This next story appeared in ‘Hong Kong Future Perfect’, the Hong Kong Writers Circle’s 2016 anthology. Contributors were challenged with creating a vision of the city in years to come, either a utopia or a dystopia. Very few went for a utopian vision…
In ‘Pearlania’, what was once Hong Kong is about to reopen to the public after a decades-long isolation. The question that journalist Lukas wants to answer is: what, if anything, remains?
“The buzzer sounds and the gates open. Passengers rush down the ramp and across the bobbing gangplank. Ropes strain to keep the boat in place while salty air hits your face. You find a seat and adjust it: facing forward, or back? Sit down and relax. You are now aboard the world famous Star Ferry!”
Silence descends upon the boat. Lukas and nineteen fellow journalists wait as the engine churns, the boat groans against the rubber-lined dock, a whistle sounds and they begin to move out into the harbour. Lukas closes his eyes and lets his body sway with the rhythm of the boat. His mind is woozy, somehow jet-lagged despite the short, five hour flight from Amsterdam.
“When Hong Kong was founded in the 1840s, the deep waters of Victoria Harbour allowed a vast number of vessels, from tiny sampans to huge cruise ships, to use its waters. At its peak, thousands of ships passed through the harbour’s waters every day! And, even as other forms of transports took over, the Star Ferry kept its place at the heart of the city.”
As the view slowly reveals itself, everyone stands and walks to the side of the boat. The water is a cloudy aquamarine, the sky powder blue with a touch of haze in the distance, and across the harbour skyscrapers soar like proud, puffed-up soldiers. Lukas takes a deep breath, watching the faces of the other passengers. It all looks so real. So very real. The announcement starts up again, the woman’s accent still unidentifiable:
“Rising on either side of us – the famous Hong Kong skyline. Look carefully and see the Bank of China’s unmistakeable lines, the subtle dome of Statute House, the majesty of Victoria Peak and the sharp point of Tamar Tower, the highest building in the world when it opened in the year two thousand and…”
Then it’s all gone.
Where there was an island and buildings and traffic and mountains and a glorious autumn sky, there is nothing. Just vast white walls for the water to slap against. Stunned, Lukas turns to look back. The pier is still there: the only dab of colour at the foot of a sheer white canvas. Murmurs break out. They are stranded on a boat afloat in a gargantuan bathtub. Then the engine starts up again.
“Apologies. We have encountered technical difficulties. We are now returning to our original location. Apologies. We have encountered technical difficulties. We are now returning to our original location…”
As steaming baskets of dim sum are placed around a wide, round table, Lukas can’t remember the last time he saw a tablecloth. The last time he even ate at a table. Does that say more about modern life, he wonders, or just his?
The restaurant appears to be revolving, with three-sixty windows offering a panoramic view of verdant hills and white sand beaches. Suddenly the scene changes to a street, all neon signs and Chinese characters. Lukas feels slightly nauseous. Someone to his left is talking.
“Did you hear about the group this morning?” A man with hair the colour of nicotine stains skewers a dumpling with his chopsticks. “On the ferry experience? Apparently the bloody thing failed! Shut down and they were left floating there like chumps.”
Lukas smiles. “I was one of the chumps.”
“You weren’t! Good God, what happened?”
Lukas explains and the man lets out a long, low whistle. “Not the start they would have wanted. Steve Gold, by the way. From The Telegraph.”
“Lukas De Zwol. Vandaag.”
They shake hands over a dish of soy sauce.
“What’s your schedule for the afternoon?” Lukas asks.
“As far as I’m aware we’re going to the beach, the market and the races. Busy day, eh?” They laugh. Steve moves closer, his voice low. “This place already gives me the creeps. And you? What thrills await? Glad you got this gig?”
A week earlier, Lukas had been summoned to his editor’s office and had entered without knocking. Patrick was half-buried in a pile of papers. His office always appeared to be on the verge of collapsing under the weight of back-copies and red-penned articles. “Just a second…”
“I doubt there’s this much paper left anywhere else in the world…”
Patrick straightened up. “Shoosh! OK. Listen. Hong Kong.”
“You mean Pearlania?”
“Yes. It’s opening next week.”
“Massive story. Huge. Big limit on press passes.” Patrick paused, enjoying the moment. “But we got one.”
