Fiction / December 2017 (Issue 38: Writing Hong Kong)

The Foreign Correspondents' Club

by James Hatton

October 10th, 1956

The general manager of the Foreign Correspondents' Club, a man affectionately known as Peppi, had locked himself into one of the guest rooms in protest at being fired. These rooms were often used by members who needed to recover from a particularly convivial dinner, and the irony didn't go unnoticed—at least not by Carey—that Peppi's crime was being drunk at work.

Peppi had been in there all morning, and they hadn't heard a peep from him. The club's assistant general manager, who had thinning hair and blinked nervously behind wire-framed glasses, had posted himself dutifully at the door and was knocking somewhat apologetically at regular intervals.

"Don't you have another key?"

Carey recognised the man who'd spoken as MacGregor, a Scottish reporter from the Post.

"We don't, I'm afraid."

"Can't you just force it open?"

"We've been asked only to use force as a last resort."

"Just don't let the Press hear about it," someone said passing by, which had been the running joke for a number of hours.

MacGregor put his thumb gamely to his nose.

Peppi was a gaunt man with thin wrists, raked-back hair and a greasy scalp. He was known to like a flutter on the horses at Happy Valley, and often seated himself at the piano at the end of a good night and crooned out a few standards. He wasn't unlikeable, and Carey felt sympathetic. His behaviour smacked of desperation, and he wouldn't have been surprised if gambling debts were involved.

"Promise him a limoncello, that should lure him out," the Post reporter quipped, and laughed at his own joke.

He moved on, and Carey stood there for a while on his own, watching the assistant general manager knock sheepishly on the door.

"Peppi, you can't stay in there forever," he said. "You might as well come out now, Peppi."

Peppi still hadn't emerged when the rumours of civil unrest started doing the rounds at half past eleven. Big words to take in—or to take seriously—just before lunch. Faces of dead men famous for such big words peered down from the walls, contemptuously or conspiratorially—Carey wasn't quite sure which. Other men, not dead yet, milled on the verandah, surveying the sweep of the bay and the gentle contours of the hillside beyond. Others were seating themselves in the dining room, chattering before they got down to the serious business of eating and drinking. They were all men who—and Carey included himself in this appraisal—arrived in places where so many people went hungry, and then spent most of their time eating and drinking once they were there. He'd watched them—and himself—bloat.

The rumours of unrest didn't provoke much of a stir. The natives up to no good again. It could wait. Lunch was far more important. Few would drag themselves away from a meal for anything that didn't disturb the higher echelons, or at least interfere with their wives' shopping sprees.

"Wake me up when the death count goes above fifty," someone said.

There was always banter, of course—it protected you, in a way, from how awful things could be. Words were thrown around like shrapnel, but the jokes could have an edge to them, and it sometimes felt to Carey that they were only a shade away from becoming the people they would all say they hated.

A couple of youngsters sloped out, looking embarrassed that they were so eager to follow up such a non-story as this. But the bulk of the correspondents were drawn stomachs-first into the roast pork and port fug of the dining room. They were practical men, they would tell you. Their job was to hack out the facts. It might not be pretty, but at least it was true. But that was as much of a lie as anything. And they all knew it. They cherrypicked the facts that made up their versions of the truth.

Carey left with the youngsters, wishing it was because he was still as keen as they were, but knowing it was because work was all he had anymore to take his mind off how much of a part of the club he had become.

A Nationalist flag had been taken down by the authorities in the Lei Chang Uk estate. It had provoked a riot. A unionist clinic had been attacked. A welfare centre had been mobbed. There'd already been deaths. The taxi drove around Victoria Harbour, then up through South Kowloon. Clean streets, Carey thought. Clean façades. Men in the most fashionable suits of the season strode under the awnings. The cricket ground came into view for a few moments, a flash of green and the white lettering of the scoreboard. There were players in whites, coloured dots of spectators in the stands. My God, he thought, the things we've imported, the things we cling to. A flag is lowered, and men are killing each other, but no doubt most people are more concerned by how much movement there is in the wicket.

