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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Profile: Japan's Takarazuka Theater

(This is a 1990s profile of Japan's "all girl" theater--immortalized in the book "Sayonara" by James A. Michener and the classic film of the same name starring Marlon Brando)
Japan's Takarazuka Theater makes women, and men, of talented girls
It is late afternoon and 18 teenage girls, wearing simple jackets and long, gray flannel skirts that reveal just the barest trace of their white cotton stockings, file across the "bridge of tears" spanning the Muko River.

The girls in their demure, street-length costumes look like they have marched right out of 1914. In a way, they have.

On the other side of the bridge in this small town in western Japan lies the 76-year-old Grand Theater, home of Japan's all-female Takarazuka Revue Company and one of the most tradition-bound institutions in this nation of 123 million.

"Some people call this the bridge of tears because in the winter, when the wind blows along the river, the cold air brings tears to your eyes," said a girl named Mayumi. "But for others it is the bridge of tears because when a girl makes up her mind to devote herself to the Takarazuka, she has to give up romance."

Those who have read James A. Michener's 1951 novel "Sayonara"--or seen the Oscar winning movie of the same name staring Marlon Brando--know exactly what Mayumi is talking about. The heroine of the book, a Takarazuka actress named Hana Ogi, sacrifices her happiness by declining to marry the American Army major she deeply loves, to dedicate herself to the Takarazuka.

It is an immutable rule that a Takarazuka girl must leave the company if she marries.

It is something that the 85 specially selected girls attending the grueling two-year Takarazuka music school already have come to grips with-as have all the members of the Takarazuka Revue Company.

It has been that way since the theater was started in 1914 by Ichizo Kobayashi, a Japanese businessman and politician who founded the Hankyu Electric Railway Co., forerunner of Japan's Hankyu Corp.-one of the nation's largest private corporate conglomerates.

What began as a troupe of 15 women hired to sing and dance for Japanese who were lured on weekends from Osaka to suburban Takarazuka's hot springs and amusement park via the Hankyu Railway has grown into four troupes totaling 360 "Takarasiennes." They are supported by 300 instructors, producers, directors, writers, costume designers, and stage and lighting technicians, as well as two 35-piece orchestras.

Since Kobayashi introduced his all-female Takarazuka Revue as a counterbalance to Japan's all-male Kabuki theater, more than 100 million Japanese have watched the lavish, brassy, campy and sometimes kitschy performances that combine bits of Busby Berkeley, flashes of Florenz Ziegfeld, elements of European operetta, samples of Japanese classical dance and fragments of Viva Las Vegas (with the feathers, but without the toplessness).

The revue, which is broken into four troupes called Flower, Moon, Snow and Star, does eight major productions at the Grand Theater in Takarazuka and seven at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater each year.

That schedule was altered a bit last October when the Takarazuka Revue Company made its first American appearance in 30 years with six sold-out shows at New York's Radio City Music Hall.

What the bemused but appreciative American audiences saw was peculiarly Japanese entertainment floating in a sea of sexual ambiguity that has delighted Japanese audiences for seven decades.

With women playing the roles of men on stage (even to the point of wearing mustaches and goatees) Takarazuka musical adaptions of Western musicals such as "West Side Story," "Kiss Me Kate" and "Guys and Dolls" as well as Western literature such as "Gone With the Wind," "A Tale of Two Cities" and even "War and Peace" unfold on stage with eye-popping energy.

Nevertheless, Takarazuka, like sashimi and sushi, can be a bit daunting to the American palate at first.

Women who play men (called otokoyaku) have been trained to shove their feminine voices down as many octaves as possible and belt out tunes with as much male lustiness as their feminine genes will bear.

What emerges is often a kind of semi-virile warbling that falls between a weary Robert Goulet and a pubescent boy going through the agony of voice change. Women pretending to be men as they prance about the stage wearing adhesive facial hair, tuxedos and top hats takes some getting used to. But once you do get used to it, you cannot help but be struck by the general competence and talent arrayed on the stage.

That prowess and stage savvy are no accident, says Keiko Miho, 20, one of the latest crop of graduates from the Takarazuka Music School, where the motto "modesty, fairness and grace" is drummed into the heads of students.

Like her 40 classmates, Miho, from nearby Osaka, was chosen from about 850 girls who auditioned for a panel of Takarazuka judges two years ago. Like other applicants to the Takarazuka school, Miho had to pass a singing test, do sight reading of musical scores, then danced, impromptu, to a choreographer's instructions.

But getting into the school was easy compared with what she endured for the next two years. First-year students, called "juniors," are not allowed to wear makeup or curl their hair and must cut it or braid it in back.

Their temperate school uniforms are closer to the 1890s than the 1990s. When they meet an upper class "senior" or Takarazuka Revue member, they must bow and move quickly out of the way.

"You get up every morning before 7 and if you are a junior you clean the school and dormitory until about 8:30," Miho recalled.

"Then, seven hours a day, six days a week you have classes in drama, ballet, tap dancing, koto (a zitherlike stringed instrument), classical Japanese dance, musical theory, piano, samisen (a banjolike stringed instrument) and voice. It's physically demanding and tough. But the one thing that keeps you going is the realization that after two years you will be finished and will be on the stage."

Not quite. In their first year as full-fledged members of the troupe, music school graduates are known as "debutantes" and find themselves on the bottom rung once again, working as stagehands or taking bit parts as walk-ons. By the time they graduate, they also have been assigned their sex in the tightly controlled world of the Takarazuka-either as otokoyaku or as female-role players (musumeyaku).

It is a peculiar aspect of the Takarazuka that it is the smaller number of male role players (there is one "male" lead for each troupe) who attract the most fans-usually young girls and middle-aged women who see the otokoyaku as perfect gentlemen: safe, sexless, delicately handsome and cloaked in a veil of romantic fantasy.

"We tried to introduce men to the Takarazuka stage, but our audiences hated it," said Masao Hashimoto, a producer who has been with the theater since 1956. "We finally stopped trying just after World War II."

Every day, usually before 9 a.m., young girls, middle-aged women and even wealthy dowagers armed with video cameras and autograph books begin collecting outside the revue's theaters in Takarazuka and Tokyo, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of their Takarazuka favorites.

Many of the stage door Joannies belong to the 50,000-member "Takarazuka Tomo no Kai" (Friends of the Takarazuka), but all who gather outside the theaters are known in Japan simply as "zukas."

"Young women who aren't yet women go to see-and moon over-men wh aren't really men," wrote Tadashi Usami, author of a history of the Takarazuka Revue.

