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Authors: Paul Theroux

Kowloon Tong (2 page)

BOOK: Kowloon Tong

She said, "Evidently he didn't have an earthly..."

His mother was still talking but he was no longer listening. There was too much to do. Instead of the closely regulated schedule of the factory, Imperial Stitching in Kowloon Tong, the entire day had to be improvised. Bunt hated surprises, even pleasant ones. This was terrible—and worse, now everything in his life was in doubt.

And as someone who hated surprises, who was thrown by anything unplanned, Bunt had an English loathing for improvisation. Urgency made him anxious and inaccurate, and hurry left him speechless. Yet the death demanded his attention, and at the end of the day he was astonished by what he had managed to accomplish at such short notice.

He arranged for the funeral service at St. John's Cathedral, on Battery Path Road—Mr. Chuck, though Chinese, was a devout Anglican. Miss Liu at the factory took care of the flowers, and Mr. Cheung the insertion of death notices in all the papers, including the Chinese ones. Mr. Woo lowered the Union Jack on the roof of the factory to half-staff. Lily, Miss Liu's assistant, faxed some dates and club names to the
South China Morning Post
for its obituary. Bunt spent almost an hour at the Hong Kong Club with Monty, the solicitor. By late afternoon, Bunt felt he knew Mr. Chuck a great deal better. Apart from his
father's death—but Bunt was young then, just eleven—this was his first proper funeral. He realized that death produced unexpected revelations.

They believed they knew the Chinese, he and his mother, knew them especially well because they knew Mr. Chuck and Wang so well. The Chinese were frugal first of all, but not mean; they were self-denying and Spartan, strangely cheese-paring and given to binges—also capable of going mental and throwing an entire fortune away at Happy Valley or Sha Tin. In the casinos of Macao they were melancholy and self-destructive. They might seem stern the rest of the time, but it was shyness, which was another reason they didn't look you in the eye. They could be sentimental, they did not shed tears—they had much to blub about and that was probably the reason they didn't. They could be tasteless, for frugality was the enemy of fashion. They did not care, they did not complain, they were totally predictable.

Whoever said the Chinese were enigmatic might have met one Chinese person but had not met two. They were nearly always the opposite—obvious, unsubtle, unambiguous, and what was the opposite of mysterious? They carried on their lives in whispers and their business in shouts. If they wanted you to accept a present, they rammed it down your throat. The present was never an expensive thing. They liked simplicity more than ingenuity, because ingenuity costs more. But novelty that was a bargain pleased them. Children pleased them, families generally. They hardly drank. They never gave speeches. Patience and long suffering were attributed to them. No, in Hong Kong they were animated by one emotion, and that was
impatience. They were not timid—they could fight like cats. They were too shy to say it, but
Hurry up
was the angle and the statement in all their posture.

At the meeting, Monty had said, "And of course, as I told your mother, there are the Chinese relatives to consider."

And Bunt had raised his face to the man.
Chinese relatives?
Mr. Chuck had never spoken of them. He had refused to speak of China at all. That was Chinese—don't look back, don't even think about it. Mr. Chuck had come to Hong Kong in 1948 and had started Imperial Stitching with Bunt's father two years later. It was called Imperial Stitching and Labels then. Mr. Chuck had never gone back to China. Perhaps that had influenced Bunt in his not going. For many years it had been impossible, then it was merely difficult, but for the past fifteen years you had the impression that a visit to China was demanded of you. Americans went in their millions—and that convinced Bunt that he would never go, even though he was assured that he could easily manage the trip during his lunch hour.

"I've notified them," Monty said. "They will want to do something."

"I can't imagine what," Bunt said.

"And if they make demands?"

"They can get stuffed."

Chinese relatives!
Bunt saw himself with a hundred meddling Chinese partners, all named Chuck, in Imperial Stitching.

Mr. Chuck's funeral at St. John's, Central District, was a solemn affair, attended by the eighty-seven workers from Imperial Stitching, everyone except Maintenance, Mr. Woo. Some of
them seemed ill at ease in the church, others recited the prayers without glancing at the order of service.

"We're the only
" Bunt said.

"And him," his mother said, facing the pulpit, where Father Briggs stood in his frilly smock preparing to speak.

