Photo: Eric Stone
Photo: Eric Stone
Photo: Eric Stone
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Flight of the Hornbill
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living room of the dead
wrong side of the wall
short stories



The Living Room of the Dead My ferry's at noon and I barely make it on board.

It's a lot more impressive than just any old ferry. But you wouldn't know it when it's not moving. Dirty red chipping paint covers a pockmarked hull. The lower deck is hardly visible down by the water line. It has plenty of large windows, but they're grimy, salt-encrusted and you can't see into them. The upper deck looks much the same. There isn't any visible outside deck, other than a short, flat triangle at the prow where there's an anchor and some ropes. It's a flimsy-looking thing and it bobs violently in the chop that beats against the pier. I've hardly crossed over the rolling gangplank before they shut the door and cast off.

I wobble to the only remaining seat, the middle of a row of eight in second class, the lower deck. The first class upper deck has been sold out for a month or more. It usually is on Friday. I squeeze my way past Hong Kong Chinese gamblers rubbing their sweaty palms together in anticipation of hitting the tables in Macau.

The two squared and hard looking middle-aged women on either side of the seat I'm headed for would move away if there were anywhere to go. As I step over one of their feet on my way to sit, they both turn away, to the meek-looking men sitting next to them. They mutter, but it's hard to speak softly in Cantonese. It's a loud language, and doesn't lend itself to quiet conversation. I hear the word gwailo a few times. When you're a foreigner in Hong Kong you hear it all the time. It means, "ghost person." At the moment it means me, which strikes me as funny because I'm feeling plenty alive.

I take my seat and I'm laughing. It's hard to stop. Everyone in the row turns to look at me, then they look away. I'm just another crazy ghost person, a chee-seen gwailo, and there's no accounting for us.

The ferry rocks and rolls slowly away from the dock, out into the frothy water of the world's most crowded harbor. It taxis onto its right of way and around me everyone is looking a little sick from the motion. But no one is too concerned. We all know what's going to happen next.

A few hundred yards out from the dock the jet engine roars to life. The ferry rises ten or more feet up on its foils and takes off with the same sort of scream and whine and acceleration that the other Boeing products do, the ones that fly through the air rather than over the water. I'm shoved into my seat by it and I close my eyes to enjoy the sensation. Once we're at speed it's a smooth ride, well above the waves, the thin metal foils cutting straight through the waves too fast to rock the boat. I close my eyes. I don't feel like reading.

As always, I'm looking forward to a weekend in Macau. I go there at least once a month, sometimes twice. It's one of my favorite places. I'd live there if it wasn't for the hour and a half commute each way to work and back. I might be the only person on the boat who isn't going there to gamble.

I'd learned my lesson about a month after I moved to Hong Kong. I'd decided to sit down at a blackjack table at the casino at the Ferry Terminal. I found a seat, ordered a drink and within a couple of hours of leisurely play I was up nearly four thousand Hong Kong dollars, about five hundred U.S.

We were a surprisingly congenial group at the table. Most Hong Kong Chinese gamblers don't look relaxed. They don't look like they're having fun. They take it very seriously, like playing the stock market. But this group was different. I was the only gwailo at the table, but everyone was friendly and chatty, attempting to speak in English and encouraging when I trotted out my few polite phrases in Cantonese.

But then the fat lady showed up and stood behind me. She was of a type. Loud, verbally and physically aggressive, probably in her mid-40s, squeezed into brightly colored expensive but not chic clothing that was too young for her, with her wrists, neck and the tight bun at the back of her head dripping gaudy, over-sized gold jewelry. She said something nasty about the gwailo at the table that made everyone else flinch and the person sitting to the right of me whisper "sorry" in my ear.

The table was full and she wanted my seat. She decided to take advantage of a local rule to get it. At blackjack tables in Macau, if someone walks up and plunks down double your money on your betting circle, they can control your cards. So the fat lady decided to take over my cards and lose until she'd driven me out of my chair.

She leaned hard against the back of my seat, shoving me forward against the table, making sure that her cigarette smoke drifted into my face. I pressed back against her but her leverage and weight were winning that battle. The minimum bet was fifty dollars a hand, about six dollars and fifty cents U.S. I figured the least I could do was make it expensive for her. I was willing to lose all my gains.

I put down fifty dollars. She put down a hundred. The dealer dealt me a nineteen. I would have stood pat. She hit, asking for another card. It was a seven and we went bust. She cackled and announced something nasty to the other people at the table. They just bowed their heads and that time the person on my left whispered "sorry" in my ear.

Over the course of the next hour I only won one hand, a blackjack that she couldn't do anything about. I'd lost about half my winnings, but I was smug in the knowledge that she'd lost twice as much. One of the other people at the table had bought me a drink. Several of them had started making rude remarks back at the fat lady on my behalf.

When I got another blackjack she finally gave up. She shoved me hard against the table, knocking over everyone's neatly piled stacks of chips, blew a large cloud of smoke into my face and leaned in to practically shout doo lay loh moh, "motherfucker," in my ear. I smiled and shrugged at my tablemates. The ones on either side clapped me on the back and we settled back into congenial play.

