Hong Kong, May 5th.— I failed to gather a unified feeling of this place. It defies labeling.
The landscape’s affinity is to Asia, while the layout and buildings are to London. Each island has its own peak with slopes faltering into the sea. Only islands furthest from Hong Kong and Kowloon relieve the impression of an overbuilt metropolis. There green exists in more than patches, there’s at least a scarcity of flatland.
While city defines the area, transportation defines the city. Shipping containers and the boats to carry them lined the railway that brought me from Hong Kong International to Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island. The boats, lean iron hulls, anchored together like in groves near the shoreline, leaving Victoria Harbour, the broad waterway between Hong Kong and Kowloon, to be churned white with ferry and cargo traffic. In the distance are mountains. Overhanging their tips is a peculiar fog, an inhumane glaze of mist and neon that descends onto the city and deepens the feelings of envelopment and existential suffocation. As if sending an emissary to protest, one Kowloon skyscraper scrolls words from its base upwards. With a covering fog, the words scroll into an infinity of imagination, suggestive of what Hong Kong might attain.
Cantonese vernacular dubbed this place fragrant harbor. An Anglicized version of this cognate gave us Hong Kong. Among the shops selling flayed, dried fish and shark fins is the scent reminiscent of origin: sea. It’s best to not forget.
I arrive at our hotel and reconnect with Mother. From America, she’s brought me Old Spice deodorant. In our small room, I remove the stick’s covering and inhale. It may as well be Eucharist, delivering, as it will, my Mother and strangers from suffering.
We proceed to scout the neighborhood. My insight is that a unique adventure awaits, one that will come in spurts. Hong Kong certifies this feeling. Our neighborhood is Sheung Wan, one I’m told is “up and coming,” though food options are sparse and intimidating. We come across one that’s crowded, people outside hovering rather than sitting on low-off-the-ground stools. The intractable owner of the operation is short and fat with few teeth. I ask for a table. “No,” she says. I can see there are, in fact, none. “Can we put a name down?” I point to a list pegged to the wall. She shakes her hand in my face, “One hour,” she yells and goes outside.
From here we find a main street. Businesses are quite small, bars narrow, their interiors fit a dozen stools and no tables. We pass one with some expats engaged in post-work conversation and possible Cinco de Mayo celebration. A mega-jenga game is out front, as is a marquee with the sentence, “Coffee is the new black.” Flat white and long black are menu items, avocado toast is a reverie I make note of in case we have a desperate need for western food. This is our place. Prices are arresting though. A coffee is $20. With the conversation rate, that’s Sydney average, but my mind fears the numerals. We order pilsners and recount for our server the above-aborted dining attempt. We give him the place description, which he recognizes. “They sometimes won’t serve English speakers,” he says. Even he, a Hong Kong native, will have issues.
I ask if he’s visited mainland China. “No desire,” he says, “There is every other place in the world I’d rather be.”
May 6th–We revert to our ancient obsession: food.
A friend of mine who lives in California but is the nearest thing I have to a Hong Kong expert cautions, “Be prepared for eggs in everything.”
For our first breakfast, we visit Tsui Wah, a local standard, one with three stories and an aloof waitstaff. We have to grab our own menus and utensils from an empty neighboring table after a bit. We flag a waitress.
The English have vandalized the culinary traditions of too many places. Hong Kong is not immune. What we eat is tasty but strange, nearly a concoction brought together by the inebriated whims of a college student tasked to cook with nothing but pantry items. My dish is a tincture of lean, sautéed beef seasoned with soy and perched atop a flotilla of instant noodles softened in a watery broth. As an included side I receive a serving of scrambled eggs, runny, and a toasted bun, its cut halves slathered with melted margarine. Mother’s initial choice is 86, and in a panic, she points to a panko-crusted fried white fish fillet that holds a prominent spot on the menu. This is a delectable, if not incorrect, breakfast choice. It comes with a heavy dollop of Russian dressing. I assist her, but it’s not until later, after a beer, that I feel the wilting effects of the dish’s grease diminish. Yet Tsui Wah introduces me to Hong Kong’s astringent kick-off: milk tea. The herbal flavor is sharp, the condensed milk body smooth, the caffeine poignant.
