Going North

A short story from Hong Kong, by Jason Y Ng



William removed the laptop from his carry-on luggage and placed it in a grey plastic bin. In a swift, almost choreographed swing of an arm, he grabbed another one from the stack and in went his keys, loose change and Blackberry. As the 35 year-old architect waited to walk through the metal detector, the Shanghainese woman in front of him set off the alarm with the cell phone in her pocket. William shook his head at the sorry display of inexperience. A few moments later, it was his turn to step through the gantry and there wasn’t a single beep. Of course not, he thought to himself with satisfaction.

William – or Ah Yick as he was known among family and close friends – went through this routine several times a month. He had relocated to his firm’s Shanghai office two years ago as part of the Great Migration of local professionals in search of better prospects in the mainland. They called it bei shang, or going north. Twice a month the architect flew back to Hong Kong, where he would spend 48 hours with his parents and girlfriend Gloria before the Sunday night flight took him back for another grinding work week. The commute wore him down and he had his eye bags and sunken cheeks to prove it. When he wasn’t traveling, he would lock himself in his one-bedroom apartment in the northern sprawl of Shanghai. Like many of his friends back home, he was happiest when left alone with his video game console. On a sunny day like last Saturday, however, he would force himself to get out of the apartment for a walk around the city, followed by an early dinner at a nearby Cantonese restaurant called Hong Kong Café, a mistake he would regret and repeat.

William arrived at Gate 14 and found the usual mix of expats and tourists anxious to get home. Of the 80 or so gates at the Hong Kong International Airport, he seemed to always get stuck with the unlucky numbers. Nevertheless, he took comfort that his flight number was 718 and that he was seated in row 28. This endless game of spotting the lucky “8” (which sounds like the word “fortune” in Cantonese) and dodging the unlucky “4” (which sounds like “death”) drove him crazy. The architect found himself doing it even more whenever something big came up at work, like the Carlyle meeting  tomorrow. As William struggled to take his mind off that subject, he spotted his coworker Russell slumping in one of the chairs with a thick paperback in his hands. The stocky gweilo put down his novel and looked straight at William, smiling and expecting a response. Some bad luck was just impossible to dodge.

“Wah, I didn’t know you were on this flight!” William greeted him in fluent though accented English.

It wasn’t so much that he disliked his colleague – Russell was an all-around nice guy and was really quite harmless – or that he disliked Caucasians, even though they always insisted on calling him ‘Bill’, which was clearly not the intelligent-sounding, multi-syllable Christian name he had chosen for himself back in primary school. Still, it was Sunday night and the last thing Ah Yick needed was a 30-minute polite conversation with a coworker. He left his game face at the office last Friday and he wasn’t about to put it on now, not least for some frumpy Aussie who sleepwalked his way through Shanghai not speaking a word of Chinese or knowing the first thing about China. And Russell wasn’t a particularly talented architect either, though what he lacked in ability he made up for with wise quips and lame jokes. Typical gweilo.

“Big day tomorrow, huh?” Russell brought up a topic that William had spent the past 48 hours trying to forget.

It was the Carlyle Project, the high profile 1,500 room Belmont Hotel to be built in southern Pudong. There was a 9am client meeting tomorrow for the firm to present the design for the first time. It was William’s second solo design act – after the disastrous Blackstone Project – and he threw himself at it, spending weeks going through stacks of design books and tweaking every detail of the façade.  He even showed his work in progress to Gloria to get her layman’s opinion, something he hadn’t done since Blackstone. She told him it looked “pretty.”

As much as the project was stressing William out, it also gave him plenty of bragging rights. Last month during a high school reunion in Tsim Sha Tsui, the topic of luxury hotels came up when one of his old classmates mentioned the Peninsula in Shanghai. That was a cue for Ah Yick to share his new found philosophy on the subject.

“Designing hotels in China is a tricky business,” he declared, before his speech took a metaphysical turn. “These mainland Chinese have no clue what they want. You must tell them without telling them, if you know what I mean.”

Ah Yick was satisfied with the way he had impressed his friends so much and revealed so little. He could have told his friends more, but he was afraid he might jinx it. The Cantonese were a superstitious people after all. That’s why he packed his Armani suit and Hermès neck tie, a combination to be worn only at important occasions that required maximum luck, like the nine o’clock tomorrow. If it all worked out well, the architect figured, he should be able to make an official announcement to his friends by the next alumni event: The Belmont Shanghai, designed by William CY Yeung.

“Oh yes, we have an important meeting tomorrow,” William finally responded to Russell. Just the thought of it made his heart race. “The clients are hard to read. So who knows?” He hoped that a rhetorical question would signal the end of that conversation.

