The Belonger

by Brian Howlett


Thursday, May 25, 1989

 The windsurfer looking for the ultimate challenge will find his match here on Bulabog Beach, on the eastern coast of Boracay. Between November and May, the wind blows into shore and the conditions are perfect for the experienced, aggressive boarder. Don’t mind the hordes of tourists back there on the white sand beach. That’s not why you came. And you won’t even know that they’re there. Just get out on your board and put it all behind you. Then pull out of the water at the end of a stellar day to get wasted that night with all of the shore babies. Pretend you like them, listen to their stories about their snorkeling ”adventures” and day cruises, keeping your eye out for the prettiest and singlest among them. Then get up the next morning and do it again. You won’t have to worry about the wind here. It’s waiting. Always waiting.


Clifford plucked the page from the typewriter. It was fair writing. Maybe not his best, but pisser, he didn’t even remember writing it, and it worked. Travel sober, write drunk, the best of the writers always said.

He read it again. He took pleasure in his own writing, and his way of appealing to his core readers by putting down others. It had just enough of his trademark irreverent humor, walking that fine line between what could be published and what couldn’t.

It was good enough for Eastern Rider, at any rate. The magazine was pretty much about the pictures and captions anyway, and the travel offers that fattened its back pages. His writing was more for him and his editor, Trace. He red-penciled through one line and changed it. Fuck the hordes of tourists on the white sand beach. Trace would like that. He wouldn’t allow it through, but it would give him a laugh. That’s what mates are for.

Clifford wished he could go riding himself right now. The typhoon was over and the best of the winds were gone, but it would still be nicely unsettled on the South China Sea, and a couple of hours on Stanley Beach would be a great way to work through his hangover. He was particularly wobbly this morning. Must be the nerves.

He threw a few things into his knapsack and then carefully put his typewriter into its weathered but solid travel case. He looked at the business plan one more time. This was it, the hardest twenty pages he had ever written because he was putting it all on the line. He slipped it into his briefcase, willing himself to feel better. He went into his bathroom and opened the drawer. Like a little mound of brown sugar, the last of the heroin sat in its place in the corner, saying, “Baby, I can take care of you.”

Not today. Clifford had to count on Clifford if his magazine was finally going to happen. He had spent too many years boring everyone with his talk about this. He closed the drawer, and washed his face. He was already getting the first sign of wrinkles. Only thirty, but like a lot of windsurfers, the wind and sun had aged him. Every wrinkle a small price to pay. It struck him that he hadn’t been to a doctor since California. Seven years living here, and he didn’t even know where a hospital was.

Hong Kong. City of the young.

He climbed up out of the basement apartment in Mid-Levels. He was the only expat he knew who lived without a view. He was cool with it. When he first came to Hong Kong, he had insisted on being near the water and rented a flat on Lantau Island, but the ferry ride back and forth was too much. Especially at closing time. So he moved to Stanley Beach on the south side of the Island. It was the closest he could get to California, and he loved it, but the rent quickly proved too much for what he was managing to earn.

He came with an idea to become a journalist, but even the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Standard required credentials. He was cool with that, too. He discovered that there was a strong market for travel writers, and he went from one contract to the next, quickly establishing a reputation as a hard-partying but reliable writer up for any assignment. Soon Clifford was discovering his knack for finding the next great undiscovered beach. The money was always tight, but he soon learned that if you set aside the typical expatriate expectations, then it goes a lot further.

So no more ocean views. And basements, not balconies.

That was his secret weapon. He had the ability to adjust to any circumstance and never get rattled. When he got comped first class by a tourist board or new resort that was angling for a good review, he took full advantage of it, even if he ended up writing the truth. But he could just as easily ride on the back of a fifty-year-old bus for twelve hours deep into a jungle with mountain tribes that had never seen a white person.

Although, he thought as he slid into the taxi for Kai Tak, if this goes well, money may not be such an issue anymore. He settled into the ride, hoping the potholes and crazy driver might help whip his head back into shape. He loved cabs. He loved airports. He loved hotels. Anywhere that was nowhere, he thought with a smile.

The storm had served as a welcome distraction from the bullshit of the past few weeks, but now that it was calm and the city had found its feet again, the protest signs were back. More than ever. Strung from treetops and balconies. He had no idea what they said, of course. Do they write their protest slogans bottom to top and right to left like their novels? Silly buggers either way. Because fat lot of good a slogan and a little bit of Johnny-come-lately organizing would do against the Party. Good against evil. Ripples against a tanker.