“And you’re going.”
Lukas was shocked. “Me? But… Don’t you want someone senior? It’s huge! Like you said.”
“You’re what… twenty five?”
“Right, but, way too young to ever’ve been to Hong Kong. As it was.”
“Yeah of course.”
“You know what happened though, The Wave and…?”
“Ok, sorry. I just wasn’t sure. You’d have been a kid. Anyway, you’ve got nothing to compare it with. Fresh pair of eyes and all that. From what titbits are leaking out it sounds… unique. To say the very least. But I mean titbits. Scraps. Nobody’s been in or out for, what, near thirty years. Plus you’re always saying you want to cover something big. So…”
“Yeah yeah. OK. Flights Monday ten am. You do the sights in a group and get an audience with the head honcho a Mr…” Patrick had strained across his desk to see… “Lam.”
“What we’ve created here is unique. And I don’t believe that’s an arrogant statement, Mr. De Zwol.”
Mister Lam had a firm handshake. He motioned for Lukas to sit at the opposite side of a desk that was much thicker and wider than it needed to be. His face was round and flabby, covered mostly by a large grin. It should have been a welcoming countenance, that of a jovial old man; but something was lacking. It was the eyes, Lukas realised – dark little pinholes.
“You’re certainly efficient.” Lukas said, glancing at his watch. “I only landed fifteen minutes ago.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Mister Lam’s voice was gruff and his accent American, but a slight Chinese edge remained. Lukas thought of the short but spiky PA who had briefed him upon entry.
“You have ten minutes. No voice recording. No ocular device recording. You may not ask questions regarding Mr. Lam’s previous employment. You may not ask questions regarding The Wave. In short, you may not ask any questions about the past. We are looking toward the future, Mr…?”
“Yes. You may enter.”
The PA had started a timer as Lukas walked through the heavy, black-glass doors. Then she began to address the next journalist in line: Monsieur, vous avez dix minutes…
Behind Mr Lam hung a framed copy of a poster that Lukas had seen countless times since arriving. A smiling couple, Asian in a Western-looking way, walking hand in hand with a young boy and girl, and beside them a purposeful businessman with a phone held to his ear, all moving towards an ornate doorframe which doubled as the border of the poster. The slogan below them: Pearlania. Open for Business and a ream of hashtags. Lukas realised that Mr. Lam was still waiting for him to speak.
“So, waddya wanna know?”
“Well, perhaps, Mr. Lam, you could start by giving me an overview. What can visitors expect now that Hong Kong is once again open for business?” Lukas reached for his tablet. “Just notes. Data’s off.”
Mr. Lam smiled without opening his mouth. “‘s quite alright. This office is covered in blockers. Only things that work in here are mine. I could scramble your tablet. If I wanted to.” Lukas nodded, uncertain how to react. “As I was saying, Pearlania is a unique touristic experience, investment opportunity and vision of the future.” He glanced down at a sheet of paper marooned in the centre of his desk. “Remind me, you’re business or…?”
“OK.” Mr. Lam leaned back in his chair and cracked his knuckles above his head. “You ever been to Paris?” Lukas nodded. “Rome? New York? Tokyo?” Lukas kept nodding. “And where you from?”
“Amsterdam. Although originally…”
“Amsterdam? Yeah. Cheese. Tulips. Van Gogh…” He wiggled his fingers as if trying to pluck more words from the air.
Lukas helped him: “Rembrandt, Anne Frank, sex tourism…”
Mr. Lam frowned. “I’ve travelled a lot. Many cities. And I noticed that between, you know, the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa, there’s a lot of crap. Streets and trash and homeless people.”
“That’s the case in any city.”
“Right! But not in Pearlania. Not now. We had an opportunity thanks to a… terrible thing. To create the ultimate, streamlined, ultra-modern tourist destination. Where tourists can come, see what they wanna see, take a picture of the important stuff, buy what they wanna buy… easy. Optimised sightseeing.”
Lukas tapped all this out in full on his tab. “Wouldn’t some people say that the ‘crap’, as you put it, in between the sights is what makes a city? What gives a city its character?”
Mr. Lam had laughed at this idea, and, with hands behind his head, reclined so far in his chair that Lukas had expected to see him topple backwards.
“Just wait. Wait until you start our tour.”
