The following post is an edited version of a series of letters I sent home to friends and family in Canada while visiting Hong Kong in January 2012. They are presented here as a series of disjointed vignettes that range from the mundane to the profound.
I have arrived in Hong Kong 香港, setting foot in Asia for the first time in my life. I am now safely ensconced in the lovely little flat in the heart of Mong Kok I rented via Airbnb. It is a nice enough place, not too expensive, and seemingly authentic, though I wouldn’t know the difference. There is no lift in the building; it is eight flights straight up the open concrete stairwell from the bustling streets with two flats on either side of every floor. Though sparsely furnished my room emanates something of the style of In The Mood For Love, one of my favourite films set in Hong Kong, and I immediately feel strangely, suspiciously at home despite being so far from it.
Mong Kok is reputed to be the most densely populated place on the planet, though I am certain there are many other contenders for this particular title. Despite having been up for 36 hours straight—24 of those hours sleepless on a plane or wandering from queue to queue in airports—I was too excited not to roam around the neighbourhood to get a sense of its scale. Unsurprisingly, this part of Hong Kong feels incredibly vast, almost beyond comprehension. The buildings seem to go on forever, with people, food stalls, and vehicles occupying every square inch of sidewalk and roadway. The sheer immensity of this place reminds me of Manhattan, another massive confluence of human enterprise that I immediately fell in love with.
What is it about big dirty cities that attracts me so? The intersection of so much concrete, steel, and flesh resonates with me on a primal, almost instinctual level, as perplexing as that may seem. Within the tight confines of this labyrinthine metropolis every kind of human story is taking place, from good and evil to every shade of moral ambiguity. I am just an insignificant speck in the midst of all this feverish, unseen activity. There is something comforting about that, though I do not know why. There is no pressure on me to make a mark here; I am not even a footnote in the history of this vital, ever-changing place.
The streets of Mong Kok do not feel as crowded as they should given its world record-holding status. I suspect that part of this is perceptual: I possess an innate comfort with busy spaces, after all. A more rational explanation is the extreme verticality of this city. In Canada we let our urban centers sprawl; here, the historic and political forces that shaped Hong Kong drive growth skyward. Apart from the ubiquitous high rises and office towers there are many layered levels to the pedestrian concourses that loom over the major thoroughfares and penetrate into the highly networked underground. Many businesses are located on the upper levels of a building; ground floor real estate is at a premium. I have to keep reminding myself to direct my gaze above street level to see what my options are. This would surely become second nature were I staying more than a handful of days.
I am not an experienced international traveller by any stretch of the imagination. When setting out on this trip I did my best to pack lightly, partly to avoid checking my baggage (and the tedium of baggage claims) but also so that I could get around quickly without feeling like a tortoise carrying its shell everywhere. I restricted myself to a MEC Pangea 40, a pack that neatly slides under the carry-on size limits for most airlines. I brought clothes,my Dell Latitude D620 laptop and Nikon D3100, an external hard drive, a MIDI controller, headphones, power adapters and cables for all the electronics, various toiletries and medicines, a spare pair of eyeglasses, and not much else.
Unfortunately, I was struck by two crucial hardware failures before I even stepped off the plane! The AC adapter I use with my laptop froze up in flight, possibly due to some problem with the current coming from the on-board outlet. My brand new headphones, purchased literally two days before I set out, also broke—the connecting pin snapped off while attempting to plug in to the airplane audio system. This left me without a way to listen to music, nor any way to charge my laptop. So much for all my careful preparations!
After a lengthy, tiring search I was lucky to find a computer shop in Central stocking a compatible AC adapter—and the price wasn’t outrageous, as I had seen in some other shops. I was very excited to get back up and running so you can imagine my dismay when I began to receive electrical shocks from the casing of my laptop after turning it on! Turns out I chose an adapter too powerful (90 W) for use with my laptop—or perhaps it wasn’t grounded properly? I don’t quite know, but I went back and swapped it for a 65 W adapter. So far, so good: no electrical shocks! It is a fine day when my computer isn’t trying to kill me.
