Monday, January 13, 2014

Where am I?

I travel to find a sense of place at the spot where I land, and once I leave an airport for my real destination, every sense I have concentrates on that search. Sometimes it leads to places that are unpleasant or uncomfortable, but life is like that, isn't it? And my greed is for the life in the places I visit.

When I entered Chungking Mansions at 1 a.m. on Monday, the hall that used to be empty had become an African street, with men and women hanging out and chatting. This used to take place in front of the 7/11 on the next block, but there's some kind of obstruction there that's big and apparently permanent, so the village square has moved. The 7/11 itself now has a large, empty space where Africans stand, eat, drink, and chat during the day; it's like a club of  which I'm not a member. It looks a lot more viable than standing near Nathan Road, breathing traffic fumes, and I like this change.

But the news vendor at the end of one of the alleys that connects Chungking Mansions with Nathan Road no longer has the cats that used to take turns presiding over his stall and the friendly old lady who used to do my laundry  seems to have retired. The elderly gentleman who sold skin magazines and paperbacks in English has expanded; he now stands behind a glass counter and sells DVDs and electronic gadgets too. My friend Hari is ready to return to Nepal; while he waits for his departure, he stands at the front entrance to Chungking Mansions with the other Nepali guys who work as impromptu guides for guesthouses and restaurants. It's a comedown for him but he still looks immaculate and cheerful.

On the street the men who hand out cards for tailorshops and counterfeit handbag emporiums are more aggressive than they used to be and frequently my response is "Don't touch me." Starbucks in ISquare is more crowded than ever, but has set up a little sidewalk cafe arrangement of tables near the main shop, close to the escalators. It's packed and noisy and often cluttered with used cups and leftover napkins. I miss the old Starbucks with its armchairs and personal service.

This part of Kowloon is for tourist-shoppers. I prefer the parts that cater to resident-shoppers--the fruit market, the textile street, the hardware stores and cookware shops. They are on the other side of Nathan Road, the downmarket side where people actually live. There are days when I wander through and wish I were one of them. It's an area with character and personality and a community history that hasn't been erased by high-rise apartments and luxury hotels.

Far above my usual cat track is Kai Tak, the old airport site which now is thought of as Thai Town. I went there yesterday and was delighted to see signs written in Thai. A little neighborhood store had look choob, which is a confection that looks like this.
The ladies who sold it to me were sweet enough to indulge my bad Thai and lied about how good it was--the day I'm not told that, I'll know I might be getting better at this language.

There were many restaurants and beer bars and massage shops. There were no street stalls; the sidewalks were wide, clean, and empty. There were no Thai newspapers or magazines in sight. All that made me feel as though I was in a Thai neighborhood were the signs, the posters for the new Tony Jaa movie, and the dogs--the only unleashed canines I've seen roaming in a Kowloon neighborhood, all strutting with the territorial pride of their Bangkok counterparts.

It was Thai but not enough. Suddenly I missed Bangkok more than I have in a long time. Tears rose up hard, stinging behind my eyes. I left.

No city in the world has the sense of place that Bangkok possesses, and it can't be replicated.Although Thailand is amazing at duplicating almost anything in the world, no place in the world can duplicate what that country so effortlessly is. When I'm in Kowloon, I'll look for what makes it unique. As for Bangkok? It's worth waiting for.

No comments: