This is a piece I wrote recently for a Wanderlust competition. I didn’t win, but it’s still nice seeing my work on their website. The criteria for the entries was to write about a ‘high place’ you’ve travelled to. Instead of mountains, I chose to write about my time living as a backpacker in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s.
The Seventeenth Floor
Fifteen people stood waiting for the lift, the one that stopped at even-numbered floors only. Most of them were Westerners. That was no good. Although the sign inside the lift claimed it was designed to carry six people at a time, it neglected to mention that this didn’t include Westerners. Being on the whole much larger and heavier than the local Chinese, the lift would refuse to budge if more than four squeezed in at once.
If I was going to have to wait for the lift to do its journey more than three times, it was quicker to walk. I turned and pushed through the doors leading to the stairs. I was good at this now and no longer needed to pause for breath as I climbed to the seventeenth floor.
Living on the seventeenth floor, I felt like I was part of a secret club. Most people didn’t know it existed. Of course the even-floored lift didn’t go to the seventeenth, it stopped at the sixteenth, but for some reason the odd-floored lift didn’t go to the seventeenth either. It stopped at the fifteenth.
My building was officially called a Mansion, but was more often referred to as a ‘death-trap’ or a ‘den of iniquity’ and sometimes, when a journalist needed to pad out his word count in the South China Morning Post, as a ‘cockroach-infested, iniquitous death-trap’. He wasn’t far wrong.
I shared a room with ten people. Those on the top bunks had to carefully manoeuvre onto their beds so as to avoid decapitation by the uncovered ceiling fans which were constantly whirring in a vain attempt to counteract blood-boiling temperatures and humidity levels of nearly 100%.
We shared two toilets, not just my roommates and me, but the people in the other rooms too. The toilets were holes in the floor. The limp bit of hose dangling from the wall was the shower. To use it, I’d stand straddling the toilet hole; if I dropped the soap, I was never getting it back. I’d wave the hose around as tepid water dribbled out. Water pressure was an unknown concept on the seventeenth floor.
When the air became too stifling; the noise too deafening; the smells too overpowering, there was an escape. If not many people knew about the existence of the seventeenth floor, even fewer knew of the rickety ladder leading to a trapdoor at the corridor’s dark dead-end. Pushing up through that trapdoor led to the roof.
In among the grimy water tanks and pipes, leaning on the low wall that edged its way round the roof, I could look out over all the other buildings and peer down onto the flashing neon billboards strung across the road and plastering the buildings. It was quiet up here. Peaceful. Almost tranquil. It didn’t even smell too bad.
Overcrowding and a lack of land meant there was a need for tall buildings, but the jumbo jets circling low as they descended to the airport, put paid to any idea of Dubai-style skyscrapers. Planning regulations in Kowloon dictated that buildings couldn’t be higher than seventeen storeys.
On the roof of the seventeenth floor I was the highest person in Kowloon. I was up there with the planes, trying, but never quite being able, to see the faces of the passengers which I knew would be glued to the glass the same as mine was when I first flew into Hong Kong. I’d never had an introduction to a city like it; a pigeon’s eye view of the streets I’d soon be walking down.
I knew I lived in a dive. It was a place my Chinese students were too terrified to enter. It had weirdos and people hawking up phlegm. It had police raids at 5 o’clock in the morning. It had cockroaches and rats. But it also had the best Indian food and the friendliest people. It was a hive of activity. It was a hub of multi-culturalism. And there, perched on that roof top, gazing out at the lights reflecting in the harbour, caressed by the warm night air, I knew Chungking Mansions was the only place I wanted to be. It was home.