Hot property dragons who breathe fire
WHEN I left my girlfriend and abandoned our Lamma home last month, the last thing I was planning on was getting involved with more women. I envisaged a little Central-based pied-a-terre, nights out with the boys, man-talk, spy novels and sport.
I was intending to buy a crate of cognac and close the door. Then I discovered that right up on the list of vanishing species - next to giant pandas, safari suits and big-nosed civil servants - is the landlord.
Of course, there are plenty of men who own properties, but if you want to rent one you have to deal with their wives. Now, I have no doubt that in the boardroom and the mahjong club these property owners are tough negotiators. But I was meeting them at home.
Their business suits were exchanged for the Hong Kong's husband's traditional housewear: nylon shorts, cotton vest and lobotomised smile. In two weeks of dealings with the whirring money machine that is the Hong Kong family, I never saw any moving parts which were not female.
Time and again the door of my potential landlord was opened by domestica dominatrix: a perm-haired, middle aged woman with a newly-whetted fillet knife in one hand, a dense contract in the other and a calculator in the space where God had planned a heart.
They would lead me to some crumby sub-sandwich-class sandwich box, eight flights up, and explain that the 500 square feet advertised actually included half the corridor outside, the window sill and, in the rare event of there being a fridge, the drip-tray.
Rates and management fee (surely she means camp-bed hire to some asylum refugee) were all extra. These women are tough. They make Li Ka-shing seem like a soft touch.
I once heard a story about a gweilo who was squeezed out of his flat when it was sold to a new landlady who promptly raised the rent. His efforts to track down this new landlady and protest led him back to his home.
His apartment had been bought by his amah.
I used to think this story was rubbish. Then, last week, I met Attila the Hen. Attila owns a whole block of flats and I called her to arrange a viewing appointment for an empty flat. ''It will have to be lunchtime,'' she said. BUT wasn't her work managing her block of flats? I asked. Surely you will see me during work-time as it is part of your job? ''Oh no,'' she said. ''I work in my building, but I am a secretary for a shipping firm that rents an office there. I am paid by the hour so I lose money if I take time off.'' Her building is 11 storeys high. It contains 15 offices and 18 apartments. It is in the middle of Central. Why on earth did she have to work as a secretary? ''I like money,'' she said by way of explanation.
A couple of days later I happened to be talking to a Chinese nightclub dancer who lived at Chungking Mansions. Clearly she could afford better. She wore designer clothes and carried a Chanel handbag. ''Why do you live here?'' I asked.
''It is better for me financially to stay here and rent out my two Kowloon Bay apartments,'' she said.
The first flat I rented was landladied by domestica dominatrix in her purest form. Huge diamante Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses covered her face like a pair of Hang Seng Index monitors.
She was the kind of business operator who thought trust was an investment plan for the children. She presented a hand-written receipt for my initial deposit which ran to 600 words. She made an exhaustive inventory which went on for two pages of Chinese script, even though the apartment contained only one chipped glass tumbler hidden under the sink.
I realised as she handed it to me to sign that I would never see my deposit again. For all intents and purposes I might as well have been pressing congealed snow into her sweaty palm. Oh well, I consoled myself, at least I have the glass tumbler. But when I moved in the next day, the tumbler had gone. So had the light bulbs. Three days later I went too.
Finally, I found Mrs Chiang, a kind hearted owner of a furnished and reasonably priced flat. I moved in and decided to begin my new life by repairing to that men-only refuge - the sauna. Macho, central, the perfect place to shake off the growing feeling that women not only rule Hong Kong's emotional life but its financial one as well.
I settled down for a massage and, as the masseuse walked up and down my spine, proffered a question: ''You don't, by any chance, own any apartments, do you?'' ''Oh yes, six . . . one's empty right now.''