By Chitralekha Basu, China Daily/Asia News Network
Feng Chi-shun is drawn to the seamier, seedier side of Hong Kong. Or perhaps, it’s the other way round. Sleaze follows him. Feng grew up in a squatter-village in Diamond Hill in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when it “was one of the poorest and most backward of villages in Hong Kong … when Hong Kong itself was poor and backward.” Running into gamblers, gangsters and drug-pushers was routine. Later, after he trained in medicine and subsequently became a pathologist, exposure to dead bodies became a part of his workaday reality. And then, for a while, he co-owned a bar in Kowloon City, where thuggish triad members would drop by to claim their cut. Feng’s trysts with degenerate and deviant real-life characters inform what he writes in a big way. The colorful cast comprises prostitutes, debauched millionaires, masseuses who do not mind putting in a little extra effort to make a fast buck, conmen and quacks. His third book, the just-published “Kitchen Tiles: A Collection of Salty, Wet Stories from the Bar-rooms of Hong Kong” (Blacksmith Books), continues in the same vein as his earlier publications, “Diamond Hill” and “Hong Kong Noir.” All three take readers to shady places. If you are keen to find out about a facet of Hong Kong that’s unlikely to figure in travel guides, or romanticized memoirs about hookers with a heart of gold, such as the still-popular Richard Mason bestseller, “The World of Suzie Wong” (1957), Feng could be your go-to writer.
The title “Kitchen Tiles” is inspired by the image of the grimy floor in a typical Cantonese kitchen, a slippery mishmash of spilt liquid, condiments and salt. In Cantonese to be called harm sup (literally salty and wet) would suggest having an unplugged libido. Feng says he finds aberrant human nature way more interesting than people who are ostensibly normal. “I remember the stories/anecdotes best when they are downright nasty and vicious or at least sensational in a disturbing way,” he writes in the foreword to Hong Kong Noir. Deviants of a Kind In “Kitchen Tiles” the idea of sexual deviance is extended to include transgressions of all sorts. The book opens with descriptions of “tea-dance rooms” from the 1960s, which doubled as pick-up joints, and proceeds to decode certain Hong Kong men’s predilection for “instant noodles” (visiting a brothel, rather than keeping a mistress). Soon afterwards, the writer’s focus shifts from the tacky bars in Lockhart Road — where Filipina and Thai women have completely upstaged their Chinese counterparts, and adding a couple of zeros to a client’s drinks bill is not unheard of — to include swindlers of other kinds. There is the building security man who asks to be paid to remove the old furniture of a tenant and sells the entire lot for profit, and also the man who signs up for wine-tasting only so that he may get to guzzle free wine. The protagonists of Feng’s stories are some of the most deplorable, and pathetic, figures one might expect to find anywhere.