They say there’s no fool like an old fool. That was certainly my case, at least when it pertained to the quest for love. At thirty-four, I wasn’t that old. But as a single mom with a young child, I yearned to share my busy and challenging world with a life partner.
I met Richard at a New Year’s Eve party hosted by a friend. He was handsome; he was charming. He was a lawyer. And you know what they say about lawyers. That fact alone should have been my first red flag. But I suppose you could say I was colour blind. Or something.
Upon realizing that I lived practically next door to the party host, Richard suggested we leave early and go to my place instead. So, we did. While getting better acquainted, Richard expressed an interest in continuing our relationship and asked me to keep in touch.
“I leave for Hong Kong in a couple of days. I have some business dealings there, but I fly back here quite often.”
I thought perhaps I would never hear from him again, but shortly afterwards, I receive a New Year’s Eve card from his place of business. New Year celebrations are a big deal in Hong Kong, apparently even more so than Christmas is here. But I’m more focused on the lovely handwritten note inside the card, and my head is in the clouds. Still, I need to know more about his character.
A woman from work has the same family name as Richard. I’m curious if she knows him. And if so, what can she tell me about him?
“Do you know Richard Walker?” I ask.
“What’s he done now?” is her swift retort.
Second red flag. That red flag flutters in my face, but I shove it aside.
“Oh, I met him at a New Year’s Eve party. He has the same last name as you and I was just wondering if you are related.”
Her stance softens and she explains that they are indeed second cousins who grew up in the same town.
“But he has a bad reputation. I would stay far away from him.”
My undoubtably naïve takeaway following this conversation is that a family disagreement caused that type of reaction from her and has nothing whatsoever to do with me. And I continue to look forward to more letters and possible visits from my knight in shining armour.
Richard’s return visit to Canada comes with presents for me as well as my son. He gifts me with a gold watch. Real gold or custom jewelry? I’m not sure, but it’s a unique design and I love it. My son, meanwhile, is presented with a hacky sack along with a demonstration of how the game works.
The frequency of letters and flights back to Canada slow down after this heady visit. Richard says he’s not big on letter-writing. I’m missing him terribly, but here I am at work, browsing through a business magazine when suddenly a glossy, full-page ad pops out at me. Hong Kong. 4 days, 5 nights reads the header. The price is right, so I immediately book my flight.
The tour package includes transportation from the airport to my hotel. On that commuter bus I meet Louise, a friendly, outgoing woman from the US. She gives me the name of her hotel and offers me an invitation.
“If you want to do something while you’re here, just give me a call. I’m travelling with my mother-in-law. I feel a little guilty asking you because she paid for my flight. But she’s not that mobile. All she wants to do when traveling is sit inside her room, drinking and watching TV.”
The morning after my arrival, I call Richard at work.
“How may I direct your call?” asks the receptionist.
“May I speak with Richard Walker?”
“What’s it in regards to?”
Thankfully, she puts me through. I’d be in a big kettle of fish if she hadn’t. Richard says he is very busy and will meet me after work but has some advice for me.
“Go out and enjoy yourself! But whatever you do, don’t eat the street food.”
Hong Kong is busy. Wall-to-wall people in the streets, this is no place for claustrophobics. I follow up on Richard’s recommendation to take the tram to Victoria Peak. Here, one can view the madness from a distance. And what a view. At 552 metres, Victoria Peak is the highest hill on Hong Kong Island. From here, I’m presented with a bird’s eye view of Victoria Harbour and the Central business district. I easily pick out the Far East Finance Centre building where Richard works. It is, after all, the only gold structure in a sea of grey. After a brief stroll through the gardens, some souvenir purchases, and a money clip gift for Richard, I board the bus for outdoor shopping at the popular Stanley Market.
An Asian friend offered me some shopping advice before I left Canada.
“Watch out for pickpockets, they love to share your money with you,” she laughed. “And remember, unlike in Canada, the price on the sales tag is never the final price. They want you to barter.”
Good advice because I walk away with a beautiful fuchsia business/cocktail dress for next to nothing. After my successful shopping trip, I head back to my hotel for the much-anticipated reunion. Richard arrives at the hotel by bus.
“No one drives here. The only cars you see are taxis and the occasional Mercedes. But public transit is readily available and very efficient.”
With that, we hop on the Star Ferry which runs regularly between Hong Kong Island and the mainland.
“To familiarize you with the ferry system. Everyone uses the Star Ferry at some point. That includes the office workers,” he says, pointing to a Chinese businessman. White shirt soaked with perspiration, he had just removed his suit jacket and tossed it over his shoulder. “There’s two main parts to the mainland, Tsim Sha Tsui and Kowloon,” he continues. “The mainland is less touristy, more ‘old Hong Kong’ but has many unique shops. Hong Kong is actually known as a shopping mecca. Most visitors come here to buy custom-tailored suits at reasonable prices. What brings you here?”
