Monday May 22, 1989.
“Where did you go, you miserable excuse for a city? You were right here this morning.” Ryan leaned over the balcony railing and into the grey howl of the storm, forcing his voice into the ferocious wind, and relishing every drop of the rain that bulleted his face and chest. The typhoon’s violence snapped him awake from the first three strong drinks of this unexpected day off. His words were literally drowned out by the rain, so at the moment the only ones who could possibly hear him screaming into Hong Kong harbor were the miscellany of Chinese gods hovering all around them, not a single one of whom he believed in. It was a rare moment to be alone in a place where six and half million people were crammed into a space the size of a New England rural town, and where the local language didn’t even bother trying to come up with a word for ‘privacy’.
The buildings across the water on Kowloon side were obliterated from his view. All that was left to his fuzzy eye was the fuzzy outline of the billboards steadfastly hawking French cognacs and American cigarettes and German cars. They would go on, storm or no storm. Promises and stories of luxury and fulfillment; gifts from West to East.
It was only late afternoon but the storm was already ushering in an early evening cast upon the city. Ryan noticed that the copper wok his neighbors in the building directly across from his had placed on their balcony to deflect any bad fortune his way had twisted in the storm and was now facing them. Good, he thought. I hope your barbaric feng shui brings you all kinds of shitty luck today. It seems like it already has.
He turned around to face a giddy band of expats sheltering inside his flat. The six-storey stucco building clinging to the Peak at 42 Conduit Road was wrapped in cloud, leaving them all to float high above the harbor in Midlevels, untethered.
Even back home in Boston a really good storm had a way of suspending all rules. You see to your safety and comfort first, of course, and then it’s time to roll out the party. Hong Kong was no different for all its colonial stiffness. Nobody he knew was working today, except for the merchants who smelled a swift trade in food and alcohol. The first thing this morning he had stocked up on chips, or crisps as he was starting to call them, and Carlsbergs at the small store up the street, accepting the ‘typhoon pricing’ without complaint.
“The thing is,” he screamed at them, letting the sentence hang there, like a conductor leading his orchestra through the ascendant opening bars of a symphony. His audience waited for a beat, but Susan couldn’t resist any longer:
“The thing is!?” she replied in a hybrid of question and declaration, delighted to surrender to the moment he was so skillfully conjuring.
He paused long enough to consider each of them. Orphans all, young adults facing down the promise of their twenties far from the grip of nurture and culture.
Susan, who had followed her best friend here from San Francisco without a job. Within weeks the two of them had a blowout argument over the wealthy Afghani carpet dealer her friend was growing far too serious with, and now she was out on her own, just another expat couchsurfing, not yet ready to retreat home as the early taste of Asia is so intoxicating. Susan had stepped from the pages of a California State Tourism brochure; tall, blonde, athletic, confident that everyone she met would like her, and even more, want to be her. Ryan had no idea of any talent she might have, but today she was riding the high of selling her account of yesterday’s march into Causeway Bay to ABC News in New York, and now she was officially what they called a stringer. Not much of a job title, he thought, but still; ABC News. That was impressive. The American networks hadn’t seen this past month coming, but who did? Things just kept getting more stupid every day. Hong Kong was changing from a great place to buy a camera and get a tailored suit in eight hours to the home of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. Long name, short history.
Peter, who worked with the Standard Chartered Bank and had helped launch one of the first mutual funds in the territory. In six months the fund had become a home run that everyone was not only buying into but following on a daily basis; a tiny line item in the back pages of the South China Morning Post that was the first thing Ryan turned to. The numbers just kept inching up.
Patricia, who worked in textiles, sourcing materials for several big fashion houses back in New York, and who was acting as Susan’s current host. Clarence, a Kiwi lawyer who was the first fat expat Ryan had met. In spite of his girth Ryan had to assume Clarence was a more than capable sailor because over their first drink this morning all he could talk about was wanting to get his boat out on the Sea to test his new sail. “Last one a year ago tore right through the cloth,” he had said.
