IS Office, Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, Wanchai, Hong Kong, China
Tonight. Oh, how could I possibly put into words...
The day was as long and frenzied as any other. Snapping pictures of VIPs, speakers and panelists; collecting speeches and coordinating duplication; pounding and rebooting our crappy rented computers on an hourly basis; confusing the hell out of ourselves tracking people down over a bewildering network of cel phones and short-range radios; scheduling media interviews, pitting CNBC Asia against the South China Morning Post; and doing all the other crazy things that go on behind the scenes when 600 corporate CEOs, government leaders and academic celebrities converge on one location to debate one another.
The few tasks I list seem like so little, and yet, this three-day meeting has rivaled the insanity of a whole semester running a daily university newspaper. It is everything, good and bad, I was warned about.
I can't describe how truly stressful it gets, or even why. I can only say that anything that can go wrong, however small and seemingly foolproof, unfailingly goes wrong, and by the end of the day everyone's snapped at at least three other people and some are practically on the verge of tears.
Throw in armed security guards and a mob of rabid journalists, like we had yesterday when Philippine President Joseph Estrada, IMF Director Michel Camdessus and China State Councillor Madame Wu Yi were on the program, and... and... jesus.
Today was comparatively calmer, but it was no picnic. And it also ran into the evening, thanks to a special "off site" function.
When the roundtable discussions and plenary sessions ended, and the sun started to set, delegates were whisked off to Government House, the former residence of the Governor of Hong Kong (before it became a "Special Administrative Region" of China), to network, eat fancy hors d'oeuvres and hear a speech. The staff went along, but as much for work as pleasure. I was back behind the camera, snapping shots of people drinking champagne and trading business cards.
David, my boss, came out to admire his favorite, the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank building (bottom, far right). The general consensus among the rest of us was that he was clearly insane.
The evening meandered on. Then, we were informed that the chairman of our organization had invited us to a ride on his boat.
Since said chairman owns the largest shipping fleet in Asia (with more tonnage than the Australian navy), I presumed "boat" meant big cruise ship. I presumed "us" meant a set of VIPs, with the staff along only as support. I presumed, basically, that it was just more work, taking more pictures.
I presumed wrong.
We got to the launch, and only our chairman and his assistant were waiting. Gone was his coat and tie, and he urged us to remove ours. Baffled, most of us weren't prepared to do that just yet. Where's the ambassador? Where's the finance minister and his entourage? Where are the reporters?
In silent disbelief, mouths open, we stepped aboard. The boat turned away from the pier and motored quickly away. The crew of three took our now freely-surrendered coats and offered wine and champagne. We were led to the open top deck. In barely five minutes, we were getting a view of the city few people get.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but even a million words could not do the sight justice. In fact, I was momentarily disappointed upon returning to the hotel tonight to find that, because of the motion of the boat and the dark of night, nearly all the pictures I'd taken didn't come out. (This one shot makes up for it, though.)
But perhaps it was someone's way of telling me to give up trying to document it and to just live it. Fortunately I did. And I'll never forget it.
It was beautiful. So beautiful. It wasn't long before we turned around the west end of the island and central Hong Kong disappeared, its presence betrayed only by the miles and miles of clouds above it lit up like it was high noon.
But even though the blazing neon and blinding colors were gone, the tall buildings and lights didn't stop. This side of the island was home to Hong Kong's largest concentration of residential apartments, and the sheer density was breathtaking. It went on for miles and miles, as if someone grabbed the thickest part of Makiki or Salt Lake, made it 50 stories tall on average, and stretched it from Waikiki to the airport.
I couldn't belive that every tiny light represented a person, or even a family. All of a sudden, I saw how eight million people fit in this place: very tightly.
We were heading about five miles southwest of Hong Kong Island to a place called Lamma Island, once home of the city's famous swarm of fishing and house boats until one-too-many storms wiped them out. There was almost nothing there now, save a few quarries and a remote pier crammed with stores and restaurants.
We disembarked, many of us wearing what felt like our first genuine smile in years. Each of us, at one point or another, joked that we'd happily work for our chairman just swabbing the decks. Spirits were finally high, and everyone was in awe.
Here was a man who measures the minutes in a day in thousands of dollars, and who turns down interviews with CNN. And while he, a Hong Kong resident of Austrian birth, had assets that dwarfed many of our organization's most demanding members, he was still down-to-earth enough to give an evening to the people on the ground.
He even insisted on serving the female members of our party, interns included. As I said to Anne, "You've never really lived until the head of a billion-dollar international shipping concern is putting shrimp on your plate."
We ate at a restaurant called the Rainbow Seafood restaurant, a modest establishment where many of the patrons were already drunk and cheering loudly. The food was great but the conversation even better, somehow shifting smoothly from how someone met their wife to how the Australian economy weathered the Asian financial crisis so well to how much pigeon tasted like chicken.
That's right, pigeon. We're talking coo coo pigeon. When it was served and David said it was pigeon, I just laughed. "Of course he was joking," I thought. But he wasn't, but that's okay, because actually, it was pretty good.
Though now I won't ever look at the flocks in Kapi`olani Park quite the same way again.
We talked and ate and talked and ate. No one wanted the evening to end. Slowly the entire island started to close, and the last ferry took of with a small load of straggling tourists. Our chairman picked up the tab, and we waddled contentedly back to the boat.
The ride back was positively meditative. Unlike the trip to Lamma, everyone was in one corner or another by themselves, looking thoughtfully over the water and at the approaching lights.
In part we were sad such a wonderful night was nearing an end. But we were also realizing how fortunate we were to be where we were that night, and how unlikely it was that we would ever be somewhere similar again.
Lacene said it was the best conference night she'd had in her five years with the organization, and I believe it. A man with the same combination of prominence, charisma and generosity especially within the world's ranks of top CEOs is more rare than diamonds. And with our wonderful chairman looking at retirement, we were truly facing an end of an era.>
Finally we rounded the corner and Hong Kong came back into view. The boat slowed to a crawl to prolong the ride as much as possible. Truly, some tears were shed, and we all fumbled to find the right words of gratitude. Even I don't see anything else in this city, the sweat, blisters and ulcers are already worth it.
We have one more meeting day left, but we now recharged and exhiliarated know we'll make it. We all finally rediscovered, if only for a few hours, why we do what we do.
Well, knock on wood, tomorrow is a big day for our team.
We're hosting a formal luncheon to promote next year's meeting in Honolulu. We've flown in fresh flowers, musicians and a top-name chef. We've assembled special gifts for delegates, printed a fancy brochure, and prepared a business-focused Hawaii promotional video.
And Governor Benjamin J. Cayetano will deliver the keynote address.
What gets me is, at this meeting, he's actually one of the lowest-ranking speakers on the program. But I've read the speech and we've run through the whole thing so many times, I'm sure we're going to make a great impression on everyone.
All that really matters, though, is that PowerPoint and I have nothing at all to do with this production.