In his eulogy Father Briggs spoke of Mr. Chuck's unselfishness and generosity and the prosperity he had brought to Hong Kong through the success of the factory. It had started as a modest postwar operation and had risen with the colony. It was now a valuable asset. Each time the Mullards were mentioned by the priest, the mother and son frowned so as not to appear frivolous.

"In a very real sense," the priest intoned, "Imperial Stitching is the best of British. It
Hong Kong."

All this while, in the church, surrounded by the Chinese mourners, Bunt was imagining the Filipino girl from last night, who called herself Baby, getting down on all fours, naked, presenting her bottom and looking back at him and saying, "Let we make puppies!"

And he laughed, remembering that she had pronounced it


He recovered and said, "Poor Mr. Chuck."

The funeral procession stopped traffic, but at Pok Fu Lam a strange thing happened. Like an apparition rising from between two tenements, twenty hooded figures met the funeral cortege. They were Chinese, but like monks in white cowls—druidical and threatening, pagans ambushing Mr. Chuck's
Christian burial. Some carried banners with Chinese characters in gold, some banged gongs, some rang bells. One of the banners displayed a picture of a much younger Mr. Chuck in a black suit and starched collar and slicked-down hair. Children, also in the stiff white robes, carried stacks of fake paper money, like Monopoly money, and small combustible replicas of houses and cars, and wreaths shaped like horseshoes and archery targets.

"God help us," Betty said.

Monty spoke to the driver: "Hoot at them! Move along!"

These were the Chinese relatives. They mourned noisily and attached themselves to the big black cars from the mortician's, howling near the hearse and now ringing bells. At the cemetery they burned the tokens and the paper money. They shot off massive red clusters of firecrackers until Pok Fu Lam, the hillside like an amphitheater, was filled with smoke and the smell of gunpowder and the litter from the shredded tissue of cracker wrappers.

And then Mr. Chuck's coffin, a Christian cross riveted to the lid, was lowered into the grave, the coffin draped with garlands of flowers and the Chinese paraphernalia fashioned from red and white paper like a mass of broken kites.

After a week of suspense the will was read in the conference room of Monty's office, Brittain, Kwok, Lum & Levine, in Hutchison House. Betty and Bunt sat at the oval table, the Chinese relatives crowding around, some sitting, some standing, nearly all of them muttering.

Monty read the will in English and his partner Y. K. Kwok translated it into Cantonese. The terms were clear enough. The
relatives were to divide Mr. Chuck's personal possessions—books, home furnishings, his collection of exquisite perfume bottles, his Jaguar Vanden Plas. Mr. Chuck's cash and "instruments" (that was the word) went to various Hong Kong charities. Already the relatives were loudly protesting, but there was more. Mr. Chuck's share in Imperial Stitching went to Bunt, "as a tribute to my late partner." Except for Betty's quarter-share, Bunt was sole owner of Imperial Stitching (Hong Kong) Ltd.

On the sidewalk outside Hutchison House, Betty smiled at Mr. Chuck's Chinese relatives, most of them silent now, and said, "Look at them, they're choked."


was never simple for his mother. He was two people. Just a year before Bunt was born, Betty and George had lost their newborn son to high fever, chills. The infant Neville they nicknamed Bunt, short for Baby Bunting. She had sung to him,

Bye, baby bunting,
Daddy's gone a-hunting,
Gone to get a rabbit skin,
To wrap the baby bunting in.

Little Bunt had weakened and died. Betty wept. She said, "You know you're in a foreign country when they call a runny
tummy cholera." She had come home to an empty crib and the accumulated baby clothes in the "nursery," as they had begun to call the box room. This was in Bowen Road, where it is crossed by Borrett, their first flat. The nursery held all the visible signs of her preparation and high hopes, and she knew she was pitiable in her husband's eyes. She felt desperate to have a child—and not just another child but Baby Bunting, she wanted
back. They succeeded within the year, and so for forty-three years she often thought of Bunt as two boys, or else as a second child, another Bunt. She knew she would never let him go.

Bunt had a clear memory of the day he was told about the brother who had died.

It was at Happy Valley, a day at the races. He had gone with his mother, the amah's day off—where was Dad? He remembered the day especially because he was happier than he had ever known. He liked the tram ride: sitting on the top deck, he had seen the grandstand at the racecourse, filled with people. His mother gripped his hand and let him hold the coins for the turnstile at the front of the tram. Though he could not formulate his happiness in words, it was an intense feeling—of his mother's attention and effort, her closeness, the warmth of her body; it was love. Later, he watched her call out a horse's name, watched her cheer loudly: she had won. She collected her winnings.