I wish I had similarly hopeful news to report about my headphones. Annoyingly, the shop I bought them from (which shall remain nameless) has not been returning my emails. The manufacturer, Audio Technica, does not stock the same model in Hong Kong, and I was told I need to ship my headphones back to Canada for servicing (which I ended up doing after growing increasingly frustrated with the situation). I invested a great deal of time in researching headphones prior to departure—the thought of having to repeat all this work does not appeal to me. Still, I had a look—and was immediately dissuaded by numerous reports of well-made fakes originating in Hong Kong. If only it were as easy as buying another pair of the same headphones! Though I really need a good set of cans I will just figure it out in Thailand.
Today I am writing from a cafe in Dundas Square. Isn’t it funny how I cannot seem to escape the influence of Clan Dundas? This is a recurring theme in my life: Dundas Street is a long, winding road that meanders through downtown Toronto and out into the surrounding suburbs. I grew up near where it crosses into Oakville from Mississauga, worked on it down at St. Patrick station in Toronto for close to seven years, and lived on it in the Junction for nearly a decade.
This particular version of Dundas Square is nothing like Toronto’s terribly garish Yonge-Dundas Square, however. Recall how I said how vertical this city is? This “Square” is actually a 26-story skyscraper playing host to a different kind of cafe on every floor. Some are sketchy and run-down, others charming and delightful. I took the elevator to the top and walked down to consider the options. There was a photo shoot going on in one cafe, another seemed geared towards game players more than letter writing and work. One floor was emptied out and filled, ominously, with smoke. Others were dimly lit, decorated in black snakeskin, and generally unwelcoming. Choose your own adventure! I settled on a brightly lit, vaguely Victorian cafe with round baby blue couches, white orchids, randomly placed bird cages, and snowflakes dangling from the ceiling. My server spoke impeccable English with a British accent and served me a mocha that was no more than marginally acceptable.
I have been spoiled by Toronto’s world class coffee culture. Here in Hong Kong the usual options present themselves: a spectrum of bad coffee from working class motor oil to faux riche chains like Starbucks onward into fancy-looking but ultimately lackluster independent cafes. I will admit to being a bit of a coffee snob, but still. Nearly everything I have sampled has been downright vile. It is a good thing I did not come here with high expectations!
Now, I may bitch and moan about coffee but it is not because I am a “functional” coffee drinker—I do not need coffee to function (and neither do you). And, in fact, I was delightfully surprised to discover good coffee in Hong Kong in what seemed to be the unlikeliest of places: a supermarket! Yes indeed, the baristas at 18 Grams in Citysuper, a posh grocery store inside Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsui, can serve up a decent cappuccino. Or maybe I just got lucky.
The food in Hong Kong has been a serious challenge for me. Surprisingly, despite my growing obsession with many Asian cuisines, I have little experience with Chinese food. (I am quite aware that there are many different cuisines within what we call “Chinese food” but for simplicity’s sake will proceed as if this distinction has been lost on me.) Though it is somewhat shameful to admit I have never really cared for what little I have sampled back home. Rice with meat, vegetables, and some kind of sauce? What is exciting about that? (Spoken like a true novice!) Of course, here in Hong Kong there is much more than just “rice, vegetables, and sauce”; have a look at the Wikipedia article on Cantonese cuisine for some examples.
My experience eating out in Mong Kok has often been awkward given the language barrier. Few servers speak even basic English and my Cantonese is limited to “thank you”, the one word I try to learn in every language. Menus are typically monolingual, at least in the working class restaurants I have been patronizing. So far I have endured several breakfasts of thickly buttered toast, fried spam, and hot dogs. Lunch has typically been weirdly textured mystery meat on top of instant ramen noodles. Yech! After waving my hands around and gesticulating wildly I am convinced I have been getting the “white tourist special” in several of these places: food that is generally considered less objectionable to clueless travellers like myself. If only they knew how much I despise processed foods!
