Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Limbo the Barber and Hong Kong

Limbo always talks about Hong Kong when he cuts my hair and we have knowledge of Hong Kong that we can share. He says he learned English by watching 1950s Cary Grant movies before he immigrated to the United States. He worked as a tailor in Hong Kong as a teenager. As soon as he said “Tailor,” old memories churned up my first visit to Hong Kong in 1966 on the USS Princeton (I was on the ship in Subic Bay, 1966, when this picture was taken). The more we talked, the more old names of people and places came back to me. I was twenty-one years old in August of 1966 when we pulled into the Hong Kong Harbor. I was also a brand new Third Class Petty Officer (E-4) and eligible to Shore Patrol duty, the duty of the Navy policing its own in port.

Hong Kong was our last Western Pacific stop before going home to Long Beach. So we were excited. A long cruise was nearing its end. By that time, however, I was an old salt. I'd already spent a year in Saigon, Vietnam and experienced five or six port calls in Subic Bay, Philippines. Neither of those cities could be called centers of chastity and virtue by any stretch of the imagination; they were rough and rowdy and, of course, dangerous. In other words, fun. I had already experienced the dreaded “Manila Rum” blinding drunken stupor in Subic Bay during which someone, I never learned who, carried me back to the boat that would ferry me to the ship and they carried me aboard in a stretcher, the wicked rum that was only slightly less debilitating than the bhamy-bah (33 in Vietnamese) beer formaldehyde poisoning that put me in the Naval Support Hospital in Saigon for five days of chalky Kaopectate diet. So it was with some degree of experience that I went to the hanger bay inspection and port briefing with a cavalier attitude the day before we pulled into Hong Kong. “Muster all hands in the hanger bay for inspection and briefing,” the ship's speaker announced and we formed into our divisional ranks in our dress white uniforms.

I remember that uniform and that inspection. I was still wearing Navy issue in those days, which would change with that Hong Kong visit, at least for one inspection. So would my shoes, those black Navy issue that I spent an hour or more spit-shinning and always managed to scuff on the walk from our “compartment,” a Navy term for our bunk room, to the inspection. I can't count the times that our division came in second or third place in divisional competition because I scuffed my shoes. “Damn, Clark. Can't you walk ten feet without falling all over yourself?” How many times had I heard that? There's no accounting.

But, that uniform was the pits. It fit loosely, the jumper hung on me two sizes too big at the waist with too short arm length and the trousers fit tight around the waist and like bloomers from my butt on down. Standard sizes just didn't fit my physique, even to this day. So, hearing all about Hong Kong tailors, I was determined to change my white uniform. At some point while anticipating a new uniform the words of the briefing filtered through, “you are advised to stay away from the 'Wan Chai' district and especially the 'Wan Chai Roof Tops.'” I glanced down the ranks to Patereau, a Cajun from New Orleans who had become one of my liberty buddies. “Liberty,” for those who do not know sailor terminology, means going ashore at ports of call for rest and recreation (R&R); in other words, Freedom. He winked. Aha! Now we know where to go for fun. Those Navy Port-o-call debriefers always let the cat out of the bag by telling you where “not” to go.

After the inspection, Patereau, LaDuche (another Cajun – I'll bet you can guess the nickname we gave him, even though his name was pronounced “La-Duke,” according to him), and Shaunessy, a black Irishman, he claimed, got together to plan our liberty time. I, as the ship's financial record keeper, had to work our first morning in port, until noon it turned out, because we (meaning me) had supplies to order from the British Hong Kong Government, using British purchase order (PO) forms; not the easiest PO's I learned to use. There was also the “ship painting” contract with Madam Chang (my memory has a conflict regarding her name – it could be Chang Li, Madam Chang Li, but simply Madam Chang has a more familiar sound) that I had to type. It was a non-cash transaction contract sprinkled with English labels and Chinese Kanji characters. The gist would be that we gave her a few tons of empty brass shell casings we'd collected on the gun-line and, in return, her work crews painted our ship. I was scheduled for Shore Patrol on our second day. So we all agreed to leave the ship together early on our third day in port for a full day in Hong Kong.

At 0700 the next morning I was once again in ranks on the flight deck, manning the rails, as we began our entrance to the Hong Kong harbor. Tug boats were pulling alongside, and the Harbor Pilot came aboard. I had a view of Kowloon, the city across the harbor from Hong Kong. By 0830, we were near our anchorage spot and about thirty sampan water taxis were hovering around us, vying to be first in line to take us, and our money, ashore. There was also a Chinese Junk, similar to this picture, but brightly painted in red with gold trim, tracking alongside. I heard someone close by say, “Madam Chang. The richest woman in Hong Kong.”

I met Madam Chang an hour or two later, but it was not our last meeting. The Ship's Supply Office was hopping. Supplies needed to be ordered from the list of available items that was only moments before delivered to us by the British. We were hot on it. The Princeton's Commanding Officer, a Navy Captain, Captain Shepard, came to the Ship's Supply Office at least four times that morning checking on our progress. He knew my name and my duties. He was never pleasant to our Supply Officer, our “SO,” a Navy Commander whose name escapes me, which was somewhat deserved. He made plenty of mistakes. Once he picked up my eye glasses by mistake, put them on and walked directly into the steel stanchion in the center of our office nearly knocking himself out. “Something is wrong with my glasses,” I remember him saying. No doubt! They weren't his glasses! They were mine for God's sake!

But, Captain Shepard was always pleasant to me although our conversations was always ship's business, questions and answers on supply orders and costs. “At ease,” he said and everyone around relaxed, but remained standing waiting for him to speak. He ignored the SO and spoke to me, “ Clark, how many bananas are we ordering?” The cooks want one-thousand cases, I answered, although ordering food was not usually among my duties, I did the paperwork in ports like Hong Kong. “Tell them to throw out the rot and watch for spiders. Tell the British how much rot we don't accept and how many damned spiders we find.” Yes, Sir. I wrote a note for the cooks, but I knew the SO would relay the order. He too was standing by, listening. “Is the contract for Madam Chang done?” No, Sir. I just got the Gunner's list. “How many tons are we giving her?” I looked at the list; eight tons, nearly two thousand casings. He nodded. “ Clark, you take it to Madam Chang when it's (the contract) ready. Go down at the Officer's Quarterdeck. She'll be tied up there.” Yes, Sir. “Make sure she understands that she must clean the stains off the side before she paints.” Yes, Sir.

“I'll send the S-1 Division Officer with him,” the SO chimed in.

“No need,” the CO said, “Clark can handle it.” I cringed at the idea of going through the Officer's Quarterdeck alone. The Officer of the Deck, usually a young Ensign fresh out of the Naval Academy or Officer's School and not much older than I insisted on a full inspection of enlisted men, both going and coming, even when minutes apart, just to make life a little more miserable for enlisted personnel. Yes, Sir, I said, swallowing the medicine given me.

