Sunday, Nov. 16, 1997, 7:19 a.m. Coffee cup in hand, I'm sitting up in bed, browsing, as always on Sunday morning, through the Travel Section, having these nice little travel fantasies.
On Page 5, a full-page dark red and green ad leaps out: "SUPER OFFER--LOS ANGELES TO HONG KONG--$999." The letters are 3 inches high.
"Hmmm . . . pretty good deal," I say to my quasi-conscious self, and absent-mindedly turn to Page 6.
Whoa! I do a double-take, spitting coffee onto another ad.
"Did that say $999 for two?" I flip back to Page 5.
Yes, and not only that, but Cathay Pacific Airways says it's throwing in five hotel nights. "Sure, uh huh." I narrow my eyes cynically. "At this price, probably two cots in the Great Hall of Re-Education."
But a small voice from deep inside whispers, "So what?"
At the bottom of the ad there are a gazillion--well, at least 50--lines of very, very fine print, a.k.a. "restrictions."
" . . . All fares 100% nonrefundable in all circumstances including illness . . . Offer available only through Dec. 3. . . ." Full cash payment right now, this very second. Got a problem with that? Plus warnings such as how I'd better not even think about trying to go any dates except between Jan. 1 and Feb 15. They'll assign the travel date, thank you very much. A hotel will be assigned; and if you go, you will stay there and no place else.
Too bad my husband has already left for a morning bicycle ride. However, in my Home Shopping Network frame of mind, I do something heretofore untried in our marriage: I decide to dial the number, make (nonrefundable!) reservations first, then ask him questions later. Such as, is he by any chance dying to go to Hong Kong?
7:58 a.m. Dial 1 (800) 233-ASIA for first time. Busy. . . . 9:49 a.m. Dial for 23rd time. Busy.
Husband returns from bike ride, breathing hard. Marriage possibly saved. I can now ask him before I hand my Visa number over to Cathay Pacific.
He falls for the ad too. "Are you kidding? Call them right away," he says.
4:50 p.m. Dial 1 (800) 233-ASIA for 78th time. Busy. Index finger twitching from over-stress.
Monday, Nov. 17, 7:09 a.m. Dial 1 (800) 233-ASIA for first of 45 times that morning--get 45 busy signals. On 46th effort, I dial our travel agent's number. "We'll give it a try," she says. "I tried them once today and the line was busy."
"Oh," I say.
Tuesday, Nov. 18, 8:50 a.m. Travel agent calls. "Can you leave for Hong Kong on Jan. 21?" she asks, dispensing with salutations.
"Absolutely," I say.
"You're going. Give me your card number."
Sunday, Nov. 23, 10:30 a.m. One week later. Husband returns from Sunday bike ride with his buddies.
"All anyone talked about this morning was that ad. I strung them along, then I told them, 'Were going. We got tickets. We're going to Hong Kong.' "
Wednesday, Dec. 17, 6:30 p.m. Evening news on every network carries a story on the mysterious, deadly Hong Kong bird flu virus. The word "epidemic" is tossed around. A lot.
We turn to each other. Is the "Super Offer" a Communist plot? We make feeble jokes about slow, painful deaths from chicken virus. We decide we'll go to Hong Kong anyway, even if it means subsisting on McDonald's fries and Cadbury bars.
Thursday, Jan. 15, 1998, 6:30 p.m. National Public Radio announces that Hong Kong chicken flu fears are over with the slaughter of every chicken hatched in or near Hong Kong. No new cases have been reported in 1998. We sigh in relief.
Tuesday, Jan. 20, 6:30 p.m. The Los Angeles Times, NPR, NBC, CNN and the Home Shopping Network report two new cases of the mysterious chicken virus in Hong Kong.
Wednesday, Jan. 21, 9 p.m., Los Angeles International Airport. Jim exchanges $500 for something like $3,500 in Hong Kong dollars at a currency exchange booth, for no fee. During the remainder of the trip, he will always have to pay a fee to change money.
11:30 p.m. On a packed Cathy Pacific plane, we lift off from LAX, headed nonstop for Hong Kong and certain death from chicken flu. It's 5:30 tomorrow afternoon there. Too much time difference to reckon with. Most of our fellow coach passengers appear to be Asian families.
