Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, Nov. 4, 1959
November 4, 2009 | 2:00 pm
HONG KONG -- There's an astonishing distance between the Orient of Tokyo and the Orient of this British Crown Colony.
Although Hong Kong is only a few hours away by air, it is a hundred years away in terms of civilization.
When I stepped off the Japan Air Air Lines plane at Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport, I was stepping away from all the fastidiousness, the gentility, the over-emphasized etiquette of Japanese life, and into a complete chaos of whining beggars, ragged, lice-ridden children, pitifully emaciated ricksha boys, tubercular streetwalkers, desperately starving Red China refugees and, of course, a sprinkling of proper British Colonials who, still in summer whites, seem quite detached from it all.
Anywhere in Japan you might forget to pick up your change in a shop or restaurant and the owner would chase after you to make sure you got it back.
Everywhere in the British Colony of Hong Kong there are signs advising you to beware of pickpockets. (An L.A. acquaintance I ran into this morning told me he had been surrounded by a mob of apparently playful tots, none of them over ten. When he finally broke free, he realized that his wallet had been deftly lifted.)
In Japan, if you stay at an Oriental inn, you are on the ground floor and you think nothing of leaving your sliding doors open to the street all day.
In Hong Kong, at the staid, pompously British Miramar Hotel a notice is posted stating: "Guests are warned not to leave valuables in rooms even temporarily." And, "Please lock your door from the inside when retiring."
If you offer a tip for service in Japan, it is looked on almost as an insult, and in most cases will be returned to you with a non-committal bow.
If you make the mistake of tipping a Hong Kong ricksha boy a mere 10% of the bill, he will will either curse you out in Cantonese or show his contempt more dramatically by standing in front of you and, without benefit of handkerchief, blowing his nose.
Hong Kong is an Asian paradox.
It's hillsides have palatial mansions next door to wood and cardboard shacks not fit to stable animals.
Its main boulevards are crowded with chic European women in Dior creations. Its alleys are jammed with families who cook, eat, sleep and live their whole lives on the streets.
Its social life is the cautiously restricted British club with croquet and cribbage to offer. Or, the equally restricted Chinese criminal society of the Triad with women and heroin to offer.
Perfume and Garbage
And it smells. It smells like no other place in the world. Or perhaps, like every other place in the world combined.
The air is permeated with odors of sweat, of French perfume, of garbage, of long dead garupo fish drying in the sun, of incense, of cabbage, of frying rice and of rich, pungent fruit.
Some romantic has called Hong Kong the "Pearl of the Orient." At that, I suppose it is a pearl. But, from what I've seen so far, the gem is tarnished.