy did not object. Once, when we stopped at a junction, her dress was hoisted so high we were noticed by a man and his wife crossing the road in front of us. Candy pulled down her dress demurely.
Just like Kowloon Park on Saturday evening, it was hard finding a vacant plot that afternoon because all the couples of Hong Kong were out in their tin love caravans. Some of the cars had tinted glass which made spotting the action a little difficult. Many couples were smoking post-coitally at the windows or pouting and snarling following some kind of pre-coital tiff. The drive-in plot I eventually found was at the end of a long, winding lay-by and we had passed three or four cars to get there. I stopped, put on the handbrake and looked around just to make certain we were alone.
" Bad man," Candy said with a smile.
I suppose it's really quite easy for small Asian people to make love in cars but you can count me out. I was just trying to secure my trousers and underpants around my ankles whilst lowering the driver's seat when my arse caught the horn for a moment. Candy, whose knickers had been successfully removed after some token protests, sniggered wildly. I don't know whether it was the sound of the horn or the sight of me trying to roll a condom onto a half-mast penis which caused the greatest hilarity. At any rate, when she had stopped laughing and an air of seriousness necessary to sex had returned, I was surprised to find not only that Candy wasn't a virgin but that sex with a condom can be fun. But all the fun couldn't quite cancel out the technical inhibitions of our situation. At one point, I had to press the window open to give Candy's leg more room. It jutted out of the window only an inch or two but I think it was my abiding impression of the afternoon: white, shapely, with the smallest of feet waggling loosely in rhythm with the pounding movements lower down.
When I had disentangled my trousers from the clutch and accelerator and thrown away my condom into the undergrowth already strewn with lovers' debris - an act necessitating my naked exposure to the elements as I opened the driver's door to pull up my pants - I looked over to Candy. She had readjusted herself with remarkable speed and was applying lipstick using the rear-view mirror as her guide.
" You've done this sort of thing before," I said.
She pouted at me for a moment.
" Bad man."
In the lowering of spirits brought on by such self-indulgence, I was in the mood for some more intellectual probing of the sphinx called Candy. We had stopped at one of the prandial pitstops of Sai Kung, a seafood restaurant called El Bonko's or something similar. It was full of devotees of bare-arsed boxing fortifying themselves on squid and prawns along with the odd mournful expatriate couple wondering why everyone was so happy.
" I've known you for so long yet I don't feel I know you at all," I began.
Candy was poking about some prawns in egg white and was a little slow to respond.
" What do you want to know?"
" I don't know what I want to know. If I knew what I wanted to know, I'd already be half way to knowing it. Knowing people is not like knowing, you know, knowledge. It's about the way someone is. Do you know what I mean?"
" No. I don't know."
I tried a different tack.
" How did you feel when we were making love?"
Candy thought for a moment and put down her chopsticks delib- erately.
" It was very nice."
" Nice?" I exclaimed incredulously." Cups of tea are nice."
" You want a cup of tea?"
" No. I don't want a cup of tea. I want to know what you keep hidden inside. What are your thoughts, your passions, your dreams, your reason for living?"
I really was laying it on a bit thick, as you can see.
Candy thought for some moments as a new dish of boiled crab arrived. Then she looked at me for the first time with a look of real sadness.
" I know nothing."
We were dramatically quiet during our trip back to town. Something had happened. When I look back on it all, I can't quite escape this feeling that I had pushed Candy into something, set her walking where she didn't want to go. I wasn't ultimately responsible for what happened to her. I don't think you could say that. That would be going too far. If I hadn't put these things to her, somebody else would have. There's no doubt about that.
I dropped Candy off at her housing estate in Western and drove back home. Sam was waiting for me with a set of complaints about the maid. I thought all the convenience was getting too much for her.
" What's the problem exactly? " I asked, twiddling with the TV remote control. All the satellite stations came in slightly mistuned and thus slightly out of focus. I suppose it made me appreciate the BBC more when I had to strain a little to see it.
" Well," Sam began, after the maid had been dispatched to the mall downstairs to bring in some urgently-needed Dryer's pecan and passion-fruit ice cream, " she's so bloody annoying with her "Yes, Maam" this and "Sir said" that. I don't think she's got a brain at all."
" Well, she probably has. She just hasn't been called on to use it on her previous employment."
" Can't she live out? It would make me feel more comfortable."
" Well, we'll have to get her a flat. If you insist."
I was happy to have solved that little problem. Sam was infinitely more relaxed afterwards. She didn't seem to mind the fact that I was clapped out sexually that evening. My input on the financial or domestic front was always appreciated that way and a pattern quickly established itself. When I thought I was coming it a little too much with the outside love interest I simply bought her something. Amazingly, it worked most times. Of course, I'd heard all about things like that - appeasing the wife, guilt presents and so on. But it really is amazing how typical some people - especially women - actually are.
I didn't call Candy again. It was just too much hard work trying to get to first base with her, on an intellectual or spiritual level, I mean. Surprisingly, you may think, that sort of thing means a lot to me after, that is, certain physical needs have been met. I kept thinking about what somebody had once told me, about the hollow people of the world, the people who have nothing inside, however hard you try to dig. People without any inner life. There are more of those people around than anyone likes to admit.
I never bumped into Candy in the lift any more, which I thought a little odd. I did remember to send her a birthday card, though. I finally called her one afternoon but no one picked up the phone.
It must have been six months later when the police came to see me. There was a young red-haired British inspector and a tall thin local man. Visits from the police don't cause me a lot of surprise or dismay so I wasn't particularly alarmed when they walked into the office one morning looking as inconspicuous as Eddie Murphy at a South African cabinet meeting.
Candy had disappeared. They had found my business card amongst the things in her desk and wanted to know if I could help locate her.
" I haven't seen her for months, Inspector," I said. " How long has she been missing?"
" Quite a long time, sir. She resigned her job about six months ago and never took another as far as we can see. Lived off her savings for a while and then just vanished. Her mother's very distressed. The girl just went to the 7-Eleven one night and never came back."
" How odd," I said as nonchalantly as I could because I didn't want any trouble." Didn't have any boyfriends or anyone?"
" Not that we know of, sir. And what was your relationship with Miss Yeung, if you don't mind us asking?"
" Oh. Met her in the lift. I helped her shift a few things one morning. Had lunch together. That was it."
The tall local man noted the details down slowly and neatly on a piece of official-looking lined paper.
" And you know nothing of her present whereabouts?"
" Nothing at all. Is there something wrong? You don't think someone's killed her?"
" No," said the Inspector." There's no indication of anything of that sort. She's probably just one of those people that disappear. There are hundreds on the file. Some are found washed up on outlying islands occasionally but most remain a mystery for ever. That's Hong Kong."
I looked suitably glum and puzzled. That was also how I really felt.
" Now, one last question, sir. Is there anything you could tell us which might help us locate Miss Yeung? Something she might have said, something you noticed about her, anything at all which stuck out as it were."
" Difficult," I said, staring towards the harbour with something like a whimsical look on my face. "There isn't much at all I could tell you. She didn't give a lot away, you know. She was that sort of person. Inscrutable, you could say, but that wasn't it. There was something else, something more disturbing in a way."
In the end, there was only one thing I could say, however strange it sounded to the two policemen.
"There is something actually," I began. "I don't know quite how to tell you..."
" Try me, sir," the Inspector said patiently, leaning forward slightly and drawing a tiny notebook and pencil from his shirt pocket.
" Well," I said, looking straight into the Inspector's keen grey eyes for long, pregnant seconds," she did have the most extraordinary pair of legs..."
