Mystery set in NORTH AMERICA
Some thoughts about Mongkok by Jake Needham
23rd November 2020
Mongkok is a neighborhood in Hong Kong that’s only three stops on the MTR north of the luxury hotels of Tsim Sha Tsui, but it might as well be on another planet for all it has in common with the Hong Kong most tourists see.
The streets of Tsim Sha Tsui are lined with luxury boutiques, jewelry stores, and electronics shops. The sidewalks overflow with expensively suited men swinging even more expensive briefcases and everywhere you see elegantly attired women juggling collections of brightly colored shopping bags bearing names like Hermes, Chanel, and Armani.
You won’t find any luxury boutiques in Mongkok. You don’t go to Mongkok if you’re looking for Hermes, Chanel, and Armani. What you will find there are grimy storefronts selling the basics of urban life. You go to Mongkok if what you need is Chup Kee Hardware, the Jam Hong Diesel Injection Service, or Wah Keung Screws and Fasteners.
You won’t see expensively suited men or elegantly attired women in Mongkok. And you won’t see tourists in Mongkok either. Tourists don’t go to Mongkok. Not unless they’re lost.
What you will see there is one hell of a lot of working-class Chinese. So many of them that they overflow the sidewalks and spill out into the streets. The mass of people is so great and so impenetrable that it has all but driven away motorized vehicles.
Mongkok is known to the world for three things. It is generally said to be the most crowded place on earth. It is the heart of the Hong Kong sex trade. And it is the stronghold of the Chinese triads.
A little over ten years ago, a massive complex called Langham Place opened on Portland Street in Mongkok. Everybody thought it looked… well, a little weird there. Like a rocket ship that visitors from deep space had unaccountably decided to land in the middle of a grimy urban quagmire.
At nearly two million square feet with its own MTR station and the ultra-modern Cordis Hotel, most people predicted Langham Place would quickly gentrify the neighborhood, drive away the sex trade, and end the domination of the triads.
Probably won’t ever happen.
If you find yourself in Hong Kong some summer night when the darkness is heavy and liquid, you should head for Mongkok and see exactly what I’m talking about.
Take the MTR from wherever you are. Get off at Mongkok Station and walk a few streets west to the Ladies Market. Every night when darkness falls, the market fills Tung Choi Street for block after block with hundreds of small stands selling cheap clothes, fake perfume, counterfeit purses, and all manner of dross you didn’t even know existed.
Just around the corner, find the alleyway with so many stalls selling knock-off Nikes that the locals call it Sneaker Street. Follow Sneaker Street to the end, take a right on Shanghai Street, and walk south across Shantung all the way to Dundas.
The garbage probably won’t have been collected and the air will reek with a cloying stench. What you smell is a combination of rotting food, overflowing sewage, and a thousand vehicle exhausts. It’s the aroma of Hong Kong. It’s something you will never forget.
Walk past the dim doorways of shops, their steel grates pulled down, and listen to the men coughing and the women whispering in the shadows. Out there in the darkness there are more people than you can possibly imagine.
You may not see them, but you’ll feel them breathing softly in the night. Old men with their undershirts rolled up to their nipples and cigarettes clinging to their bottom lips. Beaten down women stooped and bent from a lifetime of labor. Hard-looking young toughs in dirty shorts and flip-flops, shirtless in the heavy heat.
Move along, gweilo. Nothing for you here.
Pay particular attention to the doorways you pass that are brightly lighted in pink or white, doorways opening onto staircases tended by elderly men called ausuks, uncles. If you can read Chinese, stop and look at the signs posted outside each of them. They explain what nationalities of women are the specialty of the house.
I wouldn’t hang around. Stand there too long and you’ll feel the triad punks easing up behind you.
But don’t worry, white boy. You’re safe enough here. No one will bother you. You see, you don’t matter in Mongkok.
You thought you’d been to Hong Kong when you window shopped at the designer boutiques in Tsim Sha Tsui, took the tram up to the Peak, and rode the Star Ferry, didn’t you?
Forget all that. That’s not Hong Kong.
This is Hong Kong.
Jake Needham has published twelve popular crime novels in two different series, all set in the cities of contemporary Asia. His most recent book is MONGKOK STATION, the sixth title in his Inspector Samuel Tay series, in which the hunt for a killer of prominent young women plays out against the backdrop of the democracy riots that have recently plunged Hong Kong into chaos. MONGKOK STATION is available to buy from the TripFiction site