I‘ll always remember it as the start. The beginning of that great adventure. Walking into the most notorious building in Hong Kong for the first time on December 28 1996. The onslaught began.
“Sir, sir! Best Indian food in Hong Kong, come, come this way!”
“Mister, you like chicken masala, korma, mutton vindaloo? Mister, special price just for you!
“Guest house? Guest house, you looking for guest house? What are you looking for?”
“Handsome man, this way, this way, only 4th floor, Pakistani mess hall. Delicious Pakistani food!”
I wasn’t quite ready for this. The seventeen hour flight from London had left me shaken and thoroughly stirred. To add to my discomfort, my trousers were sporting a rather embarrassing orange juice stain over the crotch, the result of a Chinese lady next to me on the plane leaping out of her seat to get a better view from the window – as we were landing – and knocking my glass of juice all over me (I can’t really blame her over-excitement as this was, at the time, one of the most hair-raising airport landings in the world).
I fought through the gauntlet of restaurant and guesthouse touts, longing to throw down my backpack and sleep. All I had to do was reach Travelers Hostel, somewhere up on the 19th floor.
Leaving the touts to mob more unsuspecting arrivals, I looked for the elevator for Block A. My god, all those people I passed on my way into the building, that was my queue!
“Is it always like this?” I asked a sullen looking African man behind me.
“Every day man, e-v-e-r-y day. If the elevator is working, that is.”
You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany. I distracted myself by observing the chaos around me. This was Chungking Mansions, an over-populated, seedy maze of guesthouses, curry restaurants, money changers and cheap shops. As I inched closer to the elevator, I had no idea this was also Hong Kong’s most infamous center for drugs, prostitution and illegal passports (as portrayed two years earlier in the film Chungking Express by Wong Kar-wai). Looking down on us from a hill top somewhere, Ben Kenobi was telling Luke,
“You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany.”
Now standing in the humidity and garish lighting of the hallway, I had the first real chance to think since leaving home. I missed my family already, especially Danny, my five year old baby brother. He was jumping about on the sofa in the living room on the night I left, curly hair and smiles, in his pyjamas, the lounge windows black behind him. I knelt down and hugged him for the twentieth time. How could I leave him? My heart wrenched however I pushed the feeling down to a deep place (I would become good at doing that over the next few years).
And then somehow, I was almost at the front of the queue.
The elevator arrived and its contents jostled out. I counted heads and saw I’d get inside, just. We were stuffed together so tightly I felt breathing on the back of my neck.
TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ!
The elevator wasn’t happy. The last man to get in put a foot outside then gently eased it back.
TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ!
He tried again, this time stepping the whole way out and twisting himself, ever-so-carefully, back in. Everyone inside the elevator held their breath.
TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ!
Obviously there was an art to this but he just didn’t have it. With the expression of a disgraced puppy, he got out.
The doors closed and we were moving, up towards my home for the next twelve months.