3. PHOEBE THE BAG, VANESSA THE RICE AND CARRIE THE CASH
My sexual experiences in cars and in private apartments in remoter parts of the territory soon became inconvenient and made necessary an urgent solution to the problem of where to take the girls. The obvious solution of kicking out the girlfriend and running a bachelor flat did not occur to me. For someone of my profession and character, such a step is too explicit, too direct. Instead, I preferred to look to the bourgeoisie of eighteenth century France for inspiration and set up a petite maison - what people today call a love nest.
It was all quickly arranged and I became the proud tenant of a five hundred square foot flat in Tsim Sha Tsui complete with bed one foot short and walls that seemed to move slightly in on each other with each passing day. I would disappear there in the afternoon whilst Sam was doing her calisthenics or persuading new arrivals that thirty thousand per month was quite reasonable for a Mid-Levels cupboard with a view.
At the same time as I took the flat, I also bought the other weapon required by a Hong Kong lecher, the portable phone. Always in reach and always able to telephone girls with batteries of numbers stored in its prodigious memory, my portable telephone became an extension of my endocrine system, a kind of electronic phallus.
Shortly after acquiring my flat, I began to spend more and more time in Kowloon, sweeping the bars and discotheques for girls. I quickly discovered that although there is no such thing as the typical Hong Kong female, there is such a thing as typical Hong Kong female behaviour. The girls I am now going to describe were but three individuals and yet their behaviour was equally represented by dozens of others. I think an awful lot of what I could say about my love life in Hong Kong is contained in what follows.
Let us begin with Phoebe.
Phoebe was probably the prettiest and most desirable girl who got away. She was the sort of girl you see quite a lot around trading company offices, the sort which makes you regret you didn't go into business. She was twenty-two, very cute and she wore alluring things.
I met her through a mutual friend. She was late for the first date because she was having a facial. Like a lot of local girls who are stunning, she thought she wasn't up to much. She thought her face was too round, that her cheeks were too full. I think a lot of the local girls are kind of memsmerized by Western features and what they read in the beauty magazines. The prettiest ones - according to local perceptions - are frequently the unusual, girls who maybe have a distant relative they don't like to talk about. One of the recent Miss Hong Kongs is a case in point. For me though, Chinese features are quite all right. She beamed at me across the table, putting on an act maybe but I wasn't sure. I also didn't care. It was too delightful. I even lost some of the lines of my routine. Sincerity kept breaking through.
Phoebe was a buyer in an electronics firm based in Hung Hom. I suppose you could describe her as an up-and-coming girl and maybe getting a gwailo boyfriend somehow fitted in with the change. I'm not suggesting that Chinese girls regard Western men as a step up. On the contrary, it is often seen as a step down, maybe as a last resort. More and more these days I think it doesn't matter whether you're Western or Chinese for the local girls. The most important thing is to be loyal and have lots of money. Maybe also another important quality is the ability to be trained. I didn't have that ability.
Hanging onto a boyfriend is quite difficult for a local girl given the preternatural tendency of local men to fool around. The whole dynamics of men and women in Hong Kong suggest cheating looms large. Girls like to know where they stand before they remove their underwear, unless they're girls like Dorothy who just like men for one thing. They are a real find in Hong Kong.
The second date with Phoebe included that obligatory walk along the harbour after dinner, obligatory because I had found it the quickest way of getting somewhere with the girls. As usual, An awful lot of the locals had had the same idea that evening and it was difficult to find a snogging pitch along the waterfront in front of the New World Centre. In the end, I was content to prop myself against the wall of a raised flower bed and drew Phoebe towards me. She surrendered to Gallic oral probings and an increasingly obscene groin. Then suddenly, some penny dropped. The moment arrived when this local girl - perhaps out of a sense of primeval wariness brought about by centuries of distrustful intersexual dynamic - thought she should be getting something out of all this free love. It was time to turn off the endocrine system and take stock.
"I want to know where you live," said Phoebe, her lip gloss shimmering in the moonlight, her legs recoiling from my groin and her body suddenly becoming rigid with perceived opportunity.
"Take me there now."
Normally, I would have been delighted to have a girl insist on me taking her to my flatlet. My most reasonable self knew there was nothing going but something kept me hoping a seduction scene and a valiant surrender was on the cards. We all, as you know, live in hope. I made some banal suggestions about getting to know each other better, the kind aged conventioneers make to bar girls in Hawaii after too much Jack Daniels. I was definitely losing control.
The walk to the flat was like a lot of walks I've done in Hong Kong and the shiver you get down your spine is probably akin to the gallows walk or the walk I made to find out about the letter from Cambridge some time after my entrance examination. It's electric and what it's all about. Life for me at that time was about those walks and little else.
At the junction outside the New World Centre, I lifted Phoebe over the fence, partially exposing the opaque tops of her black panty hose in the process. She also scuffed one of her velvet high heels. Strangely, she expressed no resentment at all this. Dodging traffic, we hurried along Chatham Road towards the petite maison. The flat was untidy and I had to explain that it was unserviced because it was only a part-time residence. Phoebe sat motionless on the sofa for some time in deep reflection.
" Only one person?" she asked at length.
" Yes, just one," I replied.
" It's not so big. How much you pay?"
" About eighteen thousand."
" Wah. Chee-sy."
Cheesy is the Cantonese word for "crazy" and was the epithet reserved for much of my impractical, extravagant or impetuous behaviour by local women. It was the word which again came to Phoebe's lips as I leant over to her and tried to remove her upper garments. It was not to be. Phoebe's work of the evening was done.
The next time I saw Phoebe was the evening we went to the cinema. A carefully positioned jacket over my loins enabled her to exhibit unusual facility in manual manipulation. Her own soft thighs were a tactile delight, virginal, puerile and willing. We left before the film ended. Of course, I wanted to go further but it was not to be. I had enjoyed the trial subscription, the lure to further rapture, the first free fix.
The next day or two I was occupied with other girls. I switched off my portable telephone and thought myself safe from intrusion. At about nine p.m., on a Sunday evening, Phoebe appeared at my door in Tsim Sha Tsui. I feigned absence but I think Phoebe heard some sounds of movement in the flat. The girl I was with - I do not recall her name - showed some sympathy for my story of a revengeful past love. I telephoned Phoebe later that evening. She was upset. Our affair was over.
I continued to call her. I sent flowers. Reconciliation came and we once more sat together one Saturday night in front of a particularly boring B or C movie, the kind which Hong Kong film distributors appear to have monopolised. We once again left early, largely because a repeat performance of our token physical intimacy was denied. Phoebe felt it was time to shop. She looked longingly in the shop windows of Nathan Road, Jordan at handbags in French and Italian leather. The implication was clear. I decided to call her bluff and bade her adieu.
Phoebe called me some weeks later. She was, again, " upset" as she put it. She wanted to see me for lunch. At her request, I brought her a take-away meal and we sat in a hideous rock garden in Hung Hom. She wept. I promised fidelity.
The last time I saw her, she had her mind set on dinner. In an attack of bloody-mindedness, I refused to take her. I had had enough of being led up the garden path, of being played within a game whose rules were so arbitrary and unclear. Phoebe eventually bought some fish balls and ate them with great gusto near the Star Ferry. The intention, I believe, was to shame me. She sulked until I took her home in a taxi. Then, surprisingly, she fondled me discreetly in the back of the cab. It appeared all was not entirely lost.
But it was.