It was true, mainland Chinese clients were hard to read and impossible to please. William remembered that dreadful day a year ago like it was yesterday. He and Peter, the senior partner from New York and a rainmaker for the firm, arrived at the Blackstone meeting at 8am sharp. The Chinese-Westerner tag team was a time-honoured tradition and a winning formula. The Chinese guy would do all the talking, while the white man, preferably someone with a head of grey hair, would nod credibly and flash his Cheshire Cat smile. All was going according to plan. After they exchanged pleasantries and traded opinions on the weather, it was William’s turn to present the Grade A office tower in the heart of Hangzhou just off the famous West Lake. It was a clever design that recalled Mies van der Rohe’s clean lines and Rem Koolhaas’ audacity. But the clients didn’t like it one bit. They had wanted something more akin to the Central Plaza in Wanchai, a typical gold and silver skyscraper that oozed luxury and wealth. In all, it took them five minutes to shoot down what had taken William four months to put together. To rub salt in his wound, Peter chimed in with a couple of trite gweilo jokes in an attempt to defuse the tension. He said something about William not understanding the Chinese even though he was one of them. That last bit didn’t get translated.

“It was nothing personal,” Peter explained to William after the meeting. “I had to say something to save them face. Northern Chinese are not accustomed to saying no to people.”

So all of a sudden you are an expert on Chinese ethnography? And what about my face? William thought, as disappointment turned into anger.

No matter which way he sliced it, Blackstone was a disaster. It was a miracle that William even got a second chance with Carlyle. The project name might have been unpronounceable for most Chinese, but at least it didn’t have the word “black” in it. If he could pull this one off, he would not only redeem himself in front of his team, but also revive an otherwise pitiful portfolio. Ten years into his career, William had little to show for other than a dozen residential complexes in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, those same old pencil buildings rising above a nondescript shopping arcade. His career and self-worth now rode on a single design.

“They like what they see in Hong Kong, Bill. That’s why they hire guys like us to build them a little Hong Kong in Shanghai.” Russell had a tendency to answer every question, rhetorical or not. “You can’t fight that, mate.”

The gweilo did know something about China after all. William squeezed a smile and said nothing – the subtle difference between acknowledgment and encouragement.

Having lived in Shanghai for two years, William knew everything there was to know about the city. The one thing that baffled him, and that he couldn’t wrap his head around, was the way Shanghai was slowly turning into another Hong Kong. The city had all the financial and political capital it needed to leapfrog its rival into something far greater. But for one reason or another, whether it was a lack of imagination or a serious case of risk aversion, all the new constructions ended up looking like those cookie cutter developments in Hong Kong. The last couple of weekend walks he took had made for deeply disappointing architectural tours – there wasn’t a single surprise on the entire journey. Even the fast changing Pudong skyline was starting to look like Victoria Harbour.

The Dragon Air staff announced general boarding for flight KA718, and the two architects picked up their bags and got in line. Out of nowhere, a woman swooped in and wedged herself right in front of William, standing so close that her pony tail was stroking his chin like a shaving brush. It was the same Shanghainese woman who had set off the alarm at the security checkpoint.

Xiao jie, you can’t cut in like that,” William said in brusque Mandarin. His tones might have been off in some of the words but the message was crystal clear.

The woman was about to snap back but William preempted it, “Save it, lady. You are still in Hong Kong and we have queues here!”

The woman mumbled something in Shanghainese and caved in. William had lived in China long enough to know that there were two things fundamentally missing in Chinese society: an indoor voice and personal space. When he first moved to Shanghai he would get cut off and pushed aside all the time. But he had learned and he had adapted. The Mainland roughness rubbed off on him like an infectious disease and he found it hard to switch it off when he was back in Hong Kong. Gloria had joked about his deteriorating manners, like the way he squeezed into a crowded elevator or yelled at the taxi driver. One time he got into a screaming match with another patron at a dim sum restaurant in Mongkok and caught himself yelling in Mandarin. All that had made him realise that the two cities were converging in more ways than one.

On the plane, William was relieved to learn that Russell was seated all the way at the back. That was the best news he had got all day. Ensconced in his seat (28A), William put in his earphones and celebrated his hard-earned solitude with his favourite Faye Wong playlist. The Beijing-born Canto-pop diva was a slice of Hong Kong he carried with him wherever he went. He then turned on his laptop for one last look at his baby, The Belmont Shanghai, and mentally went over the opening lines of a speech he was to deliver in less than twelve hours. One picture after another, the computer-generated mockups showed a glamorous hotel tower from every possible angle. The gold and silver building, glittering in the sun and bearing witness to China’s new wealth, bore a close resemblance to the Shangri La Hotel in Admiralty. William had learned and he had adapted once more. Before he switched off his laptop for takeoff, he checked the time on the bottom right hand corner of his screen. It read 8:38pm.

Jason Y Ng is a Hong Kong born lawyer and a freelance writer. He is the bestselling author of the books Hong Kong State of Mind and No City for Slow Men, and his short stories have appeared in various anthologies. He also writes a social commentary blog, As I See It, and a leisure review site, The Real Deal

The Hong Kong Writers Circle was founded in 1991 to foster and develop writers of all genres in Hong Kong. For over two decades, the HKWC has been a stalwart of Hong Kong's literary scene and regularly organises events, seminars and workshops for its members, as well as producing an an annual anthology of writing

The sibling to this story, "Going South", will be published tomorrow