How to Be an Overly Sentimental Idiot in a Typhoon

A few days ago, Wendy from Yelp had started a contest for tickets to a party.  It was a Truth or Dare Challenge, to tell the story of the craziest, bravest thing you’ve ever done for true love or willing to do for it.  I’ve done quite a bit for each person who I’ve ever given my heart, but I can really only think of one time that I put my life in outright danger, and here’s that tale.

Hong Kong.

Those 2 words bring forth a ton of memories of all sorts.  Incredible food and experiences.  Expensive cost of living.  Shopping beyond belief. An island oasis filled with energy that can only be matched by Tokyo or New York.

I remember all that… but more importantly, I remember the incredible heat and tropical weather.

As a kid and a teen, I had visited HK a few times over the years, but until that particular summer, I had never actually lived and worked there.  Through family connections and so on, I had gotten the opportunity to work there as an intern for BBDO HK, a dream position for a mediaphile like myself.  BBDO, the legendary ad firm that came up with Delta’s “We Love to Fly and It Shows”.  This was legendary, as this was THE firm that managed the world-wide Apple Computers account, VISA, Pizza Hut and Pepsi advertising.  I got my chance to see how advertising is created from within the halls of creativity and imagination.

But that’s just trivia really.  While there were a lot of things to remember, what I remember most was the Category 5 Super Typhoon that hit Hong Kong dead on.

typhoon in hk

I had been in Typhoons before, with my friends in Taiwan.  I recall all of us in my bedroom, hanging out while waiting out the incredible winds buffeting against the concrete walls of the Chien T’an complex.  I remember walking out the next day, only to find the huge parade square completely submerged and seeing everything that wasn’t bolted or nailed down laying all over the complex.  Needless to say, it’s a bit of a scary event…. for most.

As you’ve read from The Days, I had acquired a love for lightning and thunder, and deep respect for the power of an angry storm.  I cherished it in fact, with the glee of a child that would be easily dazzled by a shiny new toy.

My friends, well, probably thought I was a bit insane, as I would every so often leave the safety of my room to look out onto the majesty of it all.  2 years later, there I was alone in Hong Kong, watching the city locking down for the most powerful storm ever to hit that island in a decade.

I had been in HK already for a good month, and I missed my then-gal (yes, HER) in Montreal.  Long distance rates back then were insanely expensive at $1-2 a minute, and mail service was terrible.  In previous years, very often I would find my postcards and letters reach her weeks after I had already returned, so writing to her seemed pointless.  And, well, since I was a Canadian with little Cantonese language skills and without any real connections except for the monthly meeting of gamers at the Mariner’s Club, I just felt terribly alone and lost.  I had always defined my identity as a knight in training to my friends and family, but in these lands, I couldn’t be that for anyone.  Then came the typhoon.

I made a quick call (all of a buck or two) and left a message with HER mom to tell her to check the HK weather reports.  And then I looked around the place where I was staying (the cousin of a family friend), grabbed a bed sheet, a disposable Kodak camera, a bunch of balloons and rushed up the fire escape stairs to the roof.

I remember hearing the wind pound against the roof door, straining to knock that door down.  I heard the hard rain hitting the ground outside like cannon fire, and the sound of patio furnishings crash against exhaust pipes and air vents.  I grabbed the bed sheet, tied it securely against my waist and then to the staircase railing.  And with a shove, I forced my way through.

The rain had hit me like a shower of gravel, hard, wet and heavy.  The wind pushed me against the door almost immediately, but I braced myself and went on.  And there I stood, waiting for that moment… one I knew that would come soon.

The storm was dead on Hong Kong by then.  The lightning turned day into night, and the thunder came forth like a thousand lions virtually at the same time.  It was terrifying.  It was incredibly stupid.  And it was glorious.  For a few brief seconds, I no longer was 5000 miles away under an asian sky, but felt a little bit closer to home as it should be.  I braced myself again against the door and sat onto the ground, all the while probably in danger of being blown off the roof or be impaled by debris.  And what I did then?  Made some balloons.

The sentimental side of me had been taken over by the ubergeek me.  Now that I was at the heart of the storm, I wondered how cool would it be to photograph some balloons flying out to sea.  Well, I wondered, though it really wasn’t the smartest thing to do.  I released the first balloon with one hand and ready to snap the shot with another.  Well…. the winds were hitting at roughly 190km at the time.  I didn’t even get a chance to aim, as the wind took the balloon and ran with it with an unearthly acceleration.  I had barely let it go, and poof… off with the winds and deep into the night and out to sea.   I tried again, and again, annnnd again…  Yep, not exactly a triumph for Terry the scientist indeed.  Finally, 10 balloons down and maybe 12 useless camera shots of the dark, I decided to take a shot just prior to letting the balloon ago and see what would happen.  Jackpot.

There weren’t many shots left on the camera, and the storm made the night seem like the whole of HK was wrapped in a black velvet cloak, but I struggled in the hope of a few pics of something.  Anything.  And with the second to last shot, I managed to get a shot of a brightly lit sky of lightning.

That was that.  I struggled to get back inside and close the door, and soaking wet as I was, I returned back to the safety of the apartment 10 stories below.

When I came back home, I had taken the now developed photos, put them in a cheap frame from Eatons, and dropped by a familiar house where someone was waiting for me.  She knew from my message that I was going to do something stupid, dangerous and utterly gallant to feel close again.

She had kept those pictures throughout the years.  Sure they’re in a different frame, and has probably been scanned and so on, but they still exist.  I know they do… because T&G has them now.  They never knew exactly why they were so important to her, but now they will soon when they get to read this.

2 months and counting until the reunion.

