BASIL'S BIG BIRTHDAY BASH -A personal view
I am confronted by the biggest, whitest pair of breasts I have ever seen. They are enormous. They are, fortunately but tenuously, confined by a bustier which must be a descendant of the bra Howard Hughes designed for Jane Russel back in the 1940s. They look, however, as if they could escape at any moment and inflict serious damage. Later in the evening, someone asks me what I would have done if they had popped out.
“It’s all right,” I replied, “I kept a couple of warm spoons handy.”
Their owner, Kayte, is my neighbour at a table in Café Deco, on the Peak in Hong Kong, where we are celebrating the 50th birthday of our good friend, Basil McIlhagga, in the grandest style. The pate de fois gras, the pigeon soup and the filet mignon are all done to perfection and Krug champagne flows all night long.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – it took quite a while and much decadence to get to this point. I've known Basil McIlhagga and Jim Christopher since 1997, when they bought their way (via a charity gig) into the Changeover China Coast Ball in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Since then, I'm delighted to say, they have become great friends and often had me play piano at some of their great parties. Now I'm even more delighted as they have invited me to be their guest at this Birthday Bash. As a retired school teacher on a pension, I am grateful for such extreme largesse. I'm not being employed in my capacity as entertainer, but if there's a spare piano lying round, I'm most happy to give it a tinkle. However, there is one obligation. They have engaged a large range of entertainers to come along. One is Hugh Sheridan, up-and-coming Aussie TV star with a fine voice. Would I accompany him? With pleasure. I arrange a couple of rehearsals with Hugh at my place and I point out that this will be a party, not a concert, as in my experience no one listens to the entertainers at China Coast balls - and this series of parties is a spin-off. But Hugh earnestly (and rightly) says that there will be people there he wants to impress. I emphasise that my job is to help him sound good, and I'll do my best. I hope I haven't put my foot in it.
Hugh has a repertoire of songs most of which I've played for years. The problem is that his charts are all in his keys, not mine, and I'm an appalling sight-reader, so there is a bit of effort and hard work required. I'll have to pay attention.
I arrive in Hong Kong late evening, take the excellent train to Central and a taxi to the Cosmo Hotel. I have a hard time locating my room, as no one has told me the room numbers are on the floor, not the door - go figure. It's a tiny little room, but I'm only going to sleep in it, so what. In bed at midnight, 3.00am Sydney time.
DEC 5. First thing, a shower. I find that in the shower stall, so small that if you drop the soap you have to get out of the stall to retrieve it, there are 3 (yes, three) shower heads and two taps. I try all manner of combinations, but am damned if I can get hot water. Call room service and a man arrives and shows me what to do, but not until after he has fiddled about and struggled himself. Strange.
Out onto the streets and I am somewhat disoriented as I thought Jim had said the Cosmo was in Central and I can't recognise any landmarks. Consult the tourist map and discover I'm actually in Wanchai, a few Metro stops from Central. Map directs me to Times Square station and I've almost circumnavigated the Jockey Club before I realise that I'm going the wrong way. Very embarrassing for an ex-geography teacher. But I have the day at leisure and time is not of the essence.
That evening Jo and Ted Bruekel have invited me to the LKF Hotel where they and most of the other guests are staying. Their friend Jennifer Fleming is having birthday drinks in the 29th floor bar - sensational views. Now I meet up with a big bunch of "old faces" - Michelle and Peter from Florida, Rodney from Bermuda, Frank and Brent from New York, Donald and Sue from San Fran - the list goes on. Much cordiality. But as we are buying our own drinks and a glass of pino gris costs $AUD26 I don't hang around for long. Which is why I find myself sitting in Lang Kwai Fong in a bar called Woollomooloo - yes! But the Carlsberg is cold and cheap, so OK.
DEC 7. Yesterday, Saturday, check out of the hotel to catch the train to Guangzhou in China for the first events of the week, hosted by Ted Marr, Espen Harbitz and Michelle Garnaut, who all now live there. In the hotel foyer a woman I'm sure I've never met before (but obviously I have) says hello, introduces me to Bruce, who also seems to know me, and suggests we share a cab to the station. Fine by me. This is to happen more than once. At the station, masses of "Hello, Darlings” to people I haven't seen for up to 8 or 10 years, all old BellaVistans, as we now seem to call ourselves. (There are 80ish of us on the train, around 160 at the main events in HK, and about another 80 go on to Saigon.)
