SCMP Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Politics off the menu as US sailors hit town to splash out


The biggest party of visiting American sailors since the Sino-US spy-plane row erupted arrived yesterday and embarked on a spending spree officials estimate will boost Hong Kong's coffers by $28 million.
The influx of 6,500 sailors comes days after Beijing barred a US spy plane from landing in Hong Kong and aircraft carriers the USS Constellation and USS Carl Vinson led their battle groups in an unprecedented show of strength in the South China Sea, apparently in support of Taiwan after the PLA staged an exercise in the Taiwan Strait.
Yesterday, the Constellation's commander, Admiral Terrance Etnyre, played down the significance of the manoeuvres, saying they had been pre-planned. "I'm not sure that there's a big diplomatic message drama," he said. "I'm a sailor, so you'll have to leave the diplomatic messages to the American Consulate and the ambassador here in China."
For the sailors, however, politics was off the menu as they thronged Wan Chai bars, shops and restaurants.
Petty officers Josh Tomlin, 19, and Richard See, 23, were among a group of six servicemen heading to the Beer Castle bar in Luard Road.
Petty Officer See, from San Diego, California, said: "I want to do some sightseeing, go to different bars and see different people. I've been to everywhere else except here."
After drinks, shopping for silk and electronics was next on the agenda for Petty Officer Tomlin, from Jackson, Tennessee. Meanwhile, airman Travis Clark, 21, from Shreveport, Louisiana said: "I must be zip-lipped about this [politics]. However, not many people at home can visit a nice place like Hong Kong."
He intends to splash out US$400 (HK$3,100) to US$500 on music, sightseeing and souvenirs during the five-day visit.
Roger Sabnani, who runs Sabs Far East gift shop in the Fleet Arcade in Wan Chai, expected a four or fivefold increase in turnover.
Business in the district suffered when Beijing barred US port calls after Nato's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and again after a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in April.
US ships resumed visits to Hong Kong last month.