I was getting tired of Shenzhen, its long subway rides, its limited news and information, its architecture that promised much and contained far too little, and most of all its spotty internet connection. I’d made one bank transfer successfully that morning and then couldn’t even begin the next. It was something that needed to be done and I was fuming.
In twenty minutes, I could be at the airport where the Hyatt offered good internet service and a strong VPN gave me all of the communication services and news that I took for granted every minute in Seattle. I started to get ready to go when something snapped. Agoda was something I could always reach on my iPad, probably because it was a special edition that came to me out of Singapore, a country that understood media suppression. I went to my favorite budget hotel in Hong Kong, the Lander Prince Edward, and found they had a cut-rate price for that night. I booked a room, threw some clothes in a bag, and took the subway to the border.
I was just ending a long New Year celebration that had gone on for over a week and had erased everything I had enjoyed about Shenzhen. The malls were the only places that sold food and water, and I had spent more time than I ever would have liked in their hallways. That most of Shenzhen’s people were doing the very same thing consoled me not one little bit. It was my fault for choosing to come and stay during the New Year but the momentum of my exploring had been broken and the excitement of this city had turned stale for me. I’d been there too long.
Now Shenzhen’s major charm was the rapid and convenient border crossing into Hong Kong. I got off one subway, passed through one checkpoint, cleared another, and I was soon on Hong Kong’s train through the New Territories and into Kowloon--one country, two transit systems.
Every time I entered the covered, elevated, glass-walled passageway that spanned the two borders, I always released my hair from the elastic that kept it bound into a proper Shenzhen ponytail and felt a jolt of new energy. I’d lived in Thailand for too many years to ignore local dress codes when I traveled and in Shenzhen I stopped wearing my sandals on my third day. Women there wore cosmetics sparingly and my kohl-encircled eyes made people turn to stare at me on the street so I’d gone without for weeks. Older women wore their hair short or pulled it back, so a ponytail was my new daily hairdo. When I looked in the mirror, a Shenzhen auntie stared back at me, but nobody else did once I left my room. I looked normal for the place I had chosen to be in.
So having a mane of hair again invigorated me, even if I were going into Hong Kong only for a quick shopping run on Nathan Road. I had made a few of those during my time in Shenzhen, usually for the International New York Times, the South China Morning Post, and the Economist to bring me up to speed on all of the news that had taken place without me.
While other Shenzhen visitors left Hong Kong with suitcases full of Ferrero Rocher chocolates and Danish butter cookies, pulling bungie-corded trolleys piled with disposable diapers and infant formula, my purchases were easily stowed away in a shoulder bag: aspirin, unscented deodorant, gentle hues of eye pencil and lip gloss from the Body Shop, and newsprint. I was the most down-market shopper who had probably ever walked past the customs officials at the border. They all ignored me.
This trip was the first to Hong Kong in almost two months when I would be spending the night and I had an entire day stretching in front of me to explore a neighborhood that I loved a lot. The Lander is in Sham Shui Po, which is one of the few places in Kowloon that delights me more each time I go there. It is old and down at the heel and so local that within its streets, I’ve never seen a Starbucks or an upscale supermarket or a trendy restaurant. It holds a fabric market that encompasses leather crafters, millinery stores, button manufacturers, and bolts of cloth on the street and in open shops. There are shops that sell beads, feathers, ribbons, and embroidered trimmings, patches and badges, artificial flowers and sparkly bits of plastic. It takes me hours to go three blocks on these streets filled with treasure hunts.
There’s an electronics market with stalls crowding one of the streets, a toy market where teddy bears and build-your-own-catapult kits sit side by side, and an unassuming dim sum restaurant that was the first spot in Hong Kong to receive a Michelin star. Small groceries stock food from India, Africa, Indonesia, and Nepal, near coffee shops started by young artists from the nearby college of art and design. There are more hole-in-the-wall restaurants than I could eat in if I tried every day for a year and the architecture keeps me snapping pictures on every walk that I take through the neighborhood.
I spent my day searching for buttons for the collection that I add to on each visit to Sham Shui Po, taking snapshots, staring at glitz and color and fabric. It was a visual feast that I needed badly after my time in Shenzhen and the layers of this place were smoothing the jagged edges left by too much time in shopping malls. When I finally reached sensory overload, I went to the edge of Kowloon and took a ferry across the harbor and back, staring at the city on both sides of the water, the freighters that were making their way past to the open sea, and the ghosts of mountains that floated near the horizon.
As I walked back to the Lander, I passed a small diner that had a Thai menu posted in its window. I stopped, as I always do when I see the Thai alphabet, and was stunned. This place had one of my favorite dishes, the Thai version of ceviche, raw shrimp that's been marinated in lime juice and bathed in chile with fish sauce. I went inside.
The man at the counter greeted me with the usual Thai salutation that has traveled all over the world. I heard it even in Shenzhen but there the greeting was all that had been learned and after one meal, I had learned to walk away from any place that claimed to be Thai in that city. I’d been disappointed in Hong Kong too, but here this man responded to my follow-up pleasantry in Thai that was infinitely better than mine.
He assured me that he indeed served the dish that I wanted and yes, the shrimp was fresh. I looked at the wall behind him and saw a picture of King Rama V. Nearby was a stack of bags holding Thai jasmine rice. I sat down and ordered a beer.
The food that came to my table was truly Thai and I ate every scrap, but what made me happiest in that little diner was the ability to speak incompletely and faultily in a language that held two decades of good memories. My accent was wretched but the words came out of my mouth the minute that I needed them. I floated out of that place, buoyed with the joy of communication at random, in an act of daily living, and then I knew why Shenzhen had turned flat for me.
The happiness I had just found by speaking Thai in Kowloon I'd gained from years of public humiliation and dogged persistence. The two months I had just spent in Shenzhen pointing at menus and my phrasebook, going for days saying nothing more than hello and thank you again and again like a badly trained mynah bird, would have been as delightful as that Thai meal if I had only learned some basic Mandarin. I’d cheated myself and the city I’d stayed in and was starving only because of my own laziness.
And I knew I needed to visit again with language, no matter how limited or how faulty those words will probably be.