Sunday, September 16, 2007

0709192200 A visit by a distinguished friend from Australia.

Recently a familiar distinguished gentleman attended church with us - it was someone that we knew years ago from Australia. He is in Hong Kong on a humanitarian "mission" of his own undertaking to buy disused Chinese apartment buildings and refurbish them so that they can be used as an orphanage. We invited our fellow countryman home for dinner and while he ate some good hearty Australian food, he told us about his plan. According to him, there are at least two problems in China that he can solve: 1) too many orphans and, 2) too many old folks. His plan is to buy a disused apartment building, refurbish and refit it and then use the old folks to look after the orphans. He told us that there were people from Taiwan that were ready to help and would like to donate to the project. The promised donations were in the order of several million dollars and the money would be donated in cash by the box full at a bank in Hong Kong. I wondered why these Taiwanese benefactors could not simply transfer the money, but what the heck, they do strange things in other countries. Our distinguished friend from Australia said that he might need some help with all this money carrying and I agreed to help him. At this stage I was too polite to tell him that the whole idea of delivering cash by the box full from flatbed trucks, in Hong Kong, in daylight, from a foreign country was a little strange. I should point out here that the security guards that service the automatic teller machines carry shotguns. He said that he would call me. He never called me. We did get a call from his wife a few days later asking if we had seen or heard from him. Apparently he left his hotel room one morning and had not been seen for three days. He was missing.

He was arrested by the Hong Kong police for depositing counterfeit money. It seems that our distinguished friend from Australia is far too trusting and accepted a few million dollars in counterfeit notes that the police described as an "average attempt" at using a color copier to print a jpeg of a Kuwaiti dinar. He remains in custody.

How did I get mixed up in this? Our distinguished friend from Australia told the hotel staff that I would pick up his luggage - it looks like he decided to hire me as a personal assistant even though I regard myself as more of a bodyguard. The Hong Kong police now have my name attached to this crazy counterfeiting scheme. My concern was that I might be considered an accomplice, so I called the Hong Kong police and asked if they had any concerns about me shifting "evidence" - it was fine by them, they had already searched the suit cases. I told the Hong Kong police that I am, for want of a better description, a "friend from church" and have never met him in Australia before seeing him at church in Hong Kong. They seemed to be satisfied and had no further questions for me. Later, I was told that he used my address on his bail application.

I was also concerned that there was now a bunch of fairly ticked off counterfeiters in town that may either want to get some return on their investment or revenge. The suitcase belonging to our distinguished friend from Australia was at the hotel and I was asked by his wife to take care of it. It did not seem like a big deal, I would like to think that if I was in a similar situation in a foreign county with no other means of support then someone from church could be relied upon to carry out a simple favour.

I was told it was one suitcase and I prepared for one suitcase. It was really two suitcases, two carry on bags and a shopping bag with "sundry items" that had been collected by the hotel staff. After stacking the cases on top of each other like two little portable leaning tower's of Pisa, I set off from the hotel and wondered if I was being followed by either the good guys or the bad guys. I was in Kowloon, on the Chinese mainland side of Hong Kong, with four suitcases belonging to a suspected counterfeiter, with visions of the Triads sneaking up on me when something unexpected happened. The handle on one of the suitcases simply broke off. The delicate balancing act that I had performed was over. I looked at the broken handle and tried to fix it. I could fix it, but I needed a packet of 12mm bolts, a torque wrench and an arc welder. I arranged the cases into a less comfortable portable leaning tower and continued in a sort of trundle along the busy and crowed streets of Kowloon in a lopsided manner. I would have made it to the taxi if the handle on the other suitcase decided at this time, when I would have really liked it to stay on, broke off.

There are times when you can either laugh or cry, so I laughed. To get to the taxi stand, I had to carry a little pile of luggage a few meters, leave it, and then go back and carry the next little pile of luggage until I had made it the 100m or so down the road to the taxis. There are a few things I thought would be the same everywhere in the world, and one of those things is that a taxi would take a credit card. It seems that Kowloon taxis don't. (And even if they did they would charge a return trip through the harbour tunnel.) I was "tethered" to this pile of luggage by my duty as a boy scout to do my best to do my duty, in an unfamiliar part of a different county, with the luggage of a man that I met once and is now in police custody as a suspected counterfeiter, being either watched or followed by either the police or the triads or both. It is at this point that I did something of which I am not proud. I gave up. I realised that it was not mechanically possible for me continue. I hitched up my strides, tucked a suitcase under each arm, took a suitcase in each hand and impersonated the incredible hulk for the walk back to the hotel. I then told the good people at the Shamrock hotel a bare-faced lie that I would come back for them later when I had some help.

p.s. I have arranged for a courier to deliver the cases on Monday.


Friday, September 7, 2007

0709070830 Finding a job - not just any job, a particular job.

Yesterday was devoted to getting a job - not just any job, a particular job in building engineering for a local bank. I thought that I would meet with people at church and they would have some work available - the people at church are not really employers as such. They employ entire companies. Our home teachers, for example, one is the vice president for Marriott Hotels and the other is an American diplomat that has had years of army service and speaks fluent Mandarin. He claims that his job is to "process visa applications".

Yesterday, I had to explain what 12 years of going to school means in Australia and how that might be equivalent to 12 years of education in the United States. It seems that it is not that simple. I have no idea what sophomore, freshman and junior high school means. I went to school for 12 years, then I went further - I don't know what a college is in the US - I know that it is tertiary education.

I heard a story about this:
There was an American tourist at a hotel. The hotel staff have a badge with their name and a flag showing the languages that they speak. One manager had a row of flags: The Union Jack, the tricolour, and the Italian flag. I don't remember the name of the Italian flag, but I do remember its colors - green, white, red - it reminds me of pizza with capsicum, onion and tomato. The American tourist asked if he spoke English because he could not see the American flag.

Of all the language problems that I thought I would face in a foreign country, in a strange land filled with unusual customs , I never expected to have trouble speaking "American".

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

MegaBox - the Mega shopping centre.

Things that I thought would be the same everywhere:
Elevators stop on every floor and escalators take you one floor at a time. This is not so in Hong Kong. There is a shopping centre in Kowloon called "MegaBox" where this custom is taken to another level.

MegaBox looks spectacular, it looks like a camera. Hugo spotted the place from the air when we arrived. It has a giant screen on the inside that can be seen through a five story high round window from the outside. The building is painted red, bright red.
Inside it is almost empty - there is a emphasis on how much room is reserved as unoccupied "free space". Shoppers can also go ice skating.

The escalators take shoppers up five floors at a time. The elevators stop on only odd or even floors depending on whether you catch one on the north or south end of the bulding. To get to level three, a customer has to first go to level eight in the lift then take the escalator down five floors. When taking the escalator, it seems strange to see the place that I wanted to go only a few meters away slowly disapear behind me while the being helplessly transported to the lofty heights of the "Podium Garden". Shopping centres in Hong Kong seem to put all the same products in one place - for example, at the Windsor centre, all the computer shops are on level 10 and 11. At Times Square, all the home appliances are on level 5 and 6. Parking is on level 16. There is no front door access to the footpath - the front door is a busy bus and taxi transport hub that is closed off to pedestrians - shoppers arrive by the bus-load from the nearby train station. Trying to find a shop is like being trapped in an Esher picture.