Mark’s eyes scanned the piece of crudely torn paper, which was scrunched up in his right hand mere moments before. The handwriting from the scribbled note was bad and, with the creases, it was impossible to make out what the note said. It didn’t matter though, thought Mark as he gave up trying to decipher the illegible message; he had already memorized the information by heart.
The writing on the paper merely showed an address and nothing more, but Mark knew all too well where it would lead him.
He looked up and stared down the steep steps leading towards Queen Victoria Street of Central Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was an unpleasant city to him.
Its people were irrational and unreasonable, which explained why the city’s cost of living was so high and why real estate was just absurd, from the sizes of its apartments to the rental rates the city demanded for them.
To Mark, Hong Kong was a city plagued from the inside, and the only redemption it would ever find was from the legions of expatriates thronging its streets.
The Wombat’s “Tokyo” was playing in the distant background. The lyrics of the song reflected Mark’s feelings perfectly at that moment.
“If you love me let me go back to that bar in Tokyo, where the demons from my past leave me in peace” he silently sang along to the lyrics he knew all too well; the soundtrack of his life in the city.
Taking a deep breath and scratching the stubble on his sharp jawline, Mark flicked up the collar of his tweed trench coat to give himself more protection from the biting wind. He slowly made his way past the makeshift wooden huts peddling a variety of items; from buttons with the Hong Kong flag emblazoned on each one to western candies and cookies.
It was a cold day in Hong Kong that afternoon. The city was just only recovering from the last few days of Winter and Spring was getting impatient to make its appearance.
Despite the sun being out and the streets teeming with the working class and tourists, Mark couldn’t help but shiver. Maybe it wasn’t the weather, he thought.
‘Maybe it’s the city,’ he told himself. ‘Or maybe it’s just me?’
As a foreign correspondent for the German-based newspaper, Der Spiegel, Mark had always wanted to live in Hong Kong but at the same time not be burdened by the city’s terms of employment. Thus, two years in, he’s still living off a European salary in the unmistakably Asian city.
Work-wise, it has been a dream come true. But for the Dutch-Asian, he finds it exceedingly difficult to find someone he can be in a comfortable relationship with. The Hong Kong girls find him too Asian; all they want is a Caucasian man who they can flaunt to friends and family and he has never taken an interest in the expat women that lived here.
The last relationship Mark was in was ended with the flick of her long, brunette locks and a few cold parting words.
So it has been that way from the first few months he moved into the city.
Walking along Queen Road, Mark passed the multitude of retail stores with its products displayed proudly behind glass and concrete which only reminded him more and more of how much he hated this city.
It was a city that developed itself without discipline.
Hong Kong city grew at an exponential pace but left its citizens clamoring to keep up. And those that couldn’t were left behind to fend for themselves against a cold heartless bitch of a mother that merely fostered them, the same mother that only a few years ago coddled them in her arms like a babe.
As he passed a man, shirtless on the cold hard ground begging for change in front of the luxuriously designed Abercrombie & Fitch store, he couldn’t help but shudder at the thought that there would be more people like him. Hong Kong is a cannibalistic entity that feeds on itself and grows at the expense of the people building it.
He spat on the ground and kept walking.
Taking a left turn down Queen Victoria Street, Mark stopped just outside Hung Kei Mansion, the long 25-story commercial building near the Central train station. Each entrance to the elevators revealed names after names of companies that resided within. It would’ve taken hours to look through each of them before finding the correct one. But Mark knew which one to look for.
Recalling the address from the piece of paper, he walked further down the block until he found the correct entrance and ducked inside it.
“Angel Massage” he read the name on the building directory. “Level 15”. ‘This was it,’ he thought.
Skeptically, he stepped into the elevator.
After a few seconds, Mark stepped out onto the 15th floor. The tiles reflected a greenish almost black hue under the flickering fluorescent bulbs while the walls were a mish mash of color as the tenants or owners of the respective walls had decided to paint them over with a shade of their choice.
He slowly tip toed past the professional looking glass doors of chiropractors with square letters painted on them, traditional healers with flyers strewn across the floor and even a taxidermist with an ad promising “your deceased pets stay with you for life.”
Seeing these comforted him in some questionable way but it was enough to push one foot in front of the other and keep him walking.
He scanned the numbers of the units as he did so reading them aloud as he passed under each one. “1501, 1503, 1504…”
Finally he reached the unit he intended to visit. “1506”.
It was far from the professional looking offices that he passed just a few seconds ago. This looked more like someone’s house rather than the massage parlor his friend who suggested he visit insisted it was.
