The Prodigal Daughter returns, again...
I've been back here in The Orient for five days and six nights, and am already feeling totally out of whack with the unexpected sweltering heat of 34 degrees Centigrade and 71% humidity. In May. It's like trying to breathe with a plastic bag of warm water round one's head! Not a very refreshing experience, but that's Hong Kong for you when it gets hot. However, I don't remember this kind of heat at this time of the year as a child. We seem to have lost spring and gone straight into high summer. I suspect that when the true summer months roll round it will just be one gigantic monsoon, with rain bucketing down like in the days of Noah. Global warming, El Nino - you name it, I'll believe it; it's just too different from the past.
There's a Chinese saying that ginger gets hotter when it gets older. Being incorrigible by nature and inscrutable by race, I did today what no self respecting Hong Kong person would do: I walked in this heat, briskly like I always do in the streets of London - but as it turns out, stupidly here in Hong Kong. I did it without a collapsible brolly dotted all over with Hello Kitty motifs to cover my head; I hadn't slathered myself up to my hairline with SPF 60 sunblock, or hidden my body under long sleeved, natural, breathable fabrics. Heck, I didn't even resort to skulking under awnings, nor skimming through air conditioned shopping arcades which thread from one commercial building to the next. That's what smart locals do - avoid direct contact with the sun at all costs. I strutted down the Nathan Road, the busiest and broadest avenue on Kowloon side, during lunch hour. What is it that they say? Mad dogs and Chinawomen go out in the midday sun. A mere quarter hour into this foolhardiness, I began to wonder why my little legs couldn't carry me any faster than my brain wanted to go, and it started to feel like wading through treacle. Embarrassingly, I sweated; not glowed, but poured water like a broken dam from my forehead to my ankles. I had to pretend that I needed to swan inside the supercool environment of the Chinese Arts and Crafts Emporium next to the Kowloon Star Ferry Concourse just to cool down, and ended up buying something that I didn't really need. Dumb, and dumber.
As I pounded the pavements I rediscovered an iota of cultural difference and social norm that marks the Oriental from the Occidental: in the West if you sported a tan you'd be envied, since looking healthy - provided you don't look Strictly Come Orange - is an admirable trait. Here they probably took me, with my recently acquired rich mahogany from ten days on the Costa Brava, for a local domestic help! The well heeled ladies of Hong Kong pursue Snow White as their "epidermic ideal", so every beauty advertisement plastered on billboards and MTR (London Tube equivalent) concourses promoted fairer than fair complexions. They call that "mei ba", or "Beautiful White." I guess it has historical precedence: only ladies in dynastic China could afford to stay indoors and idle the day away with big brush calligraphy, or embroider water lilies on silken screens, or strum the four stringed pei-pa to lament the fall of peony petals. Peasant girls rumble in the rice paddy fields to catch frogs for supper, and tease village cowherds watching the family's one water buffalo wallowing in shallow muddy ponds; such girls brown thoroughly. Every family member I've visited thus far has frowned upon my ruddy mug and exclaimed without fail, "Aiya! You so dark!!" There were comparisons to soya sauce chicken, and tea stained boiled eggs that you buy from the street hawkers in Wanchai and Causeway Bay.
Be that as it may, I didn't hide from the sun. My eyes and heart were hungry for sights and sounds of my city! I wanted to see what was going on, what had changed, what's remained, how we're different from the days of my girlhood. I've returned since, many times, but not often on my own, with time to kill alone and to ponder scenes at my own pace. I still knew certain streets like the back of my hand, large swathes of the city remain permanently etched as mental maps in my memory bank. The sounds are the same:industrial hammering on construction sites in readiness for the latest vertical challenge; the neverending honk and hum of downtown traffic; and odd birds hidden in banyan trees cawing out their two-note songs. My brother wanted to buy a crossbow once to shoot one of these creatures as they always woke him at five in the morning! And the smells seem unchanged also: deep fried breakfast dough and fish congee mixed with air conditioning exhaust fumes, and the faint trace of yellow Morning Glory climbing up chicken wire fences by lush green hillsides.
