When the imagination fails to deliver

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 September, 1997, 12:00am

The start of term, a return from holidays: mid-autumn, with its fat old moon and promise of winter at last, should be a time for new beginnings.

In a way it is, but at the moment for me it seems to be the season for endings. I have been to an unusual number of parties already this month, and almost all have been to say goodbye to people who have been here for many years - some all their lives - and for various reasons are moving on. I will miss them.

I went the other way and - while friends hiked around Hawaii, lolled in the Jura or booked international movers and Trading Post listings for their marginally used furniture - spent what seemed the whole of the post-handover summer looking for a new little cupboard to live in, which would effectively lock me into a further year or two in the SAR.

Some people manage to find a flat without fuss, but I have discovered I am not one of them. Even finding something livable took three weeks, one gazumping (I signed the lease but when the landlord was just five minutes away from putting his own mark on the document he was paged by another agent whose client was, unbidden, offering 15 per cent more), 16 glasses of wine and at least seven estate agents.

The first agent I tried to engage did not (after I had confided my budget) look up from his terminal. He looked as if he was being frightfully efficient. But I have had a chief editor (not, I emphasise, on this newspaper) who played computer solitaire all day (he pretended he was doing spreadsheets and we never let on that his windows reflected his screen with impressive clarity) and I know the signs.

The favourite word of my second agent was 'imagine'. I had this whole week where I spent all my spare time following Priscilla (name changed to protect the imaginative) as she tripped around Sheung Wan in her plastic sandals, rattling her keys and walking more slowly than anyone else on the street. We would climb up too many floors of one of those old buildings that had captured the interest of both me and my bank account, and she would suddenly stop, key in latch, and say: 'Close your eyes.

'Imagine,' she would begin, and together we would be transported to a dream world where non-subsidised Hong Kong apartments extended far beyond the material considerations of square feet, damp patches and crumbling walls.

This was a 'flat with potential' fighting talk, and needless to say closing our eyes was an important part of the process.

Thank goodness for the sane friends who accompanied me on a second visit to the fifth-floor hovel with potential and put their (tired) feet down.

'It's awful,' said one, which I suddenly saw with an awesome clarity to be true.

With Priscilla I saw a side of Hong Kong I had not seen before. Oh, I have seen worse, far worse: tiny government-sponsored places that are only forgivable in the context of the fires that used to sweep through old squatter areas and which should have been replaced a long time ago.

But what P was showing me was a range of low-budget (but not that low-budget) private flats - some were extraordinary. I saw one apartment which, I swear, had no washing facilities, unless perhaps one made more extensive use of the toilet bowl than one had been brought up to do.

'Oh, the landlord will put in a beautiful shower,' said P confidently. 'Maybe a bath even.

'Maybe,' she continued, her enthusiasm gathering, 'we can remove this wall so it will be a very good apartment for you.' I agreed, vaguely logging that if that particular wall were removed there would be no room for a bed.

In another flat, she told me the bathroom was on the roof. 'The roof is only $4,000 more, very cheap, with a view.' We tripped up a further flight, me mentally imagining (that word again) myself wearing my favourite dragon dressing gown, towel casually slung over shoulder, a bohemian in Central West about to bathe with a harbour view. But when we got there no bath had yet been installed under the corrugated-iron canopy that had that musty whiff of illegal structure about it.

'The landlord will do it all, just say what you need.' And the view? There was an excellent one of a recently flattened allotment just next door . . . errrm, hold on, would there not be piledrivers and those silicosis-inducing caissons operating on every day but Sunday? 'Oh no, the developers are still waiting to buy more land before they go ahead,' came her confident answer.

'Which land?' I asked, suddenly mistrustful.

'This building actually. But it will take a long time, the tenants are too greedy,' P sniffed.

'And after all, if you have to move then you will get compensation,' she added, sure that she was giving me a useful tip. Some people, she said, deliberately look for places that developers are casting their eyes at. Lots of money to be made.

'Just imagine . . .'