A lighter meal would have fared better as prep for our next endeavor, which is to walk to the tram for Victoria Peak. By the time we’ve sweated out our insides and stood through the half-hour queue, what each of us needs is an ice plunge. Having the funicular tram do our legwork is a welcome change, though. Walled by bush, roofed by shade, we don’t want it to end, especially at the end that it does, where a frenzied crowd of fun-runners seethes around a finish line.
This is the first instance where we turn our backs on Hong Kong and neighboring Kowloon. Amid city streets, new buildings standing aside decrepit ones, it’s a simple act to forget that nature exists in greater ratio than city, and the stark dividing line where the forest cradle begins is a short walk away. On the backside of Victoria Peak, the one opposite the city, you see empty channels and the sunshine glint off by-passed fishing villages. Here, too, is the former Anglo-residential suburb where a residence is secured through wealth rather than citizenship and race, as it had been for centuries. Trappings of the exclusionary English manner remain. Most villas are gated and trespass signs are posted in front of driveways rammed with Teslas, Maseratis, and jet-black Range Rovers.
We stroll another four kilometers so as to justify further calories. This is travel to me: a physical excursion from A to B and beyond for the sole purpose of food. Cultural and landscape hot-spots are mere feints off the gastronomic trail. We take our respite in bottle form at the Peak Lookout, a revamped restaurant with an interior of stone and plethora of international food options.
Descending again, we lose the view of picturesque Hong Kong, zoom to its foundations, and dismantle its gestalt into the shoddy facade and the contemporary. Double-decker tram cars (ding dings) run on their own trackways. We board one. Head to the second deck where open windows offer a breeze. We’ve no destination, so just hop off on a whim and re-board when we tire. Fares are cheap, so it’s no problem.
It is Sunday. Residents and tourists alike split the day’s purpose into leisure and shopping. Those shopping for bric-a-brac or high-end luxuries fill the streets and alleys. All is open. Charm and romance have no place, and the temperature suffuses through so many warm bodies. Those opting for leisure occupy the shadows—all shadows: those in parks, or the covered walkways that arch over streets and descend in extended zigzags, those from poles, and from broad or thin trees, even bushes. The group is a crowd, and they’re threaded throughout the city. Women make the crowd. They’re alone just as often as they’re in groups. Part of an economic diaspora: hotel cleaners, house cleaners, cooks, nannies. Indonesian, Pilipino, Pakistani, Indian, Cambodian. They place dice and cards. Knit. Cook over gas-burners. Clans have laid out rugs, tables, and furniture. Most have massive bags filled with lesser bags filled with unshelled nuts, rambutans, bananas, and fish. Some have pets, like dogs or cats that are kept on twine leashes or inside cages. Women play music and dance. Neighboring groups do not interact and possess unique modifiers: Indians with sloping gold robes, Indonesians in white-cotton, the occasional burqa or headdress. Diversity is commonplace, the city’s essential unifier.
For a late lunch, we go for yum cha at a second story shop. It’s abysmal. We’ve gone between the lunch and dinner crowds, so the massive space is nearly empty. People sit near the entrance. No one looks interested in gustation, more in their newspapers and cell phones. Empty bamboo steamers, saturated with moisture and streaked black, sit cold on table tops. Two women push metal carts around, steamers stacked inside, so food is of passing interest. We pull two dishes. One is a shrimp dumpling, reminiscent of the untold number of shrimp dumplings I’ve had before, and just as palatable. The other is pork ball within bean curd. The pork’s texture is gummy, the color is pink. The taste is not so repulsive that I want to spit it up, yet my stomach is somersaulting so I question the prudence of continuing. Mother nibbles the cooked edges and returns it to the steamer. We’ve had our adventure moment. “How about chicken sandwiches and fries?” I ask. Yes, there are Golden Arches here too.