The first time I visited Hong Kong was in 2001. Back then, I was a proud New Yorker living in a Park Slope railroad apartment that tilted at a 15-degree angle. Despite the funhouse accommodations, I loved the city: popping into Stromboli for a slice, making wacky experimental theater with friends and trying to predict what The New York Post’s headlines would be. Wacky Jacko Backo? New York was the grad school I never attended, a place where I was constantly stimulated and pushed to be more inventive, clever and competitive. It wasn’t the greatest city on earth—it was the only one.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents took my brother and me to the city a couple times a year. We’d make the usual tourist rounds, but what really captivated me were the skyscrapers, with their lighted windows at night. Riding up Madison Avenue, I’d look out the window of our Ford Escort and wonder what people were doing in those offices and apartments. At that hour in my hometown, people were calling it a night. In New York, they were just getting started. Ten days after I graduated from college, my bus pulled into Port Authority. It was January 1995. I was 23 years old and my dreams were big.
Being a struggling actor wasn’t easy. At first, I shared a cramped Hell’s Kitchen walk-up. My room looked out onto a shaftway flecked with pigeon poop, and I slept on a grubby single mattress that had once belonged to my great-uncle when he lived in New York in the 1920s. Later I moved to a 105-square-foot shoebox on 71st between Central Park West and Columbus. The bathroom was so tiny that to reach the shower I had to step over the toilet. But I was willing to make these sacrifices. After all, I lived in New York, and I was certain that if I stuck it out, I could make it.
By the time I moved to Park Slope, I was fast approaching 30 and wondering if I’d ever experience anything remotely close to a civilized life. While my living situation was bleak, I had all my teeth and most of my hair and was scratching out a living acting in film, TV, theater, commercials and corporate diversity training programs. Those last were the gigs that first took me to Hong Kong.
Here’s how they work: rather than asking employees to sit through a training video, companies invite actors into their offices to perform scripts designed to help participants better communicate with people from different cultures. After the scene is over, the actors stay in character and interact with the audience. In 2001, one of our clients liked what we did so much that it asked us to train its employees across the globe.
In Hong Kong, I played “Patrick,” a young ex-pat investment banker who botched Cantonese names, pried too deeply into his Chinese co-workers’ private lives and bossed around his dutiful but suffering assistant “Suzie.” It was a fun role to play—jerks always are—and during my three weeks there, I got to see the world as a privileged Westerner. I was flown over in business class, put up at the Shangri-La Hotel and treated like a rock star in a city known for its superior customer service.
Like Patrick, I knew little about Hong Kong. Unlike him, I loved it. There, it felt like the natural order of things had been dialed up to a furious speed. Restaurants served food fast and hard, slamming down bowls on tables and whisking them away as soon as you’d eaten your last grain of rice. Hong Kongers hustled and talked away on their mobile phones at all hours. This was a place where business got done.