Thursday, January 24, 2008
WRITTEN WORD 64 - East-West Epic
I did try to get it right. My editor had been talking about the sales possibilities for the sort of sweeping romantic East-West adventure romance that comes along very few years - Tai-Pan (which he had discovered and edited), The World of Suzie Wong, Love is a Many Splendored Thing.
My new wife and I were living in a no-man's land, the Crown Colony of Hong Kong, which was actually run by brilliant Chinese entrepreneurs, assisted by brilliant Chinese criminals, all working with and sometimes submitting to, the dread Communists of the mainland. None of them had anything but contempt for most of the colonial masters, the overpaid British, whom I knew as people who faked their accents. There was no life for the British outside their government-owned houses and their clubs, no life in public where someone might say your upper class accent is fake.
In some cities in Southeast Asia everyone mingled – Bangkok, Singapore, even Djakarta – an often confused mixture – polyglot was the word I thought of – along with such words as erotic and subtle and picaresque – of people thrown together, as I was now, not entirely sure what they are doing here but liking it here and staying.
Not Hong Kong. Mingling was hard in Hong Kong. You could have Chinsese friends, but it was not likely in the English society that had been imposed on the colony. The Brits had been so nasty that even at the foreign correspondents club you rarely saw a Chinese man, and when you did it was likely to be an Oriental Uncle Tom who talked funny and made jokes about his race because that was expected of him – rather like, I suspect, the professional greeters of mainland tourists in Hawaii. Hong Kong is an adjunct of that part of southern China, called Canton when I was there, that did all things physical well, especially food, which they did better than anyone else.
In other cities in the region you would eat a lot of your meals, wonderful meals, at food stalls outdoors. Not in Hong Kong, where you probably would not be served at a food stall if you looked white. Not in Hong Kong, where if you were about to cross a working man’s path, he might spit on the ground in front of you and sneer the words Gwei-low, meaning foreign devil.
This is where Emily Zhang and I set up housekeeping after we got married in Manila and I was able to get her out of the Philippines, where the dictator had put a ban on foreign travel that applied to everyone except the very rich. Everyone was hearing from billboards and television the joys of what the dictator and his wife called “The New Society.”
We had gotten married in a cheerful fat judge’s chambers behind the big colonial era city hall in Manila, a city that was always sweaty and humid and often with strange smells coming in from Manila Bay. A rough and tumble journalist I knew, Sonny Plaino, came along as a witness and also as our chief fixer. It was us and Sonny and Emily’ mother, and her young brother who was actually her son – and the mother’s sister, Emily’s aunt, Mrs. Murillo, who often provided the money to keep the family going but was usually denied by the family because she made her living running a place for sex with prostitutes, whereas Emily’s mother made her living as a gambler, operating out of Quezon City a floating Mahjong game that had been going non-stop for many years. This should have been a tip-off to what would go wrong, for Emily had hidden the fact that she had, horrors, a child out of wedlock, and she was not amused, seemed ashamed, by the professional lives of her mother and aunt.
The immediate problem, though, was that there were so many conflicting martial law edicts in effect then that, when trying to get things done, even the best of fixers was often baffled. We had all sorts of papers in order when we went before the judge, and we were about to get started, and then a retainer whispered something in his ear, and he said we needed one more document. According to martial law edict such and such, any man getting married in Manila now had to show proof that in the past six months he had participated in a government-approved, six-week parenthood planning course. I of course had not been in Manila, much less in such a course, in any time period that would cover this. The judge laughed and said the edict was ridiculous, but his hands were tied.
Then Mrs. Murillo, who looked like a cheerful gray-haired lady born to be a favorite aunt, stepped forward and said she had a solution. For some reason some of the officials in Manila were incorruptible on this planned parenthood thing – which was an obsession of the country’s egregious First Lady, a high-powered former beauty queen. It confused everyone – especially the judge and Sonny Plaino. But Mrs. Murillo said she knew the right people in a satellite municipality on the outskirts called Pasay City. So she and I got into a shaky little rust-covered taxi and headed off to that hopefully corruptible Pasay City Hall on the outskirts, and sure enough for only a small bribe we got the document saying I had been in Manila and done the course, and we started back in high heat and humidity and bone-crushing traffic to the judge’s quarters behind the surprisingly, on this subject anyway, incorruptible Manila City hall.
And the taxi of course broke down. No gas, it turned out. So Mrs. Murillo and I, on the last lap to my wedding, are covered with dust and what feels like an oil slick and we are pushing the little taxi, and in front to us there is an old wooden-bodied bus that is belching black smoke from two big exhaust pipes up on the roof. And I am trying to concentrate on how this is a love story. And on the back of the bus is a sign that says “Love your New Society.”