I’m not sure if it was the bacon or dad’s aftershave I smelled first or if I heard his voice before either. ‘Come on, time to get up, washed and dressed. I’ve got a cowboy’s breakfast on the go for you.’
Outside my window the distant neons were off and there were no cars or people moving around to add anything to the concrete urban neighbourhood. I had never been up before Kowloon was awake and it felt very strange as the greyness of early light made everything lack colour.
I got to the table as dad brought out two plates of food which he placed on folded newspapers next to the mugs of milky coffee already there. We smiled at each other and got stuck in to the Cowboy’s Breakfast. Bacon and eggs with baked beans that had been cooked in the bacon fat and a slice of bread and butter placed on the top.
‘I suppose this means you’ll be farting all day.’ he said grinning.
‘Not as loudly as you.’ we both laughed and ate more beans.
We drove along and spoke now and then to comment on the radio. There were more signs of life as Kowloon woke around us and started it’s daily bustle. Men on bicycles jostled with cars and swerved around market traders pushing carts overbalanced with stock and men carried cages of live birds. A man pushing a steel barrow full of boiling water stepped out in front of us and dad broke and swerved and only just missed him. The barrow man shouted abuse in Cantonese and was stunned as dad replied in the same way. ‘Silly bastard,’ he said turning to me ‘that was almost the end of someone’s breakfast noodles.’
Travelling down Waterloo Road and getting nearer to Dad’s office at the crossroads with Nathan Road, the neon signs were off but still seemed magical piled on top of one another where familiar logos mixed with mysterious symbols advertising unknown things. The further we went the more signs there were until it was impossible to make out one from the other without stopping and looking. The population increased with the advertising and the more familiar busyness of Kowloon business was in full swing as we parked down a side street reserved for MTR staff. It was more of an alley than a street with only one or two doors down the whole length and no windows. It was a good spot; nothing could be thrown or dropped down on to the cars.
The Mass Transit Railway had offices sited where every major station was being built and dad’s patch, as he called it, looked after Yau Ma Tei and Mongkok. The site smelled of clay and cement dust and so did dad’s portacabin site office, which was empty except for a filing cabinet and three desks and chairs and a spare chair for visitors. I sat at one of the desks and watched dad go through reports and make notes for a while, then I stared out the window watching the people go past. An increasing flow of black haired heads bobbed up and down in a river that ran parallel to the traffic that was building. Each one had a story, each one had things to do. I sat at the desk and opened up a comic. It was only half past eight. Dad had said it would be a long day for me, the ceremony was still a couple of hours away and the blasting wasn’t until tonight.
‘I think I will go home later on and come back for the blasting tonight.’
Dad looked up from his report and nodded. ‘We’re meeting your mum for lunch. You can go back with her and make your own way here tonight. We’ll go on a site walk in a little while.’
I got back to my comic until two men walked in the office. Both looked Chinese but one, a stocky man with a pock marked face, was much darker. The other was small and slim and pale with a horsey face. Both wore shorts with their open necked shirts and both wore glasses. ‘Good morning, Gange sin-sam.’
‘Jo-san’ dad replied and introduced me to them. Mr Pang, the darker one, and Mr Kwok. They smiled at me and said good morning and I replied with the shyness of a twelve year old. ‘He’s come to see the ceremony’, dad explained.
‘Oh very good,’ Mr Kwok said nodding his head at me, ‘you like pok?’
‘Pardon me?’ I didn’t know what pok was.
‘Pok, pok. You like pok?’ he repeated and stared at me.
I blushed confused. He just sounded like a chicken to me.
‘Mr Kwok is asking if you like pork.’ prompted dad.
‘Oh. Yes. Sorry, yes I do.’
‘You in luck. Lots of pok at the ceremony. And beer, lots of beer. But you too young to drink beer.’ They all laughed like it was a real knee slapper. Mr Pang didn’t say anything but smiled a lot and laughed the loudest.
They started talking work and lost me in jargon but I listened anyway, proud to hear the respectful way they spoke to dad. After a while another three men came in to the office and, after being introduced to me, joined in the conversation which was getting noisier. I took it as a good moment to get rid of some of the gas that the cowboys breakfast had built up hoping no-one would hear. The only thing louder than my fart was the silence that followed. Everyone turned and looked in my direction. I had never felt hotter or redder.
‘No more cowboys breakfasts for you.’ dad said opening a window, and everyone laughed as they piled out the office in double time.
‘You can see whose son he is.’ Mr Pang shouted through laughter.
I was at the front of the crowd that had gathered to watch the ceremony. Murmurs in sing song Cantonese mixed with the steady hum and occasional roar and frequent horn blowing of the traffic. The labourers were burning incense and offering the roasting pig and fruits and beer to give thanks for the completion of one phase of the work and the start of the next, commencing with that night’s blasting. Dad and some of the men leaned against the railing sipping beer and watched each stage. The burning incense and the joss sticks between praying hands filled the air with a spicy oriental fragrance that overwhelmed the clay and cement powder smell that still clung to everything. The pig was being turned on a makeshift spit over a fire contained in a cut down oil drum. Every now and then the smell of it’s fat being cooked and it’s meat heating would waft over and shoulder the over smells out. It was almost the same as a Sunday roast smell and I grew hungry. The oranges and other fruits seemed like an afterthought, bits and pieces discarded from the market. Dad looked over and smiled and beckoned me forward. I had one of the first cuts of meat and it taste delicious and better than I had imagined. He reached in to the ice bucket filled with beer and pulled out a bottle of cream soda and handed it to me, to the amusement of the workmen, and then looked around at the crowd.
