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Authors: Paul Theroux

Kowloon Tong (10 page)

BOOK: Kowloon Tong

It was always the poor who had the most unrealistic notions of money. Bar girls were capable of making insane demands, when they made demands. "I need ten thousand," Baby had said to him once, and he had just laughed. She believed she had power over him, that her sexual virtuosity had bewitched him. It arose from "Let we make fuppies." Each time he requested it, she would hesitate and say, "I let you do it to me all the time when we get to England." Once, as though to tempt him, she had shown up at the Pussy Cat wearing a leather dog collar around her neck. That would be his reward for her doggy tricks: in return for her bending over, he would look after her, and her mother, and her sister, and perhaps others, for the rest of their lives. But he was not a slave to sex. The act was brief and all he wanted afterward was to be alone with a pint of beer and a plate of greasy chips or a bacon sandwich.

When hard-up people named a figure it was always absurd—sometimes a pittance, more often a fortune. And they were just as silly in talking about houses or cars. "Why you don't have a Mercedes-Benz?" Luz asked him one rainy night—he
was giving her a lift—jeering at his aged Rover. Luz was from Manila, city of bangers and jitneys. These people were single-minded and credulous, and you could never please them, and that was why a million was meaningless, just funny money.

He suspected that of Mr. Hung, who could not possibly ever have had money. The whole point about the Chinese until just the other day was that every one of them was equally broke and pathetic. Bunt hated doing business with upstarts, but of course they were all financial geniuses now. China was the country of the future, and they hadn't really spent forty-five years on their bony knees screeching socialist hymns and worshiping plaster statues of Chairman Mao.

In his baggy pants Mr. Hung somewhat resembled Chairman Mao. That might have provoked his mother to make the deal. Betty despised Hong Kong, but she despised China too. Selling the company and the site and clearing out was like an act of revenge on the workers (who she said were ungrateful) and on Mr. Hung (whom she believed she was cheating). But Bunt also suspected that had she been pressed for a reason, all she would have admitted by way of an explanation would have been,
Well, George was a snake, wasn't he?
My husband had an eye for the ladies, blast him.

Worse than anything was Bunt's growing certainty that she took pleasure in the knowledge that he had been threatened. Her own threats never worked on him, but Hung had succeeded. Somehow, she knew: Mr. Hung must have told her. What she had done eagerly, Bunt had done under pressure: she had been enriched, he had been broken. That he found hard to live with—his own mother gloating over his misery.

Now it was all done, or nearly so. The details of the deal were being worked out.

In the meantime, Mr. Hung insisted on celebrating. The Chinese businessman—was he?—seemed determined to host a party, yet it was premature and inappropriate, for what Bunt felt more and more was the man's betrayal, which was something to regret. Bunt refused Hung's repeated invitations.

Everything had happened so quickly. One week he had met Mr. Hung at the Cricket Club and turned his offer down flat.
Don't even think about it. You'll just make yourself miserable.
Less than a month later he had agreed to sell the company and, pending the setting up of a holding company in the Cayman Islands, he had all but signed. Imperial Stitching was his legacy, it represented his entire capital, in the only home he had ever known. In one stroke he was about to lose his company, his home, and his mother too, for only with the sudden death of Mr. Chuck and the arrival of Mr. Hung did he realize how much she had resented her husband, Bunt's father.

The prospect of the deal induced in him a mood of grief—not the celebration Hung wanted. Bunt was still lugubriously enduring it. Later perhaps, when the money was in his account, he might raise a glass in a grim toast, but for now it seemed something to mourn.

Still he went to the office every day, and what had seemed to him a monotonous duty became like a ritual of farewell that, as the days passed, made him sadder: he knew he was leaving the comforting walls of Imperial and facing a future elsewhere. Bunt, who had never lived anywhere but Hong Kong, was leaving Hong Kong for good. And he was abandoning his workers
—"our family," Mr. Chuck used to call them—leaving them to an uncertain fate, handing them over like the machines and the inventory of cloth and cotton reels.

