Some people are terrified of plane takeoff, but I’ve always loved it. There’s something about the angle that the plane tilts back, the gentle push of the G force back into your seat, that is so relaxing and comforting. Being lifted hundreds of feet in the air in a recliner position is just the best. In a few moments I was aloft over a gorgeous sea of clouds.
I was headed into another world entirely, one I knew nothing about. This idea is the most exciting one of all, and is the reason I’m a traveler. A society based on another continent, with thousands of years more history than mine, a different religion, a different language, a different sense of morality. Hong Kong beckoned to me seductively in my thoughts. Between my yard hammock residence in Oakland, my harvest stint in the mountains of Oregon, and my rugged beach existence on Kauai, I had been living outdoors for about 8 months. The pendulum was swinging in the other direction now, and I was starting to crave an urbane experience; and right on time. The plane flew westward, chasing the sun at 600 miles per hour, giving me the longest and most spectacular sunset of my life, 30,000 feet over Japan. My concept of time warped as I watched the sun retreat in slow motion and paint the sky in varying shades for three beautiful hours. We flew the length of the Japanese archipelago and I watched the rainbow horizon slowly morph over Mount Fuji. The light faded ever so slowly to reveal the sprawling lights of Tokyo.
When I finally landed in HK I was tired, bewildered, discombobulated, and most of all, hungry. I wandered through the haze of bright lights and sleek hi-tech everything and followed the directions I had been given to get to where I was staying. Soon I was in the center of everything at 3AM, and the streets were alive. I stumbled bleary-eyed down a bright alley looking at each shop in a long row. Everything was in Cantonese. A jovial group of businessmen came strolling by, speaking and laughing to each other in Chinese, and I chanced my English on them. “Do you know where I can get some good, cheap food? Something with lots of meat in it.” They immediately broke into perfect English, and were glad to help. One guy, clearly the alpha of the group, suddenly piped in loudly, “Sure, you’re standing in front of a great place, look behind ya!” in a thick Texas accent. I looked at his face again to make sure; he was definitely Chinese. My head spun with confusion but the urge to eat was much stronger than the urge to find out what the fuck was going on at this point so I thanked him and strolled in. I was the only white person in the place, and it only took me a few words to realize that no one here spoke English either. Of course, cause i’m in fucking China now I realize. My face flushed hot and red with embarrassment. Jesus I am tired. I walked back out to find the same group there waiting for me. The guy with the Texas accent knew exactly what had happened, and before I could open my mouth he goes, “Lemme guess… you don’t speak Cantonese. I’m gonna teach you how to order. Welcome to Hong Kong!” Great! He runs me through the common Cantonese late-night noodle shop offerings, and together we determine that I want beef brisket, pronounced “ow lam.” It’s awkward as fuck to say and I feel like an idiot, but to the delight of my audience, I get it after a few tries. My success is short-lived though, because as he explains, “Now you have to learn the tones. Cantonese is a tonal language. That means for every syllable, there are 6 tones, 6 different pitches. If I say ‘gong’ with a high pitch, it is a completely different word than if I say ‘gong’ with a lower pitch.” Jesus. This is a lot for 3AM jetlagged on an empty stomach. I give it my best but I just can’t seem to do the rising tone. My new friends and bystanders alike laugh and enjoy the spectacle of an enormous American with a big backpack learning Cantonese on the sidewalk in the middle of the night. This is my quintessential ‘foreigner’ moment. In Mexico, you’re a gringo. In the ghetto, you’re a honky. In Thailand you’re farang, and in Hong Kong, you’re a gweilo. It translates to ‘foreign devil’ or ‘white ghost’, but its not quite as derogatory as that.
As awesome as this cultural exchange is, I’m getting hungrier and more tired by the second. After several failed attempts, finally I’m just like, “Man, can you just order for me? Cantonese is hard. I just can’t get the tones.” His voice raises louder, his Texas accent even stronger, and to my amazement he says, “Now ya makin’ excuses for failure!” At this point I feel like I am on a high school football team in Houston, and I laugh at the pure absurdity of being yelled at by a Chinese man with a southern drawl at 3AM. I’ve only been in this country for 30 minutes and things are really getting good. Through the laughter I finally manage to order, and Tex chimes in a few extras at his leisure and promises I’ll like them. After our bonding experience, the group decides to eat there and we have a great meal of noodle soup and cabbage.
The whole reason I’m coming to Hong Kong is that my good friend and Oakland househost Brandon suggested I stay with his mother during her teaching residency. Brandon’s mom, the honorable Dr. Donna Luse, has a semi-annual teaching residence at the business school of Shue Yan University, a private college in Hong Kong. they set her up with an awesome 2 bedroom apartment on a hill overlooking the city. Even in the wee hours that I arrived, she was there to greet me with a smile. Her painstaking directions were accurate to a T, and even included the address in Canto to show the cab driver. I sunk into the bed with relief and fell asleep almost instantly.
When I woke up, I was taken on a whirlwind tour of Dr. Luse’s favorite neighborhood, Causeway Bay. I was still too jetlagged and culture shocked to take in much, but I do remember finding these ‘Corn and Cheese’ drinks in the supermarket.
Eventually we ended up at the top of the tallest mountain in Hong Kong, Victoria Peak, where there was some kind of bizarre marketing event going on. There was a ribbon cutting ceremony, and the centerpiece was an enormous bear full of balloons. Eventually we found someone who spoke English, and they explained that they were breaking the Guinness World Record for “largest balloon filled structure.”