An hour after lunch, Lukas is one of ten journalists being led around a noisy market. The passageways between the stalls are narrow, and on either side of the group vendors cry out their wares: meat and fish, fruit and vegetables, flowers, clothes, old electronics, ancient DVD disks that Lukas vaguely remembers using as a child. There’s an intense heat and a strong, not altogether pleasant, smell.
“You smell that?” asks the young woman in front. “That’s really how markets were in Hong Kong. Intense, isn’t it? Like old meat and sweat. But don’t worry, it’s completely synthetic. Vents behind the stalls release a controlled amount of the odour.”
“And the food?” asks the woman in front of Lukas. “It looks very real.”
“It does, doesn’t it!?” This girl is scarily enthusiastic, he thinks. “It’s real produce, coated in a preservative layer.” She picks up a small, flat fish and offers it around. It feels like warm plastic, despite its glistening appearance. “Items such as this can be used for up to a week.”
“So,” someone else asks. “Nobody actually uses this market for shopping?”
The girl laughs a well-rehearsed chuckle. “No, of course not. Our residents are provided with everything they need. Downstairs.”
“There are shops down there?”
“I’m sorry, I’m only here to answer questions about the Kowloon Market Experience. Perhaps you can have that enquiry addressed elsewhere on the tour.”
Lukas turns to see who asked that question, and sees a sharp-nosed, middle aged woman wearing her hair in a fashionable iron-mesh bun. She smiles and looks at him over her glasses.
“I don’t know if I’m still jet-lagged, but where the hell am I?”
“Good question,” Lukas replies.
As they pass a fruit stall, a large elderly man jumps up and waves a bowl of oranges. His face is jovial, the words rising and falling almost angrily. Lukas recognises the language from the countless Chinatowns he’s visited around the world. He hesitates, then asks: “Is he speaking Cantonese?”
The girl turns around once again, a smile fixed to her face. “Why yes.”
“But, nobody in China speaks…”
“Correct. It isn’t spoken. Anymore. But the staff in this particular Experience took lessons to provide you with a truly authentic visit. Think of is as cultural preservation. We here at Pearlania are incredibly committed to preserving ancient or obsolete cultural practices. Even languages”
The group move slowly forward once more. Lukas tries to look up at the ceiling, but all he can see are bright lights. Behind the stalls he can make out the dim outline of apartment blocks and balconies. For a few seconds he believes them to be real, but soon notices the tell-tale hologram flicker. The girl continues: “Of course, when we open many more visitors will be allowed to the market at one time, thus ensuring real bustling feels. On arrival they will be presented with original 2017 Hong Kong dollars – as you can see all the products here are sold using the old currency – and they are free to buy what they wish.”
A voice behind Lukas asks: “To keep?”
“No, they must return every item upon reaching the end of the market. Where we are now.” The girl steps to one side, clicks something in her hand and the floor begins to move. As Lukas and the others steady themselves they realise that they are on a travellator.
“Goodbye, and thank you for visiting the Kowloon Market Experience.”
The girl recedes from view behind a black curtain. Her eyes remind me of someone, Lukas thinks. For a second he can’t quite place them but, just before she fades completely into darkness, he remembers. Mister Lam’s dark little pinholes.
The next day, Lukas and his group dip their feet in the lukewarm waters of the South China Sea Experience. They have a crash course on paddling techniques at the Dragon Boat Experience. They take a jolting tram ride tram along bustling streets and play mah-jong in a games parlour filled with fake smoke. They go shopping for luxury brand items in the Causeway Bay Experience – items that the visitors are this time allowed to pay for and keep – and ride Galactic Mountain at Disneyland. Scarily, this last stop on the tour is the least strange– the hologram backdrops and inanely grinning staff could easily have been from any of the world’s ten other Disneylands.
It’s technically impressive, he thinks. The way the traffic on the streets comes to life and the buildings reach into what appears to be the sky and the ‘real’ sea meets the holographic sea and the way that you stand looking out from what is supposedly Victoria Peak and you believe that mile after mile of city and harbour and hill is rolling out from beneath you. It’s incredibly impressive. On a technical level.
At one point, Lukas’s group joins another on one of the sleek shuttles used to move them from one Experience to the next. As he chats with the lady in the mesh bun, whose name he has learned is Julia, a man breaks away from the second group to join them.
