At the tender age of 17 in the year 1957, I made my first trip to Hong Kong. I was standing lookout watch aboard the USS Razorback (a WW II diesel submarine), when we first made landfall. Actually, in the South China Sea, the approach to land is more like creeping up on a floating garden. Thousands of small islands rise gradually from the horizon in luminous green water. They look like emerald-colored broccoli heads protruding conspicuously from an immense flat putting green. Rare glimpses of brown earth - hidden darkly behind luxuriant overhanging foliage - offer the only evidence that the greenery is not rooted in salt-water. With exception of the blue sky above and a random van Gogh swipe of lime green here and there, the world is deep verdant green all around the horizon. I imagined tall-ship-sailors of past centuries spending years searching vainly for the mainland.
When we met the Chinese pilot-boat which had come out to meet us in open sea, Sparky, down below in Radio Shack, was in contact with an interpreter on the vessel. We brought the Pilot aboard, cranked up standard speed, and followed her wake through the tiny green islands, which isolated the continent from the South China Sea.
The Captain was on the bridge, but he didn't look like the same confidently calm Skipper we'd just been on patrol with. He looked downright mean. He didn't like giving up the Conn of his ship to anyone, especially at fifteen knots.
"Says right there in the radio message," I whispered through cupped hands to the signal light operator next to me, "the Pilot assumes responsibility for the ship's safety."
"Yeah sure, you dumb shit. The Old Man's gonna go below and take a nap 'cause some commie's promised to take care of his boat," The QM looked down at me, "You gotta be the stupidest non-qual aboard."
I nodded my head, acknowledging the rebuke, "Why don't we just steam in ourselves then? Just radio ahead for permission, and go in on our own."
"We gave them our ETA last night," he explained carefully. No matter how disgusted Dolphin-wearing crew members were with non-quals, they never failed to tough-love us until we either bled or smartened up. "If we get a mile off-track either side, or an hour ahead or behind, the Chi-Coms will blow us out of the water." He always smiled whenever I paid attention, "Look closely at those islands; you can tell which ones have cannons on them and which ones don't."
The Skipper turned around and glowered at me. I don't think he'd heard anything. He was glowering at everyone. I decided to pay a little more attention to my lookout duties but I never did identify any islands with guns.
We dropped anchor a few hundred yards off Queen's Pier, and were immediately attacked from all sides by a dozen or more sampans, manned by women in black pajamas and conical hats.
The old salts explained that this was Mary Sue's crew. I learned that she was the reason we had stowed tattered and frayed manila mooring lines, pieces of rusted scrap metal and miscellaneous junk in the deck-lockers through all those weeks on patrol. Mary Sue's ladies took every piece of trash we offered. A ten-year-old girl dived overboard in the filthy water to capture a six-foot piece of cotton flax line when I missed the sampan with a careless throw. In return for junk, they cleaned the engine room bilges, painted any unclassified space we would let them into, and painted our submarine topside from stem to stern. I was overjoyed at the surprise news because normally it was the most junior three men aboard who wire-brushed, scraped and painted topside. In Hong Kong, I was THE junior man, but I was ashore and on liberty not too long after the Captain.
The old timers had primed us for the visit. They had described genuine B-U-L-O-U-A men's watches for ten Hong Kong dollars (about two US dollars) that looked just like a hundred-dollar, twenty-one jewel Bulova with a minor spelling error. They had a ladies Timex mounted inside. They warned us to pay only half the tailor's price until after we'd tried on our newly fabricated clothing. We'd seen the Navy's requisite movie with graphic stomach-turning photos of those who had ignored the Navy's abstinence warnings. We unanimously agreed that the Corpsman, who summarized the movie, was lying when he described his bull-head-clap remedy: the affected body part was placed on the After Torpedo Room vise, and puss was then released with a ball-peen hammer. "Only way," he said, "to relieve the pain from the swelling."
Once I had been tracing out a hydraulic line in Control Room for my qualifications, when I overheard the Chiefs talking: ". . . anything you could ever want's in Hong Kong." There was murmured agreement.
