The Omen

Rose Cruz Robinson

© Copyright 2003 by Rose Cruz Robinson

Photo of an plane landing.

“Welcome to Aitch-ong Kay-ong,” my niece said as we strolled towards the luggage claim area. We had arrived in the Crown Colony, that rare island of free trade and enterprise in a sea of communism. Except for the Chinese characters on posters, Hong Kong Airport looked pretty much like any airport in the world - huge and crowded with Chinese. The weather was hot and humid.

I traveled two days after Easter with four teenage nieces, ages ranging from twelve to seventeen, entrusted upon me by their gullible parents who assumed that their daughters would return safe and free from psychological trauma. They had never been before through Customs and Immigration anywhere in the world and to them the thought was simply tantalizing. Four days later, we returned home loaded with shopping bags full of trinkets and enough photographs to fill up gigantic photo albums with pictures of the harbor and skyscrapers, of turtles and butterflies at Kowloon Park.

The number - gasp! - 13 loomed largely on this trip. Incredible as it may sound, I had never in my life encountered so many signs that dared to foreshadow great misfortune at every turn. To the faint of heart these warnings may have been enough to discourage further endeavor, but my friends, I am woman, created from hardier stock. I will begin with the first sign.

At the start of our trip we discovered that our plane seats were in row 14. I glanced at the row ahead and sure enough, we were right behind row 12. That should have been an indication but not being superstitious, I dismissed this foolish notion. The fact that our plane did not plunge into the ocean or even get hijacked was proof enough that contrary to popular belief mere numbers don’t dictate our fortune. Thus was the First Omen.

We deplaned mid-morning and our tour guide, Eric met us at the airport and drove us to our hotel on the Kowloon side, the Marco Polo Gateway. In Hong Kong, there is the business Kowloon side, where most shops, restaurants, hotels and the famed Night Market are located. And then there is Victoria Island, the upper class residential area and site of Victoria Peak. Our hotel is situated inside a gigantic building called Harbour City. It is the biggest mall in Asia with blocks and blocks of stores and boutiques. Push the side door open and there’s Gucci, Versus, Louis Vuitton and DKNY ready to swipe your American Express.

We marched up to the front desk to register. My nieces were to stay in a double room and I in a
single. The lady at the register started to sell me a suite on the fifth floor, which I initially resisted,
until I discovered that we were assigned to Rooms 712 and 713… Okay, that was the deciding
factor. So for an additional $33 day + 13 % tax, I took possession of the keys to 515 and 516.
We retired to our rooms to unpack, then decided it’s time to tackle this dangerous city armed with
cash and Visa… And discovered to our horror that the door to our suite wouldn’t open. We yanked
and pulled and pushed, without success. I called the front desk and coolly informed them we were
locked in. After a few minutes, we heard keys rattling on the door. Nothing happened. I called the
front desk again and requested for backup. “We’re hungry and dying for lunch. Could someone
please open the door for us?” More people came and fiddled with the door… still nothing… Half an
hour had passed by. I called the front desk again and this time yelled politely, “WE’RE LOCKED IN HERE, GET THE DAMN DOOR OPEN!” We heard voices and two men pushed their shoulders
against the door and Open Sesame! Saved at last! A small crowd of hotel staff had gathered outside
and right away with eyes ablazing, blood sugar on the ebb, I demanded to speak with the manager.
A young woman pushed her way through the crowd and introduced herself as Ivy, the duty manager.
I’ll spare you the gory details of our encounter, but suffice it to say that the additional
$33 day + 13 % tax was removed from my hotel bill and henceforth, every hotel staff member
was nice, really nice to us.

The incident had me perplexed. I had changed our rooms from 713 to 515, in deference to the Gods of Good Fortune and still this happened. What misfortune had befallen us? Brows furrowed in deep thought, I went through the door, stepped into the pavement, out into the harsh afternoon light and as I lifted my eyes I caught a glimpse of numbers and letters emblazoned in shiny brass, the address of our hotel - the posh Marco Polo Gateway: 13 Canton Road. The Second Omen.

