Saturday, March 16, 2024

My Crime Fiction: 'Cat Street'

Below is chapter 6 of my crime novel Olongapo, which I hope to publish this year. 

An earlier version of the story appeared in the Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine. 

Cat Street

By Paul Davis

They say that anything stolen during the night in Hong Kong will be on sale on Cat Street the next morning. 

I heard that saying many years ago when I visited Hong Kong as a young sailor, and it recently came back to me while speaking to Salvatore Lorino at the Bomb-Bomb bar & grill in South Philly. 

After much discussion about Olongapo, Lorino and I spoke of our time in Hong Kong.

Lorino looked about the bar and then leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. Lorino asked me if I remembered Nichols and Johnson from the Kitty Hawk and I replied that I remembered Johnson very well. An amiable Northern Californian who grew up on a ranch, he was the only person I ever met, over the age of ten, who wanted to be a cowboy. He was murdered in a robbery in Hong Kong. Nichols, I recalled, was a sad sack who deserted the ship in Hong Kong with his new bar girl bride. 

Lorino did not contradict my recollection, but his grin widened above the rim of the glass as he drank his wine. 

“The statue of limitations is up, so I can talk about what went down,” Lorino told me. 

“Statute of limitations, not statue, like the Statue of Liberty,” I said, correcting him. 

Lorino shrugged. “What’s the difference?” 

“A second letter t.” 

Lorino ignored me and asked if I wanted to hear his story about a decades-old case of kidnapping, espionage and murder.


The USS Kitty Hawk sailed into Hong Kong Harbor in February of 1971. The aircraft carrier had just completed 70 days on "Yankee Station" in the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea, performing combat operations off the coast of Vietnam. During that time the ship’s 80 aircraft dropped a record tonnage of ordnance on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong supply routes, which were collectively called the "Ho Chi Minh Trail." 

During that line period on Yankee Station a Communist Chinese minesweeper came dangerously close to the carrier. The Chinese warship was adorned with oversized white propaganda banners in Chinese, so most of the American sailors couldn’t read them, but our captain had an intelligence officer translate the banners.  

The captain announced over the ship’s public address system, known as the 1MC, that the banners read, “Down with U.S. Imperialism,” “Down with Nixon” and “Down with U.S. Navy war criminals.” 

The captain informed us that he had sent the Chinese a message in response to the banners. “Since you are so down with everything, up yours!” 

All of Kitty Hawk’s nearly 5,000 sailors laughed loudly. I’ve always wondered what the Communist Chinese sailors thought of that. 

The carrier's crew worked long, hard hours during flight operations and the radiomen stood eight hours on watch and eight hours off watch continuously. We lost track of all time until the upcoming visit to Hong Kong was announced.

When the carrier dropped anchor in Hong Kong Harbor, a loud cheer rose from the crew and carried across the water. Heads must have turned towards the roar for at least ten nautical miles. 

Sharing the harbor with the Kitty Hawk that day were freighters, ocean liners, British destroyers, Soviet cruisers, commercial speed hydrofoils, sampans and junks. The contrast between the splendid modern ships and the ancient and decrepit fishing boats was striking. 

Visible from the carrier’s flight deck was Victoria City, the capital and business center of the then-British Crown Colony. Dark clouds circled Hong Kong’s famous peak mountain. Looking down from the flight deck we saw the approaching Chinese motor launches, which were called Walla Wallas. The water taxis lined up along the starboard side of the ship and waited to take the eager American sailors ashore. 

Those of us who were fortunate enough to have liberty that first day in port were ordered to assemble in the berthing compartment prior to our departure. A third of the division would remain aboard the ship in the event of an emergency and the watch bill would change two days later. 

Chief Radioman Lionel Shaw stood across from our three-tier racks. As security officer for the division, he was tasked with presenting a briefing to the first batch of sailors preparing to leave the ship for the exotic streets of Hong Kong. 

The chief truly loved the Navy. He left a poor family and a bad neighborhood in Chicago when he enlisted in the Navy and there was no going back for him. When he entered the Navy, black sailors like him were restricted to orderly duties and he was enormously proud of the trust the Navy now bestowed upon him. He held, as did all of the men assembled before him, a top-secret security clearance. 

Shaw was only 5’6" but he appeared to be much larger due to his muscular torso, his ever-ready fighter’s stance and a great, booming voice. A model sailor, his khaki uniform and black boots were immaculate. 

