Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Another Country

If you want to make a grand entrance into Chungking Mansions, it's easy. Just let yourself be scammed by an airport taxi driver and then divulge the amount he took you for when talking on your mobile. That grabs the attention of everybody within earshot right away--trust me. I know.

Suddenly the man who had become my impromptu bellhop and the elderly African gentleman standing nearby as we waited for the elevator both looked incredulous, outraged and a bit nauseated all in the same facial expression. Quickly they began to assure me that nonono, I wasn't stupid at all in tones that held absolutely no conviction--only that deep kindness used when speaking to an obvious half-wit.

It just might have been worth the sum I had been bilked out of for this alone--an immediate warmth and concern from people who looked as though they had seen it all and then some. Up until then I had felt a little intimidated by the glare and noise and hustle of Chungking Mansions. It's Times Square, I thought as I entered and men rushed forward to suggest that I stay in their own particular guesthouse, but not post-Giulani Time Square--the real one of my teenage years where Travis Bickell flourished.

And the next morning as I read the SCMP over coffee, I found out his counterpart had lived in Chungking Mansions--an American "kungfu enthusiast" who was jailed for keeping a store of three Japanese bayonets, three masks, two gravity-operated steel police batons, two stun guns, two pepper sprays, forty metal balls, one bulletproof jacket, twenty folding knives, and two knucklebusters, three fake grenades in his room.

When I told the staff in my guest house about this, Hari from Nepal asked "What block did he live in?" while a lady from Aruba who was waiting for a room wanted to know what country he was from. I was chagrined to admit he was my compatriot, while Hari shrugged and identified the block from the name of the guest house that was reported in the paper. Neither of them seemed very taken aback by the news that an arsenal had been found in the small nation that exists in the middle of Kowloon called Chungking Mansions.

A day or two later when I got out of the elevator on my floor, I was accompanied by two little boys wearing white shirts and blue shorts, each carrying a tennis racket. As I went toward the entrance of the Holiday Guest House, they went toward a gated door on the other side of the elevator. "Yes, a family lives there," Hari told me when I asked.

There are two elevators per block in Chungking Mansions, one for the odd-numbered floors, one for the even, and they take only seven people at a time. The lines are long and at night it's the only time I see people standing still in this place of perpetual motion. Women are a minority here--like Alaska when I was growing up--and I am grateful to be old as I stand among a United Nations of men, all of whom show a lovely respect for the elderly.

At night, through the tiled walls of my room which make me feel as though I'm sleeping in a large shower stall, the delectable odor of curry wafts into my room as I fall asleep and I wake up feeling happy and at home.


Kim said...

Yay - a story. I love your stories!

janet brown said...

Thank you, Kim!

Sarah Mackenzie said...

I felt at home there too. I stayed there for quite a long while in 96/7 and the way I would describe it to people was that it felt like being in the bar in Star Wars. So may different people from so many different places. There is nowhere quite like it. I have just discovered your blog and am really enjoying your stories.

Janet Brown said...

Sarah, your comments were a delightful surprise when I saw them yesterday--would love to talk with you about your CKM stay sometime. The Cantina Bar indeed--