Sitting on the airport express, the train hardly makes a sound.  We whiz by improbably tall towers while the on-board tv replays clips of business “commentary.”  The question being discussed by the American hosts—why are startups so sexy?  Can Microsoft compete with Facebook and Google at luring young graduates?  Numbers flickers by on the screen like divinity readings .  Crack bones over the fire, read the flickers of stock values rising and falling like an ever spinning roulette.  I look out the window and wonder where I am.

It is quiet, clean, efficient.  No one talks. This is the sound of modernity—sterility, anonymity.   In the American subconscious, there is a romantic idea of making love in the backseat of a convertible.  Can you imagine making love in this commuter train?  If so, you might truly be a master of your surroundings.

Arriving first at Central-Hong Kong station, my impression is one of a Western city with mainly Chinese people.  I am surprised to see a girl in plaid with a nose-ring, another with a skateboard who glares at me when I find myself looking at her.   Silent, serious people in monochrome skirts and suits look mechanically at smart-phones. They have successfully copied the trends of urban images everywhere, and a smooth disinterest for the current moment is written on peoples’ faces.

I accidentally try to use my airport-train ticket on the subway at first, and some youths try to help me, in fluent, British-accented English.  Coming from Taiwan, I am stunned by their utter lack of any Chinese accent, and by the fact that no one attempts to talk to me in either Mandarin (or Cantonese) before switching to English.

Finally, I take the MTR one stop over to Tsim Sha Tsui, to begin my journey at the infamous ChungKung Mansions, well known as one of the cheapest places of accommodation in all of Hong Kong.  It is nearly midnight and I need to find a room for the night.  Upon exiting, the first thing I notice is the evenness of the streets—large sidewalks, and the glow of signs—it feels like I am in any major western city, say, New York, a world away from Taipei.  Due to the lateness of the hour, not too many people are milling about, but as I approach my destination, it is clear that I am in a somewhat unsavory area.  All the telltale signs are there: characters standing by the side of the road with eagle eyes, smoking cigarettes, doing nothing, but looking for something.  Right away, a wiry young Indian man approaches me.

“Room?”

“Ok.”

I smile, knowing that I am being drawn into a game, but confident that I know how to play it, if I can remember how.

“How much?” I ask, right away, as I follow him.

He starts saying something, and I think he is talking to me, but then realize he has a headset in one ear, already in business with someone else, even as he manages me, just another fly.

We enter the building and he has not yet responded to my query; but, no matter, the mansions are full of literally dozens of guesthouses.  If I don’t like it, I’ll simply find another.  As we walk through the doorway, an unlatched opening in an array of metal bars, the shabbiness of the place immediately reminds me, once again, that I am definitely no longer in Taiwan; this has the look of those many downtrodden places that exist in contrast to the rich places they inhabit, the flip side of the developed/undeveloped 1st world/3rd world divide that coexists most anywhere there are haves and have-nots.  Which one am I now?

Trash is strewn across the floor.  Weary corners snake out on all sides.  Immediately I am struck by the colorfulness of the people there.  There are Indians, Affricans, Southeast Asians, Chinese, Caucasians.  Little stalls are all along the hallway, selling Halal foods, cell phones, clothing, with many more shuttered for the night.  The Mansions is split into “blocks” horizontally, adding to the feel of a prison, and each block has two elevators; one for even floors, one for odd.  We walk to the end of the building, over at “E” block, where there seem to be many Indian guesthouses listed on the directory.

Exiting on the 5th floor, we finally begin negotiations for the price of the room.

“Right now, it is the Hong Kong _______  [insert excuse] convention” so rooms are expensive.  500 HKD per night.”

I chuckle, knowing he is merely testing to see how big of a fool I am.

“Too expensive.  I’m looking for something cheaper, more like 200 per night.”

We’re walking into the guesthouse.  It’s a doorway into an extremely narrow corridor that’s surprisingly well kept.  Again, it snakes around corner after corner, creating a feeling of claustrophobia.

“For you, I will give you to you for 350 a night.”

I call his bluff.

“No, too expensive.”

“Come here, see the room.”

There is an Indian/Pakistani man, lying on the floor under a blanket opposite the door.

The room is tiny, but actually quite nice.  It has its own bathroom, and as he points out, “tv, wi-fi, air conditioning.”

“You like?  Only 350.”

I linger, not committing.

He fakes a move of conciliation.

“Wait, I will talk to my boss.”

He picks up the phone and starts speaking in a language I don’t understand.

