Ivy Ball is a social extravaganza for Ivy League alumni1 who live in Hong Kong. Every summer, hundreds of men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns enter the Grand Hyatt ballroom2 for professional networking and auditory/gustatory entertainment. Centerpieces of freshly-cut flowers and seven-armed candelabra holding two-foot long candles tower over guests. A chandelier of glass spheres sparkles above a hardwood dance floor. This year’s theme was “Take a Chance.”3
Ivy Ball’s founder invited us interns to her house for dinner and singing rehearsal. Columbia University’s Center for Career Education provided 15 of us lucky students with summer internships and the contact information of generous and, more importantly, six-figure-salary alumn /mentors. We were excited for yet another alumni-hosted event because it had been a while since they had invited us on private boat trips, elite country clubs, or night clubs with aquariums filled with sharks.
Ms. Hutchison Whampoa (name changed for my protection not hers) is a Columbia alumna and the General Counsel to a Fortune 500 company4. We had heard from last year’s interns that alumni had paid for some of their $127 tickets. Determined to outdo them, we hinted to our alumni mentors that we would like to have all our tickets subsidized. We got our way5. But there was a catch: we had to help Columbia alums take back the trophy for most school spirit from Cornell who won last year, I am told, by bringing in a professional rapper as a ringer.
6/26/2009 – 20:45
Ms. Hutchison Whampoa lived in one of the Big Lychee’s affluent neighborhoods. After arriving, we ate a delicious dinner – compliments of Ms. Whampoa’s Filipino maid (or “foreign domestic helper” as HKers like to call them) who ducked in and out of the kitchen cooking, cleaning, and serving6. Dumplings, noodles, spicy cold-tossed seaweed, and cauliflower stir-fried with pork paraded across the table. For dessert, we ate dragon fruit, mango, lychee, and longan. Male interns, at the behest of Mr. Hutchison Whampoa, washed this down with Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey. Another male intern and I managed to drink a third of the 80-proof bottle in an hour.
Before long, Ms. Hutchison Whampoa had opened her grand piano’s keyboard cover and limbered up her fingers with C major scales. It was time for the singing rehearsal, and we were put under moderate duress to perform. With her as our conductor and piano player, we learned the song after about two dozen repetitions of
Stand up and cheer!
Stand up and cheer for old Columbia!
For today we raise
The Blue and White above the rest.
Our team is fighting7
And they are bound to win the fray.
We’ve got the team!
We’ve got the steam!
For this is old Columbia’s day!
Meanwhile, Mr. Whampoa sat in the corner recliner with his bottle of white wine and a full-on Asian glow8.
6/27/2009 – 19:30
Two large staircases descended into the Grand Hyatt’s lobby where four black marble pillars supported a three-storey high ceiling. Men and women dressed to the nines milled around looking glamorous in cummerbunds and sleeveless satin gowns. I left my coat with the coat check lady, turned to view the crowd with a consciously furrowed brow, and acted like I was unsure whether I liked the party. At first, I milled around trying to look just as glamorous. But since I hardly knew anyone and found it hard to introduce myself to individuals with incomes high enough to indenture me as a domestic servant, I ended up sticking with the other interns. They began helping themselves to wine and chocolate-flavored liqueur shots floating around on platters borne by waiters. “It’s so good!” they exclaimed. “It’s delicious!”
Walking through ball-goers was a balancing act. Many women wore evening gowns trailing several feet behind them. More than once I found myself nearly causing catastrophic accidents by stepping on their dresses while they attempted to walk gracefully. To avoid their questioning gazes of displeasure, I averted my eyes and nonchalantly sipped my wine.
I noticed something was a little off-kilter upon sitting down at my assigned table. It wasn’t just the coupon on my plate for professional family portraits depicting a man and what seemed like a topless eight-month pregnant woman embracing atop jagged rocks. Maybe it was the number of advertisements crawling over the table and invading my gift bag. I steeled myself for five hours of product placement9.
There were six rounds of prizes and raffles. The first was individual gift bags that included
- a Life Beauty coupon for facials10
- a “Your First Swing – HK$888” coupon at Caesar’s Golf in Macau
- and HK$50 gift certificates to a Japanese restaurant redeemable only when one racks up over HK$300 worth of food.
Playing cards on bread plates indicated how each table should distribute their second tier prizes. My ace of hearts meant I was the proud recipient of two tubes of organic hand/body lotion and baby lotion. Although the accompanying ad testified that the hand/body lotion was “enriched with a subtle, uplifting scent” of berry wax and coconut,“ after rubbing it on my palms they smelled like bread-and-butter pickles. Disappointed by the hand/body lotion, I placed his hopes on the lavender scented baby lotion. After squeezing out a liberal amount of what looked and felt like wet ear wax infused with the aroma of chemically treated leather, he rushed off to the bathroom to wash my hands.