But, to my surprise, the CO was at the Quarterdeck when I arrived. He personally granted me permission to leave the ship and waived me through. I descended the gangway to Madam Chang's Junk tied to the second ladder (stairways on Navy ships are called “ladders”). She spoke pidgin English, “Aye-Ya. They send Cherry Boy.” My face, no doubt, reddened with embarrassment. The term “Cherry Boy” did that to me early on. It signified underage, too young, or too young looking and virginity. The fact was that at 21, I still could get by without shaving and nobody would know the difference. In fact, I was routinely carded buying booze until I was around 35 years old. I simply had no beard and always looked many years younger than my true age. “I get you young girl,” Madam Change went on. I shook my head, declining her offer, and handed her the contract. “What? You don' wan' young girl?” She asked, surprise in her voice. No thanks, I answered. I'm here on business. “You makie mistake.” I'd heard all this before in Saigon and Subic Bay. No, I said, once more declining her offer. “ Okie dokie. You be sorry. My girls better than Wan Chai. They too clean,” implying, of course, that her girls were clean of transmitted diseases. No thanks, I said, once more declining. She looked at the contract. “No can do. Want all first, not half now, half fini.” That's what the CO wants, I said, and shrugged. He says half of the brass up front and half when you finish. “I got to pay coolies (laborers). No can do with half first.” I shrugged again and added, he also wants you to clean the drain stains before you paint. She shrugged and I waited. “Okay,” she finally says. “ Captain send too dumb Cherry Boy. Only follow order.” I smiled, suddenly realizing that she had a point. How better to seal the deal quickly than to send someone who knew no better than to follow orders to the “t,” without equivocation. I didn't know it then, but I would intentionally follow the same strategy in all of our subsequent meetings in Hong Kong visits on other ships. “You been Hong Kong before?” No, I said, and she gave me two cards for two bars in Wan Chai. “Give this. Give you, you friends free beer.” Thanks, I grinned. “Tell Captain we paint in one hour,” meaning that her crews would start in one hour. And cleaning? I asked. “ Aye-Ya!, you American!” she said, waiving her arm to shoo me off, “ Yea, yea. We clean shit.” She stamped her Kanji seal on a copy of the contract and I stepped back on my ship's gangway just steps ahead of her crew untying her lines and getting underway for Kowloon.

The CO was waiting at the Quarterdeck as I came aboard. “Did she sign it?” Yes, Sir. She's starting in an hour. “Good job, Clark. Did she offer you a girl?” Caught off guard, I paused at the unexpected question, finally saying yes, sir. “Did you take her offer?” Err, no, sir. I thought it best not to. “Well, that's probably best, but probably a mistake too if you intend to find a girl anyway. You can trust her word as long as you don't try to cheat her. Watch out for Wan Chai girls – not only for diseases but knives or gang friends as well.” The Captain said that in such a tone of seriousness that I took it to heart. It sounded like experience talking. In fact, compared to Patereau's relatively mild experience, it turned out to be good advice.

Since my buddies were already ashore by that afternoon, I went ashore alone, first to the British Seaman's Club, as suggested, to exchange money for Hong Kong Dollars. The club was on the second floor in the British Governor's building, along with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Bank of London and a few other important financial Hong Kong companies. The importance of the building, however, didn't preclude getting “ offers” as you entered the building and climbed the stairs. You were lucky if you didn't get groped. Some thought you were lucky if you did, a freebee of sorts. And, you'd likely hear, if you met a British seaman or solder on the stairs, say, “Bloody Hell! You'd think they'd clean out these bloody whores from the Govna's building.” or “Watch your pockets, Yank. Got to run the gauntlet.” Even there, you may get your pockets picked. But, I made it through with my stuff intact.

With Hong Kong dollars in my pocket, I made my way, somewhat lost, along the streets until I found a market of various shops stretching for several blocks. Every other one was a tailor shop; Chinese tailors, Indian tailors, Thailand tailors, you name the country and there was a tailor shop for it. I ended up in an Indian tailor shop and ordered my new dress white uniform and a pair of hand-made, black shoes that would pass for uniform shoes. “You pick up Friday?” No, that's too late. We're pulling out Friday. Can you make it Thursday? So, the deal was done; about $150 Hong Kong Dollars, $40 US, got me a new hand tailored uniform and shoes. I had money to spare. I would have a new uniform for Friday's departure inspection. I didn't have to worry about rushing to wash my uniform for inspection. I spent the rest of the daylight hours shopping the other stores. There were shops for Persian rugs, china sets, carved ivory, porcelain figurines and just about any other shop you could think of along Queens Road between the ritzier downtown-financial district and Wan Chai. In a few hours I had spotted a number of restaurants, bars, shops and other stores that would call me back to the area time and time again. Hong Kong was easy to get to know.

