Authors: Paul Theroux
Imperial Stitching started a year later. Mr. Chuck put up most of the money. Using all his savings as his investment, and the promise of his work, George became Mr. Chuck's partner. It helped that George was British, too, since Imperial Stitching
specialized in uniformsâschool uniforms, chauffeurs' jackets, concierges' frock coats, matrons' whites, nurses' smocksâthe sort of items the colonial government ordered in large numbers when George's bid on a government tender got a favorable response. The factory employed two hundred workers, mostly women, and also made shirts, slacks, simple dresses, and underwear. Mr. Chuck bought some machinery in Japan that did elaborate embroideryânames, designs, monograms, name tapes, labels, insignia for club ties and flags, badges of all sortsâand the company became Imperial Stitching and Labels (Hong Kong) Ltd. It was well known in the colony for fashioning the complex badges for the breast pockets of English club blazers.
Mr. Chuck had fled China in 1948, a year of military defeats. He never spoke of China, he would not listen to anything about it. George Mullard was grateful for being spared descriptions of disappointment and terror and loss. He hated hearing of events that could not be reversed. The factory was new, the friendship was new, there was no shortage of orders. Mr. Chuck and Mr. Mullard were alike in their unwillingness to look back and, new to Hong Kong, they had a sense of freedom as well as the restless impatience of so many others there in the colony of loose rules and no taxes.
When, a year after Imperial started, Betty lost the baby, Mr. Chuck said nothing specific, though his sympathy was apparent in everything he did. George silently thanked him for that; he would have found a show of sorrow, or any expression of it, unbearable. He surmised that, like himself, the Chinese man was also too emotional to mention anything so sad as the death of a child. Perhaps Mr. Chuck had known such a bereavement?
Soon Betty was pregnant again. But that was not enough; she had been pregnant before. The child had to live. Bunt was bornâNeville George Mullardâhe was healthy, as boisterous as two children. Mr. Chuck sent presents and, later, in various ways indulged the boy. They called him Uncle. They knew nothing of his personal life. Mr. Chuck was apparently unmarried, apparently childless.
The partnership flourished because of the distance, the politeness, the respectful silences. The two men were inquisitive, but they were discreet and courteous, and so they remained friends. Though there was a world of difference between themâthe Chinese man, the English manâand they knew it, they also believed they had a great deal in common, and not just the factory but many principles, much sympathy andâsomething they felt deeply but a word they never usedâheart.
Looking on in knee socks, wearing a school uniform from his father's factory and carrying a satchel of books, was Bunt. Other children were sent back to England for their education. They talked of going on home leave, of school allowances, of London. But George's business was local. There were no perks, no annual leaves, no passages, no pensions. That was Hong Kong. He was like Mr. Chuck, like so many of the Chineseâhe was on his own.
Bunt was taken by his mother on the bus and the tram from home to school, Queen's, in Causeway Bay. And the lonely woman met him after school; she waited by the great iron gate in Tung Lo Wan Road, near the iced-lolly seller who sat by his barrow. She took him home and watched him have his tea, prepared by his amah, Jia-Jia, served by Jia-Jia's son, Wang.
It was an embarrassment to Bunt, years later, to hear his mother relate his first words, which were Hokkien. "Nee-nee," he had said, pointing, then clutching with chubby fingers. The word meant "breasts." Jia-Jia taught him many other words. She claimed the child was fluent in Hokkien.
"Takes after me," Betty said, and roared, and coughed. She was smoking then.
Bunt's fears and prejudices were all derived from Wang. Wang hated root vegetables, and black hats, and milk in his tea; he left his shoes outside and wore plastic sandals in the house; he regarded ice in his drinks as unhealthy; he had a hatred of bodily hair and pig fat; certain insects made him ill, though he had no fear of rats. Bunt shared all these feelings and more. He choked on corn silk, believing it was human hair. Melted cheese he mistook for white fat cut from pig meat and he was sick. He had Wang's horror of maggots, and any odd-looking rice grain provoked his fear and he was violently ill. He was not always such a sad and fearful boy, but often when he had been young he looked like a little old man.
When he was very young his father had given him a toy telephone and taught him to dial the emergency number for the police.