He expected something, but not the carnage that met them at the end of Castle Peak Road. The taxi driver refused to go any further. A car had been overturned and set alight. Windows had been smashed. Shop front shutters had been ripped out. A crowd, at least two or three hundred strong, was moving towards them. There was a police road block in place, but the size of the crowd—and its energy—made it seem precarious. The roar of raised voices rolled towards him. He saw objects being thrown. There was a bloom of fire. In the near distance, like a theatre backdrop, were the hills and the concrete blocks of the estate that cut into them, bleak lines against the hillside and sky. Nationalist flags hung from balconies. He could make out the emblem of the white sun in the centre of the blue sky. You wouldn't want to be a Communist at this moment, Carey thought.

The police line didn't look like it was going to hold much longer. Armed only with batons, they were trying to push the crowd back, but for every yard they gained, they lost two. An officer yelled at him to get off the street, and he retreated to the side of the road. The faces of the rioters blistered with rage.

After a few chaotic minutes, a look of alarm came into the faces of the officers at the discovery that a second mob had appeared behind them at the other end of Castle Peak Road. They were in danger of being surrounded.

Two dozen policemen detached themselves from the road block and began to march, stretched out across the road in a line, towards the second crowd of rioters. But they were outnumbered there too, and both police lines, following an order Carey didn't hear, beat a quick retreat to the Tsuen Wan police station not far away and formed a cordon around it.

Carey found himself bundled into the station, where he was met by the concerned looks of the officers on desk duty and a fierce-looking foreigner in uniform with a pencil moustache who looked at him with apparent outrage, then turned away to yell at his officers to get back outside on the double and hold the damn lot of them off until the cavalry arrived.

He turned to Carey. "And who in the blazes are you?" he demanded.

"Press," Carey said.

"Good, good. I want people to know what these bastards are like. Absolute animals." He had a thin, almost hysterical voice. He shouted again at someone else. "Get those windows boarded up! Step to it!"

He shot a look back at Carey. "Not an ounce of initiative between them," he said. "They astound me, the Chinese."

Where did they drag these people up from? Carey thought. A dying breed, you'd say if you were being generous. They wouldn't survive, people like this, back home, and he guessed that was what brought them here, the freedom to be the kind of people who weren't countenanced anymore in the real world. Something smashed against the outside of the building, and he turned his head sharply.

He was surprised to find he was breathing hard. He sat down in a chair and watched the officers in their short sleeves and shorts boarding up the windows. The light dimmed as boards went up, and someone eventually turned on the overhead lights.

The superintendent glanced again at Carey. "Bit shaken up, old fruit? Not to worry. A dispatchment's on its way. The artillery. Give the blighters something to think about, won't it?"

"Where's the men's room?" Carey asked, and the superintendent waved in the direction of a corridor.

In the toilets, the roar of voices echoed off the tiles. There was a row of white urinals on one side, blue cubicles on the other, and at the far end, under a narrow window near the ceiling, white basins as spotlessly clean as the urinals. Carey imagined the superintendent inspecting them every morning and going into an apoplectic rage if the job hadn't been done to his satisfaction.

He climbed up onto the basins, scuffing up the ceramic with some pleasure. The narrow window near the ceiling was made from frosted glass and he couldn't see through it, but by tilting it open with one hand, he found he had a good view of the road. He studied the scene for some time.

A building was burning, and the upturned car was still on fire. Thick black smoke billowed up, concealing the rioters almost completely every now and then. They threw missiles as before—bottles, rocks, bits of timber and masonry, even dustbin lids—and the police fended off these bombardments as best they could, crouching under riot shields. They charged once or twice to drive them back. But they were halfhearted efforts and had little effect. The only thing that seemed to be to the police's advantage was that the rioters didn't appear to be organised. What had looked earlier like some kind of pincer movement had turned out not to be. The rioters at the other end of the street hadn't advanced on them at all.

