“Did you know that NATO have bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by mistake?”
These words ruined our evening. We were eating a four course meal in the Holiday Inn hotel in Kowloon waiting to see a British comedy play called “Love, Luck and Luvvies” by a young actress and playwright called Sian Jones, when we heard that our planned trip to China would probably have to be cancelled due to a mistake by the American government. Lisa and I could not believe it. How on earth could you bomb the wrong building? I have read many accounts of how superior the US army is and how they, together with our own UK troops are among the world’s most elite fighting groups with missiles that can enter a building through the upstairs window and kill a spider crawling up the wall. Yet somehow they managed to anger one of the most powerful nations on the planet and ruin our tour of that country.
This accident occurred during NATO’s offensive against Yugoslavia, in particular, against their president, Slobodan Milosovic, for the atrocities he was committing against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in the first part of 1999. I still find it hard to believe what was happening; a war in Europe, so close to the UK.
The man whose devastating words had seriously injured our plans was himself about to go on a business trip to Guangzhou for a couple of days and was speculating about the reception he would get there. Personally, I wasn’t in the least bit concerned about how the Chinese would react to him. As he voiced his concerns and those of his wife, I switched off. His words were completely wasted on me and, rather selfishly, my mind went into overdrive deciding what we could do to salvage a holiday from our wrecked plans.
The American blunder wasn’t the only thing which annoyed me. Lisa and I had literally just spent the best part of the previous week scrutinizing our guide book for China to decide where to go. We had scribbled down the places we wanted to go to and devised a very thorough itinerary, scheduling how long we would spend in each place, how we would arrive and depart from each city and even roughly how much it would cost to explore this huge country for two weeks. We had also forked out £18 for the book itself (and to be truthful, that hurt more than the wasted effort).
People might have thought that we were overreacting because there would be plenty of time in the future to visit China. The truth of the matter was that we wanted to go in a few weeks rather than a few years. We were currently in the middle of a twelve week stint working in Hong Kong. There was a two week gap coming at the end of the eighth week where we had the chance of a holiday and since we were so close to China, we decided that this was the ideal opportunity to go. Lisa thought that she was cursed because a similar thing had happened to her a few months before. On that occasion the sheer volume of work had meant that she did not have time to spend a few days travelling around Southern China.
The following day, I read the paper and the full horror of the situation dawned on me. Not only were the Chinese government understandably angry about the entire incident, but the population, in particular the students, had decided to vent their anger at the countries in NATO in the only way they could: by demonstrating and pouring their wrath on key embassies, those of the United States of America and Great Britain in particular. Watching CNN filled me with dread. Students in many of the cities on our itinerary were shouting and almost rioting outside the buildings; the tension was escalating as they demanded retribution for the innocent people who had been killed or injured. In Beijing in particular, the American Embassy was attacked by projectiles causing visible damage to the building. The occupants were effectively trapped inside. A CNN reporter, standing within sight of the embassy was attacked by furious demonstrators while trying to report on the situation. Incensed Chinese saw CNN as the voice of America and targeted their fury against them. The reporter and her camera crew were aided in their escape by other local people who didn’t want the blood of American journalists on China’s hands. Continuing her report from a few streets away, she confirmed that the Chinese people were exhibiting various degrees of anger and almost unanimously demanding to know why the so-called accident had happened in the first place. The more extreme contingent started spreading rumours that NATO, in particular the Americans and to a lesser extent the British, had targeted the embassy on purpose. Milosevic must have been dancing in Belgrade or wherever he was hiding because, to him, this was a potential ally to his cause. Fortunately, the Chinese government took a more political stance and demanded a full investigation into the incident and asked for an immediate cessation to hostilities.
Back in Hong Kong, we heard that other similar and in some places more violent demonstrations had taken place in other cities, including Hong Kong itself. That night, we decided to go to see a film. Our local cinema was in Pacific Place in the Admiralty area of the city and to get to it we had to get a bus or taxi from mid-levels down past the American Embassy. As we passed the embassy, we saw a handful of angry students burning an American flag outside. The weather was atrocious; it was a typically torrential downpour and although it was a serious gesture, I found it amusing that the demonstrators were trying to set fire to the flag only to find it extinguished by the rain.