It's about 90 minutes on the train to Guangzhou with a few beers to ease the pain. Then the fun begins. After we clear customs and claim baggage, we board two coaches to take us to the riverside seafood restaurant for lunch. Our coach gets hopelessly lost and after an hour of detours and back-ups in narrow alleys, we are flagged down by a distraught Jim C, abandon the bus and walk the last few hundred metres to lunch. It's a pleasant outdoor spot and I sit with Peter and Michelle (hooray), but the food is pretty shockin', especially if you're a wimp like me - can't eat whole crunchy prawns and uncrackable crabs, not fond of bbqed chicken and ducks complete with heads. Fill up on fried rice and very fine Chilean white. After lunch there's a choice - a walking tour or a bus direct to the hotel. Those of us who choose the bus end up on another Magical Mystery Tour of detours and back-ups and get to the hotel after the walking party has arrived.
One thing to say about the brand new Ritz Carlton: even the lifts have chandeliers. Way over the top with the most exorbitant Christmas decorations - Mao must be weeping somewhere. Very comfy beds, however.
That night, in our best Chinoiserie, we go to Ted and Espen's (and Michelle's? -can't remember) apartment, actually a lavish two-storey hotel suite, for a sumptuous party. Mid party, we take our drinks to the riverbank town square where the weekly public entertainment is happening. A rock band with a female singer/MC is entertaining a few hundred locals and there's a karaoke segment. John Mills takes my glass, commandeers the mike from Madam MC and hands it to me. I find myself singing Auld Lang Syne(?!) to a delighted but bemused crowd. No, maybe I’m bemused. Another box to tick.
Guess what? The driver of the taxi back to the Ritz Carlton gets lost.
DEC 9. The day of the real birthday celebration. I'm sitting on the balcony of Simpatico, on the Peak in HK, nursing another pinot gris. Looking across the way I can see both my performance spaces, one above the other and their grand pianos in the Cafe Deco, where the big event will take place. I'm here for the 4.00pm sound check which, of course, won't be before 5.00pm. On the upper level I'll be accompanying Hugh Sheridan, then later on the lower level, there might or might not be the singalong. I'm dreading both. I should point out here that although many oldtimers are keenly anticipating this traditional singalong, it hasn't been scheduled in the program. Even back in Sydney when the delightful Di Vertigan had proposed putting together a singalong songbook, Jim C had pointed out that he didn't expect such an event, but would be quite happy if it happened. But Di went ahead and we produced a fine and handsome printout in a font large enough not to need reading glasses. She printed and had bound a dozen or so copies and myself and some very generous friends (thank you Jan, John, Ted and Jo) stuffed them into their already overloaded baggage, just in case.
It's bright and sunny on the Peak, but there's a chilly breeze. They say the Peak has its own micro-climate and I suspect they're right.
It’s the mid-point of a heavy party schedule. The HK section kicked off with an ABBA-themed party at the very new, very of-the-moment Watermark nightclub, above the Star ferry terminals. A great tribute band, good finger food and endless Moet were in abundance. The gang have turned out in some amazing costumes, as is customary at these gigs. One, a skin-tight classic ABBA white jumpsuit is being worn by 23-year-old Nick Ingate, son of Steve and Gabby, from Sydney and as far as I am concerned, he gets Buns of the Year award (sorry, Foxy). On top of all this he is one of what I have found to be typical of his generation – the classic gay-friendly straight boy. A real charmer.
This is a night for reunions – Douglas and Marcia from Devon, MJ from Bali, Lorna from Miami and Denise from London, Falvey from Auckland. That they’ve come from all over the world is a real tribute to Basil – or else they’ll just do anything for a party.
I also reunite with 21yo Justin from Sydney, whom I haven’t seen for four years, when he was a student at Newtown Performing Arts High School and produced a great design for the school production of Jesus Christ Superstar. His life story so far deserves a blog of its own, but I won’t go into that here. He has just finished the design course at Sydney’s National Institute of the Dramatic Arts and is getting lots of work. He is rather camp and a total sweetie. He is one of the new generation which seems to have no sense of age discrimination, thank God. He agrees with me re Nick’s buns.
(Both Justin and Nick individually confess to me that they love dancing to 70s music, but can’t admit it to their peers.)
Next day it’s off to Pier 9 for our junk trip to the floating Jumbo Restaurant at Aberdeen. We’re all in our sailor and nautical gear. Nick is dressed as a pirate with serious bum cleavage (oh dear, I’m off again).
Great entertainment is provided by Leslie Hancock done up as a Pilipina maid, with the incomparable Trevor Ashley as her fat daughter, Basil’s love child. She’s promoting her new CD, Bird Flu over the Cuckoo’s Nest - v. crude and v. funny.
The seafood banquet is seriously good – what a pity Basil can’t eat it. He's allergic.
Tonight is Motown Night at the very chic, very twenties China Club – a sit-down, name-place degustation meal, great, but too much chilli for little me. But the endless Verve Cliquot helps. We are treated to more great entertainment – 3 “Supremes” and 4 “Platters” – all top rate and even better when they get together and jam later in the evening. There’s no dance floor, but loads of dancing.