“But I reckon that was more tactical error than storm. You’ll have to join me when this all settles down.”
Or was his name Benjamin? Ryan couldn’t be sure, but he wasn’t likely to accept the offer any time soon. So many people coming and going. So many social invitations. So many planes arriving and departing.
So much luggage going round on the carousels at Kai Tak.
Even his girlfriend of the past month was counting down the days remaining on her tourist visa. Olivia was trying to land a gig as a designer but was one of the few expats coming up empty. He had seen her portfolio when they first met but had no idea if she was talented or not. She claimed it was just bad timing. Soon, she would have to head back to South Africa. They hadn’t talked much about it, nor had she asked him if the reason he was attracted to her was precisely because they were on an expiring deal. Would he even take her to the airport? What were they going to say when it was time to say good-bye? He loved spending time with her. She was smart, funny and so sure of herself. But it’s a weird thing being in a relationship when both parties are watching the clock. It’s like you’re on one long first date and no one has the nerve to call for the bill.
Olivia turned the volume on the TV down, leaving the images of an ocean of students undulating across the vast Tiananmen Square to silently fill the room like so many ghosts. She flipped on the stereo and slipped in the Simply Red CD that had been first on deck on Ryan’s shelf for the past month. Their hit “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” began to play. It was one of those songs that everyone knows every word to seemingly overnight. He watched Olivia sway to the lament and the regret as she continued to watch the TV, spilling her drink, not caring, the wind blowing her long black hair and cotton dress as she spread her legs slightly wider. Untethered.
“The thing is!” Susan screamed over the music.
But Ryan was lost too in Mick Hucknall’s haunting voice, following the notes up and down as they pierced the wind rushing against his back through the balcony doors with such force it was as if he and Clarence were indeed sailing the South China Sea.
All the things that we've been through
You should understand me like I understand you
Now girl I know the difference between right and wrong
I ain't gonna do nothing to break up our happy home.
The British charts were schizophrenic. One song would be the most progressive music you could hope for, but the next would be the latest serving of syrup from Cliff Richards or some awful boy band who preferred to sing in the rain with wet white dress shirts. The Brits loved their ballads most of all. The longer and more drawn out the tale of heart broken, the better. More evidence that he would never be able to figure them out. When he played them country music, they just looked at him, blank.
Luckily he had moved his furniture back against the wall earlier this morning to protect it from the storm. He had even taken a few of the art pieces off the wall. He actually didn’t care if they got wet, frankly. He had overpaid for them, and was already tired of their failed attempt at some abstract expression. The rain was advancing several more inches into the flat, the droplets now bouncing off the beautifully gleaming hardwood he so loved coming home to every night. It was designed to resist this climate, he was told by the agent when he bought it, so he might as well put it to the test.
“The thing is,” he finally continued. “You are all my best friends in the world. Right here. Right now. Until tomorrow.”
They laughed in the uncoordinated rhythms of American and British and New Zealander and South Afrikaaner beats. God, Olivia was beautiful when she laughed. He was a lucky guy and he knew it.
“You might have a new best friend flying into Kai Tak right now and you haven’t even met her yet,” said Olivia, falling back into the couch, turning back to the TV.
“I certainly hope I do,” said Clarence, joining her. “I need more Kiwis.”
Patricia sat down between them, and the three were pulled back to the televised images flickering their way from Beijing.
The tanks were lined up around the Square, like eagles perched on ocean cliffs waiting for the first sign of a salmon’s fin to break the surface.
“I’m supposed to be in Guangdong later this week,” Patricia said quietly. “We’re prepping for Christmas season, and I have to go.”
“You’ll be fine,” said Clarence. “That’s a thousand miles from Beijing, and look, things are extremely peaceful.”
“I know,” she said.
“Nothing like a little law and order,” said Olivia. “Martial law makes things black and white, not necessarily a bad thing.”
