Sunday, June 20, 2010

Entering the Mansion

I was so thoroughly pissed off when I entered Chungking Mansions for the first time that I forgot to be scared, although its reputation had me a bit apprehensive. I had just fallen for the oldest taxi scam that can be found by the stupid and the exhausted in any part of the world, the one that is charming until the charm ends and the payment process begins.

I had been taken to an alley of a part of Hong Kong that I had never been to before, with a local SIM card that I had not yet put in my phone, and a driver who was adamant that I give him almost all of the cash I had with me. I entered the doorway of a place that was ebullient in its welcome and if I hadn’t been so furious with myself I would have instantly felt at home. This place, brightly lit and full of men who had exactly what I wanted—they were sure of it—was like 1963’s Times Square. And I had loved that grubby, incoherent, seedy place with every bit of my teenage heart.

“I’m already booked into a guest house,” I informed everyone who told me they knew just the place for me. “Where?” a short and chubby man asked me and I all but snarled “E block.” “Oh, Holiday,” he said, accurately enough and once again that night I followed a stranger, figuring I had very little left to lose.

There were two long lines in front of the elevators in the alcove marked E Block, one for the even floors and one for the odd. I was the only woman among two queues of men who were clearly from Africa and the Indian subcontinent and once again, I knew where I was. Except for a more diverse population, this place felt exactly like an Alaskan construction workers’ hotel and I knew the rules for that. Behave like a lady and you have nothing to worry about—the guys will look after you.

And sure enough when the desk clerk at the Holiday told me I no longer had a room waiting for me because my flight had been two hours late and why hadn’t I called him anyway, he put the SIM card in my phone and directed my chubby guide to take me to the B Block, where there was a vacant room. On the way, I called the one person I knew in Hong Kong, said “I think I was scammed for 1400 Hong Kong dollars,” and then had my statement confirmed by the sick and horrified looks on the faces of the men around me.

“No, no, it wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know,” they assured me, while treating me with the sort of kindly solicitude given to a half-wit who is dangerous obviously to herself, if not to others. The chubby guy shook his head and muttered, “I could live on that for a month,” and then asked what the taxi driver had looked like. “He’s done that before to people who have come here, for more money than he told you to pay—they gave it to him too because they didn’t know. You aren’t the only one.”

He took my phone and entered his number into it, saying “You call me anytime if somebody gives you any more trouble,” and led me down a battered-looking hallway to a room that looked like a train compartment, with two bunks built into the wall so close together that their occupants could easily hold hands while sleeping. There was no visible vermin and I was grateful.

My chubby friend took me back downstairs to a spot where I could buy drinking water and made sure I got back on the correct elevator. Feeling like I had just been released by my babysitter, I collapsed on one of the narrow beds and fell asleep with the smell of burning bread somehow pervading my room.

Chungking Mansions holds anywhere from 4000-5000 people and most of them speak English as a common language. One of the more humbling experiences of my life so far was sitting in the Holiday Guesthouse, waiting for my room to be ready, with Hari from Nepal and a very large lady from Aruba. We were all conversing in my native tongue, when the Aruba lady asked me a question twice and I had no idea what she wanted to know. “She’s asking if you are from Canada,” Hari interpreted. They both looked honestly confused that I couldn’t understand a simple English question and I immediately began to meditate on the ongoing evolution of English as a Global Medium, realizing how the British must have felt when American English began to alter the language of Queen and Country.

Chungking English is fluent and serviceable and used by everyone who lives and works there, which makes it an oasis for visitors to Kowloon. Unlike many travelers’ sanctuaries, it has its own character—no banana pancakes or foot massage centers. It holds a mixture of guest houses and apartments owned by people who have lived there for years. I once shared an elevator with two small Chinese boys in school uniforms, each holding a tennis racket, who disappeared into a doorway across the hall. “Yes, a family lives there,” Hari told me when I asked.

I soon realized the life of the Chungking community was found in its elevators and in the lines of queued-up people who spent large portions of their lives waiting for them. There are two elevators for each block of the building and they are service elevators as well as residential ones; they can reek of the garbage they carry one minute and then are filled with the scent of curry and tandoori, as a food stall owner carries his wares from the apartment where the cooking takes place to the shop where he will serve it. I learned to stop praying silently when I shared an elevator with a cylinder of cooking gas after a man standing near me looked at me with amusement and commented, “That’s Hong Kong.”

A man from Bhutan assured me that he had shared an elevator recently with a trolley full of I-Pads, which weren’t yet released for sale anywhere outside the US, and I was certain that some morning my first trip down would put me up close and personal with a chicken or two. There had to be chickens somewhere in Chungking Mansions, I was sure of it, since every ground floor stall had an abundant supply of what appeared to be fresh eggs for sale.