I sometimes wake up on grey mornings and think of what life might have been if I had managed to hang on to Phoebe, if I had managed to play her games or got her to give up playing them with me. She has become one of those parallel life fantasies for me. Lots of men have these fantasies, particularly lawyers for some reason. I suppose it comes from their professional capacity for duplicity. I recall the story of that well-known bigamist barrister in Britain who had two complete homes in different parts of the country. Both his wives - one a blonde, the other a brunette - were devoted to him and completely baffled when they met for the first time at his funeral. They both knew different sides of him and each thought they knew everything. One was convinced he hated pork whilst the other cooked him a joint of the same every Sunday he was at home. I sometimes think I could be a bigamist, just for the fun of it. It is one way to avoid the awful problem of the pattern, the mould, the march and eventual triumph of Time.
All this phantasising, just like all this writing, is proof that I should have taken a different turning. If I had had the courage to drop everything and to try to make it with Phoebe, I might have lived to regret it. But maybe I could have really gotten somewhere new and ridden rapturously into the sunset.
* * *
Vanessa's concerns were less with handbags than with food. I met her at JD,s, now too popular with the wrong sort of hopeless expatriate men, when it was still wall-to-wall totty on Friday night. Her friend Carrie, deliciously cheap and low cut, expressed some interest at my inquiry as to whether she was Japanese. Vanessa, a charming cuddly girl, giggled along. She giggled a lot and said some very complimentary things as we retired from the dance floor to a corner of the upstairs lounge.
The big drawback of JD's was the low lighting which made quite ordinary girls look spectacular after a Carlsberg or two. I don't know if I would have made eyes at Carrie and Vanessa for long under the blinding light of the MTR for example. Or maybe I would have. At that time, I was chasing anything local in a skirt particularly if the girl was around twenty-two or three. That was my condition at that time.
At JD's I quickly discovered that the girls were often pretty desperate types, desperate for some kind of rich or fairly prosperous guy to take then by the hand and lead them somewhere. There were a lot of jokes about that and about the trolley dollies who sometimes congregated there. The trolley dollies from Dragon Pacific at that time were in a kind of transition. There were still a good number of nice girls of sub-model class (I now speak in their terms as there is nothing as ambitious as a trolley dolly) but now all that is gone. Anyone can be a Dragon Pacific girl.
The dollies arrived in groups of four or five, sometimes eight or ten, and caused quite a stir. The most noticeable thing about them was that they looked almost like European women. They had all the accoutrements and a lot of the build. They also wanted to be European I think. They always admired any European woman I happened to talk to. I think local women regard European women as models in some sense, as objects to emulate. The Japanese use Europeans in advertising in the same way, as models to look up to because they see them as good examples of what Japanese really look like. The Japanese, unlike the Chinese, regard themselves as Westerners not only in style but in substance.
Trolley dollies aren't very friendly because they get approached by a lot of dud men. Unfortunately, they go too far and become real bitches sometimes. If they don't want to be approached, they shouldn't go out late at night to places like JD's. It's just full of men like me.
Now Vanessa and Carrie weren't space waitresses at all. Vanessa worked as a receptionist and Carrie was a sales assistant. Both had Form Four English, which means that it is slightly worse than a Form Five graduate. If you have ever met a Form Five graduate, you will know that nearly every conversation is an English lesson. The pain of speaking God's own language is severe as we all know but in Hong Kong, God's patience is tested. I managed to convey to the girls that it was a much better idea to leave JD's as there was no room on the dance floor after 11.45 anyway. They agreed and we left. Somewhere between leaving the disco and getting to a taxi it became clear to me that one of the girls had to go. I often see guys on dates with three women and think that no one's getting a good deal despite what Jan and Dean said about two girls for every boy. For some reason, I was left with Carrie, driving through the Cross Harbour Tunnel on my way to a night club in Tsim Sha Tsui called the Crazy Stud or something similar.
Given such a scenario, rookie Western men, newcomers to Hong Kong, might think that a roll in the hay was on the cards. After all, she had got into a taxi and gone off to a night club with a complete stranger, hadn't she? The local girl thinks otherwise. We watched a floor show in which only the Thai and Philippines chorus girls removed their clothes (Chinese girls do not do such things, perhaps also why it is so difficult to get hold of good Chinese pornography). Then, when I suggested a walk down the harbour boardwalk, it was goodnight and thank you so much, see you soon.
Actually I did see Carrie soon.
She turned up for our next date looking like a Mong Kok night club girl. Everyone we passed thought I had bought her out for the night and that I hadn't paid much. The truth about her was that her salary was so low, she nearly always had to put on her disco wear as she didn't have that much else in the wardrobe. That was really pathetic. It's very hard for a good girl with a bad job to dress reasonably in Hong Kong. It's no wonder so many latch on to a sugar daddy boyfriend type or go one worse and take up part-time prostitution. It's so much more lucrative than earning four or five thousand a month as a sales assistant.
Unlike Vanessa, Carrie was not only poor in English, she was rather slow. Conversation lagged a lot before we made it into the comforting silence of the cinema. Now, being such a tactile lot, it's all right to touch local girls on a date, as long as it doesn't go as far as goosing or something similar. Even the latter activity is permissible, under certain circumstances. Fortunately, those circumstances prevailed that night. Just as Kowloon Park lovers avert their eyes from each others' intimacy, so cinema audiences are remarkably tolerant and understanding towards groping carried to the point of obvious obscenity. I have penetrated girls with my hand with people sat either side of me intently watching the screen, without anything to cover up my dastardly actions.
Carrie responded wildly. Her legs straddled my left thigh in the cinema as my lips found her soft, firm breasts. She moaned slightly and tossed back her head in pleasure. I was half expecting an usher with torchlight to appear or some member of the audience to cast a disapproving look. Nothing of the kind happened. It simply wasn't anyone else's business but Carrie's and my own.
If only the rest of the world could be as tolerant as the Chinese.
Because of her cooperation, I was on the brink of believing Carrie was a very lovely girl. We sat in the Hyatt coffee shop trying unsuccessfully to look inconspicuous. The real problem was that I drew attention to her and she drew attention to me. It's always like that. That's why we drew so much attention when we were together. We didn't look like a couple. We looked like a social experiment.
Then, suddenly, my mood changed. I found myself growing impatient with Carrie as I did with most girls. I couldn't understand why she could show so much passion in the cinema and not wish for instant consummation when the lights came on. As you can see, at that time I still had a lot to learn.
One of the ideas I played with was to lure girls with money. I had heard a lot about mistresses and what gold diggers Hong Kong women were. So I suggested "helping Carrie out". Carrie was miserable and underpaid. I suggested, once a few drinks were inside me, that I should give her pocket money. Carrie ignored me and changed the subject. I didn't see how much I had hurt her.
In my enormously sensitive way, I gave up with Carrie and turned to her friend Vanessa. Telephone conversations with Vanessa were always a trial because she had the annoying habit of holding the receiver so close to her mouth that everything she said sounded like a donkey with a cleft palate braying through a megaphone. But love will find a way.
The things that I remember about my outings with Vanessa are usually associated with food. Just as Phoebe was synonymous with handbags, Vanessa was the signifier for huge amounts of meat, fish, rice and vegetables. She would only call me at meal times. If I called, menus came instantly to her mind. I was the provider of feasts and the telephone was the horn of plenty.
Vanessa wasn't fat but she was a health hazard. Some local girls can really eat a lot and hardly show for it. Vanessa was such a girl. If I had tried to keep up with Vanessa's consumption of food, I would now be around twenty stone if alive at all. Vanessa did however manage to teach me an aspect of eroticism I had to then largely ignored. This was the eroticism of food.
Food, like sex, is an intimate expression of the personality. Years ago, before I discovered that food could taste of something, I was eating a British Rail cheese sandwich in London's Victoria Station. It was absolutely tasteless: plastic cheese between cotton wool bread smeared with margarine. It was impossible to register a flavour of any kind. There was a sensation of gooiness and of fat but that was as far as perception could go.
