I am in the middle of having a brain operation without anesthesia and a mad surgeon is holding a power drill millimeters from my skull. Oh, wait. The damn jong sau is still going on in flats 15A and B. Here at Profitable View Court, we tenants are living in renovation hell. Every morning at 9am, the construction crew arrives. At exactly 9:15 they finish drinking their naaih cha, plug in the power drills, and the daai seng, the big sound, begins. I’m jarred out of sleep, my head starts to throb and my chest feels like it will explode from the stop-and-start whining and hammering.
I’ve been through six of these flat renovations since I moved into Profitable View Court two years ago, a period in which Soho has morphed from a mixed neighborhood into a playground and bedroom community for expat financial analysts. The apartments in this building, which used to house Chinese families, are being renovated by the landlords and turned into modern flats for trendy 20-something singles. This jong sau is the worst by far, because it’s happening right upstairs from me, and they are converting two apartments at once.
I’m a New Yorker, used to apartment living, and I’ve survived lots of renovations, including one of my own. Hong Kong construction, though, is the Champions League of noise. Back in the US, we use drywall, which is malleable and easy to tear down and build up without raising a ruckus. But in Hong Kong, where land is gold and every millimeter of usable square footage means extra pennies in a developer’s pocket, builders can’t use drywall, because they don’t use insulation. Here, the interior walls of your apartment are some kind of concrete/plaster compound, and they are flush with the exterior building wall (which is only 5 inches wide and extends as far out to the perimeter of the lot as the building code permits.)
The lack of exterior wall insulation means Hong Kong winters are as much of a bitch as New York’s, even though the temperature here rarely drops below 50 degrees F. The concrete walls trap the chill and damp. And they are hard as rock–if you try to bang a nail into the wall to hang a picture, you’ll bend the nail and leave an ugly gash in the plaster. When it comes time to renovate an apartment, you practically need a jackhammer to do the demolition.
And CIA training to survive the torture. I sit down at my desk, which is vibrating, stick in some earplugs, put my “noise-cancelling” (ha!) headphones on, and try to concentrate. But after lunch I give up. Mouh yung. Useless. Until the work crew leaves at 6pm, I am a prisoner in a Guantanamo of urban development.
At 3pm, I finally crack. I shut off the computer, throw on a jacket, and leave Profitable View Court headed…somewhere. Anywhere I can find peace and quiet. I let my feet decide. They take me to one of my favorite streets in the area, Tai Ping San Gaai.
Once upon a time, I remember New York was like this: you could walk for five minutes, turn a corner, and enter a world so different from your own you needed to pinch yourself to remember you were still in the same city. Walk past the big ugly new Centre Stage high rise on Bridges Street, go down the narrow concrete steps that lead to Tai Ping Shan road, and suddenly daily life changes its register. Buildings are two and four stories, not twenty. Wet underwear and pajamas flap from every balcony, and folding chairs and tables dot the little side lanes. People are sitting, chatting in the public spaces, while drinking tea in glasses.
Tai Ping Shan Street has four very old Buddhist shrines to Gun Yam (in Mandarin, Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy) along one short stretch. One of the pleasures of walking here is soaking up the fragrance of that spicy, smoky incense that they always burn in Chinese temples. I swear, there’s something hallucinogenic mixed in with the stuff. But today, I notice the street is even smokier and more intoxicating than usual. And there are quite a few women bustling about, holding sticks of incense and red and yellow paper rectangles with Chinese characters on them.
A handlettered Chinese sign on one of the Gun Yam temples explains the activity: today is Dai Hoi Fu Fong the spring day that Gun Yam opens up her treasury and lets you borrow “money” (a little red paper). The spiritual money from the Goddess of Mercy’s stash brings luck and prosperity in the coming year.
As I read the sign, I’m suddenly hit by the realization I’m actually reading the Chinese sign without effort. For the last year or so, my Cantonese speaking fluency has plummeted, because I haven’t had the time or money for classes. But I’ve been plugging away, independently, at my reading skills, and I guess I’m making progress. It feels amazing–is this what it is like for an illiterate person who learns, as an adult, to read? A world that was once invisible is now speaking to me, I can hear its voices. Sorry, I’m mixing up my senses here. But wait–look at the characters for Gun Yam:
Gun Yam means, literally, “observe sound”. What a wonderful Buddhist way of expressing heightened awareness.
I wonder if the highly sensitive Goddess of Paying Attention to Sound realizes how lucky she is to be living here on peaceful Tai Ping Shan Street, and not in my apartment.
