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Stephen Black

3 min

Drink & Listen

The Hong Kong Philosophers' Club

Either to please or to educate

by Stephen Black

She reaches for her lighter. My fingers brush her hand as I take it from her. I make a flame and bring it to her mouth, her lips so full and perfect though she wears no lipstick.

The Hong Kong Philosophers' Club | Either to please or to educate

An ear, being moistened by a finger that dips in and out of a glass of Cranberry Rum Punch. The ear is surrounded by the silver hair of a young Chinese woman who is sprawled on an antique barber’s chair. The businesswoman from Madrid again dips her finger into the glass, strokes the ear, dips her finger into the glass, strokes the ear… The Chinese woman is flirting and laughing. Her sparkling little emerald earring gets nudged by the businesswoman’s dark pink lips.

Mirrors reflect the crowd; the small hair salon seems bigger than it is. Lau Kin Wai shows Pina Bausch his documentation of calligraphic street art by the Emperor of Kowloon. “King Jack,” a gweilo says, pronouncing the phrase like a local. Benky makes Xu Xi a fresh gin and tonic as she talks about her book launch, listening even when he steps back to slide the bottle of Bombay Sapphire between the Baileys and the Two Oceans rosé.

Another reflection, another barber chair: two Chinese boys, one all in white. The other, completely in black, has his arms around a Shanghai Tang bag. Both with shaved heads, both wearing bright green and gold Hermès scarves. The boy in white points to an ad in the latest issue of Ray Li: large closeups of Burberry cufflinks shaped like equestrian knights. Behind them, at the door, a line of people are waiting to buy memberships. Visage is a private club.

The silver-haired woman stretches, then rotates her body against the chair’s dark red leather. She writhes in her low-cut, floral-patterned pink and white Alexander McQueen pants. Grasping both of the burnished silver armrests, she nimbly twists. The soft shapes of her hips and spine are replaced by the smoothness of her belly. Two rounded points appear beneath her white silk top. The businesswoman picks up a razor. They laugh.

Midnight. March, 1997. Hong Kong.

In a few months, during a heavy downpour, Prince Charles will hand over the keys to Chinese President Jiang Zemin, then sail off on the Royal Yacht Britannia. But here, now, in this packed hair salon/speakeasy, history lasts only as long as a sax solo. Or a drink. Or a night.

Chet Baker Plays Vladimir Cosma; the record album is held by delicate hands. The artwork is simple: two black brushstrokes and a red circle upon a white background. The pale roundness of her face; the green bottle of Hakushu Bourbon Barrel Single Malt Whiskey by her elbow. The bottle has a handwritten tag: the woman’s name is Mio.

She finally stops studying the album, looks up. Her eyes do not pull away from mine. I bet she’s Japanese. I make the first move.

“I lived in Tokyo.”

She smiles a smile that I want to believe is genuine. “How’s your Japanese?” she asks.

Kodomo poi,” I say.

“Childlike… That seems… right.” She smiles again and raises her glass. “Kampai.” The way she carries herself is nerdy and sexy; precise, yet bold.

“Kampai.” I tap my glass against hers.

We don’t talk. We swing our feet and run our fingers over the patterns in the old wooden bar. We’re like the jazz: piano solo, trumpet solo, drums wildly pounded. Sparkling guitar riffs. In the center of an arc of listeners is Chris Doyle, back from shooting a film in Buenos Aires. His hands move like butterflies against a headwind. He laughs, jerks his head towards the chandelier and shakes his arms like he’s conducting Wagner. Slaps his knee, waves goodbye to someone, crosses and uncrosses his arms. Lifts his glass and catches the eye of Benky the bartender.

Mio looks at me.

If we go downstairs, walk left through the alley, climb up the lane of brick steps and turn right, we’d be at my place on Hollywood Road.

“I watch movies and cartoons for a living.”

She laughs, covering her mouth with her glass. “Me too.”

“No, seriously. Every day I get off the bus in Wan Chai, go to the 33rd floor and make promos for Cartoon Network and TNT. Tom and Jerry, Casablanca, Vincente Minnelli. The Wizard of Oz. Powerpuff GirlsAn American in Paris. Elvis.

Camille,” she says.

Sugoi! You’re a film connoisseur! Or, you’ve got cable and can’t sleep at night. Camille: Greta Garbo, beautifully dying of tuberculosis. Directed by George Cukor. And what do you do?”

Mio ignores the question as she leans toward me. She has the scent of lilies. Again, the duality; she is serious, yet self-consciously amusing. Mio reminds me of a cat. “Camille was torn between two men, right? “

“No, no, no. She was stuck with the rich guy, but she truly loved the guy with no money.”

Benky walks toward the shelf with the albums. The last time he changed a record, I felt alone. I listened for accents, tried to identify them: Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and some kind of tough, salty English. American slang spoken by Koreans and Russians. Chinese dialects: Cantonese and Mandarin, probably more. Now though, there are only the soft and difficult words in Mio’s eyes. The needle drops: Miles Davis’s On the Corner. Funky, smooth; soothing. Unpredictable.

She empties the Hakushu into our glasses, then opens a tin box of small cigars. She reaches for her lighter. My fingers brush her hand as I take it from her. I make a flame and bring it to her mouth, her lips so full and perfect though she wears no lipstick.

The music is black satin: electric bass, sprinkled with cymbals and snare drums. Miles’s trumpet jumps in, starts flashing like lightning. Mio changes. Our pounding wave of intimacy crashes. Recedes. The space between us becomes a wet desert; the lush possibilities are now like sand. Her eyes have become nerd eyes; her curves are now angles. Mio is now businesslike.

“You should meet Seki,” she says, as though this were the answer to a problem we were trying to solve, “he’s a genius.”

From the Bose speakers; a jam session. Miles’s trumpet is an eclipse over a concrete wilderness, where workers in trees play tablas, where a fat python of bass slides over pins of hi hat cymbals. Guitars break stained glass houses beneath keyboard storm clouds. Amplified mating rituals of colorful birds and brass instruments. The music is too dynamic for drinking and talking. Benky turns it down, quickly finds another record. He lifts the needle.

For a moment: the silence, the silence.