The British rail sandwich tells us a lot about the British, the only people who can boil vegetables into submission and cover perfectly good beef with pork fat before they roast it. The British are not in touch with their senses because they don't really have any. Sex is an aberration and vitamins come in bottles. The British definition of health is that someone can sit in front of the TV eating chips unaided. When the Brits carried out their first heart transplant, we knew the patient was picking up when he was able to sit in front of the television, smoking himself to death like everyone else. Attitudes to food indicates attitudes to sensuality. The British are prudes because they have no health and no real contact with life. The British have thus produced a whole lot of fundamentally miserable and hung-up writers - Maugham, Lawrence, Forster, Larkin, Auden to name but a few. The British have also exported miserable writers to other lands, the most notable being Patrick White, and attracted others to their shores like T.S. Eliot. The British love being pale. They love being miserable. They don't know how to eat because they don't know how to live.
The Chinese people know how to live. In their eyes, food and sex are celebrations of life. Although intensely active in copulation like everyone else, they're still very much hung up about sex for some reason. The same can't be said about eating. You can be as self-indulgent as you like when you ingest.
I used to watch Vanessa eat. Her lips sucked at crab claws and her tongue dipped into the crevices of lobsters and clams. In her ecstasy, slime clung from her mouth and overflowed onto her lips. Her mouth slowly swallowed a branch of choi sum and lovingly caressed a penis-shaped mushroom. Her throat held the luscious oysters for a moment to feel their slightly pulsating tickle. Her teeth cracked through bones and gnawed the last fragment of meat from a chicken wing. She slurped, gurgled, munched, chomped, sipped, crunched, licked, oozed. She probed, prodded, turned, dug, snapped, stabbed, decapitated, eviscerated, deveined, skinned. She belched, sighed, laughed, giggled, choked, coughed, spat, regurgitated. She would pick her teeth and investigate her nose. All was noise, action, enjoyment.
With all that oral gratification, Vanessa had no need for sex. She was a very cold fish indeed and she wasn't being coy.
So I was left with Carrie, however tenuously. I thought for some time how I could best approach her, what arguments I would use. It would be difficult of course, but I thought I might have a chance. I would have to persuade her that I had made a big mistake and that I didn't really mean what I had suggested.
Just when you think you've made a big mistake, life proves you right. Unfortunately, being right isn't always what you want. I thought I had been wrong to wave money at Carrie. In the end though it was probably the best thing to have done. After severing all communication for so long, Carrie called me up one evening. She was in a crisis. She needed money fast and wanted to take me up on my offer. She suggested meeting in a hotel in Kowloon Tong that evening.
I slowly and silently put down the phone.
4. SEKUHARA AND A CAT CALLED ERIC
I'm a great believer in imprinting. It's one of the cop-outs for my outrageous behaviour throughout these memoirs. It is my contention that no sane or biologically viable man can remain faithful to his girlfriend in Hong Kong except perhaps with the aid of religion. The reason is that he is exposed to so many suggestions of alternative female forms within the course of a day that he must have release. As if everyday experience in Hong Kong did not offer enough stimulation, the population consumes pornography in enormous quantities. Much of the pornography in Hong Kong emanates from Japan.
I was sitting at home one afternoon thinking about Japanese girls simply because Japanese pornography is so imaginative. I prefer it to the Chinese variety for a number of reasons. First of all, the girls are exquisite with high voices and beautiful faces. Japanese girls don't seem to be so hung up about flashing their bodies before the camera and actually appear to enjoy it, as much as they are allowed to enjoy it that is. The second reason for my preference for Japanese pornography is that it uses suggestion more than gynaecology. The Japanese pornographer likes lingerie, vaseline on the lens, lighting effects, uniforms (especially schoolgirls') and white panties. Removing the pristine white panties is something which takes quite a lot of time in Japanese skin flicks not only because of the censors. It's also quite a tease (and probably hygienic into the bargain).
The first summer in Hong Kong I watched a lot of porn. It is available everywhere: at convenience stores, in video clubs, on the stalls of street corner vendors, from delightful teenage triad members in Mong Kok (the yellow notice boards give clear descriptions). The stuff you buy outside Mong Kok isn't explicit but that doesn't mean it isn't erotic. Au contraire.
So, I became imprinted by all that porn. Japanese porn, I should add does have its absurdities and drawbacks. For a start it is often as predictable as the Western product: tying up the girl, staged rape, violent deaths and a soundtrack that sounds like a Bill and Ben children's show (high pitched girls and low pitched grunting man). The porn produced in Japan up to about 1980 is so boring you have to have a kind of kinky brain to find it interesting. The stuff produced in recent years focuses on a single girl usually and doesn't really have much of a plot. It's great to watch if you are not opposed to consumerism in a big way. It's also not recommended if you are a bra burner or something approaching it.
Well, in the end I just had to have a Japanese girl. The problem was where to find one. Every day there are lots of tourists in town and some of them turn up at JD,s. Some, I know, are just yearning for sexual adventure, just like the Japanese men. The clue to Japanese interest in sex is in the silk panties which are offered in the shops of Tsim Sha Tsui with only yen prices attached to them. Hong Kong traders know the Japanese predilection for neatness and tearing silk.
In the basement, or maybe even under it, of a large Japanese- owned department store in Causeway Bay there are a lot of Japanese restaurants. At one end of the large public area, which is a a kind of food mart, there is a little restaurant veiled by the traditional black curtain. The food they serve inside is like a lot of the Japanese food in Hong Kong, bad ingredients cooked by amateurs. But the restaurnt is always packed with Japanese of all kinds: resident schoolgirls, housewives searching for the taste of Tokyo or Osaka and tourists who, just like many British, think abroad is OK as long as it doesn't get too different and threatening.
I ordered one of the restaurant's noodle sets with seaweed, beef and the other items which make this kind of food so delicious in Japan. In Hong Kong, it isn't cooked with love so it doesn't usually taste as good. Bad food is like sex with a prostitute. All the basics are there but love, the essential ingredient, is missing. A lot of food is cooked without love unfortunately.
Next to me, there was a very attractive girl reading one of the Japanese sensational news magazines. She was quite tall, thin, with a cute face. Her clothes indicated something in upper management and she was wearing some strategically placed gold. What put me off initially was the cigarette which she drank up like mother's milk. Perhaps that was why she looked so pale.
" Do all noodles have seaweed in them?" was my opening line and she gave me a nod and a smile. Following all the seduction moves, if not any of the lines, from my porno flicks, I persevered and finally struck up a conversation. She was called Michiyo and had been around a bit, particularly in the US. Her English was very good, remarkable for a Japanese. She came to the restaurant because of the complimentary magazines and the atmosphere. Her company sold electronics wholesale. I showed a lot of interest. She warmed to me. I said I was looking for a new portable phone and gave her my card. Strangely, when I told her I was single and quite alone, she gave me her own.
I think I was on the leather sofa one afternoon recovering from a more than tedious morning in court when a slightly breathless girl's voice asked for me. It was Michiyo inviting me for tea in Wanchai. I was reasonably staggered. Were Japanese girls so passive after all?
She was pretty much the Japanese girl at tea, simpering every now and again, avoiding eye contact and not giving much away. She was however quite graceful, charmingly submissive and kind.
" Do you like Hong Kong?" she asked, her intonation rising at the end of the sentence in a marked swing.
" Sometimes I hate it. It's having to live with the Chinese all the time." " Don't you like them?"
" Some days I don't at all. They're so grasping and soulless."
" Are you a racist?"
That line brought me to a halt for a moment.
" Well, if I were, I'd be in just the right town."
