It is difficult to describe how different Hong Kong is – so utterly foreign, so few points of reference for the European traveller, it is truly a world apart. Leaving the airport’s chilling air con and emerging into the humidity which instantly saps energy, sticks hair to neck and clothes to skin gives an appreciation of the difference that is to come. A short ride into town reveals sky-scrapers and lights – so many lights that illuminate street and building casting a yellow haze into the night sky blurring the distinction between night and day. Streets filled with people moving quietly and slowly, climbing countless steps to access bridges that form an air-transit system for the pedestrian whilst below cars race along wide boulevards uninterrupted by the flow of feet who instead criss-cross the city on high. The endless malls, filled with designer shops and designed shoppers, it is a paradise for those committed to the label.
I find myself absorbed in observation, the minutiae of people’s face, clothes and movement. The perfect finish of make up, hair and clothing of women and the snappy dressing of men in the city centre, the lack of shouting, the absence of eating and drinking in the street, the walls untainted by graffiti and the cleanliness – no litter gathering in street corners, no rubbish to step over – nothing.
Tens of thousands of people squashed into a tiny geographical area, blocks of flats piercing the sky along with a myriad of architectural styles for the use of big business, creating the familiar undulating skyline. The mass movement of people around the city by feet, car, underground, bus and tram. The slopes of the heavily populated mountains rendered accessible by outdoor escalators to ease the upward journey. It is awesome, inspiring and overwhelming.
Amidst the business people, lawyers and insurers, the work of ordinary people carries on – gardeners tending beautifully landscaped areas wearing welly boots and wide brimmed hats, builders and dock workers, café workers and florists – it is a thriving, consuming economy.
Away from the city centre in West Kowloon and beyond, the small-scale recyclers crush metal in tiny hot workshops, the market traders of meat, dried fish and vegetables sell their produce and the suppliers of counterfeit bags, shoes, watches and clothes entice the unwary. From early morning until late at night Hong Kong is awake, energetic and buzzing.
The food is an education in itself - perfect little dumplings fried, steamed or occasionally both, some filled with soup to nibble on, some chewy, some dry, all delicious. Fluffy steamed buns filled with spicy pork, soups of every description, crispy duck light and crunchy, rice sticky and delicious, noodles hard, soft or somewhere in between, Tofu silken or crispy. Green vegetables bright and crunchy, garlic in copious amounts but never too much, chilli that numbs the tongue sending heat into the throat, watering the eyes, dishes that are difficult to locate between sweet or savoury, pastes, unusual textures and always tea, green or jasmine in constant supply. Mastering chopsticks seems an unending challenge, they cross, slip and slide, translucent rice noodles are a challenge too far. Every meal is a fascinating adventure.
The landscape is hard to fully understand because it is strangely inaccessible, only trips out of the city to the islands away from the buzz offer sufficient peace to reflect on the mountains and trees. The area feels subtropical with broad-leaved trees, ginger plants and turmeric growing. I’ve seen Camelias and Bauhinia with huge pink sweetly scented flowers and yesterday found a whole clump of Gardenia. It would need weeks and sufficient fitness to trek into the outlying mountain areas to really feel the landscape – next time perhaps.
A swim in the South China Sea as dusk gathered, the birds roosting in the trees singing themselves to sleep, the sea, moss green and slightly hazy, the moon reflecting on the water, islands formed the back drop along with tankers far off in the deep sea. Laying on my back buoyant in the salty water with no one for company, stillness…relative quiet, the traffic noise lost amidst the birdsong. Emerging felt like a rebirth, the washing off of the noise, heat and crush, the detection of a scent sweet and gorgeous, it was entirely wonderful.
And now it’s my last day here, a final 24 hours with my eldest son and his girlfriend who have so generously and thoughtfully made this trip unforgettable for all the very best reasons, who have revealed carefully and considerately a place that without them I would never have been able to penetrate or even begun to understand. I’m already looking forward to a return…