And then he proceeded to tell us a story about the Stanley market. The first day he arrived, he was standing around, taking stock, when a man approached him and asked what he was looking for.
“Silk scarves and a custom-made suit,” our acquaintance said.
The stranger put his finger to his chin for a moment, considering. And then he gestured for our friend to follow, and led him straight to a pair of booths that sold silk scarves and offered custom-made suits.
Two days later, this same guy went back to the market. The same man met him at the entrance and asked what he was looking for. “Hong Kong paintings and books for children,” was the answer this time. Again, the local put his hand to his chin, thought for a minute, then guided this guy into the depths of the market and helped him get exactly what he was looking for.
Maybe a week later, this man (or woman) who was the child of someone who went to school with the friend of a cousin who was married to Sasquatch or whatever, went back to the Stanley market. And again, he was met by the same native, who asked him what he was looking for.
Just for kicks, our acquaintance said, “An AK-47 and 37 dancing girls.”
The local put his hand to his chin, and thought a moment. Then he gestured and said, “Follow me.”
I mention this because an AK-47 weighs 9.5 pounds with an empty magazine. As such, and because we were limited to just 10 suitcases of 50 pounds a piece containing all of our clothes and possessions for three seasons, we had to leave our favorite automatic weapon(s) at home.
No fear, though: Friday morning after dropping the kids off to meet their shuttle bus to school, Ellen and I bundled Jamie onto a train and headed south. Once we hit Central, we hopped a #6 bus and bounced across Hong Kong Island to the rough and tumble wilderness of Stanley.
Just kidding. Once you cross the mountains and are looking over the South China sea, you might as well be on the French Mediterranean: the beaches are wide and sandy, the narrow roads are lined with palm trees and poured concrete walls with balls and turrets. Huge white yachts float on the sparkling water. It’s gorgeous. Really it is.
Stanley’s on the southeastern side of the island, on a narrow peninsula that pirates used to use to say “Argh” and store their stuffed parrots. When the British “liberated” Hong Kong from millennia of Chinese rule, Stanley was where they first located their offices and ammunition depots. It’s also where the British made their last stand against the Japanese in 1941. After holding out for something like 17 minutes, the Brits were forced to admit that all the years they’d spent in Hong Kong drinking gin and tonics and having sex with skinny dark-haired women hadn’t actually prepared them for even so much as a bar brawl—and for the first time since the start of the British empire, they actually lost territory.
All of which is commemorated very nicely at the Stanley market. Seriously, if pay attention, you’ll notice that each of the Stanley 7-Elevens is placed in the exact spot that this or that British officer wet his pants staring at the point of a Japanese bayonet.
The market itself is surprisingly small: there’s one long, mostly covered row of stalls, a modest series of shops in a slightly raised area, and a large triangular cluster of one-story shops on your right just as you enter. If, when I say “Market,” you imagine spaces that are small and cluttered and filled with clothes that smell slightly stale, then you’re half right—excluding of course, the shops that sell Bossinni and Versace and leather purses that, based upon their prices, one can only assume were made by virgin slave princesses working in factories filled with golden needles and thread made from the inside lining of a baby silk-worm’s small intestine.
To put it another way: Yes, you’ll find your fair share of “I HEART Hong Kong” and “My parents went to Canton and all I got was this curried fishball” T-shirts. But you’re also going to find some pretty fancy stuff, tasteful, artistic hand-designed stuff that you wouldn’t be able to locate in your average mall in the US. And man, you’ll pay through the butt for it.
We discovered this—for the first time, mind you—when we drifted into an art gallery on the upper level. What struck me right away is that there were real paintings on the wall—stuff selling for 10 and 20 thousand HK dollars—about 1,300-2,600 US. So this is a real art gallery, I thought to myself. Not some kitchie tourist shop selling glamorized postcards.
Ellen and I fell in love with a series of small prints showing scenes of urban Hong Kong—intricate drawings of minibuses and clotheslines stretched to building and taxi-cabs running down old ladies. Talking about it, we decided they’d be the perfect sort of thing to buy for the kids and ourselves, little mementos we could each hang in our rooms to remember our year abroad. The only problem was, they sold for 80 Hong Kong a piece—over fifty dollars US when you added it all up.
“You think we can bargain?” I said to Ellen out of the corner of my mouth. A sales lady was hovering nearby, anxious eyes on Jamie, who was parading flat-footed from painting to painting chanting, “I don’t need to pee. I don’t need to pee.”
Ellen glanced around. It was a nice place, painted a tasteful tone of yellow with garnish of silk on each wall. Incense burned near the register, giving the three rooms an almost secular air. “No,” she said.
“You’re just scared.”
“So are you.”
It’s true. Ellen and I both love buying crap. But we’re both too chicken to barter with anyone, afraid they’ll roll their eyes or frown, or—god forbid—not like us anymore. So generally, the minute a shop owner mentions a price, no matter how outrageous, no matter how clear it is that they’re expecting—indeed, even relishing—a good battle of wills as we haggle—generally, the minute any shop owner mentions such an outrageous price, Ellen or I will say, “Oh thank you,” and kneel down and kiss their ring and hand them the mortgage papers for our house.
