Brig unlocked the door and dropped his other bag onto the small twin-sized bed next to the frame pack that sat where and how he had left it. The bed occupied most of his ChungKing Mansions hotel room. The room’s walls were thin, and Brig imagined he could hear over five different languages being barked, none of which he could understand. Indians, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Africans, and a large contingent of Middle-Easterners were all well represented at the Mansions. The blankets and sheets that covered the beds were thin, and the once white pillow cases were now more yellow than anything else. A bulb-less, dusty, fire engine red goose-necked lamp sat next to a gray telephone on top of a flimsy but functional desk. His room had its own all-in-one toilet, sink, and shower, which was a noteworthy ChungKing Mansions upgrade. Room rates ranged from HK$150 to HK$1000 per night, though only the easily intimidated, appallingly inexperienced or insanely stupid would pay the first price they were quoted. Brig had agreed to rent the owner’s best room but had bargained with the attendant to give it to him for less than half the original price. If this was a top tier room, Brig shuddered to think what the lower-priced rooms were like.
The “Mansion” part of the structure’s name could not have been more of a misnomer. Though situated in the heart of one of the most expensive commercial districts in the world, ChungKing Mansions offered some of the cheapest rents in the city, attracting not only backpackers and budget travelers but drug traffickers and other criminals as well. As a missionary, Brig had heard rumors of the building’s dangers – fires, murders, stabbings, rapes – but thought the stories were exaggerated. Now, as he sat back on his bed, he wondered. With the door closed, Brig didn’t feel in any immediate danger. However, he wasn’t naïve enough to think he, or his belongings, were secure. His only valuables were his phone, his pills, and the $30,000 he was carrying. Brig searched the room, for a place to hide his money, but the room was simply too small. It would take all of five minutes to look into any every conceivable hiding place, leaving him no choice but to continue to carry the money around with him.
It was 9 p.m. when Brig emerged again from his hotel room. He had decided to spend a few more days in Hong Kong to rest up, recuperate, and if he was honest with himself, find Happy. Children ran from room to room while men stood outside their doors talking and smoking, despite the “No Smoking” signs. They smiled and stared as though they had never seen a Caucasian before. Brig smiled, stared, and pointed at the no smoking signs. Brig didn’t want to get them angry, but he couldn’t help being a smart ass either.
Brig had decided to carry the smaller pack with him, and all the important stuff – passport, pills, and his money. So far, he had only taken two pills that evening and warned himself not to take anymore as he needed to keep his head clear and one eye on his bag at all times. Rechecking his bag, Brig made sure all the zippers were up.
The Indian woman that had rented him the room sat in a chair next to the elevator. Brig waved hello. The woman returned his greeting and shook her head from side to side, a common Indian affectation. While he waited for the elevator, he checked the pack’s zippers for the fifth time and moved his wallet from his back pocket to his front. Safety first. He was thinking clearer today. The elevator arrived with a thunk and the doors opened slowly, as if in pain. Like everything in ChungKing Mansions, he wondered if the elevator was safe. The elevator was full, and possibly overcapacity, but despite his anxiety, Brig squeezed in. The elevator doors closed, with the same lack of urgency they opened with, and then continued its descent.
After what seemed like forever, the elevator reached the next floor. Two more people tried to push their way on, but an alarm sounded and one of them had to step off, which quieted the alarm. The man said something in a language that Brig didn’t understand, causing some of the others in the elevator to laugh. Brig chuckled along with them, pretending to understand. The elevator continued, stopping at every floor on its way down. At every floor, the elevator’s passengers would wave off those that wanted to enter. Those that wanted to get on would either stare at the other passengers as if one of them should get off to make room for them, or turn away dejectedly.
The elevator finally reached the ground floor and vomited its passengers into the dimly lit lobby. The shopping mall was now bursting with humanity. Brig considered crawling back into the elevator and calling it a night, but before he could turn back he was buoyed forward on the current of the crowd. Brig observed that each store was like a cave, some as small as ten square feet. The passageway itself was only eight feet across and maybe eight feet high. The shopkeepers that worked the stores looked tired and defeated. The shops were stuffed with inventory, giving the staff just enough room to sit. Watches, phones, lighters, jewelry, scarves, t-shirts, cigarettes, incense; anything smaller than a shoebox was for sale.
A bizarre bazaar Brig joked to himself. He avoided eye contact and kept his head down to avoid having to speak to anybody. As one of the few “whities” that ventured this far into the Mansions, he was an obvious target for the shopkeeper’s aggressive sales tactics.
Brig made his way back to the TST MTR station and paid HK$10 for the short trip under the Hong Kong Harbor to the Central Station. From Central, it was a twenty-minute walk, mostly uphill, to Lan Kwai Fong. As he exited the Central Station, he noticed an old man playing something Chinese on a string instrument he’d never seen before. A tin cup with a few coins and some smaller denomination notes sat in front of him. Upon further examination, he noticed that the man was blind. He swayed back and forth as he played, his eyes closed, but during pauses in the music, they would open, revealing only the whites of his eyes. A reverse blink. Brig pulled his wallet out and considered giving the man HK$100, but realizing that the man wouldn’t know how much, or even if, Brig had given him money, he placed HK$20 in the man’s tin, which was still the largest amount in the cup. Without missing a beat, the old man thanked Brig for his donation. “Dojeh.”
Brig marveled and was a little spooked by how the man could tell that somebody had just given him money. He couldn’t see, and it was far too noisy for him to hear paper being placed in his cup.
“I feel you,” answered the blind man.