Things died down, then flared up, then died down again for quite some time, and Carey wondered if the riot was petering out. But then the situation escalated once more.

Everything seemed to happen all at once, and Carey registered screams and running first, the gunshots afterwards. People scattered, seeming not to know which direction to run in. The rioters streamed passed, faces stamped with panic. Then he saw the soldiers, rifles shouldered. They came down Castle Peak Road, driving the rioters back towards the Lei Chang Uk estate.

More shots were fired. People appeared and disappeared in the smoke. A man seemed to have been hit in the leg and was supported by another man, who helped him away. It was chaotic for a while.

But the road in front of the police station gradually cleared, and the soldiers carried on up Castle Peak Road towards the estate. Police reinforcements arrived, a Pakistani contingent in white shorts and helmets armed with long antiquated-looking rifles that stood almost as tall as the men themselves.

All was quiet.

Carey was about to abandon his position on the basins when three men emerged out of the smoke, like magicians, and started to walk towards the police with their long pole-like guns. They wore white shirts, grey ankle-length trousers and belts buckled tightly at the waist in the fashion of the time, showing how thin they were. It made him think of his own spread around the middle and the big guts of the men in the Foreign Correspondents' Club. He saw the intensity in their faces, something so pure it seemed to overshadow everything else. His own feelings felt processed and watered-down by comparison. He might as well have been living his life in a room, watching television.

There was a warning shot, and the men hesitated. Then they found their courage again, and walked on. One of them picked up a rock and threw it. Another warning shot was fired. This time the men were unfazed. One threw a bottle, another one what looked like a brick. The police watched tensely, guns pointed at them like spears. When the next shot was fired, one of the men dropped to the ground. Carey stared in disbelief, unable to believe that they had opened fire point blank on unarmed men. The two men lifted the third man between them, and carried him away, staggering a little under his weight. But then another shot was fired, and another, and the men set the wounded man unceremoniously down, frightened presumably for their lives, and hurried away.

The man lay without moving in the road. His sandal had come off and lay a few feet away. His arm was twisted behind his body. Carey watched the blood spreading around his head.

Then he heard the patter of feet. A woman in plain clothes darted across the street. When she got to the man, she dropped to her knees, and put her hands on his face. She lifted his hand. She was older than him—perhaps his mother, Carey thought. Then she stood up and turned accusingly towards the police, but she dropped back down to her knees once more, as if exhausted, and cradled the man in her arms.

She looked like she might never get up again. When she eventually did, Carey saw she was crying. She stared at the soldiers expressionlessly, her fists clenched, her neck taut. Then she broke suddenly into a run. She screamed, and her screams filled the street. It was the most bloodcurdling thing Carey had ever heard. The Pakistani reinforcements, rifles aimed, watched her run towards them. They were perfectly still, like a photograph.

When Carey thought about it afterwards, the woman seemed to be the only thing anywhere that was moving. It was like she was running through a photograph. But a moment later, everything changed again. Movement came back to the street. People shifted in doorways, they leaned out of windows. Trees stirred on the hills behind. Dark clouds of smoke curled up into the sky. The Pakistani reinforcements lowered their rifles. They turned their heads to and fro, as if confused by what had just happened.

A shot had been fired, and the woman now lay in the road, a few feet from the man, completely still.

The mix of feelings that had been stirred up in Carey over the past few hours crystalised into a need to do something for this woman. He ran through the station, ignoring the protests of the officers and burst out of the door into the shocked silence of Castle Peak Road. He was blind to everything except her. Blood had already darkened her shirt. When he knelt down next to her, she looked up at him with astonished eyes. But he didn't know what to do. All his reporting from war zones and he didn't know what to do. He put his hands over her chest as if that might stem the flow of blood.