"Women start going to Takarazuka in their early teens, at a time when they are aware of the existence of men but not yet ready for sex or even dating. Takarazuka offers them a safe introduction to the opposite sex."

Mizuki Oura, a 13-year member of the Flower Company and one of the Takarazuka's most popular male role players, sees nothing anomalous about her "maleness" on stage, though she admits that it is sometimes disconcerting when men and women refuse to recognize her real sex.

"I am a woman and some day I want to get married," Oura said. "Yet many who see me on stage in the role of a man regard me as a man. They suspend reality."

In her case, Oura, who joined Takarazuka as a 15-year-old trainee, made that suspension a bit easer when a few years ago she became the first Takarazuka otokoyaku to wear a goatee on stage (in "Kiss Me Kate").

"Oura-san is my favorite," gasped 13-year-old Hideko Miura of Osaka as Oura and her leading lady, Mito Hibiki, left the Grand Theater in Takarazuka. "She is so . . . powerful . . . so unique."

Takarazuka's uniqueness in Japan was brought to the public's attention about three years ago when a former Takarazuka actress named Hiroko Hayashi was elected to Japan's Upper House of Parliament and began pushing for tax-exempt status for the revue.

"Takarazuka is very special in Japan and actually it is unique in the world," Hayashi said. "For that reason it deserves the same tax-exempt status as other traditional Japanese art forms like Kabuki and Noh theater." Kabuki theater, in which men play all roles, is exempted, so why not a theater in which women play all roles, she asks.

Although Hayashi's dream of giving the 76-year-old Takarazuka the same status as Japan's centuries-old Kabuki and Noh theaters was cut short when she lost in last summer's Upper House elections, she has not given up the idea and still pushes it whenever she has the chance.

"Takarazuka changed my life; it made me strong and gave me the guts you need to survive, not only in politics but in life," Hayashi said.

"Mr. Kobayashi, who founded Takarazuka, always said that Takarazuka made the best oyomesan gakko (bridal school). And he was correct. But to me, Takarazuka was also a school of life."

Hayashi, who left Takarazuka in 1957 to marry Senjaku Nakamura, one of Japan's top Kabuki actors, insists that giving Takarazuka tax-exempt status like that of Kabuki would guarantee its future when so much of Japan's culture is vanishing in an increasingly high-tech world.

Indeed, Takarazuka seems almost like a reaction to the smugness of modern Japan, where sophistication and wealth have become prime pursuits and where some Japanese lament what they insist are the increasingly blurred male-female roles in Japan's culture.

It is a theme of the Takarazuka's most popular stage show ever-a musical drama based on an 82-week Japanese comic-book series called "Berusaiyu no Bara" ("The Rose of Versailles") set in the French court at the time of the French Revolution.

The stage drama, which first ran from 1974 to 1976, then again in 1988-89 and which drew an audience of about 4 million, centers on a royal guard commander who is really a girl who was reared as a boy and who disguises herself as a girl to woo a Swedish count away from Marie Antoinette in an effort to derail some political intrigue in the Palace of Versailles.

The premise is perfect for the largely female Takarazuka audiences, because it provides them with a certain sense of sexual justice in a society where women have yet to achieve any major political power.

Takarazuka audiences sometimes come close to losing their storied Japanese reserve, as when these lines were delivered by a disgusted duchess:
"Men! I'm totally bored with them. Sticky as oil, to say the least. Inconsiderate and ever hungry for more power, conceited animals!

Overconfident as if no sex is superior to theirs, shamelessly do they resort to violence against us. Oh, that filthy sex, holding themselves so superior, the pride unsubstantiated. Don't they kneel begging for love of women? Erotic beasts, that's what men are."

What men are not and what they never will be, apparently, are members of Takarazuka. And for the elite group of 3,380 women who have passed through the Takarazuka's school and appeared on its stage since 1914, that is just fine.

"Takarazuka belongs to us and we don't need men changing its character," said "zuka" Yoshiko Himeno as she stood outside the Takarazuka Grand Theater.

"Well, maybe when Japan gets a woman prime minister, then we might consider allowing men to become members of the Takarazuka." players, and her leading lady in a recent show, "Mito Hibiki." lavish, brassy and campy.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Profile: Bangkok's Klong

(This is a story I wrote about Bangkok's network of canals (klong). Many have already disappeared under concrete roadways, but life goes on along those that remain)


By Ronald E. Yates

Some 125 years ago, when Anna Leonowens, the prim English governess who has been immortalized as the "I" in the long-running musical "The King and I," arrived in Thailand, Bangkok was known as the "Venice of the East."

It was a city of graceful gilded Buddhist temples, ornate palaces and wooden houses built on stilts along lotus-choked but life-sustaining waterways known to the Thai as "klong." When Anna stepped off the barge that had brought her up the quarter-mile-wide Chao Phraya River from the Gulf of Siam, she emerged into a world still struggling to enter the 19th Century, a world King Mongkut (the "King" of the musical) was trying desperately to reshape and modernize by opening Siam's closed doors to Western science, technology and education.

The klong were among King Mongkut's first targets. If Bangkok was to take its place as one of Asia's major cities of commerce, he reasoned, the city's ubiquitous, foul-smelling, disease-ridden klong would have to be dealt with. The answer was to fill in as many of the putrid canals as possible.

The result of that policy, as noble as its motives might have been, has been the creation of a city with fewer klong but with infinitely more roads--and traffic congestion. Bangkok today is a place trapped under a vaporous black veil of diesel exhaust and assaulted by the incessant whining and sputtering of internal-combustion engines. Its traffic jams are notorious as the worst in Asia, and though King Mongkut might not like it were he around today, Bangkok's surviving klong are more often than not a faster means of travel than the dozens of major streets constructed on top of dried-up waterways.

Progress has its price, and in Bangkok's case the price seems to be a universal yearning for the past.

"Things were better in Bangkok 80 years ago," laments Eakchai Chiangasajar, 92-year-old patriarch of the family that operates the Chiang Hun Moon funeral home. Eakchai's father built the establishment atop stilts and pilings on a busy canal called Klong Bang Saikai about the time that Anna Leonowens, back in England, was writing the memoirs that many years later would become "The King and I" and make a career for the late Yul Brynner. (It also made the actor persona non grata in Thailand, which takes vociferous exception to the musical's fallacious premise--that a properly civilized English lady singlehandedly modernized a despotic and uncivilized King Mongkut).

Just as it did more than 100 years ago, Klong Bang Saikai twists its way northwest from the Chao Phraya River through an area called Thonburi, which is still rich in green forests of takian trees, ferns, wild orchids and bamboo. It passes by ancient Thai wats (temples), ramshackle houses and the Chiang Hun Moon funeral home, where Eakchai spends most afternoons sitting on a faded green velvet chaise longue that looks as though it might have been left behind by Anna Leonowens.

