Hong Kong: the city of difference
On 1 August we stepped out of our apartment and into Typhoon Nida. We giddily walked through the thick curtain of rain drawn from one end of Nathan Road, the longest in Kowloon, to Victoria Harbour at the other, in defiance of the strongest tropical storm to hit Hong Kong in thirty years. Elsewhere in the city, 90mph winds created chaos, causing more than 150 planes to be cancelled, twice as many to be rescheduled and stranding thousands of passengers. Out here, however, we were not the only ones.
Two young couples were already at the harbour, holding hands and staring at the waves as they crouched on the sodden ground. A man was walking his dog around the pier.
On the way back we saw a teenager dart between puddles, taking pictures of the taped-up shopfronts on his smartphone. In Hong Kong not even a storm could stop the movement of life that binds dusk to dawn.
Twenty days later, a different kind of storm hit and the city nearly did stop. On 21 August the Electoral Affairs Commission banned six candidates from running in the September elections to ‘LegCo’, the Legislative Council.
They were from different parties in the political spectrum. There were recent graduates Chan Ho-tin, founder of the Hong Kong National Party, and Edward Leung, independent and spokesperson of Hong Kong Indigenous, but also the more cautious Alice Lai Yee-man of the Conservative Party.
All were charged with advocating for Hong Kong’s independence from mainland China.
Results of the elections to LegCo were declared on 5 September. Another six pro-independence candidates gained seats, including Nathan Law, leader of the Umbrella Movement protests of 2014. Were it not for 21 August, six more might have competed for them.
I remember that day, hurrying towards the Hong Kong-China Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui. The pedestrians stopped first, then the motorbikes, followed by vans and police cars, allowing the protestors to trickle through the gaps. Each wore a bright green road-safety jacket in the blazing midday sun. None of other luggage-laden bystanders seemed to mind the delay. Perhaps none of them really wanted to go to the mainland anymore.
Other people want to go to the place they call home. When I first met Tia, the lady who cleaned my flat, I could feel her gazing in adoration at my brown face and wide eyes:
‘Kya ap Hindi bolte hain? [Do you speak Hindi?]’
She didn’t seem too disappointed when I clumsily explained that I was a second-generation British Indian who could only speak English. Tia learnt Hindi from her husband; he was from India, and she from Indonesia. They fell in love and came to Hong Kong together to better provide for their family back home.
‘I miss my baby very much’ she admitted, ‘but my sister is taking care of her.’
‘Do you know when you will go back?’ I asked her.
Tia looked blank. She finally responded, ‘My husband works as a chef at Mughli in Chungking Mansions.’
Since its construction nearly 50 years ago, Chungking has held claim to the livelihoods of 4,000 immigrants from Nigeria to Nepal. Tia doubts that her husband will earn enough money at the rickety, seventeen storey, arson-prone block of restaurant ‘mansions’ to leave anytime soon.
On one rainy day a group of teachers at the learning centre where I was working were assigned to take two students to the Museum of History.
‘The teachers have umbrellas,’ I reassured their mothers. ‘It’s only a ten-minute walk away.’
There was a stony silence.
‘Don’t worry,’ I repeated pathetically, ‘We’ll make sure to take good care of them.’
‘Can’t you call a taxi for our two girls?’ they demanded.
‘I suppose the girls don’t have raincoats?’ I suggest, exasperated.
Both mothers gazed at me in seeming incomprehension. The girls, exploiting this moment of paralysis, snatched their backpacks and each thrust at me two neatly-folded waterproof pouches. Their mothers reluctantly zipped them open to unveil a pair of shiny hooded red ponchos.
Within the next minute we had set off, hand-in-hand with the Little Red Riding Hoods.
Katy is a friend from university who lives in Hong Kong. She once took me to Kam Fung Café a cha chaan teng [tea restaurant] in the swanky expat district of Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island, where the authenticity of the dining establishment rests somewhat on the extraordinarily reasonable prices.
Hong Kong’s tea restaurants and cafés sprang up after the Second World War, reflecting the fascination with even the most dismal-looking offerings from the West. The waiter served us thick French toast with a jug of golden syrup and a bowl of mini macaroni in a brown broth with two slabs of Spam.
We had bee-lined for the last two free seats that left us facing a married couple, quietly appraising us from across the table. I leaned sideways and whispered, ‘Katy, should we ask if we can swap places with one of them? So, you know, we can sit facing each other?’
‘Erm,’ Katy cautioned, ‘I’m not sure if people here normally talk to strangers at the same table.’
I don’t know when I will next see Katy. At our last meal together in Hong Kong we sat side-by-side, like the other hundred communal diners squished together in Kam Fung. We whispered and giggled, teasing and elbowing each other like little children in the playground. I couldn’t see her face, but it didn’t matter.
On most days I liked getting lost in the crowd and becoming a ubiquitous dot in the city. But on other days, I did get truly lost.
One evening I was stranded in an unfamiliar subway station.
‘Are you alright dear?’ A kind white lady in a pencil skirt and smart blouse tapped me on the shoulder.
‘I am so sorry,’ I wailed, and asked if she could tell me the way back to my apartment in Yau Ma Tei.
The lady obliged. She then asked me about my life, my hobbies, and my hopes for the future. So I obliged in turn. The lady stared at me intently throughout, but I didn’t think that she was actually listening. It was as if she was trying to hypnotise me, so that the words her mouth asked of me would eventually be stopped by her eyes. I began to feel uncomfortable. She then asked what my mother-tongue was. I knew that English wasn’t the answer she was looking for.
‘Well my grandparents speak Tamil,’ I conceded.
‘Oh! Vanakkam [Welcome!]’ The missionary folded her palms and exclaimed, ‘I have just the thing for you!’ reaching into her bag for a book written in Tamil, the icon of Jesus Christ emblazoned on the front.
I was about to politely decline, but she interrupted, ‘You would have lots to talk about with my friend, Shilpa!’
Shilpa was a short South Asian lady who had been standing behind her, smiling robotically throughout. I hadn’t even noticed her before the missionary dragged her out by the arm.
Two new Mormon stakes were established in Hong Kong earlier this year, as the number of practitioners of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints rose to 23,000. I would not be surprised if more were yet to come.
I walked away from them both, upset but not really knowing with whom.
Back in Yau Ma Tei, on the way to the apartment, I made my usual order of freshly-squeezed sugarcane juice at the stall on Wing Sing Lane. The proprietor greeted me with folded palms, as usual; the gesture reminded me of the attempt at having me converted, and my usual smile curdled into an involuntary frown.
I felt a twitch of guilt and opened my mouth to apologise. But he turned away and moved on to serve the next customer. And I was already too tired to care. I carried on walking back to the apartment. In Hong Kong, nothing stops the movement of life that binds dusk to dawn.