slow motion existential catastrophe (set to music)
“That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing.”
The Emerald Tablet, Hermes Trismegistus
A few months later I saw a midget submarine. I had moved to a desolate coastal village on the mainland right by the Chinese border. Colonial Hong Kong wasn’t limited to the iconic harbour city: the British mandate radiated outward from the grimy mainland sprawl of Kowloon to embrace the New Territories in a fifty kilometre market garden kill zone. There were also a handful of other outlying islands under UK control. I wouldn’t have chosen to live in Lung Kwu Tan unless my work owned property there to accommodate visiting international or newly arrived ex-pat staff – head office was in the nearby new-town of Tuen Mun: the Milton Keynes or Glenrothes of the Pearl Delta. The other residents of Lung Kwu Tan probably hadn’t chosen to live there either, come to that. More likely, they had been forced off better land elsewhere by colonial adventurism, or priced out by free market economics in an oxymoronic fuck you, or just ended up there out of plain apathy if the general mood of the inhabitants was indicative. The village itself was a dismal row of two and three storey villas with one dubious restaurant clinging to a strip of radioactive-looking beach, bookended by a decrepit power station and a razor wire fence sprouting watchtowers at 500 metre intervals that marked the start of China proper. The houses were further hemmed in to the rear by a range of parched, craggy hills, their slopes punctuated with crumbling ancestral tombs grinning like rotten teeth out of the scrub. Perhaps the inhabitants were a local clan after all, who simply stayed put while history gradually ring-fenced them in decay.
I was allocated the top floor of a villa set back from the beach road by a vacant lot densely fly-tipped with old rice cookers, rusting bicycles and broken air-conditioner units. Initially, a titty-pinching Dutch colleague and his statuesque girlfriend occupied the rooms below but he eventually quit in a sulk. He resented my appointment after being sidelined for the regular trips abroad that were now my perquisite, finally resigning after his girlfriend made a pass at me while he was away visiting his family in the Dutch Antilles. A florid, graphic-designing Yorkshireman soon replaced him downstairs. Gary was better fun than the Dutch guy; he had been in a synth act in Sheffield in the 80s and claimed to be the inspiration for Phil Oakey from the Human League’s famous lop-sided haircut after Oakey had spotted him buying records in Woolworth’s rocking a similar style. Cocktail hour started as soon as we got home from work. We would sit on his balcony skulling gin and tonics and smoking skinny grass joints while shooting at stuff with gas-powered pellet guns. Our neighbours ignored us watchfully. As Europeans, we were already gweilos, white-eyed devils, thus capable of anything. We were best avoided.
I also agreed to the move as a nod to my escalating drink and drug use. I had moved tactically once before in Hong Kong, psyched out of the red light flatshare which was my first rental. My flat mate in Wan Chai was an over-friendly New Zealander whom I suspected of being a sex tourist and possibly worse. He was a travelling salesman for a firm that made patented electric flab-busting kits that were ‘guaranteed’ to make you lose weight without the bother of diet or exercise. By applying electrode pads to the afflicted area, you triggered an unpleasant reflexive spasm that supposedly burned fat and toned muscle. I had once seen a similar device used as part of a would-be occultist’s suggestive pantomime: a hypnotic show-and-tell designed to induce a malleable, learned helplessness. I doubted both their fat-burning and mind-bending capabilities but they did make your arm twitch involuntarily. I couldn’t work out why his company thought that pre-boom, peasant economy China would want such a thing. As far as I could see, most Chinese were thin enough already, quite apart from the product’s obvious snake-oil hideousness.
Rooming with the Kiwi paedophile amid the 24/7 scrum of Filipino prostitutes and Triads on Wan Chai’s main drag soon began to depress me. I found a one-roomed apartment on the third floor of a pollution-blackened, back street tenement on the border of Sheung Wan and Western districts. The street was mainly given over to storefront warehouses and godowns used by Chinese medicine wholesalers. I think I was the only private resident, certainly the only European living there. Every morning I would squeeze into the lift alongside cheerful men wrestling trolleys loaded high with Hessian sacks of dried seaweed and strange roots, jars of pickled seahorses, mummified lizards on sticks and other more obscure remedies. The apartment was so narrow it was almost two dimensional: three and a bit rooms on a railroad floorplan with a microscopic kitchen at one end, a postage stamp of corridor subdivided to accommodate a broom cupboard-sized toilet with shower above, widening out fractionally to a living area with a table and chairs, then tailing off in a room the size of the double bed which it contained. The building smelt musty, it was more expensive but it was my own.
