The drums were beating, echoing off the concrete pavilions and out across the black water. On the other side of the harbour, below a rose-gold, electric sky, the skyscrapers looked down like gods.
People had been gathering for the last few hours and standing room by the harbour wall had disappeared – he was glad he’d come early. Behind the crowd barrier, policemen in khaki drill uniforms talked with hard expressions. A black and grey patrol boat motored past with a primitive roar, making the hairs on his neck tingle. It’s really happening, he thought.
19 floors later, the elevator doors opened and I stepped out into Travellers Hostel. Exhausted, I hardly noticed being checked in and being led down a blue and yellow corridor to my room. John The Book’s room.
I almost choked on the smell as I entered. In the room were two metal bunk beds, an overhead fan and a clothing rack jammed with shirts, belts and other clothing. A small window let in a dull, orange light. Three of the four bunks were unoccupied, but the remaining bed was covered with books. Stuffed below and around the bed as well, piles of damp and rotting books. I could see the stained covers, ruined spines and broken, yellow pages. The smell of mould was putrid and overpowering. As I said, this was John The Book’s room.
A drop of water landed on his nose. With that, umbrellas popped up over the crowd. The drums beat faster; a carnival mood was rising. A small yacht sailed past, close to the harbour wall, and four men standing on-deck turned, pulled down their shorts to bare their naked behinds to the howling crowd. The policemens’ faces hardened.
He heard people talking:
“The PLA will come marching down Nathan Road tomorrow. Wait and see.”
“Don’t be stupid, Beijing won’t mess with Hong Kong. Hong Kong is much too valuable.
“You don’t know Beijing. They’ll bring their tanks. Just wait.”
Six months ago, the idea of Hong Kong’s return to China seemed unreal. He’d been too busy adjusting to his new life here to give it much thought. But now it was happening. He was here. He was part of this. His heart pounded: was it excitement about the historic occasion or the thought of a thousand Chinese soldiers marching into Hong Kong?
I lasted three nights in John’s room. He didn’t seem to take it badly. Anyway, I agreed to go shopping for him, from time to time, to help him out. John, was from England. I learnt he had travelled the world teaching English before becoming a permanent resident at Travellers Hostel. There he swapped teaching for selling used guide books and novels to other travellers. I heard he was putting a dent in Lonely Planet’s sales at one point. His dorm room was his storehouse but the humidity and stale air had ravaged his stock. They probably hadn’t done much for his health either. John wasn’t old, maybe in his late fifties, but his skin had a green tinge and he moved about the hostel with small shuffling steps, muttering to himself.
For a while I bunked with Ernest, a soft-spoken Canadian who earned a living as an extra in Hong Kong movies. With his pressed shirts, polished shoes and Errol Flynn moustache, Ernest was stark contrast to the flip-flop, tank top backpackers who blew through the hostel. Most impressively, in twelve months I never once heard him raise his voice at anyone, quite a feat considering the volatility of hostel life. Ernest was a class act. Then there was Sol. He appeared one day on the bunk opposite me, cross legged, meditating. He’d gone broke travelling in India: an emergency money transfer was on the way. So while he waited, he sat on his bed all day and meditated. Bald headed, charismatic, Sol was everything I aspired to, good-looking, confident, wise. He wouldn’t meditate to anything other than natural sounds and spurned travelling with a guide-book, not wanting other people’s words to colour his experience. His ideas lit something inside me.
Now the rain lashed down. The crowd was at fever pitch, a singular mass of eyes trained out across the harbour towards the Convention Center. He tried to make out what was going on inside, but from this distance it was just camera flashes and spotlights. Instead, he imagined the Prince and the young Prime Minister, somewhere inside, drowning in a sea of Chinese dignitaries and politicians, wondering when it would all be over.
One day, someone told me that John The Book befriended other guests with the aim of getting them to do things for him, like his shopping. So I began to distance myself. When we talked, and I sensed the request coming, I turned the conversation and created an opportunity to escape. We spoke less frequently, and when we did I sensed a change in him. That year, as the internet took off, people stopped buying John’s books and his spark drained away. His muttering and shuffling steps became more pronounced – he stopped going out. I learned later he had Parkinson’s disease.
For a moment the drumming stopped and a lone yacht manoeuvred silently out of the harbour. Someone nearby said that the last governor of Hong Kong was on-board. He watched the boat intently, as it slipped towards the outlying islands, imagining it was responsible for everything that had happened to him up until now. When the yacht had merged with the dark horizon, his thoughts returned briefly to Chinese soldiers. He should get back to the hostel – would he run into John? It was still raining.
On the other side of the harbour, the skyscrapers looked down like gods.