Diary of a renovator: backs against the wall

Xiu Fang

I hate Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall - not because non-Brits put on a ludicrous English accent while singing along to it or that it has become a cliche. The song darkens my mood because it reminds me of the vertical structure in the middle of my floor.

It all started when I was waiting to hear whether my termite-damaged home was worth renovating. I saw little reason for work to continue before an engineer had checked it. But there was no telling my contractor, Joe, who was determined to build a wall during the lull.

'What if the house can't be saved and I have to sell and move out?' I protested.

'She'll be right,' came the assurance. 'Your beams are made of pine and there are many mountains.'

As anyone who has tried to speak Cantonese will know, it's at critical junctures that you discover how little you understand.

'My beams are pine?' I gasped. 'Like Ikea furniture?'

'No,' Joe answered, scratching out a Chinese character for clarity. 'They're very hard.'

'Teak?' offered one of my team.

'Ironwood,' another suggested.

To this day I don't know what the beams are made of.

My curiosity was checked by a more immediate concern: the wonkiness of the wall built to separate a spare room from the kitchen. I shouldn't have been surprised: Hong Kong has never been noted for its brick-laying skills.

Instead of big Lego blocks butting together neatly - like those exposed walls common in trendy lofts - I faced a crude expanse that appeared to have been constructed from broken biscuits cemented with a Middle-Eastern dip.

Do they own a spirit level? I asked myself. Was there a reason so much mortar oozed out between the layers? Why weren't the brick courses straight? And how come there was a jagged mess, near the beams, that resembled Pogues' frontman Shane MacGowan's teeth? Surely they weren't going to plaster over that. But that's exactly what they did - before I had time to complain about the dog's breakfast of a job but after the boyfriend walked in and declared the construction a disaster.

As my disposition lurched from foul to hopeless I prepared a list of questions for Eric the engineer: whether I could stay put, how to strengthen the ceiling and if it would be suicidal to fill the bath upstairs.

Then there were the added building costs.

Like a forensic pathologist picking over a corpse, Eric worked methodically and efficiently. Joe and I remained silent. He was just the contractor and I merely the owner.

'You'll need to add I-beams here and here,' Eric finally said. 'And I suggest support columns there and there.'

I nodded knowingly, excused myself and, instead of making for the bathroom, hurriedly googled 'I-beam', only to give up reading the Wikipedia entry because of words such as 'torsion' and 'flanges', and something called the Euler-Bernoulli beam equation. My chances of discussing this in Cantonese were zero. So I simply asked, 'How much?'

The supports and labour cost me HK$9,000. Relieved I wouldn't have to abandon the house, I decided the shoddy wall would be one of those subjects to bring up only in an argument. Besides, after the surface had been plastered, it was almost possible to forget what lay beneath.

Almost. Just don't test me by playing that dreadful song and parroting, 'All in all you're just another brick in the wall'.

If you have renovation-related tales you would like to share, e-mail Xiu Fang at [email protected]