The morning elevators were my favorite ones. They were usually uncrowded and the people who rode them fascinated me. I cast covert glances at a Chinese guy dressed like a GQ cover who pulled Q-tips from the breast pocket of his suit and carefully cleaned both of his ears as we approached the ground floor. A tall, slender young African wearing knock-off Armani and shiny black plastic Italianesque loafers became a whole novel when he told me he was from the Sudan. And one morning I followed people as they got off on the floor below mine, simply because they were headed towards music. They led me to a room that had the general ambiance of an AA meeting, where people sat on metal folding chairs listening to men playing the guitar and drums. A sign near the door told me in English that I had found a chapel and for one wild moment I was more than ready to convert to whatever religion offered its parishioners live music at 10 am.

A friend who grew up in Hong Kong told me that she used to go to parties at Chungking Mansions in the ‘60s, during the period when it was a luxurious apartment block and the ground floor shops weren’t laden with Nigerian fabric, Bollywood videos and Pakistani desserts. When I returned at night, there were still Chinese teenagers in the elevator lines, looking as though they were on their way to a 21st century version of Studio 54. That was what I had expected to see in Chungking Mansions—not primly-seated churchgoers or small schoolboys with tennis rackets—not this small town with a deep undercurrent of striving and respectability under the seedy glamour of a Wong Karwai movie.

Yes, it was indeed, as one woman told me, often reminiscent of the Cantina Bar in the first Star Wars movie and perhaps another woman I knew had received sage advice when she was told by a friend, “If you plan to stay there, take a gun.” I don’t know—for me it was a weird, twisted version of Anchor Point, Alaska where I had grown up, but with heat and humidity and garlic naan and I liked it.

The Missing Drug

I’m an addict. I admit it. My first thought when I wake up is caffeine and I want it right away, in its purest form—freshly ground beans, roasted as dark as possible and bathed lavishly in boiling water. Tea is not an acceptable substitute, instant coffee is pure perversion, and I refuse to discuss the milky, sweetened swill that Japan exports in tiny cans, but these miseries were all I could find when I went downstairs on my first Chungking morning.

“Coffee? Later,” promised the gentlemen who presided over food stalls, but” later” is not in my vocabulary when it comes to coffee. No wonder the halls are dark and empty here in the morning, I grumbled to myself, the hundreds of people who mill around on the ground floor at night are all out frantically looking for some decent form of caffeine. I looked wistfully at the guys in the currency exchange booths who were already counting their money with enviable energy, but when I considered their ethnic backgrounds, I realized their early morning efficiency was probably attributable to chai. I shivered, and hoped that this wasn’t a sign of withdrawal already kicking in.

I detest Starbucks but when I walked outside and saw a green sign emblazoned with the little mermaid in a window of the large shopping mall across the street, my spirits improved beyond all measure. I raced with indecent speed up a long escalator and burst into a space that was filled with cushy armchairs and bordered with a wall of windows overlooking Nathan Road. My double-short latte was brought to my table as I read the shop’s copy of that morning’s International Herald Tribune, and I was a very happy woman indeed.

I tried not to gulp my coffee as I looked down on my new neighborhood and the decaying elegance of the gilt and marble sign over the door of Chungking Mansions. A clothesline full of laundered garments stretched from what was now my home toward the middle-class comfort of the neighboring Holiday Inn, and on every one of Chungking Mansion’s sixteen floors clothes hung from windows. They provided a cozy touch of color to the building’s leprous-looking cement fa├žade and a vague brightness to the gloomy clouds that hung over it all.

A man pushing a cart across Nathan Road transported a well-wrapped double-sized mattress past some sari-clad Indian matrons who resembled like large and regal butterflies. A slow drip of rain began to add an impressionistic watery veil to my view and I realized I was going to need at least two more double-short lattes, perhaps with a couple of espresso chasers.

This Starbucks became my morning living room. I began to cherish it on my second trip, when I heard a British woman in front of me announce jubilantly to her small son, “Look! Bike- on- toast!” This soon was superseded a few days later when a grim-faced woman stood nearby, surrounded by several male dwarfs, whose height did not bring them to the view of the guy behind the counter and forced them to relay their orders to their female friend. “Three very short Americanos,” she told the barista and I longed for the skill to turn her into a New Yorker cartoon.

It was difficult for me to admit to myself that I enjoyed this place. Like anyone who has ever lived in Seattle, I loathed Starbucks—not the original one-of-a-kind store that was in the Pike Place Market for years, staffed by wild eccentrics who actually knew that the drink they made was not “expresso”— but the franchised McDonald’s-counterpart that had spread like eczema all over the world.

I either made my own coffee or bought it from neighborhood coffee spots where the baristas were smart and outgoing and eventually became my friends. The robotic staff who took my order in bastardized Italian at the Little Mermaid outlets simply couldn’t compete with the quirky edginess of an independent coffee stand, and none of the Starbucks I found as I traveled did anything to change my mind. Starbucks existed simply to provide clean restrooms in cities where these were hard to find and that was the only reason I ever went into one—until I found the one in Kowloon which I went to, willing and eager, every morning of my month-long visit.

