I had just become an orphan, just that moment. Made an orphan in a terrible way, though I didn't know it yet, walking along Hollywood Road, passing a shop that sold gilt birdcages and dozen-armed Buddhas, and making my way toward my apartment in the Mid-Levels. So I had a few more minutes of peace.
"You are thinking of moving back to the States?" my friend Jay Lee asked, stepping along beside me on the sidewalk.
"I was only hired for the Swan's construction," I replied. "And I don't have any plans here after it's done."
"Maybe we can hire you," he suggested. "We've got a great need for your skills. You could stay here."
"Nah. I'm sick of kimchi. I can't even stand the smell. I've got to get away from it."
"Kimchi is Korean food, not Chinese. Get it right, will you?"
Lee was a head shorter than me. His hair was in a military cut, and so black it was blue in the gray light. His nose was flat against his face, and his eyes were slanted. Of course, almost all eyes in Hong Kong are slanted. Lee was wearing a dove-gray suit and a red and blue club tie. The suit was well tailored and didn't show the holster under his left shoulder. He was chief of the Hong Kong Police Force's Organized Crime and Triad Bureau. His name was Lee Yik-kee, but he asked that his gweilo friends call him Jay.
"Besides, now that your police department reports to Beijing, I'd never get a job with you. They don't like me in the Forbidden City."
I was sticking him, and he knew it. Still, he couldn't help himself. "Our force does not -- I repeat, does not -- report to Beijing. How many times do I have to tell you that?"
I started to breathe heavily as we walked up the hill. All around us, buildings rose in even formation. Hong Kong is known for daring architecture, but not here, partway up Victoria Peak, where apartment buildings, dozens upon dozens of them, looked as if they had rolled out of a factory on a conveyor belt. Young Filipino women passed us as they walked downhill toward the Star Ferry. They worked as nannies in the Mid-Levels. The sun was behind the hills, and day was quickly fading to darkness.
Faint echoes from a siren came from all directions. I turned to look downhill, using it as an excuse for a breather. My back was already damp. I had been in Hong Kong ten years. Most of that time I was either sweating from the heat and humidity or shivering from the over air-conditioned offices and shops. That and the smells. I had never become accustomed to Hong Kong's ripeness, and still, after a decade here, a scent will rise up from some hole in the ground or reach out some window and fairly grab me by the head and turn me around. I'm from Medford, Oregon. Nothing smells bad in Medford.
"Here he comes again," Jay Lee said. "Where does he get the stamina, I wonder?"
I followed Lee's gaze. The shrill sound of a siren echoed off the buildings, seeming to come from everywhere. I spotted the flashing lights, several banks of them, coming our way.
Lee laughed. "He's got motorcycles trailing his car this time, not just in front. It looks like the arrival of the German general staff."
Every fifth car in Hong Kong was a Mercedes, but few were like this. The black sedan was stretched to a car-and-a-half and had medallions on the front bumper and two small pennants mounted above the front fenders. Lee laughed again.
I asked, "Where does he find time to do his work?"
"He's got a staff of a hundred, I heard. Maybe they do all the work. Maybe he uses a pencil to scratch out something on a napkin and then passes it to them."
The procession worked its way up the hill, the motorcycles flashing red and blue, other cars and pedestrians not in a particular hurry to get out of the way. Lee and I crossed the street at an intersection. The Mercedes caught up with us and pulled into the curved drive in front of the building on the opposite side of the street. Several photographers were waiting, and a TV camera crew.
"I wonder who he is visiting tonight," I said. "Who lives in that building?"
Lee replied, "Wu Jintau, one of the East Asia Shipping Wus. And Quin Jemin, who owns the forty Quick Copy shops here and in Macau. Those're the only ones I know offhand."
"Must be nice, never having to buy your own meals," I said.
"There's Wu Jintau and his wife, coming out from under the portico to greet him."
The policemen left their motorcycles to form a loose cordon on the entrance walkway. The Mercedes driver emerged from the car and rushed to a rear door to open it. The policemen left their motorcycles to escort John Llewellyn as he rose from the car, his silver hair like a beacon in the failing light. Llewellyn was slender, with narrow shoulders and a long neck. He was wearing a blue suit, and he stepped quickly toward Wu, his hand extended. Cameras flashed. A reporter called out a question, and Llewellyn appeared to ask his host for permission to pause for a moment to meet the press. When passersby began to gather, the policemen gently held them back.
"He's like Ben Franklin in Paris," I said. "Crowds gather everywhere he goes."
"Who is Ben Franklin?" Lee asked.
I glanced at him. "Are you asking that just to kill me dead?"
