13 December 2009

Nobody home

I wonder whether one of those letters is for me. Yes, sometimes I still get mail there. I didn't risk finding out, for fear of contracting ebola or some other disease growing on them.

This was our first house in Wang Tong (a.k.a. Mang Tong or Man Tong). It's been vacant for years, and for good reason: it's falling apart and ought to be knocked down. The building was well past its use-by date when I first laid eyes on it eighteen years ago. Mushrooms grew on the inside walls and rusted steel reinforcement rods were warping their way down through the concrete ceilings. A disused well directly outside the front door was a mega-nursery for mosquitoes. In short, it was a dump. Of course, I didn't see it that way at the time. After five years living in a 500-square-foot habitation module (about the size of an average American living room) on the 24th floor of a characterless high-rise on Hong Kong island, this house was a fairy tale castle in the Emerald City. Who could have imagined such abundance in Hong Kong: a 3-story home with a garden for lower rent than our erstwhile shoebox apartment. We fixed it up and made it livable, turned the narrow strip of land around it into a flower arboretum and the flat roof into a vegetable farm; some of the best sweet corn I've ever eaten was raised on that roof. Our two kids spent the first years of their lives in that house, running up and down the tiled stairs dressed like Blackbeard the Pirate and Batgirl, shrieking and bickering and barging in on my top floor studio while I was drawing pictures.

When we moved out it became a dormitory for young Christian charity workers from around the world. Occasionally I'd wander by and they'd hand me a letter, mostly junk mail, but also a stack of monthly reminders that I owed a balance of zero dollars and zero cents to a long-distance call company. That company was obviously too stupid to pay attention to my change-of-address notices.

After the charity organization relocated to far-off Tuen Mun in the mainland New Territories, the house emptied out and stayed that way. The greedy old landlord, who had once attempted to quintuple our rent, couldn't find anyone sucker enough to live in his property. Being a typical Hong Kong landlord, he'd rather let it sit vacant and rot than sink a single penny into fixing it up.

By now it's beyond repair. One of these days it's just going to cave in under its own concrete. As much as I think it serves the owner right that no one is interested in his crummy building, and as much as I think it should be condemned, it makes me sad to imagine that happening. Every time I walk by--which isn't often; it's down a little side alley--I remember kids on the stairs, a color pallette of flowers in the garden, choi sum and potatoes growing on the roof. I'm not the nostalgic type, but I'm kind of glad that there's a place I can wander to pick up a sweet memory.

But I am not picking up the mail.


  1. Once again, a vivid telling. I like the imagery of mushrooms growing on the walls, and sweet corn on the roof, a very organic tone. warm wishes Larry.

  2. Having lived in Hong Kong and travelled round the islands, I can summon up memories of my own from your vivid descriptions .....but I still miss Hong Kong! :)

  3. What a beautiful story of days gone by...the passing of time leaves pockets around the world of places we once laughed, cried, played, and areas that helped shaped who we are today. I still drive by the streets I grew up on in Canada when I'm home every once in a while; just to remember my roots :)

  4. So why does the name of Wang Tong show up as Mang Tong on old or official documents? I have always wondered that.

  5. Wang Tong vs. Mang Tong? No one knows, but for my guess, read here:

    You've Got Mail If You're Lucky