Brig awoke screaming, drenched in sweat and gasping for air. It was morning, and his scream caught the attention of early risers exercising in the park. A group of senior women, dressed in tribal garb and brandishing plastic swords, had assembled to practice their Taichi. They gawked at the screaming gwailo. Jesus Brig thought. What a fucking nightmare. Or was it a dream? He couldn’t decide. He enjoyed the first part, being with Happy again…but the finish left him shaken and nauseous.
Brig sat up and slapped himself to clear his mind. He gingerly touched his nose. It hurt, but he could still breathe through it. His bags were as he had left them, but he rechecked them anyway, making sure that his money and pills were still there. He shouldered his frame pack and strapped the smaller pack across his chest.
He opened his phone to check the time and to see if he had any messages. The phone was dead, having run out of power during the night. The metal curtains to the Sunny Bay station were just being rolled up. Although it was hot outside, the inside of the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station was cool. Powerful air-conditioners blasted the patrons. The Hong Kong subway system was a model of efficiency with over five million passengers each day. Within minutes Brig’s train arrived and whisked him off to his next destination, Tsim Sha Tsui.
The sun glared off the glass of the commercial buildings, blinding Brig as he emerged from Tsim Sha Tsui’s (TST) Nathan Road exit. He searched his pack for his sunglasses. Before leaving the U.S, Brig had shopped for mountaineering gear. Sunglasses hadn’t been on his list, but when he saw the Vuarnet Glaciers he knew he had to have them. He put the sunglasses on and felt instantly cooler. More importantly, he could see.
The masses were beginning to awaken and descend on the shopping mecca. TST was one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and its citizens were stirring like a busy colony of ants. A young man approached Brig as he scanned the landscape, looking for ChungKing Mansions.
“Copy watch?” the young man asked.
Unsure of what he was being asked, Brig replied, “Excuse me?”
“Rolex? Cartier? Tag Heuer?” The man held out his arm and pulled up his right sleeve revealing five watches. He then pulled up the sleeve of his other arm, revealing five more.
“No. No thank you. Sorry.”
“I give you best price. This one,” pointing to a faux-diamond encrusted Rolex, “you pay me only $5000 Hong Kong dollars.”
“No. I have no money.” Brig was getting annoyed. “Can you tell me where ChungKing Mansion is?”
“You want to go shopping? Come this way,” the man motioned for Brig to follow him. “I show you the best shops…best prices.”
Brig had had enough. “Sorry. I don’t want to shop, and I don’t need a watch. Can you please tell me where ChungKing Mansion is?” he responded in Cantonese.
“Aiya!” the man cried, stunned that this Westerner spoke the local language.
Another gwailo with a Canon SLR camera hanging around his neck, wearing jean shorts, a large floppy hat, and sunglasses walked by. The salesman, recognizing an easier mark, lost interest in Brig and hurried after his new prospect.
“Copy watch sir?” Brig overheard the boy repeat his sales pitch.
Why is that guy a ‘sir,’ and not me? Brig wondered, a little disappointed.
He had no idea where he was going, but his choices were limited to left or right. He followed his gut and turned right towards the harbor. The tall buildings that lined Nathan Road seemed to bend inward toward the center of the street, unbalanced by the ludicrous number of signs that hung from their faces. Even the largest signs struggled to stand out amid the mass of advertising. Capitalism run-amok. Most of the signs were in Chinese, a few in English, and fewer still in both languages. A repeating two-toned ‘beep’ grabbed Brig’s attention. The noise was coming from the traffic signal ahead, telling pedestrians, blind or otherwise, that it was safe to cross the street. Two small crowds of people from opposite sides of the road ran to meet each other as if they were warriors engaging in battle. An iconic double-decker bus screeched to a stop just feet from the brave combatants. Brig had forgotten about Hong Kong’s double-deckers, which he had never seen in the U.S. A large photo of a nearly naked supermodel advertising Victoria’s Secret lingerie stretched across the length of the bus.
We’re not in Utah anymore Brig thought to himself.
A fast clicking noise replaced the beeping, and stragglers from both sides of the street quickened their pace to cross before the little man in the street sign turned from green to red. The bus released its brakes with a rush of air and continued on its way, revealing a sign that the double-decker bus had blocked from Brig’s sight that read “CHUNGKING MANSIONS.”