“The thing is,” I said to Ellen as we contemplated our five little prints, “You lived in Africa. You should be a whiz at bartering.”
“You were there too.”
“Only for nine weeks.”
So, of course, we ended up paying the full 80 for each one. And of course we ended up walking down the stairs into a shop not 30 feet away, where the same exact prints were selling for 60 a piece. Standing there, looking at exactly the price tags and doing the math, I laughed out loud.
“These are very nice,” said the shop owner. “A very famous artist.”
“I know,” I snorted. “And I just paid 20 dollars more upstairs for the same ones.”
I expected she’d commiserate with me, shake her head in pity, perhaps. But she didn’t. Instead what she did was frown. “Must be different,” she said, very sincerely. “This a very famous artist. Only sell him here.”
It was such a blatant lie I just stared at her, open-mouthed, before turning and exiting the shop. Over the course of the morning, though, it wasn’t the last lie we heard. And that wasn’t the only thing that was different. Ellen noticed, for instance, that, aside from the urine-phobic salesperson at the first gallery, no one paid much attention to Jamie. Up in the New Territories, a day doesn’t go by where Jamie doesn’t garner three or four pieces of candy and a small toy just making the rounds with Ellen for groceries. Walking around Tai Po, old ladies will bend down and say hello to him and old men will offer him their finger to shake—or at least that’s what we think they’re doing. Everyone wants to stroke his hair.
Down Stanley-way though, Jamie could have been just another Chinese kid for all the attention he got. In fact, he probably would have gotten more attention were he a native Hongkonger, as there were none around.
Absolutely not one.
Even when you thought you saw one, they’d open their mouths and start to speak, and you’d realize they were from Omaha.
It was almost like . . . no, it couldn’t be.
Or maybe . . . ?
Almost like the Stanley Market was a—gasp!—tourist trap?
Later that day, when we were having dinner with our friends Valerie and Chris, I asked Valerie where “real” Hongkongers did their shopping.
“China,” she said, and named a town not 10 minutes away by train.
“God yeah. China’s cheap. Those market are expensive.”
I’ll say. At one point, Ellen saw a couple shirts that would have been perfect for Jamie. The only problem was, they were selling for 70 HK, more than we pay for shirts for him in the States.
“But they’re Baby Bowden,” Ellen said.
“Then let him wear them. I’d rather buy a month’s worth of groceries.”
At that point, Ellen wanted them bad enough that she actually asked the shop woman “What’s the best you can do on these?”
The woman stopped what she was doing, looked Ellen up and down, and then said, “69.”
Ellen turned, put them back on the rack.
“This is a good price,” the saleswoman called after us, as we walked out the door.
The same thing happened not ten minutes later, when I found a couple of old photographs I loved in another art shop. They were reproductions, of course, but still they were nice and I was going to buy them at any price. Even so, I felt the sudden urge to ask the clerk, “Any chance you can do 50 for the two of them?”
The salesgirl—she was half the age of the woman in the clothing shop—gave me the same, measuring look. Then she gave a quick shake of her head. “This is a good price,” she said.
“Hey lady,” I said. “I live in Tai Po. Save it for the tourists.”
This isn’t to say Stanley doesn’t have its good points. If you wander all the way through on the lower level, you turn a corner and suddenly find yourself with a wide-open vista of the South China Sea. It’s breathtakingly beautiful: high dark cliffs curving around to form a bay, the sky a pale, high blue that makes you draw a breath just to look at it.
And if you wander back, deep into the bowels of the market, you’ll find the Stanley Market Restaurant. Go inside and you’ll be the only white people. They’ll seat you at a table full of working-class Chinese men, and you can order the Wanton soup, which will fill your mouth with joy. Order the “Barbequed Pork with Charcoal,” and your mouth will be filled with fire: it’s the rarest, crispiest pork you’ve ever had, and it comes with an orange-chili Thai dipping sauce. The milk tea rocks. And so does the crushed lime soda. And there’s not a white person in the place, despite its being located in the middle of a market filled with white people.
Stupid white people. Stupid, stupid white people.
Of course, we’re white and stupid ourselves, because we drop a bundle of money at the Stanley Market, despite knowing we could probably get the same stuff cheaper if we just took the train north a little bit. Even so, Ellen buys a cool coat and I’ve got my photographs and we find these really cool Tintin T-shirts for Will, and then we have to buy some for Lucy, because, you know, otherwise she’ll get jealous, and, and, and, and, and, and, and . . .
Two hours and another bumpy bus ride back across the island, and we’re back in the New Territories, heading north on the train. We’re bogged down with shopping bags and Jamie’s stroller and about 52 works of art that can’t be bent or they’ll be ruined. We’re the only white folk again, and that’s okay. And we’re poor, but that’s okay too. We’re going home.