The Perfect Hole

I’ve been feeling a little sick so I haven’t been out and about the last few days. But yesterday afternoon I realized my laundry has been sitting uncollected in the shop for a long time, and I needed to pick it up before I go out of town. So I pulled myself together to make the long trek down to Bridges Street, to the Perfect Dry Wet Wash Clothes Company, Baak Fei Gon Sap Sai Yi Gung Si.

There are three or four pretty good laundry shops closer to my place. I’ve tried them all. You’re probably wondering why I take my clothes all the way down to Bridges Street. The answer is I’m a sentimental fool. I started using Perfect Laundry years ago when they were still on Staunton Street, much closer to my apartment. I liked the way the brand of cheap fabric softener they used made my sheets smell. I have come to associate that warm, powdery fragrance with all my happiest moments in Hong Kong.

Also, I just liked the vibe of the place. The old man who weighed the clothes bag and wrote out the receipts reminded me of a character in Wong kar-wai’s In The Mood for Love. He was unnaturally short, only about 4 feet or so, his back hunched by age. Usually he’d be rushing about the place in a sweat, half-dressed in plastic flip-flops, baggy shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt that was greyish and dirty-looking–which struck me as odd, considering the nature of the business.

When the hand-lettered sign went up on Perfect’s front window over a year ago. “Re-locating business to Bridges Street.” I wasn’t surprised. That stretch of Staunton was losing its old tenants, one by one, to the swish new Soho restaurants that try to fool you into believing they are individual businesses. (Actually, they all are outlets of big “restaurant groups”, or corporations.) The place where I used to take my jeans for washing is now a boutique that sells overpriced jeans.

What surprised me, however, was the story I heard from Perfect’s workers when I hiked down to their new shop and asked them, in Cantonese, what had happened. The new manager, a woman, told me that the lo baan, the boss, had sold not only the business, but the entire building, which he had owned. And that the lo baan was the guy in the dirty t-shirt.

That’s Hong Kong for you. You can’t tell the millionaires from the pensioners. Which is why, if you go to the Landmark building and walk into, say, Prada, wearing an old sweatsuit, the salesclerk will treat you as if you are Li Ka Shing. Because you might be Li Ka Shing.

The retired lo baan allowed his workers to keep the Perfect name. The workers pooled their resources and moved to Bridges Street. So this business with the evocative fabric softener was now a worker’s collective. How could I stop patronizing them?

Anyway, the hike down Staunton to Bridges Street is always instructive, a good barometer of the latest developments in the over-development of my neighborhood. The reality check that stretch of road gives me is not always easy to take. Sometimes it’s downright painful. Like the time I walked down by the old, abandoned Policeman’s Living Quarters, and suddenly stopped, stunned and unable to continue. There, across the street in the spot where my beloved local restaurant Ngau Gei used to be, was nothing but a vacant lot, a raw hole.

Soho used to have five or six little Chinese food joints like Ngau Gei–places one step up from the dai paai dong street-stalls, where you could get simple, delicious family-style cooking. But Ngau Gei was far and away the best. For food and certainly for atmosphere. It’s owner, according to my sources, was a retired Triad guy, and sometimes the restaurant would have tables of very, um, interesting looking patrons.

The kitchen of Ngau Gei sent out hot, delicious, homely Cantonese dishes. I wasn’t the only one to appreciate them. One night I went there in search of takeout, and was surprised to see Lau Kin-wai, the gourmand and food writer for Seun Bo, sitting there at a rickety folding table with his wife, Mee Saang. He insisted I join them for stir fried chicken and spring onions. I started to beg off politely, but then he pulled from his bag a bottle of excellent French wine and asked the waiter to uncork it.

Another night I remember going there with Margaret Ng and a group of other people. I was a bit concerned, because Ngau Gei isn’t the sort of place you take an elegant barrister given to sensible English shoes and tweed skirts. But Margaret loves cooking, and knows her food. When the plate of humble tung choi, water spinach, arrived at the table, she immediately plucked a stalk of the steaming, fragrant vegetable from the platter with her chopsticks. “This tung choi,” she proclaimed in her lovely British accent, “really has wok hei.”

Ngau Gei ‘s kitchen stayed open until 2am, and I often used to go there with Ah Go late at night. It was “our place.” We would sit together at one of the folding tables that the owner set up on the sidewalk outside the abandoned Policeman’s Living Quarters, order fried noodles and a big bottle of Ching do beer. Friends, old and new, would pass by, stop and chat. Once the fortuneteller from the nearby Man Mo Temple sat down and joined us. I remember thinking that her appearance was a sign, an omen that everything was perfect: the place, the food, Ah Go. That fate had woven the moment into something special and brought everyone and everything together in happiness. Yauh yun fan.

The place that fed my stomach and opened my heart is now a hole. Actually, it is worse than a hole. Yesterday on my way to the laundry I noticed some new activity on both sides of the street. Over the fencing around the former home of Ngau Gei is a big banner with a picture of a 30-something Western woman on it. She’s holding a cocktail and smiling vacantly. The sign reads: Centre Point…glamourous new lifestyle. Or something like that. What it ought to read is: Henderson Land, one of Hong Kong’s overfed property cartels, soon will build huge expensive cookie-cutter condo here.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the street, two workmen were busy erecting some new metal signs along the sidewalk–more “stops” along the fabled Sun Yat Sen Trail, the road that charts the Chinese’s revolutionary’s steps through points in space. The signs all have lovely black and white historical photos of “Hong Kong in the time of Sun Yat Sen.”

I studied the pictures for a long time. Whatever Sun Yat Sen saw and experienced when he stood in this spot is gone for good. My Ngau Gei has also vanished. I touch the sign that commemorates one man’s lost  world and that commemorates, in a way, the world I’ve lost, too. The emptiness feels enormous.

Everything changes, of course. That’s life. But in Hong Kong the changes happen like a car crash, sudden and jarring. The Cantonese (and Chinese and Japanese) word for accident is yi noi,  意外, which means, literally, beyond reason or meaning. 
One moment you have a favorite, perfect place, then you blink and it’s covered in bamboo scaffolding and green plastic sheets. How can Hong Kong people bear it?

I ask Ah Go this question, and he looks at me like I’m nuts. He’s been through forty years of Hong Kong’s transformations, and it has made his heart so tough he doesn’t feel it anymore. And he’s Cantonese, and thus pragmatic. He points out that Ngau Gei is still in business, which is true. They’ve moved down to a storefront on Gough Street, off Aberdeen. The food’s still great.

Ah Go and I still eat there sometimes. But not as often. The new place is tiny, and there are no tables on the sidewalk where you can sit and where passing fortunetellers will join you for a beer. My clothes from the Perfect Laundry still smell like happiness, but the shop is far away and I no longer hand my clothes bag to the little old millioniare in the t-shirt. The “new” Star Ferry pier looks like a building in Disneyland. Will it transform, over time, into a perfect place in someone else’s Hong Kong?

I walked by the old Star Ferry pier the other day. Or, I should say, the place where the pier used to be. They’ve finished the demolition. It is now completely gone. Like so many Hong Kong memories, it has become a hole, an empty space. It feels bad to look at; like an accident, you want to turn away. However, I am still relatively new to Hong Kong, and so the repeated trauma of sudden loss hasn’t accumulated inside me to the breaking point.

My heart can probably survive a few more holes. I’m not going to reach into my pocket for a knife to slice open the green plastic scaffolding, or throw my body down in the path of bulldozers.

But I can understand, completely, why a Hong Kong person would.

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