Friday, December 22, 2017
No childhood is idyllic and mine was not an exception, but there were times with no dark corners, and one of them was when we went out to find a Christmas tree. We all went with our father, except for our mother who stayed home to untangle the Christmas lights. Our father carried an axe; we tried our best to keep from getting snow in our boots.
There were no drifts in the woods but we were in search of small trees, ones that we could carry, and those bordered the meadows where snow was blown into deep rippling dunes. Soon the smallest children whose feet were closest to the ground yelled "I have snow in my boots." The rest of us remained stoic, not wanting to break the good mood that our father was always in when we hunted down our Christmas tree.
There was a lot of amiable argument about which tree was perfect. We had to examine the best ones from every angle, looking for unevenly spaced boughs or bends in the trunk. Our standards dropped as our socks grew wet from melted snow and at last even our father was willing to compromise. We all cheered when the tree began to topple and each of us reached between its branches to grab the trunk and carry it home, bellowing out "Oh Christmas Tree" every step of the way.
Our mother had cleared a place for it while we were gone, and we tore into boxes of ornaments, looking for the five little Swiss elves, one for each of us. The big room that was our downstairs living space soon was filled with the scent of fresh spruce boughs, and the tree, not yet full of lights and baubles, was so majestic that for a minute, I wished we could leave it untrimmed.
We all lost interest by the time that the finishing touches of tinsel needed to be added. Our father always suggested we stand back and hurl the silver strips at the branches and our mother was the one who carefully draped the strands in judicious clusters to resemble the icicles they were designed to replicate.
Finally it was time to place the star on the top, which meant our father had to climb a stepladder as we clung to the bottom, ensuring his safety. At last the lights were turned on and Christmas began.
I loved to get up before anyone else, go downstairs, and turn on the tree. Sitting in the silence and darkness of early morning, I stared at the gleam and radiance of the tree we had found together and was certain there was no way to celebrate the end of the year except with an axe in hand, snow-filled boots, and carols that filled the snow-filled meadows, floating into still and frozen air.
Posted by Janet Brown at 9:22 AM
Monday, December 18, 2017
I was feeling frazzled when I stumbled off an evening flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong. I had come to spend a month in Chungking Mansions, a plan that had me apprehensive. People had told me it was a center for all sorts of risky business and my curiosity had prevailed over caution. But now I wondered how I would find my way through the labyrinthine hallways that I’d seen in the movie Chungking Express,and whether I would end up sharing my bed with hungry insects. I tried not to think of advice given to a friend before she stayed in that notorious spot: “Bring a gun.” She had moved to a hotel farther up Nathan Road only a few days after she had checked into a Chungking Mansion guesthouse.
Deciding I needed a little pampering before I faced my destination, I swerved away from the Airport Express signs and headed off in search of a taxi queue. I’d changed a substantial sum of money to Hong Kong dollars before I’d boarded the plane; it would be an expensive indulgence but I would be living the Spartan life soon enough. I deserved that taxi, I told myself.
I wasn’t a neophyte traveler. I’d gone alone to cities in Southeast Asia and China, and had always been successful in finding my way from airports to my destination. So it was with no trepidation that I joined a crowd of travelers heading down an exit hallway that I was certain would lead me to a taxi stand. When a shabbily dressed man approached me and asked me if I wanted a taxi, I was more than happy to hand over my suitcase and follow in his wake. Just like Bangkok, I thought, taxi queues are for chumps.
The man led me across a parking lot to a large van. In Thailand this is a common form of public transit and although I’d looked forward to the privacy of a taxi, at least the additional passengers who would ride with me would help defray the cost of the fare. I climbed in, the man tossed my suitcase on the floor beside me, and then slid the door shut. I was the only person in the vehicle aside from the man in the driver’s seat. As the door clicked into place, he started the engine.
“How much?” That this was a question I should have asked several minutes earlier was a fact that struck me with full force. There was no reply, and the driver pulled onto the open road without picking up any other fares.
I began to feel incredibly stupid, How many times had I read about naïve tourists being taken for a ride in New York City, one that ended in a demand that approximated a small fortune? But I was in Asia, I consoled myself, not Manhattan. The most I’d ever been overcharged in Bangkok was twenty dollars—Hong Kong, of course, would be more expensive, but certainly not up to New York standards.
I made myself relax and began to enjoy the lights of the approaching city that gleamed on the dark water. The driver broke into polite, pleasant taxi conversation and I responded with a sense of relief.
He proudly identified the neon extravaganza that was Nathan Road and waved at a building that we passed, “That’s Chungking Mansions,” he told me. “Stop here, please,” I said. He kept going.
We pulled into a dimly lit, empty street and parked near an ATM. The driver pulled out a laminated card with rates printed on it; this much for a passenger, so much for a bag, another sum for the privilege of using a highway tunnel, and the final amount being the fare to Kowloon. When the numbers were added up, the sum was substantial and I tried a feeble attempt at bargaining. He laughed.
“That is the rate. If you don’t have enough, we can use the ATM.”
He was no longer smiling and neither was I. The phone I had played with at the beginning of our journey, hoping he thought I was texting a local contact, was useless. I hadn’t yet bought a SIM card for Hong Kong. I opened my bag and pulled out my Hong Kong dollars.