After a few hours at the bars Madam Chang recommended, where the booze was free as promised, but the girls' drinks were not – if you wanted company, which I did, I made my way back to the pier and the water taxis in a pedicab. I went aboard the Princeton about fifteen minutes before the midnight curfew. “Hey, Clark,” I heard as soon as I entered the S-1 Compartment, “Have you seen Patereau?” Patereau was missing without permission. Absent without Leave, AWOL. Oh shit.

By 0600 the next morning I was dressed in clean dress whites and my dirty whites were in the Chinese laundry at the Quarterdeck for one-day service. Thirty minutes later I was in a large water taxi, along with thirty other Shore Patrol on our way to the Hong Kong Police Headquarters to start our fifteen-hour Shore Patrol beat. It was pure drudgery in a hot and muggy Hong Kong in August. I could walk the same distance in the same heat and humidity on liberty and not feel a thing. But, on Shore Patrol, the heat was stifling. Perhaps it was the beer on liberty that made the difference. I, and my assigned Chief Petty Officer squad leader, began our beat.

About 1000 (10:00 AM) we got a call on our Army issue M-1 walkie-talkie telling us to report to a Wan Chai address for a roof-top disturbance involving a US sailor. It was close by, a five minute walk, so we were among the first to arrive, but we waited for the Hong Kong Police to arrive, as ordered. The police lead us down an alleyway filled with running sewage and garbage to a doorway that opened to stairs to the roof. Up we went, five flights to the roof and I got my first view of Hong Kong's worst. As far as I could tell, the entire city block of four and five story buildings were covered with hanging sheets and blankets forming small cubicles for privacy – if you could call it that. Ropes and poles held the sheets up and inside each cubicle was a bed, of sorts, usually just a pile of more blankets with an occasional futon. This is where most of Hong Kong's sex trade was transacted. I thought I had seen unbearable conditions in Saigon and Subic Bay, but I had seen nothing like this. Two conflicting questions came to mind; How could someone live like this? And What the hell do they do when it rains? I was critical at 21. It took me years to understand that the causes of these conditions were not personal choices of those living in it, but oppressive poverty usually caused by the affluent who didn't care.

We made our way through several of the sheeted cubicles, each with a girl sleeping or awake and minimally dressed, until we came to the cubicle with the trouble-maker American. All of us, four policemen and six Shore Patrol, crowded into the eight by six foot cube. “Clark! Am I glad to see you!” There, sitting on the futon, was Patereau in his skivvies. “Get your uniform on,” the Chief said.

“It's gone,” Patereau said. “ Stolen. She stole it. My money too,” he pointed at the girl standing beside the futon. And, then Chinese sing-song language bounced from the lead policeman to the girl and back, shouting, sounding angry and accusing to my ear. The policeman motioned for Patereau to get up and he grabbed a towel from the rope and threw it at him. “You lucky,” he told Patereau. “You could be killed. Don't worry about money.” So, wrapped in a towel, Patereau was lead off to Police Headquarters and a half-day in jail before a Shore Patrolman was freed up long enough to take him back to ship.

This story is already too long, so just let me wrap it up by saying that Patereau was the life of the party, the instigator and joker. We may have had a few good times without him, but not the great time that we had with him. Shaunessy, “Douche” and I hung together for the rest of the Hong Kong visit, enjoying free beer, that surprisingly kept on coming, at Madam Chang's bars and the company and conversation of its girls. We did not, however, indulge any more than that and it was only Patereau that stood in Doc's line to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases and a prescription of tetracycline, the usual remedy for gonorrhea in those days. He was restricted to ship in Hawaii on the way home, but he did not lose rank. He didn't complain. His roof top adventure became a sea story for all who could tell it.

As for Madam Chang, somehow it became known on the subsequent ships I served on that I knew her, which wasn't true, at least at first. I bargained the deals to get the USS St. Francis River painted twice, in 1968 and 1969, and the USS Ajax around 1975, although by that time brass casings were not used by the Navy. The Ajax agreement was a cash transaction and it was also before I made Chief Petty Officer. The last time I saw her, in 1978, I was on the USS Lockwood after I made Senior Chief Petty Officer. On our ship's third visit to Hong Kong, I finally spotted her junk pulling into a Kowloon pier and I went there as soon as I could. As I went aboard her Junk, even more elaborately painted than years earlier, with piles of cushions on the main deck for her and her assistants, she looked at me at first as if she didn't know me. Perhaps she had forgotten.