After pausing a moment for the photographers, and carefully including the Wus in most of the poses, John Llewellyn allowed Wu and his wife to escort him under the overhanging roof and into the building. The onlookers began to go their own ways.
Lee said, "After what Llewellyn has accomplished, he deserves the acclaim. Let him have his crowds and press conferences and motorcades. He has earned them. Every single person in Hong Kong believes that, and you do, too."
"You like the thing?" I asked. We resumed our walk up the sidewalk.
"Now you are trying to kill me dead, Clay."
"I mean, you've never mentioned if you even like the damned thing, you're always talking about police work. You like it?"
"It's the loveliest and most dramatic man-made structure on earth. Pure and simple, no arguments. You bet I like it."
Lee deliberately larded his English with Americanisms when speaking with me. Had he been conversing with my Australian counterpart, Lee would have said, "Too right I like it." When he talked with the Aussie and me at the same time, it was an entertaining performance.
"Well, I haven't made up my mind about it," I said. "It's just not very Hong Kong, is all."
"The trouble with you, Clay, is that your image of Hong Kong is of junks and coolie hats."
We reached the level of the next intersection, then turned for a view toward the harbor. Pedestrians flowed around us.
The tower was framed between the buildings, and again, for the thousandth time, it astonished me. At 2,500 feet high, the Fifth Millennium China Tower was the tallest man-made structure on earth, two-and-a-half times higher than the Eiffel Tower, more than two Statues of Liberty taller than any other man-made structure in the world. It rose from an island in Victoria Bay north of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, far enough out into the bay so that it would remain an island once the reclaimed land projects off the Wan Chai coastline were completed. The tower's island was man-made.
Few folks in Hong Kong called it the Fifth Millennium China Tower, a phrase that Jay Lee had said was as much a mouthful in Cantonese as in English. The tower was known in Hong Kong and around the world as the Gold Swan, and for good reason. It resembled no other structure in the world. It wasn't a needle, like the CN Tower in Toronto, nor was it an obelisk, like the Washington Monument. Rather, the tower was in the form of the moon in its first quarter, a grand swoop. The structure's midpoint, which was 1,250 feet above grade, was fully 500 feet off of the vertical alignment between top and bottom.
The tower had razor-sharp convex and concave edges. Like the Seagram Building in New York City, it was clad in bronze from top to bottom. The structure resembled a dragon's neck, or the Communist sickle, or an Arabian scimitar, and these nicknames were traded back and forth in the press during much of the tower's construction.
With viewing platforms and restaurants on top of the giant curve, and with the bronze glowing in the sun, a consensus developed that the tower most closely resembled a long and graceful gold swan's neck and head. So while the official name of the tower is still the Fifth Millennium China Tower, Hong Kong citizens took to calling it the Gold Swan. It had been under construction four years, and it was scheduled to open to the public in one month. Hong Kong and all of China were preparing for the event, which organizers promised would rival an Olympics opening ceremony.
"Come on, admit it," Lee said, standing at my shoulder. "It's breathtaking."
"I heard John Llewellyn and his firm generated ten thousand architectural drawings for the tower."
"And five thousand people have worked on it for four years," Lee said. "Those are big numbers."
"They going to finish it on time?" I asked. "It looks like it's going to be close."
"Beijing will make it happen. They are betting heavily on the Gold Swan and its inaugural week."
Two construction derricks were still attached to the viewing deck's roof, and a number of the bronze plates near the top had yet to be put into place. The temporary elevator, used to take workers and smaller supplies up the tower, was still in place, and it was also curved, following the flow of the swan's neck, an ingenious design in its own right. The construction elevator was scheduled to come down within two weeks.
John Llewellyn had insisted that the man-made island on which the tower sat be as free of "disastrous eye clutter" -- his term -- as possible. So the only other permanent structure on the concrete pad at the tower's base was a one-story terminal, where sightseers from Hong Kong and Kowloon would disembark from the ferries. The terminal was deliberately plain, as close to invisible as architecture could make it, and it was a hundred yards from the tower. Also on the island, but to be removed prior to the opening celebrations, were ten construction shacks, forklifts, construction supplies, portable lavatories, Dumpsters for waste, and piles of this and that. A temporary wooden dock that had been used for early arrivals of crew and material via construction launches and barges was being dismantled. A floating crane, two barges, and a tug were near the wooden dock.
I asked, "How long will it be before a freighter loses its way in a fog and plows into the island, do you think?"
"Every port has similar inconveniences."
"When did you become such a defender of the thing?"