The fare he demanded wasn’t quite as much as the money I had with me, but it was about $200 US dollars. As pleasantly as I could, I asked, “May I have one of your business cards?”
“Why? You want to use me again?” He smiled as he handed me a card with a name and number that I was certain would be useless.
And of course it was. When the Nepalese tout who greeted me at the entrance of Chungking Mansions looked horrified at the amount of money I had lost and tried to call the printed phone number, it didn’t exist. “What did the man look like?” When I gave him a description, he said, “He’s done that before to many people; they paid him more money than you did because they didn’t know. Here, give me your phone.”
He led me to a place where I could buy a Hong Kong SIM card and then put his number into my contact list. “Call me if anybody gives you any more trouble,” he said. He took me to a guesthouse where I was given a clean bed in a quiet room and suddenly Chungking Mansions felt like a place where I would be comfortable and safe—just so long as I took public transportation to get there from now on.
For years after that, I stayed in Chungking Mansions when I was in Hong Kong, always for a month at a time, and the only thing that ever made me frightened during my visits was the possibility of a fire. The wiring was often visible, tangled in terrifying clumps above the entrances to guesthouses, and kitchen carts filled with cooked food came from the upper floors to the ground floor food stalls every morning. Although I loved the smell of curry and freshly baked naan that drifted into my room at night, the thought of propane tanks and open flame being used somewhere close to my bed did nothing to make my sleep tranquil. I never stayed higher than the ninth floor and had my escape route down the staircase timed to the second.
It was the ugliest spot I had ever spent time in. The windows I insisted on having gave me a view of grey, mildewed concrete walls, windowsills strewn with garbage that was eaten by pigeons, and clothing suspended from air conditioners, drying in air that smelled like wet mops. The stairway was blotched with the red stains of spit from betel chewers and the windows on the landings often sported tiny holes that looked as though they had been made by bullets. The food gave me Delhi Belly if I ate it for more than two days in a row. My rooms were always clean with walls of immaculate white tile, but were so small that I took my morning shower only after putting towels under the bathroom threshold to keep rivulets of bathwater from trickling under my bed.
But there was an honest sense of community in Chungking Mansions that appealed to me. Many of the people who worked there lived in the place and at that time, most of the people who stayed there were repeat visitors from third-world countries who had come as traders, business people. They left pushing carts stacked high with bags and boxes that had been swaddled in duct tape, on their way home to Africa and the Subcontinent. When they returned to Chungking Mansions, they were greeted as friends and surrounded by colleagues as soon as they came in from the street. They would stay in the same guesthouses they had used for years, chatting in the reception area with people from other countries, all of them using English as their common language. The long lines standing in wait for the building’s elevators were convivial spots and at night the hallways on the ground floor were boulevards where passing men clasped hands in greeting and stopped to form small clusters of conversation.
High stacks of brightly printed fabric from African countries gave welcome splashes of color to shops that sold bolts of cheap Chinese cloth, glass cases filled with Indian pastries gleamed like displays at Tiffany’s, and on the floor above, shops sold Bollywood videos, packaged temple offerings, sticks of kohl, and wizened vegetables. Bob Marley’s face stared into the stream of passersby from a stall that sold hip-hop clothes and at the end of a corridor that led from the building to Nathan Road, an old man had racks of paperback books attached to the wall, along with postcards and an impressive collection of skin magazines. At the end of the corridor was a newsstand where the proprietor usually was in the company of a cat. Behind him were stacked cages, each holding a feline; I never found out why.
It was a self-sufficient urban village where I could find laundries, meals that had flavor, drinking water, newspapers, phone cards, toilet paper, and a stunning collection of cosmetics and shampoo in the adjoining building that paid homage to Wong Kar-Wai’s classic film by calling itself Chungking Express. If I had been able to wait until eleven o’clock, I could have had tiny cups of dark, lethally strong coffee at a Turkish food stall. And I could do all of this in English. I could have spent my entire Hong Kong visit without ever leaving this place if it hadn’t been so dark and crowded. As it was, I had to go out all day, every day to keep from going stir-crazy and even then my claustrophobia set in after the first month.
Hong Kong is a city where every need can be filled, but this is difficult for people like me who come with a small supply of cash and don’t know the territory or the language. Local friends would lead me to a small counter in a busy shopping mall where they conducted a transaction in Chinese for whatever I happened to need at the moment. I soon learned that I could do that on my own at a small counter, but in English, in Chungking Mansions.
No matter where I stayed, whether it was halfway up a hillside in the New Territories, in a Shenzhen hotel room, or an Airbnb apartment in North Point, I ended up on the ground floor of my first home in Hong Kong. It was where I bought my SIM cards, exchanged currency, had luggage repaired, and in a pinch, could always find a place to sleep. But each time I returned, I found a different place.
Nathan Road had been discovered by tourists from the mainland, who came with their wheeled suitcases that they filled with everything from instant noodles to finery from Chanel. They clogged the aisles of the international supermarket that was across the street from Chungking Mansions, heaping their grocery carts with cans of baby formula, boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and packages of disposable diapers. They stood in line at Cartier and filled the seats of every Starbucks for miles around. And because, like me, they saw no reason to spend a fortune for a place to sleep, their headquarters became Chungking Mansions.
