by Keith Addison
Hong Kong Life magazine Oct. 1994-Jan. 1996
The Valley of the Lost Decade
How to Spend 12 Weeks in Bed
Pass the Doggie Bag
If Pigs Could Fly They Wouldn't Need Cars
Stealer of Souls
On the Slow Train with a Skinful of Wine
The Neighbourhood Dragon
From 1994 to 1932 in Only Three Minutes
Singing and Laughing
Have Nose, Will Follow
Harrods to Sell Elixir-of-Life
Galahad's Secret Mission
Escape to Shangri-La
Put it in Your Pocket
What Johnny Should Have Said
The Cockroaches Went in Two by Two
A Complaint to the Inspector of Thunderstorms
The Cockroaches Went in Two by Two
I never really bought that old story about Noah's Ark. I asked awkward questions of my elders and betters. The picture in the children's Bible book showed elephants, giraffes, zebras, lions and so on going up the gangplank two by two, in an improbably orderly fashion.
___"Why didn't the lions eat the zebras?" I asked. I still don't get it -- they were floating about in the flood for 40 days and nights, lions and things and a whole bunch of game animals on a wooden boat, and they didn't eat each other? What did they eat instead, sandwiches?
___"Were there cats?" I asked -- we had a family cat, or rather the cat had us, but there weren't any cats in the picture, apart from the lions, and anybody who wasn't on the Ark got drowned in the forthcoming Flood. Yes, of course there were cats. "And mice?" I asked -- our cat sometimes caught mice. "And fleas?" I added. The cat very often caught fleas, or rather the fleas caught the cat.
___"The fleas were on the cats, stupid," my elder brother said scornfully, inadvertently rescuing a baffled elder-and-better.
___Pity he said that -- I still like the idea of a pair of fleas hopping up the gangway into the Ark, and the future. Especially when you know how fleas hop. They take off at a fantastic rate of acceleration, measured at 300 Gs. Imagine suddenly weighing 300 times what you weigh now. This puzzled scientists because the sheer pressure would smash a flea's feet, but high-speed micro-photographs finally revealed they don't use their feet: fleas jump with their knees. Now I guess they puzzle over why it doesn't smash their knees. It's a pity it doesn't smash their teeth.
___My brother had had three more years to work on being a smart-ass than I'd had, and he'd also had me to practise on. I wasn't smart enough to be a smart-ass, it was just that I was at the incessant questions stage. Anyway, the fate of the humble flea is not to be sneezed at. If Noah had forgotten the fleas, history would have been different. Better maybe, definitely less itchy, but different -- no plague, no Black Death devastating whole countries. Though I expect if dear Mother Nature hadn't had any fleas to hand she'd have found another way to give us the plague.
___Plague fleas didn't travel by cat, but by rat. Did Noah take rats? You don't see Mr and Mrs Rat going arm-in-arm up the gangplank in the pictures either. I guess they climbed up the mooring ropes -- no ship without its rats. And no man without his rat either: researchers say that in any community of humans there are just as many rats as people. Think of it: in spite of all the reassuring little Urban Services Department signs saying "Poisonous rat bait is being laid in this area", somewhere in the shadowy underbelly of the city lurks your rat.
___I seem to have several to myself at this old hill farm, but they're not sewer rats, there aren't any sewers, they're tree rats with big ears and long tails, and I don't think they'll give me the Black Death.
___However, one family of tree rats does seem to spend a lot of time on my roof, and it says in this book here that the preferred mode of transport of the bubonic plague flea which gave medieval Europe the Black Death was the Black Rat from Southeast Asia, an arboreal species, otherwise known as the Roof Rat. Oh. Well then. They like eating coconuts, and accompanied local coconut crops to the ports, and onto ships, and the world was their oyster. Them and their fleas. These days plagues travel by Boeing, and rats were riding rockets into space before we were -- it's only a matter of time before there are rats on the Moon.
___I don't know about coconuts, but these tree rats sure like eating bananas, though who doesn't? Anyway, they're locals, and, apart from dancing on the roof late at night, they seem to mind their own business like all the other wildlife, and I'm not going to catch one just to check its ID.
