This was a short story I wrote reminiscing the local life in Hong Kong.
Tales from the Chungking Mansions
Kwang Kit wiped the sweat off his forehead as he waited in the unconditioned elevator lobby. The blinking lights above him flashed 8, 7, 6, pause at 5, pause at 4, no, a long, long pause at 4. His clammy palms beneath his fingerless gloves on this hot day were uncomfortable, but removing them would irritate the many blisters hidden underneath even more. His only recourse for the heat was to fan himself with the white delivery slip gripped in his hands. His white shirt had already been soaked through with his own sweat, as well as some of that air conditioning fluid that had dripped from the God-damned 8th floor while he was on his way into the building. A dark patch of sweat had pooled up around his chest and armpits.
Ding, went the elevator just as Kwang Kit’s mind had drifted off to think of his ex, who had dumped his no-good, sorry soul two days prior. By the time Kwang Kit came to his senses, more than a dozen people had already pushed in front of him and onto the elevator just slightly smaller than a walk-in closet. (Not that Kwang Kit had ever owned or seen a walk-in closet himself, he had only heard of them. His apartment, no larger than a parking space, was way too small for the luxury of a walk-in closet.) “Diu!” Kwang Kit swore under his breath as he reached forward to pound the up button. It took three vigorous attempts until the indicator light finally went on. 12, 11, stop at 10, 9, 8… the blinking lights above him flashed.
A few floors up, Amanda had just settled into her cramped upper bunk as she called out to her newlywed husband, “Mark, didn’t you say these were Queen sized beds?”
To which Mark, who had his face deep inside his 40-liter camping bag, replied by mumbling something about the exorbitant price of hotels in the city.
“Jesus, it’s our honeymoon for God’s sake! I know you want this to be a backpacking trip but it doesn’t mean we have to live in the slums!” Mark continued rummaging through his bag and didn’t respond.
Amanda swung her feet and positioned her body on the narrow bed of the upper bunk, ducking to avoid the low ceiling above her. She pulled out her phone as well as the cellophane-wrapped prepaid SIM card that she had bought just 15 minutes ago from a shady cellphone shop downstairs. It had also sold wireless interceptors and what seemed to be wiretap devices. She tried lifting her knees up to sit more comfortably on the bed, but her knee kept hitting the moldy ceiling above her. She noticed the spider web right in front of her, but wasn’t bothered enough to pay it much attention. She tore open the shrink-wrapping of the SIM card in one swift motion, casually tossed the wrapping on the floor beneath her, and opened the small folio to a thick instructions guide in a foreign language––Filipino perhaps. She ignored the guidelines (and what she presumed to be warnings marked by large, bolded exclamation marks) and popped out the small chip from the card and placed it into her iPhone, replacing the empty crevice left on the card with her bright red Verizon wireless SIM chip. She turned off airplane mode, which was still on since getting her off the flight a few hours ago. After a few seconds, ‘SmarTone’ had popped up on the upper left-hand corner of her screen; the phone indicated that she had 2 out of 5 bars of service. Her phone buzzed and ringed as it received wave after wave of missed notifications; she quickly fumbled with it and flicked the switch on the side to mute her phone. She texted to tell her parents that she had safely arrived, then she opened Facebook and began scrolling mindlessly through her friends’ posts. Some of them were congratulating her on her marriage; she liked those messages, and then dismissed them.
Kwang Kit was finally able to push his cart onto the cramped elevator. The half-centimeter wide leeway between his pushcart and the edge of the elevator door meant that he chipped a bit of the packaging when he forcefully made his way into the cramped escalator. There was just about enough space for two more in the elevator, but it seemed like his cart and mound of goods did not matter at all as a group of three friends made their way into the elevator. The edge of his cart pushed into his shin as he adjusted his stance.
“Would you press four for us please?” one of the friends who had just entered said to Kwang Kit. He noticed the upper portion of a dragon descending from the clouds tattooed on her arm, but the rest of the tattoo was covered up by her sleeve. He thought of his girlfriend, no, ex-girlfriend’s tattoo, a dog on the nape of her neck. She had been born in the year of the dog.
“Four please!” The lady with the dragon tattoo said again. Kwang Kit reached his arm out and nudged the button for the fourth floor; he noticed that it was the Wakas Mess Restaurant on the peeling plastic sticker next to it. He realised he hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning as he rubbed his rumbling stomach.
“Mh’goi’sai,” the lady smiled at him, but he was long lost in his own thought. The elevator lurched upward.
“Should we go get lunch sometime?” Mark asked from his lower bunk. He, too, was on his phone.