Why was his mother so cheered by the idea of leaving? He did not know, but of course she had been raised in Balham, and she had worked at the Army and Navy, she had memories. London was real to her in a way that Hong Kong had never been. Perhaps that was it: she was going home while Bunt was being cast adrift. The British in Hong Kong talked about Britain—"the U.K."—often, but in a mood of insincere nostalgia, the way they reminisced about childhood or the war. Britain was like that, a dim memory that could never be verified or revisited.

Though the British were glad to have it to talk about and were too loyal to mention that it was shameful and dreary, no one really wanted to go back to Britain. They had been liberated by Hong Kong, they had money and a sense of the exotic, they were superior here. Going home meant defeat—snubs and meagerness and middle-class making do. The trouble was that the idea of England was easier to sustain the farther they were from the place.

These days, in a mood of serving out an allotted span of time, Bunt kept away from his usual haunts. He was too sad. He did not want to be near the loud music, the hilarity, the persistent questions at the Pussy Cat. If he told Baby or any of the other Filipinos he was leaving for London, they would want to go with him and bring their families—mother, father, sisters, brothers.

Leaving the MTR subway station at Jordan one morning, he
bumped into the mama-san. Seeing her in daylight was like seeing a lump of ectoplasm emerge from a parallel world—pale, popeyed, with claw-like fingers and a tentative way of walking.

"Why you no come to the club?"

He did not know what reason to give, because fear was the reason he felt.

"I'm sick," he said.

It was the worst answer he could have given. The mama-san looked at him sourly, as though he were the source of a dangerous infection, and she said no more. Her Chinese attitude towards disease, based mainly on superstition, verged on horror.

Later Mei-ping visited him discreetly in his office. She looked innocent and plain, even shapeless in her factory overalls and hair net, but he knew the sweetness of her slender body and small bones, her pretty neck, her boy's bum.

"Yes?" he said, on his guard because she might have another message from Mr. Hung.

"Do you want me?" she asked.

He had to say no. It made him sad to look at her, and he could not bear to hear her offer herself this way.

She hesitated but did not leave. She said, "Can we go out to the pictures?"

Once they had seen a film together.
Lethal Weapon.
The violence had frightened her.

"Or music?"

Perhaps she was remembering the times he had taken her to the Pussy Cat and they had sat there and watched the topless
dancers; perhaps she knew that it had put him in the mood. But when had she ever so bluntly suggested it?

Bunt said, "I don't feel well."

"Maybe I can make you feel better." She smiled, she winced: it was the same expression.

He was shocked by her directness.

"No problem," she said.

It was what a bar girl in the Pussy Cat might say, encouraging him to step into a back booth, or a leering woman in a karaoke lounge. Perhaps he had had a hand in encouraging Mei-ping to behave like that? He had made this simple woman into a tart.

She went to the door but not to leave, only to close the door, then she dropped to her knees before him and looked imploringly up at him, slipped off her hair net and let her black hair fall to her shoulders. Her face was upturned in submission.

Bunt struggled to move his legs together. He was so fuddled by Mei-ping that he motioned meaninglessly with his hands and said, "Was there anything else?"

The kneeling woman was still staring hungrily at him.

"I need a passport, mister," she said, and took hold of the back of his legs as though boarding a tram, gripping the handles beside the door.

Bunt was rigid, his knees went numb, his feet got pins and needles. He had no way of securing a passport for her, or of speeding the lines at Immigration Tower.

"I'll try to see you right," he said.

"You can help me, mister," she said.

She touched him between his legs, and though it was affectionate, no more than teasing him, he reacted in terror, as if she had threatened him with castrating claws.

"Please," he said, but could not manage anything else.

"Just saying hello to my friend," she said.

Of all the many things that killed his desire, humor—and especially shallow jokes like this—flattened it the quickest and left it dead for a long time. He could tell her heart was not in it.

"So sorry," she said. She now understood how badly she had misjudged him and how she had failed.

She was lonely, she was desperate, she was clumsy and inept, and it was all his fault. When she finally left his office, her hair net in her hand, he wanted to weep with frustration. And then, with her out of sight, he desired her, he wanted her back, he could not understand why he had rejected her. He hurried downstairs and into the street to search for her. He saw her at the bus stop with her friend from Cutting, Ah Fu. He wondered what Mei-ping had told her. The two young women, so sweet, so lost: Mr. Hung had made him abandon them.

