Mall Rat

I essentially live in a Hong Kong shopping mall.

Called Telford Gardens (the "Gardens" description is sheer fiction, as there is more greenery in the produce section of the Park’N Shop grocery store than in the complex itself) it's a soul-killing combo of 25-year old high-rise apartments and a shopping center. It's also comfortably numb One could conceivably spend the rest of one’s life within its borders and never want for essentials.

A medical clinic (Chinese and western), drugstores (Chinese and western), a satellite college, primary and secondary schools, dentist, post office, travel agencies, three banks, laundry, tacky or gaudy jewelry stores, bird’s nest stores, opticians, book store, shoe repair, CD/DVD outlet, neckties-only store, the usual mall clothing/bling-bling chains, an Ikea, two 7-Elevens, one Circle K, McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, American, Chinese, Thai, and Japanese restaurants etc, usual world without end, amen, it's all here.

Also inside the mall - like the rest of Hong Kong, with its ceaseless efforts to subsidize its bloated construction industry - the tear-down, build-up clatter of jackhammers and drills virtually never ceases as businesses come and go and the mall owner (the MTR Corporation that also runs the subway downstairs) finds new ways to suck dollars from shoppers and tenants.

These efforts frequently involve seasonal themes. November-January was a Disney Christmas, minus any Christs or Santas or even Mickeys. Just large grotesque pastel displays of assorted Disney Babes such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid, but, oddly, no Mulan, amid tinsel and plastic Christmas trees. It was a co-promotion with Hong Kong Disneyland and its attendant charm school, something called "The Academy of Princesses." Hong Kong females ages 3-16 could sign up to learn western-style table manners, etiquette and essential makeup skills, assuming the parents could shell out the equivalent of one year's college tuition. JonBenet Ramsey would've loved it, I thought.

This month Chinese New Year is looming (Year of the Pig) and much of the mall’s interior has been transformed into an approximation of a traditional Chinese village, assuming that traditional villages are constructed by a schizophrenic from gold-colored foam and plastic. It comes complete with an "outdoor market" with vendors selling overpriced New Year kitsch from prefab stalls.

The irony is that an authentic outdoor market selling basically the same stuff for about half the cost is only a 10-minute walk from the ersatz Telford Gardens. But it's not air conditioned, it smells funny and there are no Swarovsky Crystal pigs on sale.

Which is why I have come to appreciate the Chinese sport of turtle gazing. The one natural attribute Telford Gardens sports outside the mall is a large artificial pond, complete with tasteful bridge, stocked with dozens of box turtles.

The terrapins and the water are real, though the "rocks" they clamber on to stretch their wrinkled heads towards the sun were probably originally the result of an industrial accident or a NASA byproduct.

Save rainy days, the pond is ringed with onlookers, old men and women in traditional padded cotton jackets with their hands clasped behind their backs, children in British-style school uniforms, Filipina domestic helpers with their young charges, couples mostly middle aged all watching the turtles do absolutely nothing except sun themselves.

Occasionally one or two will flop off of the rocks for a swim or try to slowly clamber up over brother turtle already stacked like upside down plates in a gently sloping staircase arrangement.

It took me awhile to get it, but more often as I'm hustling to the ATM or the laundry I find myself stopping to do nothing but sit and watch the turtles do the same.

It beats shopping.