It all started with my mentor, Dr. Pincus. He came up to me in the hospital hallway one day, asking me if I was interested in taking a break in my training program, and travel to Indonesia to teach a course in internal medicine. I love to travel, and had never been to Southeast Asia, but I expressed some reservations regarding my qualifications for the role, as well as my lack of funds. He assured me that having just finished my internal medicine residency at County-USC, I was more than qualified for the job, and as far as money, he was willing to cover all the expenses from his own pocket. He explained that he had previously participated in the program himself, and was scheduled to go again in a month, but a sudden shift in his schedule would not afford him the opportunity to be gone for several months, so he wanted to send me in his place. The program was called CARE-Medico, and represented a partnership between the old CARE package program, and Medico, which was originally started during the Vietnam War by a U.S. Navy physician, Tom Dooley, setting up hospitals in Laos. Dr. Dooley wrote a best seller called “The Night They Burned the Mountain” about his experience, and what happened when Laos turned to Communism. Dr. Dooley died tragically at the age of 37 of melanoma. His work was taken over by one of his associates, a tall Texan who helped morph the program into a teaching project after gaining financial support from CARE. The organization contracted with a number of Third World Countries to send in a team of physicians and nurses to teach medical courses to native physicians in an attempt to upgrade their medical knowledge and improve health care in their countries. Local physicians were pulled for a 6 month period from their villages and small towns to a large regional hospital, where teaching was conducted.
Dr. Pincus’s offer was not one I could pass up, so I jumped at the opportunity. Several of the full time teaching staff at USC were kind enough to allow me to copy some of their lecture slides (after I ascertained that I would have a slide projector available to me) and I feverishly worked for over a month putting together an abbreviated medicine course. As a bonus, this exercise provided an excellent opportunity for me to refresh my own knowledge for my upcoming specialty board exam. There is no better way to learn material than by being able to teach it to someone else. Dr. Pincus also managed to get the program director to sign off on giving me elective credit for my activities. Finally, I was able to take two weeks of my personal vacation time during my travels, allowing me to explore Hong Kong and Thailand prior to starting my teaching assignment. Dr. Pincus went so far as to pay for my stay at the Hilton in Hong Kong and the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok – both 5 star hotels. It was a gift I always appreciated, and which I tried to pay back by continuing to donate my time to USC for over three decades, and mentoring students myself.
This adventure occurred in the late seventies, when Pan AM was still flying. Pan AM Flight #1 took over 15 hours from San Francisco to Hong Kong, the longest time I spent on a plane until recently. Sitting next to me was a well-dressed middle age woman wearing a jade pendant with Chinese characters. When one of the Chinese flight attendants came by, she showed her the pendant, asking for the inscription to be translated. “My husband brought this back to me from one his business trips” she explained, “and I want to know what it means.” The flight attendant stammered a little, saying she didn’t speak Mandarin. “But I thought the characters are all the same,” the woman insisted. “Yes, they are” the flight attendant conceded. “If you insist on knowing, ma’am, it says “Licensed prostitute, city of Shanghai.” The passenger turned beet red. “I’ll kill him!” she muttered. “Wait until I get home – I’ll kill him!” Turned out to not to be a boring flight after all.
The old Hong Kong airport was right on the water’s edge, and as the plane came in, it almost seemed we would end up in the ocean. The Hilton was on Hong Kong Island, and you had to take the Star ferry if you were going to Kowloon. During my time there, it was still under British control, and the architecture was a crazy mix of colonial buildings mixed with modern glass and steel high rises. It is one of the most densely populated cities of the world, and has some of the most expensive real estate. At the time, the city was the financial hub of Southeast Asia, maintaining an uneasy truce with its giant Chinese neighbor. China had just opened up to Western visitors, but getting a visa was still difficult, and I didn’t have much free time, so I confined my visit to the city. Hong Kong itself means “Fragrant Harbor” in reference to the sandalwood that was transported to China 100 years ago. The city is like a pinball machine by the sea, all lights and action, with buildings going up and coming down. At first glance, it looks like a strikingly beautiful, compacted version of New York if it had been moved to the San Francisco Bay, with lighting designed by Las Vegas. After a few moments, it makes New York appear slow. The harbor is filled with cruise ships, red sailed junks, rusty freighters, and military naval vessels flying different country flags.
Hong Kong exists purely for buying and selling; here, the bottom line is everything. In terms of money turned over each day, the city is only behind New York and London in the world. I visited the ancient village of Aberdeen, where people live and fish on their junks, some never having set foot on land. If you cross Victory Harbor on the Star Ferry or the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) you’ll find great hotels, shopping centers and streets filled with merchandise. The main artery is Nathan Road, heading north to Yaumati and the New Territories, with old villages and new factories. The one place I don’t recommend you go is Tiger Balm Gardens. I was conned into going there on a visit. It consists of some garish, badly painted statues of various mythical figures and monsters, reminding me of what you might find in an out of the way miniature golf course.
Chinese people love to gamble, and the two race tracks are popular places to go. Thanks to a British acquaintance I made at the hotel, I was invited to attend one of the tracks, which, despite the fact that I don’t gamble, turned out to be an interesting cultural experience. I didn’t have time to visit Macau, and since I already been to Las Vegas, I didn’t feel like I was missing out. There are myriads of wonderful restaurants in Hong Kong, about which I won’t make recommendations, since it’s been too long since I visited. I did learn that if you wanted to have your tea pot refilled, you set the lid akimbo, and someone will bring more hot water. I also noted that the leftover tea is used in many less fancy restaurants to wash down the table after the meal. The other piece of useful information I gleaned from my British friend, who was a frequent visitor, was that if you wanted to buy something in a shop (bargaining is a way of life there) you are best served by being either the first or last customer of the day. The Chinese are superstitious, and believe that making that first or last sale of the day is crucial in maintaining their business luck, and will make great concessions to achieve this. I still have a beautiful pair of lapis and gold cufflinks to prove the value of this tactic.
Next stop – Thailand.