In the old days, according to Eakchai, the klong was quieter, the water cleaner and business better.

"Seems like more people died more often back then," he says. "Look at me, 92 and I'm still alive. People like me will drive people like me out of business." Eakchai's chest convulses with laughter at this quip. Family members, including Eakchai's 68-year-old son Chanchai, who is taking a tea break, emit a chorus of supporting laughter.

Actually, business has been good this week, confides Eakchai, his withered, teaklike hands opening the books to reveal the weekly receipts.

"Ahhh, let's see," he says, adjusting his old gold wire bifocals on a nose still flat and deformed from youthful days as a Thai boxer. "Four coffins at 4,000 baht ($148) each. Three cremations, transportation of the deceased. Yes, yes, a very good week. And I still have one more cremation to do."

Indeed, even as Eakchai speaks, a hang yao (long-tailed boat) carrying the body of an old woman pulls up to the funeral home. Gently, the body, wrapped tightly in white muslin, is lifted from the bobbing boat and onto the open-air wooden planking of the funeral home. Nearby, two rows of ceramic funeral urns stand like silent pot-bellied soldiers behind a parapet of wood planks. The whine of a saw slices through the heavy afternoon heat as the wood for one more coffin is cut.

"We used to do it by hand saw," says Eakchai, watching as the woman's body is carried to a small room in the back. After the door is closed, he continues his thought: "Today we use the power saw. We are getting modern, eh?"

Still, electricity and outboard motors seem to be the only incursions the 20th Century has made into the languid world of Bangkok's remaining klong.

They continue to be rivers of life for perhaps a third of Bangkok's 5 million residents. Everything from medicine to magazines, from noodles to narcotics, from sarongs to sex is sold from the tiny wooden boats that ply the klong, which ultimately spill into the Chao Phraya River.

The 190-mile-long Chao Phraya, swift of current and glutted with barges heavily loaded with rice and sand, is both the Nile and the Mississippi of Thailand. It is a river shrouded in ancient folklore and legend and at the same time is an integral part of this nation's future. On its back ride the country's rich rice harvests, its teak logs, its textiles and tin.

Warehouses situated strategically between the mouths of klong along the Chao Phraya are the repositories of Bangkok's agricultural and mineral wealth. Here amber-skinned Thai men, turned chalk-white from carrying 100- pound sacks of flour down planks from grain barges, look from a distance like ghosts in a procession. A few hundred yards farther down the river at the mouth of Klong Bang Saikai, two dozen sweat-drenched men unloading rolls of canvas shout the Thai equivalent of "lights, camera, action" as they notice a photographer aiming his camera in their direction.

"Life is good but hard on the klong," says a 48-year-old waterborne butcher named Wanchai as he chops up two kilograms of pork for a customer, his tiny boat bobbing in the wake of a speeding hang yao that has just roared past.

"Sometimes," Wanchai continues, wrapping the meat with a sheet of newspaper and securing it with a rubber band, "I can't make enough money to feed my family. And then I think I would be better off taking a city job away from the klong. But then I think about all the noise and traffic and people I would have to face, and I think I am better off on the klong."

Like most of Klong Bang Saikai's floating merchants, Wanchai normally clears between 300 and 400 baht ($11.50-$15) for a 12-hour day on the water. In a nation with a per-capita income of just over $800 a year, that is four to six times above the national average and is considered a good living by Thai standards.

Another rua rew (fast boat) roars past Wanchai's small wooden canoe, sending it crashing against the wooden pilings of the stilt house of his customer. Nearby, two onyx-black water buffalo snort and trample through the elephant grass as the churned water laps at the shore.

Out in the middle of the klong, caught in the rua rew's wake, a small dugout canoe piloted by a woman named Boonsom pitches precariously in the turbulent blackish water.

Boonsom, who is wearing a conical "kanp" hat, struggles to control her boat and angrily spits a few choice Thai epithets at the rua rew's spewing rooster tail. Aboard her 15-foot-long boat are mangoes and sticky rice, peanuts, coconut milk, papaya, bananas, noodles and ducks. Her face, despite the protection afforded by the bamboo hat, is dark and creased by the tropical sun. Her 33-year-old hands appear little different from Eakchai's as she clutches a machete and deftly splits the tops off two coconuts. The 20 baht (about 75 cents) she receives for the two coconuts represent about one- tenth of what she normally earns during a 10-to-14-hour day on the klong.
"I will never get rich on the klong," says Boonsom. "But my life is good. I have a good husband and five good children. I have a good house. I am happy."

Upstream the shrieks of children penetrate the sticky afternoon air as they jump naked into the inky waters of the klong from the porch of their house. Though the klong are used for bathing and washing, their putrid waters are not used for drinking. Water for drinking and cooking is brought by boat or collected during Bangkok's frequent showers in huge toum (ceramic water jars) set on porches and stairways.

Houses along Klong Bang Saikai and other Bangkok canals are usually simple wooden structures with roofs of corrugated metal covered with palm leaves. Almost every house is equipped with diamond-shaped fishing nets attached to long counterweighted poles suspended above the water. Despite the pollution, the klong remain rich in a variety of fish, which, along with rice, is the staple of the Thai diet.

Unlike many areas of modern Bangkok to the east, Thonburi and its klong seem resistant to change. With the exception of an occasional motorboat screaming by on the black waters or a silent TV antenna poking out of a palm- thatched roof, these tiny waterways must look--and sound--the way they did to Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut's children whom she was hired to teach.

Coconut trees lean precariously over the edge of the water, as do nipa palms and flaming bougainvillea. In the mangrove flats, pillars of blue smoke still waft skyward as wood is turned into charcoal. Half-naked children stomp through mud in search of crabs in the soft light of a fading carrot- colored sun.

"I could have left the klong many years ago," says Eakchai, sucking on an ancient long-stemmed pipe and squinting into the receding sun. "But no matter where I went, I knew I would miss this place. So I stayed. And I made my decision to die here, on the water, in the house of my father where I was born."

Across the Chao Phraya, a police siren wails, and the cacophony of car horns can be heard faintly as dusk settles into the crevices of the day.

On Klong Bang Saikai, amid the squealing of children still splashing in the dark water, the resonant ringing of temple gongs and the cries of waterborne merchants trying to sell off the day's remaining stock, the body of the old woman, who died of dengue fever (a virulent tropical disease), is laid out in a freshly made coffin and covered with orchids. Small boats carrying her sons, daughters and grandchildren dock at the foot of the Chiang Hun Moon funeral home, and just as he has done for some 75 years of his life, Eakchai greets each one as they step up onto the wooden floor.