Jim had asked for, and we'd received, bulkhead seats, which have more room for his long legs. Then we discover we're seated by a couple with a 6-month-old baby. Jim and I exchange those looks you exchange when you realize you're going to spend all night sitting by a fretful infant.
Turns out this baby is quieter and better behaved than I am. Its parents, Hong Kong natives who now live in California, had tried to get in on the Cathay Super Offer deal but were too late. They were going home to visit relatives anyway.
We turn down the offer of a midnight meal from an attendant and instead swallow tasty Ambian sleeping pills.
We awaken six hours later. Flight attendants are quietly circulating around the dark cabin. When they find someone awake, they offer water, juice or warm Italian calzones. We devour two of the latter. Like I always say, you can't beat Italian food on a Chinese airline.
We doze some more and awake feeling as refreshed as a person can feel wearing yesterday's--or was it the day before yesterday's?--clothes. An attendant walks by with a tray of those hot, moist towelettes. Mine feels so good I want to cry.
Offered American- or Chinese-style breakfasts, we choose the congee soup, which is wonderful. We prepare to land at Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport at dawn; the trip actually hasn't seemed much longer than flying to Hawaii.
Inside the soon-to-be-replaced old airport (Hong Kong's new international airport is scheduled to open July 6 on the island of Lantau), the Hong Kong Tourist Assn. counter gives us our hotel's business card to hand to our cab driver (the Super Offer didn't include airport transfers).
A curbside sign printed in English and Chinese says how much fares should be to various spots around the city. The 20-minute ride to our hotel comes to a modest $9 ($63 Hong Kong).
A second nice surprise: We're actually allowed to check into our hotel room at 7:35 a.m. This is thrilling. We'd assumed we could leave our luggage, but would have to troop around the city until afternoon check-in time.
And we're not issued cots in a workers' dorm either. The pretty Royal Pacific Hotel overlooks Hong Kong's harbor from the Kowloon, or mainland, side. We're ensconced in a 17th-floor corner room with huge windows overlooking Kowloon Park on Canton Road. I'd brought binoculars, and I whip them out. I can see pink flamingos in the park from our windows. We grin and shake hands like two businessmen. This deal is working!
I case our quarters. Phone in bathroom. King-size bed. TV with remote that gets CNN and 24-hour stock quotes. Two pairs size-10 men's paper slippers (well, OK, my feet do slip out of them). Good reading lamps. Tray with coffee pot, china cups, tea bags and coffee for tomorrow morning. Little basket of toiletries. And wonder of wonders, a good-sounding FM radio. I flip it on to an orchestral rendition of "What's It All About, Alfie?" Shades of the bygone British Empire. Refrigerator even has enough room for our own bottles of Coke and beer.
We shower and hit the streets. My first impression of Hong Kong, which never leaves me, can be summed up in four words: Babies on Cell Phones.
At any given time, my peripheral vision takes in three, and, once, even six, walking cell-phone talkers. But it isn't until I see a 5-year-old snap open a flip phone, punch in several numbers and suddenly began to happily babble something like, "Bapa, Bapa," that I glimpse California's future: cell phones as crib toys.
My husband looks at the harbor and Canton Road's skyscrapers and pronounces: "The San Pedro docks set down on the Las Vegas Strip."
That first morning walk down bustling Canton Road gives no hint that the bottom has fallen out of Hong Kong tourism since the 1997 hand over, as a Cathay Pacific spokesman later told me. The Super Offer full-page ad is one of Cathay Pacific's efforts to jump-start Hong Kong's flagging tourism industry. Not only were travelers from the West not visiting, Asian tourists weren't either, though perhaps as much for economic reasons as any residual uncertainty about the political situation.
The Cathay Pacific spokesman said the promotion worked so well that it sold out completely in 96 hours instead of the three weeks the marketers had figured it would take.
"We ran the ad that Sunday in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times," said Gus Whitcomb of Cathay Pacific. "We thought we might sell 1,200 tickets in two weeks. Instead, we sold 4,000 tickets in the U.S in four days.
I search that first day for indications that I am in a Communist country (though I know Hong Kong has a sort of autonomy for, supposedly, the next 50 years before it begins playing strictly by the People's Republic of China rules) and see nothing. "The East Is Red" may be the People's Republic's patriotic ditty, but they're all wearing DKNY black and shopping until they drop on the streets of Hong Kong.
At noon that first day, Jim and I decide to eat lunch. It is 4 a.m. California time.