"ANYTHING. . . . A clean-shirt-and-a-twenty-dollars-a-day." One of them clasped both thumbs behind his belt buckle.
"Yeah! At's all you need in Hong Kong. Come home with a bad head and pockets inside-out, but damn . . . anything in the world."
Of course that didn't remain a secret long, so when Hammitt, Billie Joe and I left the ship, we were armed with plenty of mediocre advice and two twenties each.
We got from our anchorage to Queen's Pier aboard a British Navy whale boat commanded by a coxswain who swerved, slowed and then gunned the engine dodging through, around, and among two-story Junks, long sleek yachts, and tiny Mary Sue sampans; neither he nor they had ever heard of the International Rules of the Road; it was one of those situations when courage consists of forcing yourself to accept an assumption that he cares as much for his life as you do for yours, so you just hang on. The Star Ferry on our starboard quarter was headed directly at us, but the current was carrying her, crab-like, toward the piers to the right of Queen's Pier. Off to the left, on the island called Hong Kong, several small roads ended at shabby grey warehouses which lined the wharves; at their other extreme were perpendicular roads busy with traffic. Busy cranes moved burdens to and from cargo ships at several piers, and dockside looked to be a very disappointing place. Careful scrutiny with a lookout's trained eye revealed an occasional faint red neon glow, possibly in the shape of a San Miguel sign. Or Asahi. Anything that glowed red in the daylight was a possibility. Blurred writing (square, so obviously English) on the waterfront's dominant building - about three stories - finally came into focus. CHINA FLEET CLUB. By now we could see rickshaws and people walking on the streets. In front of the Fleet Club, a sailor, waving a Brit-style flat-hat fell out of a door and into an awaiting rickshaw. We were beginning to get our bearings.
We passed what we decided was an Italian submarine tied up to a pier at Queen's Landing. It would be interesting to visit an Italian boat We were all genuinely fascinated; we each put it on our list of things to do - later. The gate exiting the Queen's compound was manned by a dark-skinned Indian giant in khaki uniform and a light-blue beret. His voice sounded like it came from some little squeaky five-foot Brit with a bowler hat and manacle hidden somewhere inside, but he had a baton the size of a Little League bat, and we did not giggle.
"Roit at the yella, lads," he motioned us out the gate and toward the curb, "Cab'll see ya. Tip a cou' fer me."
"Yessir," we answered and by the time we reached the edge of the wide sidewalk, a small English car with a light on top had pulled up.
There is a psychological sequence of events, unique to Hong Kong, which helps to explain why salty old chiefs (and those who follow behind them) believed that getting yourself completely skinned was one of the better lifetime investments. It begins at the sidewalk outside the Queen's gates.
"How much to a good bar?" I asked, since I was the only one of us not drooling uncontrollably over a tight-fitting chon-sam across the street. (The correct spelling eludes me, but it was a form-fitting ladies' dress, with a small v-shaped upright collar and thigh-high slits, port and starboard - worn properly it pretty-much represented " .. Everything you could ever want..." that the Chiefs had spoken of).
"Fie dollah. Wan Chai," was the immediate reply. We knew that the Wan Chai was where sailors had gone since time immemorial to get shanghaied.
"For all of us?" I was the only one capable of negotiating.
"Yes, eddyboddy! Gee in." he waved to the open back doors. Damn, I calculated, that's about two bucks each, with tip. Somebody had told me to always get the price before you get in. I managed to get the guys into the taxi.
Amid the dizzying conversation (mean annual temperature and rainfall, cheapest booze in town, history of the Crown Colony, where the best stuff is located, how much further, who's the president of Japan -- Ugh, China -- , how much you want for this taxi, etc.), someone asked if the fare was in HK dollars or American. Missing his chance, the driver answered, "Fie dollah Hong Kong!"
I recalculated: at about six-dollars HK to one US; this trip was costing us about three packs of smokes (at sea-store prices) or thirty cents each. I happily paid the cabby when we got to our destination, gave him a two-dollar HK tip, and he was delighted. Hammitt and Billie Joe hadn't been paying attention, so they shrugged like I was nuts, and promised to pay for the first couple of rounds.