"On the klong you are born, you are married and you die," he says. "It is Buddha's way, the way of river."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Stories I Have Covered

(Among the more tragic stories I covered in my career was the Tiananmen Square tragedy—or massacre—depending on one’s perspective. It occurred almost 20 years ago in the world’s largest square with much of the world watching. Here are my recollections of that terrible night—one that I shall never forget. Ron Yates)

Tiananmen Square Diary

Between the tragedy of the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that shattered Sichuan province killing more than 70,000 people and the exhilaration of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China made more than its share of headlines this past summer.

China was also the world’s biggest story in the summer of 1989 when several hundred thousand students, labor leaders and other dissidents occupied the 5 million square foot concrete piazza known as Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. For seven weeks as the world watched, some 500,000 “pro-democracy” demonstrators descended on Beijing’s most sacred site to protest corruption, human rights violations and one-party rule.

The protest would ultimately end in the early morning hours of June 4 with the deaths of at least 800 demonstrators (the Chinese Red Cross puts the number closer to 3,000 with 12,000 wounded) in what the world has come to know as the “Tiananmen Square Massacre.”

Today all evidence of that bloody night has been obliterated. Tiananmen Square is scrubbed and shimmering as it awaits the hundreds of thousands of visitors who will wander past the colossal portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs above the Gate of Heavenly Peace on the north end of the plaza and through the mausoleum that displays his waxy remains on the south end.

Indeed, despite the recent catastrophe in Sichuan province the atmosphere in China this past summer was relatively festive, sanguine and confident for the coming out party that hosting the Olympics always is.

However, that was neither the mood nor the scene in 1989 when Tiananmen Square was turned into a squalid, fetid tent city of protestors.

Today, for many young Chinese, the tragedy that unfolded in Tiananmen Square 19 years ago is ancient history—an event that has been glossed over, covered up and generally purged from the national consciousness by a nation eager to put forth its most dazzling and alluring face for the two weeks that the world’s eyes will be riveted on China during the Olympiad.

But on June 3, 1989 as I walked through what is generally regarded as the planet’s largest city square the world was just a few hours from seeing China at its most ruthless and ugliest.

What follows is a personal eyewitness account of the events leading up to and including the attack on Tiananmen Square—a night that remains indelibly etched in my memory.

The square that day was a hot, grubby place, strewn with refuse, canvass tents and other makeshift dwellings. Under the towering “Heroes of the Nation” obelisk demonstrators cooked rice and soup while others linked arms and sang a spirited rendition of the “Internationale,” the world socialist anthem. Thousands of others dozed under flimsy lean-tos or blasted music from boom boxes.

Near the middle of the square, the 30-foot tall “Goddess of Democracy,” a pasty white statue constructed by art students and made of styrofoam and papier-mâché, stared defiantly at Mao’s giant portrait—almost mocking the founder of modern day China. A truck swept by periodically spraying billowing clouds of insecticide and disinfectant over everything and everybody in its path.

Hawkers guiding pushcarts containing ice cream, soft drinks, rice cakes, candy and film encircled the students doing a brisk business. Even if the students in the square had not been able to topple China's ruling hierarchy, at least there were profits to be made.

One enterprising entrepreneur raked in several hundred yuan within a few minutes after he began renting stepping stools for the thousands of amateur photographers and tourists who arrived to have their pictures taken next to students or at the base of the "Goddess of Democracy" statue. Tiananmen, I wrote at the time, had evolved into a “Disneyland of Dissent.”

By June 3 the number of students occupying the square had dwindled to about 20,000 as thousands had already packed up and headed back to their provinces. But some students I talked with that afternoon were not ready to leave and a few shared an intense sense of foreboding.

One of those was Chai Ling. Chai, who had been elected "chief commander" by the dissidents, was the only woman among the seven student leaders of the pro-democracy protests. As we sat cross-legged on the hot pavement she talked about the protests and just what the students had accomplished during their 7-week-long occupation of Tiananmen.

“There will be a price to pay for all of this,” the 23-year-old child psychology graduate warned, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Some people will have to die for democracy, but it will be worth it.”

Chai, the object of a year-long nationwide search by the Chinese government after the violence in the square, would eventually escape China to Hong Kong sealed for five days and nights in a wooden crate in the hold of a rickety ship. She managed to elude capture in China by adopting a series of disguises, by learning local Chinese dialects and by working variously as a rice farmer, laborer and maid. Eventually she would come to the United States, be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and graduate from the Harvard Business School.

Barely eight hours after my conversation with Chai her warning would become reality. Late in the evening of June 3 and during the early morning hours of June 4 the lethargy of weary demonstrators and the cacophonic concert of boom box music would be replaced by shrieks of terror, gunfire and the guttural roar of tank and armored personnel carrier engines as the People’s Liberation Army rolled into the square, crushing tents and firing indiscriminately at protestors and anybody else who got in their way.

A couple of hours before the violence erupted a few of us foreign correspondents had enjoyed a quiet meal together in the venerable Beijing Hotel on Chang’an Avenue a few blocks from the square.

While dining we discussed the events of the night before when several thousand young unarmed military recruits were sent marching toward the students in Tiananmen Square. Before they got very far an estimated 100,000 Chinese civilians poured from their homes near the square and confronted the soldiers—berating them for even thinking of entering Tiananmen to clear it of the thousands of students who had occupied it since late April.

This rather benign event was nothing more than a probe to determine what kind of resistance armed troops might face when they stormed the square. For several weeks some 200,000 Chinese troops—most from provinces far away from Beijing—had been massing on the outskirts of the city.

As Beijing entered its 15th day of martial law, it was also obvious that the government was still unable to enforce that decree. The government did admonish members of the foreign media to "observe regulations on news coverage" as they relate to martial law.

"Foreign journalists must not talk with student protesters and any news coverage of any kind in Beijing must receive prior approval," said a statement by Ding Weijun, spokesman for the city.

The statement also warned the hundreds of foreign reporters still in Beijing against inviting Chinese citizens to their offices, homes or hotels to conduct "interviews regarding prohibited activities." Several foreign reporters had been expelled from the country for violating those rules.

The morning of June 3, ignoring marital law rules, I had driven outside of the square and into several neighborhoods where streets leading toward Tiananmen had been shut down by angry civilians intent on keeping the Chinese Army from reaching the students. Dozens of intersections were blocked with buses, trucks, and makeshift barricades. Neighborhood leaders proudly showed me their arsenal of weapons—rows of gasoline-filled bottles complete with cloth wicks, piles of rocks and bricks, shovels, rakes, picks and other garden tools.

