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Authors: Paul Theroux

Kowloon Tong (9 page)

BOOK: Kowloon Tong
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"I've got a Guinea-Bissau passport," Hoyt said.

"Where the hell is that?"

"Not too far from Cape Verde," Hoyt said. "So I'm told."

"One of the fuzzy-wuzzy countries. That makes you a nig-nog."

"Watch it," Hoyt said.

"And you're an Israeli, I suppose," Bunt said to Monty, because he knew him to be Jewish.

"Austrian," Monty said. He was sipping at the foam on his stein of beer. "It was the Austrian consul here who proposed it. He came to me. He knew a bit of my family background." He licked at the froth on his upper lip. He said with seriousness, "I saw it as an act of atonement on their part."

"Monty, you're a Kraut?"

"Austrians aren't Krauts," Monty said. "You're thinking of Germans."

"Isn't it the same place?"

Bunt was shocked, because Monty had always spoken fondly of his father's medical practice in Whitechapel, his devotion to
his patients, Monty's own education at the London School of Economics and his office in Chancery Lane. A real Londoner, with a bowler hat and a tightly rolled umbrella, that was how he thought of Monty, while he himself was a colonial, with just a public school education at Queen's College in Hong Kong.

"Not at all," Monty said, raising his beer stein again. "I'm from a long line of Viennese intellectuals."

Bunt did not blame him, he blamed Hong Kong, the way it cut off people's roots and made them selfish and sneering and greedy and spineless, even his own mother. He made no reply. He looked around the Cricket Club and realized that these people would bolt at the first sign of trouble.

Monty said, "If your friend wants to do business, tell him to get in touch with me."

"Or me," Hoyt said.

Bunt was on the verge of saying "Which friend?" Then he remembered.

His mother had set out a fruit basket that night when he returned to Albion Cottage. Why was she so happy? A basket of fruit was a basket of fruit. At his office the next day, Mei-ping brought a basket of fruit to his office. Another one. This one had loquats, longans, mangosteens, and kiwi fruit. She held it in her pretty hands.

"The man give this to you."

"Which man?" He opened the note taped to the basket.
Please call.

"From China I think. I don't know him."

"But he knows you?"

"Maybe."

Bunt hated that equivocal "maybe," which meant that he would have to obey the suggestion in the note.

Watching Mei-ping leave his office, he was attracted to her again. There was such innocence in the way she and most women left a room, always looking a little helpless and uncertain and awkward. Most men walked swaggeringly away, as though at any moment they might turn around and snarl, but women always seemed to be retreating. Bunt often felt like seizing their skinny shoulders and dragging them down, and he hated himself for his demented rapist's fantasies.

When he rang Mr. Hung later that morning the man answered at once, snatched up the receiver—must have done—as though he had been hovering near it all week, waiting for its bell to sound.

"
Wei,
" he said, surprised into his mother tongue, and then, "Yes?"

"There is something I'd like to see you about," Bunt said, hoping to put him on the defensive.

"Thank you for returning my call," Mr. Hung said, neatly sidestepping. "I am so glad you received my message."

"I don't have a great deal of time," Bunt said.

"I have even less," Mr. Hung said. "Let's say the club at six?"

"Cricket Club?"

"Pussy Cat," Mr. Hung said, and put the phone down before Bunt could raise an objection.

Bunt could not say why he felt at a disadvantage meeting Mr. Hung this way. Yet he did—he felt unprotected. Mr. Hung was at his cheeriest and most reasonable. Perhaps that was it,
the confidence of the man, the fact that he had already insinuated himself into Bunt's life—was on excellent terms with his mother, knew Mei-ping, the mama-san, Baby and Luz, was probably intimate with Monty too. Mr. Hung had in this way taken charge.

They met coincidentally outside the club, near the shrine by the door, a devil goddess gloating in a red box, lighted by two red bulbs. Mr. Hung took no interest, but as always Bunt was mildly alarmed by it. They were shown by the mama-san to a booth in the back. Mr. Hung seemed familiar with the Pussy Cat. He greeted Wendell the barman, who gave him a hearty wave before turning back to the TV set, and that made Bunt uneasy too. No girls came near—that had to have been prearranged by Hung.

