Today is National Day in Hong Kong. I can’t imagine it could be as unusual as the one I spent a few years ago and describe here…
On October 3, 1990, a pudgy college senior studying abroad in Vienna, I stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and watched as the flag of reunited Germany was raised for the first time. I hadn’t intended to go to Berlin for the unification, but Oktoberfest had been more like “drunken grope-fest” and my travel mates and I needed a good night’s sleep. So, with our Eurail passes we boarded a night train to Hanover (a solid eight-hour destination) then figured we might as well check out this unification thing in Berlin since we were so close. It was surreal. I chipped my own souvenir piece of the wall with a rented hammer from an entrepreneurial German (I still have that piece), wandered the streets of East Berlin with the buildings eerily lit for dramatic effect, crossed Checkpoint Charlie and explored the museum. As I stood at the gate at midnight on the West Berlin side, champagne corks and fireworks exploded and Ode to Joy played. A stranger handed me a cup and we all toasted the occasion. I was moved by the celebration and the hopefulness of the people around me.
Very few days generate the detail of recall as that day, so every October third I tend to reflect on the unpredictable path that led me from the Berlin Wall to my present circumstances whatever they are each year. So twenty years later, the random path generator of life blew a fuse and put me in a bikini on a yacht in HK with my husband, mother, Hong Kong living legend Sir David Tang, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
I had known since the spring that entirely by coincidence, my mother and Gwyneth would both be visiting Hong Kong during the first week of October. Mom for her annual kid visit and as a stop on her book tour, and Gwyneth to film a scene for Steven Soderberg’s upcoming movie, Contagion. Still, I had no idea what the week would bring and didn’t even know if we’d see Gwyneth.
Mom arrived first and jumped right into a few book related events we had arranged. She’s a total pro. She spoke at St. John’s Cathedral to a group of parishioners, teachers, and others who had heard about the talk. It was well received and she sold a lot of books. The next day I had organized a brunch at my house and invited 40 women. I made my favorite recipes and, though it was originally planned as an open house, mom ended up giving an impromptu talk to the group that was provocative, challenging and inspiring for these worldly, but content-starved women. It was a very nice morning, and I am so glad that we already had these two events under our belts before the crazy weekend ensued.
Gwyneth had sent me a text, “Friday night! Let’s go!! I am so excited!” While I was excited to see her, I felt a bit of pressure, as her evening arrival coincided with National Day (many things are closed and the streets are thronged with people watching the largest fireworks display of the year), and, plus, just how do you take a celebrity out on the town for her very first introduction to HK? I enlisted two trusted friends and, after considering a zillion options, settled on a plan.
My “entourage” that night consisted of my husband, mom, Sonya, Louis and eight-month-pregnant Kelly. At the last minute Louis asked if we wouldn’t mind if a friend of his visiting from London joined us for drinks. Turned out to be Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian, Harvard & Oxford, PhD, author of Dead Aid: Why Aid is not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa and on the Time Magazine 100 most influential people list. “Sure.” I said.
I had insisted that GP switch hotels and stay on the Hong Kong side, as the selected hotel for her would have been impossible to reach and too crowded with the National Day celebrations going on. We had organized a private table at the bar at the Upper House and arranged to meet for drinks there to watch the fireworks. I had to laugh when she texted to ask me what I was wearing (now I can say that I loaned money to a Kennedy AND gave fashion advice to a cover model!). This turned out to be a spectacular view of the fireworks and a nice way to ease into the evening, although Dambisa arrived wearing a flashing devil horn headband with her own entourage of about ten oil guys who were quite enthusiastic about the party they had just joined. Everyone handled it gracefully, and we managed to extract ourselves from the group and head to dinner.
After much deliberation and a hundred restaurants selected and then discarded, and at the advice of several in-the-know women, I eventually settled on a private Szechwan kitchen, Da Ping Huo on Hollywood Road, known for great spicy food and the wife of the chef who comes out and sings Shanghainese opera after the meal. I thought it would be a real authentic and not cliché HK experience. Well it was that, but sadly the food was rather inedible. We were the only party in the five-table restaurant (save for one lone male European tourist). Fortunately, Frenchman Louis had brought along some nice wine & champagne so what we lacked in food we made up for in beverage. At least in a tiny, empty restaurant we could all really talk and get to know one another. Gwyneth is as interesting as she is graceful, so no complaints around the table. Her charming assistant Kevin was a delightful addition to the party too. The opera serenade was a riot, and overall the experience was fun, but it was unfortunate that the food was not great.
Mom was the first to peel off from the group, sensibly heading home after dinner. The rest of us headed to a private club called Kee. We walked there, and on the way a few people stopped her for photographs, but other than that she wasn’t bothered by paparazzi the whole time in Hong Kong. Kee was great fun, dancing! After some time on the dance floor with GP (nearly sending Kelly into pre-term labor!), they headed home and the remainder of our group eventually headed to another club under the escalator called Drop. It is a wild experience to walk into a room and immediately have the best table cleared for you and champagne corks start popping. We stayed until 3:30 am, then Gwyneth, my husband & I headed out. Sonya stayed and showed Kevin the late night scene. We dropped GP and were home by 4, the latest we’ve been out in years.