Although the rooms were still cheap by Hong Kong standards, guesthouse prices were soon jacked up to meet the growing demand. Rumor had it that one place had rooms that commanded a nightly rate of 200 U.S dollars. One night, on a weekend, when I came looking for a room after ten o’clock, I ended up paying 100 U.S. for a room that in the past would have topped out at under 50, even during Chinese New Year when prices reached the stratosphere.
Food stalls began to disappear on the ground floor, replaced by rows upon rows of currency exchanges, all proclaiming their rate for RMB, and shops that sold luggage on wheels. The hip-hop clothing store was gone, relegated to a higher floor, and the fabric shops had been condensed to single counters in shops that sold cheap phones and SIM cards. The hallways were thronged with Chinese travelers; the clusters of men who had spent hours in deep conversation were no longer in evidence. In the corridor where there had been books and cats now there were neither. The old man who had once sold me a copy of The Help when I was desperate for something to read now had wheeled suitcases lined up against the wall. “Business is different,” he said.
“Yes, so much change,” the man who sold me a SIM card on a recent visit agreed with a tinge of bitterness to his tone. The guesthouse where I had always stayed had empty chairs in the reception area, chairs that in years past always had held people who were busily packing merchandise into cartons and black garbage bags.
To reach the guesthouse, I stood waiting for the elevator in the company of only one other person, a Nigerian who chatted with me in English accented with French. Suddenly we were joined by two others, men with Subcontinental origins who stepped in front of us, close to the elevator doors.
“What kind of people are you, to step in front of a lady,” the Nigerian snapped at them, “We were here first and you push ahead like that. Who do you think you are?”
“Calm down,” he was told, “there are only four of us here. No one is being pushed out; we’ll all get in the elevator. No problem.”
“But you are so impolite. Do you think you’re better than this lady--or me?”
“It’s okay,” one of the men said quietly, “Be cool. Chungking Mansions is for business, not for fighting.”
As we all stepped into the elevator without bloodshed, I knew the code of this community was still in place and just for a moment, once again I felt at home.
Posted by Janet Brown at 10:59 AM
Sunday, December 17, 2017
Today I posted on this blog the first piece of writing I've done since I removed myself from Facebook, and today, for the first time, I find myself missing something that I know is bad for me. For the past several years, I'd put a link on Facebook to whatever I'd written here and within minutes, there was at least one "like." It was an insecure writer's dream come true, a rapid acknowledgment that the writing had been read. When I was really lucky, among the "likes" would be a verbal response, but even when there wasn't, the "likes" made me happy. In fact, they made me high.
We all know about the rats who would hit the same lever again and again to get a jolt of pleasure, choosing that over food or drink. For me that's what Facebook had become, a quick hit of gratification that was beginning to mean more than the writing. I was becoming a Facebook junkie, hitting that button over and over to see who was paying attention to me and who I could pay attention to.
Other people may be able to handle this, but I can't. I crave connection with people I love and people I like and people I'm interested in and people who are interested in me more than I long for almost anything else in the world. The good thing about that is I love to spend time with friends. I love to write, forging a link with people I may never know. And as it turns out, I love to be able to have contact with people by simply logging into Facebook; with a click of a mouse, the world is with me at any time of day or night. It's easy and that's what made it wrong for someone like me.
Can't sleep? Log onto Facebook. Need a break from work? Facebook's right there. Missing a friend? See what they've had to say on Facebook.
And that's a large part of what made me leave. When I did see people I cared about, the phrase "Right, I read about that on Facebook," cropped up all too often. Thanks to Facebook, it seemed as though we now knew too much, and too little. about each other.
Sometimes it seemed as though interacting on Facebook was almost as meaningful as arranging a visit. It certainly had supplanted email and long telephone chats were as dead as sending postcards. I had friends who lived in the same city as I whom I saw regularly on Facebook and rarely anyplace else. I had friends I'd never met. I had friends with whom I corresponded simply by exchanging "likes."
It began to feel as though I hadn't finished writing anything until I'd immediately put it on Facebook. Snapshots were instantly there in a single click. In fact nothing seemed to have taken place in any part of my life unless it appeared on Facebook to be greeted with the instant gratification of "likes." It became bad manners to read a post written by a friend without clicking "like." My world became truncated by squeezing it into status updates and tarnished if the updates weren't acknowledged by Facebook friends. This was the worst place for an attention-seeker like me to be.
Then there was the incoherence of it all. I had long felt that Facebook was like a cocktail party where the guests all had ADD. Nothing fit together. A cat video would be followed by an impassioned political opinion which would be instantly succeeded by a recipe from the New York Times and then the news that somebody's parent had died. And it never stopped.
That barrage of unconnected facts and images and personal messages began to affect the quality of my attention. There just wasn't enough room in my memory for everything that jostled for place within it and I began to forget important things to make room for random details. And yet I was eager for more, worried that I would miss something crucial if I didn't log onto Facebook.
The worst part of all was I was so busy writing updates and responses and clearing up the inevitable misunderstandings that come from quick messages written on the fly that I wasn't writing much of anything else. The unceasing buzz in the background that Facebook had become for me was clogging up any sort of creativity that I might ever have had. When I faced a blank document, there was too much inner noise for me to settle into a pattern of thought.