On the whole, the people of Hong Kong did not make a fuss about the incident. This was certainly true of the people we worked with. The big danger was in China itself where the people were still very angry, so much so that America and Britain were advising people not to go to China at all.
We reluctantly decided to change our plans. I had always wanted to visit Japan; Lisa had no preference as long as we went somewhere. There was still a possibility that we could go to China but, with NATO’s foolish strike happening barely a month before our trip, it seemed unlikely.
We had decided that we were going to visit one of surrounding countries but we could not decide which one to opt for. The date for our holiday was fast approaching and it was clear that we would have to fly to our destination rather than simply going across the border to China. For no reason other than I had always wanted to go to Tokyo, we opted for Japan. We had absolutely no idea how much it would cost, but we thought, it would be worth it.
All of a sudden, the disappointment of a missed opportunity to visit China seemed to be fading into the distance as the excitement of a trip to another exotic and unique country assumed control. With no knowledge of Japan other than the names of its cities and its geographical location we went to a local bookshop and purchased another guide book for Japan and a Japanese phrasebook. We arrived back at the hotel after a hard day’s work, armed with our new procurements and a determination to plan an itinerary. Our enthusiasm was all-consuming as we sat at the table with our notebook, now devoid of the pages we had filled with notes, routes and costs for our now defunct China trip.
Everything was fine until we looked at the prices of hotels in Tokyo. We were not on a limited budget for this holiday but by any stretch of the imagination, there was no way we could afford to stay in hotels as expensive as those described in the guide book. Even the cheapest we could find were far more expensive than the more top of the range hotels in China. And to make matters worse, rooms in Japan are on a per person basis whereas in China you only pay for the room itself.
In spite of this apparent setback, we planned a route, chose our cities, the cheapest hotels, transport and evaluated the costs of accommodation, flights and trains. Having meticulously considered every possibility, we reckoned that we could just about make the trip for twice our maximum planned budget if we didn’t eat for two weeks. Now call me a skinflint if you like, but there was no way I was going to starve for a fortnight. Reluctantly we decided that Japan was not an option.
I went to work the next day feeling depressed, not because of the work itself, but because I felt that fate was constructing brick walls to block every holiday plan we were conceiving. The thought of spending the two weeks in Hong Kong itself occurred to us briefly, but that too would be expensive without the benefit of a company to pay our hotel and food bills. I spent the morning moping around the office, grimly performing my daily duties, trying not to appear despondent in front of my work colleagues. With the day of our holiday creeping ever closer I rang Lisa to arrange to meet in one of the restaurants on the departure level for lunch.
As we dined and chatted, it suddenly occurred to one of us that there was a country, which was very close and very cheap, just waiting for two psychopathic Brits to descend upon it. That country was of course the Philippines, capital Manila residing comfortably on the island of Luzon ... and it was calling to us. I recall that just about every expat I had met in Hong Kong, who was staying longer than six months, had been to the Philippines and related tales about its appeal to people like us. We spent the rest of the day in a much better frame of mind. I decided to splash out on yet another guide book.
Looking back, destiny was watching over us and perhaps decided to stop tormenting us further. The shop I chose had run out of guide books for the Philippines. This proved to be a turning point.
Later that evening we just happened to pick up our complementary copy of the Hong Kong Standard and read an article, which stated that the British government, in particular, was now advising people that they regarded it safe to travel within China. The word from Mr Blair and his Foreign Office was that they had issued an apology and serious regret over the incident and that Her Majesty’s Government would leave no stone unturned in their quest to discover why the incident had occurred in the first place (or some such political bollocks like that). The words which leapt out of the page and slapped me in the face were “safe to go to China” though they were accompanied by the warning that discretion would be necessary. I consider myself to be the soul of discretion. Many people would disagree with that bold statement but at the time I didn’t care. Neither did Lisa.
We made the instant decision. We would go. Now it was time to find that screwed up bit of paper with our itinerary scribbled on it. After tearing the hotel room to bits we eventually found it and celebrated by getting drunk (any excuse really).