We come upon a pretty Taiwanese restaurant, go inside and are seated. I choose "lemon chicken." Jim goes for "chicken with cashews." Both dishes sound comfortably familiar in our first hours in Asia. Both taste delectable. The bill, with drinks, is $28.
We leave satisfied with our first successful foray into Hong Kong dining. On the street, we look up at the full name of the restaurant above the entrance. "Taiwan Chicken Farm." We turn to each other, mouths agape; we'd truly forgotten to remember to be paranoid about the chicken virus.
The next day, we take advantage of another Cathay Pacific offer: a half-price, half-day tourist outing north of Hong Kong to the rural New Territories and the mainland China border. Even the Chinese call the border "no man's land."
For $30 each, a half-price "Super Offer," we board a Splendid Tours van at noon near the chichi Peninsula Hotel on Kowloon's waterfront. Suddenly, the noise and humanity of Hong Kong is behind us. Hilly deep-green countryside, dotted with banana and bamboo trees, takes over .
Our first stop is the Bamboo Forest Monastery, very much a working monastery. Monks iron their clothes on their apartment balconies. Dozens of Buddhists light and wave joss sticks in front of shrines more colorful than a paint-store color chart.
Our next stop is eerily dramatic: Our little group becomes quiet as we climb, then stand on a rise at Lok Ma Chau and look down at the forbidding barbed wire and chain link wall beside the Shenzhen River, which divides the special district of Hong Kong from the People's Republic of China.
As we return to our van on the border, Jim and I realize for the first time that we are with fellow "Super Offer" travelers. By accident, everyone on our outing is an "880," which we had dubbed ourselves in reference to the flight number of Cathay Pacific's daily, 14-hour, nonstop L.A.-to-Hong Kong flight.
Passengers on the flight, we discover, are sprinkled throughout 60 Hong Kong hotels. We "880s" jointly realize that we happen to be at the Red Chinese border compliments of the same full-page travel section ad on the previous Nov. 16.
At our final New Territories stop, a quartet of grinning, toothless old Hakka women, members of an ancient farming clan, meet us at the gate of their 700-year-old walled village of Kam Tin in big-brimmed black hats with dangling fringe. They take my heart immediately.
After they take my heart, when I ask to take a picture of them they take my money. But I am happy to hand over $1.40 to stand in the middle of the four old women who are cackling with good spirit at the money they are going to split four ways as soon as we leave.
The next morning, we again leave the city on a half-price Cathay Pacific jaunt, this time on a gaily painted Watertours tourist junk for the nearby small island of Cheung Chau in the South China Sea.
We walk through waterfront streets decorated for Chinese New Year with strings of fake red firecrackers (real ones are illegal in Hong Kong). We burst out laughing at a sandwich board sign in the narrow street advertising "Britist-Hong Kong Flags--Low Price--Make Good Shower Curtains."
Tuesday, Jan. 27. Our flight isscheduled to leave at 11 p.m. on the first day of the Chinese New Year. A parade along the Kowloon waterfront four blocks from our hotel will set off at 2 p.m.
Cathay Pacific had delivered what they advertised, including the use of our hotel room until 5 p.m. that last day.
Alighting from our last Star Ferry crossing, Jim is approached by two charming Hong Kong schoolgirls with backpacks and questionnaires, who speak excruciatingly correct English. They are on school assignment
"Do you consider Hong Kong a shoppers' paradise? . . . Do you like our transportation system? . . . Is our food pleasing?" . . . the girls ask, tittering at their own forwardness, but diligently marking down his answers.
"No, it's not a shoppers' paradise," he tells them. "Your bargains are about what our bargains are at home. But your public transportation is the best. And your food is expensive but very pleasing."
But a sightseer's paradise, yes.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Hong Kong on a Deal
Regular air fares on Cathay Pacific LAX-Hong Kong begin at about $1,125 for round-trip nonstop service. The $999 Los Angeles-Hong-Kong "Super Offer" is not currently available, according to Cathay Pacific spokesman Gus Whitcomb. But Cathay does have a new spring package called the "All Asia Pass," which includes air fare to Hong Kong and as many as 17 other Asian cities in 30 consecutive days for $999 per person. For more information, telephone (800) 233-ASIA Monday through Saturday; Web site: http://www.cathay usa.com.