DEC 11. It is the day of departure to Ho Chi Minh City (hereinafter called Saigon) and having done the very civilised city check-in and baggage check, and farewelled Nick who is flying back to Sydney, I’m having a last beer in the Woolloomooloo Bar and reminiscing.
The Big Night at Café Deco has come and gone and so have all my anxieties. I have been to some fantastic parties in exotic places in the past twenty years and this has to be way up there at the top of the list.
But let’s go back to that 5.00pm sound check. First I discover that the information I have been given is all back-to-front. Jim C had assured me that dinner (and dinner music from me) would come first, then the shows. This worried me, as though normally on these occasions I can drink away, on this occasion I have to accompany Hugh S, play the songs in his keys and help him make a good impression. But Peter Reeve tells us that while welcoming drinks are being served, Hugh and I will be performing (a): out of sight behind a sheer white curtain and (b): through a fog machine. So it becomes clear that we won’t be performing in “concert” mode and this relaxes me greatly.
So at 7.30pm I’m scrubbed up and dressed, as is Hugh, in red velvet jacket and black pants – bit of a Mother and Daughter look, really. We are behind the curtain with our glasses of Krug, ready to start. I suggest to Hugh that in this unexpected situation it would be pointless to just perform Hugh’s concert of songs. Perhaps better if I start with some instrumentals, then he sings a couple and we alternate. He is very happy with this idea, so I start off with “Cheek to Cheek”. What happens then is that Hugh says, “Oh, I know this one,” and joins in on the second chorus. So we more or less abandon the advertised program and proceed to wing it. I’m very happy, because I’m playing everything in my keys.
But I’m really playing like shit. Despite the lovely Yamaha grand I’m hitting bum chords everywhere. Perhaps not so bad that the guests notice, but I certainly do and I suspect Hugh does too. As I had feared, at least two of my arthritic fingers are giving me a hard time. The curtain opens, the crowd surges in, some come over to say hello – nice, but it distracts me and doesn’t help. I can’t recognise anyone because of the fog machine and because I’m in a spotlight. Not my finest hour. But we soldier on and Hugh really is a good sport about it all. And as I had told him, no one really listened.
However, the rest of the night is absolutely brilliant. I’ve mentioned the food and drink. The entertainment is great, especially the four black guys from South Africa who sing a capella on the staircase. (Still no one listens.)
We get great, amusing but sincere speeches from Basil Snr, Basil’s great friend Kim (Basil is godfather to his two children), Jim C, then Basil himself. These really raise the level of the evening from just another outrageous BellaVista party to something of very meaningful significance. What wonderful people they all are. What wonderful people we all are.
Then there’s more entertainment on the upper level. Trevor and Leslie are great Mine Hosts, very Cabaret with songs and patter to match. Hugh S delivers a very effective “Maybe This Time” and the Von Tramp family (Astrid, Jo Jo and David) deliver some fun parodies. The Krug flows all night long, glasses are broken and swiftly swept away while we dance our butts off to “It’s Raining Men” and more.
The dress theme of the night is decadence and fetish (think Berlin in the 30s) and people have gone to great extremes. The aforementioned bustier of Kayte does honour to its cantilever construction and the warm spoons, thankfully, are not required. Spunky Nick is in black leather pants, a black lace corset and a fishnet top – grrr! Not to be outdone, Justin is in serious stilettos, fishnet tights (takes me back), a double-breasted dinner jacket and nothing else. Once again, old and young have gone all out.
Around 12.30pm I find I am terribly thirsty. I go to the bar and down a pint of Carlsberg. This quenches my thirst so I can get back on the Krug. Divinely decadent.
Around 2.30am I decide it’s bedtime and head for the taxi rank. Justin spots me and asks can he share, as we’re in the same hotel. Of course he can. Back in the hotel lobby, the night porter stops Justin (can’t imagine why) and asks if he is a guest of the hotel. He is. It seems I raise no such alarm. And so to bed – separately, of course.
The next morning (afternoon?) I was in need of fresh air so took a taxi to Stanley Markets. I didn’t intend to shop, just to take in the seaside ambience. I bumped into Jo and Ted Bruekel and we had a Vietnamese meal in the old mission building. Then, in the markets I found a very smart cream linen jacket which jumped at me for $HK600 ($AUD120). A great buy.
But the fun wasn’t over yet, folks. The wonderful Vincent Cheung hosted yet another party, this one with a Salsa theme and band. The Verve Cliquot flowed freely and the 1995 Chateau Margaux went down very nicely, too. I don’t know where our stamina came from, but nobody was saying no.
