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Down and Out in China

Luxury and Desperation in the Fastest Growing Economy on Earth

By Richard Baimbridge - July 20, 2005

The view of Victoria Harbor was unlike any I'd ever seen. Floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the Museum of Art and the skyscrapers rising above Hong Kong Island on the opposite shore. The feng shui couldn't have possibly been more impressive. It was like having the best seat in the house at the Metropolitan Opera, or sitting in the Emperor's throne at the Forbidden City. Actually, it was the Presidential Suite of Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel—one of the great hotels of the world—and it was mine. For the next few days, anyway.

Though I'd yet to enter, through the bedroom door I could see there was more—much more. An antique brass telescope on wooden legs, positioned so that you could watch the ferries, junks and cargo ships of the busiest and arguably most beautiful port on earth. A walk-in wardrobe closet big enough for two people, with plenty of room to hang all my non-existent suits. A massive bathroom with tinted windows facing downtown Kowloon, and a Jacuzzi with a small television built into the wall, with channels I never see on the Mainland, like HBO and the BBC and mirrors with soft lighting that somehow manage to make you look more beautiful than you really are.

The first time I came to Hong Kong was in 1997 to interview Jackie Chan for a magazine called Icon. The publication had no budget, and didn't even pay the small fee for the article until almost a year later, just before going bankrupt. I stayed in Chunking Mansions that week, the most undesirable piece of real estate in all of Hong Kong, in a mangy room barely big enough for a single bed, with no windows, for US$6 a night.

Thus I felt a special sense of vindication, standing in what was undoubtedly the finest hotel room I'd ever seen. I felt like a pauper who'd risen to become King. You don't get to the Presidential Suite of the Peninsula Hotel easily. I remembered Jackie Chan telling me during our interview that the first thing he did after becoming famous was walk into the Peninsula Hotel, which like most poor Hong Kongers, he'd only stared at enviously from the outside until then. I thought about all the people who'd stayed in this room before me — great celebrities, famous politicians, super rich tycoons from around the world. I thought about the actor/singer Leslie Cheung, star of Farewell my Concubine, who'd stunned Hong Kong two years earlier by leaping to his death from the roof of the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong's other landmark hotel, facing me just across the harbor, and I wondered what scandalous things might have happened here at the Peninsula?

But more than anything, I thought about the fruit basket in front of me: Bright yellow bananas without so much as a single blemish. Round, succulent red grapes. Kiwis and starfruits. Papayas sliced in half, wrapped in cellophane, garnished with tropical flowers. A carafe of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and another of fresh grapefruit juice beside it, wrapped in stark white linen napkins. An assortment of chocolates on a tray. A pot of Twinings English Breakfast Tea, with a little serving of milk. And a card with "Welcome Mr. Baimbridge" written in flawless script.

"Welcome Mr. Baimbridge…" I heard a woman's voice, snapping me back to my senses. "No, please, Mr. Baimbridge, sit on the sofa!" While filling out some forms I had subconsciously sunk into a squatting position that working class Chinese people assume when waiting on the street for a bus, and thus revealed myself as the proletarian from Mainland that I am. She looked embarrassed for me. I only wondered how long it would be before she'd leave, and I could start eating the fruit.

"So the room is complimentary," she said, the word ringing in my ears like fine music. "And we've made arrangements for you at Dragon-I, the hottest club in Hong Kong. It's members and VIP-guests only tonight, but we told them about you, and they said you're welcome to come. We thought you might enjoy it, especially since Keanu Reeves will be there."

"Oh, Keanu," I said—as if I knew him.

"Yes, he's in town for the world premiere of his new film, Constantine."

"Lovely."

"Yes. And we've made reservations for you at a special restaurant. It's in the gallery of an artist couple from Sichuan. Prix-fixe. Very spicy, hope you don't mind. But the highlight is the end of the dinner. The wife is a former opera singer, and she sings a song after every meal."

The woman stood up and smoothed out her navy blue business skirt, "Will that be all Mr. Baimbridge?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Fine then. I hope you enjoy your stay. Our publicist will be meeting you tomorrow morning in the lobby for brunch."

Until the moment she shut the door, I actually thought someone might rush into the room and arrest me. But the silence was reassuring. I took a quick look around to make certain I was alone, then sat down and began devouring the fruit plate. Fearing they might take away the leftovers, I put the remaining fruit and chocolate in a drawer inside an antique Chinese wardrobe, so that I would have something to eat tomorrow, and watched the buildings and ships light up as night fell over the harbor.

It's almost midnight when I arrive at Dragon-I, not far from Hollywood Road, where all the streets are built on steep hills, like San Francisco. I walk past a line of people waiting at the door and approach the doorman, who quickly locates my name on a list and escorts me directly to the club owner, presently having drinks with Keanu et entourage. "You're Richard from Beijing?" he extends a handshake to me, as Keanu sits chatting at a table nearby. "What would you like to drink?"

