Hong Kong 10 years on.
After a super hectic but successful sales season, followed by a month wrapping up all the details like our taxes and booking next year’s schedule, David and I jetted off to Hong Kong at 3 am Oct.31. Normally we fly east via Seoul, but since Cathay was the best price to Bangkok via Hong Kong we decided to pop in and see her for a few days.
Ten years ago I started my first Asian trip there with a position at the Hong Kong Film Festival, reviewing films for VIFF. My dear friend Robert was living there and offered to share his 8×10′ room in an office 8 stories up, without a lift, that cost US$1000 at the time. Upon arrival Robert showed me how to use trams, buses the MTR underground and the super sweet Star ferry to all the various theatres around the city then promptly flew to Canada for 2 weeks. On my own in Hong Kong I found the place completely perplexing. It was a not stop construction zone, so many jack hammers I wore ear plugs walking outside. The crowds were so intense you frequently felt someone’s shoe under your heal before you lifted your toe to take a step. There was tremendous difficulties ensuring the food I was ordering would be what I wanted. The pollution made my eyes red and puffy. It was also, in an historical footnote, where I took the by-line “Foreign Devil Correspondent”.
This time around we noticed much less construction noise, had English available in restaurants and couldn’t believe how scrubbed the whole city was, literally nary a scrap of litter. Another great advancement – likely due to the SARS crises – I also noticed not a single occurrence of audible nose or throat clearing, or the deposit of such foul matter onto streets or railings. Phlemishly speaking it was a dream.
Our hotel was secured and we were showered after taking a bus in from Lantau island within three hours of landing. We choose Mongkok in Kowloon, rather then the popular Chung King Mansions or other places in Tsim Sha Tsui. Although only a few blocks north, and perhaps a little pricier, we felt more at home in Mong Kok. For one thing, the closer we got to Chung King, the more the density of Indian touts offering foreigners ‘copy purse, copy watch’ grew. We did check out some rooms in that amazing, laberynthine 16-story building, riding more elevators in a day than I have in the last five years, but choose to stay in our Mong Kok shoe box. I mention the elevators because in a city as densely populated as Hong Kong, people management is quite crucial. Lifts stops at ever other floor, odds or evens. People queue for the appropriate lift, which is tiny and often one opts to take a lift to a floor higher and walk down. A ‘car full’ sign lights up on the descending car to pre-warn that the door will not open at that floor. I heard that on Hong Kong Island there is not enough square footage for everyone to stand outside at the same time, since so much of the population is stacked up into the skyscrapers.
Our guest house had 8 rooms on the sixth floor of Sincere Tower off Argyle St. near Nanthon Rd. It was one of many guest houses in the building. Our room was spectacularly clean with a bathroom and shower, double bed ,TV, Ac unit, bed side table and a fan. It measured 7×8 feet. The bed took half the space, the bathroom another quarter. We had to keep one pack under the bed and only one person at a time could stand in the remaining space. It was $31(HK$250)/ night, or about 50 cents/sq.ft.
Besides our power naps ( which felt like sleeping under a slate slab in an ether filled room) we explored the area’s markets and went into Central and checked the art and antique row up on Hollywood Rd. One destination I wanted to re-visit was Lon Kwai fi, a spot Robert and I frequented where an informal assembly of stools and tables filled a cul-de-sac surrounded by a variety of restaurants. You could grab some roti cannai from the Malaysian place, a pint of ale from the Irish pub, some curry from the Thai stall, etc. When we located it, there was an aggressive rush from touts shoving pricey menus in our faces . It had gone legitimate and turned completely charm free. Another thing charm free was the weather. Rain greeted our arrival, and socked-in dense clouds ruined our skyline photo opportunities. Socklessness was fine but my t-shirt warm wasn’t enough. After a day and a half of our planned 3 day visit we found the Cathy office and bumped our departure up one day. We were burning through $75/day and definitely not living large. That kind of cash in Bangkok would get you luxury, so off we went.
Arriving into Banglamphu at sunset, David does the hotel run while I sat at the Gecko with the bags. Our first choice, not unexpectantly, was full so he cut the chore down by booking us into the practically palatial New Siam 2. Pool, air con, a safe, TV… And the bed by itself was about as big as our entire Hong Kong room. All for $24. We were, after all, saving money by leaving Hong Kong early.
The streets are so familiar; the pups we knew in the spring are now recognizable as full grown dogs; a few businesses have turned over. It was nearly visceral as we counted down the days to get here while we scrubbed our house for our subletter and did all the paperwork and phoning. I could feel the streets, the heat, hear the roosters cockadooldle do-ing, and smell the frangipani and incense
mingled with diesel and sewage. It is almost like returning to a more appropriate gravity. I feel lighter and even thinner in this heat and high pressure. I think our species is meant to live close to the equator.