Sometimes the air smells of jasmine; sometimes it smells of rotting octopus. Boxy, red and white Toyota taxi cabs lurch and speed past. White paint stencils on the streets say LOOK TO THE RIGHT so you don’t get run over by a laughing Hong Konger coming down the wrong side.
At your feet water pools into exposed sewers where rats scurry, searching for food, multiplying, parasitic, stuck to humanity like billions of barnacles living off of millions of whales. Power lines wind and twist around the sides of the buildings, tied around the air conditioners and chaotic, haphazard signage offering Watches, Scuba Lessons, Dim Sum, and Massage in all the colors of a neon rainbow. Men sit four stories up in construction hats and tool belts like something from a 1920s Manhattan black-and-white, except their legs are hooked around bamboo scaffolding and this is 2011 Hong Kong.
The October air is warm and you can taste the salt in it. An old man with no arms begs in front of an HSBC bank outside of Central Station. Lines form behind velvet ropes, shoppers waiting to go into Cartier and Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Men on the metro discuss stocks, markets, options. There is talk of an expo in town. I ask around but no one is sure why all the hotel rooms are booked. Convention? International business?
The woman at the first hostel I try takes me down the street to another hotel, and after we find that to be full, she spends 15 minutes going through the contacts in her phone. “All pull,” she says. “Maybe try YMCA?”
I take her advice, and while a regular room is HK$2000 ($257) a dorm room runs HK$240. Never mind the Polish man in his briefs sleeping on the bottom bunk in the middle of the afternoon. The rooms are clean, with a working shower and a locker. Put your bags away. Go see the city.
First thing, I take a taxi to the Ritz-Carlton in Kowloon and ride the elevator to the 110th floor to get the lay of the land. Dressed in a black t-shirt and grey jeans I barely make it through the Ozone lounge’s security, the hostess snidely greeting me with a “First time here, sir?” Sensing I didn’t belong that high above everyone and that I probably would never be back.
I sit down at the bar and go over the whiskey — the cheapest glass costing as much as my room. I order three oysters and a glass of Chivas Regal 18 on the rocks. Then I go to the counter along the window to look out over the harbor and wait for the food. You can see the lights changing on the bank buildings. Ships with tall, red sails move in and out of port.
I would have already been at the tables in Macau but the Korean consulate had my passport. (I was in Hong Kong to arrange my visa for a job in Seoul. That’s another story.) Macau is technically Chinese land now — you can go without a visa once you’re in Hong Kong, but you need a passport.
So instead I take the subway to Wan Chai. I find myself in another Asian prostitute haven. Of course there are bars full of older white men. Of course there are women soliciting from the street — bored. Their pitches dead-sounding. The Kiwi men I’m sitting next to are convinced the street walkers are Filipino, and that sounds plausible, but when they start talking about them being cleaner than the girls you meet in the clubs because they get regular check ups I start getting uncomfortable. This isn’t a party.
But to sit at an open-air restaurant window across the street from the brothels, drink a couple of beers, and watch the women work is decent entertainment. Guys in groups of four or five strut down the street and walk through the curtains into the clubs. Weirdly it makes me miss my friends. But it’s no use wishing for something that can never happen — Americans can’t travel. It’s not that they won’t or don’t want to, it’s that they can’t. No vacation time. No money. No way to get a bunch of people together on another continent. So I’m there alone, and maybe that’s a good thing. It lessens the cause for macho behavior, for showing off. There’s less chance of getting goaded/ doing the goading to do something stupid when you’re on your own.
To the average American, I’ve seen a lot of Asia. Much of it I’ve done solo, and as good as that can be, there is a limit on how much solitary traveling a person can do before it starts to wear you thin. Traveling with a lover is the best traveling, but even those trips have to end. In the morning it’s a breakfast of spring rolls, shrimp dim sum, and a pot of Pu’er tea that seems endless, reading the South China Morning Post with Qaddafi’s face above and below the fold.
The embassy tells me I can pick up my passport at 3, so like a good tourist I take a double-decker bus to the other end of the island to Stanley Market. I buy four tins of tea: Dragonwell, Yunnan, Tikuanyin, and Shui Hsien, and a pair of earrings that are the wings of a bird. I sit and eat a bowel of shrimp wanton soup and drink a Tsingtao, looking out over the water.
I wonder when I’ll ever get back to a life of horizons, of vast expanses of land. Get out of cities. Back to wind and dust and stars. I’m not complaining when I say I could spend my whole life trying to see the entire world and end up one of the walking lost. It’s just the people I’ve seen who never made it back to their country all seem to carry a certain ache for it, regardless of what they tell you. I don’t want to spend my life aching for something I don’t have.
The Polish man told me Tsingtao stands for This Sh-t Is No Good Take Another One so I do what I’m told to shake off the longing. When I get back to the embassy they hand me my passport, thicker all the time, now 48 pages with all but 16 pages full with stamps and visa stickers. Then I metro back to the hotel, drop off the tea and earrings, and walk to the ferry to Macau.
The ticket costs HK$186 one way. I board the ferry with a crowd of Hong Kong gamblers, Arab businessmen, and Chinese hustlers. I try not to think about Hunter Thompson when I buy a can of Carlsberg beer from the boat bar. There isn’t any noticeable loathing, but the boat ride does feel a little sinister. After all, I am taking a nighttime boat ride to an island that moves more money in gambling than Las Vegas. A little fear might keep me from ending up in the water.
In an hour I alight onto Chinese soil. Fifteen minutes later I am at the doors of the Wynn casino. Down the street is the MGM Grand — if you look at the right angles you could be in Nevada. I head for the poker room. The casino floor looks just like a Vegas casino floor. At the poker room, only the high stakes tables have seats. Two Chinese guys are talking about the “fish,” how easy it is at the Casino Lisboa tables so I head out and across the street.
From this angle I am not in Vegas at all. Chinese watch shops. Jewelry dealers. Portuguese restaurants. In the old Hotel Lisboa they’ve never even heard of Hunter Thompson. They have their own heroes and they aren’t there tonight. They also have their own games and their own rules. I go looking for the poker room — instead I stumble onto a prostitute parade. Girls, not women, not yet, but girls in full makeup under bright circus lights walk down a hall runway about 30 yards long. Heels clack on the tile. Men stand on the edges and watch. A girl catches a man with his mouth open and nods to the floors of the hotel rooms above us. A different kind of fish.
I want to play but they tell me the poker room is in the new Hotel Lisboa. So I walk through the pit looking for blackjack. Everyone’s serious. No talking. Smoking. They’re playing a lot of different games, just not any I’ve ever seen. Games with over-sized cards. Games where they’re slapping the table. Games where they bend the cards when they send them back to the dealer. After asking around I’m led to a blackjack table with a HK$100 minimum. I buy in for HK$500 and sit down. No one talks. I win. I lose. I split kings and then I’m even. I cash out.
When I get back to Hong Kong I think about going out in Kowloon. I’m tired, and alone, but I can get myself to do almost anything by asking, “when are you ever going to be here again?” Surely the cause for the unraveling of countless resolutions and best laid plans.
The next morning it’s a train ride to the airport. I face backwards — the perfect way to end a trip. Life in reverse. No better sight than an iconic skyline shrinking in the distance.