The Hong Kong Rugby 7’s

Yesterday I went to the 2017 Hong Kong Rugby 7’s, played in Hong Kong Stadium in Causeway Bay. It is one of the most popular sporting events in Asia. Thousands of fans, many dressed in costumes, party in the stands as teams from all over the world compete on the pitch.

In an excerpt from a book that I am currently writing, two Japanese twins, sisters of the most feared Yakuza oyabun in Japan, are in a Hong Kong coffee shop discussing Midori’s plan to poison the fans at the Rugby 7’s. Midori, who fantasies that she can reanimate the dead, has developed a poison that causes a catatonic trance, making it appear that the victim has died and is coming back to life:

Murasaki and Midori, after leaving the museum, walked down the hill and entered Heavenly Grounds, a coffee shop so narrow that if a Great Dane stood in the middle he would hit either wall with his wagging tail. The women ordered espressos.

“You must think that I am crazy, Murasaki-san,” Midori said, the rich, almost-burned-beans aroma of the espresso wafting up from the white porcelain cups on the table between them. “I told you that I plan to poison people and then that when they wake up I will take credit for resurrecting them. However, I do know that after they twitch a bit and show signs of coming back to life that then they will die for real.” Midori said as she took a delicate sip. She repeated, “I know that.”

“Good, sister, I am very glad to hear that. I was thinking that your grasp of reality had slipped a bit,” Murasaki said. “So, why do you want to do it then?”

“For my own entertainment. It is like fantasy play,” Midori shrugged. She paused. “No, sorry, that is not true, dear sister. I am afraid that I am becoming one of those people who tells a lie so much that they believe it themselves.”

“So what is the truth then, Midori-san?” Murasaki asked, taking a sip of her coffee.

“The truth is that I want Brother to know what I have done and realize that he never showed me the love I deserve. I want him to feel bad about that. That is the truth. Am I a bad person, Murasaki-san?”

“No, no, not at all. You deserve Brother’s love, dear sister. I mean, after all, you are the Pretty Woman,” Murasaki said, sipping from the porcelain cup.

“Thank you. Glad that you understand,” Midori said. “Shall I tell you what I am planning to do once I perfect my formula? How I plan to bring my acts to the attention of Brother?”

“Please do, dear sister,” Murasaki said.

Midori settled back into the chair and adopted a tone of voice as if she was reciting a bedtime tale to a young girl. Her eyes got wide as she spoke. “OK, listen carefully, dear sister. The biggest sporting event in Asia happens every March in Hong Kong: The Hong Kong Rugby Sevens. Hong Kong Stadium in Causeway Bay fills up with thousands of fans. You know what they all have in common, dear sister?”

“What?” Murasaki asked.

“They all are drinking beer,” Midori answered. She leaned forward towards her identical twin. “So, what if my formula was somehow put into their beer? Could you imagine if a whole stadium of people dropped dead in front of the media? Every major TV station in the world will already be filming the tournament!”

“You would dose an entire stadium of people?” Murasaki asked.

“Well, probably not the whole stadium,” Midori said. “I would have beautiful woman in bikinis with big breasts strutting through the crowd with trays of poisoned beer. A sign hanging on the tray would say ‘Free Beer’, like a promotion.”

“Brilliant, sister! They would go fast,” Murasaki said.

“Yes. As the media is filming the tragic event, people dropping dead suddenly at the Sevens, a diminutive Japanese woman will walk out onto the rugby field. She raises her hands. She screams at the heavens! She howls! She pulls her hair! She yells, ‘Arise! Arise from the dead! I am the Animator!’ Can you picture it, Murasaki-san?” Midori said.

“Yes, I can see you, beautiful sister. Every news camera in the world is recording your performance,” Murasaki said.

Midori continued, “Yes! Suddenly in the stands dead bodies start to twitch. Eyes start to flutter open. The dead come back to life! The living cheer loudly. The woman strolls to the NHK cameraman and whispers, ‘I am Midori. I am the Animator. The NHK announcer will then announce my name and all of Japan hears it. Brother is watching. He is overwhelmed with emotion.”

“But then the reanimated fans will fall dead for real. What then, dear sister?” Murasaki asked.

“The Japanese woman on the rugby field will fall to her knees as NHK draws in for a close up. She removes a concealed knife from beneath her dress. She looks slowly, poignantly, at the long silver blade. The late afternoon sun glints off the metal. She then plunges it into her belly. Brother is struck as if the knife has been stuck in his own stomach. He watches in horror. As the woman grimaces in pain, another woman, her identical twin, walks up behind her, and with one quick strike decapitates her. Seppuku! The most touching seppukuever! Brother screams in anguish.”