When I was fourteen, I read Truman Capote's short story, Master Misery, over and over again. Each time it made me cry and with every passing year, it has taken on greater weight. When Mr. Revercombe tells Sylvia that he can no longer buy her dreams, because she has nothing left, now I feel a sadness too laden with dread for tears. I left Facebook because I began to feel that I was trading everything I cared about for that quick fix, the instant gratification of "likes," and that eventually it would all be sold.
Each time I think I miss Facebook, I remind myself that I will never have to look at the words "unfollow" or "unfriend" ever again. That alone could be worth all of the "likes" that I will no longer garner for any writing I may ever do again.
Hello. I'm Janet and I'm in recovery from Facebook...
Posted by Janet Brown at 1:17 PM
When I travel alone in countries where I don’t have language, food takes on a dimension that goes beyond nourishment, or even pleasure. It ensures that I’ll have company at least once a day.
Because I’m the kind of woman who thinks facing the world before my morning coffee ranks right up there with being flogged in the town square, I usually have breakfast in my room. This sounds far more luxurious than it is, since any food that might accompany that coffee is often a couple of bananas, ziplocked in their skins with no need for refrigeration and functioning more like a vitamin pill than a meal. The best accompaniment I’ve ever found was one I’d often buy from a Shenzhen street cart to eat the next morning, crisp, flaky little pastries that were like round discs of phyllo, filled with slightly sweetened bean paste. They were just sweet enough to make my instant coffee bearable, and the texture of crisp and smooth was irresistible. Three of those with Nescafe was like jet fuel, and if anything ever takes me back to Shenzhen, they’d be a major factor in my decision.
Since coffee is the main component of my mornings, food doesn’t come into play with any sort of complexity until later in the day, but when it does, it hits full force.
On a good day, I’ve wandered and stared and fed myself with my eyes until my blood sugar level plummets to absolute zero, With any luck at all, I find an egg tart or a croissant from Starbucks, something to eat quickly without having to stop. Days like that are so satisfying that I don’t need anything more than a return to my room with anything that’s portable and not messy: supermarket sushi and a tiny bottle of red wine when I’m in Hong Kong, unsalted cashews and a beer in Shenzhen. After a day of sensory assault, I don’t have enough energy to muster an appetite or to face any sort of human interaction. I’m so full of images and questions that there’s no room for anything else. It’s that kind of day that makes me get on a plane and leave home for a couple of months, but it isn’t, as current jargon has it, sustainable.
In most of the places where I go, I try to avoid preconceptions, which means I don’t do a lot of research ahead of time. I do my best to be as unburdened with information as possible so I can start from nothing at all. The most preparation I submit to is finding a place to stay for the first few days and then I start asking questions. This technique goes straight to hell in places where not only do I have no language, I have no internet. That’s when I often hit the wall and head for a place where I know I can get comfort food.
In Shenzhen, there was a spot near my hotel that called itself Granville Whale’s Cafe. After a humiliating lunch that involved plastic chopsticks and slippery dumplings, I stopped there for a cup of coffee and a chance to recover my equilibrium. The coffee turned out to be stratospherically above Starbucks, the menu offered smoked salmon, and the manager had gone to school in the U.K. It was a place where I could get a meal without effort and a dash of conversation in English. I went there several times a week.
I had the bad luck of being in Shenzhen during Chinese New Year. Although the streets and the subways were uncrowded, the only places that were open were shopping malls. The day that I discovered that the mall near my hotel had an outdoor cafe attached to Emporio Armani where I could have a glass of wine and a plate of truffle fries was a triumph. The wine was mediocre but it was the only by-the-glass option in my neighborhood. I would go there to sit in the sun, surrounded by chic, cigarette-smoking girls and their companions. It shouldn’t have been soothing, but it was.
Spending time in Hong Kong can be difficult for a claustrophobe like me, with its tiny rooms, crowded subways, and spiderweb streets. There are days when the rush of people that usually exhilarates me makes my pores clench and every nerve shriek. Familiar spots like Starbucks or McDonalds where I would never have a meal but depend on for free internet and clean bathrooms usually are packed solid with every seat taken.
The most difficult thing to find in this city is a spot where you can sit in a quiet place, without being rushed away by people eager to take your seat once you leave. It took me years to find one but once I did, I clung to it. It was on a bar street and probably was a raucous little joint at night, but in late afternoon I could sit near the huge glass door, look at passersby, read the South China Morning Post, check email, and think. The food was Western and starchy, the wine was marginally drinkable, but the background music was unobtrusive and the people at the other tables seemed to be there for the same reason as I.
The neighborhood I stayed in was once heavily populated by immigrants from Shanghai in flight from post-Liberation China. They had left a legacy of flavor that I loved, but so did hundreds of other people. I learned that I could eat well or I could have supermarket sushi in my room or I could relax at Big Bite. It wasn’t a matter of taste, it was a question of need.
Silence or good food? Solitude or the presence of others? Solo travel carries Faustian bargains like this one and I’m always grateful for places that makes this choice a part of my journey.
Posted by Janet Brown at 10:48 AM
Saturday, November 25, 2017
There used to be a little song based on a piece of sentimental verse that was believed to sum up Thanksgiving. "Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go," it began and went on to sing about horses and sleighs and white and drifted snow, ending with "Hoorah for the pumpkin pie." It was a fine accompaniment to the Norman Rockwell magazine covers that showed a plump little grandmother proudly bearing a turkey that was at least half her size to a table filled with her well-scrubbed, beaming family.
