Sunday, January 9, 2011
Five China: Hong Kong Pinball
Hong Kong’s neon arms might be open to foreigners and foreign investments, but I had more trouble getting through its gates than I did entering the red border via Shanghai. After a long wait in line, my immigration official took my passport and scanned it. And scanned it again. And a third time. She flipped through the pages, peered intently at my Chinese visa and frowned. A second official conferred with her and then called me out of the line. After asking me how I had gotten into China – apparently ferries are suspicious – she pointed out the smears on my passport and all was suddenly clear. Likely some ink had run during the rainy days in Japan and that was enough to throw my documents into doubt. But soon enough I was inside and on my way through yet another big city.
Actually, I stayed in two cities during my time in Hong Kong: one was Hong Kong itself, and one was Chungking Mansions, a sprawling global microcosm in the form of a single crumbling building on Nathan Road in Kowloon. Chungking Mansions does not exactly live up to its grandiose name, but its many budget guesthouses, food stalls, moneychangers and knockoff hawkers make it an interesting place to spend a night, to say the least. Aircon units stud its rusted façade like warts on a modern chimera.
I could find no desk or obvious check-in area at the first guesthouse I checked. I walked up and down the narrow hallways until a man stuck his head out of a room and asked, in some foreign accent, what I needed. I had no idea if he was officially connected to the guesthouse or not. He asked another random person in the hallway, who asserted that all the rooms were full; and so he walked me over to the next guesthouse, where again nobody was on duty. This one had a tiny desk and a telephone. He told me he thought room nine was empty. There was a phone number taped to the wall, and he dialed this to ask somebody – I imagined a suited, scarred figure lurking behind a desk somewhere in the basement – about vacancies. This absent person confirmed that room nine was available. My guide rummaged around in the desk – “I think the key is here” – and let me in, then told me “Okay, you just pay me now.” So I did.
This was my first private room since Kameido Weekly Mansion in Tokyo, and it came fully equipped with a TV, bathroom and even a window. I didn’t bother with the tiny television, but I thoroughly enjoyed the hot water in the slightly larger bathroom. The sink jutted out over the toilet and the shower implement knocked against the walls as I tried to maneuver it in the miniscule space. My window looked out over a dark, dirty alley and dozens of other windows just like mine. I only stayed Thursday night – my flight was early Saturday morning, and I didn’t want to blow the money to stay a partial night – and so I checked out on Friday and asked if I could leave my luggage there for the day. “Yes,” the surly clerk (there was a clerk this time) told me. I looked around for a luggage room or a desk big enough to hide my bag behind. There was nothing. The clerk glared at me under her brows. “Just here?” I asked, and she nodded like I was an idiot. So I dropped my bag in the middle of the hallway and left.
Kowloon was crazy in the way that only an international crossroads could be. I bounced around the streets like a human pinball, jostled by the frantic crowds. At first – thanks in no small part to a throbbing headache developed over the course of my two-hour train from Guangzhou – I hated it. Couldn’t wait to leave. But after checking in to my guesthouse and eating a delicious beef curry on a quieter sidestreet, I started to appreciate the pace and the crowds. My first afternoon and evening I spent roaming Kowloon’s streets and then rushing to the wharf to take pictures of a gorgeous sun setting behind Hong Kong Island’s skyline to the south.
Hong Kong is much bigger than most people, including me, probably imagine it. Most of the Special Administrative Region is green hills and undeveloped land; this, aside from my train ride in, I did not see. Kowloon is the district directly across the bay from Hong Kong “proper,” where most of the shiny stuff is. Kowloon is seedier and more interesting, but I also enjoyed boarding the venerable Star Ferry (which connects the Tsim Sha Tsui section of Kowloon with the Central District on Hong Kong Island) for a bumpy ride across the harbor that cost, in US dollars, about twenty-five cents. The metro also undercuts the harbor, but the Star Ferry is cheaper and more entertaining.
But Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway is itself world-renowned for its efficiency. It is indeed impressive – although really all the metro systems I rode in China and Japan were pretty swanky – and the second morning I rode it up north to have a look at the prior site of the Kowloon Walled City. It’s now a park, and a pretty one, but a few decades back the Walled City was infamous: it was formerly an army garrison that was later colonized by locals who flocked to the lawless community inside. Crime and poverty ran rampant through its labyrinthine streets, where dog-meat vendors sold their wares and unlicensed dentists ran their front-room clinics. (If there’s one thing that has become canon in the retelling of the City’s history, it is, for whatever reason, the unlicensed dentists.)
After the Walled City I took in Hong Kong Island. I took the Central to Mid-Levels Escalators – a crazy system of escalators that seems to run on forever, and then a littler further – to the SoHo section, where I had lunch in one of the dozens of little restaurants that line the steep streets. It was here that I made the decision to spend most of my wealth, if I ever amass any wealth, in the pursuit of food. Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mediterranean, Italian, French, Lebanese, Japanese… just about every cuisine imaginable was represented on those hallowed lanes.
On my way back down from Mid-Levels, I strolled the little alleys of vendors selling antiques and vegetables. At ground level the scene was very different: the walls of skyscrapers rose all around, glinting in the afternoon sun, and pedestrians milled busily around the intricate footways built over, under and through the noisy streets.
I spent my second night holed up in a café on Nathan Road, watching the Friday crowds dance by and waiting for them to thin out. They never did. When I boarded the Airport Express around eleven pm, the streets were still thrumming.
China had one more surprise for me. My next country required an ongoing ticket for entry, and I had none. I hadn’t planned ahead that far. So I was told that I wouldn’t be able to board my plane without proof that I was leaving again. I decided to buy the cheapest ticket I could and just change it when I decided on my next destination – only to be told that the airport desk could only book me a return ticket to Hong Kong. With no feasible alternatives, I bought the most inexpensive return ticket I could find, knowing that I probably wouldn’t be using it at all.
I stepped on my plane and stepped off again two hours later. The moist, warm air, the crumbling streets, the smell of fumes… it all seemed so familiar. Soon my cab was skimming down Adriatico, my old landmarks flashing by in the early-morning gloom. I was back in Manila – back in the Philippines.