“So I am in this drama too cutting off your head? Won’t the police arrest me after you are dead? Won’t I be blamed for all the deaths in the stadium then?” Murasaki asked, the porcelain cup vibrating like a tuning fork as she put it down in the saucer.

“There you go, only thinking of yourself again!” Midori hissed. “You are such a selfish bitch! You have always hated me!”

“No, no! I was just asking for the details. Please don’t mind my stupidity, dear sister.” Murasaki applauded. “Brilliant performance, my sister! That would truly be art. You are such the Pretty Woman!”

Midori sat back and beamed a broad, crooked-tooth smile. “I love you, dear sister.”

Age Of Empires

The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently running an exhibition called ‘Age Of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties’. The exhibit features a 2,000-year old burial suit made of jade, just like the one in my book ‘A Devil in Hong Kong’. A New York Times article on the exhibit describes the Chinese emperors’ attitude about death as ‘a power nap from which he would awaken refreshed in a tomb that was like an earthy home, but better, more fun’.

In ‘A Devil in Hong Kong’ the history of the burial suit of the Han Emperor Wu Di is tracked from its manufacture, its theft from Wu Di’s tomb by grave robbers, its passing from one hand to another through a variety of Asian countries over the centuries, it’s disappearance from a Hong Kong auction, and then the search throughout contemporary Asia, leaving a trail of bodies behind.

Myanmar’s Rohingya Minority

A few days ago Myanmar leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the United Nations on the plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim minority, the Rohingyas. The over 1 million Rohingyas living in Myanmar are treated as illegal immigrants. About 120,000 of the minority group are currently held in squalid camps in the jungle to be sold into slavery and bondage.

In my novel, ‘A Devil In Hong Kong’, I describe the persecution of the Rohingyas when Kotaro, pursued by the Myanmar police, joins a group of human traffickers to escape the country. As the traffickers lead Kotaro through the thick jungle of the Myanmar-Thai border he encounters a group of Rohingyas held as prisoners by the traffickers. Below is an excerpt from that chapter:


Kotaro awoke at dawn to a glorious jungle sunrise, fractured golden rays streaming through palm fronds, a smoky mist hugging the ground. Bird songs echoed through the trees, and every so often the screech of a Macaque monkey pierced the canopy.

Aung was already up and boiling water. As Kotaro eased himself out of his hammock he saw a procession of people enter the camp. They moved silently, as if they were ghosts. In the center of the group were seven haggard individuals, five men and two women. They looked undernourished and were filthy as if they had been living in the muck of the jungle for a long time. They were surrounded by a group of six men with semi-automatic weapons. The men with the rifles made the others squat in a tight circle. They then seated themselves cross-legged around Aung’s fire, their rifles across their laps.

Aung walked over to Kotaro with a cup of tea in each hand. Handing one cup to Kotaro he said, “They are from the Rohingya minority, from northeast Myanmar. We are reuniting them with their loved ones. Please excuse me while I do some business.”

Aung walked back to the fire and jovially engaged the men with rifles in conversation.

These are not immigrants being rescued and reunited with loved ones. These are prisoners! Kotaro thought. The pig was right. I have been blind!

Kotaro noted that the group of men and Aung were not speaking the Burmese tongue that he had gotten used to hearing. He thought that they might be speaking Thai. He took out his mobile telephone and started taking pictures, careful to make sure that the group around the fire did not notice.

“Hey, Kotaro!” Kotaro spun, hiding the phone. Aung was standing behind him. “We’ll leave in about fifteen minutes.”

“Sure. Was that Thai that you were speaking with your friends?” Kotaro asked.

“Friends? Oh, those guys. Yes. My mother was Thai, my dad Burmese.”

“I’ll help clean up,” Kotaro said. He went over to the fire and kneeled next to where Aung had left his cup on the ground. Very carefully Kotaro picked up the cup holding it only at the bottom. With his other hand he scooped up some ash from the perimeter of the fire pit. He then stood up and, making sure no one noticed him, walked to where he was hidden from the group by bushes. He sprinkled the ash on Aung’s cup and then gently blew. Ha, great! A fingerprint! Kotaro photographed the print.

Along with a short synopsis of his journey from Yangon, Kotaro sent the photos of the men with rifles, Aung, the Rohingya, and the fingerprint to Angela. Angela, could you please see if you can identify anyone here?

The group moved out, heading east towards the Gulf of Thailand. Aung and Kotaro took up the lead, the Rohingya shuffled behind, and the men with guns marched at the rear. From the trees above tropical birds, unseen, screeched admonitions at them as they hiked. Aung said to Kotaro, “I should tell you about the Weasel.”

“The Weasel?” Kotaro asked.

“Yes, the Weasel. He is the captain of the boat that will take you to Hong Kong. His appearance can be a bit shocking. He is from an Indonesian minority tribe that files their teeth to sharp points.” Aung said. “I believe that they think that it makes them look fierce.”

“You’re kidding. Sounds like something from the Stone Age,” Kotaro said. He was limping from his leg wound, trying to avoid stepping in the many puddles from the frequent rain.

Aung continued, “On top of that, however, the Weasel must have had some sort of accident, or something, that badly scarred his face. All chopped up. I don’t know the story, but his face is a mess. Somebody thought that the disfigured face and pointy teeth made him look like a weasel, and the name stuck.”

“OK, thanks for the warning. I will not show surprise at his appearance when I meet him so as not to hurt his feelings,” Kotaro said.

“Ha!” Aung laughed loudly, “The Weasel having feelings? That is really funny, Kotaro!”

After two more hours they arrived at the Gulf of Thailand. Steep jungle cliffs with dark green vegetation clinging to black rocky outcroppings descended to narrow slivers of sandy beaches below. Aung found a switchback trail down to the sand where a rickety wooden pier extended about one hundred feet across the crystalline water. At the end of the pier, where the water was deeper, the color of the ocean was a dark turquoise blue. There a boat bobbed in the water. Wide at the beam, chipped blue paint on the hull, and a white cabin on the deck, it was an old boat. It had not aged gracefully. Kotaro thought that it looked too small for a group of their size.

As they walked down the uneven slats of the old pier a man walked across the gangway of the boat to meet them. He was hunched slightly and wore a filthy white T-shirt. As they got closer and the man’s features came into focus, Kotaro thought, Yaa, I can see why Aung warned me!

“Kotaro, meet the Weasel,” Aung said when they were abreast of the man.

Kotaro said, “Nice to meet you, Captain Weasel.”

The Weasel sniffed loudly through his disfigured nose. It was a strange, wet sound, “gnugh, gnugh, gnugh.” His smile showed teeth that a shark would be proud of.

“Oh, yeah, one more thing, Kotaro,” Aung said. “The Weasel can’t talk, something to do with that accident. He just makes that sniffing noise through his nose.”

“OK.” Kotaro kept smiling.

“Gnugh, gnugh, gnugh,” the Weasel sniffed, and then went to take charge of the prisoners. The Rohingya were herded below deck.

Aung said to Kotaro, “I am heading back to Myanmar now. I am leaving you in the hands of the Weasel.”

“Thank you so much for getting me out of Myanmar, Aung. I really appreciate it. Probably would be dead by now if it weren’t for you.”

“My pleasure, Kotaro. Safe journeys.” Aung turned and headed back across the sand towards the steep cliff and the jungle.

Kotaro got on the boat. The Weasel pointed towards the white cabin, “Gnugh, gnugh, gnugh.”

“I go in there?” Kotaro asked.

“The Weasel flashed his pointy-tooth smile, shook his head ‘yes’, and said “Gnugh, gnugh, gnugh.”

The cabin had two rows of wooden benches and a table. There was a small galley that stunk of fish oil and diesel. A narrow run of steep wooden stairs ascended to the bridge above the galley. Weasel went up to the bridge and Kotaro sat down on one of the benches. He looked out of the scratched window as the boat motored away from the pier and out into the Gulf. From his position on the bench Kotaro could see the Weasel’s back up on the bridge. He called up to him, “Hey, Weasel, Aung said that it’s a two day journey to Hong Kong. Is that correct?”

“Gnugh, gnugh, gnugh.” The Weasel shook his head ‘no’ and held up three fingers.

Kotaro’s wounded leg throbbed in pain. He lay down on the bench and dozed off. When he awoke it was nighttime and a plate of rice with dried fish had been placed on the table in front of him. The drone of the diesel engines provided a constant and monotonous reverberation in the background.

On the morning of the third day Kotaro went out on deck. They had just passed Hainan Island. He felt a vibration in his pocket and pulled out his mobile. It was an e-mail from Angela,

Kotaro, the fingerprints that you sent are from a Chatchai Aung. He is a very bad man, and has done jail time in the U.S. for drug smuggling. The people in the pictures are Rohingya migrants. The Rohingya are a minority from northeast Myanmar who are horribly persecuted by the Burmese. To flee Myanmar and escape the persecution they pay Thai smugglers to get them out. However, the smugglers hold them in jungle camps in inhuman conditions until their families pay a ransom. They are beaten, sometimes to death, raped, and starved. If the ransom is not paid they are sold into slavery to work on Thai fishing boats. Kotaro, you are in a very dangerous situation. Get out of there!