They should have started the rallies months ago. Years ago. They had every opportunity, living outside the direct rule of the Communists, under the protection of Mother England, but of course they had to wait to see the students in Tiananmen Square do it first. The Causeway Bay marches were just one more bit of Hong Kong piracy. Like the Crocodile label on the billboard passing outside his cab window. The colony didn’t have an original thought and wouldn’t know what to do if it did.

Hong Kong was hard at work on the world’s first copycat revolution.

He hadn’t been to Kai Tak during the day for years. He got out of the cab, back into the heat, and realized that he had missed the buzz of the place, especially on a busy Thursday. Other expats would complain about the crowds, but Clifford didn’t mind them. Maybe because he was six-and-a-half feet tall and had his own privacy whereever he moved. He normally flew courier flights at night, when the airport was a ghost town. It was one more travel trick he had picked up. You bring only a carry-on and the courier companies use your baggage allotment, so the airfare is pretty much free. Clifford wasn’t about to share that tip with his readers. No sense creating undue competition for the best routes.

He came into the main terminal. He had forgotten about the high school students who used the airport like a library after school. They were sprawled out in the main terminal, with their textbooks spread out on the floor, absorbed in their work while he stepped around them.

The wooden schedule board fluttered to life. Bahrain changed into New York. London into Tokyo. His flight was still forty-five minutes away. Lots of time, especially now that he had Belonger status. The special stamp in his U.S. passport would gain him access through the fast lane in customs. It didn’t matter when he came back now. Or when he left. He was free as a bird. This was his home now, in a way. Weird. He stopped in the middle of the terminal. He realized he hadn’t been back to San Diego for five years now, since his mother passed. His high school friends were married and moving on, deep into the American promise.

Home. Towering over everyone and everything, surrounded by dramatics. An American airport was all clean floors, calm travelers, and decent restaurants. Here, it was a sobbing daughter clutching her parents before stepping on the plane for an expensive education in America or Canada. Or lovers saying goodbye so desperately you might think one was going to the electric chair. Or a tiny grandmother clutching a wailing grandchild so fierce that the airline would rather delay the departure than try to separate them.

He had time for a drink but decided against it, as much as he loved airport bars. Too soon. He pushed through to the departure lounge and stood against a small rectangle of open wall, carefully pulling out the Plan, hoping it would calm him. Tomorrow Sun was going to go where The Lonely Planet had grown too fat to venture. In fact, he couldn’t believe people still even went to Singapore. It might as well have been Chicago for Christ’s sake.

He would write about where to find the best beach, of course, and the best waves, and cheapest bungalows. But also the cleanest drugs. The best sex. He would write how-tos on ripping off your hotel or even your hostel. How to travel by train for free. It was for people who wanted off the established Thailand-Philippines-Guilin-Bali track. Who were hungry for the next real thing. In a way, it wasn’t about how much money or how much time you had. But how much nerve. He was going to show the asshole editors at Travel + Leisure magazine who refused his pitches what the new generation of traveler was excited about.

It was a good pitch. He had a solid business plan, including a robust list of the kind of smaller advertisers who would be interested. And besides, Prem had already demonstrated he was serious by paying for this flight to the meeting. A good sign, even if Prem didn’t have any experience in magazines. A hugely successful carpet dealer, he had the pockets for the publishing business.

“The Tomorrow Rider” was something Trace called Clifford soon after they met. After just a few assignments, Clifford wanted to start pushing the boundaries. Asia had so much more going on than people talked about. There were entire countries that were off limits but you could sneak into if you were willing to travel light and take the odd risk. Clifford was amazed that none of his new friends in Hong Kong had been to any of these places. He would tell the world about the absolute best beach anywhere, Koh Rong in Cambodia. The stunning mountain country of Taipei. And Hainan Island off the southern coast of China. No one equated old China with gorgeous, tropical getaways. He would tell his readers how to sneak across borders and go underground. He would show them what was next.

*   *   *

He loved planes, too. Something about being so high above the earth. Unreachable. Unaccounted for.

Clifford pushed his nose against the window, cooling himself down against the cold plastic. He was feeling better, but still nervous. He remembered the first time he flew over Vietnam years ago. It was his first flight out of Hong Kong, and he wasn’t prepared for the announcement. He had his face buried in some magazines when the pilot interrupted.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are on schedule, ninety minutes out of Bangkok. I just want to let you know that we are crossing into Vietnam, visible on the right- and left-hand side of the plane.”

