Hong Kong is an in between sort of place; a place caught between different cultures and political systems. And I was between one adventure and the next; in the city for the second time in the space of just a few weeks, this time stopping for only two days on my way from Tokyo to Hanoi.
Hong Kong’s ideological contradictions are mirrored in its own landscape, which boasts the highest number of skyscrapers of any city in the world, but is mostly made spectacular by the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and South China Sea. From an airplane window it emerges like a city sprouting from the midst of an island paradise.
By chance I arrived soon after the 20th anniversary of Britain’s handover of the territory to China. President Xi had just made his first visit to the city since coming to power five years ago and there had been clashes between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing demonstrators. Tensions were still high.
If I’m honest I took little notice. I was only passing through.
I was all too aware that my visit was a fleeting one, and I was impatient to get going to Vietnam. But despite myself, I began to realise that there’s something undeniably enjoyable about being alone in a city with the luxury of time to kill and perfect weather.
When I had been in Hong Kong earlier that month with my friend Andrea, we had rushed around trying to see everything the city had to offer. We had taken the Star Ferry across the bay, then the funicular railway to Victoria Peak. We had been to Wong Tai Sin Temple, and enjoyed cocktails in one of Hong Kong’s many rooftop bars.
This time I wander the city like a ghost, unnoticed, losing myself down one street after another, distracted occasionally by something surprising, like the many hawks that slowly stalk the sky between tall glass buildings. When I’m hungry I grab some street food. Takoyaki (octopus wrapped in balls of batter) is particularly delicious.
I find myself in the market streets. From Tung Choi Street’s incredible abundance of tropical fish, I head around the corner to Flower Market Road. Then there’s Yuen Po Street bird garden, which is small by comparison but easy to spend at least an hour exploring. Songbirds are popular pets in Hong Kong, especially it seems with old men, who come here to “walk” their birds, as well as peruse the stalls that sell live locusts and beautiful bamboo cages.
I spend most of my time in Hong Kong being very quiet. Alone for the first time in weeks it’s a relief not to have to talk. One of the longest conversations I have is with a Russian man in my hostel who barely speaks English himself but practices a few obscene phrases with me over a card game I don’t understand. Then there’s the drunk old man who approaches me in the evening as I walk along the promenade beside Kowloon Bay. He tells me he is celebrating the anniversary of his company’s bankruptcy, then asks me how old I think he is. When I guess 65 he grins and says, “I’ll be 80 next month!” before staggering over to another stranger.
These brief conversations are incidental, and mean nothing outside of themselves. But I remember them all anyway, snapshots from Hong Kong and other places, a record of something not known or quite understood.
On the morning of my last day I am pressing the buzzer to the door of a run-down looking building where I’ve been told I can get my film processed, almost certain that I have the wrong address. Then a small drawstring bag hits the pavement beside me and inside it I find a key. Several floors above me a man’s head and shoulders are hanging out of a window. He yells at me to let myself in.
In the photo lab upstairs there’s a group of trendy kids poring over the photographs they’ve just had printed. I’ve found Hong Kong’s hipsters. While I wait for my own photos, I take the opportunity to ask the teenagers how they feel about the city and their own national identity. These kids were born after the handover but they tell me that they think of themselves as Hong Kongers, not Chinese.
Like everywhere it seems, politics here has become increasingly polarised, with a generational rift as young people are frustrated by the high cost of living and lack of social mobility. But these kids also insist that they don’t really care about politics, and I get the feeling they’re uncomfortable discussing it. Instead they invite me to hang out with them that afternoon, and offer to show me some cool places to take photos. But I can’t. I have to get to the airport.
I realise that I’m sad to be leaving so soon, having only just begun to scratch the surface of this place so uniquely its own. For me, Hong Kong was always just a stop on route to somewhere else, never the purpose of the trip itself. But the more I looked the more I found to love, and in this way at least, Hong Kong was the same as every other place I’d been.