As Kotaro read Angela’s e-mail he suddenly felt a pinprick in his arm and a hot sensation spreading through his limb. He turned to see the Weasel standing next to him, grinning his pointy-tooth smile and pushing down the plunger of a hypodermic needle protruding from his arm. The last thing Kotaro heard before the world went black was, “Gnugh, gnugh, gnugh.”

On Writing and the Martial Arts

My stories revolve around seriously psychotic bad guys doing very gruesome things. Even my good guys can be outlandish. I therefore often get the question, “Where do the crazy things that you write about come from?” A fair question: particularly from those who know me as an architect rather than as an author.

I think that I have always been fascinated with the idea that just below the surface, hidden in the normalcy of everyday life, lurks a world of extreme danger: monsters and demons lying in wait like saltwater crocodiles concealed in muddy water. One of my favorite authors is Stephen King. I love the way that he is able to pull the readers convincingly into a world that is not safe.

I don’t fear these concealed boogiemen of my imagination. Instead I actually fear the normalcy of everyday life, that there really isn’t a world beyond full of poisonous serpents and fanged wraiths. Growing up I imagined encounters with this other world and felt that I should train myself to be prepared. Consequently the martial arts have always had an attraction for me. I feel that my martial arts background is interconnected with my writing.

My family moved from Brooklyn to Japan when I was six years old and I grew up watching samurai movies on black and white television. The plot was fairly standardized. A lone samurai, dressed in a modest kimono, straw sandals on his feet, would stroll down a dirt path through the forest with his two swords thrust in the obi sash around his waist. Suddenly twenty brigands would step out of the trees where they had been lying in wait, nervously pointing their swords and demanding the samurai’s money pouch. The samurai stays calm, registers no surprise. He says nothing. He just sneers (If Clint Eastwood was Japanese he would have made the perfect samurai hero). One by one the brigands attack. (I never figured out why they never attacked all at once.) The samurai spins through his attackers, his two swords flashing silver as his adversaries fall, slicing and dicing his way through the brigands. Within minutes they all lie dead around him, he sheaths his swords, and with one last sneer continues his stroll. I wanted to be that guy! He could most definitely handle the goblins of my fantasies.

I enrolled in my first judo class at the age of fourteen. I would take the bright orange Chuo Line train from Higashi Koganei where we lived to Suidobashi in downtown Tokyo to the Kodokan, the mecca of judo. I could feel the spirit of the sport in the building. The structure spoke to me, of judo’s origins by Jigoro Kano and the development of budo, and this may have also been where I first became interested in architecture. I remember the smell of the tatami mats that we practiced on.

This was the beginning of my journey in the martial arts, and the first thing that I learned was that to do a few techniques well was better than to learn a lot of techniques so-so. My favorite technique was called osotogari, which I would practice over and over again. Grabbing an opponent’s gi, I would pull him towards me. He would instinctively pull back, and I would follow, using his momentum, stepping behind him with my left leg and sweeping his feet with my right. Smack, he would fall to the mat, making a noise like a felled tree as he slapped the tatami to break his fall. I was that samurai guy! I was hooked on martial arts.

As I grew older I went from Judo to Shotokan Karate, learning the techniques of punching, kicking, and generating power with body mechanics. I moved back to the U.S. my last year of high school and stopped practicing martial arts until the age of thirty when I enrolled in a Taekwondo class, starting out as a white belt again. Taekwondo taught me to stay relaxed and loose in combat, control my breathing, able to snap a punch into an opponent without putting brakes on my muscles by tightening up. I earned a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo, and the lessons that I learned from practicing are applicable to almost everything that I do in life.

In my novels I write about a world of dangerous villains hiding just beneath the surface of everyday life: the psychotic Japanese doctor who performs horrific experiments at Unit 731 in ‘The Journal of Rabbi Levy Wang’, the serial killer who cannibalizes Indonesian domestic helpers in ‘The Witch of Wanchai’, and in my soon-to-be-released ‘A Devil in Hong Kong’ an assassin with a Maori tattoo on his face and a desire to turn his corpses into art. The worlds that I create are not safe, not one little bit. The heroes in my books are ‘that samurai guy’; people who can persevere through amazing odds, stay calm when defeat seems imminent, and most of all, can kick some serious ass. My writing explores that unsafe world lurking in the underbrush just beyond normalcy. I invite my readers to journey with me, to be ‘that guy’, to perform a perfect osotogari when it seems like the bad guys will win out.