Lee gazed at the tower. "It took me a while, but now I'm a convert. The Gold Swan has become China's new icon, just as it was meant to be. It has already replaced the Great Wall as the symbol of China. The tower is our Sydney Opera House and our Eiffel Tower and our Brandenburg Gate."
"I didn't think the Great Wall needed to be replaced," I said. I wondered why I sounded so sour.
"The Great Wall looks backward in time," Lee replied. "The Gold Swan looks forward. The twentieth century was America's. The twenty-first will be China's."
"You believe that?"
"The people in Beijing who commissioned the Gold Swan believe it," Lee said, "and that tower is their announcement of it to the world."
I studied the tower for a moment. John Llewellyn had created a monument that was filled with contradictions. It was the tallest structure ever created by man, and made of steel and bronze, those metals that are the very embodiment of solidity, and it was a massive thing. Yet it was also slender, with delicate edges, and was one long, elegant curve that some architecture critics were calling feminine. It was solid and inert, planted out there in the middle of the harbor, yet it was also soaring, more than seven hundred feet higher than the Peak, reaching skyward in a fluid, rounded motion, touching the clouds. And it was a chameleon, its bronze casing throwing back the gold of the sun, and also reflecting images of passing clouds and the restless water of the harbor, endlessly changing as the day unfolded.
"It seems alive, doesn't it?" Lee asked.
I nodded. "Maybe that's it. I can't get a fix on the tower, as if it's alive, moving out ahead of judgments I might make about it."
The peal of another siren worked its way between the buildings. After a moment an ambulance rounded a corner below us and came up the hill. It was a white van with a broad red stripe along the body.
We started up the sidewalk again. The ambulance passed us.
"That's the trouble with you Americans," Lee announced. "You don't think big enough."
He said, "You've only got the Empire State Building and the Gateway Arch and -- what? -- the Space Needle. Midgets, all of them."
I lived on Kennedy Road near the Junior School, in an apartment tower called the New Horizon. The building is undistinguished in every respect except that I can afford it. My apartment has one bedroom, a small kitchen, a living room and a bathroom, and I can give anyone a tour of the apartment by just having them turn a circle. San Francisco, which I've always viewed as densely populated, has thirty thousand people per square mile. By comparison, some parts of Hong Kong have five-hundred thousand. It's a crowded place, and I don't complain about my small quarters.
"What are you doing with your old man tonight?" Lee asked.
"Going out for Chinese food, like we do every night. Luckily this city has a lot of it. My dad loves the stuff."
"It irks me when gweilos call our cuisine Chinese food. There's Chiuchow, Sichuan, Pekingese, Yangzhou, and a dozen others."
"Then why can't I tell the difference?"
Lee smiled. "It's a deliberate act of maintaining ignorance on your part."
"I don't like to argue with a fellow carrying a pistol."
"I suspect you take your father to the first noodle bar you come to and eat the same thing every night. Noodle this and rice that, night after night. Am I right?"
My father had visited me four times a year in Hong Kong since I arrived here. Three days in advance, he would call and tell me when he was going to show up. His name is Alan Williams, and he is a retired orchardist, who owned seven thousand acres of trees -- mostly pears, but some other fruit, too -- near Medford, Oregon. His orchard was a huge spread, an operation employing forty people year-round and another four-hundred during the harvest. My father had built it up, acquiring smaller orchards one after another all his life, sometimes taking big risks with the bankers. I believe it broke his heart when I decided I didn't want to be a farmer, though he never let on. I just never took to standing out among rows of fruit trees. He sold the farm a few years ago to Harry & David, the Medford-based fruit-packer and gift-box-shipper, which already owned thousands of acres of producing trees. My father was suddenly a wealthy retiree, and he realized that he had been almost nowhere in his life, and I mean I don't think he had left Oregon more than two or three times before he retired, except for his time in the navy; so when he visited me the first time in Hong Kong, the fact that there was some world beyond the Medford Valley hit him with the force of revelation. He has been coming back since, and I try to show him a good time. He won't let me pay for anything during his visits.
My mother died when I was twelve, is why I haven't mentioned her. Liver cancer got her, and quickly. She was there and then she was gone. That was the first thing to break my father's heart. My not wanting to grow pears was another. I wish I had more memories of my mother.
"I tell you what," Jay Lee said. "Tonight let me take you and your father to a place I know. You and he will get some real Hong Kong food, not this touristy stuff I'm sure you are feeding your dad."
"I was going to take him to an American-style steakhouse tonight. Give us a break from soy sauce."
"My cousin owns a small restaurant near the Man Mo Temple. He'll treat us like emperors." Lee had met my father several times.