The people who worked there were young and friendly and charming. We soon knew each other’s names and they often had my order ready before I made it to the front of their line. “You’re late today,” they would chide me when I slept in, and I’d tell them, “Dock my paycheck this week.” Without their warmth and genuine kindness, and very good coffee, I would have soon been strapped into a straightjacket and tossed into the nearest detox center.

During one of my first solitary dinners at Chungking Mansions, a Nepali man sat with me at my table as he waited for his Indian take-out. A resident of the place, he knew Chungking Mansions well, he assured me. “Everybody here does business,” he said, “and some people do big business—hashish, heroin.”

Just my luck, I thought sadly, as he chatted on, here I am in one of the world’s most notorious drug emporiums that makes every junky who enters it supremely happy, unless of course they happen to be jonesing for a good cup of coffee.

But I’m probably the only addict in the entire neighborhood who received a card, a gift and my name written on my breakfast plate in chocolate syrup when I made my last drug run before I left Chungking Mansions. And I know I’ve got to be the only one who keeps up a flourishing email friendship with the people who helped me maintain my habit while I was there.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Saving Grace of Moving Water

Only rock and roll but I like it

For some reason, the heat that usually comforts me has me feeling like a beached whale this month. I've been told that it's much cooler than it was in April and May but that does nothing to make me feel more at home in the world. It's so hot that the water from my shower is warm and cozy, while all I want is a rapid deluge from a glacier stream to make me shiver and go to sleep.

Yesterday afternoon I ran away from home to the river, where a commuter boat took me to Bangkok's left bank. For some reason, Thonburi is a place that understands the value of a river view that isn't attached to a luxury hotel, and I found a pierside collection of tables that offered cold beer and basic food.

Watching a river's current has always soothed me. I put extra ice cubes in my glass of beer and watched the sunlight turn to a softened gold on the spires of the Grand Palace across the way. Without the Chao Phraya, Bangkok would be a different city. With it comes river time and I am grateful.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Candide in Bangkok

Motion is the underpinning of travel and a moment or two spent without observation and note-taking seems completely wrong. Even in places as somnolent as Vientiane or Kratie, there's a constant drive to be out in the world, watching it wake up--or, in the case of Vientiane, not.

After three months of being away, I've discovered one of the true pleasures of being at home is staying in it. I'm lapsing into my slattern habit of making coffee while unshowered and still in my night clothes, after 90 days of leaping into presentability and then smiling at the outside world before getting my caffeine. I'm profoundly grateful for the lady who makes simple food with dazzling flavors only steps away from my house--and who will deliver it. And when the afternoon blazes into heat, I take a nap. If this is aging, I'm all for it. When it loses its charm, there's always a bus or a train to shake up my domestic tranquility a trifle.

Outside my door is a new world from the one I left. I have never been here after a political disturbance of major proportions before and the stillness of Bangkok at the moment is a surprise.

A small cluster of taxi drivers waited at the airport where usually the entire population of Buri Ram gathers to transport the hordes of arriving travelers. The night I came back, I was one of three people who put their baggage in a cab and headed into the city.

You could have held a square dance in the echoing corridors of the Sukhumvit market that stretches from Asoke to Nana--vendors slept and ate and chatted together as a very few pedestrians walked briskly down a sidewalk that is usually choked with people. The extravagant shopping center, Paragon,which reopened after a two-month closure only four days ago, was like a luxurious ghost town--I kept looking for tumbleweeds on my way to Kinokuniya where the booksellers looked shell-shocked and the customers were scanty. Even the night market that sprouts up twice a week in my neighborhood looked under-populated as I went past last night; it's usually full of people buying food and cheap plastic items and very basic clothing.

I've met friends for dinner at three different places this week--each restaurant was almost a private dining experience, and I was one of two people at my favorite grilled chicken place yesterday afternoon. Suddenly 199 baht is seen again at street stalls and little shops--I haven't seen that price posted since I came back in 2008, and a woman on deepest Sukhumvit sold me a Zara blouse for 50 baht--the price she quoted without haggling. I'm feeling a certain degree of culture shock.

A burned-out shell dominates the curve that the Skytrain takes as it approaches Victory Monument. I used to like that view because as the train went past, I could see a bookstore front and center in the building. Now only the sign is left.

Thai Knowledge Park on the eighth floor of Central World Plaza was hit by water, not fire. The structure is still intact; the books are gone.

These are the losses that haunt me--along with the six people who were shot on the grounds of a temple. Today I'm going to buy flowering plants for my balcony view--somehow watering my own garden seems like an appropriate response to what has been lost and what seems to be broken.