The affair went the usual way. Dinner was in a noodle shop we found in Tsim Sha Tsui. She didn't want to go into the place I first had in mind because she said she recognised a client. Later that week I met her in the Hilton coffee shop. She was looking really special and distinguished in a blue business dress with all the matching items. People gave me looks of vivid jealousy.
We found our way to the cinema but we didn't stay long. She took my suggestion of going back to her place willingly if not quite eagerly. She lived in an expensive building in Happy Valley overlooking the race course. I don't like Happy Valley. It is full of second-rate foreigners and resembles a gold fish bowl in its geography. Too many tower blocks and rotten restaurants. Her flat was bare, as I have heard it said Japanese flats can be. She had done absolutely nothing to it in the way of decoration. But it was lived-in, and how. I could see immediately Michiyo was a slut. The make-up on the coffee table, the hair brush on the sofa stacked with magazines, the cigarette ash everywhere and the coffee cup marks on everything including the glossy wooden floor. Welcome to my world.
I also met her cat. I hate cats. It strode towards me with menace in its green oculars, its claws extending a little to see if it could deal me some incapacitating blow by way of introduction. It was called Eric and it was a very nasty cat indeed.
I walked to the excuse for a balcony which had her smalls drying in one of those circular plastic jobs with fitted pegs. I suggested keeping the window open to air the place. She wouldn't hear of it. Something might happen to the cat.
" But cats can easily cope with heights. No harm would come to Eric, I'm sure..."
I wanted to say how sorry I was that more accidents don't happen to moggies. Eric knew immediately what I had in mind and hissed. I smiled a felinicidal smile.
" Would you like something to drink," she asked.
" Sure. A beer."
I looked to the door for a minute and saw a row of shoes. I hadn't taken mine off. Whilst she was bringing the drink, I shuffled my Guccis off guiltily and wrinkled my stockinged feet for a moment. I silly without shoes. always feel a little
I'll spare you the details of how I eventually got her into the bedroom and removed her underwear. She was fairly coy and difficult about the whole thing, as I had expected. Eric definitely didn't approve of events and had to be locked out of the bedroom. I heard him scratching the door during the performance. Michiyo was very passive and, frankly, as tight as a budgie's backside. I now knew why Japanese men did a lot of grunting in the porno films. It needs quite a lot of work to find fulfillment with a budgie.
I will always remember the way Michiyo looked at me afterwards - as if I had performed some slightly tedious but necessary surgical procedure - and how she morosely slipped on her underwear. She needed a post-coital cigarette urgently or perhaps it was just to catch up with the two or three she had missed during the love-making. She sat on the leather sofa amongst her magazines and old panty hose watching some Japanese soap opera she had on video. For all the interest she showed, she could have been an Amsterdam whore.
Eric, on the other hand, was delighted. He sat on his mistress's lap smirking.
" Interesting cat," I said, trying my damnedest to be nice.
" I love him," Michiyo replied and meant it.
I thought then that she would never do. People who like cats are loners essentially and often egoists into the bargain. A dog can pine for its dead or absent master. A cat just looks for another source of food and warmth.
" What does he do when you're not around? I mean, doesn't he feel a bit lonely sometimes? Perhaps you should introduce him to another cat."
" No. He is very happy."
Except with me around of course. I came a little closer to Michiyo, in a sort of cuddle-up manoeuvre, and the cat swung out at my hand. It left one little scratch, below the epidermis, as a kind of warning.
" What are you watching?" I asked to chase thoughts of animal strangulation from my mind.
" It's from Japan. It's about an office. The men are very bad. They all want to behave badly with the secretaries"
" I see. Sexual harassment."
" Oh yes. Sekuhara. It is the same in Japanese." " I don't think you could see this kind of thing in Britain."
" Why not?"
" Well. The women might object."
" Well, you know, it's not very nice. Men chasing women at work. I do it all the time but not in the office. I would get into a lot of trouble."
" But where can a man meet a girl? You can only do it at work."
That put things in a different perspective.
" But what about discos, bars, night clubs?"
" I mean, you could meet people in the street if you wanted. Like we did almost. Don't you meet men in discos?"
" Oh no. That is too dangerous. I only go to a disco with my friends. When you are abroad, things are a little different perhaps. I don't know."
Michiyo had very little time to see me and to ask ask questions about other women in my life. I saw her once a week and then only when she wasn't entertaining clients. She never found out about Sam until she was posted on to New York. I told her as a kind of going away present. I'm nice that way. But I didn't feel so bad about deceiving Michiyo as I felt she was also in a deeper relationship. With Eric.
It is hard having a cat as a rival but I learned to live with it. I was happy if I could have an hour alone with Michiyo and Eric not scratching at the door. My harassment of Michiyo gained in intensity as a result and I would suggest taking her on top of restaurant tables and in shop doorways. In her flat, I would chase her into the bedroom as soon as we arrived. She would submit in the usual way and was never really content until Eric was sitting on her lap afterwards, savouring her warmth, her odours.
Help came in an unexpected way and like a lot of help in my life, it was I who invented the opportunity. Sam and I knew Clodine Cloudwater, a batty American woman who knew all about numerolgy and New Age crystals. She lived alone in Old Bailey Street with a lot of rocks and seven rescued cats. I hated to visit her but Sam was quite taken with Reiki and aromatherapy at one time and I was dragged along. Because she lived alone, Clodine was a great talker and we hardly got away from her before midnight. Sam would leave her place carrying a huge bag of essential oils and, once home, would sprinkle my pillow with lavender and camomile before I nodded off. Our bedroom always smelled like a brothel.
I called Clodine one afternoon when Sam was at the fitness club.
" Clodine here," she announced brilliantly. She was always so depressingly upbeat.
" Hello, Clodine. I wonder if you could help."
" Sure, Nigel. I've always wanted to give you a reading."
" No. Nothing like that. I just wanted to know if you could part with one of your cats. A friend of mine is looking for one."
It so happened that Clodine had a new arrival, a tabby female which had obviously been abandoned by a good home. I was pleased to hear it hadn't been neutered. I picked the creature up one Saturday morning and when I brought it home, Sam took to her immediately, although she soon changed her mind when the cat left little messages in strategic places. The final straw was when the cat scratched and mauled a new Royce party frock Sam had left on the dressing table.
" She has to go," she said vehemently and I had to agree.
Michiyo was delighted to hear I had acquired a cat. Like dog- owners and people with children, she could not believe anyone could actually live without one or more of them. She had seen the cat once and declared it a beauty. I named it Erika.
We were sitting in a French restaurant in Central one evening wondering whether the owner would make his evening appearance and eject us. Michiyo had brought Eric in a little basket and I heard him scratching and hissing occasionally whenever he heard my voice. The patron of the restaurant, a fat vitriolic Frenchman, hated cats amongst other things but his wife was decidedly felinophile. I was just thinking of proposing some chat flambe with the cognac when I focused my mind on the matter at hand:
" Michiyo. I wonder if you would mind looking after Erika for a while. She's not quite happy with me and I think she could do with a change."
" A change?"
" Yes. She won't be any trouble. She's neutered you know. I'm sure Eric will love her."
A week passed. I didn't want to rush things. Michiyo was preparing for her evening hot soak when I arrived carrying Erika in a small pink basket. She called to me from the bathroom.
" Just sit down for a moment. I'll be with you in a while." Of course, Michiyo would be longer than a while. The Japanese sit in their baths for hours steaming away their frustration. I lifted Erika gently out of her basket and, as gently as I could, introduced her to Eric. Eric was at first violently angry, arching his back with outrage and disdain. Then something quite surprising happened. Eric rubbed himself up against my hand just as I had seen him do when Michiyo opened his can of food. But he didn't want me. He wanted Erika. Eric mounted her on the spot, savagely penetrating her as she stood, passive and unmoved, vaguely aware that something necessary but ultimately tedious was underway behind her. At length, Eric dismounted, preened himself briefly and jumped on top of the television, purring pure Devonshire cream.