“Ok, 250 for tonight.  But you have to leave tomorrow, we have a checking.”

I feel that I have won, but I take it a step further just to see what I can get away with.

“how about 200?”

“No, 250.”

“Ok, 225.”

“250.  Passbook.”

I sign my information.

“James,” he says, writing down my middle name, for some reason.  Has he never looked at a passport with three names before?

“Now give him the money.”

Him, being the laconic man lying across from the doorway of my room.

I hand him the money and attempt small-talk.

“So you are the owner?”

He stares at me and says nothing.  I decide to set my things down.

After assessing the 40 –odd so square feet of my room, I go down for a walk.  Passing through the building to the outside, the seediness and sense of desperation is like the blast of humidity that hit me when I first stepped off the airplane in Taoyuan. I am approached by more Indian touts, whom I brush off.  I have forgotten this sense of tension and hunger in peoples’ eyes; in contrast to much of the urban world, it just isn’t something one encounters in Taipei.

At night, the area around Tsim Sha Tsui looks like one big shuttered department store.  Giant photos of women wearing expensive jewelry and clothing adorn the sides of towering buildings.  The scale seems inhuman, and these images are just as strange and disturbing.   The emptiness of the area at this time of night only adds to the effect.

The women portrayed in these ads are glamorous, yet seem to be cooly indifferent to everything.  They don’t seem particularly happy, or particularly anything.  They are alternatingly Caucasian and Chinese, the two races of prestige here, although the combination of make-up, a detached, pseudo-sexual facial expression, and the preference for ultra-light skin, creates a homogenizing result, towards some kind of uber-woman, stripped of all identifiable cultural markers. Perhaps that’s the point—whiter than white, passing for luxury and power in any sphere of influence as necessary.

I pass by a bar and hear music, so of course, I enter.  It is full of Caucasians in business attire, with the occasional pretty young Chinese woman sitting next to a man.  There is a Dixieland-type jazz band playing on-stage.  I am struck by the foreignness of the scene.  A sour-faced Asian (Chinese? Southeast Asian?) waitress approaches me and gives me a menu.  I listen to the band for a bit and look at a drink menu, pondering the novelty.  Shortly afterwards, another waitress starts to hover over me.  I stall for time and retreat back into the menu, thinking about whether or not to stay.  Thirty seconds later, she returns.  And I thought people in Taipei could be impatient.  There’s not even a pretense of friendliness here. The band seems to be wrapping up.  I leave.

As I exit the bar, looking around, a Cantonese taxi driver with a sleazy face starts talking to me in broken English.

“You want taxi?”

“No.”

“What you want?  You want fun, want to drink?  Good bar over here.”

“No.”

Unresponsive, he continues.

“You want girl?  What you want?”

“Nothing.  Just to walk around.”

His face seems to continue moving, but he no longer talks.

I wander around, and mistakenly make eye contact with an attractive woman who seems lost or tentative.  It seems as though she shouldn’t be walking around by herself at this time of night, here.  I reach the end of a street, then turn around, passing her again from the other direction.  She calls out to me,

“Sir, sir..”

I take that as my cue to keep walking.

Back inside the Chungking mansions, I eat Indian food, and I almost want to cry, because the flavors are so beautiful, even as it’s merely street food that’s being reheated, the first time I’ve had real Indian food of this caliber since Shalimar, in San Francisco.  This is food for fellow Indians and Pakistanis, not for a foreign palate.  I want to grab someone and cry, “We can’t get this in Taiwan!  Oh my god, it’s so good!”

Of the late-nite diners, there are people of all stripes, including some British guys whom I make small-talk with.  One of them never looks away from the TV and has the rigid, austere accent of a humorless, high-class Londoner, but the other, who seems to be Hapa, is talkative and has been living in Guangdong for the past five years.  They are both here for business, and the conversation immediately turns to costs and salaries in Taiwan and other places, discussions about money I rarely have, but that I would find myself having more than once in the coming days, in this shrine to Capitalism.

Still high on the differentness of this crazy place of towering buildings and hungry eyes, I briefly walk around the ground floor, past the African and Filipina prostitutes that loiter in a “come, hither” pose that seem out of a movie, and take the elevator back to my floor.  There are several Indian men sleeping on the corridor floors I have to step around.  I turn on the tv and watch CCTV for awhile before drifting off to sleep at about 3 AM.  It occurs to me that, despite using different currency and having semi-soverignty, I’m technically back in China, once again.  It’s a little unsettling.

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