“We will protect the students,” a man named Liang Hong, told me.

“But how?” I asked. “The army has tanks, machine guns and armored personnel carriers. They will kill you.”

“Then we will die,” he replied. Several dozen others quickly echoed his words. “Yes, we will all die. These are our children in the square. We must help them even if it means death.”

Several days after the attack on the square when the authorities allowed people to travel once again in the city, I drove back to this same neighborhood. True to their word, I was told that Liang Hong and several of his neighbors had died or were wounded attempting to keep the army from entering the square.

After dinner in the Beijing Hotel I decided to take one more stroll through the square. As I rode into the square on the red and white Sprick bicycle I had purchased after my arrival in Beijing from Tokyo two weeks before, I could see that many of the students were obviously spooked—not only by the unarmed incursion of the night before but by the intelligence pouring in from the neighborhoods surrounding the square that the army was on the move.

“I think something will happen tonight,” one of them told me. “I am very afraid.”

I stopped at the foot of the Goddess of Democracy. The statue was illuminated by a couple of small spotlights as it looked toward the Forbidden City and Mao’s portrait. On the edge of the square I bought a bottle of Coca Cola then pushed my bicycle toward the four-story KFC restaurant on the south end of the square. It was about 8:30 p.m. and the restaurant (the largest KFC store in the world) was almost empty.

I then rode the 2 miles down Jinguomenwei Avenue to the Jinguo Hotel where I was staying. I needed to file a story on the day’s events—specifically my conversation with Chai Ling and the other students that afternoon. I finished writing my story around 10 p.m. and decided, despite the curfew, to ride my bicycle back to the square for one more look around. I parked my bicycle on Xuanwumen Dong Avenue near the hulking Museum of History and Revolution on the east side of the square and began walking toward the “Heroes of the Nation” obelisk which had become the headquarters for the students.

I hadn’t gotten very far when the sound of gunfire erupted. The firing seemed everywhere, amplified by the massive buildings that surrounded the square. I ran toward my bicycle, not wanting to be trapped in the square should tanks roll in. Moments later I ran into BBC correspondent Kate Adie who was walking toward the square with her camera crew.

“What’s going on,” she asked.

“Looks like the army is making a move tonight,” I answered. I explained that I hadn’t seen any troops or tanks in the square at that point, but I did see muzzle flashes from the roof of the Great Hall of the People on the west side of the square. A day before several hundred troops had massed behind the Great Hall and I assumed they had been positioned on the roof.

I rode my bicycle north toward Chang’an Avenue and hadn’t gotten very far when I noticed a line of Armored Personnel Carriers moving toward the square flanked by hundreds of soldiers with fixed bayonets. Seconds later the dark sky was interlaced by red and yellow tracer fire and I could hear bullets ricocheting off of concrete. I turned my bike around and raced back toward the south end of the square. Like a lot of my fellow correspondents I never thought the government would use deadly force against the students.

As the firing intensified thousands more residents poured out of their houses and formed human blockades where streets entered the square. They quickly became targets for the machine gun and small arms fire. As the casualties mounted, the crowds became increasingly belligerent. They armed themselves with bricks, bottles, iron rods and wooden clubs and attacked some of the military contingents, including tanks.

An infuriated mob grabbed one soldier and set him afire after dousing him with gasoline. They then hung his still smoldering body from a pedestrian overpass. It was one of the many examples of instant justice. The crowd accused the soldier of having shot an old woman to death.

I watched the wounded and the dead being carted from the square and the area surrounding it on the flatbeds of three-wheeled vehicles through a pall of smoke. The stinging stench of tear gas hovered over the embattled city and burned my eyes.

“Tell the world!” the crowds screamed at me and other foreign journalists. “Tell the United States! Tell the truth! We are students! We are common people-unarmed, and they are killing us!”

Around 2 a.m. at the height of the armed assault, a maverick tank careened down Jianguomenwai Avenue in an attempt to crack open the way for troop convoys unable to pass through the milling crowds.

With its turret closed, the tank was bombarded with stones and bottles as it sped down the avenue. Young cyclists headed it off, then slowed to bring it to a halt. But the tank raced on, the cyclists deftly avoiding its clattering treads by mere inches.

On the Jianguomenwai bridge over the city's main ring road, where a 25-truck convoy had been marooned for hours by a mass of angry civilians clambering all over it, a tank raced through the crowd. It sideswiped one of the army trucks, and a young soldier clinging to its side was flung off and killed instantly.

The worst fighting of the night occurred around the Minzu Hotel, west of the square, where grim-faced troops opened fire with tracer bullets and live ammunition on milling crowds blocking their access to the square. Bullets ripped into the crowd and scores of people were wounded. The dead and wounded were thrown on the side of the road among a pile of abandoned bicycles as the troops moved on to take the square.

One tank ran into the back of another that had stalled on Chang’an Avenue. As they hurriedly bounced apart, the machine guns on their turrets began to train on an approaching crowd of about 10,000. The machine guns erupted, sending tracers above the heads of the crowd. Men and women scurried for cover, many crawling into the piles of dead and wounded along the side of the road.

In my haste to return to the square I had forgotten to bring my camera. Even though it was night, the square was illuminated by street lamps and the sky above it was lit almost continuously with tracers and bright flares. I decided not to ride my bicycle in order to avoid becoming a larger target. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose the only form of transportation I had, so I pushed it wherever I went, sometimes crouching behind it. Finally, I found a small tree and padlocked it to the trunk.

For most of the night I found myself caught between trying to cover the tragedy unfolding in and around the square and watching my back. I didn’t want to be caught in the sites of some trigger happy soldier.

At one point several hundred troops successfully occupied a corner of the square and I watched as a crowd of some 3,000 howling unarmed students surged toward them on foot and by bicycle, intent on breaking through their line with their bare hands. A few in front of the main body rammed their bikes into the troops and were quickly beaten to the ground by soldiers using the butts of their rifles or clubs.

“Fascists! Murderers!” the crowd chanted.

As the main body of the crowd got within 50 yards of the first line of troops, an army commander blew a whistle and the soldiers turned and fired volleys of automatic rifle fire. Screams of pain followed.

The protesters threw themselves and their bikes on the pavement of the Avenue of Eternal Peace. Dragging their bikes behind them, they crawled to safety, pursued by rifle fire and the throaty war cries of the soldiers.

When the firing momentarily stopped, the crowd regrouped and slowly crept back toward the square. Then the volleys rang out again, more intense this time. Two lines of soldiers began to chase the mob, alternately firing tear gas and bullets. I watched several people stagger and fall to the ground.