“Where are all the bloody people?”
Lukas turns to see Steve, from the dim-sum lunch.
“I know. We were just saying that it’s hitting us now. Where we are.”
“I was promised a city, you know?” Julia says after introducing herself to Steve. “I want my damn city! Not this… theme park.”
They laugh, though Lukas looks to see who is listening.
The shuttle hisses and the 3D images of junk boats and dancing dragons flashing past the window fade to plain white walls. “I guess I’ll see you at the bar, this evening. Christ knows we’ll need a couple of fortifiers.”
That night, the journalists are provided with an open bar in the Hong Kong Club Experience. As he moves from group to group, Lukas notices that most is negative. Frustrated, even, as if they have been sold a lie. Although he has just left one group in which an annoyingly loud Australian woman said she could imagine bringing her young family here. He moves to the bar, holding his tablet, though he gave up on taking notes hours ago. Two rotund, middle-aged men are there, dwarfing their barstools, who introduce themselves as Roger and Hamilton.
“Great little place, eh?” Hamilton asks.
Lukas grunts noncommittally, suddenly feeling slightly drunk. “You work here or something?”
“We’re just looking to create end-of-the-nineteenth-start-of-the-twentieth-century feels, as the young ‘uns would say.”
“Fin de siècle!” Roger looks pleased with himself.
“You do work here?” Lukas glances around. Nobody else is within earshot. “Who are you?” he asks, hurriedly. “You’re actors, right? You get paid for this? You aren’t just doing this for fun?”
Both men look startled.
“Just give me something, guys. An insight in to what this place really is.”
Nothing is forthcoming other than an awkward silence. Lukas gasps in frustration.
“Fine. Are Chinese people allowed in here?”
“What?” Roger splutters “Of course…”
“Because I doubt they would have been, you know. Back in the fin de siècle.”
Hamilton frowns. “Well maybe not. But we can capture the essential essence of the place without… I mean, should we bring back malaria? Eh? For extra authenticity?”
“Well,” Roger waggles a finger at his companion. “If we could bring back malaria it would be an excuse to guzzle more G&Ts.”
“As if you need a bloody excuse!”
Both men guffaw and look at Lukas to get in on the joke. He doesn’t. How can I ever convey just how weird this whole place is? Will I even be allowed to? The laughter eventually subsides.
“Incidentally,” resumes Hamilton, his confidence returned. “All the drinks served here would have been available in the city, circa 1905.”
“Rita!” Roger bellows towards the bar. “Fix this man a mint julep.”
The short woman behind the bar jumps into action like a marionette.
“The sun is most definitely beyond the yard-arm.” Hamilton chuckles.
Lukas realises that he hasn’t seen the sun for almost three days. He points towards the window on the far wall, thick velvet curtains drawn tight. “What’s behind there?”
Hamilton drags his frame around to look.
“Oh that. Well, nothing. Of course.”
Back in his room, Lukas slumps on the bed and sets the windows to a dark red tint. He chooses a night sky setting for the ceiling and lies still, staring out into the depths of space. He is so tired that he cannot sleep.
He picks up his phone and dials Patrick.
“How is it?”
“Just…” Lukas is surprised that no words spring immediately to mind. “It’s not a city.”
“It’s a theme park.”
“Oh. OK… Nope. Sorry. I don’t get it.”
Lukas recounts the past two day’s itinerary. “Nobody’s here. Nobody lives here. It’s just a bunch of themed ‘experiences’.”
Patrick pauses. “People do live there. Intelligence suggested that tens of millions of people were being moved to area now that the damage was…”
“They’re not here. That intelligence was just speculation. Nobody’s flown a plane, a drone even, over the area for decades. How can they know?”
“I edit the travel section Luke, I don’t know where intelligence like that comes from. But it’s common knowledge.”
Lukas sighs. “I want to dig a little deeper. Sneak away from the tour if I can. Just to see… something.”
“No. You write for the travel section. Don’t rock the boat. From what you’ve said so far there’s more than enough to write about. Pan the place. Tell us what a fake crock of shit it is. But don’t do anything stupid. Remember who your hosts are.”
There’s a long silence before Lukas says goodbye, and hangs up.