After finding the obscurely hidden door bell and jamming his finger into it, Mark heard locks being opened from the other side of the door, which swung open to reveal a thin, scantily-clad Chinese woman.
The lady looked at him quizzically and after a good awkward few seconds, she swung the grille, the only protective barrier between him and her, open.
Mark tried exchanging pleasantries and cursed the fact that throughout the entire two years he’d been staying in Hong Kong he hadn’t once picked up a new language. His “how are you’s?” and “lovely weather today’s” were met with sideways glances and raised eyebrows.
Finally, Mark admitted defeat and ceased any further attempts of small talk and just plainly asked, “Package?”
The petite, scantily-clad Chinese lady took out a laminated piece of paper with a list of actions and the prices that came with them.
Mark studied the list carefully but he already knew what he had originally come for. After studying the list long enough and satisfied that he came off as a veteran in the department of choosing sexual favors, he handed the laminated list back to her and merely asked for a hand-job.
The lady, who later introduced herself as Angel, quietly and gently took off her see-through nightie and instructed Mark to remove all his clothes.
Mark remembered nothing of the events that transpired between him taking his clothes off and her performing her duties (or he just didn’t bother remembering), but when Mark came out of his momentary lapse of judgement, he was already deep inside her.
It was common knowledge that the services these ladies offered were strictly massages and not intercourse. Exaggerated stories told around the office about one colleague or another who managed to persuade the masseuse to go down on him was common, and more or less lies, generally taken with a pinch of salt. What Mark was experiencing, however, was not a lie, and he doubted if anyone at the office would even believe him.
He looked up at her tired face. The curtains drawn shut which allowed only a sliver of light, though granted, what little illumination could the outside world offer to this cramped and dark room they were locked inside? The light from the living room outside the door lit the rough lines covering her face. Before this she was an eager-to-please business woman that granted sexual favors out of the same space she lived in. Now, between her thrusting motions, she was a tired and spent lady that was just trying to get by in this bastard city.
Mark caressed her fair cheeks as she reciprocated the tender movements of his hands on her skin. She demanded more affection than he could offer her. When was the last time a man thought of her more than just a handjob-giving machine? When was the last time a man touched her with sincerity?
In more ways than one, it was Mark that was looking for sincerity from her, some hint of kindness that he was so deprived ever since moving to this desolate place.
When they finally finished, they lay in each others arms for a little while longer, neither relenting themselves to the time outside in the real world. Each of them in need of some tender, loving, care.
Mark and Angel, children in this huge playground called Hong Kong.
Yet when all the other children walked back hand in hand or heard the call of their mothers to go running back into her arms, they would not.
Not Mark and Angel. They were the forgotten children of a city that sheltered only the chosen few.
Angel got up, Mark knew she had been crying. Her cheeks still had the salty tear tracks which she never bothered to wipe away. He had also felt the sharp intakes of breath while he held her tightly in his arms.
Mark wanted to say something, anything, to tell her it was going to be ok, that everything was going to be alright.
‘But what could you possibly say to someone like.. like…’
His thoughts ended there. Too immature to be completed.
Angel came back into the room with the same tired eyes that glistened while she was on top of him. Except this time, the glistening sheen had disappeared. Determination had taken its place.
Angel handed him a piece of paper with a few numbers scribbled on them. Mark assumed it was her phone number. It wasn’t. It was the bill for the entire event; HK$1,500.
Mark took it without question. Silently he took out his wallet and handed her the money. He noticed she wasn’t looking at him as she took the money but was biting down on her lower lip, stifling tears. Mark decided he best leave.
He got dressed and pulled on his tweed trench coat. Before leaving, he quietly dropped a few thousand dollar notes discreetly on the floor of her home. He would be long gone before she could ever know the money was his and out of her thoughts should she think it was nothing more than a donation out of pity.
After the longest walk ever, through the corridor, inside the elevator and out through the entrance, Mark finally stepped out into Queen Victoria Street where vagabonds and executives shared the same sidewalk.
‘Hong Kong was a city that still demanded respect,’ he thought. ‘You can fool around for a little while, hide from it, but at the end of the day, you still pay your dues. Everybody pays their dues.’
Mark wondered when would it be time he paid his dues. Maybe the reason his personal life hadn’t been adequate or up to his normal standards was because the city still demanded more from him.
He flicked the collar of his trench coat up and walked out into the street, merging with the city to be just another face in the crowd, his new, cold will resolute.
Feature image by Mardiana Sani for ISSUE Magazine
Haziq is a writer at The Edge newspaper and spends his time contributing for Writers Club KL and ISSUE Magazine.You can follow him on Twitter @ZiqqyZiqqy.