The acrid smell of tear gas triggered a paroxysm of coughing in the crowd. People ripped off shirt sleeves and used them as handkerchiefs over their mouths. The bodies of three women were laid out on the pavement of a side street to await transport. A crowd gathered around them, waving fists and cursing the government.

“How many people did you kill?” they shouted at steel-helmeted soldiers who stood stonily with AK-47 assault rifles cradled across their chests.

The fighting continued throughout the night as exhausted students and other dissidents engaged in hit and run battles with soldiers, tanks and APC’s. Some students, many of them wounded, scrambled aboard abandoned buses seeking refuge and aid. I watched soldiers pull them out and beat them with heavy clubs.

Several of the students, bleeding from head wounds, ran toward where I had taken cover behind a low stone wall. One of the students, a girl of maybe 16, had been shot through the shoulder and was bleeding profusely. She was falling in and out of consciousness and looked to be in shock. I looked behind me to see if there was some way to get her assistance. In the distance I saw a man waving at me from a doorway of a brick wall. He was motioning me to bring the girl and other wounded students to him, all the while carefully watching for soldiers. I pulled her up and with the help of another reporter, dashed with her and several other wounded students to the gate. The man quickly wrapped a blanket around the girl and took her inside the compound with the other students.

“Thank you,” he said. “I am a doctor. I will take care of them.”

I jogged back to the low wall where I had been kneeling before. I recall thinking that if I were wounded at least I now knew where I could go for help. For the next few hours I moved from one location to another, trying to find a spot where I could see what was happening while making sure I had an escape route should I come under fire.

The square was finally cleared at dawn when four personnel carriers raced across it, flattening not only the tents of the demonstrators but the “Goddess of Liberty” statue. I looked at my watch. It was about 5:30 in the morning and dawn was breaking over the city.

Ten minutes later a negotiated settlement allowed the hard-core remnants of the democracy movement—some 5,000 students and their supporters—to leave by the southeastern corner of the square. As they left singing the Internationale, troops ritually beat them with wooden clubs and rods.

The army had been ordered to clear the Square by 6 a.m and it had done so, but at a terrible cost.

As daylight broke over the Avenue of Eternal Peace dazed knots of Chinese, many of them weeping and all of them angry at their government, stood at intersections, reliving the events of a few hours before when tracer bullets and flares turned the black Beijing sky into a deadly torrent of crimson.

Along the roadside leading into the square lay several wounded, some perhaps already dead.

“They murdered the people. . . . They just shot the people down like dogs, with no warning,” said a man whose shirt was soaked with blood. “I carried a woman to an ambulance, but I think she was dead.”

“Please,” he said, “you must tell the world what has happened here. We need your protection from our government.”

Perhaps the defining moment of the massacre came a bit later that morning when a student jumped in front of a column of tanks on Chang’an Avenue and refused to move. This student, as yet still unidentified, shouted at the tank commander: "Get out of my city. … You're not wanted here." Each time the tank would attempt to maneuver around the student, he would jump in front of it. The column of tanks turned off their motors and then several other students ran out and pulled the student to safety. To this day nobody is sure who the student was or what happened to him. Most Chinese still refer to him as the “tank man.”

I walked back to where I had left my bicycle and rode to the Jianguo Hotel. As I peddled along mostly deserted streets I tried to make sense out what I had seen. With the students already dispersing from the square or planning to, the attack by the army was unnecessarily brutal.

There was little doubt that what I had witnessed was an assault designed to punish the demonstrators for embarrassing China’s leadership—Premiere Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping, the ailing leader of China’s Communist Party.

China's hard-line rulers, clearly in control after the bloodbath, issued a statement that morning that said:

“Thugs frenziedly attacked People's Liberation Army troops, seizing weapons, erecting barricades and beating soldiers and officers in an attempt to overthrow the government of the People's Republic of China and socialism.”

China’s leaders have not forgotten the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. Unnerved by recent turbulence among Tibetans and always nervous about the possibility of human rights protests in the heart of the capital, China barred live television coverage from Tiananmen Square during the Beijing Olympics—just as it had in 1989.

It remains to be seen whether or not such a ban exorcised the ghosts of June 4, 1989 that still hang over Tiananmen Square. But there is little doubt that time has not healed the deep wounds inflicted on China’s people that terrible night 19 years ago.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My Favorite Classic Hotels

(One of the great things about being a foreign correspondent is the opportunity one has of staying in classic hotels around the world. During my career I have stayed in my share of them--some more classic than others. In some cases I lived in a hotel for months at a time [the Continental Palace in Saigon, the old Le Phnom--now the Royal--in Phnom Penh, the Rosarito Beach Hotel in Baja California, etc.]. From time to time I will post a story I wrote about one of these classic inns. Ron Yates)

By Ronald E. Yates

There are certain experiences every traveler to Asia should savor at least once. There is the experience of strolling through that ancient and sprawling citadel of opulence and imperial intrigue called the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing.

There is the experience of visiting the Grand Shrine on Japan's lush Ise Peninsula--the most venerated spot in The Land of the Rising Sun. Its assortment of ascetic Shinto shrines, surrounded by ancient forests of cedar and cypress, is where the spirits of Japan's past emperors are enshrined.

And there is the experience of sitting in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel on the southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula in what was, until July 1, 1997, the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong.

True, the lobby of The Peninsula cannot match the verdant panoramas of Ise or the expansive dimensions of the Forbidden City.

But sitting in the legendary lobby of The Pen is nevertheless one of those splendid little Asian experiences that should not be missed.

From the time the hotel opened in 1928 the long, rectangular, neoclassical lobby has been Hong Kong's most elegant gathering place. For 80 years the phrase "Let's meet at The Pen" has meant "Let's meet in the lobby of The Peninsula."

And that's exactly what thousands of people do every year. Some are attracted by the traditional afternoon tea with its strawberry cakes, sandwiches and the hotel's fabled green mango juice--all served in Tiffany chinaware on tables topped with marble.

A live string quartet plays Mozart, Haydn and Vivaldi from a small corner balcony overlooking the lobby. In the evening the mood changes. Jazz supplants Rococo and Baroque, and more robust liquid refreshment flows forth.

But even though the music and refreshment are terrific, there is another, more compelling reason to visit the lobby of The Pen. It offers Asia's best venue for that age-old pastime: people watching.

It's an eclectic, multinational crowd that passes through the hotel's massive glass doors and into the lobby today--some in linen and jeans, some in Dior and Armani.

