Studs got me thinking about Hong Kong...that sounds a little dirty.

I was very psyched to hear that NPR is broadcasting a collaborative collection of Studs Terkel's interviews from his legendary book Working. No one did the job of collecting real stories from real workers with real empathy better than Terkel. Just hearing a portion of a single interview from "The Working Tapes" made me question just about every interview I ever conducted in anything like a similar vein. I suspect anyone who's ever attempted to capture such portraits feels the same tinge of a respectful burn. As a tribute to him, I'll offer a semi-relatable example from my trip five years ago to Hong Kong.

I was told long ago to seek somewhere to get an actual "chop" made. Chops (or signature seals) are the Chinese ink stamps dating back to 1000 B.C. that are used to personalize and formally sign everything from business documents to personal correspondence. When I arrived in Hong Kong, I knew I only had a handful of days to do so. One of my guide books said that over on Hong Kong Island...a totally manageable subway ride across Victoria Bay from the Kowloon District where we were staying...there was a place called "Chop Alley" where dozens of merchants still worked at the craft of making chops out of marble.

I made the mistake of showing up on a Saturday evening, when many of the merchants were shutting down. Soon enough, however, I found a pair of obvious Westerners in business attire walking in the same direction. I struck up a conversation and, sure enough, they were heading to pick up some chops they'd had made by a man who they recommended highly. They were lawyers from the U.S., and spoke Cantonese. Score one for random luck.

Soon we were talking with their guy, a gruff-looking pro who I'd never have picked in a million visits to Chop Alley. He was initially puzzled by the awkward nature of converting "Eric" to the appropriate characters. He used a diary-sized book with all the translations for what seemed like countless Western names. I easily found ones for my wife and daughter. I was even able using my new friends to pick the "most auspicious" version of my wife's name, which is still one of my favorite useful details from the exchange. But no Eric. So with some creative coaching from my friends, we got him to understand how to phonetically translate my name. They even wrote that translation in English, Cantonese and Mandarin along the margin.

I was told that he didn't work on Sundays, but he make an exception to meet me early the next morning. I showed up at the appointed time, just a few hours before needing to hop our bus to the airport. After paying the non-negotiable price...a detail I loved in comparison with the often haggling-obsessed nature of most Chinese transactions...I hung around and watched him work on some others. Carving out characters from marble is amazing to see done. Along the way, he explained what he was doing. I didn't understand a word, but I would've loved to stay there for hours. When I realized I had to hoof it back to the hotel, I made all the universal gestures for "gotta go" and offered up my thanks. He patted me on the back, repeatedly saying "Eric" with an increasingly clear pronunciation. I couldn't repay the compliment because I never got his name. I think I kept saying "Friend" as I repeated the gesture. Because I meant it. Here's a few pics of the actual handover of the finished product.

 My "friend" the chop maker, surrounded by his wares, testing one of the chops made to order for me.

My "friend" the chop maker, surrounded by his wares, testing one of the chops made to order for me.

 I can only hope another "Eric" shows up at some point to put my friend's pronunciation to the test. 

I can only hope another "Eric" shows up at some point to put my friend's pronunciation to the test. 

I regret not being able to do full a Studs Terkel-type interview with a translator to better understand this man's work. Since Hong Kong was my port of exit before heading back to the States, this was really the final interaction I had on a trip that was largely driven by a desire to understand the manufacturing and culture there. Broadly speaking, I like to think that I learned much about China on that trip. I can only imagine what's observable differences have characterized the past five years, given the dizzying pace of constant change there. Here's hoping I get to go back soon to test that hypothesis. And to head back to Chop Alley.

 The view of Hong Kong Island from the deck of a boat on Victoria Bay, on our last night's excursion to the fishing and restaurant-filled community on Lamma Island.

The view of Hong Kong Island from the deck of a boat on Victoria Bay, on our last night's excursion to the fishing and restaurant-filled community on Lamma Island.

 And on the way back to Hong Kong City that same night. Until my next visit, China...take good care of yourself.

And on the way back to Hong Kong City that same night. Until my next visit, China...take good care of yourself.