THERE was a rather nasty surprise for those who turned up at the United States Consulate for a visa yesterday. They discovered that Hong Kong people wanting to visit the US, for business or pleasure, are now being charged $160 for the privilege. There was quite some confusion. One family of four suddenly found themselves asked for a cool $640. A woman, who initially turned up on May 10 and was told to come back yesterday for an interview, wasn't told in advance of the charge. The fee is not refundable if a visa is not issued and they won't give change if you don't have the right notes. Even babies travelling on their parents' passport have to pay $160. The interesting thing is that American passport-holders can turn up at Kai Tak without a visa and stay here for four weeks without paying a cent. We've even reduced the airport departure tax to $50 for them and no doubt that will soon disappear altogether. ''To Hong Kong people, $160 is not a big amount,'' was one response from the consulate yesterday. The end of free visas has apparently been prompted by the introduction of machine-readable visas (MRVs), computer-generated documents which include a photo. The consulate says this should help people get through the airport at their destination more quickly, but everyone knows that the real aim is to make it more difficult for immigration fraudsters, who in the past have proved adroit at switching visas from one passport to another. Perhaps this scheme of getting customers to pay for equipment which they never requested should be dubbed ''the Autopass strategy'' after the Cross Harbour Tunnel's infamous electronic toll system. It seems grossly unfair to us that US nationals can obtain free visas to come here while we have to pay $160 to go there. The consulate replied: ''The visa for Hong Kong travel document holders is free. The $160 is the fee for processing applications.'' Deficit funding THE consulate's statement on the charges and the MRVs said: ''Unfortunately, in this era of deficit reduction and leaner federal budgets, the funds needed to support such a programme can no longer come from the usual State Department appropriations.'' Other US consulates and embassies using this equipment around the world have started charging too. Still, it seems a bit much to charge people in Asia because of the US budget deficit. After all, we were the ones who were doing them a favour by financing their deficit in the mid-1980s by buying US bonds and other assets. Share fever WE don't normally do film reviews in Business Post, but the movie Shanghai Fever is all about the Shanghai A share market, so we'll make an exception. The film is the story of a group of ordinary Shanghainese who play the Shanghai market in the summer of 1992 with the help of a ''Honkie'' share expert. They make money, then lose it. It's not a very good film. Not a single car chase or steamy sex scene. But as it was shot in Shanghai, the script must have been approved by the mainlanders, so we went wondering what message the mainlanders wanted to push. Answer: frenzied speculation is bad. You may get money and nice clothes, but you won't get happiness. Your child will fall ill, you'll get involved with some dubious characters such as people from Hong Kong, and your marriage will break up. Got the idea? Cowboys AT last. A company called Cowboy. There are lots of companies called Indian, at least 14 called Lone Star, plus plenty of mining stocks with Wild West-type names like Saddle Mountain and High Frontier Resources, or our own Sharp Brave Holdings and Morning Star Holdings. There are also genuine Wild West firms like Wells Fargo, which incidentally has a superb museum in its headquarters in San Francisco. But its fallen to Japan to produce the first genuine corporate Cowboy, a Hokkaido-based company coming to the market on May 27, courtesy of Nomura. The firm doesn't quite rope steers. It buys discount meat and sells it through huge stores only open on Saturday and Sunday - which presumably makes it a sort of ''weekend cowboy''. . . . and cowgirls AS for that other sort of cowboy, who plays with his pistol around midnight, an interesting club has opened on Fortress Hill Road. A number of well-known businesswomen we know have been invited to this place with mailings holding the promise of free membership and lines like: ''Our club will be a romance place for ladies like you.'' The English text is suggestive. The Chinese gives a clearer picture referring to ngau ji mm long or ''midnight cowboys''. This must be a sign that more women are succeeding in business. A sign that mainland Chinese businessmen are becoming more prevalent is visible in the China City Nightclub, one of the clubs for big spenders in Tsim Sha Tsui East. It has a message which reads something like: ''Welcome to our patriotic friends,'' in simplified Chinese characters woven into its new carpet. It's been there a few weeks. We were wondering if it might have been done specially for Lu Ping's visit. Man in a million TALES of a past era: according to a job advert by Midland Realty in last week's Property Post, ''our top sales agent'' made a salary of $1 million in 1993 in sales and commission. Note that this wasn't for the year. This was for a month.