But many of the half forgotten, cherished things and the little landmarks - a familiar shop front with the pock-marked old man selling smelly bean curd; that under staircase stall where I used to buy hair pins for my ballet classes; the Shanghainese proprietor who sold hairy crabs and hair raising chilli sauce; or the pavement side tea stand where I stood gulping icy Five Flower medicinal Chinese tea to purge the heaty humours from my body - they've all gone, not just changed hands, but thoroughly uprooted, knocked down or completely rebuilt upon. My childhood, my girlhood, all wiped out and replaced with glass, chrome and concrete blocks: spanking new highrises filled with offices, shopping malls and eateries, in a town where the only way to build is up. Some jest, not far off the mark, that in the Happy Valley Catholic cemeteries where many of my former relatives reside, they've asked surviving families to rebury long dead loved ones six feet under but standing upright, because you can squeeze more corpses in that way than letting them lie flat. Like planting joss sticks in a canister of sand. No rest for the wicked, or the saintly? But what else can one do when land is at such a premium here: the Chinese say it's "an inch of gold for a foot of soil".
Whatever filial duties I've come back to perform - visiting loved ones both living and otherwise (I always observe the obligatory cemetery visits to make my three bows at the graveside, a traditional act of respect)- I never miss out on a Star Ferry ride, a seven minute crossing to the other side of the harbour. I don't go onto the upper deck any more, not because, as my mother taught me: "No stairs, and it's cheaper!"; but because on the lower deck you can smell the sea, feel the spray against your skin if it's super choppy. I used to muse how there was nowhere else in the world where you'd find this particular shade of green in the sea of Hong Kong - I call it 'liquid jade'. I like to watch the two ferry employees cast us off, fully dressed in their navy and white sailor suits. As a child I used to lean over the railings to look for pale yellow jelly fish floating to the surface, with Mother's hand firmly gripping the back of my trousers at the waist, in case I fell in. In fact, I used to fantasize about falling in, working out to the most infinite detail of what I'd do: take shoes off, or keep them on? Scream or swim bravely until they throw me one of those red and white life rings that hang on the side of the boat? My plans always took longer than what remained of the journey and so I've never finalised the survival strategy. These days I watch the harbour, buzzing with tug boats, sampans and even smaller 'walla wallas', remembering a particular crossing once as a typhoon was approaching, and the ferries had stopped running. I was about seven or eight, and had been taken to the local television station on Hong Kongside to be filmed dancing my Sailor's Hornpipe, for which I had done well in my Grade Two ballet exams. I was so terrified that the angry grey green sea that afternoon would swallow me up for her tea, I forgot to be seasick. Most days there would be a big Mediterranean cruise ship moored by the Ocean Terminal; and if you're very very lucky - you'd spy a traditional Chinese sail boat with its copper red sails tacking into the warm salt breeze, silhouetted against a passion pink sunset beneath a deep purple horizon.
New York New York, the city that doesn't sleep? Well you ain't seen nothin' yet if you haven't seen Hong Kong. This is a city that doesn't sleep much, never stops eating or talking about food, or ceases to talk round the clock on improbably hi-tech mobile devices. I took endless rides on the MTR, a well oiled and growing network of über efficient underground train lines which snake all over Kowloonside, Hong Kongside, and increasingly into the former countryside called the New Territories - former because they've all become metropoli. It also connects with an extensive light rail service and joins the dots with towns that have sprung up from previous rural farmland. Long gone are the days when we would rattle around like dice on a carriage of the old Kowloon-Canton Railway, with trains that actually go chugga-chugga, spewing foul diesel fumes into the passengers' carriages, and cutting slowly through endless wet patches of rice paddy fields. I remember stopping at stations where ripe papayas were sold: rows of ripe golden gourdes slipped into pink cotton net bags and dangling on meat hooks attached to some corrugated iron roof. I used to hear these trains in the dead of night when we lived about a mile inland from the tracks; I recall especially the stench of livestock which were being transported from mainland China to be slaughtered at market. If you listened really hard, you could hear them squeal - the un-silence of the pigs.
