Hong Kong Diary
My Hong Kong:
Then, Now and Forever
Photograph by Judith Major, PhD
Every veteran traveler has a place, out of all others, that is truly special. As with a favored child or long-lost lover, it is sometimes difficult to express such affection, for fear of ruining any anticipation for other less-favored destinations, or of dissuading oneself from taking that next road not yet taken. But there is always one special place.
It could be the first foreign city, or virgin forest, or beach dune ever set foot in. It could be the first place one ever ‘got’ jazz, or drank water from a mountain spring, felt the thrill of street danger, or truly heard the quietude of self. It could be where true love first struck. It could be a holy place to millions, or to one’s self alone. For some it is where lies the thrill of conjuring literary or historical ghosts at the actual site of their triumphs and tragedies. But whatever the place – noisy, hushed, crowded, remote, glamorous or down-home – it is the place that never fails to grip the heart, capture the imagination and soothe the soul whether in recollection or upon return.
I can recall where I first tasted that spring water, chased dear dead Kerouac’s beat old ghost, and more. With luck, I will never forget those sensations, but who knows? And who knows where one’s path will next lead them? I always swore I would return with my brother to Maine’s Mt. Katahdin and scale it from a new approach. I was certain I would find the time to tour Macchu Picho the next time I hit Lima. It was unthinkable that I could ever again skip Firenze, and then I ignored it on my next business trip to Milano.
Luckily, I have been easily amused in my peripatetic pursuits. I had to be forcibly dragged from the first Roman wall fragment I ever touched, pitiful excuse for a ruin at that; had to be told, again and again, to shut up already as I swilled my first grand cru Bordeaux in a Paris restaurant, undeclared vintage or no; nearly skidded off the road at first sight of the mighty Mississippi as I bombed over a river ridge on US-34 west of Galesburg Illinois. Hell, just this year I found myself sinking into a patch of auld sod to drink in the heady peat perfume on the first-ever visit to my ancestral homeland Ireland.
Bookish sort that I was (weren’t we all?) before my profiteering days, I always had a special affection for literary destinations: Ti Jean’s beat San Francisco, Chandler’s Los Angeles, Sartre’s Paris, Richler’s Montreal, Percy’s New Orleans. Each time I visited, each place struck me, hard. There were the hundred youthful pilgrimages to Greenwich Village chasing after a thousand spectral figures. I slugged scotch in the Whitehorse Tavern and sipped cognac at Aux Deux Magots. I haunted City Lights’ bookstore stacks with a copy of ‘Howl’ embedded in my back pocket and spun out along Lake Pontchartrain with ‘The Moviegoer’ on the dash: you get the picture.
So imagine my surprise on arrival in Hong Kong in 1998, almost exactly one year after the ‘hand-over’ to the Chinese government. I had never experienced the heady days of British rule or the terrifying yet beloved old airport takeoffs. Thus, I had no nostalgia for a time gone by, and few preconceptions beyond old black-and-white ‘I Spy’ episodes shot there on location, and a hazy recollection of a ‘World of Suzie Wong’ paperback edition I once read. Naturally, despite the profiteering nature of the trip, I had done some touristy homework with a crash course in recent Hong Kong history. I had seen photos of Victoria Peak, the famous harbor, and the vaulting skyline. And it was a great help to be traveling with a trusted colleague and frequent traveler to Hong Kong.
But as it turned out, nothing could have prepared me for the sensory onslaught that awaited me. In those days, the typical air route from the East Coast to HKG began with a night flight from New York’s JFK airport and included one or more stops along the way, including a Pacific jump-off point like Anchorage or, more likely, Vancouver. There, the entire planeload would wander zombie-like through tawdry transit lounges in the wee small hours, before trudging back onto the plane for an early-morning Hong Kong arrival.
And I mean early. We landed at 6-am, just beating the tropical sun’s rise over a gleaming, brand-spanking-new airport. I staggered off the plane and into a spotless restroom en route to Immigration, to find an officious attendant in a blue jump suit with ‘Lo’s Group’ stitched across the back. He studiously ignored me, frowning at a single mirror smudge he’d somehow missed. He had also somehow missed the source of a funky, almost swampy bottom note to the restroom’s air (which I later learned came from the salt water used for flushing), the first of many contrasts to accost my senses. Back in the concourse on my way to Immigration, many more of Lo’s mysterious group stood at the ready, silent sentinels in the fight against grime.
I took my place in a snaking queue with all manner of humanity, as the first arrivals of the day disgorged their contents from everywhere on earth. Dashikis, turbans and saris mingled with business suits, sweat pants and Michael Jordan tees. A dozen languages were spoken all at once into hundreds of mobile phones. At the head of the line, pertly uniformed ladies directed traffic with tiny bows and firm gloved-hand gestures.
I was impressed, from the customs agent’s impeccable English and the flawless baggage retrieval to the pristine train car that sped me downtown with stock market updates flashing on the video monitor in my seat back. And I hadn’t even set foot in the city itself yet. Meanwhile, the train hurtled past landmarks that would soon become familiar sights: Tung Chung town, the Brothers’ islands, the latticed Tsing Yi bridge. And the mountains! Nobody had told be about the mountains! There to the right loomed Lantau and Sunset Peaks, each rising nearly 3,000 feet straight up from the shoreline. I was on the ground less than one hour, and already I was agog even before I laid eyes on the famous harbor, rode the Star Ferry, or took the cantilevered tram up Victoria Peak.