"Now say, 'I want to speak to a
"I want to speak to a
Meeting him after school one day, Betty did not take Bunt home but to the hospital, where his father lay propped on pillows. His father's face was yellow. He gasped, attempting to speak. His fingers were bony and cold when he took Bunt's hand. That night his father died. The funeral service was
gloomy and ponderous and confusingâso many strangers, when all Bunt wanted was to be alone. Mr. Chuck was there, white-faced, looking stunned.
That same week, a race week, Betty took the boy to Happy Valley. She held betting slips, she watched the horses, but she said nothing. Was she losing?
Over tea Betty said, "I do wish you would try it with milk, just once," and then, "You're not a little boy anymore."
A race was being run. Through the seat of his chair Bunt could feel the horses' hooves striking the turf. A plummy English voice, talking very fast, was describing the race: "
And coming up on the outside...
"Now you have to take Daddy's place," his mother said.
...and in the home stretch...
"You have to be the daddy now."
Mr. Chuck, loyal in his actions even though he had never said much, resolutely dealt with the death. "Uncle" was his honorific, but his manner was also avuncularâbenign, uncritical, concerned, helpful, practical, loving. He was attentive to Betty in an almost brotherly way, and towards Bunt was like the most tactful stepfather. There was nothing of his Hong Kong manner in his relations with Betty and Bunt. The man was patient, but Betty trusted him with her son as she trusted Wang and Jia-Jia. She saw no inconsistency. She still did not like Chinese people: she laughed at them, said they made her weary, said "We're working for them!" And she never stopped calling them "Chinky-Chonks."
She could see that Mr. Chuck was bringing the boy along. He called him Neville and served as Bunt's protector. Bunt needed
protection. The riots of 1967 were nightmarish, violent, unexpected. Imperial Stitching suffered, orders could not be met, and the workers were threatened. Some were suspected of having sympathy for the demonstrators, but Mr. Chuck, who understood the frenzy, defended them, saying they had been intimidated. The fright passed, though windows had been broken in the building, and slogans painted on the walls at ground level. The disruption had been generalâthe factory was not being singled out. Yet the name Imperial Stitching seemed to excite the anger of some demonstrators, turning them into rioters. The sign above the entrance was pulled down twice, and the flag was torn from its pole and set alight in Waterloo Road.
On earning his School Certificate in 1969, Bunt began to be trained at the factory by Mr. Chuck. Bunt knew that he was carrying on his father's work, and he did not object. He was used to burdensâthere was, after all, his dead brother, whose life he seemed to be living too. Bunt was just sixteen. He was a worried child and then a worried adult, and except for his school friend Corkill he hardly remembered his strange accelerated boyhood.
Hong Kong was risingâmore buildings, more roads, more settlement. Every year Mr. Mo, the geomancer, showed up with his wooden box and took readings with his compass. "Very good," he said, pronouncing the
still in excellent balance. Sometimes Mr. Mo made suggestions for improvementsâdirections for moving desks and machines and stools. He said, "If you want change in your life, move twenty-seven things in your house." When the viaduct was built, cutting Kowloon in half, Mr. Mo said the factory was saved by its
alignment with an overpass. "A lot of old rope," Betty said, but secretly she was pleased, treating Mr. Mo's readings as compliments. Bunt said nothing, because in his heart Bunt believed.
In time, Mr. Chuck came to work less and less, and depended on Bunt to run the business. It was not difficult for Bunt: the workers were so responsible, so hardworking and thorough, that they needed little supervision. Bunt continued to keep office hours, and he developed yet another life.
Imperial Stitching was near the train station in Kowloon Tongâon the main line to Lo Wu, to Shum Chun, to China. He had never boarded that train, but its proximity meant there were many bars and blue hotels in the area. Blue hotels were short-time places, one step up from knocking shops. There were massage parlors, there were topless clubs, more recently there were karaoke bars. There were upstairs apartments partitioned into cubiclesâyou could hear rusty bedsprings oinking in the next stallâcalled chicken houses,
Bunt knew the expression, and though he could not read a word of Chinese, he easily learned to recognize the black strokes of the four characters hastily painted on the red banner,
which meant "new girl from north," fresh meat. In other places, self-employed tarts worked from home:
yet lau, yet feng
âone room, one phoenix. It was legal, because no pimp was involved, just a working girl, a phoenix.