A Fascination With Bareknuckle Boxing

I have just put the finishing touches on my third novel, ‘A Devil In Hong Kong’, and so I am opening myself up to inspiration for my next book. The way that I write is unpremeditated. I allow an interesting aspect of the world that crosses my path and which captures my attention to flow into a story. Lately I have become fascinated with bareknuckle boxing.

I have been watching giant English and Irish men knock each other senseless on BKF fights on YouTube. The fights usually are held in trailer parks, vacant lots, or in pubs. An area smaller than a conventional boxing ring is cordoned off with bales of hay in a pub. Two steps and you are in the center of the ring, essentially toe-to-toe. Muhammad Ali would have no room to float like a butterfly in a bareknuckle ring. My writing muse is telling me that this brutal sport might have the threads to be woven into a tale!

In ‘The Witch of Wanchai’ I talk about the Burmese sport of lethwei, which is also bareknuckle. Other than the fact that lethwei fighters use elbows, knees, and kicks as well as fists, there are other marked differences between lethwei and English BKF. Lethwei fighters are not huge men, usually in the range of 150 pounds, if that. Their bodies are strung with taut muscles, not an eyedropper-full of fat on them. BKF fighters, on the other hand, for the most part have bodies that a hippopotamus would be proud of. It is rare to see one that would not break the average bathroom scale. (A personal observation from my YouTube viewing: the fatter BKF fighters are almost always the victors. Evidently in BKF huge girth equals awesomeness?)

I suspected that the BKF fighter’s mammothness is fuelled by a steady diet of Guinness, and this was confirmed by watching James ‘Gypsy Boy’ McCrory fight a U.S. contender in a British versus U.S. bout. (Yes, BKF has come to the attention of the Americans.) The U.S. contender, Jason ‘Machine Gun’ Young, arrived in gym-toned shape, six-pack and all. (He obviously was not told about the big belly equals awesomeness rule.) Gypsy Boy arrived to the match late and inebriated, sporting an inflated stomach the size of an ottoman. He said that he was late so that he could ingest a proper amount of Guinness pre-fight. (I knew it!)

The fight started with Gypsy Boy covering up and letting Machine Gun pepper him with powerful blows, taking huge brain-rattling shots. It looked like the American would win, essentially using McCrory as a punching bag with no answering blows from England. That was until the American punched himself out. Then McCrory calmly shot out a right hook, right uppercut, and left hook. Match over. Machine Gun went down and stayed down.

Another fascinating aspect of BKF is that the fighters are frequently in their late forties, or even their sixties! I am intrigued by an ancient, shapeless guy who looks like his only training is lifting a pint to his lips in pub wailing away on some upstart, twenty-year-old pup. You can’t look away. It is an impossibility of nature. The laws of all that is sane and logical are violated, somebody’s grandfather trading shots to the head, bleeding, and still walking in swinging. (Did I mention that there is a lot of blood in BKF? A lot!)

From the aspect of my potential story line, however, I am really fascinated by the Irish Travellers, a marginalised ethnic group whose lives revolve around bareknuckle fighting. Living in trailer parks, essentially gypsies, they speak a mixture of English (sort of), Shelta, and Traveller Cant. (I can understand maybe half of what they say on the YouTube videos.) Various Traveller families feud against each other, and their raving diatribes are on YouTube: the Joyces, the McDonaghs, the Quinns, and the Nevins, challenging each other to bare knuckle bouts and insulting each other’s fighting abilities. This is a world pregnant with story potential!

My stories, of course, all involve Asia. However, I am not worried about inspiration set in Europe. When I sat down to write a sequel to ‘The Witch of Wanchai’ the writing muse that I connect with had me start writing about seventeen-year-old computer gamers in Anaheim, California. No matter, I soon had the gamers living in Hong Kong and operating drones for a nefarious mercenary group. Could BKF try to breakout of the Traveller’s trailer parks to go mainstream. A bout arranged in Asia? A Traveller fighter ends up dead in Hong Kong? Travellers take their feuding to the streets of Tokyo? All possible!

