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.


Dr. Will said...

Simply marvelous.

Janet Brown said...

Will, that has made me so happy--thank you!

Kim said...

I love the novel that lives within this post. And the moment I read the Star Wars cantina reference, your descriptions entered a new dimension. It makes me happy to know that there are still such galaxies far far away right here on our own planet.

Anonymous said...

Hi Janet! I really enjoyed this post and your description of this marvelous hotel!

I saw that you linked to my blog and I just wanted to say thanks! :-)