Secret Agent Man
SECRET AGENT MAN
Copyright 2005, Michael LaRocca
Today's mission -- smuggle a contraband calico cat from my flat,
past security and a few hundred tenants. Find a taxi. Explain to
the driver that we're going to the Hong Kong SPCA even though I
don't speak Cantonese and the driver probably can't speak
English. Get the cat vaccinated. Find another taxi. Return home.
Smuggle the cat past security again.
I began by carrying Picasso, in a cat carrier, past the security
guard. As usual, he looked the other way. There must be hundreds
of dogs living here, in spite of the rules. Every time a dog is
taken for a walk, he rides in a lift with a security camera. A
guard sees him on the monitor. He doesn't care. Then the dog is
walked past a second guard, who also doesn't care. So really,
this isn't a problem.
The fun begins when I get in the taxi. There's always one waiting
by the exit, it seems. I told the driver "Wan Chai." That was
Then I said "Wan Shing Road." He didn't understand. Cantonese is
tonal language, and I always butcher the tones. Plus I've never
learned how to say "Road."
I said "SPCA." That was English, but I don't know how to say it
in Cantonese. He still didn't understand.
In a flash of insight, I realized that the SPCA logo on the side
of the carrier was in both English and Chinese. I pointed to it
and said "This place."
The cab driver laughed. "I understand. Cat?"
He laughed again. "Is she a good cat?"
"You are lucky." He laughed again. Then he looked at the box and
said "Meow!" Then he laughed yet again. He's quite happy in the
mornings. "Is she Bossy Mouth?"
"How big is she? This big?" He put his hands far apart, as if
perhaps I had a Labrador retriever in the tiny box.
"No, this big." I tried to show him with my hands, but my
memory's shot at that hour of the morning. Along with the rest of
the time. "She's very young."
"Ah, I understand." He paused to look at where he was driving.
"Is she cat daughter?"
"Yes," I agreed, and we both laughed.
It didn't occur to me until later that he never saw the cat. He
just guessed "she." Likewise, she never made a sound during the
cab ride. He just guessed "bossy mouth." Maybe he has a cat
daughter of his own.
In case you couldn't tell, I really liked this guy. Was his
English any better than the other cabbies in Hong Kong, or the
cashiers at the grocery stores, restaurants, or 7-11s? Probably
not. But he spoke with confidence, and when I didn't understand
what he said, he repeated it until I figured it out. He wanted to
communicate. I loved that.
Finally we settled into the journey. He drove through the absurd
early-morning going-to-work traffic while I read my newspaper.
When we reached Wan Chai, he attempted another conversation. I
was slow picking up on this one. He repeated what he had said,
verbatim. His vocabulary was a bit limited. I caught on at last.
This was a sales pitch. He wanted the fare back home as well.
He gave me his cell phone number. He made absolutely sure that I
wrote down his cab number. He told me to call ten minutes before
I was ready to leave, and he'd be there. How could I resist this
smiling, friendly, charismatic old cab driver?
We skip ahead to when I'm waiting for the taxi. I called him
maybe one minute before I was ready to go. I said, "I'm ready to
leave the SPCA." After a pause, I added the code phrase "Cat
daughter." Guess what he did? You guessed it... he laughed. "Ten
minutes," he told me.
I went outside to wait. Taxis passed by me frequently, trying to
give me a ride. With each taxi, I looked in at the driver, unsure
if I'd recognize my new best friend, then waved him by. As he
passed, I could finally see by the license number on the back
that I was correct. I supposed -- I hoped -- if I did try to wave
my guy by, he'd just ignore me and stop anyway.
Twelve minutes later, a taxi slowed to a stop beside me, but I
knew it wasn't my guy. Then another taxi came barreling up behind
this one, Out of Service sign on the windshield, honking his horn
and flashing his flashers. Immediately I knew. My buddy. He was
laughing and smiling as he stopped.
He pointed at the cat carrier. "Is she okay?"
He nodded vigorously. "Good, good. How much?"
"Sixty dollars." (That was about eight US dollars.)
"Sixty," he repeated.
"Yes. She only needed a shot."
"Ah, good. She is good cat."
We drove around the looping roads that lead out of Wan Chai. Then
he spoke again.
"I used to live here. Now I live in Sha Tin." Sha Tin is where
he'd picked me up. "I get up early every morning. Very early. I
live in Sha Tin six years. Your home?"
"Oh." He nodded approval. "Very good, Sha Tin. Very nice." By now
we were moving rapidly down the freeway, away from Wan Chai and
toward Sha Tin. He pointed to the traffic going into Wan Chai. It
was bumper to bumper. "Too much traffic."
"Yes." It seems he was using a lot more words than I was, doesn't
I finally noticed the color of his hair. In my early-morning fog,
I had it in my mind that it was gray. It would be consistent with
the lines of age in his face. But looking at the back of his head
on the way home, I saw that it was a brown-orange color. Dyed. In
fact, it even matched one of Picasso's colors. Her other two
colors are black and white.
Finally, Sha Tin. He pointed at some buildings, around the corner
from my own apartment complex. "My home. Six years, my home. Is
very nice. Wan Chai, no good. Hong Kong, no good. Sha Tin, very
We didn't need more English for me to know why he felt that way,
which is good because he probably didn't know it. Hong Kong's
reputation is one of crowds and traffic and the hustle and
bustle. But the fact is, that's only in the central areas. Out in
Sha Tin, we still have the high-rise buildings, but it's not
nearly so crowded. It's much more relaxed. We even have a park or
two, and some very friendly cab drivers.
So what's my point?
Is it that an American, living in Hong Kong and speaking only
English, is so desperate for human contact that even a
conversation with a cab driver warrants publication?
No, not at all.
It's that people are people everywhere, and that you never know
when a total stranger will become a friend, even if it's only for
Plus, many of us love cats.
About the Author
Picasso's been with us through five years, two provinces, three
cities, and seven Chinese flats. We currently reside in Hangzhou,
where I bicycle around on quests for tuna and cat litter while
Picasso stays home being beautiful. She's the star of my free
weekly newswletter, WHO MOVED MY RICE?, http://www.chinarice.org
Also, she has a much bigger scratching post now.