The room into which they step is dark, but Lukas can tell from the breeze and the echoes that it is a large space. Young men with flashlights position everyone into a line. It’s eerie, Lukas thinks, knowing that something large and perhaps menacing stands in front of you but all you can see is blackness. There is also a different smell in the air. Damp? Earth? Are we finally outside? He looks to where the flashlights shine on the ground. Concrete.
“Like a bloody firing squad,” Steve whispers at his side. “Has someone asked one question too many?”
A voice booms out, with a hint of feedback. “Ladies and Gentlemen. Hand-picked members of the journalist community. You have now seen most of what we have to offer you here in Pearlania, hashtag openforbusiness. And yet, we have saved what we believe to be our most impressive feature for the end of your visit. For now.
“One generation ago a disaster of unprecedented proportions befell the city of Hong Kong and the surrounding province of Guangdong. For many years it lay dormant, but never truly defeated, and now it rises again. As a symbol of Hong Kong’s resurgence, as a reminder of its past and as a statement of intent, we will now present to you the only remaining piece of the original city. Allow us to present to you, what will be the highlight of any visit to Pearlania, the Tai Mo Shan Experience!”
Lights flash on with an echoing boom and there right in front of them but still very far away is a mountain. Lukas’s mouth drops open. It must be a fake, he thinks, a reconstruction, like the rest of this place, but the longer he stares the more he realises that he is really looking at a mountain with grass and trees and rocks and a path winding up and up to what looks like a weather station on the top. It’s an actual mountain, but there’s a roof above it. An inconceivably vast roof with metal sheets the size of football pitches and lights like alien spacecraft.
“Bloody hell,” whispers Steve.
The two men share the lift back to their rooms.
“Three hundred five.”
Lukas presses for Steve’s and then for his own floor: three hundred and forty six. The lift moves off with a deep moan. After a minute it is Steve who breaks the silence.
“Can I ask…? What can you see from your window?”
“From your hotel room window?”
“Oh. Holograms. Bustling markets, a sunny harbour, beaches fringed with mountains. Hong Kong Mark I.”
“Mine’s the same. Did you ever visit?”
Lukas shakes his head. “No. You?”
“Once, yes. Not for work, though. I’m not that old. I was a kid and my parents took me on a cruise. Stopped off there… here… for a night.”
“What was it like?”
“God I was young. I remember neon signs. And the heat. And I have one very vivid memory of eating shrimp wonton. But even back then there were problems. I’m sure I remember my father talking about no go areas.”
Lukas feels the pressure rising as the lift soars. “There must be a way to see outside. Beyond the hologram.” He speaks more to himself than to his travelling companion. The lift slows with another moan and the doors pop apart.
As Steve steps out, he turns in the doorway: “If I were you, I’d try the drains.” The he laughs. “Goodnight!”
The doors slide back across and slot silently together.
The corridors at 4am look as empty as they do in the middle of the day. One hundred journalists barely make a dent in a four hundred floor hotel.
Lukas takes the stairs. The lifts only go down to the one hundredth floor, and he is sure that whatever he is looking for is below that. Plus, he is convinced he will be less conspicuous on the stairs.
His sole companion on the way down is the drone of the air-con. After twenty minutes he has lost count. Fifty floors? One hundred floors? He keeps going and thinks about what Steve said as they parted last night: Try the drains. He imagines himself shimmying along dank tunnels, a flashlight in his teeth, like that ancient movie star his dad used to love. With the ridiculous muscles and the weird accent. He can’t remember the name.
Without warning he emerges onto a landing. A guard sits asleep in a large booth, while behind him a mosaic of blue screens flicker. Lukas catches his breath and shuffles carefully towards an imposing metal door. It doesn’t budge; doesn’t even shake. He looks around. Now he can see the desk at which the guard is slumped, a light snore dancing around his lips, and a set of buttons. Lukas approaches and strains to read the metallic engravings above them. Only one makes sense to him: M/D OPEN. If I press it and an alarm goes off I can make it back to the stairs before he knows what’s going on. Probably. If I get caught I can play dumb and ultra-apologetic. If it works I might get a genuine world exclusive on what is really going on here. Lukas slowly stands up, ready to run, and presses the button. Nothing happens. He exhales a little too loudly and the guard murmurs. Seconds of unbearable silence. Then the doors sweep open. If this was a movie, he thinks, I’d be laughing right now.
