The Star Ferry

by David Flynn

            The morning after the Handover Diana behaved as if they were husband and wife, making Mark a quick breakfast–orange juice, toast, jam.  He noticed how little she actually looked at him. 

            The first day of living in China, instead of the British Hong Kong colony, was almost just another work day.  That night was to be the Chinese fireworks, and Diana had arranged drinks with some fellow British journalists afterward. .

            When she left for her financial newspaper office, dressing from suits she kept in his closet, Mark sat at the built-in kitchen counter drinking coffee, the strong, American stuff he had to order on the internet from New Orleans, then stopped by a Chinese doctor on the way to his own business magazine job.  Since arriving in the city half a year before, he had been suffering leg pains due to the slopes of Hong Kong, or so he thought, and his Western doctor, Canadian, had not been able to cure him.  That one had prescribed support hose.   Riding up and down the municipal escalator on the mountain he had noticed the doctor’s sign, in both Cantonese and English.  The up and down strip of shops and offices by the escalator had become his village.  Even those cafes upward from his building a few blocks seemed in another land, due to the strain of climbing, and the burning in his legs.

            Mark entered the doctor’s door.  A secretary behind a desk asked him to take a seat in a row of empty chairs.  He waited in what seemed more like a hushed bank office, one of those he often had to endure for interviews.  He amused himself by watching through the window the Asian faces gliding downward on the escalator.  Most Chinese stood formally, with somber expressions, as if at a government reception.  By contrast, the few Westerners descended in their t-shirts and blue jeans joking with each other, relaxed.   Mark tried to avoid stereotypes, and he knew the serious and directed versus pleasure-absorbed and assured division of cultures was untrue.  But his mind categorized all day long, and the game was fun for the ten minutes while he sat.  West division; East unity.  He loved to watch people.

            When the secretary said, “Mr. Collins, the doctor will see you,” he stood, a bit flustered.  From behind her counter she gestured toward the next door inward, one that had been open the whole time.

            “Good morning,” the doctor said in clear English.  Dr. Yang stood inside the door and extended his hand.  He was a short, round man in a suit, gesturing toward a leather chair in front of his desk.  The office was luxuriously appointed in a Western way, with dark wood paneling, a thick blue rug, and brass banker’s lamps.  On the wall behind him were various standard Chinese scroll paintings, the Three Gorges, and framed, hand signed pictures of patients.  Mark glanced at them, and realized they were Western movie stars.

            Dr. Yang took his place behind the desk, and Mark sat. 

            “My legs have hurt me a lot since I’ve moved to Hong Kong.  At times I can hardly walk, and they feel like they are burning.  I think it is because of the mountains.  Everything is at an angle here,” he began.

            The doctor made no attempt at moving from behind his desk to examine his legs. 

            “Is the pain worse in one leg or the other?”

            “The right one.”

            The receptionist interrupted them, carrying a tray of tea.  She smiled and poured tea from the pitcher into the cups, then left.

            “Chinese medicine is different from Western medicine.  I think your doctors would x-ray the leg, and check the muscles.  We think differently.

            “In Chinese medicine there is a flow.  Maybe you have heard of chi?  From our point of view the flow of chi has been blocked in your leg, and I must find where that has happened.”

            They continued talking about his legs for about a half hour, sipping tea.  Mark glanced again at the photos on the wall.  One was a British actor, one of his favorites.  The message on the photograph thanked Dr. Yang for his care.  He felt impressed to be attended by the same doctor as stars. 

            At the end the doctor said he would have some pills, herbal, made up for him.  Return in two days, he said.  They shook hands.  It was the first physical contact since the opening handshake.

            Mark had drunk snake’s blood at a pharmacy at the bottom of the hill, just for curiosity.  It was supposed to make him sexually potent.  As with Dr. Yang, he did so to learn. 

            At some late morning hour, inside the Convention and Exhibition Center, the president of the PRC, Jiang Zemin, and the new Chief Executive of Hong Kong, with the reputation of being a mainland supporter, Tung Chee Hwa, gave speeches together.  Welcome back to the Motherland, Jiang said in the newspaper report Mark read; we are happy to return to our Homeland, Tung replied, a subtle difference.

            That afternoon in the office of his American business magazine near the foot of the escalator Mark filed exactly ten stories, most short notices, and felt he had done his job.  His hard work on the Handover had been finished months before, due to the monthly’s deadlines.   Diana, working for a British daily financial newspaper, would be much busier.  He gazed out the high window at the harbor, alive with freighters and ferries, and wondered what it would look like in twenty years.