“I don’t mind, I’m not that hungry,” Amanda replied.
“I found a good place on TripAdvisor, apparently they serve the best curry in Hong Kong,” Mark started reading off his phone, “One of the best Indian places in the Chungking Mansions. Delicious food with huge portions…”
Amanda caved, “Fine, fine. We’ll go wherever.”
“Yess,” Mark whispered in excitement just loud enough for Amanda to hear. The couple gathered their belongings, locked their money and passports into a small safe embedded in the wall, and locked it with the month and date of their marriage earlier that month, 0502. Amanda pocketed the key to their room.
After walking out of the Golden Guest House and into the elevator lobby, they descended the stairs (the elevator was taking too long) and meandered through the busy shops into the elevator lobby of Block B of the Mansions. A short elevator ride up brought Amanda and Mark to the fourth floor, where a flickering neon sign indicated the Wakas Mess Restaurant; except where the neon for some letters were broken, so it instead read “Wkas Mes Returant”.
“You sure this is the right place?” Amanda asked skeptically as she observed the menu posted outside, “don’t you think it seems a bit… run down?”
“Yeah, yeah, it says here on the review,” Mark replied, looking down at the TripAdvisor page he had pulled up on his phone. They entered through a bead curtain into the air-conditioned interior of the restaurant, where a waitress greeted them in what seemed to be a heavy Indian accent. A group of three had just settled the bill and was leaving their table by the window.
“Could we have that table please?” Mark asked, “let’s sit by the window.”
“Sure, let us just clear it first,” the waiter replied as she grabbed a washcloth from a table nearby and went over to wipe the table down. The group squeezed past Amanda and Mark as they headed out the narrow entranceway. One of them, a lady with a dragon tattooed on her arm, had such an overpowering perfume on that Mark held his breath as she brushed past him. Still gasping for air, Mark gestured to the now cleaned table and seats. They walked over and seated themselves.
To make things worse for Kwang Kit, he dropped two of the four blue cases of goods that he was carrying on his way out of the elevator on the sixth floor. He heard the shattering of glass inside, but decided to pay that no attention. He swiftly picked up the blue case off the ground and back onto his pushcart; some liquid sloshed around. He would just say that he had received it as is, or that the van had damaged it during shipping. It wouldn’t be his fault.
He quickly wheeled the cart down the fluorescent-lit hallway to one of the hostel in the Mansions. The landlady, a short and stout lady, was waiting by the entrance.
“What took you so long? You were supposed to be here 20 minutes ago!” the lady berated him as he extended out the package delivery slip.
“Deui’mh’jyuh, deui’mh’jyuh,” he apologized. For fear of further retaliation, he didn’t mention missing the lift, or impulse-dialling his girlfriend and leaving her several voicemails, or just being distracted. “Deui’mh’jyuh,” he apologized once more and looked down shamefully.
She deftly signed the slip holding it in her palm, like she’d done it a thousand times (she’d probably actually done it a few thousand times). Before she handed it back, she peeled off the lid of one of the blue boxes and peered inside. A smug grin formed on the left side of her lips, all the while looking furious and angry. It was the expression one had when they had caught somebody in the act red-handed.
“Why is the case of beer shattered? Did you not bother to mention it to me? Did you bang it on the way in?” she interrogated Kwang Kit.
He fumbled with his hands and his fingerless gloves, stuttering out an unconvincing answer, “I don’t know, it must have always been like this.”
The landlady retracted the hand holding the delivery confirmation slip, and once again demanded an explanation, “you’re gonna get in trouble for this!”
“Just give me my slip. I made the delivery, I have more to do, I need the slip back,” Kwang Kit retorted. The landlady wouldn’t yield.
“I’m calling your boss, you can leave if you want to. The delivery slip stays with me,” she said firmly, “You can bring it up with your manager.”
The larger part of Kwang Kit wanted to stay. He wanted to stay and beg and grovel the lady for mercy. He recalled what his boss said to him on his first day, “if I get a call about anything, you’re…” along with the motion of his hand slicing his neck. His coworkers had all faced the wrath of the boss, or dai’lou as they all called him; you got half a month’s pay docked and had to deliver extra for a week.
Another good part of him wanted to slap the lady in the face and hurl all sorts of insults at her that his mother wouldn’t at all approve of (his mother would probably slap him in the face instead if she heard). He thought that her fat-ass, grinning face deserved some of its own medicine.