This was not the ChungKing Mansions that Brig remembered. Gone were the dirt and grime and clothes that hung out of open windows. Although more aesthetically pleasing, the character of the building seemed to have disappeared. Advertising signs protruded from the sides of the building’s first three floors. An escalator beckoned passersby to hop on and ride in. The next fifteen stories appeared to be hotel rooms or apartments.
Brig crossed Nathan Road and entered the building. The smell of incense and curry were overwhelming. Two middle-aged Indian men and one older woman rushed to meet him, asking if he needed a room. The two men were more aggressive. One even grabbed Brig’s arm, which Brig pulled away reflexively. The Indian woman gave up quickly, assuming that her more assertive competitors would win Brig’s business, and walked back to where she had been sitting.
Brig yelled out to her, “Ma’am? Excuse me, Ma’am.” He pushed past the sullen and disappointed men. “Do you have a room I can rent?”
“I have many nice rooms,” the woman beamed. “Please, come with me.”
The woman led Brig through a maze of small shops, many of which hadn’t yet opened for the day’s business. Shopkeepers from stores that had opened yelled out to Brig that they had the best this, the best that, and always the best prices just for him. They reached a dark and dusty elevator lobby lit only by the light that shined from the main shopping area. Brig felt unsafe and questioned his decision to stay at the Mansion.
“We have rooms on the tenth floor,” the woman informed as if she had read Brig’s mind. “All very clean, very safe, very cheap.”
Brig nodded his head in approval.
“Do you want to share a room with others?” the Indian woman asked.
“No. Definitely not,” Brig responded.
“OK. OK. You are American, yes?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“I can recognize your accent…and how you dress. We have many Americans stay with us.”
The elevator dinged and jerked to a stop as it reached the tenth floor, opening its doors to a well-lit hall. Again, the smell of curry was everywhere. Doors to other rooms stood wide open. Three children were playing a scrappy game of tag and Brig had to dodge out of the way as one of the children, trying to avoid getting tagged, used Brig as a shield. The woman yelled at the boy and smacked him hard on the side of his head.
“I am sorry. The child has no manners.”
“Do you treat all of your guests like that?” Brig joked.
“No, no, no. Of course not,” she laughed. “He is my grandson and he is very naughty.”
They walked to the end of the hall where the woman fished out a ring of keys from her pocket. Finding the one she was looking for, she unlocked the room. “I think you will find this room to your liking. It has its own bathroom and is air-conditioned. The window faces the road, so you can look out and see a nice view.”
It wasn’t a Brigham International, but it was relatively clean and private. “How much per night?” Brig inquired.
“This room is our best room. We charge $1500 Hong Kong dollars per night.”
Brig did the math in his head. That was roughly US$200. “Seriously? $1500 a night?! For this?”
“That is our listed price, but I like Americans, and I like you. I can rent this room to you for half of that price.”
Brig paused. That was still more than he expected, but he was in Hong Kong, TST no less, where rents, he reasoned, had to be extraordinarily high. “I don’t know. The price still sounds a little steep. Maybe I should speak to your friends down below first.”
“How about another room? We’ve got smaller rooms. But you will need to share the bathroom.”
Brig wasn’t about to share anything, and this room met most of his requirements. “How about HK$500? I could do HK$500 a night.”
“No. I cannot. I need to feed a large family, and my husband would throw me out on the streets if I gave this room away for that price.” She let that hang in the curry flavored air for a few moments. “I’ll make you a deal. How long you stay?”
Brig thought for a moment. She probably wanted to rent the room out for as long as she could, but Brig didn’t want to commit to anything over three nights. If he couldn’t find Happy soon, he would be on his way to Everest. “Three nights…maybe more.”
“O.K. Three nights. You pay HK$2000. All up front. OK?”
“Deal. But I must find a bank to withdraw the money. Can I leave my big pack here while I get the cash?”
“Of course. No problem.” Brig laid his packs down on the bed and walked out of the room. The woman locked the door behind them and Brig prayed that his backpack would still be there when he returned.