It ’s a summer day in the mid-2000s and my brother and I are stalking gaming dens around the dusty, hot streets of Mongkok, a dense, crowded district of Hong Kong. I follow him, mostly, joining in on countless rounds of Street Fighter on dented arcade machines with player sticks so worn from use that they gave off a soft, gummy shine.
He always plays as “Ken.” The character sports a mop of blond hair and a red, loose-fitting keikogi. Whipped up by the game’s Capcom creators as an American-Japanese paragon of martial arts mastery, Ken’s hybrid mash-up of physical features and skillset appeals to a broad swathe of joystick junkies.
Ken possesses notoriously temperamental behavior and ADD energy, which makes him the perfect warrior. When he throws the hadouken — an icy blue punch ball that shoots from his palms — the effect isn’t as lingering as any of the other characters’ weapons on the Street Fighter roster, but the attack stuns his opponents fast, leaving them vulnerable. Ken’s hadouken is used as a debilitating distraction, complicating a virtual world in which there are clear winners and losers.
All day long my brother and I slot in coins and play, two kids among dozens of gamers who, like us, are waiting for escapism to kick in, chasing the validation of winning.
The instructions in Street Fighter are blunt, guiding, almost comforting. Each round begins with a command:
Then the two characters start sparring.
The game ends by flashing pixelated evidence of your accomplishment:
The stun of victory is short and sweet. At this arcade, in this game at least, you’ve won.
Twenty years ago, gaming dens across Asia bustled all hours of the day and night, the two-player machines lined up like miniature booths as gamers chose which universe they wanted to enter, which corner to hide away in for an hour or two.
With the advent of home gaming and more reasonably priced gear, however, the culture turned indoors, and nowadays pickings for arcades are slim. Hong Kong only has a few left out of the dozens that used to exist in alleys across the city.
Back in the day, however, Hong Kong’s dens stood apart from those found in other countries. Like local watering holes of a bygone era they attracted diverse species in and around the city. There were the usual teen slackers, ironically gaming in their starched white-and-blue school uniforms, and then the bankers unable to shake the addiction of virtual gratification. Propped up next to them were sons and daughters of property tycoons, and then the pharmacists who sold dried seahorses and bee fur to hypochondriacs, and the hawkers and the cab drivers, the drug dealers and the street vendors who doled out $0.50 cups of curry fish balls.
Arcade dens were also well-known hangout spots for members of the Triads — Hong Kong’s feared organized crime ring.
My brother and I have explored a few dozen arcades already when we come across him.
Black-on-black clothing, ink that snaked around his arms and neck, hair greased with the humid oils of the city, alone and training a zombie-focus stare on his game of Street Fighter: a Triad.
Triad gangs cover exhaustive territory. Wherever Chinese diaspora settle or set up business, the haak si wui (Cantonese slang for Triads, which translates to “black society”) are sure to follow. Aside from running seedy prostitution rings and drug trafficking businesses, Triads in Hong Kong are, allegedly, also invested in more “respected” industries such as entertainment, media and politics. Their hand in the game is so in their favor, so skewed to ensure no chance of failure or loss of power, that they revel in being sighted in a city they rule.
Triads are very much surface-level operators in Hong Kong. They sit in cha chaan tengs — gritty diners — with their fists curled around sugary cream sodas, or they chain smoke in bars and entertainment centers hosting karaoke or gaming around Kowloon.
Although I didn’t know for a fact that the man that day was a Triad, I knew well enough that Chinese mafia would think nothing of gaming in public.
I immediately back out of the den, but my brother pushes in.
Next to the Triad sat a fat black satchel from which he would retrieve coin after coin, without breaking eye contact from his screen, to slide into the machine. Other customers were giving him a wide berth.
Removing a silver dollar from his pocket, my brother steps up to the Triad member’s booth and places the coin on the counter. This move, a wordless and ritualistic performance, is arcade code that means you are asking to play the next round with the gamer.
We watch as the Triad finishes his remaining rounds of Street Fighter. When the game ends the Triad drops both his and my brother’s coin into the machine. It quickly reloads, sparked back into a new life.
The Triad chooses Ken. So does my brother.
In any Street Fighter duel, selecting the same character — “mirroring” your opponent — is viewed as a sneak move, implying that you can better their version of themselves. My brother’s boldness is appalling. Not only has he challenged a member of an organization rumored to use blunted meat cleavers as weapons, but he began the fight by insulting him.
Neither of them look at each other.
The game automatically alters one of the Kens’ appearances to distinguish the opponents. The Triad’s Ken is given a black headband.
The screen flashes a pre-round teaser, a speech bubble coming out from Triad Ken’s mouth:
“Are you man enough to fight with me?”
A crowd gathers around us, attracted by the scene. Ego against ego: my brother, an acne-riddled boy lit up by the neon glamour of gaming dens, and the mafia man next to him, a silent radiator of power. Not once do they acknowledge each other’s presence. Every single gamer in the room surrounds us, silent and tense, understanding that if my brother happens to win — unlikely but not impossible — the spell of the arcade will be broken. The Triad will have to resume his usual role as a member of an uncompromising syndicated crime organization and he will have to protect his honor.
But in this moment, it is only the game that speaks, and the Kens who battle on screen are just a couple of two-dimensional city dwellers who care about winning three rounds.
My brother loses the fight. In the final moments of each round, the Triad member deploys a series of complex moves that KO my brother’s already-weakened Ken. At several points, it does seem as if they are battling evenly, and my brother’s Ken even managed to stall the Triad’s Ken with a few strategic hadoukens. But the game ends, and we lose. The crowd scatters rapidly in a frightened dispersion; my brother and I are left standing awkwardly as the Triad, his gaze still fixed on the screen, slots in another coin. He starts to play his next game, emotionless, as if he has always known we would lose.
To me, what happened that day reflects the corruption of power structures present in Hong Kong. Much later, this knowledge of corruption would surface again and again in my reported investigations into the police and Triad state as a journalist, and as an active protestor during the Umbrella Movement in 2014, where thousands of students took to the streets for democracy. But that afternoon, I caught just a glimpse of this corruption, and was told that those in power always win, no matter how level the starting playing field is. I also saw how gaming dens serve as space for temporary suspension of those systems, however briefly. In presenting fair scenarios, the arcade — a place of escape — was a reminder of exactly just how the city, and the gambles of life, works in the opposite way.
Most gaming centers that remain in Hong Kong today are the huge, glossy ones in shopping malls, which are stringently monitored for unconventional activity. The conversations about society, about culture and the people who shape the city of Hong Kong, are no longer as prevalent in those spaces, and a silver dollar no longer promises several minutes of escape. But the games, alive in the memories of those who sought solace in them, still play on, even as they remind us that some victories are short-lived, sweet and in the past.