Four separate announcements of raffle prizewinners punctuated the evening. Raffle prizes of more expensive gift certificates came first, followed by two more sets of prizes ranging from a free custom-tailored suit to a three-night stay at Bali’s Amandari Resort. The raffle concluded with the grand prize of a weekend package to the Sands Macao resort replete with Deluxe Suite accommodation and $3000 of Macau promotional gambling money. I held my breath as announcers called raffle numbers, exhaled with relief when the winner had unwittingly gone to the restroom, and threw up my hands in despair as his friend pulled him, fly in mid-zip, onstage. Only one of us interns won a prize – a fuchsia, underwater camera. I went home with tubes of pickles and dead cows.
The exquisite four-course meal (my favorite part of the evening) began but not before Ms. Whampoa commemorated another year of the Ivy Ball and thanked everyone for attending. An assistant wheeled a multi-layered cake onto the stage. It was so big that I half expected a woman to pop out. After leading a chorus of tone-deaf alumni in singing “Happy Birthday,” Ms. Whampoa blew out the candles. Her baby was 21 years old11.
I looked for Ms. Whampoa and saw her at a neighboring table. Seated at the same table was Hutchison Port Holding’s CFO, another Columbia alumnus. Two weeks later, we interns would meet James Tsien on a tour of the firm’s international shipping port12. I also looked for my boss, a project manager at a German consulting firm’s HK office. Knowing she had 12 hour days and better things to do like sitting down to eat a meal with her husband13 in private, I wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t find her.
The blatant sexual connotations of the dance show were hard to miss. Guests suddenly stopped eating (drinks kept flowing). Mesmerized ball goers watched the genuflecting, bare limbs of women who spun around and caressed their male partners to a pelvic-pumping disco beat. Greg, a 19-year old Big Lychee native and UPenn sophomore who sat at my table, was disconcerted to witness his previous boss performing such aggressive hip gyrations.
Soup: Chicken consommé with summer truffle dumplings (I devoured it before I could snap a photo.)
The cheering competition began, and delegates from each university clambered onto the stage to belt out their fight song. A preselected panel of judges sat in the front to choose the winning school based on style, spirit, and sheer decibels. Brown went first. “Sit down!” booed a Dartmouth gentleman who had too much wine. Followed by Harvard. “Safety school!” he shouted.
It was finally the moment we had been preparing for all weekend. The hosts called Columbia up to sing its school song. Our sponsored Ivy Ball tickets were riding on this. We either came back victorious or let our mentors down and say goodbye to being pampered during the remainder of our HK internships. The next day, I was hoarse. Once the Columbia contingent was on stage, female interns positioned themselves at the front with pom poms while male interns hid in the back with A -sized, laminated letters until we stood up in the end to spell “COLUMBIA.” I was responsible for the “I.” The dance/cheer number went according to plan until this part. There was no “A” to my left. Alumni around me cracked up at how Columbia’s curriculum left out basic spelling. A video recording of the cheer later revealed Ms. Hutchison Whampoa holding the “A” on the opposite side of the stage to spell “ACOLUMBI.” I have uploaded this video to YouTube for posterity.
The cheer competition judges announced Columbia won and presented a little trophy to my mentor, a Columbia College class of 1995 alum. Loud cheers and shouts erupted from our section. You’d think that we’d won Ferraris from the whoops and hollers. Guests continued to eat, drink, sing, shout, and dance frantically. Their behavior suggested an urge to reaffirm the vitality of mind and body against creeping age and decay.
Ivy League alumni had reduced the ballroom to an aftermath of furious consumption. Candles once two feet tall now perched as stubs on precariously hanging stalactite-like formations of wax. Food crumbs and smeared napkins lay strewn across the tablecloth. Guests’ faces glazed over with post gastrointestinal jadedness while others navigated their way with stilettos and loosened cummerbunds toward their Mercedes and Bentleys14. The interns opened the bottle of Pravda vodka on the table and took shot after shot after shot. I helped.
The Ivy Ball was a massive display of exclusivity, decadence, and self-congratulations. It shrieked the claim of what an Ivy League education could attain for those who bought its diplomas – material wealth, success, and the high life.
6/28/2009 – 00:00
Young alumni left the Grand Hyatt for the after-party in HK’s Central district. Older alumni returned home with their spouses to look after children. Even their maids were most likely asleep at this hour. Much older guests like Ms. Whampoa realized it was past their bedtimes. The interns and I piled into a taxi and headed off to HK Central, the analogue of NYC’s financial district.
We drove down streets that were mere slivers of pavement wedged between the skyscrapers of Citibank and Bank of China. Multi-billion dollar banking giants staked out their territories here. Getting out of the taxi, I thought about the time I got my public library card at the Central branch. It was cramped an relatively small for a city of HK’s size, but id had an English section. It also had David Foster Wallace. I melted on the spot.
I found the after-party at the Armani Bar – yes, it’s in the same building as the bookstore and flower shop – and presented the bartender my voucher for a complimentary Scotch on the rocks. Due to ethanol consumption over the course of the night, details from this point will become sparse. The other interns looked either too tired or tipsy for much conversation, so I carried my Scotch to a window and looked at the skyline.
A city’s architecture reflects its values. In the Big Lychee, Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores15 filled malls as big as international airports with interior skating rinks, but public libraries remained unspectacular and places of worship languished in disrepair as banks towered over them. The largest faith here was the state-sponsored Church of Capitalism16.
