Postcard from Hong Kong, 1993
A room to let in a villa on Old Bailey Street. What was not to like? Well…
All I want is a room somewhere/Far away from the cold night air/With one enormous chair/Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly? Lerner & Loewe
Old Bailey Street, Hong Kong Island
An Indian man called Ronald showed me around the apartment. It didn’t take long. Two tiny bedrooms, a cupboard sized kitchen and a shower room/WC.
‘All modern amenities, sir,’ said Ronald proudly. ‘‘You have been in Hong Kong long?’
‘No, just a couple ofweeks,’ I said, peering into the room I was being offered to let. It was empty of everything except a door and large (cracked) window.
‘There doesn’t seem to be a bed?’ I observed tentatively.
Ronald chuckled at the idea of such luxury. ‘Unfurnished sir. But a bargain price for first class accommodation — in an excellent location!’
No arguing with that, lower Central, with a view of the Harbour, assuming you knocked down a few rows of tower blocks.
‘Where are you staying now?’
‘Chungking Mansions,’ I said.
Ronald winced theatrically. Chungking Mansion was a seventeen story-five building warren of guest houses and dubious business. A magnet for scammers of every stripe, many openly selling ‘copy watches’ at the entrance. ‘Not the ideal neighbourhood for a young gentleman like yourself, sir,’ he said.
Every budget guide book advised readers of Chungking’s multiple perils. These warning were swamped by the message beaming out in yellow highlighter: CHEAPEST ACCOMODATION IN HONG KONG!
There were close to 2,000 guest rooms housing at least three times that number of unofficial guests. Many of these were occupied by members of the vast gap-year army, an ever changing cast of young westerners aimlessly trundling around the planet.
‘You have dormitory bed there, sir?’ said Ronald, who was evidently familiar with the pile-em-high Chungking business plan
‘Only the first night,’ I said. ‘Then I upgraded to a single room. But it wasn’t quite what I was looking for.’
Call me fussy, but every passing day had confirmed this judgement. A coffin sized cell, with an overhead TV and a “all-in-one toilet/shower” had its limitations. No natural light was one profound drawback — I felt like was living in a high rise cellar, even if could watch Italian football in bed.
‘This will be far superior, sir,”
That was wildly overstating it but perhaps one rung up the subterranean property ladder
I glanced across to the other bedroom. It was similarly stripped bare and bedless. Puzzled, I said: ‘The card on the British Council noticeboard advertised for someone to share this flat?’
‘That’s right, sir. Another English young gentleman is arriving in the New Year. He is also a teacher. Very respectable. He will take the adjacent room.’
‘It’s quite small for two sharing.’
‘Three, of course, sir,’ said Ronald, smiling benevolently. ‘You are forgetting my good self.’
I stared at him blankly. Two rooms — three men. I peered again into the impossibly tiny kitchen. Was I missing something? Did the greasy oven somehow unfold as a sofa bed.
‘But where do you sleep?’
Ronald stepped to one side and airily waved his hand.
Behind him was an alcove containing a long cushion, a blanket, a telephone and a pile of Hong Kong horse racing form guides. Two large ledgers covered the two race courses— one labelled Sha Tin and the other Happy Valley. ‘These are my quarters, sir.’
With a superhuman effort, I met this with a straight bat. ‘And I could move in immediately?’ I said.
‘Indeed, sir. But I would not shilly shally. This is bargain price accomodation in a prime location. It will not stay vacant for long.
An hour later I was staggering back from the Chinese Merchandise Emporium on Queen’s Road. This fine establishment had served generations of ex-pats, typically those with fat expense accounts and domestic staff.
My budget stretched to a rice-paper thin foam mattress. This I doggedly hauled across Central, clattering into counterfeit Canto-Pop CDs, as I made my way to my fancy new address: Cambridge Villas, Old Bailey Street