My husband takes the total dad-of-the-year prize for getting up to take our oldest to a shade-less soccer field in Kowloon by 8:30 the next morning for a four-hour tournament. He came home and slept all afternoon! Just as we were getting home from a difficult dinner in Stanley with the kids Saturday night, my mobile rings and I hear, “Gwen? This is David Tang.” “Oh hey!” I answer as if we’ve been friends for years. He’s calling to organize sending a car to pick us up for lunch at his house in Sai Kung the next day, then an afternoon on his boat. He had met Gwyneth previously and extended the invitation to her, which she insisted on extending to us. O-K…
Sunday was a day of hilarious contrasts. Probably the most unusual day I have ever spent… well, except the birthday I spent in Somalia when I visited the USS Tarawa by CH-46 helicopter and met Audrey Hepburn on the tarmac in Mogadishu, but that’s another story…
Sunday was Harvest Festival at St. Stephen’s church in Stanley and, since it was Pastor Will who had invited mom to speak at the cathedral and because we have been making an effort to go there, we all rallied and went to church. After, we dropped the kids at a friend’s house, quickly walked Finchley and then headed out in David Tang’s white Range Rover with his driver Alex. I must admit that before all of this started, I had never heard of David Tang. I soon learned that he’s a Hong Kong entrepreneur, founder of Shanghai Tang, China Club and many other hot restaurants in Hong Kong and London. He has also been knighted by the Queen, enjoyed a private audience with the Pope, writes regularly for the Spectator and FT, has the exclusive distribution rights for Cuban cigars for Asia and is an all-around character and self-described “maximalist.”
His driver took us to David’s country house out in Sai Kung. The house is located on a large, lush lawn stretching to a beautiful sea view, and is full of things he loves like dogs, books, good reading light and cigars. David’s wife Lucy is a British woman who has channeled a penchant for intense socializing into excessive exercise and now competes in ultra-marathons on every continent in one year. She has already completed the Gobi and Sahara deserts and is off to Antarctica for the next one. When we arrived David told us that GP had gone to dim sum and so was delayed by an hour. That meant that we were to make conversation for the next hour with a man seated next to a photograph of himself with the Pope. Mind you, mom’s book is a controversial take on Mary Magdalene’s role in Christianity and does not look entirely favorably on the institution of the church.
David was a total pro, though, accepting a signed copy of mom’s book and offering her one of his own signed “To Cynthia. From your acolyte, David Tang.” Eventually GP & Kevin arrived and we headed to lunch under a tent on the lawn for a great meal prepared by his Sri Lankan staff. I was seated at the head of the table next to David. At one point David sat in his chair and leaned back. For a split second I thought of grabbing his thighs to stop him from toppling over, but in my hesitation as I pondered what that would look like if he wasn’t really about to fall backwards, he actually did. Fortunately he tucked up his head, or he might not have lived through lunch, as there was a concrete drain eerily close to the spot he landed. He jumped right back up into his seat — an impressive feat for a not insignificant man — and the meal continued. The conversation turned to organic produce and, as that is a regular topic of the non-working Southside mom set, I launched into a tale. But, just as I began the story, I felt a warm wet sensation on my Chloe-clad foot. I looked down to discover that their dog was peeing on my shoe! I still wonder if the dog was poorly, or very well trained?
The meal complete, and a ceremonial cigar with David (how could my husband turn down a Cuban offered by their honorary ambassador?) we headed out to board their fancy “ocean-liner of old” style yacht. We sat up on the top deck admiring Sai Kung, but one by one we peeled off for bathing suits. GP came out in a tiny pink bikini looking entirely glamorous. I gulped hard and decided not to care and donned my own army green bikini. Who’s looking at me anyway?! We had just had a discussion of the dodgy water quality in HK and Mr.E’s mysterious viral water warts that his doctor had said probably came from swimming in the ocean. So GP hesitated on the deck for an awkward several minutes after the rest of us had jumped in, probably doing a mental calculation of the risk and reward of a refreshing swim, making her singing debut at the CMA covered in water warts, and the commercially beneficial irony of actually catching a virus while filming the movie Contagion in which she is patient zero for a devastating virus that sweeps the world.
We sailed into Victoria Harbor at dusk as David held court about his views of the environment… “The real problem is not the birth rate but the lengthening of the lifespan. If you really care about doing something for the environment, then DIE!”
Gwyneth had to meet with the director back at the hotel, so the boat docked at the star ferry pier in TST and she and Kevin debarked along with David & Lucy who were also heading off. As we were scheduled to be on Lamma Island for mom’s appearance at the inaugural meeting of the Philosopher’s Club at the Bookworm Café, David sent us off on the yacht to Lamma. This is how we found ourselves alone on a staffed luxury yacht in Hong Kong Harbor watching the sunset. Go figure.
In a classic Hollywood tale, this would be the parting shot, us sailing off into the sunset, but I can’t quite end the story there, as the Lamma portion was a perfect antidote to the luxury day. We arrived in Lamma with enough time for a quick seafood dinner at one of the local places where you point to your fish in a tank and it arrives a few minutes later on a plate. Mom’s host met us at the restaurant and gave her the low down on the evening ahead. Apparently, the poster his evangelical girlfriend had made for the talk had created a bit of a stir on this tiny island bastion of mid-sixties, Caucasian hippies and local fishermen, so the night portended to be quite interesting.
In fact, it was. Completely random, awkward and a difficult set-up in a public café with half of the people there for the talk and the other half there to have dinner. But again, mom handled it with her usual skill and the talk was well received and interesting. She posed for a few pictures, sold a few books and we ran for the 9:30 public ferry.
So, since her visit, Gwyneth has guest- starred on an episode of Glee!, graced the cover of ELLE, made her country music singing debut at the CMA, promoted Jessica Seinfeld’s new cookbook and any number of other experiences. For her, HK was an “interesting cultural experience” and is a distant memory. For me, her visit was a glimpse of another world and a long slow exhale. Now What?