Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Hong Kong - #20

During 1971 and 1972 I visited Hong Kong many times while flying as a Federal Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) through I rarely spent more than 12 hours on any one stop. On the other hand, I stopped there so often that – now 36-some years later – all of the visits have blended together.

In those years Hong Kong was still nominally part of the British Empire. However, with the Red Chinese breathing heavily just over the horizon, the Brits new their days were numbered. On the other hand, the Hong Kong Chinese – perhaps the most industrious branch of a hyper industrious race of people – just tended to business, raising their kids, revering their elders and fleecing the Yankees. Oh, I don’t mean to imply that they treated Americans any differently than they did the French, Germans, Aussies, or Japanese for the matter. We were all sheep to be sheared…but in a very honest and straight forward manner mind you.

Tourism was one of the things that fueled the Hong Kong economy and the powers-that-were made sure that no one upset the money rickshaw. Keeping a firm rein on goings-on were the ever crisp Hong Kong police, who combined the no-nonsense attitude of a British bobby with the gimlet-eyed cynicism of a 1000-year-old culture. Sky Marshals were just yet another weird western custom they tolerated with implacable indifference. There was little fuss when we checked our guns in after landing at Kai Tak airport. “Just toss ‘em into the canvas bag, Yank. See you in a few hours.”

The stopovers in Hong Kong were generally so short that I had little time for anything but grabbing a snack, catching a few hours of sleep…and buying some shirts. I don’t mean off-the-rack shirts. Kowloon – the part of Hong Kong attached to mainland China – had more tailor shops than tea houses. If you liked to live dangerously, you could have a suit measured and tailored in a single day – though I don’t recommend it unless you’re fond of wearing clothes that look like they belong to another species. On the other hand, if you could give them a couple of days Chinese tailors could work magic.

I’d always prized – but could never afford – custom tailored shirts. Store-bought shirts typically came with about two yards of extra fabric around the middle and I coveted the sleek, tailored shirts that James Bond wore. Since Saville Row was on the other side of the world, Hong Kong was the next best choice. The first time I hit town, I made a beeline for a crowded, narrow street lined with tailor shops. Each store was fronted by a guy who called to you as you passed – just like a midway barker or the doormen in front of strip joints in San Francisco’s North Beach.

Eventually I found a store that looked clean, or perhaps my sales resistance had been worn down after hearing, “Hey GI we’ll make you look like Charles Bronson,” for the 20th time. I poked my head inside and was immediately overwhelmed by bolts of fabric and a couple of Indian salesmen brandishing quart bottles of Singha beer. An hour later, with a mild buzz and minus about $32, I was headed back to the hotel with the promise that my four custom-fitted, button-down, Oxford cloth shirts would be delivered later that evening. And you know what – they were delivered as promised and they fit great. After that, buying a couple of shirts was a Hong Kong ritual.

On only one stopover did I have enough time for any sightseeing. On that occasion I boarded the Star ferry and headed across the harbor for the actual Hong Kong, which I didn’t realize until that point in time is an island. Armed with little more guidance than a tip to visit the venerable China Fleet Club, I left the ferry and took my life into my hands.

The China Fleet Club was safe enough. Founded around 1900 as a canteen for Royal Navy personnel it boasted a storied past including serving at the Japanese Navy HQ during World War II. After the war, the Royal Navy took it back, thank you, and it continued to serve Royal Navy tars into the 1980’s when the club was relocated to England. That was to be a few years after I visited Hong Kong. This was 1971 and Hong Kong was a major R&R (Rest & Recuperation) stop for war weary soldiers. Thanks in no small part to it’s proximity to the Wan Chai neighborhood the CFC was a popular hangout for American GI’s who wanted to tank up before heading out to fall in love.

In case the name Wan Chai doesn’t ring a bell, it was romanticized in a 1960’s chick-flick titled The World of Suzie Wong that starred William Holden. If Holden’s name doesn’t ring bell either, your mom thought he was really cute. Anyway, in those days, the Wan Chai was a noisy, smelly kaleidoscope of neon signs, topless joints and drunken soldiers, sailors, marines. Of course, I had to see it for myself.

One bar was enough. If you’ve been reading this blog you might remember the story about the bar in Lisbon I visited where a delicate flower tried to give me a hernia exam. Well, the girl in Lisbon was positively genteel compared to the Chinese lassies at the Manhattan Bar. No sooner had I parted the beaded curtains at the front door when I was greeted by a chorus of voices, all of which seemed to be saying, “Hi GI. My name is Suzie. I love you. Buy me some champagne and maybe I take you around the world.” The next thing I knew, some beady-eyed madam in her 30’s or maybe her 60’s wearing a silk ao dai was haggling with me about buying “Suzie” for the night. Buy Suzie for the night? I hadn’t decided to buy “Suzie” the warm ginger ale they were pawning off as champagne.

Before you could say, “Who's going to notify Steve’s next of kin?” I had half a dozen people cursing me in Mandarin as I backed up in what I hoped was the direction of the front door. Fortunately as I hit the beaded curtains, in came a scrum of 3 or 4 noisy soldiers bent on making the most of their R&R. As they stumbled into the bar I bobbed and weaved my way out and was half-way down the block before I realized that no one was chasing me.

Aside from the Wan Chai, the only real adventure that I encountered visiting Hong Kong was landing at the infamously famous Kai Tak airport. With a single runway and a perilous location, Kai Tak was considered challenging by the best pilots…and PanAm’s pilots were the best. Depending on the direction of the wind, a landing plane had to pass over the rooftops of Kowloon at an absurdly low altitude. They called it the "checkerboard" approach because the pilot had to fly toward floodlit orange and white checkerboard patterns painted on a hillside and then make a 47-degree right turn to line up with the runway. I was always a little nervous riding in a plane that weighed almost a million pounds that was flying little more than the length of a football field above the rooftops of packed tenements.

On more than one occasion the pilot took almost all the length of the runway to rein in the 747 and had to turn around 180 degrees so we could taxi back up the runway to the terminal.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

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