The human train journeys that I've embarked on this week, are just as revealing about their passengers' mental state. Everyone, but everyone, down to a four year old in his starched white school uniform and a two ton satchel full of heavy tomes, speaks incessantly into their mobile phones. Some of them with screens the size of small frying pan. It doesn't matter if the train goes under oceans or hewn rock tunnels - the networks work! So there's no excuse really to pretend you're unavailable or inaccessible.
The thought of which troubled me. How do you live in a world that never lets you get away from it? Where would you find moments of grace so you could just chill out, have silence, and enjoy a bit of space? I cast my eyes around me as I stand armpit to armpit in any given carriage, and observe busy fingers texting rapidly in Chinese characters. I watch faces frowning over their big, fake French timepieces on their wrists - White Rabbits in a hurry to get to their next appointment because time is money. Men and women, young and old, lulled by the dulcet tones over the tannoy to "Please Mind the Gap", doze off between stations and slide their bottoms along the shiny silver metal seats with each surge and brake of the train. As they slump,lost momentarily in napland, perhaps they forget their troubles about the fall of points that day on the Hang Seng Index(stock trading indicator), the ten pieces of homework assignments, next month's rent increase, or just where to eat tonight.
There doesn't seem to be any let up: you HAVE to choose at every point of your life if you live and die in Hong Kong - where you want to go to primary school, senior school, read humanities or sciences, polytechnic or university, Hong Kong U or college abroad, law or medicine, banking or accountancy, mainland Chinese wife or ABC(American Born Chinese), BBC(British Born Chinese), CBC(Canadian Born Chinese)partner. If you've managed to negotiate your way successfully through some of these loopholes you still have to decide if you will have children after marriage - male, of course if you know what's good for you ladies; you could even elect when the child is to be born - Caesarean section on an auspicious date and hour according to Feng Shui reckoning. Then follows the child's schooling to be considered, thus getting the big bad ball rolling again: reputable church schools, hard nosed Chinese language schools, or one of the really expensive international schools which you have to give your eye teeth to get into so said child can matriculate and then go off to college in the US, Australia, England or Canada. Hopefully he will graduate with an MBA, land a job with one of the largest international banks or old label trading houses, produce 2.4 grandchildren, and not put you in an old folks' home in Yuen Long but find you a nice little pad in the Mid-levels with 2.1 maids to look after you in your old age. But never forget, they might still have to bury you standing up. Such is the cycle of life in Hong Kong; it's mostly about what you can get out of it, and how much money you can make in the shortest time possible.
After a week in the impossible heat, in the pressure cooker of expectations, run off my feet from the sheer pace of the city - I have to deliberately fall off the hamster wheel and watch the madness from the sidelines. My tongue has gone a bit numb from ingesting too many dumplings with superior chicken stock, Hakka braised goose slices, chestnut cream cakes, Indonesian ristafel, MTR station sushi (bargain at $3 apiece) and local chicken curry. I've slurped my fill of thin Shanghai soup noodles, thick Japanese udon noodles, mango pearl tea, and coffee mixed with strong Ceylon tea and condensed milk! I've walked up and down Li Yuen Street East and West respectively, rummaging for fall-off-the-back-of-the truck designer T-shirts, and ballet pumps in all colours of the rainbow (sometimes all on one shoe). On this one trip I've travelled by plane, train, tube, light rail, boat, tram, minibus and automobile. I think the only ride I wouldn't now turn down is a canter on the back of that water buffalo if it's offered to me. I've spoken to people in Cantonese, Putonghua (Mandarin), Shanghainese, French, Spanish and the Queen's English, with variations in intonation as I encountered Americans, New Zealanders and Ozzies.
Think it's time to go home to England, put the kettle on, and prop my feet up in front of the telly to watch the slowest thing in the world to unwind - cricket. It's probably raining as usual; but I suspect even that will be welcomed after the steady burn in Hong Kong for the last seven days.