I woke to a room so completely dark I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Trying not to collide with something I went to the window and pulled open the curtains. The light was blinding. Blackout curtains. It must have been what it was like during the blitz, the day already half over because there wasn’t enough light to wake you. My room overlooked the back of the hotel, dirty roofs and rusted-over air-conditioning units. The day was overcast. It looked cold.
The battery in my watch had expired sometime during the night. I rang down to the desk and a woman told me it was 9am. Time to get going, I thought. How lucky was I? An entire day in a foreign city and it wasn’t costing me a cent. People paid hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars to be where I was, and here I was by default.
I didn’t bother about breakfast – I wasn’t hungry. Instead I combed some water through my hair, dressed in pants, a t-shirt and jacket, and went downstairs. The foyer was so clean I could see my reflection in the table tops and in the black marble walls. At the desk I changed ten Australian dollars into HK $57 and asked the receptionist how far away the ferry was. Could I walk?
She looked surprised. ‘Oh no!’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Taxi.’
The hotel doors opened and I stepped onto the pavement on Waterloo Road. The din was staggering. Cars and busses crawling along, their engines gunning, clogging the air with fumes. Quite literally you could walk wherever you wanted to go faster than you could drive. The pavement was crowded with people and it was with a sense of wonder I realized I was the tallest person about. It was like looking out over a sea of heads. I’d never felt so tall. Or conspicuous. And it was hot. The air dank, pressing down on me. I broke out in a sweat. Five minutes later, after going back to my room and dumping my jacket on the bed, I was back where I’d started.
I had no idea where the ferries were located so I stood on the pavement with a map I’d found on a stand in the hotel, aligning myself with the four points of the compass, making sure no matter how far I ventured I would know how to get back. There is a strange mixture of excitement and trepidation associated with being stranded in a strange city. You’re free, you’re not responsible for anyone but yourself, you can go wherever the winds blow you. But no-one knows you. If anything goes wrong there’s no-one to turn to for help. I had visions of me getting lost and missing my evening flight. The stuff of movies. A stranger adrift in an unfamiliar city, taken advantage of, robbed and left for dead. But while I stood on the pavement with my arms stretched wide, peering at a uniform array of black-and-white criss crossing lines, a Mediterranean woman with thick long black hair and dark skin approached me.
‘Where is it you want to go?’ she asked in a thick accent. Unlike the Chinese I had encountered she was not smiling. Instead, she seemed to be saying, I know what it’s like.
‘The ferry?’ I asked hopefully.
She pointed across the street at a waiting bus. ‘Number seven.’
And then she turned about and, rather than disappear into the crowd, she swam through it. I could see her dark hair becoming more and more distant, her head and shoulders surrounded by a pressing mass of Chinese.
Number seven it was. I walked through the traffic and waited in line in front of the bus.
A ride across the harbour cost me HK $1.20, about 30 Australian cents. The water was choppy, even though it is only a short ride to Hong Kong island, and as we crossed it seemed there was no order to the traffic – ships and ferries criss-crossed, sometimes heading on what seemed a collision course and then veering away again. Ahead, Hong Kong Island stood tall and green, its summit hidden in the clouds. Around its base and all along its shoreline skyscrapers proliferated. This is where the money is – the Central District – all shining and ostentatious. But its obvious wealth and confidence made it also uninteresting. I bought a postcard from a kerbside stand and went into the General post Office where I mailed it to Tess and the kids. Rickshaw drivers signaled to me as I passed. I went up to a stall owner, showed him my map, asked him where the markets were. My idea was to see some of the real China – after all, I reasoned with myself, I was technically in China. But he said he didn’t know. Another stall owner, like the girl at the hotel, looked surprised. ‘They’re all over the place,’ he said, and he looked at me as though I knew nothing, which of course I didn’t. I could, I decided, spend my entire day looking for the markets, then staring at various exotic goods arranged on tables. Better to return to Kowloon and root around the tiny side streets and alleys I’d noticed on my journey down Nathan Road. So went in search of a return ferry.
As I was looking for the ferry back to Kowloon a small Chinese man stopped and said hello and offered to show me the way to ferry. He just happened to be going that way, he said. His name was Wong How Chuen and he sat next to me on the ferry back to Kowloon. He wore a dirty blue checked shirt and soiled trousers. His teeth were yellow and decaying, they pointed this way and that in his mouth, his hair was matted and grubby. But he smiled a lot and clutched a newspaper as though it were his only possession. He pointed back towards Hong Kong Island, up towards the summit.
‘Have you been there?’
I shook my head and explained I was only in Hong Kong for the day. I was on my way to London and was in his city only by accident.
‘Are you coming back when you return to Australia?’
‘Only for a few hours.’
‘You don’t have much time,’ he said, grinning and staring expectantly at me. Jabbing his finger towards the summit, he said, ‘I can take you this afternoon.’
