A favour, our style

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 1997, 12:00am

The last time I read Reader's Digest - 25 years ago - it espoused safe, family values in a sickly sweet, canned, condensed form.

The 'Humour In Uniform' was Joseph Heller without the edge, Vietnam with all limbs intact. It packaged tragic or uplifting stories as if Ann Frank once had a difficult Monday. Half the time, it made me throw up.

Reader's Digest recently reappeared in the waiting-rooms of my mind by talking itself on to radio with a recent survey of honesty in Asia. Nine out of 10 Singaporeans handed in a wallet positioned to look as if it had been dropped, containing $320. Hong Kong scored only three out of 10 in a similar test of honesty.

The survey prompts this story.

Gerry, a friend of mine, was standing in the Admiralty MTR taxi queue at 6.30pm last Friday. A man in his 30s - pleasant-looking, flustered, a Jew (he was wearing a skull cap) - walked up to Gerry and asked him if he would take one heavy cardboard box and one small suitcase to his home in Conduit Road by taxi.

Instead of saying 'no', Gerry asked why. The man explained that he was an Orthodox Jew and his religion forbade him to ride on public transport after 6.30pm on a Friday. He must walk home. The box was heavy.

He then handed Gerry his wallet and his passport. 'Please take these as well,' the stranger said. 'I want to convince you my motives are perfectly innocent. And I will pay you of course.' He also gave Gerry his address. Gerry declined payment but said he would help. He is that sort of guy. Not gullible, just agreeable.

'I couldn't believe it,' Gerry told me. 'There I was sitting in a taxi with the wallet and passport of someone who didn't know me from Adam. What do I do? I was meeting some fellow Sri Lankans - in town on business - and I was already running late. I kept thinking as the taxi went up Garden Road, 'How did I get myself into this?' ' How much was in the wallet? 'I looked. I don't know exactly, but over $3,000 and other currencies as well. Can you imagine if this joker had tried this in any other big city in the world?' The stranger had told Gerry his wife was at home, and would accept the box and suitcase at the door.

'He'd rung her to tell her not to think it odd if someone delivers something to the front door,' Gerry related.

'He must have had extraordinary confidence he could pull this caper off. But of course he couldn't ring after 6.30pm as his faith also prohibits him using a telephone after that time on a Friday.' Or the escalator up to Mid-Levels.

'I suppose so, anything mechanical. Even a doorbell. I knew of these strict dictates of orthodoxy, so what he was asking me to do wasn't totally bizarre.' How many people were in the taxi queue? 'Twenty or so. I was 10th in line. He picked me as the mug or maybe, as a foreigner, as such I was likely to know more about Judaism.' So you found his place? 'I did. I kept the taxi waiting downstairs, went up, knocked on the door, a woman answered. I just said 'Michael asked me to deliver these.' ' Michael? 'He'd told me his name.' Did it square with that in his passport? 'I didn't look, actually. The woman thanked me very much and I handed the stuff over and she juggled children and a pen and a piece of paper as she asked for my home number as Michael would want to call and thank me, on Sunday,' Gerry said.

Where was Michael? 'Walking up the hill I suppose. This was only 10 minutes or so after I'd met him at Admiralty.' Did Michael call on Sunday? 'Sure he did, and he invited me out to a kosher meal with some of his friends next Wednesday. He's described me to his friends as an angel of mercy,' Gerry said.

'I'd better go along to disabuse them of this notion. I was just doing a bloke a favour.' It is a true and first-time story, but it reads like Reader's Digest. Maybe 'Life's Like That'.

So let us give it a nice, warm conclusion. Here is a new expression for the English language: To go out of your way to help out a complete stranger. To do someone a Hong Kong favour.