The Comings and Goings of Hong Kong

Bamboo and Glass, Hong Kong

Work, shop, eat and sleep Hong Kong. I met you like a distant cousin, a little standoffish but polite, busy with your life and unwilling to entangle in mine; and I didn’t want it either. The first time I said no: I didn’t want to meet you. I was a little scared to see your streets through nothing you were responsible for, so I stood at your edge and turned my back: there were other things to do and you said nothing.

You’re the world’s transit lounge, Hong Kong, the city in the middle, the place of comings and goings, so you could wait. It’s not that you don’t have your own character, but I had to look for it, and let it settle like a custard tart. Why shouldn’t you be part of my life? I took time to think that through. Things have their proper time, don’t they?

The second time I was terrified; alone. For the first time, even with the fortune of many homes I had none. I walked Mongkok and learnt a few Chinese characters, scribbled on a placemat from that waitress at my favourite place. I contemplated a life of noodles. With the waitress I barely talked and yet she was about the only contact you gave. Everyone else seemed busy, and though I liked your bustle and the neon mish-mash of your streets; though I saw the Peak and wandered the waterfront: I was thinking too much, distracted by far away places and wondering how safe I was in your arms.

You wondered too: how safe you were with me in your arms.

The Peak Tram, Hong Kong
You gave that snake, the one with a frog in its mouth. It swung out onto the bushy path on the walk down from the Peak, and dropped its catch at the surprise of finding me there. The frog, lucky, hopped away to the side: it survived. Perhaps I could too. The snake went in the other direction and the three lives that’d suddenly and briefly converged in transit, were once again, each to their own. That’s your story, Hong Kong, and I wondered of the snake and the frog, about your Cantonese culture and what such an event might mean. Was it my fortune to have saved a frog or me disturbing you: the nature of your frog and snake, leaving the snake hungry?

‘I saw a snake, is it poisonous?’ I’d asked, but your people didn’t understand. ‘It’s delicious,’ they said.

I waited, trying to find a new start. You let me stay for that while, and became my door to the next part. I was entirely ungrateful. ‘Hong Kong is boring,’ I thought and said and wrote. Then you waited too.

Finally from a homeless lifeless pause, terrified and terrorised, I found my way south to a new beginning in China: into somebody else’s dream. Of course China on my own terms, though, would have been okay.

The third time I was worried but less than before. I’d come seven hours to post a letter and settle my Chinese visa. Still an ungrateful guest, I didn’t stay, barely wanting to say hello. I came by boat and left the same day. There was that stranger you gave, who encouraged me to stay and know you better. ‘Hong Kong is not boring,’ they’d said. But with my bits and bobs of business done, a communiqué bound homeward to a new management; fingers crossed and slight hope where there was none, I turned my back again and left by boat. It was but a few hours and yet something had changed: I like Hong Kong, I’d thought.

To the Peak, Hong Kong
On the fourth occasion I held my breath for Bangladesh. I learnt your waterfront and the dodgy, pokey innards of Kowloon that for me gave you a history. I got used to the tailoring-hawkers and being offered fake watches at each crossroad, often by Bangalees. I saw the multicoloured faces of the wider community, though being Australian I am only supposed to like the white ones. I heard the complete orchestra of your accents, which are supposed to repel.

I lived up a dingy stairwell then, in a room not big enough for a full-sized bed, and I liked that you were not entirely shiny. You sent messages from east and west, the world’s then tallest apartment building, on Australia’s Gold Coast, and a thatched hut village in India where people hunted cobras; okay, on a TV set, but a fitting gesture for a crossroad city of the world and in life.

Bauhinia Flower, the symbol of Hong Kong
You told my fortune by a metro station entrance. I pushed my palms together in Taoist prayer.

And did you send those bodyguards or assassins, in that Jackie Chan scene in which I found myself quite incidentally, in that South Asian restaurant tucked away at the back of one of those dilapidated rabbit’s warren complexes you call mansions? I didn’t know whether I should be scared again; but I wasn’t. I had to laugh as the Middle Eastern guy you put beside me ordered soup and watched in disgust as I ate with my hands: South Asia he took no comfort in. Be they benign or sinister, I saw in the eyes of the Indian with the deep facial scars a glint of respect. It must have been, since he sat opposite and not with his friends who’d invited him as he’d walked in. It made me laugh because the tricky sinister Bangladesh at the centre of so many things has always been a sanctuary. Those who don’t know are many; they don’t want to know. I was encouraged to wait but did not.

It was probably nothing. Everything is nothing for Australians.

View of Hong Kong from the Peak
I found your San Francisco-steep island streets so full of character I finally wanted to stay. Your streets of urchins and incense and Chinese screens are enchanting. I discovered your splintery ferries that said you had charm and a reminiscent sentiment beneath the skyscrapers in glass.

You filled my stomach and made ready my dream of again-Bangladesh, cleared after all too many days of nagging suspense. I left for a better future, another turn, and you watched that too.

On the fifth and final occasion, I stole to you secretly from China, telling none but the Chinese Red Army apparently.

Already I knew your shortcuts and something of your ways. You were easier with me, and I with you. Just one among your millions, and a visitor at that, others still busy with their own struggles: but I knew your convenience and cosmopolitan collage. I was the guide then, meeting my father after around a year. He was surprised how much I could show in just a few hours: but you made it straightforward. We saw the urchins and fake watch sellers and efficiently navigated your metro, cut from Kowloon to Island and back again; ventured further too. I knew where to eat, Knutsford-style. I had a little work, easily completed while my father finished his shopping.

Don’t worry Hong Kong, with the worst of everything insh’allah far from us now; I have the rickshaw wisdom, in the city that breathes a tabla and car horn beat, so be content. I have too something of you: for you aren’t afraid to be yourself and it’s a quality that’s rare indeed.

Work, shop, eat and sleep Hong Kong. Wave me on my way again some time, for you’ve seen bits, snippets of a process driven by the utter worst and best of humanity, in me from without. And I’ve seen snippets of you. These little moments can only connect, Hong Kong. You’re alright by me.



Feel like heading into mainland China?  Would you prefer Taiwan?  Or totally different, like out of Africa?


This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: The Comings and Goings of Hong Kong

Hong Kong suburbs from the Peak
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