When my sisters and I were small, we sang that song with a strong feeling of kinship. Although our one surviving grandmother was a continent away, we had a horse and a harness that was occasionally attached to a kind of toboggan and whisked us through the white and drifted snow. There were always guests who managed to get to our house for dinner, over the river and through the woods. And there was always pumpkin pie.
It was a day that held no expectations, except for the food, and that was more time-consuming than it was difficult. It's perfectly true that anybody can come up with a decent Thanksgiving meal with enough practice and doggedness. I know because eventually even I was able to do that--and I enjoyed it. There was something very wonderful about making the same meal every year, as my mother had done and hers before her, all the way back to the Pilgrims.
But now we know better. Those Pilgrims and those Native Americans never came together in that collegial gustatory truce that we've been replicating since the good old days of Plymouth Rock. And that decent Thanksgiving meal, over the river and through the woods, Grandmother's house, those Norman Rockwell covers?
Assuming there are grandchildren, Grandmother is more likely to live in a tiny apartment with no on-street parking than she is in a snow-covered family home. For 364 days of the year, she probably cooks as little as possible and has lost her touch in the kitchen, while the daughters of the house have been at work the day before and probably will be on the day after. Getting up at dawn to make the stuffing and fist the turkey is about as attractive a proposition as a raging case of the bubonic plague.
Besides, that decent Thanksgiving meal just isn't the way many families care to eat anymore. Even if they manage to clear a plate of stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls, butter, and turkey, they now have days of leftovers to contend with. One feast becomes a week of reruns, ending in nobody's favorite--turkey soup.
There are people who manage to recreate a traditional Thanksgiving, I know there are. I've seen them on Facebook and I salute them with all of my heart. For the rest of us, to rest and be thankful is the untarnished core of that third Thursday in November, and that can take any form we choose to bring to it.
For me? It turns out the one food that means Thanksgiving to me is pie, and this is the one day of the year that I like to make it. They are ungainly objects that never show up on social media but they reflect my heritage--Pennsylvania Dutch shoo-fly pie and New England cranberry pie. To hell with that grandmother in the kitchen before daybreak, to hell with those apocryphal Pilgrims, to hell with Norman Rockwell. On Thanksgiving and the days after, I eat pie and never once groan about the monotony of leftovers.
There is pie, and I am grateful.
Posted by Janet Brown at 3:25 PM
Friday, November 17, 2017
There was one last ferry route from North Point that I hadn’t yet taken and I had deliberately saved it for last. It went to Hung Hom, an area of Kowloon that I’d always thought was a bit bedraggled, but from there another ferry would take me back to Hong Kong Island. The ferry to Wanchai was a longer route than the Star Ferry but had much the same view of the skyline, with the same expansiveness of the other North Point seascapes. If I made a complete round trip, it could take hours perhaps and I couldn’t think of a better way to end the day.
The sky, water, and distant mountains had all taken on different shades of blue, from azure to cerulean to the pale and smoky navy of spectral shapes silhouetted against the horizon. When I stood on the open lower deck of each ferry, I was wrapped in a brilliant monochrome, broken only by buildings and the surprise of green hills that rose behind them. A sailboat with a black sail floated in front of me, followed rather improbably by one whose sail was pure white, and suddenly I realized the day I was living had become visual poetry.
Then the ferry pulled into Hung Hom, where I learned there was no other route. The ferry to Wanchai had been discontinued several years earlier.
Drowning my sorrows in a drink from Starbucks, I looked at where I had ended up. There was a luxurious hotel in a park-like setting that was edged by the waterfront walkway that every neighborhood seemed to provide, but this one was studded with signposts that said the Hung Hom Promenade would lead to the one that ended in the Star Ferry.
One reason I rarely went to this part of Kowloon was because it seemed so cut off from the rest of the world, broken and scarred by highways and railway lines. My walks there had never been ones I’d cared to repeat or expand upon, so this promenade was an unexpected present. It was a wide and almost empty path with an unfamiliar sense of space that gave me a fresh jolt of energy, until it came to an end.
A sign directed me toward a new walkway that curved up a tree-covered hill and I obediently followed. Suddenly I was above the harbor, with the entire Hong Kong skyline on my left and a thick screen of greenery on my right. Beyond that was the ugly elevated highway that Hung Hom had turned into an asset.
It ended in construction when the path descended into the harbor neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui and the Star Ferry. Even so, I was delighted by the unexpected beauty of a neighborhood that I had been quite certain had none and the promise of an expanded harbor walk to come. Kowloon was capitalizing on its gift of space, turning that portion of Hong Kong from a grim and dingy sprawl to a destination point that would match its more sophisticated neighbor across the harbor. Although many of the area’s changes made me queasy, this was one I looked forward to watching.
Posted by Janet Brown at 8:50 AM
Thursday, November 16, 2017
In the first half of my Hong Kong visit, I stayed in a building with a doorman and an elevator that was bigger than any of my Hong Kong bathrooms. There were four apartments on my floor and the carpeted hallway was immaculate. The building was new, sandwiched between shops and facing a street filled with market stalls. The tram clanged its way through shoppers and delivery carts all day and into the night and my twelfth-floor flat gave me a fabulous view of the whole scene.
