It’s about a quarter past midnight. I have just read the news on Radio Television Hong Kong and am settling in for a shift that will take me through to 0700 hours. I was the last (or almost the last) foreign devil employed by the Hong Kong colonial government.
RTHK is straight out of the sixties. The people are pleasant and professional. The newsroom is full of chipped public service furniture, empty styrofoam cups and long abandoned olive steel filing cabinets. A geriatric disk jockey called Uncle Ray plays the Beatles through the darker hours.
I think the British empire died somewhere here during one of these nights.
I work four days straight and then have four days off. One of those days is devoted to sleeping after the previous night shift. Two of the remaining days, I spend working on l book. It’s a bit like being in some sort of information driven submarine, surfacing every eight days for air, medicinal rum and sustenance. I am going OK except I tend to get a little disoriented on the MTR (underground railway). I can’t tell whether it is day or night.
Sometimes you can guess it is morning because there are wizened old men in ragged shorts and singlets taking their birds out for an early outing. Elderly Chinese men like to keep little songbirds in exquisite little cages crafted from bamboo and teak . The birds drink from tiny cups made from the finest china or even jade. The litle old men are very proud of their feathered prisoners. One man had two cages with him as he squattted on the carriage floor in rush hour one morning, surrounded by teenagers in platforms, grim faced school girls with calculators and real estate agents with digital phones. I watched as one bird danced back and forth to his wagging finger. He caught my eye and grinned and the bird whistled “Dixie”, as if on cue.
These old men lavish time and affection on their birds, catching them crickets and other juicy goodies. In the mornings ,they hop the train, bird cage and all, to meet their similarly elderly bird keeping pals at parks out in the New Territories. There they sit and chat and hang the cages in a nearby tree where the birds can pretend they are free. The birds don’t seem to be discomforted by the subway at all. Presumably, they have made the trip a thousand times. The bird songs echo up and down the long train carriages, providing counterpoints for the soft thunder of the wheels.
There is even a mini bus driver who has a bamboo cage with a large blackbird hanging next to the drivers seat. These little airconditioned buses seat about sixteen people and run all over the island. Sometimes they run all over unwary residents as well. One of them drove off the road over the footpath and into a shopfront in Mongkok last week, killing one man and injuring more than a dozen others. The Daily Standard ran a front page photograph of a group of firemen on their hands and feet in the street outside the shop, unsuccessfully searching for one of the passenger’s severed finger.
Mini bus drivers are, as a result of incidents such as this, known for their bravado, if not for their traffic sense. I have observed that most of the drivers of such buses tend to be somewhat eccentric. One has a pot plant and a small buddhist shrine, presumably to focus the passengers’ prayers. Another likes to sing along to Chinese versions of the Mikado in truly awful English at the top of his cracked voice. But the bloke I like is the man who collects small science fiction figures and has erected them all over the driver’s cabin. He has them all wired so that when he hits the brakes, their eyes light up.
Back to birds and buses. The big black bird clings to its perch while the white knuckled passengers grip their seats. The driver chortles and hooks the little bus into the corners. It squawks when the bus bounds over a bump or rolls over a kerb sending pedestrians scattering.
Caged birds are very popular with the old blokes here. I suspect the poorer guys keep them instead of mistresses; another popular hobby pursued by the local Jockey Club punters. Mistresses are not taken to the park and do not sit in trees. They usually prefer the China Club; a wood panelled, lead glassed hangout for billionaires; a place tricked out to look like a China Coast cafe from the thirties. The Club occupies the top two floors of the old Bank of China Building, which was used as a headquarters by Hong Kong’s Red Guards in the far off days of the Cultural Revolution. They hung their red banners from the balconies and demanded revolution. These days the old art Deco bank building serves as a base for spotlights which illuminate the very much larger new China Bank Building, which was built on an overpowering scale to put the British firmly in their place.
To get into the Chinese run China Club, you have to know the rich and powerful just to get through the brass and teak doors. The waiters who are uniformed like upmarket coolies, hover in packs behind every chair. Stunning, six foot Shanghai models in brilliant silk Paris gowns glide by your table to embrace short plump former Red Guards flashing gold Rolex watches. And to think the British believed they had eliminated the pirates just by cutting off a few heads.