Mr. Hung said, "Drink?"

"Nothing for me," Bunt said. "I don't want any more presents, so please stop sending them."

Mr. Hung's face was in shadow, but Bunt suspected that the man was smiling grimly when he said, "I asked you to meet me here precisely because there are no more presents for you."

Bunt, who had rehearsed a denunciation of the gift-giving, was caught unprepared and did not know what to say to this.

"Not that they were especially valuable," Bunt said. "The fruit was bruised, and oddly enough we do own a thermos flask or two."

Mr. Hung said, "I think you will wish me to ignore what you have just said," and in his smiling, sneering way he sounded very sinister. But how could he be a threat, this stranger?

"Listen," Bunt said. "We're very happy with our company and premises. We have no intention of selling."

"I know that," Mr. Hung said. "But there are several things you do not know."

The music in the club was rather loud. It stimulated Bunt to the point where he wondered whether it would do any good to shout at Mr. Hung, as the singer was shouting now.

"One is that if you do not sell, you will not be happy next year."

"You know that, do you?"

"Yes. I will be in a position to make you unhappy."

Bunt had been right, Mr. Hung had come here attempting to threaten him, and he trembled with anger at the arrogance of the Chinese intruder.

"I don't have to listen to this, mate."

"But you would be wise to listen."

"Uttering menaces is a crime under English law. I could have a constable over here from Lai Chi Kok, and you'd be in stir."

"I don't think so. After all, we're in a club where you are well known for drunkenness and much more. Would you want that to become known?"

"You're trying to threaten me."

"Not at all," Mr. Hung said. "After the thirtieth of June next year I will be in Hong Kong in an official capacity, which is the acquisition of strategic sites for the People's Liberation Army. Next year it will not be a suggestion but a command, an order which you will obey."

The mocking music played loudly and now there were people dancing, the prostitutes and the
gweilos,
Baby, Luz, the others.

"I'll take my chances," Bunt said.

"The price will be much less. We will provide our own assessment of the value of your site."

"See if I care."

"The sale will be enforced by military decree. The price will be fixed. And we might decide to pay you in renminbi. You will be able to spend it in China but nowhere else."

Bunt said, "You
are
threatening me."

"I am telling your fortune," Mr. Hung said.

That stopped Bunt cold. Now he wished, twisting his hands, that he had a drink.

"If you don't accept a substantial profit now in hard currency, you will receive less next year in yuan. Either way you will sell—willingly now, or next year under pressure. It is not a choice. It is merely a matter of time. The rice is cooked."

"I think you're bluffing. How do I know you're a high official?"

"Instead of asking whether you know me, consider how much I know about you," Mr. Hung said. "I know of your relationship with Mei-ping and the Filipino girl. Wendell is a so-called Eurasian."

"What's that got to do with anything?"

Hung said, "I am showing you that I am well acquainted. I also know that you have a separate bank account that even your mother is not aware of. I know the balance in it. I know that you have mislabeled some of your goods—"

"Everyone does that," Bunt said, hoping to stop him.

"And you have kept the proceeds, which means an irregularity on your tax returns. British tax returns, of course. But next year they will be Chinese tax returns. In China embezzling is a crime against the people. Embezzlers are given a short trial and then shot in the back of the head. Shall I go on?"

"Don't bother."

"Next year you will be begging to sell."

Mr. Hung had almost convinced him. Bunt was terrified by what the man knew.

Bunt said, "Next year you won't make a profit."

"Neither will you," Mr. Hung said. "Do you see why it is so necessary that we become partners?"

"I don't want to be your partner. I don't like you. In fact, I hate you," Bunt said. "You're a spotty bottom."

Now Bunt was certain that Mr. Hung was smiling. "That is irrelevant," he said. "You probably don't like your employees either. But they do their work, so you pay them."

It was what Bunt had often felt, it was something his mother had said out loud. How did Mr. Hung know it?

"A woman you have sex with is one that you need, not one that you love," Mr. Hung said.

Again it was like a glimpse into his heart, and Bunt was ashamed and fearful.

"I am telling you that you need me," Mr. Hung said.

"You need me too!"

Mr. Hung jerked his head sideways at Bunt's shout, and his face caught a bit of light from the dance floor. His smile, the worst feature of his face, rattled Bunt badly.

