Tuesday, December 29, 2009

one night, in tsim sha tsui

we just got out from the train, walked up the grey tiled steps of the subway and out onto the greeting streets of tsim sha tsui, the slicing, yet ever welcomed winter wind chill greeting us as we emerged from the underground. the sights, the smell, the energy, the frenzy of the whole place was overwhelming, almost like the sudden intoxicating rush of rum taken on an empty stomach. tsim sha tsui was just how i remembered it, almost a year ago with its the huge shops and the multitude of shoppers drowning you in a sea of people.

kuya saw the gaze on my face as i lost myself in my reverie. i think he finds slight joy in the fact that i could always turn to my sense of nostalgia to keep me readily entertained. he tried testing my memory and asked me to lead the way to harbor city, the most prominent mall complex this side of the territory. HK is as familiar to him as the back of his hand, the signs of a serious shopper. i, on the other hand, am not as well gifted and would have to often follow him around, hoping i wont loose him amidst a throng of similarly faced orientals in what must be the world's largest chinatown. "lead the way!" he smilingly commanded, as i navigated thru streets and corners until i found my landmark, the beautifully decorated facade of the louis vuitton boutique, flanked by other luxury labels like chanel, ferragamo, hermes and gucci. you really cannot miss it.

to cross to the mall, you would need to traverse thru a short underpass that goes under the main road. this being the shortest route from our subway station and the only route we had taken since as far as i can remember, walking thru this passage almost felt like a tradition for me, like a ritual before you proceed to shopping nirvana. as i approached the entrance to the passage however, my memories of this place got further rekindled, catalyzed by the haunting sounds of a familiar voice, echoing from the foot of the underpass stairs. they were old chinese jukebox tunes, happy songs to be honest, even love songs for some, i can only presume, yet sung by a most melancholic of voices, so sad, you cannot help but try to ignore it. this old lady, singing her heart out, sporting a never waning smile and a practiced twinkle in her eye, together with her small sound box, a red plack card containing the names of some twenty something chinese songs, and her plastic bowl, sang for alms. taking advantage of the acoustics of the underpass, she sings here continuously, song after song after song, from morning to night, everyday. i presume thousands pass her daily, yet basing on the amount of money in her bowl, most of them, like me, chose to make her simply disappear behind the dizzying cityscape.

to ignore her would be effortless. to push her existence into the background and have her voice blend in with the ruckus of the bustling city would have only been too easy. indeed, my kuya and i only found ourselves briefly acknowledge her, stating that she was still here, then quickly moved to a different topic. however, as we slowly walked away and began to hear the fading sound of her voice, in mid song, this old lady, found herself in a coughing fit, triggered probably by the intense cold slicing in the air. i don't know about my kuya but i bowed my head all of a sudden, walked faster away, partly hiding my shame, exposed for being so calloused, partly to hide the fact that hearing this lady cough suddenly made me begin to cry.

* * * * *

"i want to do a good deed today." kuya said as he took his wallet out of my bag. we were making our way back to our hotel after finishing a scrumptuous dinner, chinese naturally. "i want to do a good deed too!" i said in retort. the day was almost over and the winter night and the slight drizzle brought the temperature down even more. kuya and i casually walked back, the path already familiar. we barely spoke during that night stroll, maybe because there was nothing much more to talk about. maybe because both of us already knew what the other was going to do.

her voice reemerged from the curb of the passage right on cue, still singing the same years-old tune. i approached her plastic bowl first, bowed in front of her and dropped in a portion. kuya, walking not too far behind me followed suit. she did not break from her song. she continued singing with her consistent disposition. i stopped and look back at her, kuya walked past me already and was now waiting at the top of the steps. i stood there and watched her from a distance, this short, old lady, both hands clasping her old mic, singing her heart out, panning the underpass corridor until she turned towards me and her eyes met with mine. i saw the twinkle in her eye again, and her lovely smile. i smiled back, turned away and walked to meet with kuya. this time however, i didn't mind showing people i was crying anymore.

4 comments:

rudeboy said...

Oh, that was so touching. I feel you.

I love Hong Kong and have many pleasant memories of it, but when I was there early this year, I went to Central around 11:00 p.m. or so for a stroll. There, I saw a little old lady bowed down in front of her begging bowl in the middle of the deserted high-end district.

A lonely, solitary figure framed by the dazzling lights of Chanel and Vuitton.

I was unable to snap a pic of that tableau, but that mental picture remains etched in my mind.

Victor Gregor said...

David Sedaris once wrote that going on a vacation is a chance to be somebody else. I now disagree with him after I read your post, because I realized foreign places do not bother us with the tediousness of contexts and familiarities, which allows us, for a moment, to be our own selves. :)

Happy New Year, Jamie.

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