" Oh, Eric likes her," said Michiyo, emerging from the bathroom looking all lobster red and sanitized.
Eric meanwhile was chasing Erika for second helpings.
" It's a good thing she's neutered," Michiyo said.
" Quite," I said, pulling her gently towards the bedroom.
Michiyo called me a week or two later. She sounded very distressed.
" Nigel. Come quickly. It's Eric. He chases Erika all the time. I don't understand it. He won't leave her alone. What can I do?"
I went round to the flat to reassure her.
" Don't worry," I said. "I'm sure things will be all right in a week or two." I was reckoning that whatever vivid scents Erika was giving off would dry up when her season was over. In the end, I was proved right.
I looked at Michiyo. Something like a flush had appeared in her cheeks. She looked almost healthy. I wondered why that was. She had given up smoking, she said, and was jogging every day before breakfast. Every smoker said he was kicking the habit some time so I didn't pay too much attention. As for jogging, I knew from personal experience that good intentions often didn't last beyond two weeks of early morning trots around the corner and back. But her appetite was demonstrably different. When we went out that evening, she devoured a huge bloody steak.
I came round to see Michiyo the next Saturday afternoon as usual. The door was open so I walked straight in. At first, I could hardly believe what I saw. The flat was more than tidy, it was faultlessly ordered and neat. The panty hose on the sofa were no more and the magazines had been carefully stacked in one corner of the freshly-waxed floor. She had obviously acquired a maid. Then I noticed that the suffocating haze of stale tobacco smoke was gone. All was airinness and light. It was likely she had really given up smoking as I couldn't see a cigraette or an ashtray anywhere. That was indeed a shock. I stood for a moment near the window, looking out through the immaculate panes, feeling keenly confused. What could it all mean? Was she leaving? Had another man come into her lhen I pushed open the door, I saw the greatest transformation of all.
Michiyo was waiting for me just inside the doorway, dressed in a selection of the most beautiful and exotic lingerie. She looked like one of the girls in the videos, absolutely pristine and rampantly available. My eyes ran over the curves of her body and rested between her legs. I could just discern a small patch of moisture in her tight red silk panties.
" Sekuhara," she whispered with a girlish grin.
" Sekuhara," I replied, my genitals expanding more urgently the longer I looked at her.
For the first time ever, Michiyo took the initiative and virtually dragged me into the fragrant, newly-furnished room, curiously reminiscent of a boudoir, stripping me impatiently as she went. Within minutes she was shrieking with delight as she sat astride me on her neatly arranged but slightly creaking bed.
Eric meanwhile, slothful and sated, scampered on top of the dressing table and eyed our performance with close and approving interest.
It seems that you can either welcome the world with open arms or you can tell it to go to hell. I was always the sort to tell it to go to hell. Of course, it doesn't mean you can't be successful at that. You can be successful at almost anything if you are prepared to suffer. In fact suffering is often part of the deal you put in for right from the start.
I've known a lot of girls in Hong Kong but I usually end up telling them to go to hell. It usually amounts to a dearth of patience on my part. For every one I've seduced there are two I've broken my heart over. As I've said before, you really should reserve judgement until you know everything. Then you can kick me in the balls.
Shirley was a lovely girl of twenty-one I met in a place called the Pineapple disco in Tsim Sha Tsui. Discos were quite common in Hong Kong at that time, before the hideous Nicam karaoke boxes had descended upon night life with their predictable anonymity. I liked the Pineapple disco because it was sort of naive unlike the establishments on Hong Kong island and some of the places in the more touristy areas of Kowloon. Those places seemed to attract the wrong sort of girls, the ones who loved to say no, especially to foreigners. Some of them made you feel like a leper. No, the Pineapple had very few foreign visitors apart from the odd tourist who would stumble in thinking he had hit one of the great nightspots. Perhaps they were also attracted by the low cover charge. It certainly was hard to find in the normal run of things. It received very little press publicity and hardly anyone talked about it. It was a "local" place. Set in the basement of one of the Tsim Sha Tsui East centres, below night club lounges, hot pot restaurants and electronic game arcades, its booming beat attracted a crowd of teeny boppers from the housing estates, kids who were trying out make-up and alcohol for the first time. The place stank of stale beer, had a huge dance floor with mirrors everywhere. The records were a mixture of Canto pop and the usual funky rhythms of musical masturbation by artists who mostly sounded like Rick Astley, Michael Jackson and Hammer.
I used to arrive too early, about ten o'clock. I didn't know for some time that evening entertainment in Hong Kong begins at midnight. Usually, on the dance floor, groups of small girls with new perms and ultra-red lipstick would be moving in a slow attempt at energy conservation to a beat somewhere in their mind, never after the beat of the big bass speakers. Boys would stand around leering, summoning up courage from cans of San Miguel. Many of them were trying their hardest to smoke, holding the cigarette all wrong in their hand and taking drags on it which they held for a second in their mouths before they realised the awful putridness of what they had attempted to inhale. With such a profusion of amateur smokers, there was a lot more smoke in the place than there needed to be.
I always seemed to be a foot taller than anyone else so it was never a problem getting noticed at the Pineapple. The big problem was getting the girls to overcome the shame and infamy of dancing with a big sweaty white man.
I tried to chat up girls for a long time. Usually, they just walked away. Sometimes they giggled, then walked away. At any rate, to say that I felt alienated was far from the mark. I usually felt like a Martian with bad breath and an attitude problem.
I can't remember whether I was limbering up with a stiff drink or consoling myself with the same when I spotted Shirley hugging something ridiculously tropical-looking with a bended straw at the same corner of the bar I had decided to park my backside for a minute. She looked sort of down on her luck. Her histrionic pose, the pose all Cantonese girls learn from TV together with pouting and tantrums, expressed recent rejection. Her boyfriend had walked out on her. I vividly sensed that even before she told me, before I could even start my own spiel. My actual openers hit upon the sort of communication problem that would later make me lose patience and wish I lived in a territory English-medium education had produced communicative competence in more than a bare minimum of the population. I persevered. Within about ten minutes I had established my cover story and even obtained Shirley's highly unimpressive card. She was a beauty consultant in a chemist's shop.
Shirley wasn't a good dancer. She had made a lot of her shortish, slim body and had decked it out in a variant of the black chiffon Daughter of Dracula outfit then popular with a certain class of the more racy disco girls of Kowloon. Her face was the prize. Oval-shaped and with a hint of extended nose and full, luscious lips (in obligatory ultra-red lip grease) she was quite a catch. Her dance step was a sort of monotonous hopping jig from one foot to the other, so uncontroversial that it could have been invented by the Swiss Banking Corporation. I had to admire her guts though. Any girl who would dance with the only white guy in the place must have something in her, besides a good measure of alcohol.
The best thing about dancing is that it bridges the communication gap. When they don't speak a common language, couples have to be active or alone. Apart from dancing, I spent a lot of time with Shirley walking, shopping and watching films. We both dreaded being together in a crowded restaurant, gesticulating, drawing, consulting the pocket dictionary I had bought and mostly just giggling until we thought we had realised what each of us wanted to say. Going home was always expressed by one word: Shamshuipo. Sham Shui Po is a district in North Kowloon most foreigners associate with pirate computer software and nothing else. For me, Sham Shui Po meant the end of the evening. Shirley however lived there with her parents and five or six siblings in four hundred square feet. Of course, it was also a lot easier to keep a girl in the dark if you could cover things up with incomprehension and confusion. That technique is used a lot by the locals. Attacks of incomprehension frequently descend on them whenever respons- ibility, sex or guilt enter the conversation. There is also the "accidental" wrong digit in the telephone number they give you. You see, I quickly gained a lot of experience of deliberate miscommunication. I did nothing but pass on what I had learnt from people I met in Hong Kong. Although we should always rise above the evil and the wretchedness which surrounds us, we are tainted more readily than we can imagine by a wicked environment.