            During the day there were more celebrations, the opening of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Building, a mass Buddhist prayer session in Hong Kong Stadium.  Mark attended none of these.  That night was to be the Chinese fireworks.

            Diana met him after dark at the Star Ferry terminal.  She didn’t like talking about what she had written–they worked for rival publications–, but more about the three employees at the bureau office where she was head, having begun at the main, London, office.  The three Chinese reporters were constantly squabbling or, especially one woman, suffering from severely low self-esteem, so that she was afraid to ask officials difficult questions.  He had visited Diana there one time, and she had visited his office one time.  Both were neutral, high energy spaces, similar down to the type of desk and the color of the phones. 

            Each had interviewed bankers, industrialists, politicians and many others for stories about the Handover.  Typical was a Chinese real estate developer, with probably a half billion dollar portfolio in Hong Kong.

            “I expect there will be no changes,” he said on the phone to Mark.  “We have worked smoothly with the mainland government for many years now.”

            He was lying.

            Mark was investigating rumors that many Hong Kong businessmen, including the developer, had developed double citizenships, particularly with Canada, and had their affairs set up so that with the touch of the Enter button on a computer, their assets could be transferred to other countries.  The few he looked into seemed suspicious, although they denied it and he could never pin one down for publication.

            The Star Ferry, that fleet of green and white ferries with names like Northern Star and Star of Asia, was to take the couple across the channel to the Kowloon Peninsula, the other half of Hong Kong.  There, Diana said, was the best vantage to see the Chinese fireworks display.  After, they would meet her friends at a bar in the Peninsula Hotel.  Since she had lived in Hong Kong for two years she had a number of friends, although they were all non-Chinese.  He was still friendless, but he tended toward the Chinese journalists he had met.

            “Work has been normal, which surprises me,” she said.  “Nobody is panicking, although everybody has plans in case the PRC turns nasty.  They don’t expect anything to change soon, however.  Hong Kong is to be ‘One Nation, Two Systems.’  And that is supposed to entice Taiwan to enter the same type of agreement.”

            She looked lovely in the twilight, as the ferry plowed through the small waves toward the dock on the other side.  They had to stand in the crowd, holding poles.   Short blonde hair, a face that was so British it might as well be on a coin, skinny and tall.  He would never tell her, but he distinctly remembered the first thought he had about Diana, seeing her across the room at a business conference:  There was the ideal wife.  They stood together as if they had eight children.

            The crowds were huge, forests of Chinese, and it took the couple awhile to wend their way from the Star Ferry dock building to any kind of view of the harbor.  At least the night was clear, though thick and hot.  Across on the island neon figures on the skyscrapers glowed in many colors, a dragon, a dancer.

            They pushed past a freedom display, a wall of posters with a sinister, pockmarked man in front who glared at them.   The titles of the posters were in English and the text in Cantonese.  “WE WILL DIE BEFORE WE GIVE UP OUR FREEDOMS!”  “COMMUNISTS, GO AWAY!”  “At least Mark thought the text was the local Cantonese.  The writing might have been Mandarin.  Many in Hong Kong considered Mandarin to be elitist, particularly the Beijing dialect with the rolled r’s, but it was the language of the PRC, so there had been a rush to affect it.  Mark didn’t know.  All, literally, of the business people he and Diana had to interview spoke fluent English.

            The first burst of fireworks came as they had their backs turned, still attempting a closer spot to the harbor.  Through the heads all Mark could see was the black sky.  Diana stood primly at his side.  The crowd also stood primly and quietly.  Mark fought stereotypes again, but knew an American or British crowd would be a lot noisier and more dangerous.

            Rockets rose in the black as if testing the air.  A huge flash and the whole world turned green.  Another huge flash and the whole world turned red.  This certainly was the most impressive fireworks Marks had ever seen, appropriate since the Chinese invented them.  The history of fireworks was in the sky, how the Chinese used gunpowder for displays like this because they were secure in their empire, while insecure, backward Europe took the invention and turned it into military superiority that conquered the world, including Hong Kong.  And that incredible noise.  For an hour he, Diana, and the crowd stood buffed by vast explosions.  What must a battlefield have sounded and looked like!  The display wasn’t subtle, or artistic, like the British fireworks the night before, but more powerful.  No rhythm ruled the light flashes.