He had to fight this urge. Instead, Kwang Kit just puffed up his face (like he did when he was angry, or like his father did when his father was angry at his mother), turned around and stormed off––down the hall and as far away as possible from the landlady and her hotel. This didn’t happen to be very far, as the elevator lobby was right down the hall; and it almost seemed like the elevator was mocking him as pounded the down button, it refused to light up.
There was a plastic laminated menu on the table, along with a set of plastic-wrapped, sanitized dishware. What is it with these people and their plastic shrink-wrapping, Amanda thought to herself as she popped the plastic on the tableware. She proceeded to gaze down at the menu with its lines of unfamiliar Chinese glyphs. After skimming, and re-skimming the bad English translations of the food items, she decided on a salad.
“What do you mean? Are you sure? This is the best place there is and you just want a salad? I heard the Chicken Tikka Masala is pretty tasty,” Mark suggested.
“No, I’ll just have a salad.”
“Fine, we come all this way and you’re having a salad. Anyways, I’m going to order myself a nice curry,” Mark said, noticeably irritated yet full of himself. As Mark ordered their food (along with a cold one for him and some tea for her), Amanda sat in silence, not wanting to fuel Mark’s pettiness.
She pulled out her phone and stared down at her Facebook feed once again. Mark sat observing blankly at the faded pictures of food plastered on the wall.
The food soon arrived: the beer came in a plastic reusable cups (similar to red Coca-Cola fountain cups, but clear instead), and the food came on a tray along with condiments and some naan bread that the server had said was “on the house.”
They dug in, neither said another word.
The elevator finally arrived, and Kwang Kit entered the elevator, cursing to himself once more and biting his lips until there was a faint metallic taste of blood in his mouth. He realized that he had also left his cart with the landlady but he couldn’t brave going back to retrieve the cart, especially after what he had done.
He pressed the G button and then the Close button as rapidly as he could. He didn’t want to stay on his floor for any longer. Then and there, he made the executive decision that he was going to quit his job, if they even wanted him back in the first place. He just wasn’t going to show up again. He couldn’t stand the endless deliveries and tormenting from all the shallow landladies whose only care in the world was their profit margins and his punctuality. He wasn’t going to take it anymore.
After reaching the ground floor, he wandered to one of the many convenience stores in the Mansions. This one was his favorite, there were round bar tables where you could buy food and eat it there; he had spent many lunchtimes at this place. They also had the best selection of beer, cigarettes, and lottery tickets.
He picked out two cans of Heineken, jotted down two sets of numbers for two Mark 6 tickets (the numbers were his ex’s birthday and their anniversary date), and picked out a pack of Marlboros at the counter. He spent the last of the money in his wallet, just short of a hundred dollars, and emptied out a few two-dollar and five-dollar coins from the depths of his pocket to cover the rest of his purchase.
He fantasized winning the lottery. He would win the lottery, and go to his ex with the ticket to show that he hadn’t forgotten about her. She’d elope with him, and they’d move into a large house together. He wouldn’t have to see that pushcart ever again and she wouldn’t leave him ever again. It was going to be happily ever after, he thought.
Back up on the fourth floor, Amanda and Mark had just about finished their meal. Needless to say, it was underwhelmingly uneventful. Amanda finished up her salad as Mark scraped the last of his curry.
Mark slid his hand across the table and reached for Amanda’s hand. He gripped her hand for a short second, before she winced and withdrew it.
“I’m sorry, I just can't, I need some space,” Amanda broke the silence, “I’m so sorry.” The traces of a tear formed in her eyes and rolled down her rosy cheeks. “I’m so sorry,” she stood up, excused herself and apologized once more, and walked out.
Amanda went down the elevator to the main promenade of the Mansions. There was a convenience store from which she picked out a pack of tissues and a bottle of Pepsi. The only store she remembered here was the cellphone shop she had bought her SIM card from. She retraced her steps, walked over and stared down the racks of used and broken iPhones and other cellphones as she sipped from her bottle. Many of the screens were shattered, and she observed the glimmer that the cracks projected outward.
On the other side of the mall, Kwang Kit stood at his usual spot, the bar table at the far corner of his favorite Seven-Eleven. He stared down at his phone, and at all the unreturned calls and messages that he had sent in the past two days. Sipping on his Heineken, he let out a deep sigh.
Up at the Wakas Mess Restaurant up on the fourth floor of the Mansions, at the table by the window, Mark looked at the bits of chicken and swirls of cream in what had once been his Chicken Tikka Masala. It wasn’t as delightful as the review described it would be. The portion was small, and the chicken was dry and firm. He finished up the dregs of his nondescript beer from the clear plastic cup and pursed his lips in thought.