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Authors: Paul Theroux

Kowloon Tong (8 page)

BOOK: Kowloon Tong

"Mr. Hung is not one of our local Chinky-Chonks."

"Mr. Chuck was local, but so what?"

"Mr. Chuck was a gentleman," his mother said.

The Chinese partner had acquired that status since his death.

"And a very generous man," she said. "Have another oatie, Bunt."

"I'm stuffed. Go ahead, Mum."

"I know when I've had enough," she said.

So that was it? But no: it concerned him that she said nothing more about the proposition now, because it meant that she
had more to say and was saving it for later—tomorrow, next week, all month, until the take-away. She wanted "a million quid." She would try to wear him down in order to get it. She gabbled when she was confused, but when her mind was teeming and fuddled she could not think, and she sat in an enigmatic or truculent silence, as though Bunt were to blame for her bewilderment. He was tired. When he was alone with his mother she sucked out his vitality.

And so another evening ended: chin-wag, Milo, bathroom, airing cupboard, bed.

The following day, a Saturday, Mr. Hung invited Betty and Bunt to his apartment in central Kowloon. He had something to give them, he said. "It's on the way to your building."

Bunt refused, but his mother insisted. "It's on the way to the factory." Anyway, Bunt was stopping by Imperial to pick up the mail. "And when someone offers you something, you don't fling it back in his face."

"I'll go alone," Bunt said. He felt that his mother had already been too compliant. He wanted to show Mr. Hung that he was not impressed with the proposition to buy Imperial Stitching.

Bunt could not remember a time when he had been invited to a Chinese apartment in the colony. Hong Kong people met in restaurants; they were secretive about their houses. Was it because a house and its furnishings told too much about you? Or was it the disorder, everyone in pajamas, shuffling in sandals, howling at each other, the noise of the neighbors, the squalor?

Whatever, Bunt had also agreed to go out of curiosity and for the novelty of the invitation. And Mr. Hung was right, the apartment was on the way, a ten-minute walk from Imperial.

Mr. Hung welcomed him in his designer suit with the maker's label stitched to the sleeve. The apartment was on the eighth floor of a building near Argyle Street. Out one window Bunt could see Hong Kong and the ridge above the Peak tramway where Albion Cottage stood sheltered among some trees; out the opposite window Imperial Stitching stood like an old monument on the Kai Tak flight path.


"Thanks, no. I've got to run. You mentioned you had something for my mum?"

"And you."

Bunt was glad when Mr. Hung left the room, because he wanted to take a good look at its furnishings. When someone came to Imperial to take out an order, Bunt often sent Mr. Woo down to the parking lot to have a look at the man's car—what make, what year, what condition? You could get a pretty good idea of the person's character, Chinese or British, from the car.

The white shag carpets in Mr. Hung's apartment were puzzling, and so was the glass-fronted cabinet in the parlor, with its shelves of blue china bowls and the sort of porcelain soup spoons that looked like shoehorns. When Bunt walked towards the cabinet on the uneven floor all the china rattled. The clock on the altar-like Chinese sideboard was ridiculous—fake French, standing on claw feet of fake gilt, fake wooden case,
absurd ticking. On the glass-topped coffee table sat an ashtray. Beside it was a matchbook cover:
Fatty's Chophouse.
The base of the ashtray read
Golden Dragon.
That was elegant: Hung had pinched an ashtray from a Kowloon restaurant.

To needle Mr. Hung, Bunt said, "Mr. Chuck used to eat there."

"I'm glad you are aware of that," Mr. Hung said. He was not in the least put off by Bunt's needling. Indeed, he actually seemed glad that Bunt had pointed this out.

The pilfered items only made the place seem more shoddy and impersonal, but it was like a glimpse into Mr. Hung's head, and in order to see more he said, "May I use the facilities?"

A white shag carpet in there, too. And the lid was down on the toilet bowl. One of Mr. Mo's
feng shut
instructions was: Keep the W.C. covered with its seat flap or the
will leave the building by rushing down the hole.

When he returned to the parlor he saw that Mr. Hung had set out the presents. These cheap little gifts did not impose a burden of indebtedness, they were merely symbols of generosity in a Chinese ritual of gift-giving.