Hong Kong had zapped me. It had tried to extort my hard-earned money. It had charged me more than I would have had to pay in San Francisco. It had taken advantage of me. I had grudgingly and resentfully accepted its extortion. But . . . I had been wrong! I had misjudged. I'd almost had to fight the cab-driver to get him to accept my measly tip. I'd seen hard-working boats, and hard-working people on the streets; but even chon-sams had escaped my calculating mind. I was ashamed of myself, and I loved Hong Kong. I knew then that I always would.
Music to me is sort of in the same category as nuclear physics, but that night I danced and sang with the most beautiful woman in the world. I remember that her leather dress - if it could be called that since it covered only what was between the bottom of her cleavage and the tops of her long thighs - had a shiny parachute D-ring which promised to disengage the entire zipper with one quick yank. My buddies were all jealous of my D-ring, and I danced and felt good. Jean and I smooched and planned to go to her place after one more Cherry-Drink. We did that all afternoon between Tangos. I remember that the Indian guard's big brother carried me to the whale-boat as I described Jean, the D-ringed girl, to him. He couldn't comprehend that "Jean" meant "Shining Star" in Chinese, but he was a good guy.
Hammitt and Billy Joe couldn't see Hong Kong as our whale-boat made its way out to Razorback because they were so preoccupied with pulling me down from the boat's gunwale. The dim white lights of closed business offices and warehouses were reflected gently in the water astern like a thousand yellow moons, but unlike any place else in the world, moonbeams throbbing in the waves danced with glorious green and red neon reflections of humanity at full speed. Apparently, the harbor waters were a bit rough, because I emptied my stomach on Mary Sue's new paint just before I retired to my bunk and slept like a baby.
During each of the next five days in port, one or two sampans visited the ship to collect our garbage immediately after each breakfast, lunch and dinner. The garbage cans were stainless steel cylinders about eight inches in diameter and three feet tall with handles spot-welded on each side near the top. Crew members scraped their plate into the cans, and left-overs from the meal were dumped on top. From on deck, the garbage cans were lowered with a ten-foot tether on the handles, to the sampans, and then hauled back aboard clean and polished. I had mixed feelings of compassion and irony as I watched a young girl scrape beans with a bamboo stick from a half-eaten wiener - to separate two kinds of food which our cook had previously taken great pains to artfully combine. Mashed potatoes, creamed-corn, and corned-beef hash were meticulously isolated into clean tin cans for later use. I never saw a girl eat anything alongside the submarine. An old timer, who said he could identify Mary Sue, spent several hours on deck watching with me, but he was never able to point her out.
Jean had to visit her sick mother somewhere in inland China unfortunately, but I met several other girls, all equally-endowed, and ended each association with similar results. I did learn that twenty-dollars went as far as forty, with less headache the next day. I bought a Buloua, because two dollars is less than the cost of a Timex, but it only ran for two days. Hammitt's lasted for almost a month at sea.
We wasted some money taking The Tram to the top of Victoria Peak, where Love is a Many-Splintered Thing had been filmed and looked at what many folks would regard as the most magnificent view in the world, and we visited the Tiger Balm Gardens once. Mostly, though, we invested our money in the Wan Chai area, and made Friends For Democracy, which the current President had asked us to do. The ship's yeoman got busted by the local police. The report was written in rather poor English, and the Captain called him in and asked him why he had been written up for feeding the pigeons. Took a while, but Yeo was a little drunk standing there, so he eventually admitted that he was at the zoo, and he was feeding pigeons. He taped them up, and fed them to the lions. He caught up on his work in the next few days, because he wasn't allowed ashore.
On the last night in Hong Kong, I attempted to out-drink Yi-Hsiong. She used her Chinese name, which meant Floating Feather in Chinese. She was taller than me, and she made David's Venus look like a flat-chested fourteen-year-old. I'd carried my load for several hours. I'd borrow ten bucks, buy her a few drinks, go into the head and stick my fingers down my throat to puke, and come back and do it all over again. Hammitt and Billie Joe cheered me on, and chipped in a few bucks each because they also wanted to see her drunk. Most of the crew had managed to waste a sawbuck or two on her, and no one had made first base. We'd all had similar experiences in Hong Kong, but she was the world-champion promise-maker; no crew member ever got away from her with a nickel in his pocket unless a shipmate dragged him away by the neckerchief. So we made plans, in collusion with Zio, the bartender, to stack the deck. I guess she didn't share her booty with him.
