Always heed the words of the Pakistani man who owns one of the guesthouses on the 17th floor of the Chungking Mansions. In fact, you should follow the orders of every single guesthouse owner in Hong Kong’s most notorious ghetto-ized high-rise. There is no room for taking liberties here because the survival of whole construct is hanging by a thread.
Budget travelers to one of the most expensive cities in the world have few options. But the Chungking Mansions offer asylum – of the lunatic variation. The tenement building houses a choice of 80 derelict places to stay, each one run by a hardscrabble cohort of some sort.
Upon entrance, a dozen hawkers accost you, pleading that you room and board in their tiny corner of the world. You will say yes to the first or second one because you want the bombardment to stop.
The proprietor of your space outlines the rules for staying in it: no food in the room; keep the window shut. You will look out the window for answers as to why you can’t have it open. There are none. The only person who could get in is Spiderman. It’s late spring of 1989 in Hong Kong, with temperatures reaching 90 degrees and 90-percent humidity. The guesthouse you chose has no air-conditioning, maybe none of them do.
You open the window. A tiny breeze – like a lizard’s exhale – comes into the stale room. You eat the Snickers bar from the airport, and fall asleep on your slender uncomfortable cot. Your boyfriend passes out from jetlag on the cot across the small otherwise empty room.
You wake up in the middle of the night because you feel something. You don’t know what it is. Perhaps the humidity is so great that it has turned into rain, which is dropping upon you. Clearly, you are dreaming, or hallucinating, and you fall back asleep.
And then you wake abruptly up. That feeling isn’t rain – it’s feet. You are being trod upon by more than one tiny little trespasser.
You call to your boyfriend, albeit quietly, because you don’t want to wake the proprietor.
“Huh? What is it?”
“Stay very calm as I tell you this. Do not react quickly.”
“Rats are walking in from the window, across our heads and down our beds. Maybe dozens of them.”
Your boyfriend’s testosterone kicks in. He freaks out, leaps up and turns on the light. The rats scatter. Some run under the door toward the Pakistani family who rented you this room. Others race back up your bed to the window, where they make the four-inch leap to the roof of the neighboring building.
You pack your things and sneak out the front door. You go to McDonald’s at 2 a.m. and wash your hands in the bathroom as if you are Lady Macbeth. You drink coffee until the sun comes up and you can get to a travel agent for a ticket out of Hong Kong. You will go wherever you can get the cheapest fare, preferably before noon.