Wan Chai was the seedy bar-ridden area of Hong Kong on the Island. It was where both British and American sailors would go out drinking at night and where they would all too often get into drunken fights. It was also a forbidden fruit in the sense that I was expressly forbidden from going there at night by my parents over concerns that it was too dangerous. In reality it wasn’t really that bad. It looked more or less like a street you would picture in downtown Hong Kong: wide, garbage on the streets, crowded and with a plethora of large, multicoloured neon signs piercing the dark of the night, with animated Chinese characters. There was this main street in Wan Chai whose name escapes me now, but it looked just like I have just described, but in addition it was punctuated by above ground and below ground bars and nightclubs. Many of these had crowds spilling out onto the streets.
The legal drinking age in Hong Kong at that time was 18, just like in the UK. In addition, every person in Hong Kong above a very young age was required to carry photo ID on them at all times in case any police approached them to enquire about their legal status. You see, Hong Kong at that time was a very popular destination for refugees, given the political situation in China and other Southeast Asian countries in the 1980’s. This coupled, with the fact that it had a legendary reputation as the place to make it big, even though this was often far from the reality for many who settled there. Hong Kong simply didn’t have the space to accommodate all these people, so they needed to come up with a system to make sure that only those who were approved to live there actually got to stay.
That being said, getting into bars there was not very difficult for us as 14, 15 and 16 year olds. Sure the bouncers would tell you that you were too young and you couldn’t be there, but then would make no attempt to prevent you from coming in as you walked right past them. Ex-pat teenagers with nothing better to do on a Friday or Saturday night and plenty of disposable income given to them by their guilt-ridden parents were simply too good a revenue source for most bar and club owners to pass up. Indeed many of these places would entice teens with their infamous “beer Buffet” nights, where $25 HK, which at the time was about $5 CDN would buy you all the beer you could drink. Needless to say, the police would conduct regular raids to flush out the underage teens. But soon after these places would be back up and running and serving teens once again.
In my last year before I left the colony to return to Canada, I went to school at the Canadian Overseas Secondary School (COSS). On a social level it was the best time of the three years that I spent in Hong Kong. The reason was that my classmates were predominantly all local Chinese or Indian students who were there to get the highest GPA’s that they could in Canadian recognized courses, so that they would be able to go to Canadian universities. I managed to make quite a few friends there, none of which I kept in touch with unfortunately once I came back to Canada. Two of those friends were Suhail and Gianluca. Suhail was a tall man from Pakistan, who had a reputation as a womanizer, but was actually a very nice guy when you got to know him. It was Suhail that introduced me to the amazing flavour of Chai tea, which he would always have served to him at his place with copious amounts of milk and sugar. He was at least 6 feet tall when we were 16 and looked like a fully grown man. Gianluca was also a very tall Italian guy who only spoke broken English, but enough so that we could understand each other.
One Saturday night, I was invited to Suhail’s place for a sleepover. Gianluca was to join us. Suhail lived over on the Island, while we lived in the New Territories, which was near the border with Mainland China. Mom and dad had no issues with me going over, provided that I gave them Suhail’s phone number and address, which I did. By now I had figured out that even though my parents could call the number I gave them, they never had up until now and so it was highly unlikely that they would.
I arrived at Suhail’s around dinner time after my usual Saturday routine of buying stamps, playing video games and eating out, and his mother served us a lovely vegetarian dinner with the usual Chai tea afterwards. Unlike westerners like myself who were accustomed to eating at a dining table, Suhail and my other Indian friends usually sat on the floor to eat. It took some getting used to, but I actually came to enjoy it quite a bit. After dinner we decided that we would go out – to Wan Chai! Suhail said he could easily get us into any club we wanted. We even talked of going to hit on girls. Who knew where the night might take us? I was aware of the fact that I would be breaking my father’s rule if I went, but I really wanted to go and decided to take the chance. So around 10pm, we ventured out. We went into and out of a lot of different bars as we made our way down the main road. Then we came to a street corner that had a large underground club right at the street corner. There were large red neon signs at street level that enticed us to make our way onto the steps that lead to the club below. So after much discussion at the street corner, we decided to give this place a try.
We descended the concrete steps past a few expats, dressed in the popular 80’s garb of white slacks, button down monotone shirts festooned with slender 1 inch pointed, dark coloured neckties. I think at the time one of the most popular combinations was white pants, pink shirt and black tie. Anyway, we get to these large, heavy wooden double doors and open them to find no bouncers! We look in and see a hazy, smoke filled room, spilling over with the sounds of dozens of conversations coming from what must have been at least 20 different tables, all packed with young men drinking. The tables were large wooden rectangular tables that looked like they sat about six or seven guys on each side. As we made our way cautiously past the first two tables – one each to our left and right, a large group of American sailors sitting at the third table to our left called out to us and motioned us over. After eagerly introducing themselves as American sailors, they asked us if we wanted to join them at their table. We agreed and sat down. I was at the end of the table and looking right at me was a guy who looked like Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. He was dressed from head to toe in studded leather, sported a Mohawk and had several piercings in his face. He looked right at me and a wide grin escaped his face as he held up his hand to shake mine. “I’m Ronnie! I’m going to be the next President of the United States.”. I laughed out loud at the absurdity of what he just said. “No, I’m serious!” He said, his smile gradually disappearing and being replaced by a serious look that could easily be interpreted as the look of someone who was about to take offense.
To understand why I had laughed, you have to understand that Ronald Reagan was the President at the time Ronnie uttered those words. That, and the fact that this guy basically looked like a punk rocker and not the clean cut, immaculately uniformed guy from “An Officer and a Gentleman” that we all imagine when we think of an American sailor. Oh No! I thought. I’ve just offended this guy. I hope this doesn’t start a fight. As I think this I imagine the ensuing bar room brawl, just like you see on the movies, with bottles being broken on people’s heads and chairs being smashed on people’s backs. I am looking right at Ronnie’s now serious expression as I imagine this. Within a few seconds, his serious look turns to a smile again as he says. “I’m only kidding man! Do you really think anyone would vote for me?”. Then, over what seemed like pint after pint of beer, Ronnie proceeded to regale me with tales of his exploits as a sailor. I was fascinated as I listened to him tell me about the places where he served, which among other places included the Philippines, South Korea and Hong Kong, where he was now.
After he was done the guys at the table asked us what we were doing out in the bars given how young we were. We told them about what it was like to live in Hong Kong, and how there wasn’t much to do there except go out and drink. The guys were quite sympathetic, saying that they enjoyed visiting but didn’t think they could handle this place as teens. Pretty soon the conversation turned to what we were doing later on and were we planning on picking up any girls. I’m not sure what Suhail said, but I know he would have quite confidently told them about his prowess with the women. Gianluca just sat there smiling and chiming in occasionally when his broken English would permit. I got ready to try and fake a confident response, but Ronnie picked up on my lack of confidence and reached across the table and grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me as he exclaimed “We’ve got to get this boy laid!”. Yeahhh sure thing, I thought. Little did they know...
As much fun as we were having, we eventually decided that it would be best for us to go, as the guys were getting very drunk now and we did not want to find ourselves in the middle of any fights. So we thanked them for their friendliness and for the drinks they bought us and got up to leave. We would visit one other bar before we all got tired and just decided to go back to Suhail’s to crash. It was one experience that changed my perception of the sailors from a bunch of aggressive rowdy men to fun guys who were also friendly to a group of teens who they knew were not supposed to be where they were. Ronnie never did make president, but every now and then I have found myself wondering what became of him.