What a racket

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 May, 2010, 12:00am

For the second time in a year I have moved flats, afraid that, if I didn't, I would join the growing ranks of Hong Kong's mentally disturbed. I exaggerate only slightly in saying that, in the past year, I have been slowly going crazy. A year ago, I took refuge in what seemed like a quiet flat on a Wan Chai side street. Before that, I had lived through three years of hell as bar after bar with loud music and uncouth customers encroached into the serene upper reaches of Central.

Surely the authorities wouldn't allow the proliferation of such establishments in residential areas, I thought. But business is king in Hong Kong. Everything else must make way, including the sanity of citizens. That's exactly what a bar manager once told me when I went down at 2am to demand she lower the music. She was running a business, she replied with a cold stare, unfazed by my threat to call the police.

An elderly neighbour did call the police on a separate occasion, when another bar had a live band blasting away on a second-floor terrace at midnight.

Awakened by the racket, I had rushed down to locate its source. My neighbour was already there, staring at the bar with a doleful face. This used to be a quiet street, she said glumly. Now the children can't do their homework or sleep.

When the police arrived, we pointed out the offending establishment. It was too much to hope that the manager and musicians would be marched away in handcuffs, but we had at least expected a prompt end to the racket.

That didn't happen. A constable came out to inform us that the music would stop once the band had finished in 20 minutes. Business is king in Hong Kong. Even the law must make way.

Armed with the signatures of over 20 area residents, I took the fight to civilise our neighbourhood to the Liquor Licensing Board.

An Australian bar owner applying to renew his liquor licence dismissed my complaints of excessive noise from music and intoxicated patrons.

This is Hong Kong, he told the board members smugly. They listened to both sides, asked routine questions and duly renewed the licence.

To hell with this, I thought, and moved to what, upon first inspection, seemed like an oasis of a flat in a quiet corner of Wan Chai. An oasis it was not. At first, I tried to ignore the piano teacher above me. But a toll is eventually taken on sanity when one is involuntarily exposed all day, every day, to the excruciating sounds caused by children trying to learn an art they have no talent for.

After a week, I knocked on the door at 10.30pm to plead that they stop. The teacher slammed the door in my face and complained to the building's security officials that I had bothered them. A call to the police a week later brought sympathy, along with an explanation that the noise law only kicks in between 11pm and 7am.

That means if you want to get your eight hours of sleep, you'd better do it during that period. Sometimes the piano would compete with deafening drilling from 'renovations' which, in Hong Kong, means gutting and rebuilding a flat. I suffered seven 'renovations' in my one year there.

Every night, when the piano stopped, all sorts of other noises began - drawers being slammed shut, chairs being dragged across the floor - which would last until 2am. Deprived of sleep, I tried earplugs. Months of use did funny things to my ears.

When dizzy spells suddenly hit, I rushed to my doctor who, after HK$4,000 worth of tests, diagnosed anxiety disorder. I am not speaking figuratively when I say Hong Kong can drive you crazy. Instead of budgeting more money to help mental patients, the government should first investigate why we have so many cases of people being chopped up in the streets.

I am now recovering in a top-floor, serviced apartment with a harbour view. The management is known for sharply raising rents after the first year. If that doesn't drive me crazy again, I'll tell you all about Hong Kong's greedy landlords.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster