Go East, Young Man

I Go East

My China expedition finally begins.

The last time I went east, in 1989, when I was 23, it was summer, so the entire flight to Asia seemed to take place on the same interminable afternoon. Now, in the late winter of 2005, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, so the daylight outside the windows faded, brightened, and then faded again in the 18 hours before we landed in Hong Kong. I’ve always regarded jet lag as a sort of pansy affliction, but in this case it rendered me nocturnal in Hong Kong. I lay awake all night, and the hours that I wandered around Hong Kong asleep on my feet were dreamy and sentimental.

After landing, for example, there was the magical whoosh into town on the airport train, each seat equipped with a personal television. There was consternation at the desk of the gleaming Shangri-La in Central, where I discovered that the reason I’d gotten such a sweet deal on a five-star hotel was that I was actually staying at the Shangri-La in Kowloon. There was the blurry taxi ride through the tunnel, and the currency conversion gaffes upon arrival: After tipping the doorman HK $5, I chastised myself for spending like an investment banker—and then realized that my generosity actually amounted to 70 cents (at which point I handed the startled man another HK $10). Then, upstairs, when a bellhop charged into my room with a ceramic tea pot and two rock-hard nectarines, I decided that an HK $20 tip was too generous for petrified fruit I hadn’t ordered, and stiffed him. There were tapas and flamenco music in the hotel bar, Juventus beating Real Madrid, and seven languages on my hotel-room TV. It didn’t feel like East Asia. It felt like nowhere.

The stunning Hong Kong waterfront. But where are the junks?

Hong Kong is just like the pictures, except with rice-pot humidity and without the junks. In the postcards, the skyscrapers that sprout like asparagus stalks out of Victoria Bay are usually juxtaposed with junks. My first day, I crossed Victoria Bay twice on the Star Ferry, but I never saw any junks. In fact, as the accompanying picture illustrates, I didn’t see much of anything.

Mystery dumplings

A Slate reader named Ross O’Brien had been kind enough to invite me to lunch at Wang Fu, a dumpling shop on Wellington Street, a quarter-mile up “The Escalator” from the Star Ferry dock. O’Brien has lived in Hong Kong for seven years, where he runs a research and consulting firm called Intercedent Asia. O’Brien was the one who flamed me for cackling about the nutty food at business banquets in Mr. China, so I suspected that lunch might be a ploy to subject me to some of the same.

Wedged into a tiny table near the Wang Fu kitchen, the goateed O’Brien began jabbering with the waitress in Mandarin, an extended discussion that seemed to confirm my fears.

“Horse balls,” I imagined he was saying. “Bring us the biggest horse balls you’ve got.”

“Sorry, no horse balls today,” I imagined the waitress replying, “We just have bull’s balls.”

“Fine, bull’s balls. Bring us a double order.”

And then there they were, steaming, in front of us. While O’Brien described the intricacies of patent law, regional integration, and the slow march toward the irrelevance of Hong Kong, I wolfed down the tasty dumplings, glad I had no idea what they were.

Hong Kong growth market: electric pets

O’Brien hasn’t struck it rich here, but he’s doing fine, and he and his partners are besieged with—and bewildered by— laowai (literally, “old foreigners,” with a hint of “buffoon”) who imagine that China is still a green field of opportunity. He shuttles among Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Bangladesh, and India the way East Coast bankers shuttle between New York and Boston, teaching executives how to navigate Asian technology and telecom markets. He believes that doing business in China is more a necessity than an opportunity and that companies that don’t won’t be able to compete globally. He regards much of the whining about the reverse engineering and copying of American technology products—telecom switches, for example—as, just that, whining, and observes that American companies often do the same thing.

After lunch, on Hollywood Road, O’Brien swerved momentarily into a coffee shop that looked suspiciously like Starbucks, then, abandoning it for a less-crowded one, explained that the shop’s chain, Pacific Coffee Company, had been designed with the express aim of being acquired by Starbucks when Starbucks went east—right down to the “Tall” and “Grande” cup sizes. Unfortunately, Starbucks decided to go it alone. So now the companies are duking it out, block by block, with Pacific Coffee, so far, hanging tough.

More waterfront

Later, nipping under awnings to avoid the afternoon rain, I took a taxi to the glass towers of Pacific Place to meet with some major China investors (details to come in a later dispatch). Then, with the light fading, I struggled zombielike into the Foreign Correspondents’ Club to have a beer with a real foreign correspondent. I expected that the FCC might look like those British Empire-era saloons in Out of Africa, an ancient colonial building with leather, dark wood, and antelope heads on the walls. I wasn’t far off, but it was more like Empire meets Marriott. As I downed a Foster’s, my host tutored me on the state of media in China today. Specifically, I learned about “playing edgeball,” the delicate dance China editors must do with Party censors, who won’t state with clarity what is and isn’t OK to say, leaving editors to forever test the “edge” and, in so doing, bet their careers.