Hong Kong Detour

Mary E. Whitsell
 

© Copyright 2007 by Mary E. Whitsell

Photo of a traffic jam of taxis in Hong Kong.

   A blast of exhaust-scented steam enveloped us as we stepped through the terminal’s sliding glass doors. It was almost midnight, but the heat was a living force with a throbbing pulse of its own. The air terminal had been air-conditioned, so the heat and humidity outside came as a shock. I shifted my heavy pack on my back; I had only just put it on and already I could feel the sweat beginning to collect around my waist and under the shoulder straps.

   From the plane, Hong Kong at night looked like a string of brightly-colored jewels scattered on a background of rich black and blue velvet. Up close it was all blazing neon and sky-rises, and I was mightily impressed.

   “My God, it is hot,” breathed my new friend Lorraine, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. “It’s got to be hotter here than it was in Minneapolis,” agreed Maureen.

   I’d met Lorraine and Maureen on the plane. Fresh-faced Minnesota farm girls, they were on their way to India and Pakistan via Hong Kong, and I was on my way to Tokyo.  Like me, Lorraine and Maureen had not made hotel reservations, but at least they had a guidebook.

   A dozen taxis idled in a long, smoky line, the drivers scanning travellers’ faces for potential fares. ‘Whoa, look at that,” said Lorraine, pointing to the stream of traffic that rushed past, ‘they’re driving on the left side of the road!’   We were young and not particularly well travelled, and we’d never been to any place like this before. We all shook our heads in wonder.

  ‘And they’re driving awfully fast too,’ murmured Maureen. This was also true. Taxis in particular seemed to go at an alarming speed, tearing into the terminal parking lot and only just managing to avoid collisions with other taxis.

   We had looked through Lorraine and Maureen’s guidebook and after careful deliberation, decided that the Y.W.C.A. hotel would be our best bet.  It was a bit more expensive than the youth hostel, but it was our first night in Hong Kong, after all, and we were willing to pay for a little extra security.

   Maureen was the bravest one of us. Walking up to one of the taxis, she showed the driver her guidebook.  ‘Y.W.C.A.?’ she asked a little nervously. The driver studied the book for a few moments and nodded, and we all piled in.

   Kowloon was a tangle of signs and billboards. Fascinated, I stared out of my window and breathed in the heady perfume of fried garlic and ginger. Cantonese and laughter vied with blaring pop music and traffic noises. I was thrilled to see that I could read the characters on a few of the signs already. I had spent the past two years studying Japanese, which uses Chinese characters, and I was delighted to find that my efforts had actually begun to pay off.

   Twenty minutes later, our driver turned into in a dark, trash-filled alleyway in a worryingly seedy neighborhood.  He stopped the car in front of a mess of garbage-filled crates and boxes stacked alongside a filthy, crumbling wall.

   ‘Here lady,’ he said, pointing to the fare displayed on the meter. ‘You pay me now. Y –W- C- A.’

   ‘But this can’t be the Y.W.C.A.!’ we all protested, looking around in dismay at the stained walls, the garbage piled high in overflowing cans and boxes.

   He shook his head stubbornly. ‘Yes. Y.W.C.A. You pay now.’

   We protested, but our driver was insistent: ‘This Y.W.C.A.!’

   Finally, we had no choice but to pay him.  And maybe he was right – what did we know, after all? We were in a foreign country, and things were obviously different here. Perhaps the Y.W.C.A. really was just around the corner in a more salubrious looking neighborhood. Pocketing the fare and rolling his eyes at our cluelessness, our driver disappeared in a cloud of exhaust.

   ‘Well, this is creepy,’ I said.

   ‘Mmm, it sure is,’ murmured Maureen, looking in her guidebook and trying to find a street sign that gave us an indication of our whereabouts. There was a skittering noise: a large rat poked its whiskered face out from one of the boxes and we all jumped half a foot.  All three of us fought the urge to scream, but only Maureen won.

   ‘What do you think we should do?’ I asked, once we had all calmed down.

   ‘Well, I’d say we ought to wait for another taxi, but we’re hardly going to find one in a place like this,’ said Lorraine, anxiously scanning the boxes. They were obviously riddled with rats:  we could hear them squealing and scrabbling about.