            Diana held her hands over her ears at one point, and Mark wanted to put his arm around her.  He didn’t, however.  She didn’t like public displays of affection, a trait that fit very well in Hong Kong.  Until recently public affection was punished by jail, so that only a few rebellious youth could be seen even cuddling in the streets.

            “The Chinese won,” Mark told her as the crowd pushed them, politely, away from the dock.  The air was heavy with acrid smoke, thick as fog.  “Not pretty, but overwhelming.”

            “I rather liked ours better,” Diana said.  “More detail.  More orchestrated.  More logical.”

            “As opposed to more holistic, more tao,” he said.  Obvious differences, ones they had talked about before, the Greek tradition of system and narrowness versus the Asian of unity and the flow of everything.  Differences were an issue they talked about maybe too often, Asian versus European-American, and, especially, British and American. 

            The farther back from the dock, along Salisbury Road, the more the crowd thinned, until as they approached the lighted block of the Peninsula Hotel, they were in a normal jam.  The Peninsula, one of the world’s most expensive hotels, and one that had a long history of famous writers and other luminaries who had slept in its plush rooms, had been restored to past glory, and now was the hotel in Hong Kong again.

            Once through the revolving brass doors, a hush fell.  They blundered their way on the blue carpet through the vast lobby.  Bowing Chinese lads in Western uniforms assumed the couple were guests, and one pointed to a side hall where the elevators would take them up to the bar.  The elevator doors were bronze, and parted to a forest of exiting formally dressed, laughing people.  He and Diana were the only ones in the elevator as it ascended, so he took her in his arms, held her tight and kissed her.  She let him without response.

            The doors opened to a dizzying vision, one that made him disoriented.  The Peninsula Bar was set at bizarre angles.  The carpet slanted back to front, the walls slanted the opposite way.  Each table was a chrome triangle, slanted back to front.  The bar slanted, front to back.  Only the outside glass wall, filled with the lights of Hong Kong, harbor and skyscrapers, including the colored neon drawings, was horizontal.  He felt dizzy just standing there.

            A knot of white people filled the stools at two tables, skinny, fashionably dressed, and staring right at him.  This was to be his introduction, and he had gone through similar introductions to other of Diana’s Western friends.

            “Hello Diana,” a woman said, ignoring his existence.  Her white-collared blue dress was almost up to her crotch, a contradiction of the puritan and the whore, a tease.  “Eric is being nasty.”  Short blonde hair, cut sharply.  A face used to fighting back, constantly.  Mark amused himself with these instant portraits, a product of his reporting.

            “Eric, be nice,” Diana kidded.  Her edges were much softer.

            “How can I be nice if Monica ignores me all night?”  Eric was whiney, pathetically straightforward, in a striped suit from his job as reporter for a travel magazine.  If typical, this new batch were all reporters and editors, plus their wives, husbands or mates.  So, Monica the strong one, Eric the weak. 

            A major historical event, the end of the British Empire, the shifting of the vast creation that was Hong Kong, vast crowds of Chinese celebrating in the streets, everything visible outside that wall of windows, and these mostly British people had their backs turned, maneuvering socially among themselves.  They would talk all night about each other, excluding him.  How rude.

            A skinny woman with dirt blonde hair but great legs exhibited in a similar short dress, beige, staggered on the slant over to their table.  She was very, very drunk, and held a glass of some brown liquid that she spilled as she moved.  “We’ve been dancing,” she updated Diana in an accent Mark couldn’t place.  Czech?   Czech she would be in his mind.  “But nobody was in a dancing mood.  The club was almost deserted.  The bastards.”

            She appraised Mark with a direct, obnoxious stare.  Not one mentioned the fireworks display.

            “I am Jana,” she said, and actually rubbed herself against him.  Diana turned fiercely away, as if this was his fault.  “That’s my boyfriend Lou, but he’s an asshole.”

            A chunky, curly haired man in blue jeans, British of course, glared their way. He drank beer, an anomaly, although it was Watney’s, an English ale.  The woman stared at him intensely again, then staggered back to the bloke’s table, metal, pitched toward the glass wall.

