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
Have Nose, Will Follow
A dead typewriter, a set of second-hand dentist's probes, the blade of an electric fan, a split cricket bat, fountain pens without nibs, an inept woodcarving of someone's beloved cat, for posterity, a VAT 69 bottle turned into a lamp, now cracked, bits, pieces, gadgets, knick-knackeries and plain junk Chinese, Western and ubiquitous, Hong Kong-blend. The sheer bustle and jostling of civilised life finally grinds most things to bits, and Hong Kong's Upper Lascar Row is one of the stops on the way back to dust and ashes. Here an apparently indiscriminate selection of the grindings is laid out on offer to discerning junk-lovers, the sort of entropy-challenged detritus in which the sharp-eyed might occasionally find embedded a neglected gem. Or at least that's the theory. It does happen, though not yet to me -- slim chance the wooden cat of unfortunate aspect was a lost Rodin masterpiece, but one mustn't lose hope amidst this feast of junk. A couple of feet away, even mingling at the edges, are the upwardly-mobile treasures and alleged treasures of the adjoining antique stores, with an easy tolerance prevailing between the storekeepers and the stallholders infesting their entranceways.
___I was checking some tatty old wristwatches for Rolexes and things and found instead a carved walnut, showing lots of small Chinese faces peering out from a background of dense foliage. I'd had one of these before. I'd bought it when I first came to Hong Kong 18 years ago, and sent it to a friend. I'd found it ... right here, on this corner, in this same tin tray on the pavement, and I was sure this same old man had sold it to me. I stared at him. He stared back. He didn't look 18 years older to me, he looked just the same. I remembered I'd also bought a small brass Chinese tobacco pipe from him. I looked in the tray, and there was a small brass Chinese tobacco pipe, same as the first one.
___I bought the nut from the old man and pocketed it, my mind echoing. Just then a Sikh stepped up beside me and started telling me things about the shape of my head and my face, because of which life was going to be very good for me from next month. He just felt he should tell me this, he said, and he ought to know because he was a yogi. I thanked him, declining his offer of a consultation at which he'd be able to tell me much more.
___"You have a good nose," he said as we parted. Nose? What was it about my nose? The week before Ah So the fung shui man had been going on about my nose: "Follow your nose," he'd said. "You can't go wrong." Such advice is hard not to take, on the face of it, but was there something I was missing? I stopped and stared at my reflection in a shop window. It looked like any nose to me. But then it would.
___"After you," I said, and followed it to the end of the row and down the steps, and a bit later through the alleys near the bottom of Aberdeen Street, steep, narrow lanes lined with attractive market stalls selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, beancurd, sprouts, eggs -- another unchanging scene, even if the price is more often totalled on a calculator instead of an abacus these days, and the produce weighed on modern scales as often as the stick graduated with hand-inserted silver wire and sliding weight of tradition.
___I walked down, making way for various extremely tough very old people pushing heavy trolleys uphill. Half a block away there's a multi-million-dollar escalator going halfway up the mountain, effortlessly wafting thousands up past the blocks where colonial administrators and Western traders of a century ago housed their "protected women", Chinese mistresses, convenient for stopping off for a while after work before taking a sedan chair up to their homes and wives on the Peak. But in the alleyways they still push trolleys.
___The change is abrupt -- suddenly, instead of Chinatown anywhere anytime, you've stepped into Queen's Road Central, and it stinks of traffic. On the far side of the road, the familiar alleys that continued to Des Voeux Road had been replaced by a large construction site, consuming the entire block. There's no sense in getting nostalgic about all this, crying for the past in the City of the Future. It's surprising absolutely everything isn't redeveloped every seven years, though maybe we're still getting to that, but meanwhile there are still anachronisms and timewarps all over the city, and there probably always will be. Nothing's what it was, nor what it will be, but so long as some of it ends up as selected junk on the pavement at Upper Lascar Row, or somewhere like it, all is probably well.
___There was a big traditional medicine shop there on the north side of Queen's Road, now moved to new quarters opposite. They took care to give the shop's incomprehensible symbol, a life-sized mediaeval European knight in armour with his lance astride his charger, a whole window all to himself like before, though I think he's charging in the opposite direction now. I stopped to buy some Chinese honey, pure and thin, sold as a medicinal tonic and sipped like a liqueur, and watched the performance as you herbalists behind the counter fixed the pay-slip to a clip and sent it zapping to the pay clerk in his high chair via an system of wires, collected my change and left, nodding to the knight.
___I walked on to the old-fashioned Chinese department store opposite Central Market, at the bottom of the escalator, which hasn't yet converted to boutiques and designer labels and has a traditional medicine department that, apart from the $80,000 ginseng roots in the display cabinets, is more accessible than the weird and unidentifiable potions at the white knight's emporium up the road. Here you can buy Shaolin Super Bonehealing Plasters ("The pregnant shall avoid such a plaster") and dozens of other herbal plasters with miraculous effects on arthritis, rheumatism, sprains and bruises,, a wide variety of royal jelly and other preparations to banish old age, promote "vigour" and "regenerate the systems of generations", and, what I'd come for, Ganmaoling herbal tablets, a miracle cold cure, to a course of which District Court judge Chua Fi-lan once sentenced two cold-smitten reporters for committing the crime of sneezing and snivelling and annoying everyone during court proceedings. Hearing of this, I'd tried it the next time I caught a cold. "A most effective preparation for the treatment of common cold and influenza," said the label, "affording instantaneous relief with effects remarkably marvellous." The cold vanished, instantaneously, which seemed remarkably marvellous to me, and I wanted some more for next time.
___Past the chic Lane Crawford I remembered it was Sunday when I started encountering bunches of Filipinas enjoying their day off, a hundred thousand women domestic helpers thronging everywhere in the centre of the city, posing for photographs next to the fashionable clothes behind the windows, shopping, picnicking in the streets, playing music, singing, filling the air with happy laughter. It was infectious -- I couldn't see anyone who wasn't smiling. I was heading for the Star ferry to Kowloon and cut through the Landmark and Prince's Building, and stepped out onto the walkway to the august Mandarin Hotel. A well-heeled, middle-aged Western tourist couple coming towards me from the hotel stopped and stared at the crowded street below, laughing incredulously.
___"Unbelievable!" said the woman, shaking her head, laughing still.
___"The place looks like a refugee camp!" her husband said to me, chuckling -- which is what a lot of locals think.
___"Very happy refugees," I said.
___"Yes!" he said as they walked on, smiling.
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