This is a story about being permanently traumatized by the Christmas song “Jingle Bells.” Actually, it wasn’t so much the song itself, but the events surrounding the playing of “Jingle Bells.” Fair warning; this “Jingle Bells” Christmas story involves topless women and beer but is otherwise considered Family Safe, unless you don’t want your kids to grow up to become sailors.
Christmas of 1995 I was on board the Aegis Cruiser Port Royal (CG 73), on deployment in the western Pacific. This was my last deployment, in fact I already had my retirement papers approved and scheduled to transfer off in a couple of more months. The ship pulled into Hong Kong, then still a British colony, for Christmas liberty. As luck would have it, my in-port duty rotation left me free on Christmas eve, so with my buddy Joe we headed over to the mainland district of Kowloon to explore.
This was my first time in Hong Kong, but Joe had been there before and knew the good places to hang out. After a few hours of gratuitously playing tourist, we headed over to the “Red Light District,” famed for its topless bars and other sailor hang outs.
I quickly learned that “topless bars” in Hong Kong meant something very different from the US. Here in the US “topless bars” involve mostly youngish women dancing on a stage in various stages of undress in front of men drinking alcoholic beverages. Apart from the alcohol, women help separate men from their money by allowing the men to slip dollar bills into the minimal G-strings panties the women wear. Dance music normally comes from a jukebox, paid for by the men, which is another way for the bar to separate men from their money.
Or so I’ve been told.
This is not how topless bars in Hong Kong worked back in 1995. The topless bars were typically run by elderly women referred to as “Mama-San,” allegedly a respectful title for women who ran topless bars and other dubious types of establishments. The other members of the bar staff were young women wearing form-fitting shorts and tops that displayed their mostly ample figures. Mama-San would serve drinks from behind the bar while the young women would sort of “prance” on a small stage behind the bar, fully dressed, to music coming from unknown sources within the bar.
The only person who ever took off their shirts were the Mama-sans.
Now, as a certified old person I respect that there are older women who look awesome without their clothes. However, the Mama-Sans I met in 1995 Hong Kong were not among them. The Mama-Sans would only take off their shirts if there were customers in the bar, and when the bar was empty would get dressed until the next customers ventured in; possibly as a means of sparing their skin from excessive public exposure.
As this was Christmas eve, and Joe and I were starting the bar circuit early, we wandered into these topless bars as the only customers. As the bar’s Mama-San saw us walking in she would quickly strip off her shirt and the young women would hop on the stage. Music would magically start playing, and the women would start to prance. We’d order beers and sip them while topless Mama-San leaned up against the bar and chatted with us in Chinese-flavored English. The music would play continuously and young women were obviously in good shape, as they could continue to prance on their stage for as long as we were in the bar.
At first the music tended towards Chinese versions of then-current US pop music, which wasn’t bad. But as the afternoon worn on, the bar music changed to “Christmas” music, chief among them being “Jingle Bells” sung by women in Chinese-flavored English. The repertoire of Chinese-Christmas music was apparently quite limited as “Jingle Bells” played about every third choice, and I honestly don’t remember the other songs.
By late evening, apparently in honor of rapidly approaching midnight hour, all the bars started playing “Jingle Bells” on continuous-loop and the bar women all donned red and white Santa Claus hats.
By midnight we had hit probably a dozen different topless bars, having a beer or two in each one along with bar snacks composed of Chinese mystery foods. In each bar the scene was the same. I began to feel as if I was in a scene from the movie “Ground Hog Day.” While walking between bars we could hear “Jingle Bells” blaring from the establishments. The world was shifting around me and my mind started going numb.
At some point that night the excess beer, elderly topless Chinese women wearing Santa Claus hats, young fully dressed Chinese women wearing Santa Claus hats, and Jingle Bells sung in Chinese-flavored English playing on continuous loop overloaded me and the space-time continuum converged with alternate parallel universes and permanently etched my psychic.
To this day, I cannot listen to Jingle Bells without reliving a Hong Kong topless bar Christmas extravaganza.
Updated: December 29, 2016