Two hangovers, a fitful night’s sleep and a bit of puking (from the female part of our dynamic duo) later, we began to attack our huge plan with gusto. First we had to get a visa, which meant heading to Wan Chai, the place where most of my Hong Kong hangovers were conceived and gestated from copious amounts of lager. This time, heads pounding painfully in time with heartbeats, we were pleased to avoid the many bars of the area. Instead we sought the China Resource Building and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the 5th floor. When we arrived at the new Convention and Exhibition centre at 1145, we had a quarter of an hour to find the place to apply for a visa. Armed with our passports, we hunted and searched and searched and hunted but could we find it? Of course we couldn’t. Why? Allow me to explain.
As you read through the remainder of our journal, you will begin to see a trend. I like to call it the “Tonto Effect” and I admit to suffering from it - but only since I met Lisa. The name is ironic because Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s faithful sidekick, was a proven tracker who never lost his way. Lisa is the complete opposite. She is one of the most absent-minded people I have ever met and has non-existent sense of direction. I could entertain you with several books of Lisa’s exploits, some of which I have been told by friends of hers, but most I have experienced personally. Lisa would argue that I have the problem rather than her, but, as you will see, most of our “Tonto” trauma has been due to me, foolishly perhaps, ignoring my own instinct and following Lisa. I always say the same thing to myself. “Surely, Dave, she can’t get it wrong this time.” In this respect, I am wrong nine times out of every nine.
“It’s just up here,” said Lisa confidently. Like the foolish bumpkin I am, I followed her to a set of doors. As we entered the building, I looked around hoping to see a sign saying “This way to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”. Inevitably there was nothing to indicate where we should go. But there were a couple of lifts. I ignored the voice inside my head shouting “Dave! This is the wrong place. She’s done it again!”. I looked at my watch and saw the seconds ticking away as the time slowly and inexorably marched towards noon.
The first lift we entered didn’t even have a button for floor five. We managed to get out just before the lift doors slammed shut. Lisa dragged me into the adjacent lift and, to my relief, it listed “the fifth floor” as one of its many and varied destinations. A short time later we came out of the lift ... straight into the foyer of an exclusive looking Chinese restaurant.
“This can’t be it,” I said as the lift doors hissed shut behind me. Undaunted by my lack of confidence in our location, Lisa marched into the restaurant looking for someone to ask. Once again I looked at my watch. My head pounded in time with the second hand as it dragged its two reluctant colleagues towards the number twelve. What seemed like a lifetime later, Lisa emerged with a maître d’, who was trying not to laugh, as he pointed to his left.
“We’re in the wrong building,” Lisa conceded. I pressed the button to recall the lift and told her that we only had three minutes to find the office before it shut. She looked at me as if nothing was wrong and could not understand why I appeared so frustrated. One thing I have had to learn to tolerate with Lisa, apart from the Tonto effect, is her habit of being late. She looked at me and said “Stop panicking. We’ll get there in time.”
The lift decided to contribute to my ever increasing frustration by dawdling to floor five. Captain Paranoia, a constant companion of mine, has often convinced me that fate and people in general are against me and that the sole aim of the human population of the planet is to make me feel as uncomfortable and traumatized as possible. But this time he was telling me that technology was against me as well. I believed him because the lift, which had taken us to this floor in record time, was now on strike. Again I looked at my watch, hoping that the laws of physics would have pity on me and turn back time (or at least slow it down a bit).
Eventually the lift arrived and we made it outside the building. I asked Lisa where we should go. “The next building,” she said pointing to a door straight in front of us. My hangover had at this stage evolved into a sentient being within my skull, insisting that I find a bed and fall asleep. As we ran towards the door, my hangover began punishing me with a severe hammer blow on the inside of my cranium every time I took a step.
Inside the neighbouring building, we found a lift and, when the bloody thing decided to open its doors and let us in (“see that lift, it hates you” whispered Captain Paranoia” - “Find a bed AND SLEEP!”, shouted my hangover), we found that we could only get up to the fourth floor.
I thought that there were bound to be some stairs taking us up to the fifth floor, so we took a chance and went for it. The lift went for it too, only extremely slowly. We arrived at floor four at one minute to noon and found no sign of a staircase to floor five. With my hangover playing a drum solo in my head, I rushed over to a man standing next to an office and asked him where to find the stairs. With a friendly smile, he told me that he didn’t understand me. Captain Paranoia told me that he did understand me, but he hated me and didn’t want to help. My hangover said “FIND A BED!”.