But back in the early 1970s when this correspondent first made The Pen's acquaintance, the lobby was still frequented by aging relics of the British Raj who would gather in the evening for gin and tonic and watch the last rays of sunlight evaporate in the azure waters of Victoria Harbor.

Some would reminisce about pre-World War II Hong Kong, reflecting on a simpler era when high-rises didn't obscure the jade hills of Hong Kong Island and rickshaws still scurried along the colony's streets.

In those days, the only way to travel between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon was on the Star Ferry. The 12 green and white ferries have been making the 8-minute trip between Tsim-Sha Tsui and Central Hong Kong Island since 1898, and the fare of HK $1.70 (about 22 U.S. cents) for the upper deck and HK $1.40 (about 18 cents) for the lower deck hasn't changed in 98 years.

Despite those prices, the Cross Harbor Tunnel under Victoria Harbor is the route most car, bus and truck traffic takes between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island today.

Although Hong Kong's old hands offer parsimonious approval of the tunnel's convenience, they are less forthcoming in their praise of Hong Kong in general. Some are still skeptical of the colony's future since control shifted in 1997 from the British to the Communist regime in Beijing.

"Too damned many cloud scratchers," opined a retired Swiss trader named Felix Hartfeld as he regarded the Hong Kong skyline with its ever-expanding forest of glass and granite skyscrapers. "The place is losing its character . . . its charm. If it had looked like this in 1938, I never would have come here. I certainly wouldn't have come here if the Communists had been in control. Just wait. They'll make a proper mess of everything."

Old hands like Hartfeld are more forgiving of The Pen and the changes it has made through the years.

Nevertheless, Hartfeld and others of his generation affectionately recall the lobby of The Pen "B.A.C." (before air conditioning) when teakwood paddle fans hung from its 25-foot ceilings, cool evening breezes blew through open doors from the harbor, and "ladies of ambiguous virtue" lounged at the tables on the left side of the lobby.

Why the left side? Because in those days it was the part of the lobby that was out of view of the front desk and, therefore, a discrete place for those to meet who didn't want to be noticed.

"The left side of the lobby was for ladies who were, shall we say, available," recalled Bryan Reid, a former Australian merchant marine captain who, in the 1960s and '70s, ferried supplies between Hong Kong and Saigon. "The right side was for more virtuous Hong Kong society."

Reid, now in his 70s, sighed. "Those were times," he said lifting a glass of Tsingtao beer to his lips. "Those were some damned good times."

The 1960s and '70s were also a time of intense, internal turmoil for The Pen. For the first time since it opened its doors, The Pen was faced with a sudden burst of competition.

The first serious international competitor was the Hong Kong Hilton, which opened in 1963. As difficult as it is to believe today standing amid the opulence of The Peninsula, the Hilton--not the Peninsula--was Hong Kong's first official five-star international hotel.

Located across Victoria Harbor from The Pen on Hong Kong Island, the Hilton was one of those glass and granite towers so despised by people like Hartfeld. Its 820 rooms overlooked Queens Pier, the Star Ferry and Chater Park. It had all the latest gadgetry, including the first Xerox copy machine in Hong Kong.
(Sadly, the Hilton closed its doors in April 1995. The hotel was a favorite of many of the region's foreign correspondents--due in large part to longtime general manager James Smith, a Scotsman who had a soft spot for itinerant hacks. Even though the Hilton was earning about $500 million a year in revenue, it was sitting on land that could earn more than $1 billion annually as an office complex.)

Within a few years of the Hilton's debut, other international hotels opened in Hong Kong, among them the Mandarin and the President.

The Regent Hong Kong, regarded as The Pen's stiffest competition today, didn't open until 1980. The 16-year-old, 602-room hotel sits on the shore of Victoria Harbor just down Salisbury Road from The Peninsula. Like The Peninsula, the red granite, 17-story Regent consistently ranks among the top five hotels in the world.

But back in the early 1970s, before there was a Regent to worry about, the Peninsula Group (the operations and marketing division of Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd.) which manages The Peninsula and six other hotels, was faced with another problem.

Those with eyes fixed firmly on the bottom line argued that with only 168 rooms The Pen couldn't possibly compete with Hong Kong's newer and much larger hotels. Across Salisbury Road, directly in front of the hotel, the Canton-Kowloon railway station already had been torn down and prime waterfront real estate was beckoning to the bean counters.

It all added up to a compelling argument--even for the sentimentalists in the Peninsula Group who were reluctant to scrap decades of history and tradition.

And in the end, the profit motive did indeed win out and plans were actually made to raze the old hotel and rebuild a much larger Peninsula along the edge of Victoria Harbor, about 100 yards from its current location.

When word got out about the plans to demolish The Pen, many of Hong Kong's old hands were infuriated. How could the Peninsula Group even remotely consider demolishing one of Hong Kong's icons--especially one that was the repository of so much of the colony's fabled history?

Hong Kong was suddenly rife with amateur historians, recalled one Peninsula staff member. And each was intent on reminding the hotel's management again and again of the role The Pen had played in that history.

Actually, some of that history was made even before The Peninsula officially opened.

In 1927 Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalists were battling China's communists for control of mainland China. Faced with the very real possibility that the struggle would spill over into Hong Kong, the British rulers of the colony brought troops into Hong Kong from India and the Middle East. They promptly commandeered the almost finished Peninsula and turned it into a barracks for the Second Battalion of the Coldstream Guards.

Machine guns were mounted on The Pen's balcony so the troops could conduct target practice. Rooms became billets. Ammunition and supplies were stored in the hotel garage.

A year later, with order restored in China, the troops departed and at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 11, 1928, the hotel officially opened its doors to its first paying guests.
The first person through the doors was Hong Kong's governor, the Honorable Sir Wilfred Thomas Southorn. Hotel documents show that as Sir Wilfred entered The Pen's lobby with his wife and several official guests, the band played "God Save the King," followed by a march titled "Steadfast and True."
Some 3,000 people roamed through the hotel that day, and it didn't take long for the lobby to become what one colony wag called "Hong Kong's emporium of gossip."

That lasted until Christmas Day, 1941, when, after three weeks of fighting, Imperial Japanese troops took the colony. On that day British governor Sir Mark Young surrendered Hong Kong to the Japanese. The ceremony was conducted (where else?) in the lobby of The Peninsula. Immediately afterward, Sir Mark was placed under house arrest in Room 336.

Hong Kong's new governor, Japanese Lt. Gen. Rensuke Isogai, ordered the Rising Sun flag hoisted over The Pen and then turned the hotel into Imperial Japan's official Hong Kong headquarters--but not before renaming it the "Toa (East Asia) Hotel."

The Pen's new name was meant to reflect Imperial Japan's attempt to create what it called "The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere."