A basket of fruit, including longans, lychees and mangos—very nice, but Bunt was thinking he could have bought them at the market. Candied plums. "And what's this?" Bunt wondered. Mr. Hung said, "A range of cold snacks." His mother would not touch them with a barge pole. An embroidered kitten, in silk, sealed in a large plastic lozenge. An umbrella. A pair of cushion covers. A thermos flask. "Deer Horn Embrocation." Lung Ching Tea in a gaily-colored tin caddy with a painted cover.
A wooden box, with a hinged lid, containing a bottle of
mao tai

Bunt expressed surprise and pleasure at Mr. Hung's stubborn habit of cheapness, knowing the presents would only irritate his mother. All these inexpensive gifts proved to Bunt that Mr. Hung was not to be trusted. He took them home that evening in two bags.

Betty said that she would have been more suspicious if the presents had been expensive. That would have been confusingly out of character.

"Give him a chance," she said.

"The answer is still no," Bunt said.

On Monday morning, Mr. Hung phoned Bunt at the factory.

"I was wondering whether you were free this evening for a drink."

"I don't drink on a Monday at the Cricket Club," Bunt said.

"I was hoping we might meet at a more lively venue, such as the Pussy Cat."

"Sorry," Bunt said.

Why had Hung suggested the Pussy Cat?

That same week, Mei-ping knocked softly at Bunt's office door after work. She was wearing a loose fluffy blue sweater, cashmere perhaps, that Bunt wanted to touch. She was smiling sweetly.

"Just to thank you," she said.

Bunt drew back, put his hand into his pocket. What was she talking about?

"For the jumper," she said.

And Bunt stared at the sweater, because it was the most
expensive item in her wardrobe, and because he had not given it to her.

She laughed shyly. "The Chinese man said it was your idea. Made in China." She touched the seams expertly with her fingers, finding the stitches. "It's good work."

So Hung had given it to her, and in so doing he was informing Bunt that he knew of their arrangement—their meetings after work, the secret drinking, the furtive sex—but just how did he know? It was a dreadful way to send a message, because Bunt could not tell the truth and warn Mei-ping without terrifying her about this interfering sneak.

She stood there in his office door wearing her new sweater, and Bunt became anxious again, realizing that someone knew his secret, and that it was Mr. Hung.

"Do you want me?"

"No," he said. "Please go."

"Thank you again," Mei-ping said, making him miserable. He wanted to embrace her, but he felt that Mr. Hung was watching him.

Needing a drink, he went that evening to Jack's Place and downed two whiskies. Baby the Filipino girl was there with her friend Luz. Why weren't they where they belonged, at the Pussy Cat?

"We pollow you," Luz said.

Baby said, "I think you don't like me anymore."

"I've got a lot on my mind," Bunt said.

"Nobody be perfect."
"So dance with me, Neville."

When had he told Baby his real name? He had always made a point of giving false names, and so the intrusion into his privacy alarmed him. He had two more drinks, and then he was not worried anymore. But he was puzzled when, trying to pay for his whiskies, he was told there was no charge.

"Your friend paid," Luz said.

She laughed and began dancing with Baby. Bunt, seeing the two women's exaggerated movements, watched with fascination. But he was soon panicky again. What friend?

Mr. Hung seemed to know his movements, his girlfriends, the bars he frequented. Back at Albion Cottage that night his mother waited, filling the doorway, as she always did when he was late.

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Got a cough pastille in my gob, don't I?"

She worked her teeth sideways and made a face.

"Nice jumper," he said.

"Present from our friend."

"Oh, Lord," Bunt said, and felt ill.

"You're ghastly, I knew you would be," his mother said. And then, sighing, added, "Oh, pack it in! I could do business with that man."


, his bowling night at the Cricket Club, he decided to bring the matter up with Monty, but to do so obliquely.
I have a friend who is wondering about the Hand-over
... He had never spoken about the Hand-over—what was the point? Everyone had an opinion, but no one agreed on what the final outcome would be. And nothing could be done. It was like a spell of weather that was forecast and that would soon cover Hong Kong. But this front had no end; it was a permanent change. Hong Kong was getting a new climate.

"Evening, squire."

