Hong Kong Phone Booth
Back in 1997, I traveled to Hong Kong and China for a business trip. It was ostensibly to give some talks at my partner’s medical school in Guangzhou, China. So we were there at New Year’s ( American, January 1). I landed in Hong Kong after a sixteen hour flight from New York via Tokyo.
That was pretty interesting. The jet doors closed and the pilot said, “Next stop, Tokyo in 16 hours.” Had I read my itinerary wrong? Nope. Sixteen straight hours in an aisle seat and I did it without an iPod or any other digital device for entertainment. Imagine that! The guy in the middle must have been sedated. He got up once, maybe twice, tops, and otherwise was unconscious the rest of the time.
I reached my hotel after walking a couple blocks with my suitcase. The taxi driver was lost and left me to wander the last blocks on foot. It was toward midnight on a Saturday as I recall. I wanted to call home and report my safe arrival.
I was unfamiliar with the Hong Kong telephone system but didn’t want to rack up steep international fees by using the hotel operator. The white building in the background was my hotel, which remains nameless in my memory. Across the street were these phone booths. Who sees phone booths anymore? And there were no internet cafes or Skype connections at that time.
Examining the phone, I saw a slot for a credit card. I slipped my trusty American Express card in and started to dial up my AT&T international card account. Oh brother! The phone did not take Amex. It probably used a generic phone card. What was really a disaster was that my Amex card was firmly stuck in the machine. Just about 1/8 inch protruded. There was no leverage to remove the card.
The Amex card was pretty much the source of my funds/ATM and so forth for me on this trip. A call to the operator got me a nice woman who did not speak English. It was a British colony (until 1999). But, hey! After a couple of transfers, I was now speaking with a nice English representative who explained patiently that I was out of luck till Monday! I explained that I had no other funds and that I was an ignorant innocent tourist from the USA. I was also worried that come the morning someone would get my card and begin a carefree shopping spree. Something in my pleading clicked with this kind man. He placed me on hold and a few long minutes later, he told me that he had reached a serviceman.
Mind you it was now past midnight on Saturday night. The serviceman would be coming from his warm bed and meet me at the phone booth to retrieve my card. I was so relieved. But while idly waiting for the repairman, I kept worrying at the tiny part of my Amex card that was still showing from the slot. And then, what do you know, it came free!
Here I am, card in hand and now what do I do? Wait for the repairman, run away, what? Well, I got on the phone, and it was a near miracle that I got the same kind representative again. Perhaps not, because maybe he was probably the only one in the service office at that hour who could speak with me in English. I explained that I had retrieved my Amex card. He explained that the serviceman was on the way and could not be reached (no cellphone).
I thanked him profusely and told him that I was leaving behind in the slot a twenty-dollar bill, yeah American (not Hong Kong) dollars, as thanks. I figured that at 1AM there would be very little chance anyone other than the phone man would use that phone next. Yes, all that drama occurred within sight of the hotel. My memory is dim, but I think I went back and called home through the hotel operator after all.