OK, so between the Valentine's crap, the Chinese New Year celebrations and the final blowout sales announcements, the already crowded signage landscape in this city is out of control. It looks like Hallmark took over Disney, Hijacked Picadilly Circus, married Wall street for its money and has Mulan working for sweatshop wages translating the lot.
Seriously, I'm still looking for that "wonderful, unique mixture of ancient history and modern Western culture" I was promised. If by "Western culture", people mean bad haircuts with glistening globs of gel holding pimply boys' long side-parted bangs in place and shopping malls comparing penis sizes on overy corner, then yes, we've definitely made it over here.
I found a hint of the said ancient culture really only in one place: a tiny temple around the corner from the hotel that the guide books don't mention that was absolutely stunning -- a true oasis of peace and quiet with huge red and orange coils of incense burning and statues of all sorts and size scattered around. Because of the holiday, there were worshippers lighting incense and praying during their lunch hour. It was a peaceful moment all too quickly forgotten as I made my way back into the chaos and mayhem that is Hong Kong.
Luckily, I staying in Kowloon on the mainland and so was able to see a little more than malls and moneymakers. When exiting my hotel, I turned inland instead of towards the water and ended up in a galaxy far far away... in the immigrant neighborhoods brimming with Chinese workers -- "the poor people" I was later told by a disgusted hotel concierge. I took in the shops, each blasting their own mix of Chinese pop songs, filled with clothing, herbs, tiger penises or local snacks -- dried seafood of every kind, from shrimp, to mussels, to squid and octopus -- on display in open crates much like nuts and dried fruit are in the Middle East. I saw residential areas from the top of a public double decker bus (3A) that reminded me of how I first saw London as a child with my mother who had figured out that the cheapest way to see a city is to buy a day-pass and ride the public transport. I watched television in the subway and tasted the best Dim Sum of my life in a tiny vegetarian place. In Hong Kong, they sell Dim Sum from little booths at the front of restaurants as takeaway. Mostly, I froze as Hong Kong was experiencing the coldest spell in years.
There will be loads of photographs to share, once I figure out how to upload them, but they don't capture the sensory experience: the pollution, the smog in your lungs, the triangular sounding words, seemingly yelled at the top of one's lungs to break through the relentless noise.
Imagine thousands upon thousands of people. Add hundreds of cars, all with breaks that need oiling, interactive billboards, stores and stalls blasting every kind of music on earth (all in Chinese), and rock and roll cell phone. One might argue that Times' Square fits this description. And at rush hour this is probably true. However, multiply that one city square by block after block of this, turn the volume up by abuot 400 decibels, add pedestrian crossing where each stoplight is metalically pinging at a different rhythm (with red being the slowest, green being the fastest, and flashing green being somewhere in between) and you've got Hong Kong. Everything is written both in English as well as Chinese. On my first day, this gave me confidence that everyone would not only understand what I was saying but would also be able to respond accordingly. How wrong I was! And how spoiled I've been. Traveling in Spain, France, even Italy, I could make myself understood in the worst of times, blend right in in the best of times. No chance in Hong Kong. Where I wandered, English was an outdated hangover from colonial times, long-since forgottenor purposely ignored. There I was, feeling exceptionally large, tall and white, trying to make myself understood ... Lunch was a far cry from my usual "no wheat, no dairy, no mushrooms, no vinegar, bla bla bla" I settled for a simple "NO MSG?" and failed even at that!
This place is a conspiracy theorist's dream. Everything says "Buy! Buy! Buy!" There's a mall at every corner, next to every tourist destination. The signs flash, sing, vibrate -- although hilariously, many of them are still held up by bamboo scaffolding (it just occurred to me that that may be where the ancient culture bit comes in).
I have never seen so many people in one place, never heard so much noise at all times, never eaten so many unabashed additives in food. The streets are littered with people who charge into each other without acknowledging anyone else's presence. There is not a smile to be seen for miles and the only hint that this is an Asian city is the writing and the people's facial structure. Oh and the fact that there is not a hamburger in site. There was, however, still a head attached to the duck I shared with some lovely friends from home who happened to be here at the same time.
Hong Kong, to me, feels like a city disappointed, a city trying too hard to be something other than what it is. I have looked for emotion, for sympathy, for connection, even a tiny hint of it would have convinced me to give this place more of a chance.
Instead, I have found myself looking at the people wearing their hospital face masks in the street and wondering whether they are trying to keep things from getting out of getting in...?
I think my few days here can best be summed up with what happened last night: I decided to spend my last night, Valentine's day, watching a movie so I called downstairs to the Japanese restaurant and asked whether they did takeaway. "Why you want takeaway and no sit here?" the woman demanded. "It's Valentine's Day, and I'm alone" I told her, hoping the excuse would garner some sympathy or at least get her to agree to let me take it up to my room. She burst out laughing; I'm not talking polite, slightly nervous chuckle either -- this was a full on belly laugh. When I showed up to pick up my meal, she took one look at me, burst out laughing and said, "take-away, right?" Had her English been any better, I probably would have reminded her that she was working on Valentine's Day. But I held my tongue and she didn't spit in my miso soup and salmon belly sashimi so I guess we're even... Although on second thought, I spent the rest of my evening blow-drying the only notebook I brought with me which had myseriously fallen into an invisible puddle -- so maybe she got the advantage after all...
Congee is a typical Chinese breakfast. Though I have seen it on a couple of menus as a dessert, for the most part , it is a savoury dish that is made by cooking rice in water until it achieves the consistency of thick, watery porridge (it turns out that the two are not mutually exclusive). You can then add meat, fish, poultry, vegetables -- just about anything. At Nathan's Noodle and Congee, they had about fifteen different kinds, mostly made with parts of pig -- everything from the hoof to the guts. I ordered mine with fish. It also contained some fresh slivers of ginger and spring onion. On a cold, underdressed morning, this proved surprisingly delicious; I'll take it over a fry-up any day (provided I'm not hungover, of course)