“Said the Nazi from Johannesburg,” said Clarence.
“Oh fuck off,” she said, laughing.
“Look how organized they are,” Clarence continued. “Nothing like an American demonstration with the water hoses and batons. Now that’s a lot more entertaining.” He looked over at Ryan with a small smile. “Sorry, mate.”
“No problem,” said Ryan. “I’m from there, but don’t necessarily represent.”
“Seriously, have you ever seen a mob like this?” Clarence went on. “Student marshals for crowd control, armies of volunteers with food and drink and bloody free medical care! My god, they’re more civilized than most places back home.”
“How the hell did they even learn a Bob Dylan song,” asked Patricia. “You’re right, Clarence. It’s beautiful. They’re beautiful.”
“Oh fuck off, all of you. Can’t we just enjoy the storm without having to go on about Tiananmen this and Tiananmen that?” said Ryan. Luckily Doris and Robert from down the hall came in. Maybe they could help start the party back up, although he didn’t have much faith in that. They lived in 5B, and Ryan had taken to calling them Plan B, as he called on them socially only as a last resort. Maybe it was because they were the only married couple he knew, or maybe it was because Robert worked for the British government helping prepare for the handover in 1997, but Ryan found them utterly boring.
“I agree, isn’t this supposed to be a party?” said Robert. “We heard the music and some sort of primal screaming out there on your balcony.”
“This is Robert and Doris, everyone,” said Ryan, giving into the convention of making introductions. “I’d introduce you to my friends, but I’m afraid I don’t know any of their names.”
“It’s the first time I’ve actually seen any Chinese person as a hero,” continued Patricia. She didn’t even turn around to see who had just arrived. “Sorry, but it’s true.”
“Mao?” said Clarence.
“Of course, but he’s long gone, isn’t he,” she replied. “He’s just a name to sell cheap hats and jackets to students on the Asian trek.”
“I had never given any of them much thought, you know, in spite of the fact there’s so fucking many of them,” she continued. “They want freedom just as much as anyone.”
“How patronizing of you,” said Clarence with a laugh.
“Ryan, champagne please,” Doris said loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Champagne? You mean Carlsberg?”
He just looked at her.
“Gin is fine, Ryan.” Once he poured two very stiff drinks, he joined them at the couch.
“We were hoping the typhoon might distract everyone from events, at least for a period,” said Robert diplomatically.
“Fat chance of that,” said Clarence.
“It’s certainly getting complicated, I’ll give you that,” Robert replied. “But I don’t know if I’d call any Chinese a hero…”
“Patricia. Pleased to meet you, Robert.”
“They won’t let this go on too much longer, I’m afraid,” he continued, sitting down to join them. “It’s all just a bit of a game right now, but the Party is firmly in control. Not happy, but in control.”
“You’re an optimist,” said Olivia.
“He works for the British government, love,” said Doris, still surveying the drink supplies. “Working on the handover and all.”
“Interesting,” said Clarence.
“Not really,” replied Robert. “Pre-ordained, really. Just details at this point, seeing as how we only have the ten years to go.”
“Only?” said Patricia.
“And two parties who both want it over and done with. Thank Christ my posting is up next year.”
“If anyone wants to join me, I’m going to throw myself over the balcony,” said Ryan. “It’s only six floors. Probably just break my leg.”
“Coming right down with you,” said Peter. “Enough of this political nonsense.”
“Coming with, too,” said Doris. They inched forward onto the balcony and the music fell away. They huddled close against the railing to hear each other. Ryan couldn’t help notice that the feng shui wok had turned around yet again, and was now squarely facing him. He stared into the concave copper bottom, wondering at its secret powers. Cook pork, stir fry chicken, change lives.
“I thought we were done with the rain when we left Britain,” Doris said gamely. “I’m going back inside gentlemen. Sorry to be a spoil sport. I’ll get my driver to go on a booze hunt for us. Our shop up the street ran out at lunch, apparently.”