“Aye-Ya! Cherry Boy!” She yelled and got up and gave me a hug. “Long time, no see. Where you been?” Around, Madam Chang. I looked for you several visits, but didn't see you. I pointed out the Lockwood at anchor in the harbor. “You look good. Still young. Still Cherry Boy.” she said. “Still no want girl?” No thanks, Madam. I appreciate the offer. “Aah, you too good. How you do that? You not get horny?” Not so good, Madam. I've had my share. You're my friend. I don't take advantage of friends. “ Ah. You have anchor and star now. You big shot,” she said, pointing out my Senior Chief insignia on my collar. “You come my house tonight. I pick you up. Bring you friends.” Okay. I'll be waiting.

At 1630 Madam pulled alongside the Lockwood, making the water taxis move out of the way, and I and three friends went aboard. Among my friends was a young Chinese immigrant, Chin Lim, 21 or 22 years old, a member of my division on the Lockwood, Robinson (Robbie), a Senior Chief Gunnersmate, Chief Ivan “Ivan the Terrible Cook” Chute, a Canadian and chief cook. They were all wide-eyed and excited. They, like me, had never experienced a “personal, friendly” visit to Hong Kong. We were always visiting sailors in another port-o-call, with all that implied – not quite tourists, but not quite welcome either. As we passed Kowloon's industrial and commercial piers heading southwest, Robbie whispered, “Where are we going? Are we being Shanghai'd?” No, I said. I think we're going to be surprised. As the cities of Kowloon and Hong Kong dimmed behind us, we turned into a private inlet on the Kowloon side and pulled alongside a private pier. A Mercedes limousine was waiting for us at the pier's head. Her home, at the top of a steep hill overlooking the harbor and the two cities, was the most grand I had ever seen. Huge doors were opened for us and we were lead into the an extravagant entrance, down an ornate, antique Chinese art decorated hallway to a huge dinning room and a table that could sit fifty. A huge picture window showed the view of the harbor. If I doubted before that she was one of the wealthiest people in Hong Kong, I believed it now. A home like that on that much land in crowded Hong Kong and Kowloon was extremely rare that only the wealthiest could afford.

We had a lot of fun that night, talking and drinking until two, telling sea stories in turn. Madam had brought in two dancing groups, one very exotic and the other traditional, who joined us for dinner, drinks and conversation and stories. She filled every seat at the table. I told the story of Patereau and the roof tops and him being lead around in a towel – to roaring laughter. Chin took an interest in Madam's daughter, to which Madam responded, “No. Not girl I talk about. I get you different girl.” I heard a few years later that Chin left the Navy and married her. I hope he did.

As for that first tailored Dress White Uniform, I wore it to that Friday's inspection on the flight deck in very bright sunlight. It was only after I got in ranks that I noticed that the material was so white in the bright sunlight, that it had a barely noticeable bluish tint. Captain Shepard paused in front of me as he inspected us. “Clark, where in the world did you get that uniform?” Tailored, Sir. I picked it up yesterday. He kept looking at it. Finally he asked, “Is it blue? Or White?” I don't know sir. It seems to be very white. “Well, don't wear it to inspection again,” he said. Then he looked at my shoes and walked around behind me. “I knew I'd find a scuff mark,” he said as he continued down the ranks. “Clark can't walk ten feet without scuffing his shoes. Mark his division off one point.”



Dan said...

I can't tell you how exciting to read this story. I hope you have lots more to tell and will put them in writing. I would be a 'scared shitless' 21 year old in Hong Kong. Don't know how you did it!

Jaime said...

Uncle Dave, you should write a book with all your stories. I agree with Dad, I would be scared shitless too! Thanks for sharing!