An hour later I had lost the rest of my winnings anyhow. I haven't gambled in Macau since.

What's great about Macau is its atmosphere. Hong Kong's been rich long enough to have torn down almost all the old city and rebuilt it several times over. Macau's only recently put together the money to do that, so much of the city still looks like it did a hundred years ago. There's even a few buildings left from three or four hundred years ago.

It's the last remaining Portuguese colony. It was founded nearly three hundred years before Hong Kong and for the first half of its history was the richest, most prosperous port on this part of China's coast. Then the harbor, at the mouth of the Pearl River, silted up and the ships became larger at the same time so they needed a deeper port. By the late 1800s Hong Kong had taken over as the thriving city around here and Macau was a sleepy backwater with a reputation for vice.

I have plenty of vices other than gambling for Macau to indulge. I spend aimless happy weekends strolling its neighborhoods with my camera. I'll stop for an espresso here, a cup of tea there, a Chinese snack or a long wine-soaked Portuguese lunch. I'll walk along the beach, the waterfront, through gardens and ancient temple grounds. I'll nap in the late afternoon, walk around some more, have a massage. There are great restaurants for dinner. After that the nightlife runs from silly to sordid and I like it all.

Just before we dock my row drains out quickly. It seems like everyone on the ferry other than me is battling for position at the exit doors. The ferry lists far to the right and I can both feel and hear it smacking against the huge, old tar-soaked wooden pylons. Everyone wants to be first down the gangway, first through the immigration booths and first into taxis to the casinos. As the crowd jostles and heaves against the still closed doors, people've already begun to make bets, shouting out odds and wagers on who's going to win, who's going to lose, how much and anything else where there's an element of chance.

I stay put. I'm in no rush. Not enough of one to risk being trampled underfoot anyway.

Finally the ferry rolls upright and I get out without being pushed or shoved even once. I head toward the overpass that leads to the casino and entertainment mall across from the terminal, when someone calls my name.

"Ray, Ray Sharp."

I look around and see a colleague striding up to me fast. He's in a crisply cut, dark suit. He looks out of place in Macau and I'm not happy to see him.

"Fred." He hates it when I call him Fred. I wouldn't dare call him Freddie or he'd probably hit me and he's a lot bigger than I am. Frederick Lyons IV is the finance editor of Asian Industry and the eldest son of an old and esteemed banking family back in England. I don't know how he got the job. When I signed on as deputy editor he was already firmly entrenched. The guy I replaced warned me about him; he's not very bright and he's accustomed to having other people do all his dirty work for him.

But he dresses well, better than most bankers. I doubt he even owns any socks that haven't been handmade by the finest shop on Saville Row back in London. His hair is perfect - black with just the right dignified amount of gray and coifed by a barber who takes a small suite in the Mandarin Hotel once a month to service his exclusive clientele. He's a perfect example of the acronym FILTH. It means "Failed In London, Try Hong Kong."

He irritates the hell out of me and since I'm his boss, I'm also a thorn in his side. Sometimes I get a rather unfortunate kick out of, as he might say, taking the piss out of him. At least he's been well trained since birth to remain civil.

He winces and puts the hand he's offered away when I don't shake it. "What're you doing here?"

"Do you have a minute? Can we go somewhere and talk?"

He looks upset about something. I actually feel a twinge of sympathy for him. There's an Italian restaurant across the street. It's got great little sandwiches and coffee. It's noon, early for lunch in Macau, so it won't be busy.

I order two single espressos. For some reason I don't understand that's better than one double. Fred doesn't seem like the sort of guy who'd drink during the day, but that's what he wants.

"Gin and tonic if you please. Boodles, no ice, no lime." The waitress raises an eyebrow. I doubt she's shocked he's ordering booze, maybe it's the posh accent, the suit. She doesn't think he looks the type either. But she takes the order and is back with it quick.

"You know Fred, you really ought to lay in a stock of white linen suits. You're the most colonial guy I know. That's the official drink of the Empire, isn't it?"

He winces again, but it's just reflex. He knows how I mean it, but he probably doesn't even regard it as a slight. The Empire is not something he thinks his people need to be ashamed of. To the contrary, the world would be a better, more civilized place if only·blah blah blah. I've heard it. I have a lot less patience for it than he seems to have for me. Then again, he's not my boss.

I throw back one of the small cups of strong, bitter brew. "Sorry, I didn't mean anything by it, you know me."

He waves it off but my saying "sorry" probably needles him more than anything else I've said. The Brits say it to each other all the time, to the point where it's completely meaningless. But it seems to bother them when someone else uses it, like I ought to fork over a royalty payment with each utterance.

"Raymond." He knows I hate being called Raymond, even more than Mr. Sharp. It brings a smile to my face that he says it. ÎThatta boy,' I think to myself.

"What do you know about Macau?"

"Why Fred, you thinking of doing a story on it? Could be pretty interesting although the really juicy stuff is all underground and you'd probably end up dead just from asking too many questions before you get the story."

