Monday, May 25, 2009

Back to the Heart of Darkness

Image of porters entering Chungking Mansion in Hong Kong to ferry out finished goods from grey-market factories.Dear Gentle Reader, the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. [the detestable] has a fascination, too, ... The fascination of the abomination...
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
The Heart of Darkness

Last week I mentioned that many things besides cockroaches and rats come out of the alley near my apartment in Hong Kong.

And I then left you hanging.

I had previously alluded to the fact that this alley, which I duck into to change worlds from glitz to grit, is, in many ways, a passageway into the heart of darkness.

Further, I love this alley; I have a fascination with abominations.

I described the dark, dank, pungent, physical nature of my alley, last week, in two postings.

I also mentioned that one side of my alley was Chungking Mansions, which houses some of the most notorious, cheapest, and nastiest of the cheap hostelries of Hong Kong.

Further, I noted that Chungking Mansions houses many grey and black market factories and that many goods pass hands in Chungking Mansions.

Waiting in the street, outside my alley, are dozens of these:

Image of porters' handcarts chained at the corner of the street by an alley, in Hong Kong, waiting for goods to ship.
And, as the morning drones on and the heat fills the street, the street also fills with smiling Indian and Pakistani men, like these, waiting to earn their money as porters or as land stevedores with their hand trolleys...

Image of porters waiting happily for work in Hong Kong.
These men dart through the alley from late morning until dusk ferrying finished goods, or raw materials, or work in progress between fleets of grey-market transport vehicles and the factories of Chungking Mansions.

I say grey market transport vehicles because these are regular civilian minivans, with no special licensing...

Image of a row of grey-market transport vehicles, in Hong Kong, waiting for grey-market goods to be loaded for shipments to the port.
But, these minivans are filled to the brim with goods which they transport from factory to factory and then from factory to the ports of Hong Kong.

These minivans are filled to the brim and then lace curtains are drawn across the windows to hide the goods from traffic authorities--to disguise their cargo trucks as regular minivans. ...Minivans that just happen to ride really low...

Throughout the day, these vehicles fill up and drive away, or arrive, are emptied, and wait to be filled again, by men like this...

Image of a porter carting materials, or work in progress, from a truck to a factory in Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong.
Image of a small pile of goods for shipment, created by grey-market factories in Chungking Mansions, in Hong Kong.These men create ad hoc piles on the side of the pavement, by the trucks, where bills of lading are checked or created.

This picture to the left shows what one man brings back in one load on his hand trolley and has, subsequently, placed on a pallette.

Did I mention that this ferrying is done not just through my my dark alley, but also through the stairwells of Chungking Mansions?

These loads are hoisted up and down Chungking Mansions' 17 stories, with it's stairs clad in steel, steel cladding that is routinely replaced due to wear and tear.

These loads are not transported through the aging elevators; those two elevators are too slow, even for Hong Kong, and prone to stoppages.

As the men ferry loads back and forth between their factory and the van they work for, the stack on the sidewalk grows higher and wider and longer...

Image of a larger pile of goods for shipment, created by grey-market factories in Chungking Mansions, in Hong Kong.
And it doesn't take much of a glance at the packaging to see the destination of the goods...

Image of packaging showing shipping destination of goods created by grey-market factories in Chungking Mansions, in Hong Kong.
The coastal city of Lagos, very close to the bordering state of Benin, is no longer the political capital of Nigeria.

Abuja, purpose-built from scratch in the 1980s, in the geographical centre of Nigeria, was granted that honour in 1991 in a bid to soothe regional tensions inside Nigeria.

The port city of Lagos, however, a city of almost 8 million official residents in Nigeria's 2006 census, is Africa's second biggest city.

Lagos is the financial and industrial and commercial capital of Nigeria. And, Nigeria is estimated to contain over 148 million people, which makes it the most populous country in Africa.

Nigeria's critical mass of people have long helped it have thriving markets resulting in Nigeria being an economic powerhouse in Africa--and Lagos is the port town where the commercial goods enter Nigeria to be distributed here, and elsewhere in Africa.

As an aside, Nigeria is, literally, that black area, that area surrounding the river Niger (which means black in Latin).

Nigeria is a portmanteau word stemming from the Niger Area, the area around the river Niger, which was consolidated and administered/exploited by Imperial England.

Every package your humble scribe has ever seen on the side of the road, outside the alley, has been addressed to Lagos, Nigeria.

Educated rumour, which I have not yet been able to confirm with an academic citation, has it that every mobile phone handset in Africa has passed through Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong.

Given the scale of the porters' activity, I can well believe this claim.

Your humble scribe has, on rare occasions, seen spot quality checks where packages have been split open; I have seen every conceivable consumer good packaged for shipment to Lagos, at these times, spread out on the sidewalk, outside my alley.

It is true that there is much dross in the alley that I enjoy so much.

And yet that dross is a by-product of the furious activity pounding out through walls and floors of Chungking Mansions and other neighbouring buildings.

I am drawn to the chaos, the disorder, and the rankness of my alley because it births activity and value and commerce and worth. It births; it is a site of creation.

Many people enjoy gentility and a genteel life.

But, contracts are not really written on bleached, white, twenty pound paper.