Clifford startled. Rolling hills covered in lush green treetops swept the landscape as far as he could see. It still looked like China, but everything was so different. Guys bought it right down there, he thought. Man. For all I know some poor bugger was strung up on that hill, or shot dead right there in that pretty winding river. When he had booked the flight, he hadn’t even considered the flight path or checked a map of the region. “You dumb, arrogant, ignorant American,” he said to himself now, smiling.

Because there it was. Vietnam. The airplane window became a television screen, and he was suddenly ten years old again. He had uncles and older cousins who had fought in the war, but it seemed more myth to him. Now it was real. It never looked this pretty on TV, either. Like flying over Hawaii, except that so many people had died.

It was that flight that made him realize how far from California he was, and that had hooked him on exploring more of Asia. It was that flight that inspired him to give up on financial writing and dedicate himself to travel writing, and at the same time, follow his passion for windsports.

Flying over it all these years later, it still moved him. Damn. Danm. Vietnam. The man in front of him was also pressed against the glass, with wide eyes, elbowing the person beside him. It was probably his first flight over the country.

Suddenly the plane dropped. Clifford was expecting this, the turbulence that accompanied the mountains. He closed his eyes. Hopefully it would push the last of the booze out of his system. Sure enough, after a few minutes they cleared the range and the plane smoothed out.

The meeting was only a few hours away. He was finally feeling ready. Excited now, not nervous. Life was about to change for Clifford the tall American.

*   *   *

Prem had checked him into the Mandarin Oriental. He had tried turning down such a luxurious spot, but Prem insisted. Even more surprising, upon arrival he discovered he was booked into the penthouse. Holy shit. Prem didn’t know much about publishing, but was he expecting Tomorrow Sun to become Playboy Magazine or something? As he entered the suite, he realized he might have to manage Prem’s expectations, even as he was trying to inflate his enthusiasm. Nuance. Subtlety. Not strong suits for Clifford.

Nor, apparently, for the penthouse suite. He had never been inside such a room. Not knowing what else to do, he went across the room and opened the curtains to the view of the city spreading out before him stories below. He had come to terms with Asia’s obsession with luxury travel, but the architects and engineers had wasted their time with this build. The linens in the bedroom, puffy pillows, and gorgeous furniture were no match for the dirt and dust that made up the Bangkok skyline. It was the ugliest city he had ever seen.

He closed the curtains and sat down in front of his briefcase. He considered the shabby leather. Perhaps he should have invested in something better? But he knew Prem well enough. He didn’t have to pretend to be something he wasn’t. They had partied together. Windsurfed together. He was looking forward to seeing Prem, in fact, as a friend.

He went into the washroom to wash his face. Marble counters. Gold faucets. Perfect lighting to make even him look better than he deserved to. The tap water ran five-star cold and clear, unlike anything that was flowing out there in the city’s brown rivers that were nothing more than a glorified sewage system.

He went back downstairs. He loved hotels, but he loved hotel lobbies more. You can take over the lobby of any five-star like you own it. In Asia, nothing makes you feel whiter. Or more like the conquering colonial. No one questions you. You lay out your typewriter or newspaper with just the right amount of authority, and you’re an emperor for the day. The ceiling fans whirl above you like they have for generations. The huge vases of fresh flowers erase the smell of the diesel from the broken-down vehicles driving in circles outside. Bowls of fruit are waiting. Yours for the taking. The washroom attendants are ready to wait on you hand and foot. Fine linens to dry your hands, not paper towels. The expertly played notes from the lobby Steinway piano float in the air. The high ceilings make for more private conversations.

Prem was waiting for him. He gave Clifford a big hug as usual, trying to pick the larger man up off the floor.

“Superstar, how are things?” he said.

“Great, Prem. Thank you. I mean, for this,” he gestured out to the lobby. “You didn’t need to go all out like this. I mean, the penthouse?”

Prem bowed. “My pleasure. Just promise you empty the bar fridge for me.”

As soon as Clifford sat down, the waiter silently brought another Heineken to the table.

“They say that if you stay here but one time, the staff will never forget your name,” Prem continued.

“Kind of like ‘Hotel California’?” offered Clifford, happy to see his friend, and even happier to finally get on with things.

“Exactly,” said Prem. “Although I hate The Eagles. No offense.”

“None taken,” said Clifford.

They touched glasses, and the first sip felt good. Clifford was back on his board.

“Did you book some extra time? Kata Beach is something. Some of the best wind anywhere.

“Not this trip, Prem. Besides, Phuket is just too, too crowded for me. I windsurfed Kata a few years back, it is excellent, you’re right. But my whole thing now is getting off the beaten path, remember?” He tapped his briefcase.

