The latest line in love
BRIAN is one of life's winners. A strapping bachelor who modestly concedes he has been told he is ''moderately good-looking'', Brian works for an advertising agency in Wan Chai and lives in Pokfulam.
He is a romantic fellow, but with a sybaritic streak because he likes horse racing, nightclubbing and lying on the beach.
Unfortunately for the lovelorn who did not start today by opening a fistful of Valentine's cards, Brian does not exist, at least not outside the Heart to Heart telephone dating service aimed at Hongkong's singles.
You have probably seen the television advertisements in which a handsome, clean-cut expatriate man happily chats over the telephone to a pretty, young Chinese woman with equally perfect dental work.
Possibly it is Brian himself who appears on screen, pitching in to help Hongkong's frustrated romantics find their ideal partner, or at least to get them a date for the night.
It is his self-description callers to Heart to Heart hear as an example of how they might wish to frame their taped message for others to respond to.
''Heart to Heart is a quick, easy way to meet new friends in Hongkong,'' Brian said smoothly when we called.
He might well have added it was also a quick and easy way to make money.
Callers are charged $6 a minute, and it is difficult to spend less than eight minutes on the line when you first dial in, although Brian insisted this was ''a small price to pay for your chance to meet your perfect partner''.
Heart to Heart works by callers either trawling through the recordings of other users hoping they will find someone they want to leave a message for, or by leaving their own verbal missive.
It is operated by Robert Chua Productions, whose recent contribution to romantic human bonding was running the infamous ''Squidgy'' tape between the Princess of Wales and close friend Mr James Gilbey.
General manager Mr Peter Ma said the company wanted to start an English-language equivalent to the Chinese line - that apparently has 2,000 members. We decided to put the service to the test.
In the United States, taking out an advertisement in the personal columns of newspapers or in specialist contact magazines has become not only trendy, but even respectable.
Maybe the territory is behind the times, but Hongkong people still want to encounter their future partner in a bar, at a party, on a junk or in the office. Finding them over the telephone is practically like standing in Pedder Street or Nathan Road shouting: ''I am a social inadequate!'' Knowing that, how do you sell yourself when Brian tells you to speak over the telephone and leave your message? Clearly, everyone lies about their assets, or at least exaggerates them.
What point is there in saying you are a 26-year-old Porsche owner; a tall, sporty type but with a romantic bent when listeners will know you are nearer 30, you run to a $50 MTR card and cannot take more than three flights of stairs without calling for oxygen? On the other hand, there is no point in being overly modest, since you are trying to sell the most valuable commodity you know - yourself. So a paunch gives you a cuddly figure; the fact you cannot afford taxis since the Inland Revenue froze your accountmakes you ''enjoy long walks'' and your love of candlelit dinners only hints at the fact you keep forgetting to replace the broken bulb in the kitchen.
A mix of fact and fabrication was needed. We were Sasha, a 28-year-old public relations executive living in Mid-Levels, slim, blonde, attractive with a bubbly personality and Owen, the sporty thirtysomething guy with a Happy Valley flat, who longed for invigorating country walks at weekends capped off with romantic suppers and could not wait to hear from someone.
Peter (the callers' names have been changed), a 23-year-old American, said: ''I enjoy going out at weekends to Stanley and Lan Kwai Fong, watching movies, er . . . my hobbies are playing the drums . . . watching sport. I enjoy meeting interesting people,I love playing jokes, like to make people laugh.'' Jacqui believed in the truth, no matter how brutal it was. She sounded on the verge of tears when she said she did not have a job and ''just about everything was going wrong''. She recovered somewhat by saying she was looking for romance, although her message was still running a week after we first listened in.
Jacinta, an American-educated Chinese woman, sounded too good to be true; as her self-confidence purred through the telephone earpiece she said she was a tall, part-time model ''with many talents'' who was looking for someone in their mid-20s, although she gamely said she would not turn down an offer on account of age.
When contacted, Peter said he was half Spanish and half Indian, was born in the territory but had lived in the US for a long time.
He was working for the family lingerie business, although he was preparing to get a flying licence with the idea of becoming a commercial pilot.
Peter confessed: ''I was nervous phoning up but I have to swallow my pride sometime.
''I have a have-a-go-attitude. Sometimes you just have to do it. If you are stuck in Hongkong and you don't meet that many people what alternative is there? What do you do at the weekends?'' Later, after he was told he had been talking to the Sunday Morning Post, Peter said he had called for a joke and had not met anyone. Although Hongkong was a difficult place to meet people, he just wanted to get to know more women.
Mr Ma promised to try to find a happy couple who had met through Heart to Heart, but failed, although he had assured us the service had sparked some ''red hot romances''.
''We sometimes leave messages in the mailbox asking people to let us know what is going on and people come back to us saying: 'Thank you, we are OK now, we won't be using your hot line for a while; I am quite happy now I have found a partner.' '' With each call costing about $50 we reckoned, Mr Ma admitted the telephone bill could be quite expensive, but he was evangelical about the benefits of Heart to Heart.
''Initially I was very sceptical, but more and more I believe there is a need for the service. Hongkong is a big city, and the bigger the city the lonelier its people are.
''In this rat race people also tend to work and work and work; not a lot of people have the time or the money to go drinking in Lan Kwai Fong every Friday and Saturday.
''At least this is another avenue for them to make friends and for social intercourse.'' Intercourse, social or otherwise, was not on the agenda for us.
Neither Lisa, the romantic Cathay Pacific employee who liked swimming, working out and going out, nor Rosa, the Filipina who said she ''want to be a friend in Hongkong'' before her tape cut out, seemed interested in long country walks with the fellow from Happy Valley who was on the far side of 30.
Blonde Sasha's desire to meet some interesting men with a view to a permanent liaison was also unfulfilled.
Maybe we should leave another message . . .