Most of us were in civilian clothes, but he advised those of us who wearing uniforms to tear off the radioman patch adorned on the left arm of our uniforms. The distinctive patch showed lightning bolts, which was the occupational batch that identified us as radiomen who handled highly classified war information. Wearing the patch was bad OPSEC, or operations security. 

"Listen up," Shaw bellowed. "Hong Kong is the Goddamned spy capitol of the world, so don’t be yakkin’ about your job or what the ship does, or what we’re goin’ to be doin’ next month. 

"Remember that we’re only a few miles from Red China, the ally of our enemy, and ain’t nothing better them Communists motherfuckers would like, then to haul your drunken, silly asses over the border." 

He paused for breath, and perhaps for dramatic effect, and then added, "And if one of them Chinese bar hogs ask you what you do on the great, big ship, tell ‘em you’re a Goddamn cook!" 

The people of Hong Kong were given the impression that American sailors lived really well. On a ship with nearly 5,000 men, 2,000 of them were cooks.


Not known to Shaw or any of us at the time, another Navy radioman, Warrant Officer John Walker, was feeding the Soviets a steady diet of vital information on Navy communications. Communist Chinese intelligence was also in the market for a source of information. They wanted a U.S. Navy radioman to call their own. 

Radioman 3rd Class John Nichols was one of the men assembled before Shaw. He had been in the Navy for more than three years and this was his second combat deployment aboard the carrier. Returning to the combat zone was common for carrier sailors during the 12 years of the Vietnam War. Many of them made two or three 11-month-long Western Pacific (WESTPAC) combat cruises during their four-year enlistments. 

There was an unwritten but steadfast rule that there were only two ways to get off a carrier during the Vietnam War. One way was to be discharged from the Navy, and the other way was to die. Unlike other men who resented not being reassigned to shore duty or a non-combat ship after their initial combat cruise, Nichols was thrilled. It meant that he would be seeing Hong Kong again. 

Originally from a small town in Ohio, Nichols joined the Navy after graduating from high school. An only child, Nichol’s father had deserted the family when he was an infant. He was raised by an alcoholic and inattentive mother. 

He had been a below average student; a poor athlete and he had few friends. Looking forward to the great Navy adventures that lay ahead, he was soon disappointed to discover that he was as unsuccessful with girls in San Diego as he had been in Ohio. 

Nichols was of average height, but his poor posture made him appear to be much shorter. With stooped shoulders, a slight paunch, balding brown hair and nondescript facial features, Nichols was certainly not a matinee idol. No clotheshorse either; Nichol’s uniform and civilian attire were always unkempt and unflattering. While looks aren’t everything, Nichols also lacked what one would call a personality. 

Nichols’ disappointing young life changed one night in 1969 while he was on his initial cruise. On leave for two days in Hong Kong, he met a girl named Nancy Chen in the Wanchai District. The notorious red-light district was made world famous by Richard Mason's fictional character Suzy Wong. 

Like Suzy Wong, Nancy Chen was alluring in her black silk Cheongsam, a long slit rising invitingly up her left leg. Her long straight black hair, sleepy black eyes and doll-like figure were intoxicating to Nichols. She was the first, and only, woman that he had sex with. 

In her limited English, she told him that her family had escaped from China and came to Hong Kong when she was a young girl. As the family had no money, she was forced to work the bars. Touched by her story and madly in love for the first time, Nichols spent three months pay romancing her in two days of liberty. As he prepared to return to the ship, he grew bold and asked her to marry him. 

"You crazy!" was her curt response to his heart-felt proposal. Undeterred, he said he would come back for her when the ship again visited Hong Kong during the next WESTPAC cruise.


A little more than one year later, the Walla Wallas pitched and rolled across the choppy, blue-gray water as the boats carried the Kitty Hawk sailors ashore. Nichols’ wedding guests were aboard one of the boats. His wedding guests sat on his immediate right and left. Nichols had invited the entire radio division to his wedding, but only Seamen Dennis Johnson and Lorino accepted. 

Nichols was not popular with the crew. It was well known that his request to marry a foreign national was denied by the Navy. She still had family behind the "Bamboo Curtain" in Communist China and that presented a security risk. Nichols didn’t care what the Navy ordered; he was getting married. He talked of nothing else since the beginning of the cruise. His shipmates constantly ridiculed him, as sailors in close quarters aboard a ship can be crueler than school children. 

Johnson was Nichols only friend and that was due primarily to Johnson being everyone’s friend. A cheerful 22-year-old, Johnson was a real cowboy who amused everyone with his tales of growing up on the range in California. He enlisted in the Navy to avoid being drafted in the Army. 

