Avoiding Chongking Mansionby Gareth Clark Coetzee / 30.09.2013
“Hey buddy,” he said. “You like suits – tailor-made? Come see my shop. I show you. Best suits. Cheap cheap.” No thanks, I said shrugging him off like I did the others. Shamiel was his name and not taking no for an answer he thrust his business card in my hand. It joined the pile of similar cards, given to me by a dozen other suit salesman. I’d only been in Hong Kong for an hour, walking down a main street in the underbelly of Kowloon on the lookout for a cheap hotel. It was a festive weekend for locals but my girlfriend and I were on a visa run.
The streets, an assault on the sense in every way, swarmed with people from the Philipines, Taiwan, Thailand, India and elsewhere on mainland China, with a sprinkling of Europeans and Americans. With the clothes on our backs and very little money we made our way to a well-known building called Chongqing Mansions. We’d heard that many foreigners found room and board there while on visa runs as it was made up of ‘guesthouses’, rooms, at the most affordable prices. After a night spent in Taiwan International Airport we were dying for a bed and thought we’d find one there. It took well over an hour to find it. In a street glowing with neon signs and Chinese billboards everywhere, trying to find Chongqing Mansions was like trying to find a noodle in a haystack. Eventually I asked a suit salesman to give me directions and it turned out we had passed it three times without registering. We can’t be blamed. Nothing about that grimy fire-hazard stands out to the foreign eye.
A passageway leading from the street opens up into a stir-fry of assorted shops, hanging electrical wires, throngs of people, and smells of dried mussels, burnt rice, sweat from all corners of the world and damp. The entire ground floor is a twisted indoor market, and all around eyes fell on us with complete indifference. Obviously nothing shocks these people anymore. We found the elevator to the dozens of ‘guesthouses’ near the back, behind a small newsstand selling cigarettes, shark fins and porn – I found that porn was the most common commodity available in the streets of this small island off the mainland.
The elevator was the size of an office file cabinet. In it, travelling to the eleventh floor with us were two young Russian men – well, I assume that by the language they spoke, a bulky Nigerian man in a colourful shirt that barely made it around his massive shoulders, a tiny old Chinese woman with wrinkled face, and an Indian man whose name I can’t recall but whose gold earrings, gold necklace, tight t-shirt, jean shorts, three cellphones and dodgy smile I will never forget. He met us while we were trying to decide on which of the roughly 25 floors we were going to chance. He said he had a room available at the best price in the place, and that we were lucky to have found him. I kept thinking, ‘but we didn’t find you, you found us.’
He walked us through a tiny hallway passed several doors, all patterned steal and heavy-looking. Kitch as fuck. I feel now that we should have, judging by all that had come before, expected what he tried to pass off as a good place to stay. We should never have gotten off the elevator.
The room was bathed in the hideous sex of a purple florescent light. A window the size of a cigarette box hid in a corner just above the corner of an L-shaped bed – two single beds impossibly installed in this the tiniest room either of us had ever seen. The toilet and shower were one – you could wash your hair and take a shit at the same time. “Jesus!” I’d stayed in crummy places before but this was ridiculous.
“What?” he asked. “This is the best room you’ll find. The rest have been taken. It’s always full this time of year.”
“How much, for interest sake?” My girlfriend asked, beads of sweat forming on her forehead. I could see here claustrophobia was setting in fast.
“400 dollars.” That’s roughly 400 rand back home in South Africa. I stayed in a F1 Hotel on the outskirts of Cape Town once that, in comparison, was the Ritz. This room was vulgar. The florescent lights put on display a million death pools of old cum spattered all around, fosilised bed bugs caught in them like minuscule dinosaurs in crusty tar pits. Was there blood on the wall? I imagined CSI agents avoiding this room – too much paper work and leads running in a million different directions.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“You won’t find another room in Kowloon. You leave now, and come back in half an hour and the price will be 450 Dollars,” he said, playing us for fools. Tough one. Peace hombre.
We walked out. One of his phones rang. It was his boss he told us. He spoke in another language. Put down the phone, and smiling, said: “It is already 475 dollars for the night.” On the elevator trip down, not a word was spoken. At the bottom, we walked out onto the market floor. Seemingly a thousand new strangers were lingering about. We nodded to him and hit the street.
Our search resumed. We discussed doing what a stranger at the airport suggested. On our arrival at the airport, we found a spot to smoke a cigarette and plan our next move. The visa run came hard and unexpected. We were on per-second planning. A man, again an Indian, cigarette dangling from his lips and cheap beer in hand – a beer, we’d find out later, turns your guts into bubbly ooze, approached us with a smile and a booming voice. “You haven’t planned your trip have you?”
“No we haven’t,” my girlfriend answered. “We’re on a visa run.” He looked at our luggage and must have sermised that we were on a shoestring budget. “You know what you should do? Forget about a hotel tonight. Go to the IFC (a massive mall) and find a Hong Kong magazine. You’ll find in it a number of bars on the mainland that have ladies’ night on Fridays. Ladies drink for free. They do that to attract men and fill the bars.” Pointing at me he said, you drink at a 7 Eleven – they’re on every corner, almost has accessible as porn – and then both of you go to one of the bars. “Yeah, sounds good, but we need a place to stay,” I said.
“You won’t need to. Party until 2am. Catch a cab to a sauna and massage parlour. Have a shower and a massage and then sleep there. They never chase you out after 2am. You’ll pay a fraction of the cost of a hotel.”
It sounded like a great idea but something about it seemed flawed. The guy said he is a fashion buyer who frequents the airports looking at what young people wear and then finds similar garments to sell in Kowloon. His ogling of young women and knowledge of all night massage parlours, drinking a beer in the airport and his constant talk of shagging in parks and clubs to save money on hotel rooms, freaked us out. No thank you. We’ll take our luck with hotels, we thought. We took one piece of his advice, one that supported others’ advice to us: get to Chonqing Mansions.
Fuck Chonqing Mansions. An hour after escaping that hell hole, and having gone through two of the three maps we’d taken from Hong Kong Airport, we found another place. It was in a much smaller, cleaner building that squatted on a corner near a main intersection. This building was much quieter too, almost abandoned. We enquired at the desk about a room and the owner of the guesthouse, a fat friendly-faced man told us there was one available. We stood in angst, legs aching, as he unlocked the door. Relief. A much more comfortable room. Air-conditioning. A large window through which the sounds of the streets below and the glow of a massive perfume billboard spilled in. The toilet and shower were one in the same but it seemed sanitary this time. We felt, from here, we could do this thing. We could spend the weekend doing the cheap touristy things like ride the ferry and visit Kowloon gardens before begging for visa extensions. (As it turned out, the weekend was fantastic. Hong Kong is a place to see. Many a hidden gem. Expensive but worth it. And the visa challenge was hardly that at all. In and out really. Best weekend of my life.)
“We’ll take it,” I said. “There are so many bed bugs. Alive too. A wonderful thing.” The owner didn’t understand.