When we lived in New York, every time we swung through Chinatown I wondered what it’d be like to live there. A world apart, an ethno-linguistic island within the island, like Williamsburg and its Orthodox Jews, Brighton Beach and its Russian-speakers, Washington Heights and its Latin Americans.
In Hong Kong, I have my chance. In the Yau Ma Tei district, I was struck by the authenticity: outdoor produce markets; dark, creepy alleys; loads of elderly Chinese, shuffling along; plus, herbal apothecaries, feng shui shops, Asian eateries and others crammed side-by-side, their neons signs screaming for attention. Not surprisingly, many a Hong Kong movie has been filmed here.
Sure, I’ve heard about local “Triads,” the criminal networks with a rich history in HK. I’d also noticed all the signs for “guesthouses,” brothels masquerading as massage parlors. (Individual prostitution is legal here, but any “business” connected to it is illegal.) Placards by the doorway point up narrow stairwells. A typical one reads like a menu, in Chinese and English, with the price in Hong Kong dollars (I’ll helpfully note the US$ equivalent):
“Hong Kong girl 250” (about US$32)
“Chinese girl 250”
“Malaysian girl 200” ($26)
“Philippine girl” 200
Then, the filet mignon option: “Russian girl 550” ($71)
No, I have no idea what they do for these prices. Really, I don’t.
That said, before I moved onto Shanghai Street two days ago, I suppose it would have made sense to visit my new locale at night, to see its other face. That first night, I strolled around for a few hours, exploring. On my way home, I noticed two women, in heels, standing on the corner diagonal from my apartment: “Hello!” they said, enthusiastically. Taken by surprise, I mumbled, “Um, Hi.”
Last night, there they were, again. This time, one of them waved at me.
This could get awkward. Or I may just go ahead … and interview them.