“You have a driver?” said Peter.
“And a personal junk. And an amah,” said Ryan.
“I thought everyone did,” replied Doris, a bit embarassed, before leaving.
“I’m just a poor banker,” he said, but his words were lost to her. The rain was picking up. The lights below grew stronger in the advancing night.
“Ba-na-na-na-na-naah!” A tiny voice came up from the street below, barely audible.
“God bless her,” said Ryan. “She’s out even in this.”
“The banana lady,” said Peter.
“You know her?”
“She’s the best part of my day. I’m guessing she was one of the first to invest in my fund.”
They both laughed at that. Ryan pictured the small hunched woman who early every morning hauled her wagon full of fruits and flowers up the steep hill from the harbor into Midlevels and to her spot on Robinson Road, the street below Conduit. He often wondered where she might live, if she had children, or if she had come here from the mainland. Out of all the poverty Ryan saw in his travels to the factories throughout southern China, she was somehow the only person who struck him with guilt for being born in the West, with so much money, and so much freedom.
“No doubt she was,” said Ryan. “She’s probably also heavily into speculating on the Australian currency right now.”
“Ba-na-na-na-na-naaaaah!” The vendor reprised her call, as she always did, stretching out the last ‘nah’.
“Imagine what she’s charging today?” said Peter.
“Double the normal five dollars for five,” said Ryan.
“Five? She charges me ten.”
“Don’t take it personally. It’s just the pricing system. They like Americans more than Brits.”
“Everyone does,” Peter replied. “Even we Brits.”
“She’d respect you more if you tried bargaining with her,” Ryan said.
“We’re a nation of rule-makers far more than we are traders or empire builders,” replied Peter. “The Chinese? Natural born negotiators. They always have the advantage of the long view, no matter who is sitting across the table.”
Peter finally had to step back from the railing. He was soaked through.
“Sorry, mate. I’m heading back to find shelter.” With that, he went inside. Ryan, too, was drenched but he didn’t feel it. The May air was warm. He looked back out into the harbor. He had stood on this balcony a million times. He had the best view of anyone he knew, and he enjoyed nothing more than watching the freighters and cruise ships and junks and of course, the Star Ferry on its incessant, short trips back and forth. The freighters, clad in their American and Saudi and Russian money and steel, wouldn’t feel a drop of this typhoon. But the smaller craft were held at bay. The cocktail cruises and ludicrously priced dinners on the sampans off the western side of the Island hadn’t gouged a tourist for the past three days. He has taken his parents for dinner on one when they visited him last year. It was disgusting. Soggy food on a small barge floating in the garbage and the diesel fumes of Victoria Harbor. His mom pretended it was all exotic and lovely. His dad commented that it was like floating down the Allegheny River back in his hometown in Pennsylvania.
Ryan went back inside to find another drink. He stopped at the couch, wth the group still fixated on the coverage from Tiananmen. He leaned into Olivia from behind to give her a kiss and share the rain falling down from his hair and face.
“I love you for now,” he whispered into her neck. It was their saying, their way of establishing some sort of ground rules. She looked back and replied, “I love you for now, more.”
“Damn,” he said, laughing. “You got me.”
“Too easy,” she said, then shooed him away. “Not now, Rye.”
“Why, is something actually about to happen after one month and four days?” he said. “I hope it does. We need to change the channel and get back to what we do here best.” But Olivia had already drifted back to the images. The screen showed a close-up of a young man holding a sign: “All power belongs to the people.” Where did they learn to write English, Ryan thought.
The door opened again, and Tommy came strutting in with the nervous energy he always brought to a gathering. Ryan suspected yellow jackets or some other manageable amphetamine. Tommy was his only Cantonese friend. Educated at UCLA, he was more American than some of Ryan’s friends back in Boston, and he was always determined to prove it, especially among strangers.
“You call this a typhoon party?” he said, looking at the group in front of the TV.