On the other side of the door is a long corridor, lit by ornate gas lamps which upon closer inspection are electric and are flickering in unison. Lukas’s feet squeak against the polished floor. He arrives at another door, made of intricately wrought but surprisingly light iron, which he pulls back before stopping in shock. His eyes slowly adjust to the bright light.
He is at the end of a street. A suburban street, lifted straight from a kid’s picture book: manicured lawns, low, white fences and pillarboxes, verandas, tall oaks, pebbled drives. He stumbles, dazed, along half the street’s length then stops. Nobody is around. There is birdsong and a light breeze and Lukas is certain that he is finally outside until he realises that it cannot be 5am yet the sun is already high in a cobalt sky. He looks behind the houses, over the rooftops and into the far off icing-sugar clouds and knows, even without the tell-tale flicker, that at some point what he can see has changed from real to holographic.
He knows that he has reached the end of the street only when two doors rise up from the concrete. The row of houses continues ahead of him but when he reaches out a tentative hand he makes contact with a hard, warm, invisible surface blocking his way. One of the doors is clearly an elevator, a panel shining by its side, the other is a regular door. Lukas opens the latter. Another corridor with faux-gas lighting, smothering dark after the bright street, and a staircase at the foot of which another faux-iron door leads onto another suburban street, identical in every respect to the one above. Still he sees no-one.
The scenario repeats itself over and over: corridor, door, street, corridor, door, street. Lukas begins to feel trapped – has he gone too far? Street after street piled atop one another. Even the birdsong is becoming repetitive, until Lukas realises that there are no birds. The houses appear to be getting smaller and more closely packed together. There are no verandas anymore, and fewer windows staring blankly out. He walks briskly on.
Eventually the door leads on to a different street: apartment blocks, maybe twenty storeys high, with smart little lawns and courtyards nestled in between. Still no-one is around. Again this scene is replicated again and again until Lukas has no idea how many times he has seen it. He also has no idea how long he has been away from his room but knows it must be hours. Would he be noticed missing at breakfast? Or not until the final presentation at nine o’clock?
At the far end of the street behind him the elevator doors stand open and a man, the same guard he crept past earlier perhaps, is running towards him. Give yourself up, Lukas thinks. Apologise. He starts to run. Not yet. Aiming for the elevator door he notices a third opening at ground level. It’s much smaller, he might not even fit. How did I not notice earlier – is it just on this floor? He stoops down, stumbles, drags the door open and crawls in.
It is pitch black and after a second he realises that he is falling. He slams an arm against something metallic, which slows his descent, then a foot, which makes an alarming shriek as his rubber soles catch against the metal. Still he falls in painful, jerking drops and his exposed hands and elbows burn from the friction and he screams in such terror that he shocks himself, as he realises just how frightened he is.
The first thing Lukas becomes aware of, as consciousness slowly raises him up, is the smell. While his other senses remain dulled, he has time to linger over the overpowering stench of fish, sewage and decay. Then he becomes aware of the heat – every bit as oppressive as the odour. He rolls painfully on to his side, his cheek touches something wet and salty, and he wretches.
Opening his eyes he is alarmed to find another face just inches away from his. Deep brown skin, furrowed by the ages, black eyes buried deep in the folds. Something muttered, incomprehensible. An old woman, wrapped in an all-encompassing rag, shuffles slowly away, dragging a huge sack that rattles and clangs. Lukas carefully props himself up and watches her stop once more, inspect something on the ground, and drop it in the sack. He sees that the upper half of his body is in shadow, the lower half exposed to the baking sun.
Beyond the woman stretches a landscape of rolling, black hills, twisted, charred and stinking. Smoke rises from various points. Little peaks rise and troughs sink. He thinks he sees a house. Or at least what could pass for a house in this nightmarish scene. Then another one.
To his right a voice calls out. Two children, naked but for ragged vests, throw a misshapen ball to one another. Lukas lies back down again. He has an even stronger desire to wretch. Something sharp digs in just below his shoulder blade. Above him he can see a huge, black square, too massive to fit into his field of vision, propped up by huge, blackened pillars. The place he came from. Casting a shadow upon him as he lies in filth.