"Someone help her," he shouted. "Can no one help?"

The Pakistani reinforcements just stared at him as if unable to understand what they were seeing. Two Chinese policemen eventually came over to assist. They shoved Carey to one side, and held a compress to the woman's gunshot wound.

One of them turned to him and said fiercely, "Get off the street. Now. Go."

He wandered, dazed, towards the Pakistani policemen with their long outmoded-looking rifles. He wanted to blame them, to strike out at someone. But when he looked at their faces, he just saw men from another country as bewildered as he was, following orders given by someone who, if he wasn't already in his club enjoying a snifter of port or brandy, would be soon.

"Are you hurt, sir?" one of them asked.

Carey looked down at his shirt. It was covered in the woman's blood.

"No, I'm fine," he said. He walked on. He had lost his jacket somewhere, he realised. But he didn't remember taking if off. Perhaps he hadn't been wearing it at all.

At the next junction, life had already returned to normal. Shops were open. The pavements thronged with people. They looked at him—first because he was a foreigner, then because he was covered in blood. He hailed a taxi, and told the driver, automatically, to take him to the Foreign Correspondents' Club. He thought he must have left his jacket there, and it seemed imperative that he find it.

He walked into the club on Conduit Road half an hour later. Lunch was over, and it was quiet. There was something sticky on his palms, and when he looked down and saw the woman's blood caked on them, he hurried upstairs to the toilets so that he could wash them. He passed the room that Peppi had locked himself in, and the assistant general manager was still standing at the door, knocking sheepishly on the door.

Had he been standing there all this time, knocking and repeating Peppi's name? The possibility, its absurdity, terrified Carey. It made him feel almost hysterical. He wanted his jacket. He had to put it on, and cover up this blood.

In the toilets, he watched the pink wisps and curls of the woman's blood slip down the plughole. He washed his face. Then dried himself with a paper towel. Perhaps she was dead now, he thought. Or perhaps the officers had saved her, and she was lying in a hospital bed, thinking about her murdered son, if he was her son, and wishing she was not alive.

He walked back down the corridor to where the assistant general manager still was and asked him if there was a lost property box. Carey told him he'd lost his jacket, but he was sure he'd had it on earlier.

The assistant general manager stared at him."'Are you alright?" he asked.

"It's not my blood," Carey told him.

"What happened?"


"I've got a fresh shirt you can put on."

He put his hand on Carey's arm, and Carey let him lead him through the club to his office, a windowless room in a part of the building he hadn't been. The assistant general manager took the blood-stained shirt off him and gave him a clean one. Then he told him to sit down, and poured him a glass of whisky.

"That'll do you the world of good," he said.

Carey got up after a while. "I should get something to eat," he said. "I missed lunch today."

"I'll ask someone to make a sandwich for you."

"No, please, I'm fine."

He got a second drink in the lounge, and sat down. He listened to the low murmur of voices punctuated by the occasional laugh.

"Just don't tell the Press," he thought he heard someone say once more, the standing joke about Peppi. It was met with a few titters.

A touch of excitement entered the club later. A diplomat had been caught up in the riots. Swiss. Taxi set alight. The wife dead. Suddenly the riots were worth talking about.

He thought of the man lying dead in the road, and how his life was not important enough to be talked about. He thought of the woman and her grief that for a moment had seemed to tear the world apart. She wasn't important either. Nor was Peppi, and whatever made Peppi who he was—whatever he was hiding from in that room. None of it was worth talking about.

The decision was made the next day to force the door open of the room Peppi had locked himself inside. When they did, they found the bed unmade, a full ashtray and a half-empty bottle of gin. But Peppi wasn't there. No one knew what had happened to him. The assistant told Carey this when he went to collect his shirt. The shirt was spotlessly clean, just like the superintendents' urinals. There wasn't a mark on it.

"They do wonders with the laundry over here," the assistant general manager said.


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