We staggered out of the bar to a local pharmacist. Zio had told us that you can identify them because there are no dead ducks hanging outside. Inside there are endless trays and boxes of unidentifiable bug parts, strange seeds, and tiny feet and legs wrapped in cellophane.
"We need something that makes a girl less tolerant of alcohol, and more susceptible to amorous advances," we explained to the Pharmacist in enthusiastic sign language and Pidgin English. "Joe sent us."
"Here's what you need, " he answered immediately in the same language. We had hidden a third of our remaining money in our socks, and showed him the rest. He took back all but three pills, and took most of our offering. When the deal was closed, he wrapped our goods in an elaborate Chinese envelope, and in the language we had previously developed, explained to us that we should administer one pill only. Two pills were dangerous. A virgin had once been given three pills, and had killed herself on the floor-shift of a '49 Chevy. Now, I knew that a '49 had the gearshift on the steering column, but this was China, so I paid attention.
So we walked back to the Port O' Call and sat down in a booth facing the dance floor. Ti came over and sat next to me. We ordered a cherry-drink for her and a beer for me. The guys weren't thirsty, because we only had enough for one more round. Ti had something that looked like red wine in a tulip glass, and I sipped at my beer bottle. When the conversation lagged, Ti asked Hammitt to dance - everyone knew that he was the only real dancer in the group.
While they were on the dance-floor, I dropped one of the pills into her red wine. When they came back to the table, I saw that it was still bubbling in the glass like Seltzer. I panicked and motioned to Hammitt to take her back on the dance floor, and when they were gone, I stuck my thumb into the glass and mashed the pill. She sat down, and said the drink looked funny. It tasted strange. I explained that I had poured some of my beer into her glass. She belted it down and asked for another one. Joe winked at us. She had to go to the ladies room. Billie Joe poured the last few drops of beer into her wineglass and mashed the second pill into it. When Ti returned, he insisted that she drink the beer, before another cherry drink would be on the way. She did, and she drank another cloudy red wine. We all stared at her for a reaction and nursed one bottle of beer among us. Finally, she went to the ladies room, and surfaced on the other side of the bar on a carrier-sailor's lap.
We caught a ride to the pier with five shipmates who were also planning tomorrow's liberty in Hong Kong. We were piled two or three high in the cab, all of us hoping the main engines would need overhauling, and we could borrow twenty dollars for one more day. They didn't, and we sailed out the way we'd come in. Except that we were all flat broke, and I never managed to find a Shore Patrolman anywhere who would accept my shiny sharkskin whites. But one single bad investment in five days ain't bad.
I made a career of the Navy, and visited Hong Kong many times during that career (and once during the next) noting no changes other than the skyline. The harbor only reflects glass buildings now. Then, I read somewhere in the late seventies or early eighties, that a resident of one of the mansions on The Peak in Hong Kong was a former "junk dealer" named Mary Sue. I was aware that the Peak residents, with their private police and fire departments and hospitals, lived on property which made Southern California beachfront appear downright cheap --- some houses said to cost tens of millions of dollars (U.S.). I was flabbergasted, but no one else seemed to be much interested in the story, so I made no note of where I had read this news.
Now after forty years I am still well south of being a millionaire despite a proud history of frugality. I remember feeling sympathy for a fellow hard-worker. Hong Kong had no taxes then, and I hope Mary Sue got out when Britain left. I'm filling out my income tax forms right now, and the news has just announced that Clinton's rent overlooking the Hudson will be partially paid by him. It's OK, because his view doesn't come close to the Peak's.
For those of you who might wonder if I ever did make out in Hong Kong, let me just say that I took my wife on the last trip. You'll have to ask her. Now we both love Hong Kong.