Over tea in the members' enclosure she said, "Bunt, you have to be two people," and she told him why.

It was so confusing that the boy had his same name and
nickname. As a result, if his mother thought of him as two people, he thought of himself as half a person.

His father, George—"Geo would have got an M.B.E. at least, if he hadn't of died," Betty said—had never mentioned that first child, never spoke of the loss. It was not because he was indifferent or cold, as many people in Hong Kong believed George Mullard to be, but because he was passionate. Beneath his placid and usually unflappable exterior and his cry of "Mustn't grumble!" was an extremely sensitive and sentimental man. His own mother and father had been. He believed that the English took trouble to mask such emotions so as not to be a burden. Americans cried—American men blubbed all the time. George kept himself in check. He made a point of not disclosing his feelings and revealed his emotional side in only the pettiest matters: the price of postage stamps, a belittling remark about the royal family, or what he took to be wastefulness. "There's not a thing wrong with that banana. The dark spots only mean it's ripe." He opened parcels carefully and smoothed and folded the brown paper; he saved glass beer bottles and returned jingling crates of them to the brewery; he saved string, he was proud of the ball he had made.

String-saving had led him to Mr. Chuck, for Mr. Chuck also saved string. One day in Victoria Park, rolling a length of string around his hand—the lost tether of someone's kite—George had come face to face with Mr. Chuck, who was rolling the same piece of string from the opposite end. "Snap!" George cried out. Mr. Chuck gave his name as Henry. The two men, one English, the other Chinese, laughed at their predicament
and their frugality, and in that moment, seeing themselves as kindred souls, they became friends.

By then, Wing Commander G.F.S. Mullard had been demobbed and was simply "Geo," a newly married accounts clerk in the shipping department at Jardine's. Mr. Chuck had arrived not long before from China—he described himself frankly as a refugee and was grateful to the colony for allowing him entrance. He was looking for premises to start a textile factory. It was a fantasy of George's to run his own business too, and indulging this fantasy he had made a note of various vacant buildings in Kowloon. George was able to provide many suggestions, and he was fascinated when Mr. Chuck acted on them in such an unusual way. Mr. Chuck hired a Chinese geomancer to examine each site. George had expected a scowling man in bright robes with red eyes and a sorcerer's cap. The geomancer was a little smiling man with spiky hair and a rumpled suit and might have been a tram conductor. His name was Mo. In a well-made wooden box he carried a
feng shui
compass, and this he used to evaluate the sites.

With enthusiasm and obvious skill, sketching on the back of an envelope, Mr. Mo explained the spiritual energy of Hong Kong, the way it was channeled and harmonized. It was a lesson in divination, and when he had finished Hong Kong seemed to George a place of marvels. The mountains above Kowloon were nine dragons. Hong Kong itself, detached from the mainland and beautifully shaped, was the dragons' ball.

"You see
long zhu?
The ball?" Mr. Mo was making his map.

They sat in a coffee shop, George and Mr. Chuck and Mr. Mo, in Mong Kok, where Mr. Mo lived.

"We are Sons of the Dragon," Mr. Mo said, scribbling. "Sons of the Yellow Emperor."

"The meaning is that we are Chinese," Mr. Chuck said. "That is all."

Of all the sites, the one in Kowloon Tong was shown by the geomancer's compass to be right in every way. The
feng shui—
"wind-water"—was so harmonious that Mr. Mo exclaimed that this spot on Waterloo Road fitted the classical epithet for the perfect Chinese address, "the Belly of the Dragon." It was at the edge of the old
the pond where in a fabulous age the Nine Dragons had crouched to drink. The small splintery house standing there, with its dead tree and the buried bones—all dark omens—would of course have to be removed. But if the new building combined the Five Elements, and if it had no triangles in it, and it was built long and narrow, its narrow side facing north-south on the natural channel of Waterloo Road, that was as effective a conveyor of fluid vitality as a river; and if the red doors had prominent arches over them to allow the passage of that same
the flow of energy through Kowloon, then the structure on this auspicious site would bring good luck and great prosperity. In the raising of the structure, the Five Elements were incorporated into the factory building: Earth was its brick, Fire its electricity and red doors, Wood its paneling and beams, Water its mirrors and the tang beneath it, Metal its sewing machines.

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