Unlike any other place that I’d stayed in Hong Kong, this one didn’t shrink from light. Its outer walls were banked with windows and my bed was wedged against most of them. It had to be. The main room was in the shape of a hallway, rectangular with the door at one end and windows at the other. A spattering of basic furniture lined the facing walls: a wardrobe and shelving unit flanked off against a desk and a refrigerator that were separated by a shoe rack. Two doors had been placed on the inner wall, one leading to a tiny bathroom with the smallest bathtub that I was too claustrophobic to spend much time in and a kitchen that was just big enough for one person at a time. Beyond that was a covered balcony for drying laundry that I would have washed in the tiny machine placed under the kitchen counter if I hadn’t been afraid of breaking it.
If my efficiency apartment in Seattle were partitioned into two rooms, each half would be approximately the size of this flat. But my place rented for what amounted to 6000 Hong Kong dollars and from what I’d read over the years, this spot was probably closer to 20,000 HKD a month. Its market street setting was humble but it was on Hong Kong Island, and down the block from it were two new, spiffy-looking hotels. Although North Point wasn’t chic yet, it wasn’t cheap either.
I knew I could never afford a place as palatial as the one I was staying in now but I was curious. What would my Seattle rent yield me in Hong Kong?
I went to Craigslist and discovered that the answer was not much. For 800 US I could rent a room with shared bath that had probably been partitioned off from a larger room and would have just enough space for a bed. Quite a few of these Spartan domiciles were in North Point, which was the only advantage I could see.
One of them was in one of the many Hong Kong neighborhoods that I’d never heard of and, curious, I looked it up online. To Kwa Wan was a place in Kowloon which wasn’t yet on the subway system. It was a low-income, industrial neighborhood with a waterfront. In fact, it was one of the destinations that I could reach from the North Point pier.
The ferry docked near a public pier where a family was busy with poles and nets in search of their Sunday dinner. A walkway led past land that was fenced off with chain metal but held unmistakable signs of habitation: clothes hung on lines that were tied to bushes, a smattering of children’s toys, a bicycle. Just beyond that was a phalanx of parked buses and many, many people, all in motion.
Off to the side was a huge building with a sign that identified it as a shopping plaza but none of the other markers were evident. It held no Starbucks, no MacDonalds, no Watsons or Sasa or Cafe de Coral but it was busy. I followed a crowd inside where I hoped to find a restroom.
The shops were filled with merchandise that looked quite a bit like the stuff for sale in my North Point marketplace and the shoppers all looked familiar too. They were arranged in separate throngs, each led by a person carrying a colored flag.
Beyond the shopping center things got eerie. The crowds bustled behind their flagbearer down a main street that was otherwise vacant. The buildings that they passed were closed and had the distinctive Brutalist architecture of Hong Kong's small industries, glass bay windows that ran the entire length of a structure from top to bottom and held elevators, objects that looked like exterior baskets but were actually ventilation systems, placed near huge white numerals from one to four that identified each floor of the building.
Lanes that led from this thoroughfare were the magnet destinations. Here were small shops that sold food, traditional Chinese medicine, small electronic items, their windows filled with beckoning ceramic cats of varying sizes. Above these shops laundry hung from metal window frames. A grim diner on a corner that was locked and barred bore a sign in Chinese and English. The words I could read said Cafe de Joy.
Squatting on the sidewalk outside a more hospitable dining option was a large group of women, all with shopping bags, all wearing clothes that had seen better days. Each of them had the unmistakable look of people who were ready to go home. Others with more energy were following their flags to the North Point ferry.
How did this part of Kowloon become a shopping mecca for ordinary people, I wondered, and how did the ordinary people who lived above the beckoning cats react to the weekend invasion? The only way to find out would be to rent my own set of metal-framed windows and hang out my laundry--but I’d have to do it fast. The street of industrial buildings where I’d followed the crowds had construction barriers running down its center. The MTR was on its way and Starbucks wouldn’t be far behind. I would need to take up residence while the ferry to North Point was still the quickest way to leave Kowloon.
Posted by Janet Brown at 10:35 AM
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
The Star Ferry is perhaps the most famous in the world, beating out even the one to Staten Island, and like its New York counterpart, it’s always filled with residents and tourists. For decades, it and other ferries were the link between the island of Hong Kong to its country cousin, Kowloon, Macau, and the smaller islands. Even now, it’s the most picturesque way to cross Victoria Harbor and hundreds of passengers forgo the more rapid and efficient subway system or a bus to catch a breeze, feel the waves, and ogle the Hong Kong skyline.
It’s a speedy little voyage, taking less than ten minutes, and is at the top of the list of ten things to do in Hong Kong. In a place where time is money, it mirrors the city that it serves, being both beautiful and efficient.
I love being on the water and after a trip or two to Hong Kong, I ignored the Star Ferry in favor of the less photogenic boats that would take me through the harbor to the port and beyond. I never grew tired of seeing ghost mountains looming like dreams behind jagged green hills and the prickly little islands dotting open water that seemed limitless and was always a different shade of blue. These small journeys were my reward for learning the crowded maze of city streets that I roamed through every day of my time in Hong Kong; on those rolling tubs, I had space and solitude. My mind no longer needed to chart landmarks and fit neighborhoods into a mental map. This was hydrotherapy and nourishment too.