___Local rats have traditionally had a much better press than sewer rats, or Common Rats, or Brown Rats, which aren't locals, they come from Norway. The rat is the first animal in the Chinese zodiac, though it cheated: the ox was first, but the rat was riding on the ox's back and jumped in front to win. Next year, 1996, the 12-year lunar cycle begins again, with the Year of the Rat. In old China the rats had a holiday every year, a day when nobody trapped them. There's also an old Chinese legend about rats dancing on their hind legs and singing. Maybe that's what they do on my roof, though I haven't heard any singing, apart from the usual opera of frogs.
___And I haven't caught the Black Death yet, and anyway there aren't any fleas here. There'd be no room for them among all the mosquitoes. Old Man Noah sure didn't forget the mosquitoes. I suppose we should treasure them -- they're about the only predator we've got left, excepting all the germs. In fact I really wouldn't begrudge them that tiny bit of blood if they had any idea of a fair exchange: that chemical they inject first to make the blood flow smoothly should contain the latest 'flu vaccine, or maybe an intense but harmless euphoric or something -- but no, just an itch.
___Noah didn't forget the cockroaches either -- at least two cockroaches, or maybe as many as six, must've scuttled up the gangplank along with the lions and elephants. But there's no plague of cockroaches here, though there are lots of those sleek electric-blue wasps that hunt cockroaches. Anyway, like sewer rats and tree rats, there are cockroaches and cockroaches, and again the locals have a much better image. The big brown thing with wings that lives in drains and waves its feelers at you before flying in your face is an American cockroach, and the small brown one that scuttles about is a German cockroach.
___The locals don't wave their feelers at you and they're too sedate to scuttle, and they don't fly in your face because they don't have wings. They're more like flat, articulated beetles, dark brown and yellow round the edge, quite dapper, and they live in the leaves and stuff under trees. And the Chinese hold them in some esteem.
___Some years ago I picked up a bug travelling in Southeast Asia, and when I got back to Hong Kong I was severely ill for a couple of weeks. I was still feeling weak some weeks later, and a friend recommended a Chinese herbalist. He was an old man who looked into my eyes and took my pulse, or rather my pulses, all six of them, three on each wrist, which told him everything he wanted to know, and he prescribed a herbal remedy.
___I took the prescription to a dispensary, one of those shops with things like dried seahorses and deer antlers in the window and old Chinese men behind the counter with a whole wall of wooden drawers behind them. The prescription had 23 ingredients, each of which they measured out, wrapped and labelled for three daily doses. It all had to be boiled up into a soup, then strained and taken while hot -- bits of dried leaf, branch, bark, root, stem, flower and seed, as well as some grey things, and some white stuff, and, in the last neat package, four dried forest litter cockroaches. They were quite expensive too. I thought about it for a while -- they didn't come from a drain, quite natural, nothing dirty about them -- and put them in the soup, what the hell. It didn't taste too good, but I soon had my energy back.
___More recently, I was in the city one evening with a friend visiting from abroad, and we got hungry, so we stopped at a pavement dai pai dong. "Is it safe?" she asked. Sure, I said, good quick food, no problem -- such breezy confidence was mine.
___We ordered sliced beef and fried noodles and choi sum and fish ball noodles. "Must have been a big fish," she mused when it all arrived. We ate, my friend gingerly at first but with increasing confidence. "It's good," she said. And then: "What's that in your noodles?"
___"That" was a cockroach. Or rather half a cockroach. The rear half, of a little German cockroach rather than a big American one, and I couldn't find the front half, the bit with the feelers. Serious loss of face. But at least I didn't lose my dinner. Or rather half a dinner -- we didn't make a fuss, but we didn't stay very long after that. It won't put me off dai pai dongs. Well, not for long. After all, cockroaches are apparently about the only creatures that would survive a nuclear holocaust, and if even a multiple-megaton Minuteman missile can't take them out, what chance does a humble Wanchai dai pai dong man stand? All is forgiven.
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