'HONG KONG? Isn't that the capital of Tokyo?' Yes, I'm back in my home town of Los Angeles and this is a question I've heard more than once during my two-week return. Of course, it's my own fault. It's the company I've been keeping. I've been hanging out at the local coffee house, inappropriately named The Novel.
I say 'inappropriately' because the teetering tables at this beachfront cafe are crammed with clog- and Birkenstock-shod slackers hunched over Macintosh Powerbooks, tap, tap, tapping away at the final scene of the script that is sure to inspire a multimillion dollar bidding war between Tri-Star and Hollywood Pictures. So I doubt anyone around here is working on a novel. But somehow a beat-inspired coffee house called The Screenplay just doesn't quite make it.
Anyway, I've forgotten just how friendly and curious and, well, misguided about Asia the people around here can be. More than a few believe that Hong Kong is a Third World communist country where dogs are afraid to roam the streets alone.
Of course, it's not just Hong Kong that baffles America-centric locals. It's all of Asia.
The Malaysian man at the next table, making casual conversation the way coffee house patrons will, tells me: 'When I first came here as a teenager to study at UCLA, my room-mate, a football player from the Valley, asked me, 'Do you live in a tree?' ' But the people of Los Angeles are always eager to learn about the ways of the East. Take the latest interest in the legislative measures of Singapore.
News of the fate of Michael Fay, the 18-year-old American expatriate brat formerly on the loose on the car-lined streets of Singapore, has reached LA. Six strokes of a moistened rattan cane 'administered' by a jailer trained in martial arts, four months in prison, and a hefty monetary fine - all this for spray-painting a couple of cars? Not only are those Singaporeans some mean mothers, they must be major philistines as well. Convicted graffiti taggers in LA are usually given a quick slap on the wrist, elevated to the status of Misunderstood Artists, and given a show at a trendy Westsidegallery with Madonna, Richard Gere and k.d. lang all sipping Spanish wine at the opening. (Such was the case of the notorious 1980s California tagger, Chaka, who left hundreds of thousands of tags on freeway overpasses, houses and police cars up and down the state.) So you would think that Los Angelenos would be up in arms over the Fay ordeal, sending faxes of protest flying to the Singaporean Government. In real life, however, such is not the case. According to an article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, the general population believes the cane should be taken to some of the imbeciles running loose around the city.
Following last week's murder of two Japanese students in the parking lot of a Southland grocery store, locals have been crying out that California's criminal justice statutes are literally allowing people to get away with murder.
It is difficult to ignore the statistics. The city-state of Singapore and LA have roughly the same population, but in 1993 Singapore logged 58 murders, 80 rapes, 1,008 robberies and 3,162 car thefts; in Los Angeles that year, there were 1,100 murders, 1,855 rapes, 39,227 robberies and 65,541 car thefts.
In fact, since I've moved away from LA, almost all of my friends living in the city have been held up at gunpoint.
My own ordeal happened two years ago, in the car park of an Italian restaurant in Hollywood. When a fat old man emerged from behind a car and demanded that my girlfriend and I hand over our purses, I handed him the rest of my pizza - all over the front ofhis white T-shirt. He pulled out a gun and told me I was a bitch. Funny thing, but I felt my bravado suddenly leave me - along with my wallet, which of course, I handed straight over.
OSCAR SWINDLER AN ENGLISH friend of mine, having flipped through the advertisements in the LA Weekly I had brought back to Hong Kong, remarked: 'God, if I ever go to Los Angeles for two weeks, I will probably come back covered with tattoos and pierced through every possible appendage.' He neglected to add that most likely he'd also go blind from all the movies he would be required to watch just to keep up.
In my first five days, I had seen as many movies, having made a point in particular to catch Belle Epoque, the Spanish film that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Considering it snatched the statuette away from Farewell My Concubine, Chen Kaige's phenomenal Beijing Opera epic, I figured Belle Epoque better be good.
The cinema was certainly full enough, anyway. We had to fight our way past Winona Ryder, past Pierce Brosnan - who, judging from where his hand is placed, is now dating Bruce Springsteen's ex-wife Julianne Phillips - and past Corbin Berenson and Amanda Pays, to find a few decent seats. We settled into our seats and we watched. What ensues is two hours of silly sex games among four gorgeous young Spanish sisters and one gorgeous young Spanish stud. It was fun, it was pretty, it was, as my friend Clive puts it, like an episode of Barcelona 90210.
But a film superior to Farewell My Concubine? Ha! We think not.
The Academy's snubbing Chinese cinematic masterpieces seems to have become a policy of sorts. Two years ago, the Italian film Mediterraneo, which was amusing at best, fatuous at worst, beat out Zhang Yimou's startling Raise The Red Lantern, leading us to wonder if Li Peng should forget about securing MFN status and concentrate instead on getting China some respect at the Oscars.