So, I spent a lot of time at the cinema because at the cinema, you didn't have to talk much. We were sitting one evening in a movie house somewhere in Yau Ma Tei. Very few expatriates would be seen dead up there. The cinema showed local films and Japanese imports, sometimes horrid ones with people being sliced up or with monstrosities from the four corners of the world. It was very popular with local people. They can tolerate horrors and cruelty, particularly towards or with animals, more than Westerners I think and some of the nature programmes on TV are not put on for educational purposes.
On the other hand, love and sex are censored without rhyme or reason. I remember watching a TV version of a film called Working Girl. One of the key scenes is when the girl walks in and finds her boyfriend in bed with another girl. In the original, it's actually quite harmless and you don't see much - maybe a girl in a pair of panties and a satin slip. The boy's lying in bed, covered up. In the cut version for local TV you don't see the boyfriend two-timing his girlfriend at all. The incensed girlfriend just walks into her boyfriend's bedroom then walks out again without any explanation. Such ham-fisted censorship seriously interferes with the plot. Strangely, it's quite all right to show oral sex after the event. That is no longer erotic, it's just revolting and thus quite acceptable to the censors.
The film we were watching wasn't erotic. It was one of those local productions with all the Cantonese stars. Shirley loved such films and would squirm and giggle throughout. That evening she was wearing jeans and sneakers and looked kind of brittle. She also looked, to my eyes, particularly gorgeous. I put my arm around her shoulders. That was all right. I moved one hand to her thin, lithe thigh. It was politely removed. This was the usual pattern of our cinematic rendezvous.
It was never much better anywhere else. Always, my advances were rebuffed but in my naivety, I pressed on, hoping that one day Shirley would cooperate and give herself to me freely, wantonly, passionately.
In the end though, I gave up trying.
* * *
To reflect on what might have been. To follow up suggestions of golden memories and project them into the present. All my life I have been afraid of being caught in a pattern. I have sat at the edge, on the sidelines, willing life away from me. But a pattern asserts itself anyway. The refusal to adopt a pattern is in itself a pattern. A robust and abiding pattern.
I paged Shirley one afternoon when I was feeling low. She answered me after some time, maybe an hour. Someone, a man, was with her. She called the man to the receiver to tell me she was pregnant. I don't think there was any malice in that.
The relationship with Shirley had actually been over a long time before I heard about the other man in her life. I sort of dropped Shirley because she had quite clearly dropped me. The time when I lost her I think can be traced back to the time I said she couldn't join me one evening. She rang me up out of the blue and said she wanted to see me in half an hour. I was with Sam or another girl and just didn't want to spoil things. The call wasn't all that spontaneous though. Local girls like springing things on you to see whether you're seeing someone else. Maybe she decided I was a cul-de-sac there and then and took up with her Mr Right. It nearly always happened that way. Just when something good was on the horizon, I mucked it up.
For some reason, local girls don't trust men an inch and like to know where they stand before removing the undergarments. I suppose that's a result of the renowned promiscuity of local guys. All the local men I met seemed to have mistresses and girlfriends besides the wife. It was their way of doing things. Americans and Europeans just dump the wife. The locals look around for a girlfriend.
Anyhow, I had blown it yet again. I called Shirley one day out of a kind of desperation. Saw her name in the little book and decided to give it a try. She calls back, very chirpy and gives me her new home number. Her English is worse than ever. She had a baby boy. Hubby doesn't seem to be around. A week later, I call again and make a date to meet her in Tai Koo Shing. She has certainly gone up in the world.
When she opens the door, I think she looks much the same only a little worn like she doesn't get enough excitement. The place smells of smoke and there's one burning in the ashtray. She didn't used to smoke. The flat's quite a big one, very clean and modern, furnished like Dorothy's but more lived in. Kids' toys are all over and I spot one of those glossy idealised wedding pictures near the telephone in a gilt frame. The baby itself is asleep face down on the sofa. It looks like a lot of Chinese kids, like it gets too much milk powder. It's also wearing too many clothes. She tells me to sit down and brings me some Chinese tea in a plastic cup. The cup looks a little at odds with the comparative opulence of the flat but I suppose old habits die hard. Shirley does a lot of explaining. I think she's looked up all the words beforehand. Or maybe I'm just better at understanding bad English than I used to be.
Her husband is away most of the time and only comes back every second weekend. She's bored. Her mother drops by some times and she goes out with baby a lot to City Plaza and places like that. Not very far. She wants to get a maid so she can get back to work. Her husband doesn't want her to work. He likes her to stay at home.
She suggests we take a walk to the Plaza. The baby is dumped in a rickety pushchair whether he likes it or not and cheerfully complies. The City Plaza is like our mall but tackier. Every effort has been made to render it so bright and tinselly that having an abstract thought there is a superhuman achievement. You might think courting would be difficult and yet it isn't for the local teenagers who bump into each other on the skating rink and lean over the heavy chrome guard rails together, contemplating an endlessly contorting and severely unromantic scene of escalators, neon shop displays and shoppers carrying glossy plastic bags. All that courting goes against the ethos of the place. It goes against the message. There's a message in City Plaza's inhuman glitter just as there's a message of grace and peace and suffering in the atmosphere of a cathedral. The message of City Plaza is shrill and urgent: Thou shalt be bright and clean. Thou shalt consume.
We sit at one of the tables in the Food Hall and look at the various stalls offering Thai, Indonesian and Chinese food together with Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds. I'm not hungry but the child is force fed some mashed-up McNuggets. It starts to cry but when it's offered its bottle it gurgles with satisfaction.
People are looking at me and then the child and then again at Shirley. Perhaps, I conclude, you aren't allowed in the unwritten law to have foreign friends of the family in Hong Kong. I also feel embarrassed because I'm not used to conducting love affairs with a baby present. It's almost sacrilegious
" You don't have a babysitter?" I ask.
Shirley produces a small plastic device from her handbag. It looks like a digital diary, one of the useless presents Dorothy gave me and which I keep horded out of politeness in the bottom drawer at work. But it isn't a digital diary because it begins to speak after Shirley had tapped the keys a few times. It's a talking dictionary and translator.
I tap the word babysitter and sure enough the machine finds some Chinese translation. Reviewing the index of key words, I find it rather unfair that the rude words are there but are only pronounced in Mandarin. It would be nice to have such a device, with appropriate amplifier, for certain taxi rides and shopping trips in Hong Kong.
" When does your husband come back?" I ask and after some fiddling with the machine I am informed that he is in China indefinitely.
" You want boyfriend?" I type.
" Yes," comes the reply.
With growing excitement, I suggest we retire to her flat for coffee. This was always a good move when I was a student. She agrees and I descend in the long moving staircase with a growing feeling of anticipation. "Can it be," I ask myself, " that after such a long show of virtue, Shirley will at last surrender?" I had always heard about the length of time necessary for some local girls to give themselves to a man. Now, in the wishful thinking of long-frustrated lust, the logic of the next step flashed before me like a divine apparition. Bored by her early marriage, Shirley now looked back on her short maidenhood with growing feelings of regret. She had missed so much and she wanted somehow to make good that feeling of missed opportunity. At last, the situation of the night I met her became clear. She had had a quarrel but she was still inextricably bound with Ricky. That was why we had not been able to become lovers all that time. Now, all that appeared to have changed.