"Gin and tonic," I answer, thinking to myself, Please dear God, let it be free, as I get out my empty wallet. He waves it off, "No, No. On the house."

"Thank you."

"Not a problem," he responds in perfect English, glazed with a smooth British accent.

"So you're here writing a guidebook?"

"Yes. Upscale, for people in Mainland who travel to Hong Kong for work or pleasure."

"I see. And you're at the Peninsula?"

"Yes. Lovely hotel."

"Well, come meet Keanu and the others, and please have another drink. I know it's kind of a pain to get back to Kowloon after midnight when the metro stops, but you can take a taxi…"

"A taxi?"

"Yes, it's only about HK$60."

"Excuse me, I'm very sorry but I have to go."

"Go?" he asks incredulously. "You just got here!"

"Yes, but my photographer is very ill. We had spicy food for dinner, and she's feeling really sick, so I need to get back and check on her."

The club owner is looking at me like I'm completely insane. I shake his hand, take one last glance at Keanu Reeves, and run for the door. I sprint like hell through the streets in the direction of Central metro station. The clock is only a few notches short of midnight. I run madly down the escalator and jump, no exaggeration, just as the doors of the last train are shutting. People stare at me as I stand there – a well-dressed man, doubled over, gasping and sweating.

All together, I have precisely enough money for the ferry to Macau (where I have to go next, as a guest of the Hotel Lisboa), then for the bus home to Guangzhou. There isn't hardly a dime left over, and HK$60 (US$7.50) would easily break me.

Twice in the past month, I've had to explain to Chinese noodle shop managers that I didn't have 6RMB (75 cents) to pay the bill, but could I give them 5RMB, instead? They think I'm joking, until I show them my wallet. Then they get angry. It's utterly inconceivable to them that a white person could not have money.

My girlfriend broke up with me, and the worst thing was that she took all the utensils, leaving me with only a single pair of chopsticks. "She took the spoon," I cried to myself, trying to eat cornflakes with chopsticks. "Why did she have to take the spoon? Chinese people don't use spoons." Taking the spoon, I thought, was meant to be a personal insult.

Not surprisingly, we broke up over the issue of money. "What kind of man invites a girl to dinner and has no money!" she screamed at me, as we drove home in her brand new Volkswagen Passat. Actually, we had just agreed to "meet" for dinner, and in fact I did have money, but not on me. I told her I'd pay her as soon as we got home. "You're not a responsibility person!" she yelled. And despite the grammatical peculiarity, the words went into my gut like a butcher knife. I had to restrain myself from opening the door and jumping out. But Guangzhou is a city the size of Los Angeles, and without a penny in my pocket, where would I go?

When we met, in the mountains near Tibet, it was ok that I had no money. But here, in a city that's at the heart of China's "Economic Miracle," things are different. It's not as if I'm not trying. This month I had an assignment from Colors magazine to interview a Chinese journalist near Guangzhou whose fingers were reportedly severed in retaliation for exposing Triad gangsters and corrupt officials. I snuck into the hospital, past tight security, bribing my way into the ward with packs of Double Happiness cigarettes, and came out with an exclusive interview and great photos. It was meant for Colors' upcoming issue on Freedom of Speech. Unfortunately, it was soon revealed that the person who ordered the attack was the reporter's ex-girlfriend, who wanted to get even with him for ditching her. I tried to repackage it as an article called "10 Reasons Not to Fuck with a Hong Kong Girl." The editors didn't buy it, and asked me to come up with another Human Rights victim, instead. But it's much harder to find oppressed people in China than you might think. (Colors did eventually agree to take the article. It's slated for their September issue.)

Now it's three days before my 36th birthday, I'm on a bus to Guangxi province, and I have about US$15 left in the world. But things are looking up. United Airlines' magazine, Hemispheres, has just sent me an email asking if I'd like to write an article about the world's biggest golf course, which recently opened in China's boomtown, Shenzhen.

There's a resort there. I can already see the room — a luxury penthouse suite with a large balcony looking out over the fairways. Hot springs. Massages. And if I'm lucky, a very large fruit basket — compliments of the hotel manager.

Author's note: The incident with Keanu Reeves is a combination of events/conversations that also took place at a private bar called Kee Club, located a few blocks from Dragon-I, on the same evening.

Richard Baimbridge is a freelance writer, formerly based in New York, now living in China. He spent a year living in a Shaolin monastery near Tibet, and has just completed a guidebook to Canton (Guangzhou) and the Pearl River Delta: Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Macau and Hong Kong, published this month by City Weekend in Beijing.



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