It’s not a girlie bar, as such. There are no poles to dance around, no visible G-strings or bare breasts. No women sidling up to the men to sell lap dances. But the large guy with his hand under her hem tells me that transactions are possible. That the young Filipina who can squeeze all of her womanly parts neatly in to a lime green tube dress, size 0, just might be receptive to the great bulk of a Westerner next to her. He wears a striped oxford shirt, un-tucked, and his buzzed-red face is sweating in the subtropical night air. He’s got over a hundred pounds on her easily. And she, impervious to humidity – her skin dry and smooth, her hair sleek – lets his hands roam while she smiles and scans the crowd. He doesn’t seem to mind that she’s not drinking the cocktail he bought her, or that she’s checking her phone more than she’s laughing at his jokes. He knows they will leave this place together.
It’s one a.m. on a Tuesday night in Wan Chai district. We’re here for the live music. We’re here to celebrate our friend’s birthday. We are the only Caucasian women in the club. And in those brief moments between songs, when we stop dancing to take a drink, we can witness the appetites on display. Booze, flesh, money. A hot night or a fat wallet. All can be found here. What we are looking for, however, is something different, something a bit harder to find.
“You see I was in a curious position,” Joan Didion once wrote about New York. “It never occurred to me that I was living a real life there.”
As trailing spouses and expatriate women, we feel this too. After the boxes are unpacked and the kids are settled, once the helpers we’ve hired (because everyone hires help) know what to cook for dinner and how we like our clothes ironed and our closets organized. Once we realize that our new domestic employees are quite good at waking, feeding and dressing our children for school, and if we are so inclined to get a job or go to dawn boot camp or just sleep in, an illusory sensation sneaks up on us. Not as a warning so much as an invitation. A possibility. Some might even call it a right.
We will find ourselves out one evening and the moment will come – after drinks and a lovely dinner with friends – when we can either go home or keep going. We will feel restless and maybe a little adrift in this sea of uncertain freedom. Seduced by the ease of expat life even as it chips away at our identities. We will ponder another round. We won’t call for the check. We will keep going.
Our evening started at dusk, with Sea Breeze cocktails that tasted too good, on the top deck of a junk moored in the waters near the Aberdeen Marina Club. It was early April, warm and a bit humid, in that small window called a Hong Kong Spring, before the weather deteriorates in to six months of hot, sticky and wet. It was a night for putting away jeans and sweaters for good, and pulling out sundresses and sandals. Now I say these words – top deck, junk, marina – not to sound snobbish, but to tell you that Hong Kong is surrounded by the South China Sea and that we often find ourselves crossing long and short stretches of it, by ferry, sampan, sail boat or junk. We commute, exercise and entertain on the water.
We’d come together to surprise our friend on her 50th birthday, one of several parties held in her honor over the course of several weeks. We were a mix of nationalities and ages, all expat moms, all drawn from disparate groups – tennis, mahjong, bridge, rugby, hockey, schools, kids, husbands – with the one link being our mutual friend. We arrived well before her, so by the time she showed up, duly surprised, some of us had already downed a couple of tall ones.
The boat carried us over to Lamma Island, across the ship channel and past the fish farms, to a row of outdoor seafood restaurants, which catered to locals as well as foreigners. No dress code or set menu to worry about there. This was strictly a fluorescent-lit, white plastic chairs around a huge table kind of place. With a lazy Susan in the middle and melamine chopsticks and bowls at every place setting. The sound of Cantonese coming from the television near the kitchen mingled with the suck and gurgle of fish tanks placed at the entrance to the restaurant. The tanks were packed with sea creatures soon to be cooked and served as our dinner. We opened several bottles of wine and soon filled the air with loose, loud talk about which celebrity we’d like to bed.
“Oh, Richard Gere.”
“Gere, yes. Yes.”
We weren’t there to discuss politics or family problems or the questions usually asked at an expat gathering: namely, how long have you been in Hong Kong and then, how long do you think you’ll stay? We were there to laugh and chat and find the inevitable, invisible threads that linked our lives to one another. Your daughter goes to ballet? Who’s your yoga teacher? Your husband’s an accountant too? (Wait, is that something worth mentioning?) I swear I found a connection to every woman sitting at that great, round table. Coincidences happen often in Hong Kong, which must make the city the most cosmopolitan cul-de-sac in the world. Where networking is dead easy, privacy not so much. Lives overlap, one on top of the other, as compacted as the shoebox apartments squeezed into our 60-story high rises. You wonder why anyone would start an affair here, when everyone knows everybody, eventually. And if they don’t, then their helpers probably do.
On the boat ride back there were candles, cake, champagne and much dancing to Cee-Lo, Lady Gaga and Beyonce. A silver pole, reaching from the floor to the ceiling of the middle deck, coaxed a few mums to try their hand at pole dancing. Yes, you cringe at the thought of 40 and 50 year olds hiking up their skirts and acting like strippers. The kind of thing that’s really only amusing to do or to watch when you’ve had a few. But this is the way of the expat wife, either appealing or appalling, however you want to look at it. I don’t mean the pole dancing, I’m talking about the camaraderie, the solidarity, the foolishness – Ladies Night as often as you like. Made possible by our fortuitous combination of affordable domestic help, husbands with good jobs and modern attitudes about parenting, and the seven-days of the week buzz of Hong Kong life. People are social. People make an effort.