For almost four years the hotel resonated with the sounds of Japanese. Then, on Aug. 14, 1945, another surrender ceremony was held in The Peninsula. This time it was Imperial Japan's turn to capitulate.

In the months immediately following the war the hotel became a refugee center, with some 2,000 homeless men, women and children packed into its 168 rooms, lobby and corridors. Many were prisoners repatriated from Japanese POW camps.

When the hotel was finally turned over to the Peninsula Group at the end of 1946 by the British government, they found a building in dire need of repairs. Two feet of water stood in the basement--the result of a street level hole created by Allied bomb damage. And most of the hotel's crockery and cutlery had been liberated by the Japanese and the throng of postwar refugees.

By 1947 the hotel had returned to normal operations. And by the early 1950s it was not only ranked as Asia's top hotel, its historic role in the war also had given The Pen a kind of official significance and magisterial stateliness that elevated it to something more than an elegant bivouac for travelers.

The Pen was now, more than ever, a part of Hong Kong lore--a place awash in the ebb and flow of legend and fact. As a result, it attracted a who's who of writers, from Noel Coward and Eric Ambler to Arthur Miller and Sterling Silliphant.

In the 1960s James Clavell moved in for almost two years and began penning books such as "Noble House," "Taipan" and "Shogun."

There was little doubt that the Pen had become the primary magnet for the social, literary and political elite of the region.

That's the way things continued until the early 1970s, when talk of razing the hotel thundered through Hong Kong like a spring typhoon.

It was in this atmosphere that this correspondent first set foot in The Pen's lobby. You couldn't have a conversation there in those days without someone commenting on the future of the revered hostelry.

"If they rip the old place down, the owners should be taken out and flogged, by God," huffed one of The Pen's aging regulars one evening in the lobby. "It would be a bloody outrage . . . like scuttling the Star Ferry or shearing off the top of Victoria Peak."

The man, a British businessman named Thomas Crowell who arrived in Hong Kong in the early 1930s and married a Russian woman born in China, earned his livelihood in the shipping industry. During the war he was captured by the Japanese and, like thousands of other British POWs, spent almost four years in a POW camp on the island of Hainan.

"I was billeted in The Peninsula after the war with a lot of other chaps from that bloody awful POW camp," he recalled. "There was no electric, no running water and nothing coming up from the kitchen. But even if we smelled like hell and cooked beans over Sterno cans in the hallway it was still The Pen. And it felt like home. And it still does, by God. And I'll be damned if I'll let it go without a damned proper scuffle."

As it turned out, Crowell needn't have worried.

The global oil crisis and a precipitous drop-off in tourism during the recession-plagued early 1970s combined to scotch plans to raze and rebuild across Salisbury Road. The Pen was saved.

Instead of being razed, the hotel has undergone a series of renovations--the most recent of which ended in 1994 after $200 million was spent to upgrade the hotel's original 168 rooms and to construct a 30-story tower at the rear of the original building.

The new tower adds 132 rooms and suites, giving the hotel an even 300. It also adds 10 floors of commercial office space and twin helipads on the roof that will ferry guests between the hotel and Hong Kong's new airport that will open in 1998 on Chep Lap Kok Island some 30 miles away.

The new addition also solves another problem. When The Pen didn't buy the land across Salisbury Road somebody else did. Today, just across the road--and blocking the view of the harbor from the hotel's original seven-story facade--is the Hong Kong Space Museum and Theater.

The chalky geodesic domelike building seems as out of place along historic Salisbury Road as a Chinese junk on the Mississippi River.

"Rather an eyesore isn't it," quipped a British hotel guest standing near the small fountain that fronts The Peninsula. "Looks like a great white wart."
The Pen's 132 new tower rooms, which start on the 17th floor, offer unobstructed views over the "wart" across Victoria Harbor to Hong Kong Island. The tower also has a new spa with a 60-foot-long pool, two Jacuzzis, a sun deck overlooking Victoria Harbor, gymnasium and massage salon.
The new rooms--each about 500 square feet--come equipped with Chinese lacquered coffee tables, writing desks, oriental wicker lounge chairs, sofas, silent fax machines, five telephones (three in the room and two in the bathroom), laserdisc/CD players (with individual headphones) and computerized controls in a bedside console for the TV, radio, curtains, air conditioning and lights.
The outdoor temperature and humidity are even displayed on a panel located in each room's foyer.

The large bathrooms are done in marble and come with a deep bathtub, separate shower stall, private toilet, a TV set housed in the wall above the tub, a regular telephone and a hands-free telephone.

As opulent as the original Pen's rooms were, veteran visitors say they don't come close to the new digs.

"I first stayed here in 1955," said a guest from London who preferred to give only her first name: Libby. "It was a wonderful ambience back then. Lots of class. Very nobby. But the rooms today are much nicer. And so is the lobby."
The lobby should look nicer. Between 1994 and '95 it underwent a multi-million restoration project. Craftsmen were brought in from England and, working from original blueprints, every plaster figurine, filigree, frieze, fillet, quartrefoil and flower was cleaned, reconditioned and repainted.

"Absolutely bang on . . . back of the net," said Libby. "But one wonders about the taste of some of the clientele today. Just look."

Visitors and guests were wandering through the lobby in the de rigueur travel attire of the '90s--baggy, knee-length shorts, T-shirts emblazoned with advertising and high-top Reeboks.

"People looking like that would have been turned away at the door back in 1955," said Libby. "It may be the indulgent and mannerless '90s, but class is timeless. You either have it, or you don't. And frankly, not many of these people have it."

Just then a woman in skin-tight canary jogging tights padded into the lobby. Headphones from a portable stereo tape player were clamped to her ears, perspiration dripped from her face and her running shoes squeaked abrasively against the marble floor as she tramped toward the elevators.

"Isn't that just perfectly frightful?" Libby said. "I certainly hope she isn't English."

She wasn't. The lady in yellow was French.

"Well, that explains it," sniffed Libby.

What about those golden days of The Pen back in the 1950s? Any interesting tales to tell?

Libby, now in her late 60s, flashed a wicked smile.

"Now you'll understand why I don't want my family name in print," she said. "I recall sitting in the lobby one night and seeing William Holden sitting alone in the lobby drinking a vodka tonic. So I walked over and introduced myself.

"He was in Hong Kong filming `Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.' I was an air hostess on holiday. He bought me a vodka tonic, and then another, and then another, and we talked for several hours. It was magical. Then he walked me to my room. And well, that's as much as you need to know, or I want to say . . . ."

You get the feeling that it was one of those little Asian experiences that could only have happened in the lobby of The Pen.