On my latest trip to Hong Kong, I wandered around North Point, vaguely aware that a ferry terminal was close to my apartment. Since this journey was dedicated to making the island a coherent and navigable place for me, I ignored the signs that would lead me to time on the water. But each weekend the streets I walked every day were filled with tour groups, crowds of shabbily dressed people led by flags of different colors, headed toward fresh markets, clothing stalls, and food shops.
Hong Kong island and the edge of Kowloon are both thronged with shoppers from mainland China, but the ones I usually saw were on their way to luxurious shopping malls, international supermarkets, Cartier and the other fabulous names whose stores glamorized the streets of Kowloon near the Star Ferry. They were the reason why I stuck to the eastern part of Hong Kong when Saturday and Sunday rolled around, but here they were, in another form that I’d never seen before. Where did they come from?
I had a map that, when unfolded, took up enough floor space to hold a bed and nightstand. It charted Hong Kong from the river that separated the New Territories from Shenzhen to the coastal communities of Aberdeen, Stanley, and Shek-O. It was detailed enough to include portions of open water that were designated for future reclamation and it was segmented by dotted lines that showed the region’s many ferry routes. The ones that led from North Point to portions of Kowloon were as long as many that led to the outer islands and they went on my list of things to do before I left.
On a morning so bright and sparkling that it could only take place in a city that lies near saltwater, I got on the ferry with the longest dotted line. Hong Kong’s skyline dominated my journey as completely as it did when I viewed it from the Star Ferry but here it was less compact, less carefully planned, sprawling in more space than it was allotted in its postcard setting. It was clearly an evolving masterpiece that was almost matched by the buildings that faced it on the Kowloon side. This voyage was a spectacle of human hubris on a mammoth scale, dwarfing even the phantom mountains that usually claimed my attention.
When I disembarked in Kwun Tong, I was surrounded by new glass towers that reeked of Blade Runner and old industrial buildings that could have inspired Charles Dickens. The older buildings still held small manufacturers with workers visible in ground floor spaces that were open to the street while the new towers were all shrouded in ultra-modern privacy. The sidewalks were a mixture of delivery carts and workers rushing toward lunch; long lines had formed outside tiny diners and mammoth restaurants whose signs featured whole roast pigs.. This part of the city was so closely related to Manhattan’s Garment District of my teenage years that I instantly fell in love.
Beyond the crowds and the buildings designed for various versions of labor, there was a gleam of color and I walked up a sloping street to see what it was. There waited another cityscape from another time, low-lying buildings painted in soft colors and in eccentric shapes, bowed like steamships or curved inward in the softened enclosure of the letter C. This area was equally crowded but the pace was slow and people of my age sat in pocket parks shaded by small groves of trees.
When I walked back toward the water, the area beneath the elevated highway was brilliant with painted concrete pillars that held the weight of the traffic above. Each set held a different color, another pattern, a unique mood. A small building encased in bamboo held public restrooms and facing the waterfront were benches and covered shelters. A single food truck sat beneath the overpass with a sign in English; it claimed to have chocolate-covered frozen bananas. A young white guy wearing a dashingly piratical bandanna that held back his mane of hair apologized. “This is our first day and you’re our third customer. The bananas aren’t completely frozen yet.”
Without other customers, he was in a mood to chat. “When I first came here, three years ago, this area under the highway was covered with all kinds of scrap, waiting to be recycled. Things change fast in this city.”
Near the water, next to the long promenade that had been built on the shoreline were abstract constructions, squares that tilted on edge or rectangles that claimed a patch of ground. Many were built from wood and were covered with glass windowpanes, in memory of the recycling that they had replaced. After dark those windows gleamed with light, sending small signals to the ferries that docked nearby.
I passed a woman in full bridal dress, her attendants holding a wide train of white fabric that struggled to join the harbor’s wind, and a community of old men on benches, chatting and scrutinizing the marine traffic that dotted their view. Less than a block away was an old Victorianesque shop front that now, in gilded letters, announced Cafeholic; a long line of chicly clad office workers waited outside to eat Italian pasta dishes.
“They say it’s going to become the new Central,” a young businessman said, and I shuddered. Right now Kwun Tong was known for illegal loft-dwellers and independent music clubs. It was a pretty safe bet that condos and chic nightspots weren’t lagging far behind.
Posted by Janet Brown at 11:27 AM
Monday, November 13, 2017
Six tiny gingko leaves flap in a stiff breeze this morning, clinging to a skeleton of branches that only last week held a full bounty of gold. Sunlight suffused their color one morning not long ago and as I stared at them, a young man walking down the hill stopped, pulled out his phone, and snapped a shot of them.
This is an action that is almost a reflex in our time but when I was little, it was unheard of. Snapshots took place during occasions, a school picnic, a wedding, a family excursion. Bringing out the camera, and there was usually one per family, sealed a moment in time and made it temporarily solemn. Families had albums with stiff black paper pages that held faces of past relatives, parents when young, ancestors in strange clothing, their faces stiff with formality. That was where photographs went when they returned from the developer and had been culled to single out the ones suitable for posterity.
Otherwise photography was an art of black and white and shadows, practiced by figures under a hood, behind a tripoded camera. Kodachrome was just beginning to take hold in ordinary living and Madison Avenue was bringing a sense of lightness to photographs through advertising. But it would take time before the Polaroid camera came to households with its weird magic and its sense of play, and even then each of its photos was twenty-five cents apiece. That wasn’t small change in those days and the instant photo never really gained a true foothold.
