1996 January: Tuesday
With a couple of days to spare before the next show, I decided to chill out as much as possible. It seemed that the nearest point of interest was a place called Stanley Market on the most extreme southern tip of Hong Kong Island. The sun shone as I took the bus along the coast road.
Stanley Market turned out to be three streets dedicated to market stalls and remarkable mostly for its relative lack of high-rise blocks. The market traders’ patter was entirely different to their in-your-face London counterparts. Here, the keynote was respect for the customer, each purchase being presented with a low bow. Every article, no matter how mundane, was claimed to be conducive to good luck, prosperity, etc. An American couple were sold a digitalised toy Robocop with the additional bonus that it would extend their lives by a decade.
There was only one occasion when this slow-paced dignity suffered a hiccup. I was standing in front of a stall selling at least 500 clocks. Suddenly the alarm on one of them went off. The ancient Chinese proprietor gave a squawk of annoyance and spent the next ten minutes trying to locate the offending clock.
At another stall, I bought some photographic film and had difficulty opening the camera. The proprietor took it from me and pressed a small knob. The camera opened. I thanked him and said:
“I have trouble doing that every time.”
He smiled: “That’s because your fingers are too big, ha, ha”.
I felt his comment was rather revealing. Maybe that was how the Chinese regarded Westerners. Large, lumbering and clumsy – as opposed to their own dainty cool intelligence? I rested for a while on a bench and looked at the sea. Beside me, two elderly Chinese gentlemen in smart black suits sat and silently contemplated their bare feet.
In the evening I returned to the Fringe Club in an effort to restore my battered ego. Looking around at the incoming audiences for the evening festival shows, it seemed a hopeless cause. In Britain, people dress down for the theatre; here, they dressed up. Amidst these chic walking wallets and their exquisite women I felt like Albert Steptoe in the Ascot Royal Enclosure.
However, a ray of light waited round the corner. I picked up the day’s copy of the South China Morning Post and turned to the theatrical review section.
Thank the Lord, the review was a good one. My mood perked up considerably. Bless you, Dino Mahoney. Then, to cheer me up even further, the stage manager Born Yuan came over to chat – and he was a guy I liked.
Somehow, we got on to the subject of religion. He said that China was polytheistic by nature – Buddhism, Confucian philosophy, Taoism, Christianity and its various breeds, ancestor worship, astrology, etc, etc – which all intertwined with each other in a spaghetti bowl of religions, heavily influenced by superstition. For instance, it was advisable to find out which date was most beneficial for having your hair cut.
Also there was the belief that after death everyone went to Purgatory and had basic needs during their time there. These needs had to be supplied by the surviving relatives, who burned paper replicas of goods in order to transmit them to the After Life. Money was regarded as essential, so special banknotes, in several denominations and very similar to proper banknotes, were printed and then ceremonially burnt. Various instructions were superimposed on the money, such as ‘Valid Throughout Hell’.
He explained some other aspects of Chinese life. “Kowtow means to crouch on the ground and bang your head hard against it to show respect. These days if someone serves you in a cafe it is polite to tap the table with your middle finger. It’s the modern version of kowtow”.
The latest scandal in Hong Kong, according to Born Yuan, (apart presumably from myself), also concerned the HK Radio and Television studio. In a recent TV news broadcast, during a fairly heavy item about the European currency markets, somebody had accidentally spliced twenty seconds of Australian girls playing topless darts. It had created a major kerfuffle and the newsroom staff had been suspended without pay.
Another topic of contention was the attitude of the Hong Kong authorities to the Women’s Liberation movement. Having been castigated for their arch male chauvinist approach to the subject, the authorities had finally agreed to send a representative to the United Nations Conference on Feminism currently being held in Beijing. The feminists had applauded the decision until they discovered that their appointed representative was a man.
Born Yuan also told me that in the Far East the British are known as ‘the quiet ones’ to differentiate them from the Americans.
He introduced me to a fellow performer, Ivan Heng, a young Chinese/ Singaporean actor on tour with his one-man show. Ivan said that the show was about his life as an Asian actor living and attempting to work in London. He recounted his story about how, after nine months of being cast as an all-purpose Oriental, i.e. waiters, opium smugglers, Japanese prison camp guards, etc, he pleaded with his agent to find him some acting job that did not involve him in Oriental type casting.
After a few weeks, his agent phoned him triumphantly:
“I’ve got you a part in a sci-fi movie.”
“Fantastic!” said Ivan, “What’s the role?”
Ivan struck me as good fun.
I returned to Repulse Bay by midnight and walked into the foyer. I was now getting salutes of recognition from the security guards. Ah, the gweilo with the missing boot.