“I hang out with the wrong people apparently,” said Ryan. “But at least you made it.”
“I did indeed,” Tommy replied, holding up a bag of beer in one hand and raising two bottles of tequila in the other. “Can’t stay too long though. Markets in New York open soon and we’re having a strategy meeting before the bell.”
“About yesterday?” Ryan asked.
“Yesterday, Saturday, Friday. May 13. April 18,” he said. “My bank’s American. We don’t get this shit that’s going on right now.”
He opened a couple of warm Carlsbergs.
“Sorry, all the cold ones were gone,” Tommy said
“The warmth brings out the barley,” Ryan replied.
Tommy was a trader with Citibank. He had tried explaining his job to Ryan once, but the idea of spending every night on a phone and forecasting numbers and making calls in thin air seemed like so much sorcery. Ryan’s import export business was simple and real. Goods and products being made and transported and bought and sold. Entire factories were depending on him to keep the lights on.
Susan got up off the couch and came to join them.
“The cavalry is here,” she said. Ryan noticed Tommy checking her out. She was exactly the type of challenge his friend loved, because he didn’t stand a chance.
“I’d love to have another but I need to get back to Victoria Park,” she said. “It’s getting dark, and the crowds will be showing up.”
“In this?” Tommy asked.
“It didn’t stop them last night. Reporter,” she said to him by way of introduction and explanation. “ABC News, New York.”
“Wow, cool,” said Tommy.
Stringer. Reporter. Foreign correspondent. Network anchor. We can be whatever we want to be here, Ryan thought. That was something he heard a Brit say late one foggy night in “1997” a couple of weeks back, and it stuck with him.
“There may not be another night like last night, Sue,” he said. “That was probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing knowing these people.”
“These people,” said Tommy, raising a glass, laughing. “Money, not democracy.”
Patricia turned around. “Susan, you’ve been drinking, haven’t you?” she said.
“It’s not like I have to write anything. I just have to call in with a guesstimate at crowd size.”
“You really think New York’s going to run something two days in a row?” Patricia continued.
“I’m meeting up with my photographer. He’s probably already there.”
“ABC’s already giving you a staff?” Ryan said.
“I met him yesterday. He took some pictures for me. We made quite a team, actually.”
“Oh,” said Patricia.
“Not like that. He’s a tiny gangster looking guy. Not my type,” she continued. “But he’s got a great camera and seems to know what he’s doing. Besides, he’s really into it. ‘Portraits’, he’s calling them. Not your typical news pic.”
She took one final long drink of her warm gin and tonic, kissed Ryan her thank-you’s, and literally ran out the door.
“We can’t just let her go back there on her own. She can hardly find her way back to my place, let alone Causeway Bay,” Patricia said. “And look, it’s getting worse out there.” The group looked through Ryan’s beautiful brilliant white double doors framed by soggy silk curtains, out at the angry rain making its way further inside.
Finally Doris said, “I just met her, love.”
Orphans, Ryan thought again. Orphans in a storm that isn’t even ours.
“Here’s to getting the attention of the big, rotting apple,” said Tommy, raising his second beer.
“The big rotting apple,” the group responded.
“Don’t mind the maggots!” sang Clarence.
“When we start toasting New York, it’s time to go,” Ryan said, and he went over to turn off the TV.
“Asshole,” Olivia said. “We were watching that.”
“I know. That’s all we’re doing,” he said. “Come on, we’re wasting this storm just holing up inside. It’s time to get back to the real world.”
He turned the stereo up, replaying “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”
“You mean the bars?” Olivia said.
“They won’t even be open, hon,” said Doris.
“And we’ll hardly be able to catch a taxi,” said Patricia.
“Hong Kong cabs and bars?” said Ryan. “They’ll be running like clockwork. There’s money to be made.”
“Man has a point,” Clarence said. “We could use a change of scenery.”