A generous friend invited me to have drinks with him at Club No. 9. He provided a private booth, five champagne bottles, and endless sugary shots of lychee and mango liqueur. The music was loud enough to cause partial hearing loss, it was pitch black, and the number of sweaty, jostling bodies exceeded fire safety limits – textbook clubbing conditions.
I took a cab back to my hotel room and stepped in without bothering to turn on the lights. My feet dragged across the carpet as the refrain of Lady Gaga’s “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” rang in my ears. Looking out my window, I noted that my neighborhood’s lights were nowhere as bright as those downtown. I started for a while at the outline of HK’s mountains in the background. I drew the blinds. The hotel mattress, too soft for my taste, gave easily under my weight. I ran my hand across the white linen comforter and noted the fabric’s starchy texture. The silence and darkness of the room seemed out of sync with the sights and sounds from earlier. The room spun slightly as I lay down and fell asleep in my clothes.
Plus MIT graduates. In a city where expatriates are only 5% of the population, they tend to stick together by joining societies like the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Royal Yacht Club, and the Foreign Correspondents Club.↩
This ballroom rests on land reclaimed from the sea and overlooks the [ever-shrinking harbor], which has diminished to half its original size from land reclamation. Much of HK’s hottest real estate sits on man-made terra firma.↩
Your correspondent thought these upper-crust HKers were only taking a chance on not checking their BlackBerries every two minutes. He was wrong. There’s life, and there’s work; and apparently, work trumps life.↩
[Hutchison Whampoa] is an international corporation that owns convenience stores, electricity infrastructure, luxury residential properties, 3G mobile phone networks in dozens of countries, and the biggest port in the world. Translation: anyone in Hong Kong who turns on a light, makes a cell phone call, or buys a condom is putting money in the pocket of Hutchison’s multi-billionaire owner [Li Ka-shing].↩
As of this time, Columbia alumni will not grant next year’s interns the same privilege. Apparently, their generosity runs out before their salaries. Ms. Hutchison Whampoa instructed the interns of 2009 to keep this matter confidential.↩
Most well-off people in Hong Kong employ maids, and nearly a quarter of a million FDHs make up 3% of the population. This practice has contributed to social, ethnic, and economic tensions, but the margin here is too small to even begin to spell out the issues.↩
Original lyrics (“Our boys are fighting”) changed by executive decision of Ms. Whampoa, who attended graduate school at Columbia University before its undergraduate colleges admitted women.↩
Mr. Whampoa, who works in the telecommunications industry, spent much of the evening recounting to your correspondent his unfulfilled dram of being a pilot. For the record, he said he would go back if the British had allowed native HKers to attend flight schools thirty years ago. His younger classmates became the first HK pilots of major airlines like Cathay Pacific and Dragon Air. By that time, Mr. Whampoa was too old to be accepted.↩
Daily life in HK is essentially non-stop product-placement. On the way to eat HK’s cheapest and most delicious dumplings, your correspondent must walk through an entire department store dedicated to the Armani brand. The building includes an Armani-branded bookstore (Libri), florist (Fiori), and an 8′x15′ television screen where models showcase Armani garb 24/7.↩
Guests also have the opportunity to enjoy body slimming treatments, “bust volume treatment,” and “bust firm up treatment.”↩
The Whampoas have no children. This is not unusual in a city with one of the world’s lowest birth rates, less than one per family. A [2007 survey][^17] of 1,500 women showed 26% wanted one child, compared with 10% in 1992, and 13% wanted none, compared with 5% in 1992. Less than 50% of women want two children.↩
He would describe, over a lunch of steamed rice and [liquid pork lard], the dangerous life of an international corporation’s top management. While visiting Pakistan in late 2007 to bid for work on a [terminal in Karachi], Mr. Tsien had to leave abruptly when his location was disclosed to terrorists in the city. A hotel full of western businessmen and media companies like CNN was not the best location to be in. A private jet eventually whisked Mr. Tsien out of Karachi but not before he and his colleagues dodged Molotov cocktails and covered their heads from a bomb explosion that rocked their hotel. Around this time, suicide bombers killed hundreds of people, President Pervez Musharraf [suspended the constitution] and imposed a state of emergency, and a gunman [assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto].↩
Three weeks later, my boss “almost had a heart attack” when she found out suicide bombers had [attacked the Marriott hotel in Jakarta], Indonesia. Her husband frequently flew to Jakarta and had planned on staying at the Marriott that day.↩
At US$1.55/l of oil and 4.5l/gal., driving a car in HK costs almost US$7/gal. Over half of this price is a tax by the government, which said the high expenses at the pump discourage car ownership for environmental considerations.↩
A 2008 study by the Nielsen Company, a supplier of marketing information, showed that HK people are the “[most brand conscious in Asia Pacific].” The percentage of the population buying Gucci is 31%, Louis Vuitton 27%, and Burberry 26%. According to Nielsen’s report, 47% would purchase a designer branded mobile phone.↩
Some actually resemble houses of worship. Standard Chartered Bank has monastic, granite passageways where light enters through stained glass images of commerce and goods.↩