Lorino, who often visited me in our berthing area, accepted Nichols' invitation as he had no other plans other than developing a local connection to buy some shabu. He figured that he might meet someone at the wedding who could steer him towards a shabu connection. 

I passed on the wedding invitation, as I didn’t much care for Nichols, and Mike Hunt invited me to join him at the Hong Kong Hilton, where he stayed on his previous visit to Hong Kong. Hunt and I went ashore and checked in at the Hong Kong Hilton. As we had just come off a long line period on Yankee Station, Hunt and I were flush with cash from our saved pay. 

I also had my considerable winnings from playing poker. As I had been playing poker since I was a kid in South Philly, I was a fair poker player. I played poker on the carrier against a good number of sailors new to the game of chance and skill, so I usually came away from the card games a winner. 

Once we settled in our luxurious room, I called room service and ordered caviar and a bottle of Dom Perigon champagne, the favorite drink of my teenage hero, Ian Fleming’s iconic fictional secret agent James Bond. After I hung up, Hunt picked up the phone and called a number he had from his last visit to Hong Kong. A half hour later, two young and pretty Chinese girls showed up at the door. 

“If I die tomorrow,” I announced to everyone in the hotel room as I held up my champagne glass. “I’ll at least have known what it’s like to be a millionaire.” 

The next morning, we visited a tailor Hunt knew and I had a black suit made, plus two shirts and two pairs of slacks. I could not believe how inexpensive the fine tailor-made clothes were. Mike also had a suit and a shirt made. After our fittings, the tailor said our clothes would be ready the following day. 

We returned to the hotel, took showers, dressed, and headed out to Aberdeen Harbor where we boarded the floating Tai Pak restaurant. The famous floating restaurant was featured in the 1950 films Love is a Many Splendored Thing and The World of Suzie Wong. 

We were served wonderful dishes of crabmeat with sweet-corn soup, fried prawns, crabmeat Fu-Young, sweet and sour pork, and fried garoupa. I also eat fried Sole, which was a favorite dish of James Bond in Ian Fleming’s novels. To my regret, the Sole was not bone-less. I had to use my knife and fork to separate the small bones from the fish, but it was delicious. 

After eating this splendid authentic Chinese meal at the Tai Pak, we headed to the Wanchai bars.  


Nichols’ wedding was set to take place above a store in Hong Kong’s commercial section. The happy couple would spend the night in a hotel. Nichols had been informed of these arrangements by his bride-to-be in a letter. 

Nichols, Johnson and Lorino piled into a taxi at the pier and were driven to Ladder Street. Ladder Street was not really a street in a traditional sense, but rather a series of wide steps spread out between rows and rows of shops. At the bottom of Ladder Street lay Morlo-Gai, or Cat Street. The area was locally known as the "Thieves Market." 

A "Cat," in Hong Kong parlance, was someone who bought stolen goods from thieves and then sold them at market.  

Cat Street was a bustling market where tourists and locals alike were herded through the ubiquitous shops and wooden street stands. Under colorful Chinese banners and signs, the merchants screamed out the praises of their wares and haggled over prices with their customers. Trinkets and inexpensive products, mostly manufactured in the People’s Republic of China, were laid across counters and tables. Pickpockets, beggars, prostitutes and lunatics fought openly over territory. 

Passing through the crowd, store touts and street urchins frequently accosted the three sailors, but they brushed them off in good humor. Nichols paid a small boy to take them to the address written in his letter. They were led up a set of back stairs and into a room where the Americans faced the waiting bride and her Chinese "family." 

Music from the American band Chicago blasted from an elaborate stereo system. A ten-foot wooden bar, amply stocked with bottles of liquor, stretched across the room. Three round tables were set up to create a small dance floor. On the tables were various dishes of Chinese food. Two young women huddled with Nancy Chen and giggled. Three Chinese men stood in the center in the room. 

The sailors stood in the doorway, momentarily overcome by the sights, sounds and smells of the scene. Nancy Chen walked towards Nichols and embraced him. He began to cry, and she laughed at him, making a comment in Chinese to her girlfriends that made them laugh. One of the men announced in English that he was Jimmy Lung and that he was the bride’s brother. He introduced the women as Lucy and Wendy. 