Surely, after that debacle, nothing could possibly go wrong, we reasoned. We exchanged our currency (HK$7.50 to US$1.00), walked down Salisbury Road searching for lunch, our first lunch in Hong Kong. The streets were crowded with yuppies, tourists, regular local folk and minions of dedicated international shopaholics. Then I came up with an idea. “Hey, we’re in a Chinese city, let’s have Chinese food!” Word of warning: don’t ever go into a Chinese restaurant where the waiters only speak Chinese and the menu is in Chinese because, even with English subtitles, it doesn’t even give you the first clue as to what you’re eating. We left the restaurant still hungry. To ease the pain, I took the girls to an Irish pub that evening. One thing I can honestly say about the Crown Colony: food and beverages are expensive. At our hotel, a 12 ounce bottle of mineral water was priced at HK$35 (that’s roughly US$4.67). Besides New York, this is the only place in the world where you can find US$15 hamburgers. Henceforth, we were regulars at MacDonalds.

As the days folded, we toured the alleys in Tsim Sha Tsui and poked around grocery stores laden with all kinds of roots and herbs, powdered sea horse, rhino horns and tiger penises; boarded the Star Ferry to Victoria Island; went on a boat trip at Aberdeen in Hong Kong Harbor, famous for its houseboats and the appropriately named Jumbo Floating Restaurant. Chinese who live on houseboats make an extra living by renting them out by day chartering tourists around the harbor for HK$5.00 per person. Our boat was supposed to hold twelve passengers plus the driver and whist enjoying the sights around the harbor, I happened to count the people inside the boat and, lo and behold, there were 13 passengers. But then, I rationalized, with the Chinese woman steering the boat, I supposed that made it fourteen. Besides, nothing untoward had happened… if you don’t count the few times we were nearly run over by speeding cars because we sometimes forgot that, like the English, Hong Kong drivers drove on the wrong side of the road. Besides, in a valiant effort to ward off evil spirits the girls and I invested on some jade jewelry - jade being the symbol of Good Fortune in China and not to mention they sure looked pretty. We had hoped the jade would work its magic and reverse our misfortunes.

On Day Four, Friday morning, April 5, we rose early to catch the first morning train to Mainland China. This time our tour guide was a young man named Jackie, who looked a little like Jackie Chan. The early hour was an attempt to avoid the immigration rush across the border from people traveling to the Mainland to shop. Apparently, shopping in Mainland China is much less expensive than shopping in Hong Kong. Furthermore, on that day, traffic was expected to be much larger than usual because it was the Festival of the Dead. While waiting for the train, we also learned that many Chinese men cross the border for one big reason: to look for wives. In Mainland China, the ratio is 1 SCM:6 SCF, making it a good market for the single male.

And why does a border exist? You may ask, especially since Hong Kong, amid great hoopla and controversy was formally turned over by the British to the Chinese in July 1,1997, thereby making it geographically and politically part of Communist China, the move initiating the collapse of the Asian stock market. As Jackie explained it, the reason for the border is because everyone in Mainland China, all one billion people, all poor, all want to migrate to Hong Kong, the land of riches and opportunity where Business is the primary religion. “Should that ever happen,” Jackie explained, “the Island of Hong Kong would sink into the China Sea from sheer weight of one billion people.” Thus educated, we boarded the train for the 45-minute trip to Shenzhen, the first communist Chinese city from the Hong Kong border.

Ere we departed, we were advised to use the restrooms (in China, such places are marked “Toilet”). And let me describe the Toilet. You know that porcelain thing you sit on? Well, it’s there, too, except it’s sunk onto the tile floor. So what you have to do is hold your breath and gingerly feel your way around, hoping your foot wouldn’t slip and get stuck. Then something ungainly happens: you squat real low and if you’re, say, a few pounds overweight, it’s almost a heroic feat. I believe that’s the reason why most Chinese are skinny. If you’re lucky, wearing a jade bracelet perhaps, you would have had the foresight to bring some tissue paper in your purse because such luxuries are very rare in Chinese toilets. And bring LOTS of it because there are no sinks in which to wash your hands. Does the toilet flush? Sure it does, if you can find the string to pull that’s hanging from the wall. Whilst in China, I made it a point to wear my jade bracelet everyday, hence I didn’t get stuck, I didn’t forget to bring tissue paper, I found the string and successfully flushed the evidence down the drain.

Trains in China resemble the ones you see in New York subways, but much cleaner. Graffiti is prohibited. As the train passed the town of Luo Wu, the last town on the Hong Kong border, we gathered our stuff. We all lined up at the Immigration, quietly at first, then the stampede began. As soon as the door to the next station opened, everyone surged like cattle, all 50,000 people to the next lines. Our passports were stamped by soldiers in black military uniform as we departed Hong Kong and stamped again as we entered Mainland China. You know these vicious rumors about how communist soldiers look so stern and they never smile and have no sense of humor? Every word of it is true.