The thing was surreal, but what was more surreal was the view behind it.
Hong Kong is a tiny island that is made up mostly of steep mountains, with only a handful of tiny flat spots along the coast that are feasible to build on. Hong Kong is not a city in China, but rather a self-governing city-state. Which means that The city of Hong Kong is its own country, with its own laws, its own borders, its own currency, and its own [democratic, non-communist] government (unlike China). You need a passport and visa to get from China into Hong Kong. The reasons for this are complex, and I’ll get into them later as they become relevant, when I ended up involved in an anti-communist uprising. What this means, is that everyone from China wants to live in Hong Kong; citizenship and space are at a premium, and Hong Kong crams a population of 7 million into few extremely dense areas. As I wandered the streets, I was struck by the sheer height and staggering amount of skyscrapers. In fact, after a while I realized that very few buildings in the Hong Kong were less than 10 stories, and most of them over 40. I eventually learned that Hong Kong is “the World’s Most Vertical City’ with more skyscrapers per capita than anywhere else on the globe. Everything, I mean everything, was in a skyscraper. Many business addresses I followed from internet directions led me to nondescript doorways that opened up to reveal a lone elevator. The first time, I thought it couldn’t be right, and circled the block several times looking for a business sign. Eventually I decided to just get in the elevator and see where it took me. When I walked in, each elevator button was labeled with very brightly colored signage. It was all in Canto so I just pushed one hesitantly, half expecting to end up barging into someone’s living room or private meeting. My mind was blown when the doors opened to reveal a pool hall. The entire floor was a dark and smoky snooker club, with guys hunched over the tables, cigarettes clenched between teeth. Nobody even looked up from lining their shots, and I just stood there dumbfounded. I turned around before the elevator could close and punched another bright button. A few seconds later the doors opened to a magnificent banquet hall, and I realized it was a restaurant. I just let the doors close, and punched all the buttons at once in an excited frenzy. Every time the elevator opened, I was in a different world; a loud, dark arcade, a bright pink women’s clothing boutique, a hip music shop, another restaurant, a balcony level….on and on all the way to the 23rd floor. Each time was as fascinating as the first; I felt like I looking through the doors of the magic wardrobe into Narnia, each button teleported me to its own little insular world. Finally I got to the top; the 23rd floor, and found what I had been looking for in the first place – a hookah bar. I strolled in hesitantly as the place was empty, but soon enough a hostess appeared an offered me a table. I declined, as I was only scouting for a cool place for Brandon and I to hang out next week when he arrived. I saw that the place was way cooler than I originally thought, but I’ll get to that later. I got back in the elevator, pushed the floor button, and walked out of the Narnia-esque compartmental multiverse into the cool night air of a Hong Kong winter.
This experience initiated me for many similar discoveries into the dense and extremely space efficient nature of Hong Kong. I soon discovered that not only is everything in a skyscraper, but most things are inside a mall inside a skyscraper. Growing up in America, I was used to malls as an unnecessary celebration of shopping; a place you go because you just wanna go to the mall. There’s usually not anything you can get at the mall that you can’t get anywhere else, and often times, aside from Dillards, JCPenny etc, the stores in malls are miniaturized duplicates of stores that your town already has. You could easily live your whole life without ever entering a mall in America, and the only thing you would miss out on is Rainforest Cafe. That is not the case in Hong Kong. Here, malls are a completely different beast. The shopping mall is a simple fact of everyday life for millions in HK. Not for the glamorous thrill of shopping intoxication, but because there literally isn’t enough space in this city for each store to have its own building, or even its own street frontage. The post office is in a mall. MacDonalds is in a mall. A tailor shop, just another booth in the mall. Want groceries? Go to the mall! Imagine Wal-Mart as a store in a mall and you’ll start to get the picture. They don’t call them malls either, but rather “Shopping Arcades.” This took some getting used to, but after a week or so I grew accustomed to the madness. In addition to the malls of necessity, there were also high class glamour malls, full of Gucci and Prada, that are a little bit closer to what you might expect out of an American mall, however, these are geared towards out of town shopping tourists from China. Due to trade sanctions, many consumer goods like iPhones and desiger clothes and jewelry are either unavailable or vastly overpriced in communist China, so people from the mainland flock by the thousands to Hong Kong, often with the sole intent of shopping. It seems insane, but somehow, an iPhone that’s been shipped halfway across the earth to the US is $600, but in China, where the iPhone is manufactured, it costs $1000. It’s not just limited to luxury goods though, often times the city is swarmed with Black Friday-esque rushes for everyday goods like diapers or baby formula, that are for whatever reason not as available in mainland China. In recent years this has come to a head, with stores sometimes unable to keep up with demand, leading to shortages of vital products for local residents, and breeding contempt for mainland Chinese, which Hong Kongers have begun to call “locusts.” The Hong Kong vs. China dynamic runs deep into almost every aspect of HK culture, but again I’ll spare the details until they’re relevant later.
I had shattered my tablet in Hawaii, and needed a new one ASAP in order to keep up with this blog. After a few internet searches, all signs pointed to Sham Shui Po, a neighborhood overflowing with character that’s the closest thing HK has to a ghetto. Over the course of my visit, this would become my favorite borough of the city, ripe with shady hawkers, sketchy secondhand shops, and cheap, delicious food. Hong Kong proudly paraded its shiny skyscrapers and business megaplexes in downtown areas like Central and Admiralty, but I had begun to wonder if there was a seedy underbelly to this polished metropolis. I found it, and so much more, in Sham Shui Po…