“Of course. That’s why we’re here. On the beaten path, as it were.”

“I mean, even northern Thailand is getting too crowded. Chiang Mai and the whole elephant trekking thing, it’s turning into fucking Disneyland.”

Clifford opened the briefcase and took out his precious plan. One simple paper clip, and a cover that read, Tomorrow Sun.

“I love the title, by the way,” said Prem. “You’ve got a gift.”

“Thank you. Asia is still pretty much undiscovered. Trust me, people are waiting for something like this, Prem.”

He excitedly started leafing through the pages.

“I have the first six issues’ editorial calendar mapped out. I have three up-and-coming writers committed to joining. Freelance, of course. Printer is all set up. Great paper stock. He’s giving us a great deal.”

He turned the page. “And I’ve found a killer photographer, because the pictures are always going to be a big part of this kind of thing. She’s super talented, but still cheap because she’s undiscovered. One of the few people coming through Hong Kong with any talent, actually.” He laughed.

“Did I ever tell you how things work in the carpet business, my friend?”

Clifford didn’t want the conversation to take a detour. “Um, no. I don’t think so.”

“It’s all about the talent, like you’ve identified.”

“Great. Cool.”

“My family invests in the people who make our carpets. We find those who are the absolute best at the craft, often living in some remote town in Afghanistan. No English, of course.”

“That makes sense.”

“But you don’t understand. When we find them, we buy them. We own them, you see.” He paused, wanting the words’ meaning to find traction. “We buy their life, Clifford, and their child’s life. All they do, every hour of every day, is make my carpet. Often, it takes someone an entire lifetime to make but one. And it is exquisite.”

Clifford put down his glass.

“Which is why I command such a high price for my wares.”


“I’m not suggesting I buy you, my friend,” Prem continued, laughing. “But I do require some level of commitment. And an understanding that you will be willing to take some direction.”

“Of course, Prem. We would be partners,” he said. But he was less enthusiastic suddenly. The idea of owning someone disgusted him. “What kind of direction, exactly?”

“If I suggest that you travel to certain places, perhaps. It’s not always about the beach. For instance, there is the jungle and mountains of Laos. Burma.”

“I’d be happy to get up into Burma. I don’t have a story planned on that right away, but of course. Burma is a tough visit, but exactly the kind of place Tomorrow Sun wants to explore.”

“Just a for-instance,” said Prem. “Really, the magazine is a brilliant idea.”

He raised his glass to Clifford.

“And congratulations are also in order for becoming a Belonger,” he continued. “You’re the only expatriate who has lasted in Hong Kong longer than three years. Seven? That’s quite the achievement.”

“Just means I’m getting old,” Clifford said.

“I’m still ahead of you on that score. But now that you are a Belonger, it gives you even more freedom to come and go, correct?”

“Yeah, it’s a perk.”

“And with all the nonsense happening in Hong Kong right now, these silly protests and what-not, it couldn’t be more perfect.”

“What do you mean?”

“Everyone is so distracted. A Belonger from California, who loves to travel into, say, the Golden Triangle as part of his new travel magazine? It is ideal.”

Burma again. What the hell was going on?

“You see, I am quite prepared to give you the fifty thousand American dollars right now.”

Clifford’s heart raced at the mention of the figure. He instinctively reached for his glass and drained the beer without even realizing it. Just like that, another Heineken appeared.

“And I am very happy to see you actually publish this magazine,” Prem said quietly, leaning into Clifford. “Why, I’ll even read it.”

Clifford dreaded saying it, yet had no choice.


“But,” Prem continued. “Burma. Laos. Northern Thailand. It is getting more difficult for me to continue my trips in those areas at the current rate. People ask questions. But the business there is too good to ignore.”

Just say it, Clifford thought.

“I need you to represent my interests there. The poppy business is getting more competitive. And I think you have exactly what it takes for the job.”

Clifford took his precious business plan and rolled it up tightly. He started drumming it on the table, agitated.

“You are most adaptable my friend, no?”

Clifford stared at the document in his fist, pissed.

Not because he knew that he was going to say yes and take the money. Pissed because Prem knew it, too.


Brian Howlett work has been featured and accepted in eighteen publications over the past two years, including Limestone, Crack the Spine, Serving House Journal, Forge, Queen’s Quarterly, The Tulane Review, Penmen Review, The Adirondack Review, and Sou’wester. His story “The Belonger” is part of a collection of stories inspired by his time living in Hong Kong during the Tiananmen Square student crackdown of 1989. Feel free to tell him what you think of it on Twitter @bdhow. Brian lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife and two children.

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