"Did you hear they're going to demolish the city?"
I snorted in derision. "Yeah, because that's likely."
"No, I'm serious, I overheard my parents talking about it last night."
"Why would they destroy the city? Where would we go?"
"I heard the government's been trying to do it for years, I think it's because they feel intimidated by our world over here."
At this, I stayed quiet. It was true, our city did intimidate the rest of Hong Kong. They just didn't understand how things worked here. It was organized chaos. At least, that's how my dad liked to describe Kowloon Walled City. The city of lawlessness. We were completely self-governed, and to any outsider, that was a horrifying thought, radical even. With 33,000 residents all packed into a single city block within Hong Kong, you'd figure it would be pandemonium. Yet, somehow, it worked.
"So what are we supposed to do? What happens to us?"
"Well, we move," Zhi said simply. I gave him an exasperated look and he stared at me as if I were a naïve toddler. "Well you didn't honestly think you would spend the rest of your life here, did you?" He retorted.
"Well, not the rest of my life, but a good majority of it!" I snapped, irritated with his condescending tone.
He stared at me intently with that typical Zhi look of his, the cogs in his mind working furiously, obviously forming a ridiculous idea that would need to be executed immediately. "Alright," he declared triumphantly, as I had expected. "I've had an idea."
I rolled my eyes as a response.
"We're going to have a race to the bottom. The last person to the entrance at Lo Yan Street and Tung Tau Tsuen Road has to venture out of the city and buy the other person a soda."
Zhi was grinning, and had already stood up from off the ledge we had been sitting on, on the rooftop of the fourteenth level from the building we both called home. "Ready?" He pressed.
I sputtered indignantly. "No! I didn't agree to this!" Even before I had responded I knew I would have no choice in this matter and so did Zhi.
"Come on Cai, for once in your life, live a little!"
"You say that like we haven't gotten into all sorts of trouble at your suggestion before," I grumbled, resentfully standing up.
"That's the spirit!" He beamed. "Alright, ready, set, go!" And he ran, jumping from rooftop to rooftop and sprinting to the nearest staircase leading to the bottom floor.
I had already accepted my fate considering he had set me up for failure. Zhi was trying to prove a point, and no mortal man could stop him when he was this determined to win. I decided my best course of action would be to take my time in reaching the finish line. That way, he could spend several minutes alone with his thoughts, hopefully repenting for the moral injustice he was attempting to put me through.
Winding my way through the alleyways, that were really more like corridors, I talked to several of my neighbors in the top five floors while on my descent. Mrs. Zhào spotted me at the ninth level and asked if I was going down to the main level. I told her I was, and she asked if I could bring her up some buckets of water because her daughter was currently helping out at the shop. I told her I'd be happy to and she gave me an empty bucket for each hand, patting me on the back as I headed onward. The further down I went, the darker it became. I had to duck beneath wiring and pipes here and there, the results of the major expansions the city had undergone in the last decade or so, I made my way ever so slowly to the finish line. I was careful to avoid any areas where members of the triads or other rivaling gangs sometimes tended to lurk, my last encounter with them still fresh on my mind.
The alleys were labyrinth-like, and usually mostly completely dark. The electricity in the city had to be shared by all and was primarily stolen from outside of the city. Sunlight was rare in Kowloon. Because this city didn't abide by any of the same laws as other cities, the residents here didn't need to adhere to any of the health and safety regulations that would normally be enforced. Resulting in stacks of houses being built one on top of the other for at least ten stories with little to no space in between any of them. The darker parts of the city, the several places here and there that didn't have electricity, scared even the outside officials who would occasionally attempt to come bring order to our world of anarchy. I didn't blame them; I'd seen some things that would forever stay with me.
On the seventh level, I passed a few of the doctors and dentists that resided in the city, several patients waiting out in the alleyways. Usually, none of the houses or establishments were big enough to accommodate more than six or seven people at once. By the fourth level, I began to pass several shops and a few factories. I slowed when I neared Mr. Tang's candy factory, hoping he would give me all the defected pieces as he normally did. Walking into the view of his factory, which was nearly the size of my one-bedroom house, I craned my neck to look for his grinning face. (He was always grinning.) His head appeared from behind one of the conveyer belts, and I hollered to him. He turned, beaming.
"Ah, perfect!" He called. "I have a bag already waiting for you." He hobbled over, handing me the bag, he pleaded without any real vigor, "try not to eat it all in one sitting this time."
I smirked and replied, "the key word I heard was ‘try'."
His laughter boomed down the alley. "Fair enough, it's your funeral."
Once on the ground floor, and having had several pieces of candy that I was already beginning to deeply regret, much like my life-long friendship to Zhi, I calmly strolled through the last, long corridor, peering into the various shops. I knew most of the shops and the shop owners and greeted each of them in passing.
"Hello Mrs. Chen," I said sullenly.
"Where are you off to today Cai? Not up to more trouble are you?" She shook a stern finger at me.
"Trouble?" I scoffed. "Me? Never! I'm off to join the triads." I winked and headed on my merry way as she chortled from behind.
The triads were the ones that really ran this city, although nobody openly admitted it. They "oversaw" the parts of the city that most of the residents had learned to avoid. Nobody went to those specific dark alleyways unless they had a death wish, or if they were feeling particularly sinful and wanted to partake in the extra special amenities that Kowloon had to offer. I feigned innocence whenever my parents brought up the subject, pretending like I didn't know about the drugs, or the turf wars, or the prostitution. The list went on. It was better for everyone if we just pretended like it didn't happen. Even after living here for practically my entire life, I still hadn't uncovered all of the secrets of this strange place I called home. To be honest, I don't think I wanted to. But even despite all its flaws, it was still home. And whatever Zhi's point that he was trying to make, it would not persuade me to want to leave.
Finally, I sauntered to the finish line, where Zhi sat on the floor, appearing to look contemplative. I approved.
"Avoiding the inevitable I see." He greeted cheerily.
"I'm not avoiding anything," I replied sheepishly.
He laughed with mirth. "Alright, well go fetch me my soda then. And-" he added, "make sure it's cold won't you?"
I glared at him, but did not move, glancing uncomfortably to the outside world.
"Oh come on!" He said impatiently. "It's not scary out there! If anything, it's probably nicer out there."
I didn't say anything for several long seconds, until I eventually mumbled, "but it's not home."
"Cai!" He shook me violently. "Home isn't a place. It's where the people you care about are."
He threw his arms up in the air and then pointed out into the street where the cars were speeding by, and the sidewalks were filled with people. "Home isn't a place," he repeated. And as though the universe wanted to help him prove his point, a girl wandered her way over to us from the sidewalk asking for directions.
I was frozen and unable to respond, but Zhi said with a cool calm, "you'd have better luck asking the wall for directions for all the good we'd do you."
She trilled delicately, and thanked us anyways, wandering back into the other world.
"There are girls like that out there?" I asked in awe.
"By the droves," he stressed. "See, this is what I mean Cai! There's an entire life out there waiting for us and we'll never find it if we're stuck in here!"
I nodded absently, too focused on my own thoughts to fully hear what he was saying. He kept rambling for several more minutes on "fresh starts" and "second chances", but all I could think about was how I could convince a creature like that to come start a life with me in the only city I would ever truly call home.