Negotiating For a Goose in China

I am currently writing a sequel to ‘The Witch of Wanchai’. The new story begins in 88 BC in the Han Dynasty. Emperor Wu Di of Han commissions a jade burial suit to be made of the finest jade in the world, ‘mutton fat’ jade found in the Karakash River of southwest Xinjiang near Galwan Kangri Peak. The novel follows the jade burial suit through its manufacture and the intrigue of the Han Dynasty Court, where eunuchs, concubines, and royal siblings jockey for power until the Emperor’s demise.

The story then picks up in the 1920’s when an English grave robber steals the jade suit from Emperor Wu’s tomb in Xi’An. The nefarious Englishman stops in Burma on his way back home for a tiger hunt, but when his elephant keels over after ingesting too much opium (long story there) the Englishman is thrown to the ground and is mauled to death by a wounded tiger.

In the 1980’s the jade suit ends up in an art auction in Hong Kong but then mysteriously disappears before it is sold. Decades later the search for Emperor Wu’s priceless burial suit becomes heated as a Chinese group of high-tech, international mercenaries, a Burmese-hired psychotic killer with a Maori tattoo on his face who disassembles and then re-assembles his victims, and a Japanese yakuza boss who had possession of it for a while, leave a trail of dead bodies to obtain it. The team of Hong Kong detectives, Ian, Angela, and Nigel, must find the suit and stop the carnage.

Back to roasted goose and Emperor Wu. When I write, since I am soooo addicted to food, I try to set the stage by describing the tastes of the period that I am writing about. I was sure that I could do something with roast goose in the Han Dynasty as it such a classic cuisine here in China. To my surprise my Internet research revealed that roast goose did not become popular in China until the Yuan Dynasty, considerably after the Han Dynasty. Poor Emperor Wu never experienced the crispy skin and succulent meat of a roast goose!

I, however, am able to experience this delicacy. I am always delighted to find a restaurant in my travels that serves good local food cooked in the traditional style. When I travel to Shenzhen I typically stay at a very local hotel. Nice hotel, cheap price, funky neighbourhood. The surrounding restaurants serve mostly what I classify as ghetto food. Complaining about the poor restaurant choices the other day, a colleague responded, “Hey, there is a famous local roast goose restaurant very near your hotel. You should try it.” Good goose restaurant? I am there!

A short walk from the hotel I found the goose restaurant, recognizable by the line of browned, glistening, perfectly roasted geese hanging from hooks in the window. Yum! Roast goose is a particular specialty of southern China. I walk in, savoring the smell of roasting geese, enjoying the chopping sound of cleaver on wooden cutting board as the chefs chop the geese before plating them, and I say to the host, “One person, please”. The restaurant was crowded, and I was seated at a round linoleum table with strangers. They glanced at me suspiciously, and rightfully so; a foreigner in this neighborhood, in this restaurant, what’s the world coming to?

There was going to be a hurdle to get over, however. A local restaurant with a following will not have pictures on their menu, which is a big deal for a foreigner who cannot read Chinese. Sure, I can speak Mandarin reasonably well, but a preschooler has a better chance of being able to read a Chinese menu. If a menu has pictures I can point to the photo and say, “I want that.” It works. In this case I would have to do what I always do in such a situation. I would have to make ‘The Confession’.

‘The Confession’ involves announcing to the waiter in Mandarin as he hands me a menu, “I cannot read Chinese characters.” This is similar to an introduction at a twelve-step program, “I am David, and I have a problem.” What is the worst that could happen? Laughed out of the restaurant? Forcibly ejected? Well, one time at a restaurant in Hong Kong a waitress tried to shoo me out, but that was an exception. Usually the staff is very cooperative and will explain what fare is on offer.

I delivered ‘The Confession’ in perfectly accented Mandarin to the waiter who appeared bored senseless by his job at the goose restaurant and life in general. It did not take. Sometimes when a foreigner speaks Chinese, no matter how good the pronunciation, it just doesn’t take. The brain of the recipient of your eloquence refuses to process that a foreigner is speaking Chinese. This was one of those cases. The waiter stared blankly at me as if on ketamine, and then without a word turned and got the proprietor. She instantly comprehended that the foreign barbarian before her actually was speaking Chinese, and that he was saying that he could not read Chinese characters and so could not decipher the menu. Now we’re getting someplace.

The word for goose in Chinese is e, pronounced something like ‘euhw’, a sound that occurs in zero words in the English language. It also has to be said like it is a question because it is the up-rising tone (Mandarin has four tones, and if you use the wrong tone you will not be understood). Euhw? I want Euhw? I suspect they came up with the name for ‘goose’ in China thousands of years ago by imitating the sound of a honking goose (actually, a goose honking a question). I felt foolish, what if I am pronouncing the word all wrong? Hey, Wang, check out this foreigner honking like a goose.