Macau makes most of its money from legalized gambling, prostitution, not zealously enforcing drug laws and sticking "Made in Macau" labels on everything from toys to vibrators to t-shirts that are really made in China but need to get into the U.S. on some other country's import quota. The people making all that money need somewhere legit to park their gains. So lately there's been a rash of building. New housing and office blocks, ugly concrete and glass edifices, most with high vacancy rates, are springing up like weeds after a hard spring rain. It would be an interesting story for a finance writer. Fred isn't the right guy to do it.

"No, no story. What do you know about prostitution here?"

"I didn't think you were into that. I can recommend a few places."

"I'm certain that you can. It's not that. It's my younger brother Edward. He seems to have gone potty over some Russian harlot who works in one of the nightclubs."

"Potty? That means something else in American. Lucky I speak some British."

"It is not funny. He has been spending most of his time here and has been lavishing gifts upon her. He even gave her our grandmother's engagement ring. Our father is concerned. His colleagues are disturbed. This is not simply a small fling. It is most inappropriate. She is, after all, a prostitute. He has been speaking of an attempt to buy her out from under her contract. That does not sound good, whatever it means."

"Okay, it's not funny. Ed's a lawyer isn't he?"

"A barrister, yes. A criminal defense attorney. He had a perfectly good job with the government as a prosecutor but he seems to have gone soft. All he desires now is to defend the dregs of society."

"By that I take it you mean indigent Chinese who're dragged into English-speaking courts and raked over the coals by men from the right schools in Britain wearing dirty, silly wigs."

"Without us there would be anarchy here, no order, no courts, no economy. There might even be communism. I don't see how you can·"

"Okay, okay, let's argue the benefits of empire some other time. Your brother's in love with a prostitute, what do you want me to do about it?"

"I understand that you know Macau. You come here a lot. I hear you speaking about it. Perhaps you know someone I can talk to, or which of the authorities would be most amenable to my entreaties."

"I was wondering what you were doing here. When did you get here? You haven't done anything yet, haven't talked to anyone have you?"

"No, I came last night. I tried speaking with Edward but he wouldn't listen to me. This morning I didn't know who to speak to. I was preparing to take the jetfoil back to Hong Kong when I saw you just now."

"That's good, really, whatever you do, you don't want to speak to any authorities. Your brother won't mean much of anything to them, not even to the honest ones. Russian prostitutes though are very big business. At best you'll just get laughed out of someone's office. At worst, it could be dangerous."

"Well I must do something. What is it that I can?"

"Maybe it isn't such a bad thing. Prostitutes, even Russian ones, are people too. They can fall in love with other people just like the rest of us. Maybe she really does love your brother. Maybe she's a great girl in a lousy job."

"The woman is a whore. It is an embarrassment to my family and to his firm. I also do not know what this business is of him buying her out of her contract. Are people really still bought and sold? What sort of people are they?"

He disgusts me, so it hurts even more to know he's right. At least partially right. There's reason for worry. The Russian mafia, working with Chinese triad groups and some of the more venal higher ups in China's People's Liberation Army, control the flow of Russian women in and out of brothels in China and Macau. They make a lot of money at it and they're notoriously brutal about maintaining their market share and protecting their assets. If Ed starts sticking his nose into their business, or Fred starts asking the wrong questions of the wrong people, things will get really ugly, really fast.

"Okay, Fred, don't do anything about it now. I've got a girlfriend in Jakarta who used to work in a nightclub in Macau."

He raises his verdant, expansive but neatly trimmed eyebrows high onto his patrician forehead and begins to open his mouth. I put up a hand to stop him speaking.

"I'll call her when I get to my hotel. Maybe she can give me a name or two of people to talk to. She was involved with these people. She might know if there's any way to deal with them. Let me see if there's anything I can do, anyone worth talking to. I can't promise anything."

"I suppose that is a good idea. Thank you. Will you call me when you find out anything?"

"I'm not getting back until late Sunday night. I'll see you in the office Monday." He tells me as much as he can about his brother's girlfriend. It isn't much other than the name of the nightclub she works in and her name, Marta.

I was in a good mood before this. The whole thing pisses me off for a lot of reasons, a lot of which come down to Irina. I'm in love with her, dammit. And she lives in Indonesia so I don't get to see her as much as I'd like. And she makes a good living fucking guys for money and I'm not in any position to consider that anything other than her own damn business. At least she's independent, no pimp, no mafia, she's her own boss, she works when she wants. Part of me even kind of likes it. It keeps things at arms length, keeps me independent too. I've never been any good at relationships. I've screwed up almost all of them. This one seems to be working out okay so far.

But I'd like to see her more often than I do. I wish she felt she had some other way to make good money. Sometimes the whole thing makes me mad. This is one of those times.

Ed sounds like a good guy. Why the hell shouldn't he be happy? For that matter why shouldn't Marta? Why shouldn't I? It's assholes like Fred and the mafia that get in the way of that.

Fred starts to say something more and I don't want to hear it. I tell him to go catch his ferry.

© Eric Stone