STILL DEC 11. Now, as I said a few paragraphs ago, it’s off to Vietnam. It’s my first time in Saigon and it’s very hot and very humid. But the Hotel Majestic, across from the river, is seriously cool and very 1920s. I am reintroduced to the madness that is traffic in Vietnam. I have previously been to Hanoi and whilst Saigon has some traffic lights, where vehicles sometimes actually stop, it’s still a battlefield.
My hotel room is great, but I give up on the complicated shower instructions and settle for a cold shower (seems to be a recurring theme, here). After drinks in the lobby 80 “pretty in pink” partygoers set off in 80 cyclos for dinner.
In most of the China Coast and BellaVista parties I have attended over the years, there is always one event, often a whole day,that I simply can’t remember. I wonder why. Tonight is the one for this trip. I remember the cyclos (how could one forget?) and I also remember walking back to the hotel, mainly because a little maybe eight year old girl looked at me in my seriously pink feather boa and said, “But you are a man!” “Yes, darling, and you are a girl,” I replied and, placing my boa around her shoulders, I added “and now you’re a very pretty girl.” (Hope I haven’t put her on the dangerous course of speaking to strange men.)
But where did we go? Who did I sit with? What did we eat? I have no idea. Even after trawling through Kay Watts’ copious photos I still have no idea.
Back on the roof of the Majestic, in the humid night air with a great view of the Saigon River, the band played for dancing and this was the pattern for the these three late nights. But I wasn’t a stayer, usually caving in around 12.30, so I’m not around on those nights when Hugh S. is dragged out of bed to keep the party people rocking.
The next day we do a walking tour with a Vietnamese guide (very good) to steer us safely through the traffic. Again it is hot, humid and very sunny. I’m hatless, so I’m seeking shade at every opportunity. We visit the Cathedral, the very elegant Post Office, the Presidential Palace and the US Embassy (but not the helicopter one). I get talking to the black boys from Johannesburg. “Who is this Ho Chi Minh guy?” they ask me and I realise how old I am. But I’m able to fill them in.
Then we get to the War Memorial – US planes, artillery and tanks outside, mostly pictures inside. Our guide warns us that after the first two rooms of historical preamble, the rest degenerate into propaganda. Maybe so, but I remind him, “History is written by the winners”. He agrees and leaves us to do our own cogitating at this point. Sure, there’s the Imperialist Dogs bias, but one can’t help but be moved by some of the images. Some I just can’t look at, sometimes I force myself to do so. Memories come flooding back (I was in my twenties then) – My Lai, William Calley, the Tet Offensive, the napalm girl. No doubt there were atrocities on both sides, but the US portrayed themselves as the goodies and this is not how goodies should act. Yet nowadays, the sweet and gracious Vietnamese are charming and polite to all visitors, even the Americans. The American woman ahead of me has written in the visitors’ book: “Why did we do all this… and why are we still doing it?” I don’t know darling, I just don’t know.
Then it’s off to lunch – a poky, crowded local spot where our guide makes recommendations and we are fully fed and watered (two beers a head) for all of $AUD12. Amazing value.
We take taxis back to the hotel – my feet are killing me and the heat is oppressive, so the seriously hairy ride is worth it. It is time to scrub up for another night of – wait for it – glamour and Vietnamese food. Tonight’s theme is “glitter” so thank God I have my sequined basketball sneakers.
It’s a very glamorous restaurant with a pool in the middle, but fairly plain food. And here something quite remarkable – for me – happens.
Hugh S. is valiantly singing away, accompanied by Trevor on a little white upright piano, to no avail. The acoustics are bad and everyone is chatting – i.e., all talking at once. Trevor even tries to gain attention with a patter song (When I Get My Name in Lights), but it sinks without trace. Then suddenly, through some process of osmosis, there’s a whole international gang around the piano belting out “I Still Call Australia Home”. Two thoughts occur instantly: (a) it should be me! (b) I’m so glad it isn’t. For over 15 years I have been the centre of attention, particularly at this moment. And to my surprise and relief, I couldn’t care less. I’m over it. I pause for a reality check: any regrets? Any qualms? No, not one. I did it, I loved it and I’ll never do it again. “It was great fun, but it was just one of those things…” Well, maybe more than one.
A new generation has taken over. As I say on the last night in a small speech at final drinks in Steve and Gabby Ingate’s suite, “Hugh Sheridan, you’re now a trouper in both senses. I’m happily handing the mantle over to you. I have no regrets. Good luck”.
And that pretty much was it. A couple of recovery days back in Hong Kong, then Hello, Sydney. What a wonderful way to finish. Thank you Basil and Jim for a truly memorable time. But oh, I do love my own bed (and shower).