Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Paper Queen

Chungking Mansions has changed. The ground floor is almost wall-to-wall with currency exchange booths and the elevators are full of Chinese people with big suitcases, a group that was almost nonexistent when I first began to stay here in 2010. It holds many more Western travelers too, enough that I no longer stare at them, but they're still a minority in this place. It wakes up before 10 am now, and the halls are more crowded in the daytime than they were in years past. But one thing remains unchanged.

Ever since I first arrived, an old Chinese lady has dominated the elevator of the E block with her loads of salvaged cardboard and black garbage bags full of paper, always going up, taking her recyclables heaven only knows where. She's still here, more stooped than when I first saw her, but still dragging her black garbage bags down the hall toward the elevator.

Tonight she had two big, bulky bags, not heavy but making a wide load that bumped into displays of goods and people's feet while she chugged on, oblivious to any barriers that lay before her. I was stuck behind her, unable to get past and unwilling to linger at any of the shops while she forged far ahead of me. She was approaching a narrow section of her route that seemed to court disaster for someone--but probably not for her. So I picked up the back of the widest bag and lifted it above the obstacle.

It seemed stupid to put it down; she was moving more rapidly now that I had part of her load and that was good for me too. So we proceeded along our way until she realized her load had been assumed by someone else. Without a backward glance, she let go of her end and scurried toward the elevator line to secure a spot near the front. When I joined her and dropped my black plastic bag beside her own, she received it royally, with a flicker of expression in her eyes but no other acknowledgment.

And I love her. Singlehandedly, she both raises and lowers the tone of Chungking Mansions; long may she scavenge.

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