Before Bunt could respond, Monty made a beckoning gesture. For a moment, Bunt dreaded that he might be beckoning Mr. Hung again. But no: it was an American, oddly dressed in an expensive suit and cowboy boots, a big silver buckle on his belt, a blue shirt, a loud silk tie.

"Neville, I want you to meet Hoyt Maybry, one of my colleagues just visiting from our Singapore office."

Bunt said hello. Denied a handshake, Hoyt Maybry flexed his fingers.

"Neville runs the family business."

"And what might that be?"

"Textiles," Bunt said.

"We've done some successful joint ventures," Hoyt said. "China's made a quantum leap in textiles. I'm talking top-of-the-line product. The biggest labels. They're streaking past Hong Kong."

Bunt said, "Because we don't employ children."

"Hold on," Hoyt said, because Monty was laughing. "I want to reply to that."

"Oh, belt up, I've heard it already," Bunt said. "You Yanks!"

To Hoyt Monty said, "He's teasing you."

"Hong Kong is an accident of history that is about to be rectified," Hoyt said.

"Hong Kong was doing perfectly well as a British colony," Bunt said.

"Sure. No elections. No democracy. The old school tie, old boy network," Hoyt said. "Give me a break."

Bunt said, "There was freedom here. Granted, it was a free-for-all, survival of the fittest, but it worked, and it was better than anything the Chinese will do with all their bloody policemen, or you Americans talking all your sanctimonious balls about democracy."

"The Chinese are kind of funny," Hoyt said. "The way I look at it, they're basically giving you the finger the whole time. That's Chinese philosophy—the finger."

Monty said, "There's a lot in what Hoyt is saying."

Hoyt was smiling at Bunt. He said, "So how long have you been here?"

"I was born here," Bunt said, and ignoring the American he turned to Monty. "A friend of mine has been offered a proposition from a Chinese official. I don't know all the details."

"Doesn't matter," Hoyt said. "Just do quick and dirty figures and build in a big fudge factor."

"Excuse me?" And Bunt turned back to Monty. "It goes like this. My friend's property is worth seven million. The proposition is to form a foreign company that constitutes a third party. The purchase price is pegged at nine million. The Chinese official pays nine million from his ministry's funds. The money is wired to the new company. The seller—this friend of mine—gets seven, plus a percentage of the additional money, another million or so."

Monty was listening calmly while Hoyt Maybry began to smile.

"Have you ever heard of a deal like that?" Bunt asked.

Hoyt said, "Is there any other kind of deal?"

Bunt was stung, ashamed of his innocence. But at least he had protected himself with this talk of his friend. He had given nothing away.

"There's an awful lot of money around at the moment,
tremendous liquidity," Hoyt said. "Twenty-five billion is earmarked for China in U.S. and international direct investments."

"My friend hasn't made up his mind," Bunt said. He looked squarely at Hoyt. "He says he's in it for the long haul."

"The smart money is moving out," Monty said.

"I want to see what's going to happen," Bunt said.

"There's a boom coming," Hoyt said.

"I'll tell you what's going to happen," Monty said. "In small, insidious ways the PRC will tighten the noose. Look at the schools, the lessons about the British. You think they're going to be teaching the British view of colonialism? It will be the official Chinese version of world history. Look at immigration. Who will qualify? Only the people the Chinese want. They'll boot out the rest. In business we'll all need work permits—a chit to do business. All these can be revoked."

"If a person looks a little hinky, they'll send him away," Hoyt said.

"That includes you," Bunt said, "and all the other Americans."

Monty said, "Hoyt's not American."

As though reciting a rhyme, for he had clearly said it before, Hoyt explained, "I am American. I am not

"What does that mean?" Bunt asked.

"I renounced my citizenship."

"How'd you manage that?"

"Not too hard. Went to the U.S. consulate. Signed a statement. Went home. Next day went back again, signed an Oath of
Renunciation. Handed over my passport." Hoyt hooked his thumbs into his belt. "That's how I got rich."

"I'll never turn my back on the U.K.," Bunt said.

Monty said, "Take the partners in my firm. Kwok's a Canadian. Lum's a Tongan Protected Person. Levine's a Cayman Islander. From where I am sitting in this club I can see Cape Verdeans, Belizeans, and Panamanians."

All this was news to Bunt, who saw only Englishmen, most of whom he knew.

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