“If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.” – He Zhiwu, Cop 223, from the film Chungking Express.
On December 28, 1996, I entered Hong Kong’s most notorious building for the first time. The onslaught began.
“Sir, sir! Best Indian food in Hong Kong, come, come this way!”
“Mister, you like chicken masala, korma, mutton vindaloo? Special price just for you!”
“Guest house? Guest house, you looking for guest house? What you looking for?”
I wasn’t prepared for this. The seventeen hour Gulf Air flight from London had left me shaken and stirred. To add to my discomfort, my trousers sported an embarrassing stain over the crotch, thanks to the Chinese lady next to me on the plane who, in her excitement to get a better view out of the window during landing, had knocked my cup of orange juice all over me.
Fighting through the gauntlet of restaurant and guesthouse touts, I longed to throw down my 50 liter backpack and sleep. All I had to do was reach Travelers Hostel, somewhere up on the 19th floor. Re-checking my Lonely Planet for the hostel address, I found the correct elevator and almost immediately collapsed when I saw the horrendous queue.
“Is it always like this?” I asked the African man behind me.
“Every day man, e-v-e-r-y day. If the elevator is working, that is.”
As I settled in for the wait, I distracted myself by observing the scene around me. This was Chungking Mansions, an over-populated, seedy maze of guesthouses, curry restaurants, money changers and cheap luggage shops. As I inched closer to the elevator doors, I had no idea this was also Hong Kong’s most infamous center for drugs, prostitution and illegal passports (as portrayed two years earlier in the film Chungking Express by Wong Kar-wai). From a hill-top somewhere, Ben Kenobi was telling Luke,
“You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
Now, dripping sweat under the dull green lighting of the hallway, I had my first chance to think since leaving home. I missed my family already, especially my little brother Danny. He was bouncing on the living room sofa the night I left, curly hair and smiles, in his pyjamas, the windows black behind him. I hugged him for the twentieth time. How could I leave him? My heart wrenched but I pushed the feeling down (I would become good at doing that over the next few years).
And then, I was almost at the front of the queue.
The elevator arrived and its contents jostled out. I counted heads and saw I’d get inside, just. We were stuffed together so tightly I could feel breathing on the back of my neck.
TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ!
The elevator wasn’t happy. The last man to get in poked a foot outside then tentatively eased it back.
TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ!
He tried again, this time stepping the whole way out and twisting himself, ever-so-carefully, back in. Everyone held their breath.
TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ! TCCHHZZZZ!
With a face like a disgraced puppy, the man got out. At last the doors closed and the elevator began slowly moving upwards, in a worrying rattling and shaking fashion. I closed my eyes and let myself be swallowed by my nervousness. Little did I know that what I’d find on the 19th floor would change my life forever. Or that I’d be taking this elevator ride every day for the next twelve months.