Friday, January 21, 2011

Chungking Year's End

I took sushi up to the Holiday early on New Year’s Eve, enough to share and be festive. It became a potluck picnic, with bite-size pieces of Hari’s supermarket pizza, and chunks of guava and oranges. A Polish sushi restaurant owner emerged from his room to evaluate and identify what I had bought, then went off into the night early with his bottle of champagne, goblets and a pretty girl, all brought with him from his native land. “You should leave now if you want to see the fireworks at the waterfront,” he warned me, but it was only eight o’clock.

I’d seen fireworks before. What interested me more than pyrotechnics was how CKM and its neighborhood celebrated the turning of the year. “More people than on Christmas Eve,” Hari told me, “because on Christmas the Muslims don’t come out but for the New Year there is everybody on the street.”

I was the only one from our little impromptu feast who was curious about what was going on outside of our walls. “Too many people,’ my companions shuddered and turned to their computers to be with friends in other countries.

Lines of young Chinese dressed in party clothes waited at the elevators and the halls of CKM were already almost empty at nine p.m. The streets outside were possessed by pedestrians once more but the shops were all open. It was business as usual in lower Kowloon but with an extravaganza of customers.

Christmas Eve had been a moment when all real life was suspended in favor of magic, with people out to see the lights and decorations in a long and delighted parade. What filled the area now was an ocean of shoppers participating in what looked like the world’s hugest midnight madness sale.

“It’s too early,” I said when I returned to the Holiday. “There are two things to do out there, shop or go to a bar and drink and I’m not in the mood to do either one.” But an hour later, I put on my coat and my ugly, newly purchased market gloves and went out in the world once more.

The street to the waterfront felt as though it was full of one massive, pushing, crawling organism, rather than a crowd of people. It was packed solid with bodies that moved a sixteenth of an inch at a time and it seemed obvious that even if we reached the waterfront, all we would be able to see would be backs and heads. There was a grim quality about the collective determination that surrounded me that made me think of how little I wanted to be trampled to death.

Before claustrophobia could gain the upper hand, I made my way to the sidewalk, which was almost empty in comparison to the maelstrom of people I had just left. Other cowards had placed themselves next to buildings and a group of Sikhs were quite industriously applying themselves to bottles of Chivas Regal, with a remarkable lack of celebratory spirit, almost as though they were getting ready to go to work.

They moved off toward CKM and then suddenly I heard drumming. By the time I reached the spot where the sound came from, it had taken on an insistent and wild rhythm and I wasn’t surprised to find the men who surrounded it were the scotch-drinking Sikhs.

It was a double-sided drum, hung around a neck by a strap, which must have been irksome because the drum wasn’t small. Men took turns playing, passing it around, dancing with abandon that Zorba the Greek would have envied, some still holding bottles of Scotch.

They were all men, until a short, plump Western woman who was far from glamorous broke into their circle and joined them. The dancing became wilder in response and downright lewd as one man stood beside her with energetic pelvic thrusts. I couldn’t see her face to gauge her response; the circle of dancers grew so tight that I was afraid she’d be trampled but she emerged in one piece, with an incredible New Year’s Eve story for the folks back home.

The crowd around the dancers was now so thick that I could only see hands moving to the drumbeat over the heads and upheld cameras of people around me. The drumming was loud and compelling and when the distant boom of fireworks began to echo through the buildings around us, none of us turned to see, although the glass walls of hotels and shopping malls took on an eerie, apocalyptic glow.

And then all of us were swept up in a push that began to carry us down the street toward the subway station entrances. I broke free from the surge and managed to get to the steps of CKM, where a group of young African women smiled and made room for me. In the street was a mass of moving darkness, pressed so closely together that it looked like a carpet of heads. And in the middle of it all, moving steadily away, was the sound of drums, swimming down a river that only comes to life to mark the passage of time.

As I went back to my room, I knew somewhere the party continued but I was too old to care. “I came back at five this morning,” Jun told me on the first day of the year and I knew I had missed the real story but it was no longer mine to tell.


Ebriel said...

And what a beautiful story you did have! Especially that with the Sikhs. Your words brought images and sensations to life.


janet brown said...

Thank you, Elizabeth--so many stories wait in CKM--a month is never long enough and yet far too long at the same time.