The Pained Trader: Apac picaresque

The picaresque progression of Donald Trump’s 12 day tour around Asia brought back fond memories of the fortnight’s foray I made to the Far East when I first visited, 25 years ago.

  • By The Pained Trader
  • 16 Nov 2017
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“A lot of people said it was physically impossible for someone to go through 12 days,” claimed The Orange One.

What was he talking about? He doesn’t even drink. My schedule was no less demanding than his, but I was getting pulverised every night.

Perhaps he never finished his sentence. Maybe “a lot of people said it was physically impossible for someone to go through 12 days… without saying something stupid,” was what he intended?

If it were possible, in 1992, I was probably even less cosmopolitan and more gaffe-prone than the US president, but back then a business trip represented an opportunity to experience executive travel to exotic and far-flung places which I could never afford under my own steam. Even in that era of youthful enthusiasm, I knew instinctively that a bad day out of the office was better than a good day in and 14 of them was, well, a whole lot better than that.

Salomon Brothers had a generous travel policy at that time, and I found myself booked in the front of the plane for every leg of my itinerary through Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and Manila. 

This is when I discovered it is better to travel first class than to arrive. In fact, I remember returning and when asked by mum which part of the trip I enjoyed most I had to confess it was the ride in the chauffeur-driven Bentley along the M4 to Heathrow.

A trip full of compromise

Already besieged by rumours of foreign impropriety, there was no way Trump was going to compromise himself on this trip, but I had no such misgivings on my maiden voyage and it seemed only a matter of minutes after landing in Singapore before I was enveloped in the arachnoid embrace of what felt like a half-dozen little minxes, utterly bereft of moral probity, in the stygian darkness of a karaoke bar.

I might not have even bothered going to my hotel. I feel sorry for Trump who missed out on such ‘cultural learnings’ and was kept pretty much under a room curfew by his Chief of Staff to avoid diplomatic incidents and golden moments.

I was under no such restraint. I had not been sent to Asia to discuss a trade deficit or prevent nuclear Armageddon – although I might have made a better fist of it, had I been the unofficial ambassador for the West. I was there with the ambiguous task of ‘developing some relationships’ with brokers in the region and, since they were all under the misapprehension that Salomon Brothers would be huge in the Far East, this would not be difficult.

Nor would I shrink from any debauchery, any seedy location and any ethical compromise in the pursuit of that goal.

And so it came to pass that I spent most of that fortnight in the company of brokers bent on ethical compromise and the petite and sleepy karaoke hostesses who would endure my repertoire of Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash and Tom Jones with admirable stoicism.

I made a lot of promises on that trip. Stupendous expenses were incurred by brokers to whom I made exaggerated commitments.

As with Trump, not everything on the trip worked out as planned. 

Tiring of my rendition of Rhinestone Cowboy, one only-too-human broker in Kuala Lumpur pretended to go to the toilet in the wee small hours, did the perfect runner and lumped me a bill of extraordinary dimensions which I could not pay. “On the 12th day of Asia, the hostess said to me: 'five thousand ringgit!'" we might have sung.

I still can’t tell you how that was resolved. I developed a chronic bout of alcohol poisoning in Honkers which meant I vomited at every tourist site on the island in the free day I had to myself.

Nights were spent in sin. Days were spent in sun, sweating beside five-star hotel swimming pools, my inadequate frame struggling to process the prodigious quantities of alcohol and shuddering to adjust to 100% humidity.

My unillustrious Korea

The most awkward part of the trip to negotiate was, as for Trump, Korea.

An over-enthusiastic employee in our local office had misinterpreted my casual instruction, “please arrange a few meetings with some local houses” as “please arrange back-to-back meetings on the hour, every hour, for two solid days, and then, after consuming some vegetables which have been buried in the ground for several months, covered in garlic, convene an all-male karaoke session fuelled by some rank brew called OB Blue”.

Never mind the short-fingered vulgarian trying to get choppered into the DMZ. Nothing was more depressing than my cab ride across the Han River on that second morning into the central business district of Yeongdeungpo, knowing what lay ahead of me for the next 12 hours. Deliverance from that fate, in the form of Air Force One evacuation, would have made even this devout atheist believe in a benevolent and omnipotent deity.

Just like the clown with the long red tie, I rounded off my trip with a couple of steamy nights in Manila where I too had someone sing for me but instead of a dread nemesis of drug dealers murdering some cheesy ballad in full view of the world’s media, I was serenaded privately by a caramelised, nightclub crooner who changed into the uniform of a traffic policewoman and gave the most unforgettable rendition of Rose Royce's hit, Car Wash. I guess the US president would say the treatment I received was “state plus plus”.

When I climbed aboard the British Airways flight home, the air hostesses were visibly shocked by the wheezing, blanched, cadaverous roué lurching into the first-class cabin and were quickly fanning my febrile brow with a damp cloth and tending to me like nurses. There were shell-shocked and battle-scarred American GIs returning from year-long tours of duty in Vietnam airlifted out of the jungle by Hueys who came home in better condition than me.

I don’t know what I learned from my trip, except that the front of the plane is a whole lot more agreeable than the back and the fruit platters they served in the VIP room to embattled karaoke singers were no substitute for real food.

Like Trump, I came back and immediately hailed the trip as a tremendous success and predicted an astonishing amount of trade would materialise as a direct consequence of my interventions.

The former was a lie and the latter proved untrue but no one knew that at the time and no one knows that now – except you, of course, dear reader.

  • By The Pained Trader
  • 16 Nov 2017

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