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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Strube

Butter Mansions

“When you go far away in the world, you must go far away inside yourself.” 

Poetry, sheer poetry. The words dripped out of the corner of his Swiss mouth just as quickly as the Tasmanian Pinot Grigio flew past his lips. He was French after all. Well, he was from the French speaking part of Switzerland — the land Fabio claims runs on the brilliance of banking secrecy. I’ve had many a conversation on finances and banking since I entered Hong Kong, but this was the first moment that poetry had penetrated the hidden cupboards of my soul. Traveling far away in the world makes one go far away from themselves and into the inner recesses of their very arteries.

Plus, his name was Fabio. Always trust the words of a man named Fab.

I met Fabio at the singles bar of the Lotus Thai restaurant on Staunton Street. It’s not an official singles bar (i.e. there are no signs for “romantic failure” publicly marked on the table), but everyone knows that, when traveling alone in foreign countries, you don’t order a table for one. You sit at the high stooled mesas in the open aired cafes with the other people without friends. It’s an unspoken rule, but one that works. Outside of America, you don’t waste space. An empty chair is to be shared, rubbing elbows and exchanging lonely poetry about the existential experience of travel. Cue Fabio. If you don’t want to spend the evening discussing Bach and systematic mathematics (because somehow the two go together in Switzerland), you go to sushi restaurants. Suishi cures the single traveler’s soul because across from you, rather than the lonely open chair across, rest the colored plates of sashimi.  Really, it’s much better to stare at the conveyer belt of recently slaughtered ahi and eel than an empty velvet chair. But you can’t eat suishi everyday, so you eat with Fabio, who flew all the way to Hong Kong for his best friend’s five star wedding of free flowing mini-bar.

My ears perked up. I mean, eating at the singles bar normally has it’s financial advantages (i.e. shared tables can lead to shared checks and I’m going broke eating at even the 7-11s here in Hong Kong.) But once Fabio told me he was (a) French and (b) staying at the Chung King mansions, I knew he wouldn’t be picking up the bill.

Waiter, please cancel that last pouring of top-shelf Cognac, merci bou coup.

On first impression, you might think that the words “French” and “mansion” together in the same sentence reek of Champagne luxury, but you would be wrong. The traveling French are bastardly cheap and the Chung King Mansions in Hong Kong make the ghetto look like the magical lands of Oz. Names can easily lure you in however. When I heard the name Fabio, I immediately pictured glowing butter spray and white Lipizzaner horses, thundering through dew-drizzled meadows in search of fresh baked bread. And when I heard there was mansion named after a King named Chun, I pictured such horse being lead up to a cupcake pink castle decorated with hanging lanterns. The Chung King Mansions… After all, I do need lodging here in Hong Kong while I await my visa. Why not stay near Fabio in the Chung King?

I’ll tell you why not. The Chung King Mansions lure you in with cheap hostel rates and time-honored compartmentalized suites with names such as “Little Europe” and “Reliance Inn.” You can book online in any of their advertised private villas, but don’t be surprised upon arrival if there is no concierge awaiting your anticipated entry. In fact, no one will be there for you at all, but there will be a badly written English post-it on floor 27, saying that Rajika — the owner — is sorry but not available to check you in. Don’t worry, Rajika is not that hard to find. Simply get back in the elevator, try not to make eye contact with all the Middle Eastern men who stare in you in the lift and kindly refuse the drug offers to you between floor 7 and 5. Back on ground level behind the hanging laundry, you can locate Rajika at the kebab stand, where he will be madly cooking curry. After all, no man can be in two places at once, and curry is very important. When you find him through the waft of Masaman spices, he will escort you to the reliable reliance inn, complete with sheets that only slightly smell of Saag Paneer and a multi-tasking shower, where you pee and suds up all in the same sudsy drain. 

It’s luxury mansions. And the French are all about the finer things. And they all smoke slender cigarettes that match their waif-like figures. And China is cheap.

And all your stereotypes get thankfully shattered when you go far away in the world and far away inside yourself. After all, Fabio is all about the this: I can’t believe it’s not… true.

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