            Mark tried not to focus on the angles.  What must it have been like to be drunk in this storm-tossed room.  Except for two men, French businessmen maybe, sitting at the bar, their group were the only customers.  A Chinese waitress with blue hair, hacked into knots, served everyone.  The hotel guests, he speculated, were out celebrating with all of Hong Kong, where he wished he could be instead of in this claustrophobic box.  He ordered a glass of Red Wine, no more detail available, for himself, and Diana order one for herself.  She didn’t drink much, so the glass stood on the table, an icon.  Mostly he sweated awkwardly in the chilled air, listening to her friends gossip about people he didn’t know.  None of the others had bothered to introduce themselves, and Diana hadn’t felt introductions necessary.  She smiled, happy to be among people she knew.

            “Marla was there,” a sharp nosed blonde dug in.  He had to think of them as ‘sharp nosed blonde’ or ‘mediocre middle management male’.  Jana, ‘drunk with great legs’.  Her boyfriend left a half hour in, mad.

            “I don’t care about the Handover,” one German man, “dyed-blond, sincere journalist’, commented during the endless hours they remained in the Peninsula Bar.  Mark had brought up the subject.  The man seemed as if he was trying to sum up the world with every sentence, he was that concentrated.  “It’s not going to affect me.”  Meaning the foreign bubble all these Westerners lived in.  Mark too.  He swore to himself to start Cantonese lessons, the ones he had meant to start when he first arrived.  He swore to invite Chinese friends to his apartment.  “My freedoms aren’t threatened.”

            An endless night, like a dark area of road back home in Georgia.  They drank; he drank.  They knew he wasn’t charmed, and could care less.  Diana prattled with them like ‘a parliament of fowls’, while he stood feeling each tick of the watch 

            About midnight they descended from the Peninsula summit as a loud knot, then following a short walk in the hot air outside, climbed down the steps to the new subway, so little used that Mark had traveled by it only twice.  The Star Ferry was so much more fun.  Diana stayed by him, something he noticed for the first time.  She would never hold hands in public, or walk, hands around waists, but she was always near, like they were binary suns.  He smiled across at her, because they were the same heighth, and realized that though he was not in love with her passionately it was because she had become so essential.  No one was in love with one’s blood flow.  Maybe she felt the same way, or maybe this was British Love.  Or maybe they were temporary, a man and a woman who met under the unusual circumstances of exile.  How would Baxter, his small Southern town, react to Diana?  How would Gumpton, her English village, react to him?

            They stood loudly waiting underground for the train.  The station was gray concrete and shiny white wall tiles.  The Czech woman, supremely drunk, yelled and thrashed about, barely able to remain upright.  Once she rubbed against Mark, her laced panties visible below her raised dress.  He stood stiff as a skyscraper, worried about Diana.  Waiting rows of Chinese looked straight ahead in disapproval.

            “My boyfriend’s an idiot!” she kept screaming at the top of her lungs.  Mark sympathized utterly with him.  “We have lousy sex!”  She rubbed against the “sincere journalist” who giggled nervously.

            The subway railcar arrived in a rumble, and they entered the brand new vessel.  Five minutes swish through the black tunnel under the water, and they were back on the island of Hong Kong.  Home.  Up the stairs, and out into night air.  The Hong Kong sky had turned cloudy, so no stars through the city lights, always on, and an extra large number of Chinese crowded the sidewalks,

            “I don’t care for that woman,” Diana whispered in his ear.  “But you men do”.  Had he glanced at those legs?  Life with Diana would be on a short leash.  Then the Czech became his problem.

            For Jana had fallen on the sidewalk.  Boomp, she simply sat on the concrete, her short dress showing her legs, her panties, and even part of her skinny stomach.  Chinese flowed around them, disapproving.  One of the other women, a bit primly, rearranged her clothes.  Jana hardly noticed.  Helped to her feet, now bare–her high heels went long ago–then a few more steps and boomp, she fell again.  When they arrived at the foot of the municipal escalators, she stared glassy-eyed ahead, her head bobbling, and she said nothing.  Boomp.  The group stood puzzling what to do with her, while Chinese flowed around the live corpse like a river around an island.

            “Her apartment is about halfway up Mid-Levels,” a British man said.  “But how do we get her there?”

            The minutes of confusion stretched.  One of the men looked around for police, but, of course, right when they needed one, none appeared.  The women talked of hiring someone to help, maybe from the flow of natives stepping onto the escalator.  So Mark took things into his own hands, tired of these Europeans, tired of this drunk, tired of Diana, and simply wanting the bottomless night over.  He reached down and lifted the Czech woman over his shoulder.