“And we are running out of alcohol,” said Doris. “Not that there is anything wrong with tequila and Carlsbergs, Tommy,” she hastily added and he flashed her a big American thumbs-up.
“Cause we only act like children when we argue fuss and fight,” Ryan sang to Olivia, anticipating the next lyric. She smiled and kissed him on the cheek.
“I think I’m going to head home, Rye.”
“What? But it’s so early,” he said. “Am I being that big of a dick?”
“I mean home to Jo’Burg,” she said. She looked back at the darkened TV screen. “I just have a bad feeling about how things are going to turn out for all of them. I don’t think they have a chance. And I don’t think I want to be here for it.”
“But you’ve still got something like six weeks left, no?” he said.
“Breakfast at the Furama tomorrow, okay,” she said.
“Yeah. Yeah, sure,” he replied. “Eight if that’s okay. I’ll have to catch up at the office after missing today.”
He watched her as she quietly left. He loved watching her leave a room. It was something about the way she carried herself.
The rest of the party started gathering up their things as Tommy turned the stereo to maximum volume. Ryan sat down to take off his soaked shoes.
“Mine are wet too,” said Clarence, joining him. “Top notion.”
Ryan was right about the taxis, they were running the streets of Midlevels like salmon looking to spawn. They didn’t even need to tell the driver where they were heading. Seven drunken bright lights at the beginning of another night could mean only one destination, rain or shine. Lan Kwai Fong was the island’s tiny entertainment block, a magnet for expats, tourists and the most westernized of the young Cantonese. “California” was a hot new upstart bar, but “1997” was still the place to meet and be seen. “1997”. Naming a bar for the handover year was a rare show of irony for the colony.
Their taxis slid down the Peak with hardly another car in sight. Robert, Doris and Peter sang their strange schoolboy songs all the way, as was the British custom when in full party mode. Ryan fell silent. He wondered why Olivia would choose to miss out on a night like this. The storm of the century, everything topsy-turvy, the rules suspended – it was a night for the young.
The normal lineup at the doors was non-existent. Their doorman was still there, though, under a massive umbrella. Todd was older, in his mid-thirties, a military type who Ryan knew from the gym.
“You’re a fucking idiot, Ryan,” he said, looking down at his feet.
“Seriously, no shoes? You do realize we have standards here, no?”
“Not tonight, Todd.”
“Maybe so. I’ll let it pass,” he replied. “So where’s your South African dolly then?”
“She wanted to stay home tonight. One of us has to respect the storm.”
“Hah. Light rain where I come from,” Todd replied. “Go on in, then. I’m not seeing anything.”
Things were as quiet inside “1997” save for the pounding of INXS’ “New Sensation.” The smash was two years old, but Michael Hutchence had grown up in Hong Kong so their music was a mainstay of DJ’s. Whenever Ryan heard the band he thought of how incongruous a place Hong Kong was for a rock star to experience their formative years. Hardly New Jersey or Liverpool.
The group commandeered the best seats, two booths overlooking the still empty dance floor. People will show up, Ryan said to himself. How could anyone possibly just sit there at home on a night like this, including Olivia?
He believed her when she said that she might head actually home before her visa expired. He would miss her company and her humor. And he knew that she would miss his. Their connection was true, but they also both knew they would move on. That was part of the deal here. Luggage on the carousel.
It was only then that he noticed that the rest of the party were shoeless like him. Even proper Doris and proper Robert. He looked down at his bare American wet feet tapping away on the polished brass rail underneath the fine leather banquette, the best that money could buy, here in the home of the noon day gun and white-gloved servants in the hotel washrooms. It felt absolutely glorious.
BRIAN HOWLETT's work has appeared in Limestone Magazine, Crack the Spine, Sou'wester, Forge, Serving House Journal, Queen's Quarterly, Whistling Shade, Penmen Review, and the Alembic, and been accepted by Clare, Slippery Elm, and Willow Review. "The Typhoon Party" is inspired by his experience living in Hong Kong during the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989.