The two lean and gaunt men in white shirts and dark slacks were introduced as the Woo brothers, cousins to the bride. They were also serving as the bartender and waiter for the affair. Lung was as thin as a child’s crayoned stickman. His hair was a dark mop and sunglasses hung precariously on his skeletal face. He wore an open collared silk shirt under his expensive suit and his silver snakeskin cowboy boots drew Johnson’s envy. 

When Nichols stopped crying, they all took seats at the tables and began to eat and drink. The women danced seductively with Johnson and Lorino. During the festivity, Nichols put his arm around his future brother-in-law and asked him why he and Nancy had different last names. "Chinese custom," Lung replied bluntly. Nichols did not question the dubious explanation. 

The party ended abruptly when Lung leaped up and screamed "No one move!"

Swiftly extracting a foot-long knife from his left sleeve, Lung placed it roughly under Nichols’ chin. The waiter also drew a long knife and the bartender vaulted over the bar holding a long-barreled revolver. The three women huddled into a corner. 

"We are moving this party across the Sham Chum," Lung announced. The Americans sailors didn’t know that this was the name of the river that separated Hong Kong from Red China, but they got the idea when Lung added, "My friends on the other side want to talk to you about your little American Navy secrets." 

Johnson sat still and cursed to himself softly. Lorino casually crossed his legs and took a long draw from his cigarette, trying to look as cool as a South Philly gangster ought to under these extreme and unusual circumstances. Nichols was frozen and bug-eyed in Lung’s grip. 

To Lorino, who had personal experience in the field of armed robbery, Lung made two critical mistakes. The first mistake was that he took time to brag to his captive audience. Lung told them proudly that he was a member of a local Triad, one of the secret criminal societies in Hong Kong. He explained that in addition to routine criminal pursuits, he also gathered information that his girls extracted from American servicemen and passed it on to the Red Chinese. The pay for the information was generous, considering that he was dealing with communists. 

In Lorino’s mind, Lung's second mistake was that he took his eyes off Lorino for just a second when he turned his head towards a crash. Johnson caused the noise when he jumped up from his chair and tackled the Woo brothers. All three men slammed into the bar, causing it to split down the middle as if hit by a giant karate chop. 

At that moment, Lorino leaped up from his chair, hit Lung with a solid overhand right, and without losing momentum, bolted through the door. Lung collapsed from the blow and dropped to the floor with Nichols still in his grip. 

Like the thief that he was, Lorino jumped down the stairs, ran out into the street and quickly waded through the crowd for several blocks. He later stopped at a bar, had a drink, and bought shabu from a waiter. He hooked up with a bar girl and spent the night with her. He didn’t give the fate of Nichols and Johnson a moments’ thought. Lorino returned to the ship the following day and kept his mouth shut.


I recall that next day on the Kitty Hawk vividly. Nichols was reported to be UA, unauthorized absence, which surprised no one. The news that Johnson was murdered in a robbery was a surprise and the story quickly spread throughout the ship. There was much talk of "dungaree liberty," a time-honored naval tradition in which sailors donned working uniforms, armed themselves with knives, pipes and clubs and went ashore to wreak havoc on an offending liberty town. 

The captain wisely canceled all water taxis. A British police inspector came aboard and addressed the crew over the ship’s 1MC. 

"I wish to inform you that your Seaman Dennis Johnson was found murdered last night on Cat Street," the inspector said in an accent most of the sailors found familiar from old British movies. 

"A known criminal, one Jimmy Lung, was apprehended and I assure you he will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law." 

After hearing the British police officer, the crew’s anger was quelled. Johnson was given a memorial service and the carrier returned to Yankee Station and the war. 

After 30 days, Nichols was later declared to be AWOL, absent without leave, and he was officially proclaimed to be a deserter. The paperwork was processed, and Nichols was forgotten. 

I don’t recall the British police officer mentioning Nichols when he addressed the Kitty Hawk sailors, but after listening to Lorino's story, my guess was Nichols was abducted and taken to Red China, where the Chinese drained him of his classified information and then shot him. 

© 2024 By Paul Davis 

Note: You can read the other Olongapo chapters I've posted here via the below links:

Paul Davis On Crime: Chapter One: Butterfly

Paul Davis On Crime: My Crime Fiction: 'Salvatore Lorino'

Paul Davis On Crime: My Crime Fiction: The Old Huk

Paul Davis On Crime: My Crime Fiction: Join The Navy And See Olongapo

Paul Davis On Crime: My Crime Fiction: 'Boots On The Ground'

Paul Davis On Crime: My Crime Fiction: 'The 30-Day Detail'

Paul Davis On Crime: Chapter 12: On Yankee Station

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