Wang made sandwiches for him. His mother packed them in his lunch pail. Bunt ate them in the clubsâin the Pussy Cat, the Lilac Lounge, the Good Time, Bottoms Up, Fat-Fat Chong's, Happy Bar, and Jack's Place. Even at noon they were open, and though they were usually empty they were ready for business.
"You want a chicken?" the mama-san would say to Bunt as he ate his cheese and pickle sandwiches at the bar. The woman was matter-of-fact, she did not leer, there was no archness in her tone. That helped. A wink or any suggestion of it would have undone him. In the very beginning he had thought she meant food, and he was hungry, he said yes. Upstairs he was too shy to admit his mistake, and so he was helped, panting, his eyes popping, by an experienced woman with skinny thighs. She complimented him on his performance, he was young enough to believe her, and that was his initiation.
Mentioning to the mama-san in the Pussy Cat who he wasânaming Imperial Stitchingâshe hinted broadly that she had known his father. No one went to such a place casually. You had to be alert and purposeful, although it was always a mistake to seem so. But his father?
Bunt found a way of mentioning this to his mother. He laughed, he shrugged, he said, "I don't apportion blame."
"I do apportion blame," she said, coughing in her fury. "He had an eye for the ladies."
Bunt did not think less of the man. On the contrary, it seemed to him as though in his lunchtime visits to the Pussy Cat and Happy Bar and Jack's he might be carrying on a family tradition.
The girls were Chinese, they were Filipino, they were Vietnamese, now and then Eurasians; they were mostly young, they were very pretty, it was so easy. And if you lived with your mother, and your mother was Betty Mullard, they were a necessity. They made no claims on him, they asked for very little, and the mama-san got more than half. This was not Wanchai or
Tsim Sha Tsui, in the ridiculous clubs haunted by local
and tourists, overpriced, hurry up, mister, only tree tousand. This was home.
So, like his father, he had a secretâperhaps the only thing his mother did not know, and this was important to him. It was his only strength. He wanted to tell Mr. Chuck, because he suspected that the old man knew anywayâthe Chinese said nothing and seemed to know everythingâbut as Bunt stumblingly started to confess, Mr. Chuck stopped him. He always remembered how Mr. Chuck had cautioned him.
"A secret is only a secret if you keep it." And Mr. Chuck smiled.
Years later Bunt understood the man's wisdom. By then he was frequenting the chicken houses and karaoke lounges in Mong Kok, where
never went. The encounters were brief, frantic, hurried, mostly silent, because he had to get back to the office or back to his mother. And though they were experienced in not showing it, the girls were in a great hurry too.
One day in Kowloon Tong, in the Pussy Cat, Bunt saw Mr. Chuck in a back booth, his reflection in a mirror. The girl beside him looked familiar tooâshe was almost certainly one he himself had been with. Bunt understood the old man better that day. You could say anything to these girls, or nothing. Down at the Cricket Club he had heard men speaking of bar girls and complaining, "They have no feelings." Precisely. That was their greatest virtue, that they made no claims, no demands, had no hopes. They were the happy hello-goodbye of urgent sex. It was not about them, but about your own pleas
ure. They reserved their feelings for other matters. The workers at Imperial Stitching and Labelsâsay, one of those pretty girls, Mei-ping or Ah Fuânever said they didn't like the job, nor did they say they liked it; they simply sat down and did it. They were paid, they performed, they were gone, like the girls in the bars. They did their work, and they would do almost anything that was asked of them. Their greatest skill was in vanishing at the end and leaving Bunt to himself. He preferred the simplest, most silent girls. He hated all talk. Humor he felt to be out of place in any sexual encounter. It made him feel self-conscious and silly. He disliked the Filipino girlsâwhose English was usually goodâfor attempting jokes.
Mei-ping was so pretty. She was a good worker too. One day she was in his office past quitting time, going over a badge pattern. "I don't want to keep you." She had lingered. "It's okay, mister." She was seated on his sofa. He left his desk and sat beside her. He touched her, he kissed her. "Do you like that?" She had said nothing. Nothing meant yes. In that Hong Kong way, Mei-ping became one of his lovers.