   The alley was just off a street that looked completely deserted. Washing lines stretched from one side of the alley to the other in what seemed to be a never-ending zig-zag: sheets, shirts, and babies’ clothes fluttered overhead in the fuggy summer breeze.

     The second taxi appeared miraculously only a few minutes after we had come to the conclusion that we were nowhere near our destination. We were all profoundly relieved.  How fortunate that another cab had come along when there were no other taxis in sight, especially at this hour and in such an awful neighbourhood! We all climbed in.

   ‘Y.W.C.A. hotel?’  Lorraine said hopefully, proffering the guidebook. The driver, a gum-chomping Elvis look-alike, scowled at it briefly, then nodded. The taxi took off in a great burst of speed and we all clung to each other.

   ‘Don’t you think it’s kind of a coincidence that he showed up so fast when there weren’t any other taxis in sight?’ murmured Maureen after a few minutes. Actually, we’d all been thinking the same thing.

   ‘It’s a coincidence all right,’ agreed Lorraine. ‘A little too much of one I’d say.’

   I was looking out of the window at the signs and buildings that seemed to rush past us in a multi-colored blur. I have practically no sense of direction, but it seemed to me that we were going in circles as  we kept passing buildings that seemed to have exactly the same characters on the signs. ‘Hey!  We passed that building a few minutes ago,’ I said finally. I was positive that I was looking at the same sign we had passed three minutes earlier.

   Lorraine and Maureen looked in the direction I was pointing, at a high-rise that looked like all the others in the middle of a concrete jungle of shining, neon-accented glass-and-steel.

   ‘That’s funny; I thought we were going in circles!’ cried Maureen. ‘But how can you tell?’

   I pointed out the window. ‘You see that sign?  The large one with the blue border and the big red bit on top? It says ‘yellow gold’ in Chinese characters, and underneath it are the characters for ‘world.’ And on that sign next to it, those big red characters mean ‘pearl.’ Anyway, we passed that building earlier. I remember both of those signs because of the characters.’

   ‘But how can you read Chinese characters?’ asked Lorraine. ‘I thought you said you were studying Japanese.’

   ‘The Japanese got them from the Chinese,’ I explained. ‘Even in Japan they call them Chinese characters.’

   We all stared at the back of our taxi driver’s neck.

   ‘Excuse me!’ said Lorraine, leaning forward.

   He ignored her.

   ‘Excuse me, sir!’ she and Maureen chorused loudly.

   He half turned around to look at us, causing us to shriek and clutch at each other, as he hadn’t modified his speed in the slightest. ‘No English,’ he said curtly, negotiating a sharp turn with a breath-taking nonchalance that was chilling.

   ‘Would you please stop going around in circles?’ said Lorraine. ‘It’s late and we don’t have all night!’
   The driver shrugged.

   Lorraine sighed in exasperation and tried a different tack. ‘Take us directly to the Y.W.C.A.! We don’t have much money!’

   ‘No English,’ the driver insisted stubbornly.

   ‘This woman reads Chinese!’ Lorraine persisted, pointing to me.  ‘We know what you and your friend back there were up to! We’re not some dumb hicks, we’re from Minneapolis!’

   No response.

   Maureen began a fresh assault. ‘What’s your name?’  She craned her neck and pretended to be reading the man’s license, then turned to me.  ‘Mary, can you read his name?’

   I cringed and tried to shrink down into my seat.  I hate conflicts. Besides, I couldn’t have read the man’s name for love or money: understanding characters on signs is one thing, pronouncing names – in Chinese – is quite another.

   ‘Elvis!’ cried Maureen. ‘We’ll write down the characters for your name and tell them you look just like Elvis!’

   The taxi driver shrugged and continued to ignore us, but he took us to the Y.W.C.A. without any further detours.

    As it happened, we never did report Elvis or his probable accomplice. The people at the Y.W.C.A. were wonderful, and we happily toured, shopped, walked, and ate our way through Hong Kong. Nothing else remotely unpleasant happened to us, and who feels like writing a letter of complaint when they’re having that much fun?

    We stuck to buses and trams for the rest of our visit, though.

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