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midnight in hong kong
By Margo Fallis 2007

I lay snug under the blankets, in one of the short and narrow bunks of our family's cabin. We were sailing from Australia to the United States aboard the ocean liner, the S.S.Iberia. I was wide-awake, unable to sleep. I knew that it wouldn't be long until midnight and my father would wake up. He and I were going up on deck to experience the ship’s arrival at Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor. He told me it would be a spectacular sight; one that most people in the world would never get to see. Even though I was only ten years old, I knew it was something I wanted to experience with my father.

At last I heard him climb out of his bunk. He quietly came over to me and whispered, "Time to get up and get dressed." I hadn't undressed from the day before. I'd gone to bed with my clothes on, not wanting to waste a moment when the time came to go up on deck. My father smiled when he saw my clothed body and helped me down from the top bunk. He opened the cabin door. Light from the hallway cascaded into the tiny room. "Shut the door quickly and be very quiet," he gently commanded. I made sure not to slam the door shut. We silently made our way down the hall, whispering, so we wouldn't disturb others sleeping in their cabins.

One or two people were wandering the halls, obviously going up on deck as we were. My father pushed the heavy metal door open. Once outside a wave of hot, humid air rushed over us. Even at midnight there was horrendous heat. My father commented, wiping sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief, "I don't think that I would like to spend too many summers in Hong Kong."

We climbed the ladder-like steps, covered with thick, white paint that was beginning to peel, like all the other railings. They were steep and I had to use both hands to help pull me up. We stood at the railing on the top deck. The rugged mountains were silhouetted against a star-filled sky. I could see the headlights of cars as they made their way up the mountainside and a few scattered lights from the homes built on the steep slopes. "We'll be there soon. Keep your eyes open. You don't want to miss this."

I stood silent, not wanting to miss anything. The ship began to slow down as it followed the meandering sea into the harbor. I heard the sound of the engines drop to a lower speed. The dark mountains were so close that I could see a string of Chinese lanterns hanging between two pine trees. Their reddish glow seemed eerie and frightening. Having a vivid imagination, I wondered if maybe a dragon lay hidden behind one of the trees, waiting for our ship to pass by before it began its nightly flight over the city, snatching unsuspecting victims and carrying them back to its lair. Startling me from my thoughts, my father said, "That's Victoria Peak." I smiled up at him at the same time all the lights on deck went off. “The captain did that so it wouldn’t take away from the scene about to unfold before us.”

I felt safer in the dark, knowing that if there was a dragon, it wouldn’t be able to see me. Nevertheless, I clung to my father’s leg. "Tell me about Hong Kong."

"Hong Kong is on China's southern coast, near the mouth of the Pearl River." I smiled. My mother had told me that my name, Margaret, means pearl. "There's a Chinese name for the river, but I don't know it. Hong Kong is really an island. Several million people live here."

"Wow, that's a lot of people," I said, hearing him, but not really paying attention to what he was telling me. I gazed up at the stars. There were millions of them. "You mean there are as many people living in Hong Kong as there are stars in the sky?" I asked.

My father laughed. "No, not that many, but it might seem like that when you see the crowds tomorrow, or should I say today. It's after midnight now." He glanced over the railing and continued, "There are two huge cities, Hong Kong and Kowloon. That's Kowloon over there." He pointed at some lights. "I believe the word Kowloon, in Chinese, means 'Nine Dragons'."

I gulped when I heard the word ‘dragon’. Did he just say there were nine of them? I turned to look back at the mountain. “Why did they call it that? Are there real dragons in Hong Kong?”

He smiled at me and rubbed the top of my head. “You’ll find a lot of dragons in Hong Kong.” I was tempted to go back to the cabin; maybe I’d be safer there. Before I had a chance to think any more about it, my father took hold of my hand. “Did you want to know more about Hong Kong or not?” he asked. I bravely nodded my head up and down. “Kowloon is a busy place. You have to take a ferry to get from one city to the other. That mountain you see is called Tai Pin Shan, or Victoria Peak. It's beautiful. Just wait a few minutes and you'll see it better." The ship snaked around another mountain.

The anticipation grew inside of me. I climbed up on the bottom rung of the railing and gazed over the side of the ship. The water looked black and deep. I could see waves made by the ship's hull as it plowed through the sea racing towards shore and pounded against the seawalls.

Once again, thoughts of nine fire-breathing dragons washed through my head. "Get down, honey. Your mum would never forgive me if I let you fall overboard," he said, grabbing me by the waist and planting my feet on the deck.

The ship began to turn. We were right next to the mountain now. I could almost touch it as we sailed past. The city's lights lit the sky as they reflected of the clouds that were hovering above. "Watch, honey. Here we go."

Just then the ship sailed into the harbor. The dark shapes were no longer dead looking. The entire mountainside was covered with tall buildings, each alive with light. There were houses terracing up to the top. It was spectacular. I giggled with excitement. "Look at all the lights! Look at the tall buildings! They are all squished together. Don't these people ever go to sleep?"

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" my father stated, not really needing or expecting an answer. He reached over and picked me up. I wrapped my arms around his neck and together we watched Hong Kong appear. The ship sailed slowly into the harbor. "There are a lot of people in each of those buildings and no, I don't think they sleep very much."

No more words were said. We were both silent as we sailed past. The shoreline was packed with decrepit looking wooden boats called junks. The waves from our huge ship rolled towards them. They bobbed up and down like Mexican jumping beans. “What makes the waves do that?” I asked.

He laughed, “Maybe it’s those nine dragons.”

I knew he was teasing. There was too much going on around me to dwell on my fears. The docks were lined with cranes, machines, and people loading stacks of wooden crates onto cargo ships. I could see cars driving along the streets, many disappearing into the steep hills. "The city that never sleeps," my father mumbled. I didn't understand what he meant, but nodded in agreement. He set me back down on the deck.

The S.S. Iberia slowed down and eventually stopped. After a few minutes we heard and saw the anchor drop into the calm sea. I put my hands over my ears, trying to silence the noise of the massive chain scraping along the ship on its way to the watery depths below. My father wiped his brow. "We're anchoring here for the night. Tomorrow we'll dock in Kowloon."

We stood on the deck, watching the lights for another hour or two. Most of the other people had left and gone back to their cabins. All thoughts of dragons had left my mind. "It is beautiful," I said. I slipped my hand into his. I knew that never again would I see anything this magnificent; never would I share a moment quite like this with my father. We’d experienced something special – midnight in Hong Kong.

midnight in hong kong - china