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Dancing in the Dark… Taiwan Style

Back in the 80s, I was honored by an invite to be a part of the Taiwanese Chinese Youth Corps cultural tour.  Every year, hundreds of up and coming Chinese kids around the world were invited to the island nation to see a little bit of Chinese culture, connect with fellow other kids our own age, and learn a few skills along the way.

Now, I was probably at the height of my “I am Canadian” phase at the time, that is, I tried to see myself as beyond being of Chinese cultural heritage (in general, I’m actually a mutt… but that’s a tale for another day).  Hell, if you asked me if I was Chinese, I probably would have said Quebecois first and foremost.  Yeah, I was definitely what we Chinese call a “banana”, yellow on the outside, white on the inside.  A little concerned, my folks suggested I give my heritage a bit of a break, and try to keep an open mind.

Well, admittedly the trip did change a lot of my impressions and thoughts on being Chinese, but there was an unexpected effect.  While I became more China-centric, I also let my guard down and became a full fledged party guy for a brief sliver of time.  It was pretty inevitable. get 1000 17, 18 and 19 yr old boys and girls and put them on the same campus with no parental supervision?  What do you think happens?

Now, I can tell you about the pub crawls, the late night dinners, sleeping in karaoke clubs, and more… but one particular night will always shine in my mind.

Kiss La Bocca. more affectionately known as just KISS, was probably the very first night club I ever went to.  There, with some beer and my new friends. I was introduced to the electrifying music of New Order, the smooth sensation of a Rum and Coke, the quiet delights of a snuggle in the shadows and the hot action of the dance floor.  It was there where my friends and I would sneak out every other night to relax after a hard day of Chinese language studies and road trips across Taiwan.  And it was there when lil’ evangelical me (back then, I was such a religious kook) had his first… well… I don’t know what to call it moment.

To understand this event, you have to understand that KISS’ layout is basically a dual level nightclub.  On the ground floor is one huge dance floor, with random lights flashing off everywhere.  At one end of the floor, there’s a large stage surrounded by huge speakers.  On the sides, there were bars, tables and chairs and so on.  The upper second floor is more of a huge veranda, surrounding 3 of the 4 sides of the room giving the crowd above a great view of the floor below.  Now that you have an idea of the room, let’s get back to the tale.

So there I was, with my friends and basically going wild on the floor below, when the music switched from techno to a romantic slow song. All of us left the dance floor, but Patricia (wow I miss her) came up to me and asked if I’d like to slow dance, and astonishingly I said yes and we embraced.  The lights shut down, and all that could be seen were couples holding close, fumbling in the dark.

It was… nice.  Her body close against mine, warmth against warmth, heads against each other.  I savored the moment between 2 good friends, and admittedly just the simple pleasure of a cute gal pressed against me.  And then… our eyes adjusted to the darkness.

It was a shock… and then some.     As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I started to see the other couples dancing cheek to cheek.  They were all close and intimate.  They were all in each others’ arms.  They were all men.

My eyes widened.  I closed them again and when they opened again… yep… it was all men.  I whispered to Pat, “Take a look around. Are we in a gay club?”  I couldn’t see her face and see her reaction, but a few seconds later she replied, “I think we are.”

Well, the tender, sweet moment between Pat and I was pretty much lost right there and then.  We started to look around us more in depth, and looked up together at the walkways above.  And again, we were shocked yet once again.  There they were, over a hundred Taiwanese pairs of eyes, all male, all watching Pat and me intensely like a Foodie on a diet staring at a 21 day aged well done Prime Rib.  We held each other tighter and continued to dance, and I asked her, “Are they watching us or just me?”  She replied, “We’re in the middle of a gay club, so I’m pretty sure just you.  I guess your ass has a lot more sex appeal than I thought.”

Remember, I was a bit evangelical and definately a little homophobic then., and if you know me, you know that my friends tend to have a sense of dry wit and humor.  Needless to say, Patricia hit the PERFECT words to freak me out and enjoyed it all the while.  So I did what any young mildly evangelical homophobic kid would do when slow dancing with a hot girl but surrounded by hundreds of gay couples and being watched from above by other men… I took the slow dance lead and lead us off the dance floor all the while Patricia was both mildly amused by my reaction and a little surprised by the whole revelation around us.  In fact, I slow danced us off the floor, didn’t even notice having left it and continued to go on right back to the safety and sanctity of my friends and our tables.

Now this is one of those cultural things that I never could have known about, just like in my previous blog about barber poles (check out The Boy, The Barber Shop and the Talented Hooker to see what I mean).  When I explained the whole event to a Tour coordinator, he spent a few minutes laughing before he could control himself long enough to breathe.  My friends and I went out on a Wednesday night, which to you or me probably wouldn’t have made much difference at all, but makes all the difference to a local Taiwan guy.  You see, Wednesdays seems to be the unofficial night for Taiwanese guys to go to night clubs, to take what they’ve learned from American videos and the past weekend, and to test out their new moves so they could impress their girlfriends on the weekend.  And being an obviously Western crew, we walked in on the one night where each and every one of them would watch and examine us to learn fresh moves from the US of A.  Being the only visitor guy who dared go on the dance floor for a slow dance, they were analyzing every little thing I was doing to see if they could improve their own skills, and thankfully not to check out my Chinese-Canadian ass.  (Thank heavens, I never thought my ass was particularly sexy.)

It was a fun night.  It was an awkward night. It was magic, and comfort, and sexy, and freaky.  And it was a night that was a step on my path to understanding on when to embrace the experience and run with it.  Thanks Patricia and all the crew of the Chien T’an 1989 Taiwan Cultural Youth Tour for memories I’ll never forget.