I rushed back into the lift, dragging Lisa in behind me and pressed the ground floor button. Lisa seemed totally unperturbed by the fact that we now had less than a minute to get to the visa office, despite being in the wrong building again and still at least a lift ride away from the floor we required. When the lift eventually reached the bottom, we ran around the building and found another door. We had passed this very same door about fifteen minutes earlier and not even spotted the sign just inside which said, clearly and in letters two inches high, “Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Fifth Floor”. The Tonto effect had struck again.
The lift eventually deposited us at floor five of the correct building. I hoped that somebody would take pity on me and just let me hand over my passport and go home to bed. But the office was completely devoid of people. I tried to control myself as I walked slowly to the door. I read the sign. “Closed on Saturday”.
Eventually, we did manage to get our Chinese visas, with considerable ease. For one, we knew the location and opening times second time around.
The next step was to sort out what we needed and, organised as I am, we produced a list and wandered around Hong Kong buying any necessities for the trip. Lisa had already been on a six week jaunt around Thailand and suggested that we cram all our stuff into two identical rucksacks. After all, we were only going for two weeks, so we wouldn’t need to take too much. The guide book had prepared us for the cost of the holiday and we had included expenditure such as laundries, hotels, trains, planes and taxis etc. We were fully prepared ... except our work colleagues didn’t seem to think so, especially the Hong Kong Chinese themselves.
Advice from one person particularly alarmed me. A Chinese work colleague who speaks fluent Mandarin as well as Cantonese, and who you would think would be totally equipped to deal with a two week trip around China said to me, “There is no way I would do it. You are so brave.”
I chuckled nervously when I heard this but there was more to come. Another Chinese colleague said “You will be ripped off. The Chinese even know people from Hong Kong and take great pleasure in trying to take all of your money.” Other advice such as “Don’t forget to take your patience” came from a Canadian called Geoff . Yet another, who had subjected Lisa and I to some of the most bizarre food we had ever eaten suggested that we take a huge supply of biscuits and crisps with us, saying that if we thought the food in Hong Kong was bad then we were in for a terrible time in China itself.
I can say with my hand placed sincerely on my heart that in general I adore Chinese food. In England, Chinese is one of the most popular cuisines. However, for some dishes, the food is geared towards the English or Western tastes. Not that it is any different in Hong Kong. Personally, some of the best Chinese meals I have had ever were in some of the many local restaurants throughout the territory. Nevertheless, I have been subjected to some of the more bizarre dishes consumed by Hong Kong Chinese. Several individuals actively encouraged us to try new things.
It has to be said that meals with our Chinese colleagues were a lot of fun, especially when they ordered for us. Not being fluent in Cantonese, we had to trust these people to order things we could eat, and to their credit and my extreme gratitude, they did so every time ... well almost every time that is.
Our Chinese colleagues were full of advice and assistance for our trip ahead. In may ways I think they were as excited and as nervous as we were.
One colleague in particular took us to a bank and used his own account to get us a better deal. As we were leaving the bank, he was fussing over us like a father advising his young children on their first day at school.
“Don’t leave your money in one place. And make sure that you spread the cash around you in case you get robbed. Oh, and watch what you eat. You won’t have me to order food for you. And be careful in the sun - it’s just like Hong Kong but you’ll be in the open more ...” and so on and so on. I was tempted to reply “Don’t worry, dad. We’ll be okay. Can we have some pocket money?”
The night before we left, we were treated to a Chinese meal in Kowloon. Once again our Chinese friends ordered all of our food and, of course, it was delicious.
As we left the restaurant, we strolled past a bar and decided to pop in for a last drink. Now that we were just twelve hours away from catching the train out of Hong Kong, I began to feel just a tiny bit nervous. Tomorrow we were going to be leaving the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, a cosmopolitan and western city, to visit a totally different country, where no English was spoken, which had closed its doors to outsiders for so long, only being open to foreigners for a decade or two. I really had no idea what to expect.
Lisa reassured me. “We’ll be alright.” I remembered three things: Lisa’s sense of direction; Lisa’s absent-mindedness; our friend’s words - “You’re SO brave.”
What was I letting myself in for?