However, a succession of holidaying friends had come to visit and my partying was starting to interfere with my work, or the other way around. In my rural idyll I would experience a new calm and focus, I figured. At the very least, it would be harder to go out and cop straws from the basketball courts in Wan Chai. It didn’t make much difference. By now I was running the club and simply stayed out all night as a matter of course, until the MTR underground railway opened again in the morning. Some Sundays, I would head across Hong Kong Island straight from a club or party to the shack in Big Wave Bay where I kept my surfboard, strip off my black battledress from the night before and plunge straight in. It’s not widely known but people do surf in Hong Kong. The wave isn’t very good and there are plastic bags in the faces but a few Chinese compete grimly for the scraps anyway.
It was surfing that had taken me out to Lantau Island that weekend. I had pored over maps to ascertain likely beaches with the right orientation to maximise wave fetch and, encouraged by vague rumour that seemed to confirm my theory, boarded a hover-ferry in search of long, peeling lefts and rights. Besides my beloved Bruce Jones high performance long-board, I was with my closest friend in Hong Kong, Ben, plus his rich kid buddy Tariq and a couple of other girlfriends. Ben was a forthrightly stoned six and a half foot slacker, blessed with an easy smile, uncomplicated good looks and curling blonde locks. He was that comparative rarity among my circle, a Hong Kong native. Educated at the posh Island School, his family were Jewish, part of some earlier micro-diaspora to the Far East. One day he had visited me at Lung Kwu Tan, as much out of curiosity as friendship. Unsurprisingly, he had never been. We got very high and waded around in the foul, greenish-purple water, our bare feet sucking into the thick slime bottom as the beach, houses and power station glowed queasily in the x-ray sunshine. Somehow the trauma bonded us and he introduced me around.
Arriving at the ferry pier, we decided to walk to the beach. Unlike smaller islands of the colonial archipelago, there were cars and even taxis on Lantau but Ben and Tariq assured us it wasn’t far. We left Discovery Bay’s smart apartment blocks behind and climbed a narrow, wooded road overgrown with dark green vines and glossy flowering bushes up and across the point. The shade temporarily lulled the unblinking photon glare into a filtered benevolence. Work on the new airport and huge causeway linking Lantau to the mainland had not yet begun in earnest and the bucolic scene conferred a holiday mood on our group. As the road descended, my excitement grew. I felt unfamiliar emotions, feelings I remembered as hope and a sense of belonging.
Beach traced much of Lantau’s seaward coastline, receding into the distance in a hazy gold smear. Here at the end nearest the ferry pier, the sands were busy with daytripping Hong Kongers. We picked a spot, Ben and the others setting up camp while I hurried forward to inspect the waves. First impressions suggested modest surf potential, chest high rollers breaking in a confusion of peaks a hundred metres offshore. I strolled along the beach in search of a more orderly set. I had gone a kilometre or so when I noticed it. At first I thought it was a buoy, marking an underwater hazard or fisherman’s pots. Then I realised it was slowly moving parallel to the shore, just beyond the break. I stopped in my tracks and looked closer. A pole was definitely travelling through the water in the opposite direction to me. The regular breath of the swell dipped to reveal a conning tower with what could only be a periscope jutting from its top. It was rusty, you could even see dirty red streaks around the rivets. And it was small, perhaps big enough for one or two people. I stared, vaguely aware of the beach and playing children shimmering in the heat around me. I began to follow the mini-sub back the way I’d come, all thoughts of surfing forgotten.
Each pulse of the South China Sea confirmed my identification. In the deepest troughs you could even see the lines of its salami-shaped capsule. It was thrilling: I felt alive and utterly contingent, as if the ancient temples of Cthulu had risen again, dripping from the depths. I kept the mini-sub in view for as long as I could, scrambling up the rocks at the point until it was lost from sight. I returned to base camp and told the others. Ben laughed delightedly. Tariq handed me a joint. “You want some more?” he clowned, an eyebrow raised. I took a huge hit and dissolved into fits of coughing. Everyone giggled, our sudden incongruity dispelled. The sun beat down. I knew that handover Hong Kong was a hotbed of espionage. Chinese waters were only a few clicks away and the vessel had the crudely functional look of communist construction. It had seen me. I had seen it too. A new logic was beginning to assert itself, day following night until one day the sun does not rise.