Really?! What brings me here?
“Uh. I wanted to see you and found a good package deal to Hong Kong in a magazine.”
He’s strangely silent to my response. But at dinner, he’s more transparent about what brought him to this part of the world.
“I was offered a job as an English law instructor here at the Polytechnic university. Unfortunately, administration and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on some issues, and I was fired.”
Counting the red flags yet, dear reader?
Richard goes on to explain that at this point, he has picked up some Cantonese, expanded his personal network and wants to remain in Hong Kong. So, he has partnered with a local billionaire, and they started their own business. The year is 1986. In eleven short years, a hundred-year agreement with Britain ends when the British colony will be ceded back to China. And the citizens of Hong Kong are concerned how that will impact them. The wealthy ones, those who can afford to do so, are leaving Hong Kong in droves. And businesses such as Richard’s are in high demand. His Chinese partner is the realtor, searching for relocation properties in countries such as Canada and the US, while he looks after the legal paperwork.
“I’ll talk to my partner tomorrow. Maybe I can get us onboard his private yacht.”
Ooh! A private yacht. Sounds exciting. But in the meantime, Richard is excited to show me the nighttime view from his apartment.
“What you saw from Victoria Peak, I can see from the rooftop at my place. It’s especially magical at night, what with all the twinkling of city lights. The university paid my rent, so now I’m looking for a new place to live. May as well enjoy the view while I can.”
Despite being perched on the mountainside of an obviously upscale neighbourhood, the apartment block doesn’t strike me as being particularly attractive. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a boring gray concrete structure, with dark and narrow hallways. Then we step inside his unit, and we’re suddenly transported into another dimension.
Richard and his roommate share this 3-bedroom apartment, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room to avoid each other. There is. While he’s giving me the grand tour, we pass by an open doorway where two women are sitting on the floor. This gives me pause, but he straightaway explains their presence.
“Filipino maids. There’s no work for them in the Philippines, so they come to apartments like this one, hoping that rich foreign businessmen will hire them. I really don’t need a maid, but I felt sorry for the girl who approached me, so I hired her. But now that she’s got a job and a place to stay, I see she brought family here illegally. That type of thing happens quite often around here.”
The night view from the rooftop is indeed stunning. Picture postcard perfect. But my sense of contentment in my surroundings is about to change. As we snuggle on the sofa with a glass of wine in hand, Richard hits me with a bombshell.
“I’m open to showing you around Hong Kong when I’m off work, but we can’t be romantically involved. I have a Chinese girlfriend and she wouldn’t approve.”
I’m completely blindsided. Now your cool reception and lack of letter-writing is starting to make sense, Richard. So, you weren’t pining for me, at all. Devastated, I blurt out that I just want to go home.
“Don’t be silly. You only have three more days before your flight leaves. Get out and enjoy yourself. And wear shorts when you go out. It’s hot and humid out there.”
I try to pull myself together. Well, to be more accurate, I check out the mini bar in my hotel room and proceed to drown my sorrows. Next day, I pull myself together.
As for the shorts thing? Bad advice. If you want Chinese men to ogle you when you’re wearing shorts, then by all means do it. But from this day forward, I will only wear skirts or dresses just like the Chinese women.
After browsing through a tourist attractions brochure, I think the floating village sounds most interesting, so it’s the first place I visit. Situated on the south side of Hong Kong island, the Aberdeen fishing village is jam packed with boats, populated with fisher families just going about their daily routines. This environment is so unique that I feel like I’ve entered another country just now. Our motorized sampan takes us to within inches of these boat people, and I feel somewhat voyeuristic, gazing into their private homes. A larger supply boat, a floating store so to speak, passes us on its way to provide provisions to any interested parties. Our sampan driver uses the opportunity to inform us that these are mostly permanent homes surrounding us and that these families rarely, if ever, set foot on terra firma.
The other thing that’s not on terra firma here is the Jumbo floating restaurant. Jumbo being a very appropriate name for this seafood restaurant. It’s ginormous. With an exceptionally ornate exterior. Hmm. Maybe Richard will take me there for dinner. And, speaking of dinner, my stomach is growling. I think I’ll see what Kowloon on the mainland has to offer.
Walking on the streets of Kowloon takes one to yet a different dimension of this fascinating British colony. It appears to be laundry day today. What makes me say that? The dozens upon dozens of bamboo poles stretched out apartment windows, attached to which is laundry fluttering while drying in the breeze. It’s quite the sight. As an artist engaged in advertising, I’m also enthralled with all this Chinese signage. Suddenly a logo I recognize pops out from the plethora of Chinese signs. It’s a McDonald’s! I’m surprised. I’m intrigued. But I pass it by. I’m not here for western fast-food. Nor am I so much as glancing at any street food vendors after hearing about a cholera outbreak on the news. My search for an authentic yet cheap Chinese restaurant continues, but I’m not having much luck. In the end, I opt to head back to the hotel for lunch.