But now taking a picture is like blinking. We do it rapidly and almost without thought and because we do it so often, some of them are bound to be okay. We peer at our own faces through the lens on our phones and snap; the camera is becoming our mirror. We make our own postcards when we travel and put them on social media instead of buying stamps. We bear witness at crime scenes and disasters. We are all photographers now.
And because of that, we all pay attention in a way that we didn’t in the past. We’re attuned to the beauty of the world, the drama of everyday life, the unintentional humor that emerges on the streets. We see, we stop, we record, and then we keep walking with another image stored on a piece of plastic that holds a minute computer.
Once pundits envisioned untold amounts of leisure that the ordinary person would enjoy in the coming century--and we do. But we snatch our freedom in tiny chunks and in that little segment of time, for a second or two, we are, all of us, leisured people making art.
Posted by Janet Brown at 9:17 AM
Thursday, November 9, 2017
No matter how short the flight may be, changing from one country to another is always disorienting--for me at least. The air time between Bangkok and Hong Kong wasn't much over a couple of hours but even so, I was at the airport three hours before my scheduled boarding time and that made for a long day. By the time I called my Hong Kong Airbnb host from the MRT station near my new home, I had logged nine hours in transit, if you count the long taxi ride to Bangkok's airport and I certainly did.
An efficient woman answered to my host's name (Tm Chan) and told me an old man would come to the MRT exit to guide me to my new Hong Kong room, "It's all right," she reassured me,"He's around 75 years old."
Eventually a very old man showed up, bearing a scrap of paper with my name scrawled on it. Taking my suitcase, he led me across the road and down another to reach the building where I would be staying for the next ten nights. When we got to the door, he punched in a code. The door remained locked.
Fortunately another tenant was exiting the building and we entered in his wake. A long staircase led to a small elevator. "Press nine," the old man said. I obeyed. The elevator door remained open and we stood still.
Repeated button pushing yielded no better results and the old man pulled out his phone. "She'll come soon," he said with no further elaboration. Meanwhile another man came up the stairs, grocery bags in hand. "Oh, no. Not again," he groaned.
He called another number, explaining the problem and turned to us when he had finished. "It's Friday night. Who knows if anyone will show up? What floor are you going to?"
When I said "Nine," he grinned. "I'm on the eighth. Looks like we both have a long climb ahead of us."
At this point another man pulled himself up the stairs. He was on crutches, wheezing audibly, and was clutching his chest by the time he paused in front of the open elevator door. "This is shite," he said, "I've been here two days and this is the second time the damned elevator stopped. I should have found a room in Kowloon. This place is horrible and I have another week to go."
"What," he asked, "would happen if it stops working when we're in it?"
This is one of my leading phobias, even when in a building not as dirty and ramshackle as the one we all were standing in. Silently I vowed never to set foot in this elevator once my suitcase was on the ninth floor, just as a Filipina lady approached our merry little throng. She ignored our complaints, stepped in the elevator, pressed the button, and stepped back out. The door closed, the elevator went up, and returned when she pushed the Down button. With a generous amount of trepidation, I followed her inside along with the old man and my suitcase.
We made it up to the ninth floor, then walked down a half-flight of stairs. The old man lifted up the filthiest doormat I've ever seen and extricated a key. Along with it came the stench of mildew. He opened the door and turned on the light, beckoning to me in a welcoming fashion.
The room I had seen in photographs had clean white walls, a bed with a substantial mattress, and a small but clean bathroom. The one I stood in had dingy walls, a dirty floor fan, a dodgy-looking air conditioner, and a thin pad that posed as a mattress. The pad was covered with a covering that may have once have been white but now was close to pearl grey. When I pulled it back, the sheet that appeared was stained and dirty.
I could barely glance at the bathroom, I pulled up a window shade and covered my nose as a fine miasma of dust issued from it.
"I can't stay here," I muttered and the old man looked concerned. He was only the guide and all I wanted was for him to leave so I could think about my next move. I handed him 50 Hong Kong dollars and closed the door. At least the lock appeared to work.
Within a few more minutes, there was a knock at the door. A woman stood there and told me she was Tm Chan's assistant. I struggled for poise and coherence before I spoke. "I can't stay here. Chungking Mansions is better than this place."
"You get what you pay for," she said breezily, "and this room is very cheap. This is Hong Kong."
"No," I told her, "I paid for small and I expect that in Hong Kong. I didn't expect filth. Look at this bedsheet."
"I'll bring you a clean one but I won't be back for an hour. Stay here for one night. You're not going to find another place to stay in Hong Kong on a Friday night."
She left and I made a quick decision. Picking up my suitcase, I made it down the nine flights of stairs to the street, got on the MTR, and was at the entrance of Chungking Mansions within minutes. There a man led me to a room that was very old but very clean and there I remained for that night and the next.
Airbnb gave me a full refund for that hideous room but my simple faith has been badly shaken. My first Hong Kong Airbnb was everything it purported to be, and I had left wishing I could live in it forever. The second one was far from that. Luck of the draw...and caveat emptor! I hope the old man on crutches survived his stay at 126 Connaught Road West in the On Shun Building.
Posted by Janet Brown at 12:54 PM