Given my inability to tap into good local cuisine I went out with Nic, my host, and several other people staying at the same flat, to try authentic Chinese food late one night. We hopped a cab down to Temple Street in Yau Ma Tei, one of the many night markets found in this endless city. We ended up at a grimy, white-tiled dining complex, with something like 7 or 8 different hole-in-the-wall mess halls served by the same kitchen and a small army of gruff, middle-aged Chinese servers. Nic ordered us a bunch of Chinese “comfort food”, stuff that regular working class people eat on the cheap, and I snapped up a seemingly innocuous chicken and Chinese sausage rice pot, not realizing how different sausage is around here. Dishes soon began to arrive and I sampled everything—even the stuff that seemed absolutely abhorrent—just to get a feel for the options: oyster fritter (slimy), breaded squid (chewy), salty egg (very, very salty), and century egg (repugnant). This last item deserves some explanation. Century eggs are, though I find this hard to believe, buried underground for months before being unearthed and served as “food”. The eggs I sampled were black with green ooze where the yolk formerly was. Are you grossed out yet?
Now consider this: what we consider to be “normal” food is completely subjective. There are more people on this planet eating century eggs than what we in the West—particularly in Canada—regularly dine upon. Though I am far outside my culinary experience and regularly see things at the street-level food stalls that turn my stomach I try to remember how much of my taste is a product of upbringing and circumstance. I did not end up appreciating Chinese food on this short trip but I resolve to continue trying until I do.
Hong Kong reminds me a lot of home in this backwards sort of way. Not Mississauga, of course, but downtown Toronto. I have spent enough time in and around Spadina and Dundas (our Chinatown), and in the Chinatowns of Vancouver, San Francisco, and Manhattan, that most of what I am seeing on the streets feels eerily familiar, albeit tremendously concentrated and dialed up to eleven. Two insights have dawned upon me. First, I have been struck by how close Chinatowns in North America map to the feel of Hong Kong’s streets, right down to the distinctive style of signage on many buildings: brass extruded letters on marble. Secondly, my brain is wired to expect Chinatowns to end. I keep expecting to turn a corner and end up in one of Toronto’s many other ethnic neighbourhoods—Little Italy, perhaps, or maybe the rabbit warrens of Kensington Market, which sprawl outward from the tangled alleyways west of Spadina. This never happens, of course. It just goes on and on, without end. New tracks are being worn in my mind simply by being here. My mental map of Chinatowns everywhere will no longer be as bounded.
I am acutely aware of the ethnic make-up of the places I visit since I am so used to Toronto’s extreme diversity. Hong Kong is not a particularly multi-cultural place by urban Canadian standards; it is 95% ethnic Chinese. Whereas one will notice foreigners and people of different backgrounds in Central, Mong Kok feels extremely homogeneous. I am often the only Caucasian in sight while wandering these streets. It took me a while to notice this, amusingly enough. On one walkabout I went a few hours without seeing anyone of European extraction, though I wasn’t really looking. It was only after the fact that I realized that I must stick out like a sore thumb.
Still, no one looks at me twice. I am not sure whether this is because of courtesy (people here are generally very polite), familiarity (it is not like I am the first white person they will have seen), or simply because my culture is becoming less relevant. I know that last hypothesis may seem a bit far out, but these are the things that occur to me while wandering through the endless, seething crowds of Mong Kok shoppers. In a very real sense the coming century is likely to be as Chinese as the 20th century was American. Perhaps everyone here knows something I don’t? Maybe not, but it is interesting to think about it.
My time here in Hong Kong is coming to an end without any sense of closure. I arrived without expectations and depart without having understood much of what I have experienced here. It all went by too quickly—but, then again, I cannot ask for much more from a brief, almost unplanned stopover on my way to even more distant lands. May I return some time in the future.