Hong Kong was hell. I got in at 9 in the morning and had 12 hours to kill before my flight to Bombay. My first stop was out to Sha Tin to visit Chinese University. Eric Lo Hing Cheung started me up a visitor account and let me read my mail, telling me about the latest status of Internet access. To nobody’s surprise, the system had moved forward at a remarkable rate since my last visit and most of the Hong Kong universities were up and running.
Eric and Dr. Michael Chang were both gracious as always, but I had a problem. My back went out and I could barely move. I travel very light when it comes to clothes and other luxuries, but all the books I insist on bringing with me brings the weight up to the level that is enough to seem light but can strain the back when you take a different plane every day. Sure enough, I felt like lying on the floor at Chinese University, but that would have been less than polite.
I took a cab to the main island to find a place to lie down. The fare card in the taxi had a list of all the surcharges, including HK $4 (U.S. $0.50) for each “piece of luggage, animal, or bird.” At the bottom, though was an addendum which said that “wheelchair or crutches, carried by a disabled person free.” I tried to think of the legislative history that must have gone into such a clause.
I spent the rest of the day with my friend Harry Rolnick, the writer. Harry is not the kind of person who minds if you spend the afternoon lying on his floor and I hoped that my back would recover.
It was deadline day for Harry, a weekly columnist for the South China Morning Post. It being March 6, he decided that the Michelangelo virus would be a likely topic. Harry is not your most technically astute type—this is somebody who still uses Wordstar—but has a great sense of humor.
We spent the next hour trying to dream up new viruses. The civil servant virus was easy enough: it simply dims the screen and does nothing. The Hong Kong waiter virus has possibilities: you can’t find the thing, but it will pop up occasionally and snarl at you. And, of course, there is the expatriate manager virus, which won’t go off until mid-morning, when it displays “what a night, what a night” on the screen and then goes to lunch.
While Harry finished his column, I laid on the floor and looked up at the walls. The walls were certainly interesting. When he is not reviewing concerts or restaurants, Harry does things like travel to Korea to write feature pieces about kimchi or travel through the mountains of Pakistan to get a little exercise. His walls show the results.
On one wall was a framed copy of the Pyongyang Times from North Korea. “Comrade Kim Jong Il Inspects Kwangbok Department Store” blazed the headline. On the other wall was a 1991 calendar from Kampuchea Airlines, certainly a rare item.
To help me pass the time, Harry handed me down a copy of a North Korean-English phrasebook he had acquired on a recent visit. Verb conjugation was illustrated by the following sequence:
“We fight against Yankees”
“We will fight against Yankees”
“We have fought against Yankees”
My favorite section, though, was the one on admirations, pointing out ways to say nice things about people.
“What a wise leadership.”
“Fancy abolishing taxation!”
“This is a success for the people indeed.”
This phrasebook made me want to spend some time in North Korea. After all, where else can you find such an interesting permutation of the language?
I started to count the number of cities I had been in the past 5 months. Flat on my back, nursing a Mekhong whiskey to ease the pain, I wondered if it was worth it. There had to be an easier way to earn a living.
Then, Harry walked in and showed me some of his clips, including his story on kimchi, the fiery Korean pickled cabbage, made by burying cabbage and peppers for the winter to ferment. Perhaps there was an easier way to earn a living, but sitting in a cubicle hacking UNIX kernels would never expose me to the wonders of kimchi.
I dragged myself downstairs, caught a taxi, and gritted my teeth all the way to the airport, dragged my way through customs, and finally got on the plane. Even the dumpling stuffed with yam ice cream and served with a delicate, blue peanut sauce didn’t ease the pain.