So much has been written about the inherent east/west contrasts that comprise Hong Kong, mainly because of the truth in that cliché. Originally and essentially Chinese (Cantonese, to be specific), developed and maintained by the British for 99 years, Hong Kong had long served as both gateway to China for the West and gatekeeper of Chinese clamoring for exile, until eventually itself becoming a part of Red China. The ‘hand-over’, as the termination of Britain’s 99-year lease of Hong Kong is called, was so complex a negotiation that no amount of study could have helped me grasp it. But at the core was the need to honor so many disparate parts of past, current and future events and influences.
The contrasts go so far beyond double-decker buses with left-side steering wheels on streets with bilingual signs. Hong Kong people are…Hong Kong people. They are a product of a unique place in the world and its unique place in history, and as such maintain a certain tenor that permeates the city. And vice versa.
From my first day onward, in example after example, I saw and felt the complexity of that tenor. The city was filled with too many anomalies to mention, but each contained that essential tone, like the ancient nai-nai I observed in front of a futuristic skyscraper on that first trip. She was tiny, stoop-shouldered and bedraggled, layered in clothing that spanned decades. As I watched, she plucked an infant from a papoose-like pack on her back, and in one motion, unhooked the girl’s leggings and pointed her business-end toward a storm drain on the corner, where the child let fly. They were gone as soon as they had appeared, melting into the oblivious yet somehow welcoming crowd.
On sidewalks everywhere were switched-on bankers, brokers and techies, phones in ears. They zipped past skyscraper construction sites laced with bamboo scaffolding – bamboo! – where sleepy laborers sat dozing until called upon to haul away debris in rigs not unlike an oxcart. Muscular concrete overpasses shaded delicate tropical plantings bursting with color while an incalculable amount of ocean-container traffic rumbled past. The teeming pedestrian crowd seemed both aware and indifferent, especially to westerners, as it seethed around red lights and swarmed what were presumably bus queues.
Even the food on offer presented contrasts. All manner of international cuisine – Brazilian, British, Cambodian, French, Greek, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Nepalese, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai, Turkish – competed with street stalls offering pork buns and deep-fried squid-on-a-stick.
It was all so jarring, so chaotic…and yet, a certain order always prevailed, with a collective recognition of surroundings that confounded the obvious disregard of personal boundaries. And so it was, whether waiting in queue at a stop light or jostling at a food stall or imagining my own place in this culture then-and-now, that Hong Kong slowly came into focus for me, in the interstices between order and chaos.
And with that focus, I took to the city in its entirety. I sought it all out in a new way; not out of literary or historic resonance, not nostalgic, but on an intensely personal level.
Dear readers, we – all of us – crave order, at least to some extent and in some form. And then there are those who are also – perversely, simultaneously – drawn to chaos. Please, let’s not always see the same hands, but suffice to say that we recognize such kindred spirits when paths cross. And sometimes that spirit resides in a place rather than an individual. Hong Kong, safe for so long in the embrace of British order with its Chinese nature never quite contained, embodied that sensibility, in brick and mortar, arts and culture, and commerce.
Thus, I delighted in traipsing the alleys and crooked hand-hewn steps of Soho as much as I loved the rugged hiking trails of Sai Kung. Mosques, churches and temples alike beguiled me whenever I stumbled into their serene settings, true oases of calm in a go-go desert.
Yes, it was the Brits who established rule of law, banking and insurance regulations, stable currency, a public stock market. But it was the Hong Kong people who took so readily to it all, and made it their own. And then, with the Brits gone, it was up to Hong Kong to hold it together with a new, more formidable ordering system in place.
Yes, China had pledged, fingers crossed behind its back, to honor the hybrid separate autonomy forged in negotiations for the hand-off. And China’s presence in Hong Kong was at first benign. Unseen, in fact, except for small teams of green-garbed police who strolled the streets almost blithely. This, in contrast to the blues of Hong Kong’s finest, who still waved traffic about, rolled drunks off Wan Chai’s sidewalks and busted up Mong Kok brothels.
Suffice to say that Hong Kong has chafed mightily to maintain its dignity, let alone relative autonomy since then. The spectre of irrelevance – political, commercial, cultural – has hovered over Hong Kong’s shoulder ever since the hand-over. Hundreds of thousands of Mainland Chinese cross into Hong Kong monthly, as day laborers, tourists and new residents, threatening to swamp its social services and dilute its spirit. But somehow Hong Kong has held firm, balancing the new reality within its innate sense of order.
So when I think of Hong Kong, it is with a fine balance of memory and reality. Those first exquisite days of discovery will, hopefully, always be with me, but who knows? And that question is more than enough to keep me coming back to my Hong Kong and continue our very personal relationship.
Elizabeth is a junior at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She is an English major with a double minor in Political Science and Creative Writing. During the school year she spends her time playing volleyball, writing and exploring the Hudson Valley.