Secret Agent Man
By: Michael LaRocca - Copyright 2004
Like almost all my pet stories, this is an excerpt from:
An American Redneck In Hong Kong
Published in 2001, which actually contains very little about Hong Kong. It's mostly cat and dog stories. The site contains three free chapters.
I began by carrying Picasso, in a cat carrier, past the security guard. As usual, he looked the other way. There must be hundreds of dogs living here, in spite of the rules. Every time a dog is taken for a walk, he rides in a lift with a security camera. A guard sees him on the monitor. He does not care. Then the dog is walked past a second guard, who also does not care. So really, this isn't a problem.
The fun begins when I get in the taxi. There's always one waiting by the exit, it seems. I told the driver "Wan Chai." That was easy.
Then I said "Wan Shing Road." He didn't understand. Cantonese is a tonal language, and I always butcher the tones. Plus I've never learned how to say "Road."
I said "SPCA." That was English, but I don't know how to say it in Cantonese. He still didn't understand.
In a flash of insight, I realized that the SPCA logo on the side of the carrier was in both English and Chinese. I pointed to it and said "This place."
The cab driver laughed. "I understand. Cat?"
He laughed again. "Is she a good cat?"
"You are lucky." He laughed again. Then he looked at the box and said "Meow!" Then he laughed yet again. He's quite happy in the mornings. "Is she Bossy Mouth?"
"How big is she? This big?" He put his hands far apart, as if perhaps I had a Labrador retriever in the tiny box.
"No, this big." I tried to show him with my hands, but my memory's shot at that hour of the morning. Along with the rest of the time. "She's very young."
"Ah, I understand." He paused to look at where he was driving.
"Is she cat daughter?"
"Yes," I agreed, and we both laughed.
It didn't occur to me until later that he never saw the cat. He just guessed "she." Likewise, she never made a sound during the cab ride. He just guessed "bossy mouth." Maybe he has a cat daughter of his own.
In case you couldn't tell, I really liked this guy. Was his English any better than the other cabbies in Hong Kong, or the cashiers at the grocery stores, restaurants, or 7-11s? Probably not. But he spoke with confidence, and when I didn't understand what he said, he repeated it until I figured it out. He wanted to communicate. I loved that.
Finally we settled into the journey. He drove through the absurd early-morning going-to-work traffic while I read my newspaper.
When we reached Wan Chai, he attempted another conversation. I was slow picking up on this one. He repeated what he had said, verbatim. His vocabulary was a bit limited. I caught on at last.
This was a sales pitch. He wanted the fare back home as well.
He gave me his cell phone number. He made absolutely sure that I wrote down his cab number. He told me to call ten minutes before I was ready to leave, and he'd be there. How could I resist this smiling, friendly, charismatic old cab driver?
We skip ahead to when I'm waiting for the taxi. I called him maybe one minute before I was ready to go. I said, "I'm ready to leave the SPCA." After a pause, I added the code phrase "Cat daughter." Guess what he did? You guessed it... he laughed. "Ten minutes," he told me.
I went outside to wait. Taxis passed by me frequently, trying to give me a ride. With each taxi, I looked in at the driver, unsure if I'd recognize my new best friend, then waved him by. As he passed, I could finally see by the license number on the back that I was correct. I supposed - I hoped - if I did try to wave my guy by, he'd just ignore me and stop anyway.
Twelve minutes later, a taxi slowed to a stop beside me, but I knew it wasn't my guy. Then another taxi came barreling up behind this one, Out of Service sign on the windshield, honking his horn and flashing his flashers. Immediately I knew. My buddy. He was laughing and smiling as he stopped.
He nodded vigorously. "Good, good. How much?"
"Sixty dollars." (That was about eight US dollars.)
"Sixty," he repeated.
"Yes. She only needed a shot."
"Ah, good. She is good cat."
We drove around the looping roads that lead out of Wan Chai. Then he spoke again.
"I used to live here. Now I live in Sha Tin." Sha Tin is where he'd picked me up. "I get up early every morning. Very early. I live in Sha Tin six years. Your home?"
"Oh." He nodded approval. "Very good, Sha Tin. Very nice." By now we were moving rapidly down the freeway, away from Wan Chai and toward Sha Tin. He pointed to the traffic going into Wan Chai. It was bumper to bumper. "Too much traffic."
"Yes." It seems he was using a lot more words than I was, doesn't it?
I finally noticed the color of his hair. In my early-morning fog, I had it in my mind that it was gray. It would be consistent with the lines of age in his face. But looking at the back of his head on the way home, I saw that it was a brown-orange color. Dyed. In fact, it even matched one of Picasso's colors. The other two colors are black and white.
Finally, Sha Tin. He pointed at some buildings, around the corner from my own apartment complex. "My home. Six years, my home. Is very nice. Wan Chai, no good. Hong Kong, no good. Sha Tin, very good."
We didn't need more English for me to know why he felt that way, which is good because he probably didn't know it. Hong Kong's reputation is one of crowds and traffic and the hustle and bustle. But the fact is, that's only in the central areas. Out in Sha Tin, we still have the high-rise buildings, but it's not nearly so crowded. It's much more relaxed. We even have a park or two, and some very friendly cab drivers.
So what's my point?
Is it that an American, living in Hong Kong and speaking only English, is so desperate for human contact that even a conversation with a cab driver warrants publication?
No, not at all.
It's that people are people everywhere, and that you never know when a total stranger will become a friend, even if it's only for one morning.
Plus, many of us love cats.
We left Hong Kong in February 2002 to move to mainland China. First Hangzhou, and now Shaoxing. Picasso is still with us, of course, and I write about her way too much in my free weekly newsletter, Mad About Books.