A Madcap Ride Though the Streets of Hongkong
Prior to 1964 I don’t honestly remember having any particular interest in motorcycles. Then in the late fall of that year several events occurred that were to have a profound effect on me and spark an interest in two-wheeled contrivances that has grown and intensified ever since.
That was the year that my father informed me that he had received another overseas assignment and that the family was moving once again, this time to Bangkok Thailand! Having been stuck in the states for four long grueling years it was the best news I could have hoped for. Being used to living overseas, living in the US just didn’t carry much excitement for me. Most of the kids in my then current neighborhood had never been overseas or lived anywhere other than Washington DC so we just didn’t have that much in common, but that’s another story.
So it was that in the middle of November we boarded a plane and prepared to head west for a trip that would take us half way around the world. After a week’s stay in Hawaii, another wonderful story in itself, we headed west once more and landed in Hong Kong the following day. Having just recently turned 14 my world was rapidly expanding and the spark of oncoming “manhood” had aroused a plethora of new and delightful interests!
Hong Kong in the sixties was a truly amazing city. As we circled above the city just before landing it appeared to be very much like any other modern western city that might be situated on a beautiful straight of beep blue water. Once immersed in the city center, however, it quickly became apparent this was no western metropolis. The high rise buildings festooned with colorful neon lights stood in stark contrast to what was to be found at street level and it was this ground level view which soon dispersed any notion of Hong Kong being anything like home. The constant activity, the multitudes of scooters and bicycles, the faces and clothing, the markets and curbside vendors, everything said very clearly that this was definitely NOT the west. That, in and of itself, made for an experience that is one of my fondest memories. The lights, the uproar of constant traffic, the young oriental women in their brightly colored outfits, mile after mile of storefronts filled with the coolest and latest electronics of the 60’s at prices that even I new were unbeatable, filled my vision in every direction. Transistor radios that could fit in your pocket, some as small as two inches square to ones that could receive signals from around the world were displayed everywhere. Open markets abounded, filled with foods in the most amazing colors and textures. Meat stalls were lined with hanging carcasses unlike anything I had ever seen in a butcher’s market back home, some of which I could identify and others I could only guess at. The walk along the harbor with its flotilla of Chinese Junks tied together side by side in long chains extending a good ways into the harbor and end to end as far as you could see filled me with wonder and delight. An entire city afloat, separated from the mainland structures by economics and culture, yet every bit as permanent a part of the city as the high rise office buildings lining the hillside above. Victoria Island with its trolley car that climbed the harbor side of the mountain, past small hill side villages perched precariously on its steep slope was a fascinating adventure for a boy of fourteen who had longed to once again be traveling. It was a world so foreign, even to me who had lived most his young life overseas, that any attempt to describe it falls so short that I’m almost hesitant to try. It was all so incredibly different than anything I could have imagined, the mix of western and oriental combined to form a culture that was truly unique.
After spending the day exploring the city, the son of an old family friend who had been living in Hong Kong for some time invited us out for dinner at one of his favorite restaurants. That’s where the real adventure began for me in so far as my love of motorcycles is concerned. He arrived at our hotel in the early evening and putting my family in a cab and giving the driver directions, he asked me if I would like to ride with him. “Sure” I replied, not yet knowing what was afoot. He then asked my parents if they would mind if I rode with him on his scooter! They seemed a bit hesitant at first but he assured them I would be safe and that he would drive slowly and that we would arrive safely. They therefore allowed as it might be OK, for such a short distance. ALLRIGHT! So off they went and we, I and my new friend and benefactor, proceeded over to where his Vespa was parked by the curb. He started it up and after a few quick instructions to hold on tight and do what he did, lean when he leaned, I climbed aboard and off we went.
Once again I am almost at a loss for words to describe that ride. Almost, but not quite! Having just turned dark, the city was in full swing, the glare from the miles of neon lights flashing their utmost brilliance to ensnare the passersby with their wares was almost blinding. Everywhere people thronged the streets on their way to an evening’s entertainment. The countless bars where the ladies were ever so eager to please, offering everything from a simple massage to well, if you could imagine it, they could provide it, and if your imagination ran dry, they could provide that too. And the traffic! There was literally nowhere else that could compare to the traffic in the orient, at least not back then. Europe could have come in a close second, having quite a few more smaller cars and numerous motor scooters than any American city, but nowhere in the US could one find anything approaching the havoc of the streets of Hong Kong. The closest to anything like it I’ve seen was the traffic in a Mexican boarder town I visited in 2002. Besides the fact that drivers in Hong Kong seemed to feel there was no need to pay attention to the lane markings, traffic signals or other directional information, a good portion of the vehicles were two-wheeled not four. For any given forty feet of roadway there were five or six times the number of vehicles to contend with compared to the average city back home. Since the scooters and bicycles took up so much less room side to side, six lanes of traffic could easily become nine or ten! And turn signals? Unheard of, why bother, if you let the guy behind you know what you were up to, chances are he’d squeeze in and take that opening before you. Best keep your intentions to yourself if you wanted to make any progress. And progress we indeed made.
In order to more fully understand what the traffic was like perhaps an analogy would be well placed here. Imagine if you will, a motorcycle road race though a city, such as the race that takes place in the Isle of Man. Now let’s cram as many vehicles as possible on any given stretch of roadway, mostly scooters and bicycles and about a million pedestrians aimlessly crossing the roadway as the mood strikes them, totally heedless of the vehicular comings and goings. Then add a good measure of small cars, the more dilapidated the better and fill them with half blind drivers and drunken passengers. Next we’ll add plenty of wooden bodied buses so full of riders that some passengers are quite literally hanging on to the outside handrail with one hand and with three toes on the lowest step of the doorways, both front and rear. Mix in a good sprinklings of brightly colored trucks filled with baskets of squawking chickens, snorting pigs in rickety wooden boxes and sundry other live stock and make sure there are at least 3 passengers, or better yet entire families on any given scooter and ensure that everything is traveling as fast as the vehicle can manage. Throw in plenty of random movement, vehicles parking and double parking at will, buses discharging passenger in the middle of the street and any other assorted mayhem you can conceive. To round it all out, disable the brake lights on a good ten or twenty percent of the vehicles, de-tune the motors and have half of them race in the opposite direction. Then and only then will you begin to have even an inkling of Hong Kong traffic at 7PM on a typical night in the mid nineteen-sixties. Marvelous!
Finally, add one 14 year old boy being treated to his first motorcycle ride and you’ll have an approximation of the conditions through which I traveled that evening on the back of that 150 cc Vespa. The insane traffic congestion, the almost oppressive humidity, the warm night air filled with the smells of the open air markets and sidewalk venders roasting meats over charcoal stoves mixed with the belching exhaust from a countless number of badly tuned diesel motors provided the backdrop for my first two wheeled adventure.
I’ll never know what my companion’s idea of slow was, but I’m quite confident it was nothing like what my parents would have thought “slow” was, and that was just fine with me. Racing down those streets amidst all that activity, my head in a constant whirl as I tried in vain to absorb it all, looking madly in all directions so as not to miss a single moment or some new and wondrous sight, made that first ride the most glorious, most exhilarating, most memorable ride of my entire life. Nothing to date can, nor ever will, compare to it or the effect it had on me. It is to this day one of my most vivid memories and no doubt will be one of the last to fade.
By the time we arrived at the restaurant, I felt I had seen more, done more, experienced more than the rest of my entire life put together. And top it all off, I had seen and smelled and experienced all this from the back of two-wheeler and I was HOOKED! Oh Yeah, Hooked. As we walked into the restaurant, me with a grin on my face that has left a wrinkle that is still with me even to this day, my friend and new bosom buddy informed my folks that I was a “natural” when it came to riding, he had hardly even been aware of my presence. I had leaned when I was supposed to and had followed his every lead; he had never had such a good passenger before. That was my moment of glory and I knew right then and there motorcycles were going to be a part, perhaps even a big part, of the rest of my life.
The next day found us at our final destination, Bangkok, and sure enough within a year a friend of mine confidentially informed me that he had found a place where we could get motorcycles for a mere 5 dollars American for a 24 hour rental, so off we went. After spending less than an hour learning the controls, I was out zipping around the city and that same evening rode the machine to a large open house party. Within practically no time, I was giving various female party-goers their first ride, many of whom had to sit side-saddle due to the tightness of their skirts. For the remaining three years in Bangkok I continued to rent motorcycles whenever possible, depending mostly on available funds. For the most part they were Honda CB 160 Scramblers and CB 250’s till I discovered the Suzuki 250, which with its 2-stroke motor and six speed gearbox was capable of doing around 170 kph, or right around a 100 mph. For something that light, that was incredibly fast back then. Eventually my parents discovered the fact I had been renting and riding motorcycles, my father being the first. This fact was revealed when he came into my room one day with a pair of my shoes in hand and informed me that if I insisted on dragging my feet and wearing out the soles of my shoes when going around corners while riding he felt I should start buying my own clothes! I’ve been riding ever since and the best part is, the ride is not nearly over.
Thus was my fate sealed on that momentous evening zipping though the streets of Hong Kong on the back of a bright blue scooter in the year of 1964.