            “Mark!” Diana said.  The looks of the others were shocked, disapproving.

            “Let’s get this over with,” he said. 

            Diana quickly pulled down the drunk’s skirt to cover her crotch.

            The escalator would stop running in just a few minutes, and climbing the thousands of  steps–he could not see the top–even with the light woman on his shoulder would be impossible.  The Chinese on the treads looked amused, especially the young ones.  He came to the first, moving step, and joined the slow rise.  Behind him he heard the shuffle and mumble of his group, each on a separate step.  Mark wondered if Diana would leave him. 

            “Let me know when we reach her street,” he shouted behind him, because he didn’t dare turn.  Where before the ascent seemed painfully slow, now it was like they were hardly moving.  The woman, as dead weight on his aching shoulder, became heavier with every second.  She warmed him, but was not sexual.  A bag of bones and skin.  The American fell into deep-rutted determination.

            “The street beyond the movie store,” a British woman’s voice shouted at him from below. 

            A pair of Chinese punk boys with spiked hair rode on the downward side.  They laughed, and their eyes grew wide.  He winked at them.  “Marlboro Man!” one yelled.

            When the opening to the street came, he strode off.  A big step was needed, and he stumbled a bit on the pavement. He turned around.  One by one, the Europeans embarked.  They looked like cows disapproving at their herding.  Diana took her accustomed spot beside him, downright pissed off.

            “She lives about a block down the street,” someone said, so that is the way he headed, the others following.  One block more and he wasn’t sure he could continue.  The thin Czech had become all lead, like a refrigerator.  When they came to an apartment door someone was entering.  Good because they didn’t have the entrance code for the pad.  That someone, a Chinese woman, well dressed and likely also from the celebration, let them in with a worried expression. 

            “Floor?” he asked.

            “Twenty-fifth,” someone said behind him.  They reached that level by elevator, and one of the women led them to the door.  The key was in Jana’s purse, a wispy, black night bag, one of those expensive ones from a trendy shop like Shanghai Tang. 

            “If the women will follow me in, I will put her in the bed then leave.  You can make sure she is comfortable,” he said.  He didn’t want to be accused of rape.  America was a litigious country, always worried about liability.

            And so he did.  The apartment was one room, small, modern, without character, everything neutral white.  There was no view, just a wall pierced by one small sealed window with a side view of the next building.  Tiny kitchen.  The bed took up more than a third of the gray carpet.  Definitely a place for foreigners, though it probably cost a fortune per month.  He laid the lithe body expertly on top of the rumpled covers, like a lover, and felt immense relief.   Why he bowed to the women, even Diana, he didn’t know, but it was as if he was a knight.  He retreated to the hallway, feeling good about his maleness.  The men had not entered.  Likely the women would undress her, at least partially, and place her below the covers.

            “Amazing, old man,” the British journalist said.  Mark noted he actually said ‘old man’.  He slapped him on the back.  The other men grinned and joked.  Men approved, if secretly.  In a few minutes, the women emerged, and that jolliness ended.  The men’s expressions turned serious.  They closed the door, which locked with a faint click.

            “What an awful woman,” one said.

            “How does Eric stand her?  Must be the legs.”

            Diana walked beside him to the elevator then out into the hot, hot night.  He hadn’t even noticed that the building was air conditioned until the contrast.  They stood by the escalator, stopped by then, and the group parted.  He wondered if she would come with him.  After good-bys, and a certain reserved ‘nice to meet you’, the Europeans started the trudge downward, while he and Diana started the struggle upward against gravity.  His legs burned.

            “You will be a legend,” a British woman surprised him from below, looking up with a smile.  “See you and Diana soon.”

            “Rather neon,” Diana said as they rose.  Instead of angry, she seemed deeply puzzled.  In his apartment, however, she grabbed him possessively.  They made love together, she actually moving.

            “I don’t like that Jana woman,” she repeated next morning at the breakfast table, out of the blue.

            “Bit of a drunk,” he said.  “What we in America would call ‘high maintenance’.”  She laughed, her surprisingly brazen chortle. Mark had been daydreaming about what would happen if Diana broke up with him–he had no interest in breaking up with her–, and the availability in Hong Kong of such as the Czech cheered him.

            “Cowboy,” Diana said, dressing for work.  She smiled at him affectionately.

            “What?” Mark said.

            “Now it’s your turn.”

            “My time for what?”

            “To rule the world.”

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