The door of the flat closes behind us and already my tongue is in Shirley's ear. The baby has collapsed with exhaustion on the sofa where it is deposited with its favourite Whimsey toy hippo, a rather frightening creation in mauve and fluorescent green. Shirley is engaged in the kitchen with some Nescafe and Double Happiness evaporated milk. I am thrilled by the perfect nape of her neck. I jerk her round and press my lips forward to hers. She submits for a moment then tenses up, fending me off as in times of old. I pursue my advances but she once more refuses.
" I no want," she says and appears to mean it.
There is a knock on the door. Her sister, whom I still vaguely remember meeting briefly when Shirley was assessing me early on in our relationship, puts her head round the door and shows no surprise on seeing a huge gwailo filling up a good part of the small Ikea sofa. That strikes me as rather odd. If you intend to have a bit of undercover nucky, it's ten to one you don't want your relatives to know. It begins to become clear to me that Shirley intends nothing of the sort. Or does she? Perhaps the story she's selling to her sister is some elaborate alibi in case she is spotted by neighbours or his relatives...
When the sister goes I once more embark on some forays towards Shirley's breasts and mouth. She is a little bit more willing, for a while, but soon it's the same old story. All in all, it's easy to see how rapes occur. If I wasn't getting my satisfaction elsewhere, I may have gone too far. I look at my watch and mumble an excuse to leave. Shirley, strangely, looks unhappy that I'm going.
Dorothy is waiting for me in a smoky bar in Prat Avenue with a whole pile of documents to sign and review. She's actually a small miracle: someone who can function with intelligence and still have a body that drives you crazy. I suppose I must have made love to her a hundred times in the past year or two but it's still great each time. She's sitting alone at the bar, eyes straight ahead, her gorgeous legs hanging off the bar stool and her hair thick and flowing. For a moment, I wonder why I'm chasing other women at all.
" Did you have a nice afternoon?" she ask and is so sweet in the asking that I have to smile.
" Yes. On the whole. It was a bit sticky in some respects but I think I got a lot done."
Dorothy looks quite different today. She's wearing a close fitting suit in some kind of blue-green velvet, black stockings and high heels. She look a real doll and I tell her so.
" Thank you. You look tired. What's wrong?" she asks and opens her beautiful brown eyes fully for a moment.
" Oh, nothing really. I'm just a little frustrated. Can't understand women, that's all."
" Have you been naughty?"
" That's just it. I'd like to be naughty but I keep falling in love with nice good girls. And half the time, they just haven't got any CPU."
" Yes. Central processing unit. Brains."
She giggles before she says:
" Of course. You are very clever. It is difficult to find a woman like you. Why do you always chase those girls with no education?"
" I don't know. Maybe the ones with brains have all been taken."
" No. There are many girls in Hong Kong who have degrees and are very clever. Many of the night club girls are like that. Why don't you go to the night club?"
I don't think she means it because she starts to smile again.
" I don't like paying for sex and companionship."
I want to go on and tell her that's why I like her so much - because I'm sure she doesn't go with me for money or security - but I don't.
Love that afternoon is kind of bad because I'm in a bad way. Dorothy doesn't notice too much. She always tells me when she's coming and the look of joy on her face when she does so is quite something. She comes three times that afternoon for some reason and swears blind I'm in as far as her belly button.
I quite like sex with Dorothy but afterwards, when we suddenly come to halt, I really don't want her around. That sort of sums up a lot about my attitude to women. I want them to walk into my life but I want them to disappear as soon as possible afterwards. I am the typical chauvinist.
I thought for a while about what Dorothy had said and it seemed to make sense. Surely, I would be better off with women who were somehow more intellectually compatible. Of course, she had hit a sore point and I knew it. The reason why I avoided the girls who could have given me some intellectual stimulation was that I was afraid they might touch me. I didn't want to be touched.
I wasn't the only one.
I used to meet a lot of guys in Hong Kong who would try and sell me the "never marry a local" line. They chopped and changed their girlfriends with the weather. That sort of thing's all right for a while but in the end it's very wearing on the soul. Hong Kong is at the present time a little like a sweet shop for pretty girls. It isn't difficult to find a whole pile of girls who can be an emotional stop gap. In the end, though, you're alone and looking around for another one. It's very easy to see why you need a local girl in Hong Kong. You can't be part of the local scene without a strong link with your emotions. You're an outcast otherwise. That's why I think all that talk from those guys was sheer nonsense. They were stranded in the same useless game as me but they just wouldn't admit it.
I wonder how the Governor copes without a mistress or two.
Life goes its own way and I suppose I suppose must be occupied with one or two of my other affairs because I forget Shirley for a while. There's an awful lot of work and my mind is stretched for new defenses. There's a great new one from England: premature dementia. It works a treat with the courts in a few cases. Thankfully, the clients have enough brain power to remember to pay my fees. I'm building up a good reserve in the bank and wondering how I'm going to spend it. Maybe I should retire to the Cayman Islands.
Sam meanwhile has never been so happy. She's really into the Hong Kong lifestyle and hardly meets a local, I think. Certainly, she never talks to any. She's so impatient with the locals, it's embarrassing. Doesn't speak a word of the language, of course. Just like me. Too busy to learn it. Thinks it's ugly etc.. At least she's honest, I suppose.
One afternoon, I'm just reaching for my first beer of the day when Shirley calls. Ricky's out of town again and she wants to see me, this time without the baby. As I'm eternally optimistic, I fix up a date.
We meet in the crowded MTR at Tsim Sha Tsui with half of Hong Kong. Girls are waiting in the doorways of the shops and stand two or three abreast around the Hang Seng Bank. Looking at them, I wonder, as I often do, why I'm going out with anything short of perfection. Actually, compared to Sam, I think they're all slightly imperfect and that is part of what I can't accept.
Shirley is wearing a practical kind of dress which ages her appreciably I think but takes my hand determinedly when it is offered.
" Why don't we go to some of the old places,?" I ask with a smile.
In half an hour, we're sitting in a little Japanese teppanyaki place in the same building as the Pineapple disco. I've managed to extrapolate that her marriage is not just boring, it's practically moribund. Ricky is like one of those jokes you hear sometimes about certain local husbands: betting, girlfriends, tight rein on the money and as affectionate as is required to please the family.
" But you get married so early?" I ask in my blossoming pidgin.
" I am a Chinese girl. Chinese girl get married. No one likes old girl in Hong Kong."
We looked for the Pineapple disco but it was gone, transformed actually into a set of the dreaded karaoke lounges. We step into one of them and for some reason Shirley snuggles up to me and starts to cry.
" Why no leave him? You don't like him," I ask as sympath- etically as I can.
" He is my husband."
I look at her as she dips her tissue into some of my Perrier water and starts dabbing her eyes. There's really no hope, at least not yet. She's just like a lot of working class girls in England who get married, play at Setting Up House for a while and then at Happily Married with Children and then realise they're 25, still young and haven't seen or done anything. The parallel with Britain is so funny but in the UK the girls often call it a day and get out. In Hong Kong it probably takes a lot longer and it being such a chauvinistic place, it may never happen. The girl may stay married, the husband making other arrangements with everyone's sanction and understanding whilst she clings to something grounded in being a Chinese Girl. All in all, it's a big can of worms and I just don't want to get involved. It seems like I've been a big patsy all along, helping to make life a little more tolerable for a woman locked in a mind set of a hundred years ago.
" I'm sorry," Shirley says, acquiring some kind of composure.
" It's all right. I quite understand," I reply, vowing never to see her again.
But I don't understand at all.
THE SEX NOVEL IS CONTINUED HERE