‘How many air cons tonight Mr Pang?.’
Mr Pang looked in to the faces that watched the ceremony. ‘I think three.’ Mr Kwok concurred and the other men started to make bets. I didn’t know what they meant but was too busy watching everything to bother asking.
The second time I woke that Saturday it was to mum’s perfume and voice. ‘If you want to go to your dad’s site you better wake up now. There’s a sandwich and coke for you on the table.’ How did I let myself fall asleep? One minute I’m listening to records the next mum’s waking me up. The repetitive click of the record player sounded like someone tutting.
The ice cold coke and gammon and pickle sandwich was delicious and I wolfed it down so I could catch the bus. Taxis were cheap but I wanted the viewpoint from the top deck to people watch and get a better view of Kowloon after dark.
I carried the food parcel mum had made for dad and got a seat on the pavement side. The lights were all lit now and they cast a multi-coloured glow over the crowds of people. The bright lights coming out from the shops made the differential between night and day harder to make at street level. The bus went past a small side street market where strings of lights helped people decide what to buy and so that egg buyers could see through the shells to make sure the eggs were fresh. I never understood how they could tell.
The bus bounced and shook along Nathan Road and stopped. Everyone was told to get out if they wanted to get off anywhere close as the roads were blocked because of the blasting. That’s how a nearby bilingual translated it for me. Some roads had been blocked causing a jam of horns and shouts and sing song Cantonese profanities. I got off the bus and joined the throng of elbows, arm pits and hot breath and made my way to dad’s office.
When I got there dad was on the phone to mum. I put the parcel on the desk and sat down opposite.
‘Have a good rest?’
‘Mum told you?’
‘Sure, but that’s alright I had a crafty kip too.’ Dad ate his sandwiches and when he got to the cake there was a piece for me to and we washed it down with building site coffee. It was wet and warm and did the job but I decided I would only drink it again if I had to.
Dad smiled, ‘bacon for breakfast, pork at the ceremony and now gammon sandwiches. Good job we’re not Jewish or we’d starve’. He checked his watch. “They’ll clear the streets soon and I’ll need to make my presence known, but you have to stay here. Have a look outside if you like but don’t leave the portacabin area. The siren will blow then there’ll be three blasts and then they’ll sound the all clear. Don’t worry you won’t miss anything, you’ll feel and hear the blasts right here.
Dad put on his hard hat and left me on my own. I looked out the small window to see the crowds being herded back down the street. I went outside to get a better view. The air was warm and humid, and sticky and thick, and made all the smells, aromas and fragrances from the building site, restaurants, market stalls and nearby flats seem heavy. The hum of voices was receding and all the traffic had stopped and, with it, all the horn blowing and shouting of irate drivers. Everyone was braced for the blasts. I went back inside to the air conditioner whose low and ever present hum seemed like the loudest noise for miles. The second hand of the electric clock didn’t want to break the calm and it travelled noiselessly too.
The siren sounded louder than I had imagined and I flinched. It was like one from a war movie. Perhaps it was used when the Japanese had invaded. Then it was back to the unnatural quiet which lasted less than a minute before the roaring rumble, which seemed to come from directly below, shook the office and rattled the window mesh. Another quiet pause then a second rumble, this one further away but still loud enough to make the windows rattle again. The third pause was shorter and the third blast further away and the quiet that preceded the all clear was less quiet as life got back to normal. I went outside again to find the street back to thriving; it hadn’t taken people long to get back to doing what they were doing. The blasts were another quirky but normal occurrence in Kowloon
Dad approached with Pang & Kwok. ‘Hello Paul’ they said in unison.
‘Did you like the blasts, son?’
‘It was exciting and strange because I couldn’t see what was happening but I could feel it when everything shook.’
‘Let’s all go inside and wait for the air con figure.’
We went inside and I asked, ‘what’s this air con figure you keep mentioning?’ The three of them smiled.
‘ We have to tell everyone in the area that we’re going to blast, for their safety, as well as giving the siren warnings. They use that to get ready in a different way. If they need a new air conditioner they’ll loosen the fixings on theirs and when the blasts go off push the old air cons out on the street and claim it was the blasts fault. It has been known for people who don’t have an air con to get an old one from a skip and just chuck it down and pretend it was theirs.’
‘And they get away with that?’
‘All the time. It’s cheaper and easier for MTR to give them a new one than taking everyone to court. What’s the record Mr Pang?’
‘Six in one night.’
The figure didn’t come through until the next day. It was a hot time of year and the record was broken. A total of eight were claimed. I laughed. I loved Hong Kong.