Saturday afternoon

It looks pleasant enough as an aged building.  A four-story colonial building painted in bright blue, with balconies extending from the upper floors.  The surrounding buildings are draped with alternating hues: orange, green, purple, yellow – though the immediate neighbor is a stately earth-brown.  One wonders if the scene has been painted before.

But on street level, the name – first inscribed in Chinese, then its English translation underneath.  香港故事館: Hong Kong House of Stories.

A house of stories in the middle of Wan Chai (灣仔)?  Surely it’s a playful pun on the building itself?  But only the English allows for that possibility; the Chinese meaning is resolute.

So what, then, does one find in a “house of stories” in Wan Chai?  But as I mull the question over in my head, I can’t help but tinker with it, and ask:

What does one find in Wan Chai in a house of stories?

The market on Stone Nullah Lane (石水渠街) in Wan Chai (灣仔).

I.

“‘I hope you are not really going down to Wanchai?’ [Mrs. Ma] said anxiously, coming to the door.  ‘It is too noisy – too dirty.  The people in Wanchai are so poor, you will get such a bad impression of the Chinese.  You won’t go?’

‘Well, perhaps not.’

‘But I did go nevertheless – descending the escarpment by the long steep flights of steps that dropped straight down into the oldest part of Wanchai: into the teeming alleyways with the litter-filled gutters, the pavement vendors, the street stalls, the excitement and bustle…I saw a post office and went in, thinking the clerk would speak English; but when I asked him about rooms he shook his head and said, ‘No, sorry.  No sell.’

‘I don’t want to buy anything,’ I said.  ‘I’m just looking for a room.’

‘Sorry.  Only sell stamp.’

– Richard Mason, The World of Suzie Wong (1957)

II.

There she stands, directly in front.  A woman in line outside the China Resources Building in Wan Chai (灣仔), waiting to submit her application for a Chinese visa.  Actually, there are two women in white, two women reading – but here the common stream diverges; is interrupted.  The woman on the right – to whom you now give your attention – tucks the paper (SCMP, 南華早報) and pen into her left arm (already holding a coffee) and pulls out her iPhone from her bag (right arm).  She’s answering a call.  “Hello?”

“Hello?” – it is an American voice; a familiar voice.  The voice of a woman who will, at some point during her day, do or have done her shopping, at least in part, in Central (中環).  A voice that strengthens such a conviction (intentionally?) as she recites English locales to her caller.  “Well, I know the grocer in Repulse Bay (you rapidly draw 淺水灣 in your mind) had a good offer for the mangoes, but since I’m going to Stanley (the characters 赤柱 draw themselves into focus) later on I’ll check there as well.”

A quick laugh, a brief farewell, and now the phone returns to its place in the handbag, the right hand now grasping a pen and eyes affixed on the section of the paper she’s reading.  It’s the “Diversions” page, with all its puzzles and games and comics.  But her eyes are focused on “Target,” on the task of unscrambling that single nine-letter word – and its attendant four-letter words, but how useful can they be when the hine-letter word is the one that holds the key to success? – from a scrambled permutation of thick, capital letters (white-on-black alternating with black-on-white) arranged in a 3×3 grid, letters proclaiming themselves to be single constitutents of a unified whole.  An exercise in sense-making, in fleshing out the meaning of such things.  And so the letters: N G I [first row] M I O [second row] A T R [final row].  The woman’s pen is trained on ‘O’ before it flashes across to ‘M,’ then flies to the edge of her lips in contemplation.  You can see some of her guesses scribbled in the margins: GAIN, RAIN, RIOT…all inscribed in a font that belies a casual attitude more than it does a burning desire for revelation or insight.  Decoding the word will not solve the issue of purchasing mangoes, will not speed up the pace at which she receives her Chinese visa.  This is a trivial matter.

And yet for a brief moment you want to reach out to her, somehow – to tell her that the word is “MIGRATION,” that if the grocer in Repulse Bay can offer a good deal on mangoes then surely the ones on Stone Nullah Lane (石水渠街), in the heart of Wan Chai itself, could do better, and that the number occuping the top-leftmost space in the sudoku puzzle (right above “Target”) should be a ‘6’ and not a ‘4.’

It makes sense, you think to yourself.  But then again, it is a trivial matter.

III.

“Some of the older women would bring their enterprises to Southorn Playground (修頓球場) – Johnston Road (莊士頓道), Hennessy Road (軒尼詩道) had them too – and wave their fans at the men, saying “Hey man, big girl (大姑娘) over here – do you want it?”  I could hear them whisper “hello,” and it was the same on Thompson Road (譚臣道) and Fleming Road (菲林明道) as well.  When I was about ten years old, whenever nightfall came (around four o’clock) I wouldn’t go there; if you were to go there, it was better to go when there were (at least) several people around (or with you).  The men were crass, and from behind they would tell you things that were enough to keep you from walking there again.

“In those days there were a lot of ‘big guys’ (帶街) who specialized in bringing sailors out to play.  Wan Chai had a lot of ‘yellow hotels,’ the most famous of which was called the ‘White House Hotel;’ it was around Johnston Road and Wan Chai Road (灣仔道), where Hardee’s (哈迪斯) is today.  The women who lived in these restaurants were escorted in and out; they weren’t like the ones on the street, as they rarely went outside.  I called the big guys ‘thugs’ (打手)…and when all you could hear any day was “Hello! Ah (啊) John!  Ah Jack!” then you knew they were in business.”

– Translated (very roughly) and excerpted from the original account given by Ms. Zyu-Kit Kwong (江潔珠), a lifelong resident of Wan Chai, to the Hong Kong Oral History Archives.

IV.

I step inside, into the House of Stories.  This was once known as simply the “Blue House” (藍屋) and served as part of a district-wide plan to preserve several such 1920s-era buildings in the area.  Just around the corner (but still part of the “house”) sits an old clinic.

The House of Stories is now primarily a community exhibition space, much of it taken up by local photography.  Its goals, roughly speaking, are to encourage the community (but especially youth) to engage and participate in self-expression, whether this be in the form of visual art and photography, performing arts (“movement,” or dance and theatre), or writing.  The society also encourages residents to actively engage with their own stories and their own histories – not just those of Wan Chai, but of their own origins and of Hong Kong overall.

Despite the presence of a few other visitors, the interior is silent – save for two women (curators, perhaps?) chatting in the back.  A construction worker (who has been silently observing several photos) asks the women if they’ve found something that he lost (presumably here) yesterday.  One of them directs him toward another location, giving him directions.  After he leaves, the women’s conversation shifts (from whatever it was about) to a discussion of street names, and how some have changed.

But what I like the most about this House of Stories – or rather, about the photographs on display at this point in time – are its images of people and places that I have seen and not seen.  There are pictures of fishermen and fish-mongerers, mechanics and merchants, housekeepers and homeowners.  There are pictures of the elderly, some smiling, others reserved.  There are pictures of alleyways and aging houses, of the harbour, of fields and forests.

All of them, in some way, shape, or form, have a story to tell.

Maybe one day, I will too.

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