The word for ‘roast’ is shao, hence roast goose is shao e.

Me: I want Shao Euhw? Shao Euhw?

Her: Shao Euhw? Shao Euhw?

Me: Yes, Shao Euhw?

Her: Good, Shao Euhw?

She got it! A honking success! As I waited I looked around the restaurant and everyone was eating the same dish. This restaurant did one thing, goose, and they did it very well. So why do they even need a menu if everyone is eating the same thing???

A plate of vegetables, rice, and goose was soon set in front of me. There was a cup of sweet plum sauce for dipping. The bird had been chopped into slices still on the bone. Guangdong roast goose is seasoned with spices and cooked over high heat in a charcoal furnace, rendering the skin a dark mahogany, very crispy, and the meat is moist and juicy. Fantastic! Tough luck, Emperor Wu, this is good!

Writing on Airplanes

I am an author, but I also have, as most of us do, a very busy job. You know, the one that pays the bills. So when people find out that I am an author who has two published books they invariably say, “How do you find the time to write?” On reflection, I wonder about this myself. Before I started to write I had the same 24 hours as I do now, which I seemed to totally fill up doing other stuff.

The answer, of course, is you just do it; while eating lunch, while commuting to work, in the evenings after work, and on weekends (writers can be really boring company). Also, in my particular situation, I spend a lot of time on airplanes. When I take the time to explain this to a non-writer, however, I can tell by the look of pity in their eyes that they consider this a life spent unwisely, “Poor guy, all you do is work.” Is writing ‘work’? To me (when the muse is present) the process of writing is more like a visit to another world, not the ‘w’ word. I wake up in the morning wondering what my characters are going to do today, and I won’t find out until I start writing.

Every writer will have to find their own times to write, adapting their writing habits to the unique conditions of their daily work lives, like the kangaroo rat who has adapted to the harsh conditions of their unique environment (they live in the driest deserts of North America and get their moisture from the seeds they eat rather than having to drink water). “No water? I’ll eat seeds. No time to write? I’ll write while I commute.” Personally, for the last ten years I have been working in China, the last three of which I have been living in Hong Kong. As I am not brave enough, I do not drive here, which I find is a boon to my writing time. I commute via public transportation rather than drive myself, which gives me time to write. If I was still living in Southern California’s personal-car-based environment without a commuting option, however, I would be up the creek without a keyboard. But, like the kangaroo rat, I am sure that I would have found another time to write.

Now, to the writing on airplanes part, as the title of this blog promises. Almost every week I am flying to some third-tier Chinese city or another which, until our Real Estate Department had decided that has retail potential, I had never heard of. I have been to more obscure Chinese cities than most Chinese. However, a three hour flight is a gift to a writer. True, the seat is cramped and the tray table is smaller than your laptop, but when the muse graces you with her embrace you are transported to another time and place and you do not even notice. No interruptions by calls or e-mail is another element that makes the inside of your flying metal tube an ideal time to write.

For those of you who do not fly on Chinese airlines, a word about flying in China is in order so that you understand the difficulties sometimes involved. Firstly, Chinese flights are always (not exaggerating) delayed. Anyway, not complaining, more time to write. However, flying in China can at times be very frustrating, and this is not conducive to writing (the Muse only visits this writer when he is in a calm state of mind). Much of this frustration is engendered by the airlines themselves and their management style, only doling out mysterious general directives, crumbs of information stingily given on a “need-to-know” basis. No information is offered on when we are going to leave and why we are not leaving. There is a lot of guess work, therefore, on the part of the flying public, which sometimes creates near-riot situations and frustrated people losing all control, on their way to becoming the stars of a YouTube video under the heading ‘Chinese Airport Rage’.

To illustrate this, I will relate one incident that occurred when I was flying between Shenzhen and Zhengzhou. I was seated in the airplane in the middle of a group of ruddy-faced farmers from Zhengzhou coming back from a holiday. They were joking with each other, laughing, and happily eating chicken feet and salty tofu from Styrofoam take-away bins. These were not frequent flyers, and evidently not accustomed to the fact that it is very common for flights to be delayed in China. Typically, for a quick getaway once the pilot gets the “go” signal to taxi out from the gate, in China the airline will load the passengers onto the airplane and will then wait on the tarmac, sometimes for hours, before the pilot gets clearance to leave the gate.