I really want to talk to Richard but am hesitant to call his office. What if the receptionist is his Chinese girlfriend? He doesn’t call me either, that is, until evening.
“A friend and I are at a disco. Why don’t you take in some nightlife and come join us?”
Richard gives me the name and address of the disco and tells me to take a taxi there.
“And don’t worry. The taxi drivers are familiar with this place.”
So, I take a taxi. As the taxi speeds away from the drop-off location, I wonder where the hell I am. This looks like a residential neighbourhood. A dark residential neighbourhood crammed with concrete houses and deserted streets. I wander up and down these lonely streets seeking what even remotely looks like a disco and find nothing. Given my surroundings, there’s no hope in hell that I’ll even be able to find a taxi to return me to my hotel. I panic and start to cry. But eventually a young couple who appear to be dressed for a night out show up on the street and head downstairs into a building. I decide to follow them. Turns out, this is the disco place.
“What took you so long to get here?” asks Richard.
Wiping away my tears, I explain what happened. Then after I’ve calmed down, I tell him about my visit to the Aberdeen fishing village and hint at having dinner at the Jumbo restaurant.
“Oh, it’s an excellent restaurant. I’ve had several business meetings there. If you’re a fan of seafood, you should check it out. But be aware that it’s very expensive.”
His cool reception makes me reflect on tonight’s invitation to the disco. Contrary to my unfounded belief and wanton desire, it appears Richard has no intention of getting back together. The girlfriend was probably told that he was working late at the office so he could have some time alone with his work buddies. I’m resigned to the fact that we are not likely to rekindle our relationship any time soon. Now, what to do for the next two days?
I decide it’s time to give Louise, the woman from the US whom I met on the airport commuter bus, a call. As it happens, she is delighted I called and yes, she is keen to get out of her hotel to do some sightseeing in Hong Kong.
“I would love to see the Sung Dynasty Village. It’s a re-creation of an ancient Chinese village. What do you think?”
I think that’s a great idea and off we go to Kowloon to explore. Built in 1979, this tourist attraction recreates a village dating back to the Sung dynasty (960 – 1279 AD). We enter the main gate to observe a completely foreign world. Everywhere around us performers dressed in period costumes, re-enact life as it was many centuries ago. We see Chinese dancers, a kung fu demonstration, and a traditional Chinese wedding procession, which includes the matchmaker. There’s even a monkey in an opera mask, performing for us. Now to be clear, Chinese opera does not have the same meaning here as it does in Canada. The monkey is not singing any high notes; rather the mask is used in live theatre to represent a performer’s human emotions. We also enter a nobleman’s home, a temple, a restaurant, and several shops. In one of these shops, I’m compelled to purchase a Chinese puppet…and an opera mask.
Early Sunday morning I ask hotel staff if there are any churches nearby that have worship services in English. There’s an Alliance church that does, but it’s far away. So, they arrange for an English-speaking taxi driver to take me there.
Getting here was fine. Leaving is another matter. I’ve no idea how to get back to my hotel. The pastor is busy greeting parishioners, so I don’t want to bother him. So, here I am again, walking the streets of Hong Kong. Lost. At least it’s daytime. Eventually I’m successful in flagging down a taxi and climb in. Without uttering a word, the taxi driver starts driving. Where is he taking me?
After a few minutes, he asks me something in Chinese. Assuming he is asking my destination, I respond by telling him the name of my hotel. But he does not seem to understand me. So, I ask him to take me to Ocean Terminal instead. I can easily find my way to the hotel from there.
Ocean Terminal is a huge shopping centre facing Victoria harbour and very popular with tourists. Surely he will understand my request to go there. He doesn’t. And we keep driving! We go through a toll gate. I don’t recall a toll gate on the way here. Where is he taking me? After what seems an eternity, he puts me through to his dispatcher and asks me to repeat my destination. That seems to have worked because here we are.
The services at the Ocean Terminal shopping mall are unbelievable. While sipping on a complimentary pop, I have my eyes examined. Three hours later, my fashionable yet inexpensive new glasses are ready for pickup.
While waiting for the glasses, I went to the Spice Market restaurant for lunch. This restaurant overlooks Victoria harbour and the Central business district where Richard works, and I reflect on my hapless journey here to Hong Kong. You could say I was looking for love in all the wrong places. There was no kibitzing on a private yacht, but at least I got to travel to an amazing part of the world that I may not have otherwise chosen.