Our tour guide, Felicia met us at the train station on the Mainland side. She was a very pretty, terribly sweet girl and, despite her name, an honest to goodness communist Chinese. We packed into the minivan and got our first glimpse of a communist Chinese city. You know the saying, “You see one American city, you’ve seen them all.” Well, let’s cut the suspense here. Without the Chinese characters, Shenzhen looks just like a city in Florida - palm trees and flowers and such. Our first stop was the Windows of the World, a theme park depicting different countries in the world. We toured the mini Eiffel Tower, went for a boat ride at Niagara Falls, turned a corner to an African field of wild (plaster) animals - giraffes, elks, stampeding buffalos and right smack in the middle was a male elephant on his hind legs behind his girlfriend elephant doing a sexual act particular to their species. I zoomed in for a photo. That’s the Communist EPCOT.

After plunking serious money at The Pearl Factory and the leather factory, we proceeded to the mall. Yes, the communists do have a mall with communist shopkeepers and communist shoppers. Here you can buy all the fake goods you want - Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo, etc. Even the gold jewelry that the Chinese swear is real is not. This is the place to haggle, which can be fun, since the Mainland Chinese don’t speak English and where the unofficial motto is “Caveat Emptor” (let the buyer beware). Before venturing into the shops, we surrendered our stuff to our guide, Felicia for safekeeping. She counted 13 packages in all. One, two, three, yes, 13 packages, no mistake about it. My heart stopped, then instantly I dismissed the unspoken notion. I fished some coins out of my jeans pocket to count them and came up with HK$13. I gasped as a sense of foreboding swept over me. I clasped my new jade bracelet, a pretty one with square and round dark green beads which I got for US$10, special sale price, and crossed my fingers. And off we went to shop for gifts to bring home. So many stores, so hard to haggle. I bought a Gucci suitcase for myself, HK$150=US$19.50. Along the hallways, I noticed hawkers, which I soon found out was for foot massages in salons dotting the mall. So for HK$30=US$3.90 I treated my aching feet to a one hour massage. At 6:40 PM, we sat around waiting for the rest of the group to show up before heading on to Immigration, when one of my nieces noticed her new shoes were missing, a pair of designer black leather that my brother just bought for her a few weeks previously. No, they did not disappear whilst she was wearing them. She had bought a pair of wooden clogs, wrapped her leather shoes in a plastic bag and the bag disappeared. In a flash, she and her cousin raced off to hunt for the missing shoes. I was terrified. Can you imagine the trepidation I felt as I imagined my brothers interrogating me under torture as to how I mislaid their daughters while on a shopping expedition to China? Red Communist China, no less, whose citizens distrusted foreigners and whose soldiers at the border couldn’t even smile? Jackie and Felicia went on a feverish hunting mission and found them shortly. And so it passed, the Third Omen.

I’m happy to announce that no blood was shed from that mishap and the girls recovered their appetites sufficiently that evening at the Hard Rock Café, right across from 13 Canton Road, featuring live music nightly. My young nieces learned a few lessons from their first trip abroad. Going to China was a voyage in education, opening their eyes to a different culture and despite the misadventures they will remember this experience for a long time. They went through Customs and Immigration in Red China. That is something that no one can ever take away from them.

I'm Rose Cruz Robinson, a writer and resident of Florida. I just returned from a one-year sabbatical, which accidentally stretched to 21 months. During my homeless/jobless phase, I meandered here and there, banging random thoughts into my laptop. The result is a series of stories I called Homeless Chronicles. My entry The Omen is part of the series.

February 2000, Millennium Shift Ezine published my article Rhythm of the City.
October 2000, 1stBooks Library published my first fiction novel Hello, River Queen!
October 2002, my entry Max's Moxie placed Second in the Fall, 2002 24-Hour Short Story Contest sponsored by
December 2002, my 500-word short story A Minute Too Soon placed Honorable Mention in the Paul Perry Short-Short Story Category sponsored by Soul-Making Literary Competition 2002.
Currently, I am involved in the frustrated task of launching my website, where I plan to showcase my stories and articles,including my Homeless Chronicles.

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