I wander on, and find myself standing in front of the most atmospheric cha chaan teng, Hong Kong diner, in the nabe:
Really, the Fo Gei coffee-snack eating parlour is like a set from an early John Woo movie. I walk in, sit down at a small table by the street, and order a milk tea, a naaih cha, and–what the hell, live a little–some fa saang do sih, peanut butter toast. How can you not love a city in which you discover the comfort-food lunch of your New Jersey childhood is an adult tea time treat?
When I order in Cantonese, the six guys at the round table in the middle of the cafe turn around and stare menacingly at me. Five of them are gam mou jai–guys sporting the spiky and reddish blond-tinted hairdos of the teenage gangsters in Young and Dangerous movie series from the mid-90s. The sixth guy is much older, in his fifties, I’d say. He’s leaning back in his chair, like the king–obviously he’s the daaih lo, the boss, of the others. Wow, I think to myself. I’ve stumbled into the local Triad tough-guys having their afternoon snack.
Tai Ping Shan street has a history of being a shady sort of place. The crowded, working class area was the center of Hong Kong’s Bubonic Plague epidemic the late 19th century, and thousands of Chinese workers died here. The government razed the neighborhood shortly thereafter, but it continued to be a poor community, an undesirable area. My friend John Batten, who used to live around here, tells me the whole area is supposed to have really bad fung seui. That’s why there are hospitals, coffin makers and antique shops (places selling “dead” furniture) around here.
Anyway, the waiter brings me my milk tea (I should pause here to mention that it is one of the most fantastic naaih chas I have ever had in Hong Kong, not too sweet, and with a perfectly smooth texture), and I drink it and imagine myself in a Hong Kong movie. Then, as if things weren’t cinematic enough, a middle aged guy comes into the cha chaan teng.
With his bird.
One of the classic scenes of atmospheric Hong Kong is the old guys sitting in the teahouse with their caged birds. But the practice of tak
ing your bird for a stroll is dying. I’ve wandered around Hong Kong for years, and this is the first time I’ve ever been sitting in a cafe when someone’s casually walked in with a birdcage.
The man sets the cage gently on the floor by his feet and orders a yun yeung tea. And I chuckle, because the bird man has unwittingly ordered a bird drink. “Yun yeung” is Hong Kong slang for coffee mixed with tea. The characters for “yun yeung“
are the characters representing the female and male Mandarin duck. That’s the fabled duck that finds a partner and mates for life. The idea being that “coffee-tea” makes a lovey-dovey pair, in which the flavor of each beverage blends so well with the other, the two become inseparable.
The bird guy sips his lovey-dovey hot drink, and the bird at his feet begins to whistle loudly, like a boiling kettle. I lean down and take a peek inside the cage. It holds a tiny, quivering yellow and green finch, no bigger than my thumb. “Hou sai-ge jeuk-jai, daan haih hou daai seng!” I say. “That’s a lot of sound for such a little bird.”
He smiles, and answers me with a four-character Chinese phrase: Jeui sai, seng daai.
The smallest are the loudest.
Actually, the guy explains, my bird is making a loud noise because it’s spring. He’s looking for a girlfriend.
“Me too,” the waiter chimes in.
I tell them that I’ve always wanted to have a bird in Hong Kong. But I worried I wouldn’t have time to take care of it properly. It’s true, the man says. A bird is a lot of work. “Every day, I take my bird out twice for a walk. And once a week I take him to the Mongkok bird market to visit his girlfriend.”
You’ve got to be kidding, I tell him. Anyway, I know you are kidding me, because you can’t take birds on busses or the MTR. A year or two ago, during the last bird flu scare, the Hong Kong government banned birds and fowl from public transportation.
The guy smiles, and describes for me the special bag he made to secretly smuggle his finch onto the subway.
What a den of iniquity is Tai Ping San Gaai. Here you can rub elbows with gangsters and violators of the bird flu laws.
Speaking of gangsters, the Triad guys with the dated hairdos are getting up to go. And, as they do, I notice that every single one of them has the same object hanging from a clip at the back belt loop of their jeans. It is not a gun, not a knife. It is a retractable tape measure.
These guys aren’t a gang of Triads discussing with their daai lo boss new ways to terrorize and shake down the local merchants. They are construction workers, out for a tea break with the contractor.
The golden-haired gang swaggers down Tai Ping Shan street, in the direction of my building. I slowly eat my peanut butter toast and try not to think of the terror and daai seng they are about to inflict on my neighborhood.