Not in the heat of the moment.

Contracts are scrawled on cartons or tablecloths or the backs of envelopes by captains of industry. And then their lieutenants, their lawyers, are told to pretty the scrawls up.

Dainty, courtly dances occur in the clean and the tidy margins of life.

Gutters teem with wriggling, striving life.

And neither commerce nor creativity is genteel.

England's Elizabethan Era (1558-1603) is, from a literary perspective, associated with William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Sir Francis Bacon.

England's Elizabethan Era is also associated with dog fights to the death, bear baiting with sabres, and the Star Chamber, that judicial/political weapon of tyranny which allowed its civilian victims no redress or appeal.

There is a duality omnipresent in the world.

Sometimes beauty begets beauty. But ugliness can also birth great things.

The appalling can be as beautiful, or at least as intriguing, as the beautiful.

Hieronymus Bosch's creations stem from observations on moral decay while precious metals and stones also come from the dark heart of the Earth.

Your humble scribe readily admits his "fascination with the abomination".

I, socio-economic rubbernecker, (up and down the socio-economic ladder) hope you have enjoyed today's riverboat journey to my alley in my town, Hong Kong. This quick visit to the heart of darkness.

Oh. And Mistah Kurtz? He AIN'T dead.



Teresa said...

Your alley sounds fascinating even with the stench. Maybe one day I will visit. Do you do guided tours? Do I have to feed the lions before entering?

T and S said...

Beautiful series of image and the shot where the porters are posing for you is my favorite.

murat11 said...

e-Kurtz: Makin' poetry out of the alley, 'swhat I'm talkin' 'bout.

My son shares Mr. Conrad's birthday, along with Jean-Luc Godard, Katarina Witt and, frightfully, Ozzy Osbourne. I've not seen any triple axels, but he is making movies and writing, and (so far) he likes his sabbaths more colorful than the Double O.

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Teresa,

Re the lions, it depends how many limbs you want to leave the tour with. And we are on the way to Taiwan. Re the tour, be my guest (assuming I'm in situ in Hong Kong). I'd gladly show another sinophile around.

Thanks T and S,

I say hello to those gentlemen every morning. I am probably one of the only expats to acknowledge their existence. When I was snapping stills, they were delighted to pose. I actually wanted to catch them in their slightly more customary happy slouch, but...

Thanks for the praise.

Still, no tigers...

Dear Murat,

Thank you my beatbox poet with classical and world learnings to fall back upon...

e-Kurtz is scary...

Of course meine Texte sind nicht kurz, oder meine E-texte...


Terrie Farley Moran said...


Thanks for an intriguing post.


Dominic Rivron said...

Nobody whizzes around with porters trolleys here. Life is far slower than that. You're more likely to find yourself in a car sat behind a lurching great trailerload of hay, the size of a house, making its slow, 20 mph way up a single-track road.

Travis Erwin said...

What an amazing description of the hustle and bustle and entire process. very cool indeed.

Jenn Jilks said...

Terrie said it,
Thanks for an intriguing post. Gave me some trepidation. But thanks for telling us about this world.

Candace said...

I too have that fascination with the dark side, the side that actually wheels and deals for the genteel who refuse to admit they use such or refuse to admit their own hands are dirtied by such transactions.

Thanks for this fascinating round up. Just know you must be careful. (That's the genteel Candace talking. Her evil twin is right beside you coaxing the porters for more information and photos!)

caroline said...

I have been reading through your posts and what an adventure you are living.... This is amazing succinct and deadly powerful stuff.

Keep writing and more writing... and hydrate in the heat.

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Terrie,

I am glad that you find it intriguing, I find it likewise.

Dear Dominic,

I'd be happy to swap houses for a week. I love driving around Northern England on the all the back roads. They remind me of Irish roads, only wider and without that solid yellow line in the middle.

Dear Travis,

Glad you enjoyed it. I know I write long posts, but if people stay with them, I suppose it means that I am improving. This is enforced writing discipline for me.

Dear Jenn,

Apocalypse now, somedays. Heart of Darkness others. Depends if I'm in a Kino mood or a Buch mood. More thanks is due, from my side, to those who give up their time to read what I write. Thanks.

Dear Candace,

Very appropos, for timing, actually. I am debating doing an investigative piece, for myself, and maybe for others, that has some very, very unsavoury people.

If I wasn't married, I know I'd be there. Right now, I am doing some serious debating.

And the interest is strong...

Dear Caroline,

Welcome Caroline. I am rediscovering my bearings in this blog. I suspect it will gravitate more towards, generally, a four-way split between essays, (real) stories, Victorian travelogues or descriptions of slices of life and worlds, and poetry for fun on Wednesdays because it keeps the hungry neurons snapping and the axons oiled up.

I am delighted that you left a note, it is always appreciated, and welcome. I hope to see you again.


Clare2e said...

I think you're right about the boiling activity of the alleyways, where commerce is done and life is lived out in its messy glories. Ivory towers are necessarily cool and distant, and alleys are the real pulsepoint of the state of the patient.

Cloudia said...

Bravo Bravo!

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Clar2e,

We share similar views. Thanks for stopping by.

Dear Cloudia,


Thank you.