In 2011, Andrew Arnett traveled with his father, Peter Arnett, to China. At that time, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Peter Arnett was teaching journalism at Shantou University.
by Andrew Arnett
Dulles International Airport beckoned, its concave roof arched skyward like an enormous oyster on the half shell. Where was its pearl? Probably rolled down the corner pocket of the earth, onto the other side of the planet. I was headed that way too. I had the red L.L. Bean duffel bag. My dad had the green one, plus a hard shell suitcase. On his way through security, he set off the metal detector. I went straight through and sat by the window watching the overcast sky hang over the tarmac, as TSA agents searched his belongings.
We settled into our seats on board China Airlines flight 1133. I opened the complimentary China Daily to the article “Today is the Most Balanced Day of the Century.” It was November 2, 2011 and spelled out numerically, the date reads 20111102. The story advised its predominantly Chinese readership to observe a day of moderation and balance in all things. I had no idea what this meant for me personally but I made a note to consult a numerologist as soon as I got back to the States. The only thing I knew for certain was that we were staring down the barrel of a twenty four hour long flight that would, after all was said and done, deposit us in Hong Kong. In 24 hours I would be on the other side of the planet. Is that what the article meant by “balance?”
This is my third trip to China in the last four years and the flight is not something I look forward to. Make no mistake, it is brutal. You’re being shot over the Pacific Ocean at high speed in a slim metal tube. You’re wedged into small seats, the air is stale and babies are crying and hissing at you. It is a mild form of torture at best, but those folks on China Airlines sure knew how to handle their dreary, broken hearted passengers.
The ever smiling and bowing stewardesses kept rolling the food carts up and down the aisles until everyone was bloated. The drinks were free. I ordered countless bottles of red wine. I stuck some in the seat pocket in front of me. I stuck some under my seat cushion. It made the flight go a little smoother. It made the plane a little lighter as we flew over the Pacific. I would need to drink like a fish to make it over that terrible expanse of water.
Sitting next to me, Peter spoke of the rise and fall of CNN. Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. The players, the dealers and the turning of history. He recalled the meltdowns, the blowups, the petty swindling bastards, hustlers, and pimps that go along with that circus. After a couple of hours, he put on his headphones and settled into a movie – Live Free or Die, starring Bruce Willis. I contemplated sleep but, sleep notwithstanding, leafed through a paperback copy of Steppenwolf I picked up from the airport bookstore.
The hours passed. There was more eating. There was more drinking. I got into some of the Kirin beer. I had more red wine. Peter had some wine, made a good show of being a sport, but I left him in the dust. I stashed a few extras below the seat just in case the plane’s stock dried up during the final hours. He turned the other way. The flight was too long for anyone to cast judgments. We were all suffering under our own personal holocaust. And there would be many more dragons to slay. Many more bottles to decant.
There was a 4 hour layover in Narita, Japan. We foraged for coffee in that airport terminal like moles crawling through a shiny wind tunnel. Everything in that place was ultra modern and slick. We perched upon red plastic stools with our steaming lattes, watching the people walk by. A Japanese businessman stopped, looked over and approached us.
“I know you,” he said to Peter. “You covered the Gulf War for CNN.”
Peter stood up, shook the man’s hand and said “Peter Arnett, glad to meet you. And this is my son, Andrew.”
I shook the man’s hand then strolled over to the big plate glass windows, leaving the two of them to discuss the Gulf War. I sat down and watched the planes take off and land on the tarmac, waiting on our flight to Hong Kong.
We boarded a local carrier that would fly us the final leg of our journey. I sunk into my seat but could tell right away that the seats on this plane were smaller then those on the overseas flight. Nonetheless, I was optimistic, hoping my row would remain empty for me to stretch out and get a little shut eye. It turned out to be a sold out flight. The plane filled up with dour migrant workers and henchmen from the far east. Even the few ex-pat American businessmen radiated an unhealthy, latex salesperson aura.
The depredations from living inside a tin can for 24 hours were beginning to weigh on me. The seat was stuck in upright and my mood was withering. The food cart rolled down the aisle. They were serving fried pork on a plastic tray. The alternative was duck and rice. I chose the duck and rice but one bite made me want to “duck and cover.” It was appalling. But I was desperate. And starving. I swallowed down what I could. Sipping my tepid coffee, I watched as the people greedily devoured their meals.
After an interminable period, the plane began its descent. The pilot announced we were approaching Hong Kong. My mood lifted immediately. Looking out the window, I could see the skyscrapers glowing beneath. The old junks floated in the bay like fire flies. We landed in Hong Kong on a bright and shiny midnight.
“Welcome to Hong Kong,” Peter said.
“Glad to be here,” I replied, still feeling disoriented from the trip. “That flight was grueling.”
“Yes, a flight like that is always difficult. It never gets easier. And that extra leg can be a real killer. It’s easier when you fly direct into Hong Kong. We should try that next time.”
“We have reservations,” he said, “at the Wharney Hotel in Wan Chai. I wanted to try something different this time. There’s always action on Lockhart Road, so we can get a bite to eat after we check in.”
“Excellent. I can use some real food.”
We boarded the metro which took us beneath Victoria Bay into downtown Hong Kong, then disembarked at metro station to hail a cab. It was past midnight, but the city was buzzing with activity. Cars and double decker buses zipped around like they were on race tracks. Masses of well dressed people rushed about in a permanent rush hour. The city glowed from the inside out like a neon sun. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Hong Kong is New York City on crack.
“The city keeps growing,” Peter tells me. “When I first came here, in the 60s, the city ended at City Hall. Now, you see, they’ve extended the land further into the bay.”
“How did they do that?” I asked.
“With sediment and sea shells. They’ve built these towering skyscrapers on them.”
Hong Kong is like a Transformer robot. It is constantly tearing itself down, and turning into something sleeker, shinier, and inevitably, stranger. We hailed a cab and jumped in.
“Wharney Hotel on Lockhart Road,” Peter said.
The driver was very serious, didn’t say a word. He sped us off into race track city. Everyone in HK is all business. Nobody here messed around, not the drivers, CEO’s, porters, or even the 7-11 employees. They were on the verge of taking over the world. There was no time to mess around. There was too much competition. There was one and a quarter billion Chinese, and the rest of the world. Everyone was selling something. Everyone was buying something. Everyone needed to eat.
After checking into the hotel, we stepped outside to grab a bite of food and some beer at a local eatery, whilst dodging the solicitations of the hookers on Lockhart Road beckoning us in for a massage. Back in the hotel room, I forced myself to sleep. The bus to Shantou was leaving in three hours, at 7 in the morning.