It was close to midnight as we motored through the Aberdeen harbor. Not late enough to be messy, but early enough to make us feel that there was more night to the night, if we wanted it.
Once we got to the pier, we hailed taxis and headed to a club called Amazonia, where a Filipino rock band played pop and heavy metal classics. Four one-hour sets a night, six nights a week. Jimi, The Beatles, some Skynyrd, a Pink song and always – always! – “Walking on Sunshine” by Katriona and the Waves. It’s a crowd favorite. I cannot tell you why.
The waitresses, also imported from The Philippines, wore short tartan skirts and white blouses, school uniform style. Small pins attached to their plaid ties blinked out their names in an LED display crawl, like mini billboards. As far as I could see, however, the waitresses only served drinks. They weren’t there to entertain the men in the crowd. That was left to the free agents – pretty girls with long, glossy hair and tight clothes who had seemingly wandered in for a drink, like everyone else. Their marks, businessmen in town for meetings and conferences, might even believe that these girls were drawn to their good looks and witty personalities. That in the glow of the blue stage lights, it was about romance, natural attraction, the thrill of the chase. And not the 60% owing to a mamasan somewhere, once the sun rose.
They were expat women like me, these bar girls and waitresses, but I couldn’t pretend to know what life was like for them. Or the shape of their dreams. I’d been told that when they could earn a bit of money and had access to birth control, it was a world away from their villages in Quezon or Baguio or Mindinao. But was it enough? To dress up, to chat and laugh and sway to the music. To be attractive to strangers. Was that how they defined their freedom?
As I drank my beer and watched them conduct their business, I realized, however, that what I was gazing at was the elephant in the room. For whether they were kindred sisters, working mothers or dutiful daughters providing for their families back home, to many expat wives these women were simply rivals. And their currency was their willingness to please. It was always in demand.
We all knew that expat guy, be he married or single, who could often be found alone ‘down in Wan Chai’. We knew he wasn’t there for the live music. The phrase itself carried the stain of debauchery, weakness, a lack of character. At the very minimum, ‘we ended up in Wan Chai’ signified a night that had finished far too late and drunkenly for folks not in college anymore. Bachelors at least had the opportunity to change and grow out of this behavior. But the married men once tarnished often had to face the consequences: separation, divorce, angry, resentful children and wives consumed by bitterness. Wives who would say it freely, out loud: you just can’t trust the Filipinas.
Was it this place that caused men to wander? When I was first married, people told me Hong Kong only widens cracks that are already there. A strong marriage is strong on any continent, they said. But I also heard about golf junkets to Manila, drinking sessions in Jakarta and boys’ weekends in Bangkok. And I knew that the fable of the strong white man rescuing the third-world lovely was a vivid and enduring narrative. The story rarely worked with gender roles reversed.
But though it might seem that Hong Kong is a minefield of temptation, completely inhospitable to modern, well-educated women, the territory in fact offers more opportunities, more freedom and more help at home than most cities around the world. Not a bad place to be a working mum, and a great place to be a lady of leisure. The paradox, the absurdity of it all, is that our 21st century Ladies Night could so easily mingle with the oldest profession in the world, and both be accepted without hesitation or shame.
For so many of us, part of living in Hong Kong is always questioning why we’re living in Hong Kong: how long we might stay, what we want to accomplish before we go and ultimately, what will be the payoff for the sacrifices we make. Will it be an Ivy League education for our children, a new career path for us, a vacation villa in Thailand or maybe just a lot of exotic, wonderful memories? With employment contracts, fixedsecondments and two-year apartment leases, we are constantly planning and reassessing, constantly asking: is this where we want to be? Yet sometimes, sometimes, what we’d like to experience is the rare feeling that this is our home, this is who we are. We belong here.
I looked at my friends on the dance floor: the birthday girl and our hostess, a duo of middle-aged ladies with hair flying and faces smiling. Freebirds. As long as I’d known them, they’d always been so confident. So adventurous and involved and keen to make the most of what Hong Kong had to offer. Their kids were at university or finishing high school – old enough not to need helpers – so they’d be able to sleep in and recover from their hangovers. They could order another round and keep dancing while I realized I needed to finish my drink and say goodbye.
They taught me that what you really need overseas are mentors, role models. Women who can show you what kind of life you can lead, if you’re not working, if the kids are grown, if your helper does all of the house work, and you’re feeling unmoored from the real life you lead back in Cincinnati or Sussex or Sydney. Where you had your better home and garden and your family close by, and where your identity – whether wife, mother, employee, boss – was proven, assured, solid.
You need friends who can help you find your life, who can tell you: this is not some way station or waiting room, a purgatory before you move back to what you think is real. This is real. It might seem surreal – dancing at a heavy metal, Filipina pick-up joint at one in the morning – but this is real. Remember that this is real.
Jennifer S. Deayton is from Texas. She has lived and worked in Hong Kong for over 15 years, mainly writing, directing and video editing for TV, film and web productions (CNNI + food and travel shows). She has an MFA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University. You can find more of her work at: http://www.hongkongbodega.com/