The difference in this particular case was that until the airplane got rolling, for some reason, the air conditioning would not work. In the U.S. the pilot would have gotten on the intercom and in a likable, Midwest drawl sounding a bit like Jimmy Stewart would earnestly say, “Well folks, we got a bit of a problem here…”, and would proceed to explain what the problem is and how long it might take to fix it. Jimmy Stewart, however, was unfortunately not piloting this particular flight to Zhengzhou. No information was forthcoming about what was wrong or an estimated time to fix it. The farmers from Zhenzhou were now no longer in a happy mood. The jovial banter had turned to agitation.  One farmer took a leadership role and became very vocal. He galvanized the group. He was an instigator of unrest. Yes, he was seated next to me.

I have found that when Chinese do reach their breaking point, they breakdown in a big way. The yelling is almost always accompanied by the pointing finger. My seat-mate was now standing, pointing his finger wildly at the stewards and stewardesses and screaming with all the lung power he could muster. His fellow Zhengzhou minions followed the lead of their new demagogue and were ready to overpower the airplane staff and take over the flight, or at least get back to the lounge where there was ample air conditioning and more Styrofoam-encased treats.

The airline staff were now also pointing their fingers back at the angry farmers, with me in the middle of them, and were yelling loudly back at the Zhengzhou group. However, there still was no Jimmy Stewart and no forthcoming information as to our departure time or A.C. situation. Would I be mistaken for one of the group when the mace was broken out? In the U.S. the air marshals would have already had this group cuffed by now. Would the next day’s China Daily headlines read ‘American farmer from Zhengzhou arrested in riot on airplane.’? Luckily, at this time the plane started rolling to get in line for take-off and the air conditioning kicked on. Everyone calmed down; riot averted.

However, may your flights be not so eventful, and your muse seated next to you. I have been able to write the majority of two novels while soaring above 3,000 feet. Put your tray table up and shut down your electronics? You’re kidding, are we there already?

The Ghosts of Stanley Prison

In ‘The Witch of Wanchai’, Hong Kong’s Stanley Prison is the backdrop for an interrogation scene. As Detective Ian Hamilton walks the corridors of the old prison he feels the ghosts of Stanley’s past haunting its passageways of white-washed concrete walls and heavy, gray metal doors. “Stanley Prison was opened in 1937, and new layers of paint could not mask the years of pain and cruelty that had transpired there. ‘Black Christmas’, 1941, the Japanese had taken over Stanley, and prisoners were starved, tortured, and executed. Ian always felt uncomfortable walking the prison corridors, felt like he had stepped into a scene from a vintage horror movie, the ghosts of the unfortunates floating around him.”

Ian’s uncomfortableness is understandable. Stanley is the oldest prison still in service in Hong Kong. In 1941 when Hong Kong fell to Japanese forces after the seventeen day Battle of Hong Kong the Japanese turned Stanley Prison into an internment camp. They crowded over 3,000 detainees into a facility designed to house a maximum of 1,500. With food rations that a sparrow would have difficulty surviving on, rampant disease, beatings and executions, life was hell and many succumbed. In Hong Kong the spirits of people who have not been attended to properly by relatives or who have died unnaturally are called ‘Hungry Ghosts’. In many people’s minds, legions of these ravenous ghosts roam the cell blocks set behind the eighteen foot high walls of Stanley prison. In the ‘Witch of Wanchai’, however, these ghosts are the least of Ian’s worries. He has a real-life serial killer to deal with.

“The Witch of Wanchai’ is a story about a serial killer preying on Indonesian domestic helpers. As life imitates art, just before I completed ‘The Witch of Wanchai’ the news that a real serial killer, Rurik Jutting, a banker living in Wanchai who was murdering Indonesian domestic helpers,  came out in the Hong Kong press. Mr. Jutting is currently residing in Stanley Prison.

Chinese Jews From Kaifeng Join Israeli Army

In The Journal of Rabbi Levy Wang much of the action pivots around the Chinese city of Kaifeng and the Jews who traveled the Silk Road to settle there in approximately 960 AD. The novel also relates the true tale of a Chinese Jew from Kaifeng named Ai Tian, who in the year 1605 traveled to Beijing and met Matteo Rici, a Jesuit priest. The original group who arrived in Kaifeng established a synagogue, and many generations later Levy Wang, who escaped to Wu Dang Mountain with the jewel from Moses’ staff in the story, was one of their Rabbi’s (that part is fiction).

The band of Jews who arrived in Kaifeng over generations intermarried with the locals, but today a small group still practice the Jewish traditions. Recently three Chinese Jews from Kaifeng joined the Israeli Army. These are the first Chinese who will serve in the Israeli Army.