"Think of yourself."

It was what everyone said. But this man was different. For the first time Bunt was hearing this solemn truth from a Chinese person who claimed to be a government official.

"You have no future here."

Bunt was not wholly convinced. But something else took hold of him, the certainty that next year and in the future there would be more men like this—smiling, pestering, threatening, insinuating, and enforcing the law, all the new clauses about subversion and disloyalty. This was the future of Hong Kong, a Chinese system of threats and bribes and crookery, whispers of dire consequences in disreputable places like this. And it would be like the old system, except that he would not be a U.K. citizen in a British colony anymore, he would be a U.K. citizen in a Chinese Special Administrative Region. He would be the ultimate
gweilo.

Bunt stared across the table in this shadowy booth. In the uncertain light of the Pussy Cat, Hung's face had the malign expression of the devil goddess in the red box by the door, the mama-san's shrine, with a bright fruit in a bowl as an offering. Next year there would be more diabolical men like Mr. Hung, and he knew he would hate them all. He would want out.

He said, "I'll have to ask my mother."

"Your mother has already agreed to the terms."

Hung was right about her, too.

Bunt hurried out of the Pussy Cat. He would not have minded being seen with a prostitute, but he did not want to be seen leaving with Mr. Hung.

Monty did not seem surprised when Bunt told him of his decision. They used the conference room of Brittain, Kwok,
Lum & Levine in Hutchison House. A holding company was formed in the Cayman Islands. They called it Full Moon, because on the day of its formation the moon was full over Kowloon Tong. The price of Imperial Stitching was fixed at nine million Hong Kong dollars: seven million for the site, two million to be split evenly between Mr. Hung and the Mullards, mother and son.

"The total ticket will be eight, squire."

Bunt said, "Just don't tell the employees."

7

A
S SOON
as he had agreed to the sale to Mr. Hung of Imperial Stitching, Bunt felt miserable and regretted it. The money was huge, but the money did not really matter, and even the word "million" was no consolation. His mind was unsettled by the thought of Mr. Hung's bony face and crooked smile, and he kept seeing him as he saw him in the booth, with a sinister shadow across his eyes, like the vindictive squint of a Chinese idol. This one could not be propitiated with a ripe orange or a cluster of smoldering joss sticks. Mr. Hung's message was
Do as I say or you're finished.
So it was not the money, it was the threat.

Bunt told himself over and over,
I had no choice.

It was as if, even before any negotiation, Hung had regarded himself as owner of the factory and would not consider any alternative, and Bunt had to face the fact that he would have to hand it over. But the idea that Mr. Hung was forcing him to do it began to rankle.

Unexpectedly, his mother's happiness made him more miserable. It was not just the money, "a million quid," it was also that in selling the factory she had managed to take long-overdue revenge on her husband, whom Bunt now realized she hated. He keenly recalled her saying, "But I do apportion blame."

She was suspicious and overprotective of Bunt because he was so much like his father. Now Bunt understood his father's life, his mother's resentment. She could not forgive George his dalliances with his Chinese workers or his indiscretions with the Filipino bar hostesses, the sneaking into "chicken houses" and "phoenix rooms," the massage parlors, the blue hotels, the lame explanations. And what did she know of the mama-san?

"He made a fool of me," Betty said.

The prospect of ready money emboldened her and made her vengeful. She had never comprehended credit or interest payments or paper profits, or even a bankbook stamped with numbers, but the notion of a brick of rose-colored Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank notes, secured with brown tape, in her handbag, three inches of cash smelling of fresh ink, gave her a sense of power and something like renewed health.
That's what I need, Bunt, a bit of encouragement from the Honkers and Shankers.

"He had an eye for the ladies, that one," she said. "Always out on the tiles."

Bunt was silent, cringing inwardly. Talking that way about his father, she was also talking about him.

The deal with Mr. Hung had been eagerly struck on her part. No threat had been needed to persuade her. She had been surprised and grateful, and yet this creepy man from the mainland with his good command of English still worried Bunt. For Bunt, Hung was a scarecrow. His mother had been greatly motivated in the deal by revenge against her husband, although she always protested that she loved her husband, and by money—she who had no use for money.

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