He said, "Mei-ping, I wonder if I might have a word with you."

"Not today," she said. "I have to go home."

He deserved that for what he had put her through.

Driving home, he detoured through Wanchai, telling himself that he was just looking. When he saw a parking space he stopped, telling himself that he was just curious. He found himself outside a club, La Bamba, advertising half-price drinks and no admission charge, and telling himself it was free, he went upstairs. The place was dark and loud music was playing.
Various women approached him, saying hello. When his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness he saw a dozen Filipino girls dancing with each other and beckoning to him. Bunt told himself that this never happened in Kowloon Tong, not so obvious as this, all those dark eyes and twitching buttocks he thought of as Hong Kong promises.

"What's yours?"

Backing away from the dance floor, he was jostled towards the bar. He ordered a beer and was charged twice as much as it would have cost in the Pussy Cat.

"Hey, it's you again," the man next to him said. "Welcome to the Wanch."

The man wore a black shirt and aviator sunglasses and stood with his elbows on the bar. His back was to the dancers, but perhaps he was looking at their reflections in the mirror behind all the whiskey bottles.

Bunt said, "Do I know you?"

"You're Monty's friend," the man said, and groped at Bunt alarmingly at the level of his waist, trying to shake his hand. "Hoyt Maybry."

"I was just leaving," Bunt said.

"Have a beer," Hoyt said. He shouted, because the music was so loud.

"Thanks. I've got one."

Still shouting—and the shouting made him sound insincere—Hoyt said, "We don't have any of this in Singapore. You know our big man? Lee Kwan Yew? Hitler with a heart, I call him."

Bunt guzzled his beer. He hated drinking from the bottle, but
Wanchai was the sort of district where it wasn't done to ask for a glass.

Hoyt said, "Listen to your friend Monty. You should get yourself a new passport. Cape Verde Islands is a great one."

"Thanks for the advice, but I'm not planning to renounce my U.K. citizenship just yet." As he said this, Bunt realized he sounded prissy. But the nerve of the man!

"I did it," Hoyt said. "And I'm an American."

"I suppose it's ever so much harder for an American to chuck his passport."

"You better believe it."

Now Bunt was angry, and was edging away. It would not be difficult to do in this darkness. He could not see the American's eyes through his dark glasses, but he could see the man's smile, and feeling self-conscious about starting to flee, Bunt tried to think of something to say, to fill the moment of awkwardness.

He said, "What are you doing here anyway?"

"Bottom feeding." The man had not hesitated.

"Excuse me?" Before hearing the bewitching expression, Bunt had seen only the swaying bottoms of Filipinos wearing blue jeans on the dance floor.

"This place is going to change a lot," Hoyt was saying, gesturing in the dark. At first Bunt thought he was talking about La Bamba, but no. "Hong Kong, with the Chinese running the show? Big changes."

Americans ignorantly lecturing him on Hong Kong were as numerous as, and only faintly less preposterous than, Americans lecturing him on China. His mother just said, "Yanks!"
and laughed, but he had come to see them as dangerous bores and buccaneers.

"It doesn't much matter, does it?" Bunt said, because mentally he was beginning to move out.

"Sure it does. There'll be crime and corruption, backhanders all over the place, police on the take, child labor, pitiful wages, probably whorehouses up and down Central." Hoyt sucked at his beer and said, "All bargains. It'll be beautiful."

The next day and for several succeeding days, Mr. Hung phoned to advise him of the progress of the deal. Checks were being prepared, the name given to the new company account, Full Moon, was registered in the Cayman Islands—"Where exactly are the Cayman Islands?" Bunt asked Monty, who had replied, "On the Tropic of Cancer, I believe"—and Mr. Hung repeated his invitation to celebrate.

"Celebrate" meant summon witnesses, snap pictures, swap crummy presents, laugh insincerely, eat a revolting meal, close the deal, sign the papers.

"I'm busy," Bunt said.

Sick, busy, helpless—those were his lame excuses, but the truth was sadder: he was dying inside, losing his business and his home, losing his mother, who had turned on him and on Hong Kong.

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