I was onboard the Azamara Quest last week. I was interested in sampling the line's destination-focused cruises and was attracted to this particular itinerary in East Asia because previously I had only been to one of the ports of call: Hong Kong, its embarkation point.
The service aboard the Quest was, as one would expect, very good, but what I particularly liked was that the staff managed to blend high standards with a bit of irreverence, which is difficult to pull off.
Everyone, from the captain on down, refused to shake my hand. They have instead adopted the fist bump as the official greeting. I have no doubt this is their first line of defense against norovirus, but I like the spirit in which it is done.
Hands were also involved in another example of Capt. Carl Smith's sense of humor. Smith somehow acquired a giant wooden cut-out hand affixed to the end of a metal pole. He stood on the wings off the bridge and had another member of the crew wave it at locals who gathered to watch the ship depart. I was told that if the port experience was particularly bad, he's been known to use towels to mask some of the fingers.
I've been to Hong Kong many times before and have seen most of its tourist attractions. But there are certain places I enjoy revisiting. The city does not stand still, and going over what one believes is familiar ground provides a good gauge for how much things have actually changed.
My first visit to Hong Kong was in 1984, at the tail end of an 18-month backpacking trip around the world. All along Asia's hippie trail, I had heard stories about Chung-king Mansions on Kowloon's Nathan Road in Hong Kong. It housed scores of cheap hostels, I was told.
The Mansions are just around the corner from the storied flagship Peninsula Hotel. I couldn't complain about the neighborhood, but Chungking Mansions was a classic firetrap, a 15-story warren of hundreds of commercial suites, many of which had been converted to guesthouses or small Indian restaurants. The former adopted names to inspire warm memories in travelers (for Central Europeans, there was the "Alpenblick," or "Alps view"); the restaurants' names would invariably begin with the name of a city in India or Pakistan followed by the words "Club and Mess."
The guesthouse I checked into at the time was a large, rectangular room subdivided by panels of drywall that didn't quite reach the ceiling. My compartment held a twin bed with four inches of space on either side. It wasn't the Peninsula, but I wasn't planning on staying in the room very much. And the price ($15 a night), along with the location, couldn't be beat.
On my most recent visit to Hong Kong, I started out early and wandered through Kowloon Park, watching people practice tai chi. I went into an herbal medicine shop and bought a large diagram of an ear that had various body parts and organs superimposed on the image (it was a guide for acupuncturists).
But I was really just killing time until the Club and Messes at Chungking Mansions opened for lunch.
It has been interesting to watch the evolution of the Club and Mess establishments. When I first ate at one, it was the restaurant equivalent of my room: a single folding table and cheap plastic chairs filled the space. A small, portable TV sat on the cashier's counter, playing a black-and-white Bollywood movie. But the food was surprisingly good.
Through the years, the Chungking Mansions Club and Mess culture has moved upscale, relatively speaking. There are fewer of them, and the survivors have gotten larger. A few have retained the word "Club," but this is the first year I saw that none still claimed to be a "Mess."
And I discovered that Chungking Mansions itself had undergone reforms, as well, most of them security-related. Video monitors proclaim that the sprinkler systems are tested regularly. The tiny elevators still have long lines of people waiting to get in, but have weight sensors and won't move if they're overcapacity.
Chungking Mansions comprises several adjoining towers, each served by its own pair of elevators. Signs in Chinese and English are mounted on nearby walls, promoting the names of guesthouses and restaurants.
My first choice, a club that said it specialized in "pure" food for Jainists, was closed. So I went down a few floors to the Bombay Club. A 3-foot statue of the turbaned and bowing Air India mascot greeted me at the door. I walked past a narrow kitchen and into ... well, a real restaurant, with a wood-paneled, fully stocked bar; cloth chair covers with bows on the back; a large, mounted flat-screen TV that streamed a medley of Bollywood videos; a thick menu; a manager who stood around looking self-important; and a waiter in a pressed, button-down shirt who would eventually, as he handed me the bill, make clear that the gratuity was not included.
I was hungry, and the extensive menu lured me into over-ordering. It tasted good enough that I overate.
The waiter, seeing the portfolio that held my acupuncture ear chart, asked if I were a doctor. He then made a series of other guesses, which included a ship's captain and banker. He seemed profoundly disappointed to learn I was a journalist. (He must have been thinking about the not-included gratuity.)
After I had finished and left the restaurant, the elevator back to the ground floor wouldn't stop because it was always at capacity by the time it reached my floor, so it passed me by. I found the stairwell and also found that the Chungking Mansions of my memory is still very much alive. Broken windows, frightening bundles of electrical wiring in open vents and filthy exposed pipes provided the scenery as I descended.
Given the waiter's assumptions about my employment, I guess we're all capable of cleaning up, on the exterior at least, as time goes by. No one would have mistaken me for a ship's captain on my first visit to Chungking Mansions. Not even one who gives fist bumps.
But my desire to return to it decade after decade suggests that, below the surface, there's something inside me that might not have changed very much since the first time I walked into Chungking Mansions.
Or perhaps that I wish hadn't.
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