Making Sense of Hong Kong
By Louis Martin

I have been to Hong Kong a number of times but still don't know what to make of it. When I lived in Shanghai, for awhile I had to make trips every month to renew my visa. This was because the mainland government had let in too many foreigners for Expo and, I believe, wanted to get rid of some of them. On those trips, it did not really matter what I thought of Hong Kong; I was simply there for a reason: to get my visa renewed. But now I had chosen to come to Hong Kong and wanted to take a closer look.

There was Hong Kong island; I had stayed there before and I had done a bit of wandering around. There was also Kowloon, on the mainland. I had also stayed there before and done some wandering. But I had never formed any hard conclusions. As I said, I was there simply for visa purposes.

Now, however, I was looking more closely. While I had admired the island—it was well laid out and served business purposes well, I suppose, it was really Kowloon that caught my attention. If it were serving business purposes, it was not very obvious. It seemed to be serving the interests, if "serving" is even the right word here, of a broad base of people: shoppers for sure, but they did not interest me much. They were mostly youthful Chinese buying clothes and skin-care products. The typical scene was a well dressed young Chinese girl with her boyfriend in tow. Though his hair might be stylishly spiked, as is the trend among the "mavericks" these days, he was by no means a maverick. He was likely an accountant or "business analyst" who was trying to advance himself so that he might propose marriage and start a family. She was of course fetching and seemingly worthy of her young man's sacrifice. Basically they were working out a business deal, though they were not aware of it, much like the companies with the tall buildings on the island were. "Simply put," as business likes to put it these days, one tall building was courting another tall building.

Then there were the tourists, a more curious bunch: Some old and moneyed-looking; some youthful with heavy backpacks, most of which had never been out in the woods.

I asked one of my roommates, loaded both front and back, if she had a snake-bite kit.

"What?" she asked, looking baffled.

"Real backpackers carry snake-bite kits," I said. She looked ashamed and I was sorry I had said it.

"If I were a snake and saw you out in the woods," I said, "I wouldn't waste my time biting you. You look like you  have one."

She smiled a little.

Then there were also the "toughs." They looked like comic-strip characters out of another era when guys had bulging muscles, wore T-Shirts with the sleeves rolled up, and were ready to fight on the spot. All it took was a cross look.

You have guys that look like that these day—they do body building, have a personal trainer, sport a tattoo or so—but they are not ready to throw the first punch because of a cross look. If anything, they have taken conflict-resolution training and will be looking for a negotiated settlement of the problem. They will soon be sipping beer together, exchanging email addresses, and inviting each other over for Thanksgiving dinner.

But in Hong Kong some of these "toughs" are still out on the street ready to throw that punch. I don't know how they have been preserved in such a raw, pugnacious state; maybe the historical society has some insight on this.

Then you have the desperate-looking Indian guys trying to sell you something—typically a watch or a shirt—or offering you a deal on a room, even though it is obvious you have one. How they can maintain this routine—they never seem to make a sale—I don't know. It must be an act of deep Indian faith that on the 100,000th  time they will be successful.

"Yes, I was just thinking of a second watch, a nice knew shirt, and a room without cockroaches. How did you know?"

Does the Indian guy just stand there dumbstruck or does he fall over dead? Has he achieved Nirvana?

One hostel reviewer referred to these people as "doodley" characters. I understand his feelings but does the reviewer understand how long these characters have been standing out there, typically in front of Chung King or Mirador mansion on Nathan Road? Surely it is an act of faith, strong as that of Mahatma Gandhi, that keeps them there. I never engage in conversation with them—that would be a serious mistake—but I always say a little "thank you" to them as I walk on by, thinking only 55,293 more times to go for that big sale, guy!

There are also the older Chinese woman on the street who ask if you want "massagie." They have colorful handouts that show a relaxed female lying on her stomach on a clean massage table, a little of her left breast bulging out form the side—no nipple showing, of course—with flowers in the background. It all looks very peaceful except it has got the scene wrong. It is a guy on the table, which is not any too clean, and there are no flowers in the background. With the exception of the jiao anmo (foot massage), this is really a male thing. And there are almost always additional services to be had: the "happy ending" for some more money and, for a whole lot more, sex. The sex, however, is likely to occur at your hotel room later on. Of course if you are staying in a hostel and they discover this, sex is not going to be part of the offering. Imagine the logistics with five roommates! Mention Chung King Mansion and they assume you are a down-and-outer; if they have to leave the massage booth during your massage, they take their cell phone and purse with them.

I'm no prude but I went out for a massage one evening—just a massage!—and the anmoshi (masseuse) bugged me so much about buying extra services that I finally scolded her for it.

"You are ruining my massage," I said to her.

"But I know you want it," she said.

"How much is the 'happy ending,'" I asked?

"Only 300 (Honk Kong dollars) more," she said.

"For me that would be a sad ending," I said. "I'm on a budget."

"You can afford it," she insisted.

"Stop it!" I told her. "I came here for the regular massage—128 dollars (Hong Kong dollars)—and that is what I want."

She stopped bugging me but was not happy. Ever get a massage from someone who does not like you? It is not a pleasant thing.

There are many African guys on the street as well but I didn't know what they were up to. Finally I asked one of my roommates, Julia from Australia.

She filled me in; it was a "girl" thing. They were offering bags or handbags for women. But I don't think it was all they had going on. They seemed secretive, kept mostly to themselves, and collectively rented space in the two "mansions" that only they entered or exited. When they entered, the door was quickly closed behind them; when they exited it was the same. It was hard to get a glimpse inside. The few black women among them all looked like prostitutes. They probably were not but what else would you think with their tits hanging out, red lips, and heavy makeup? If not their bodies, what then were they selling?

And then there were the "mansions" themselves. What the hell were they? I have never in all my travels come across anything like them. Above the ground floor were the hostels and cheap hotels. Some were okay; some had mean, unpleasant, son-of-bitch landlords who seemed to despise their customers. They operated according to the reverse of the slogan, "The customer is always right."

There were also various small business, most of which seemed to be tailors and clothes makers.

Then there was the ground level, the most curious place of all. In the various "blocks" on ground level you could find, in small scale, almost every business imaginable, including laundries and money changers. It appeared you could live your life there, if you wanted to, and never leave. And in fact that may have been the case for some, with the exception of the "wanted to" part. The police were always hanging around the front of the building requesting papers from certain individuals who looked like they had more to offer than a watch, a shirt, or a hotel deal. "Seedy" is the word that comes to mind for quite a number of the characters, both male and female, who came and went form the mansions. They were beyond "doodley."

Now I have been referring to Chung King and Mirador as "mansions"—that is what people called them—but that was an odd description of these buildings. There was nothing "impressive" about them; they were not "manors." They were the opposite of any reasonable definition of a "mansion." They were large, ugly, and falling apart most indecorously. Mention "Chung King" mansion and every taxi driver knew exactly where it was; ditto Mirador.

And yet these places, once you got to know them, were remarkably likable.

"Now how can that be after all the terrible things you have said about them?" you might ask. Fair question.

Maybe they represented a base line of support for humanity. You knew you could mostly get a fair deal at the mansions, which was rare anywhere else these days. And with so many people interacting face to face, gross deception was out of question; you just couldn't get away with it. Waiting in line for the elevators perhaps symbolized the whole thing. They were in heavy use—it took awhile to go from bottom to top—but everyone lined up in an orderly fashion for the common good of all. Cooperation was a necessity. I never saw anyone rush the line. People smiled, laughed, fanned themselves in the heat. That beat the schemers where I come from who would have turned all elevators from public to private use and had you take the stairs.