"Tell him that as a matter of principle I don't eat eyeballs, tentacle suckers, or hair from any species. And an American would say 'treat us like kings,' not 'treat us like emperors.' It's a subtle thing, but you need to know it."
I was teasing him, but he worked on his American English so diligently that I could see concentration on his face as he registered my correction, tucking it away to use later. He would never make the mistake again.
Three pajama-clad amahs passed us, chatting gaily, sounding like caged birds at a tea house. One of them had blazing gold front teeth.
I asked, "Did your cousin come here doing the breast stroke, two strokes ahead of the sharks, like you?"
"We weren't swimming. We had a raft made of tied-together inner tubes. How many times do I have to tell you? At least, we weren't swimming when we started out. And no, his family came over five years later."
During the Cultural Revolution, Jay Lee's parents had paddled to Hong Kong across Mirs Bay, bringing their three children with them. Five of their six inner tubes leaked -- they had been manufactured by the Red Star People's Tire Plant in Canton, so little more could have been expected, Lee's father would say later -- and by the time the family reached Hong Kong's shore, both parents and the oldest children were in the water, clinging to the last inner tube, on which sat the baby. Almost as soon as his clothes were dry, Lee's father opened a dai pai dong -- a market stand, which was a two-foot-square folding table -- that sold deep-fried pig's intestines. He quickly determined that more profit could be made from selling pirated Rolling Stones cassettes. After a few years passed, he rented three parking spots from a chemical company in Sham Shui on the Kowloon side and began selling used cars -- some stolen, some not. Then he rented eight parking spots. When the chemical company moved to the New Territories, Lee's father purchased its warehouse and parking lot, and inveigled the Bavarian Motor Works to grant him a distributorship, BMW hoping to find the same Hong Kong reception that its archrival Mercedes-Benz had received.
By the time Jay Lee was eighteen, his father could send him to the prestigious Hong Kong University, and then to the University of Michigan for a master's degree in police science. I had asked Lee once if he had ever thought about going into his father's car business, and he replied that he had given it "about as much thought as you gave to growing pears."
Lee's father was now a member of the Hong Kong Jockey Club -- that singular mark of having arrived in Hong Kong society -- and owned a home -- a compound, really, with two houses and water gardens -- just off Peak Road. He had retired, but Lee's two brothers ran the BMW business, and the Ferrari and Jaguar dealerships the father had picked up along the way.
Lee's place was two streets west, and we often walked home together. The exterior of my apartment building is concrete made to resemble sandstone. Each unit has a balcony, so the sides of the building look like waffle irons. Chinese architecture traditionally avoids the stiff and the rectilinear, but in the Mid-Levels this tradition could not compete with the demands of efficiency caused by limited space. My building was one big block. From my deck on the twentieth floor I have a view of the decks of a similar building across the street. I once counted the buildings that would have to be removed for me to be able to look at the harbor, and it came to six. The top two floors of my building have harbor views, and cost four times more than I pay for the same square footage.
I have never believed in premonitions, which assume the ability to know the future or to communicate by telepathy. Such nonsense was at odds with the mental rigor of my police training. But as Lee and I crossed Caine Road, I saw the ambulance's flashing lights splashing against the sandstone wall of my building and I was abruptly invaded by a sense of fear, as if a cold brand had been applied to my back.
"Jay?" I said, more a gasp.
He looked at me. "Yeah?" After a moment he added, "You okay?"
"That ambulance." I pointed, as if he might not see it otherwise. I discovered that I had stopped on the sidewalk. Lee had pulled up next to me. The ambulance that was parked next to my apartment building was frightening me, for no good reason. That's what I mean by a premonition. Two police cars were parked a few yards down the street, their rotating bubble lights sending out blue and red beams.
par"Something is wrong," I said dully.
"That's usually the case when an ambulance shows up," he said lightly.
I started toward the ambulance. Attendants were pulling a collapsible litter from its cargo bay. I sidestepped a palm planter and walked under a wrought-iron arbor along which bougainvillea grew, then passed between two concrete benches. Jay Lee followed me.
Three policemen were standing around a body, which was splayed out near the base of the building. The body's legs were bent at unnatural angles. The concrete patio and the benches and policemen and the body were washed repeatedly in red and yellow lights from the ambulance. The ambulance attendants rolled the litter up to the body.
I stepped nearer. The ugly premonition wouldn't go away. A policeman walked in my direction to turn me away, but Lee showed him his badge and he allowed us to approach the body.
I knelt near the fractured corpse. The skull had cracked open on impact, and gray brains were visible under strands of white hair.
Jay Lee put his hand on my shoulder. It was my father.
Copyright © 2002 by James Stewart Thayer