I had a strange feeling about him. Something told me I should ditch Chuen in a hurry. His over- enthusiastic bearing reminded my of my earlier fear of being taken to some remote location to be mugged – probably by Chuen and his friends – so I said no.
When the ferry docked at the Star Ferry Pier Chuen followed me. I had made the mistake of telling him I wanted to go to the Space Museum and he was determined to show it to me. Fortunately it didn’t open until 1pm. I told Chuen I was going and he asked me if I would see him when I came back to Hong Kong in a few weeks.
‘I am very poor,’ he said, pressing his hands together.
People swarmed past us, heading towards the Star Ferry pier.
‘My grandfather is in hospital in China,’ Chuen explained. ‘The bills are very expensive.’
Chuen knew he had very little time. In a few hours I would be making my way towards Europe. He was putting the hard sell on me.
‘When you arrive in London will you send me some money?’
I must have seemed fabulously wealthy to him, jetting my way across half the world just to attend a cousin’s wedding. What I didn’t tell him was that my aunt was paying for the whole thing and that all I had was five hundred Australian dollars – a gift from my mother-in-law – to last me a month. I’d just finished a university degree. Back home in Adelaide I had a wife and three children. I didn’t have any money of my own.
‘How much do you want?’
‘Three hundred Hong Kong dollar,’ he said, without even a pause for consideration. This was not new to him. I was probably the latest in a long line of foreigners he had attempted to extract money from.
Just then a Sikh man who looked to be in his early-twenties slipped out of the passing throng and strode right up to me. Straight-backed and officious looking, he pinned an artificial red flower to my shirt.
‘Good morning to you, Sir’ he said.
I looked at the flower, then at the Sikh who had given it to me. He looked to be from another world, an age when I would have been reclining on the balcony of a hotel drinking port and smoking cigars. This Sikh, dressed all in white with his hair gathered into a startlingly white turban, would have leaned over me and offered me something from his tray.
‘I hoping you are having a nice day,’ he said in his melodic voice.
I looked at the flower again. It wasn’t Remembrance Day, which was in November, almost six months away. Then what was it for? I suspected no-one gave anything away for free. Not in Hong Kong.
‘I am from Bombay,’ the Indian said. ‘Are you familiar with it?’
I shook my head.
‘You are going?’
‘Not to Bombay. London.’
‘Perhaps one day you will visit my city,’ the Sikh said, grinning painfully.
‘I am collecting signatures for my school.’
‘Signatures. For my school.’
What the hell did he want signatures for? And what was he doing collecting them in Kowloon, which was miles away from his classroom? Stamps I could accept. Or empty soft drink cans. Those you could convert into cash. But signatures? What use were they?
‘Are you a teacher?’ I asked as he offered me his clipboard.
‘I am student,’ he said proudly, raising his chest.
I added my signature to his growing collection. ‘Aren’t you a little old to be a student?’ But already I was starting to learn that in Hong Kong anything is possible and that not everything is as it seems.
‘One dollar,’ the Sikh said as soon as my pen left the page.
‘No,’ he said, smiling. ‘One hundred dollar.’
I passed him the clipboard, thanked him, and walked away. But the Sikh chased after me.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘One dollar.’
I reached into my pocket, pulled out a Hong Kong dollar, which was about twenty Australian cents, and gave it to him. He wasn’t happy. He paused for a moment, staring into his palm, pondering his next course of action.
At this point Chuen, who had been standing at the periphery watching the scene develop, grabbed my arm and hurried me across the road. When we had safely negotiated the two streams of traffic and were standing unharmed on the pavement Chuen asked, ‘Will you send me three hundred Australian dollar before you come back to Hong Kong?’
Hong Kong dollars had mysteriously quintupled and become Australian dollars. But in the end I relented and said yes, if only to get rid of him. He had shown me the way back to the ferry terminal, and he’d saved me from the signature collecting Sikh. I couldn’t just turn around and walk away. The obvious and most face-saving solution was to lie.
Chuen then did a very strange thing. He stood in the middle of the footpath – people were streaming all about us – and he jerked up his arm in a salute. I looked around quickly but no-one seemed to be taking any interest in what was going on. Which made me think it must happen everyday, locals attempting to fleece unsuspecting tourists. And then Chuen was gone. The last I saw of him he was heading back towards the Star Ferry, a smile full of broken teeth across his face.
As extortionists go he wasn’t a very good one. I suppose I should have called after him, “You haven’t given me your address!” But then I was lying about my intention to send him money. In a way he had let me off the hook. I imagined him on the Star Ferry suddenly realizing what he’d done and hitting himself across the head with his rolled up newspaper.
I hadn’t gone ten metres before I was buttonholed by another Indian, this one trying to offload silk shirts and dresses onto me.
‘You got a wife?’
Obviously I had a wife; he’d seen my wedding ring.
I would be approached – perhaps “attacked” is a better word – at least twice more before the day was out, but I had already learnt to wave my attackers aside and to keep walking no matter what.