For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking of the blind men and the elephant, each one convinced that his portion of the animal was the whole pachyderm. I’ve been coming to Hong Kong for eight years, with each stay being at least a month long. In those periods, I’ve wandered around Central Kowloon from the waterfront to the area where the old airport used to be, on foot. I’ve spent a monkey-plagued three weeks in the New Territory hills above Shatin and have made a cursory exploration of nearby towns that lie on the MRT route. I have a familiar itinerary that I follow on every visit, while finding new areas of concentration every year. I’ve enjoyed the city that I’ve discovered with one exception--the heart of the place, or as I’ve often thought of it, the belly of the beast.
Hong Kong Island is what most people think of when Hong Kong comes to mind: its dazzling skyline jammed up against a high green hill, its restaurants that can be found on every street, its stores that make it a worldwide shopping mecca. To me it was conspicuous consumption gone mad in a spiderweb maze of crowded streets where I got lost without fail, and I went across the harbor from Kowloon as rarely as possible.
There were neighborhoods that were exceptions, Quarry Bay, Chai Wan, at the end of the subway line. There the buildings were old, the shops were utilitarian, and the streets were bordered by salt water on one side and jagged, looming hills on the other. They were mixtures of industrial and residential use and Starbucks was often hard to find. I loved these parts of Hong Kong. On the few times that I was there, I felt as though I could breathe. But I had little reason to go there; these districts were ones that were for the people who lived in them.
Then along came Airbnb. Suddenly even areas where hotels were almost invisible offered temporary homes for people like me--the kind who wanted neighborhood total immersion. At last I was able to choose a neighborhood away from Hong Kong Island’s overstuffed core and for a month or so make myself believe that it was mine.
Having a home base on this island has made it livable for me. On a market street in North Point, which is ungentrified enough that I have to go to another part of town to find an “international” supermarket, I’ve been walking the length of the subway line from Chai Wan to Kennedy Town, seeing how the different districts flow into each other. What seemed incoherent when hopping from one subway stop to another is much less jarring when I walked those distances. The changes from blatant affluence to ordinary living blend gradually as I pass between neighborhoods and I’m beginning to appreciate this island as a whole.
There are still wild surprises. The day before I took the bus from the center of the city to Aberdeen on the southern tip of the island, which is still dusty and charming simply because, except for its harbor, there is no charm. I popped into a public restroom and there at one of the sinks, stood a woman in her underwear, giving herself a shampoo. Clothing was draped over the adjacent sink. Some of them had just been laundered.
This was not a feature of Hong Kong living that I’d ever encountered before.
Yesterday a friend took me to another part of Hong Kong that lies within full view of neighborhoods that I’ve recently walked through but which is actually part of the New Territories. We came out of the subway to a harbor vista that was stunningly close. Once covered with buildings that housed small industries, this spot of prime real estate is soon to be the site of highrise residential towers that will gobble up the waterfront and obliterate the sight that greets commuters every day.
We walked through an open, bright shopping area where designer coffee could be sipped while roaming through the shops. Towers rose above that space, all residential and a large amount of it public housing. Smaller, more humble buildings were older versions of that housing, with larger windows, shops beneath, and a closer view of the streets below.
My friend led me through the town to its harbor where a long promenade was bordered with park benches and little roofed shelters where people could find shade. This melded into a covered market, which was like an aquarium, with big glass tanks filled with sea life. The fish were large and many were patterned in different colors. The crabs and shrimp were big enough to be the creatures that nightmares are made of. We watched as a man hooked a mammoth crab from one of the tanks, positioned it on the tile floor until he could safely grab one of it legs, and carried it into the kitchen of an adjacent restaurant.
“You can buy seafood here, give the vendor your name, the name of the restaurant you want to patronize, and the number of the table where you’re going to eat it, as well as how you want it cooked. Your purchase will be delivered to you, ready to eat,” my friend told me.
The market began to blend into houses, small cottages with cement walls, tiny windows, and tin roofs. Occasionally one came into view that had rock walls, “Cooler than cement,” my friend observed.
The cottages were only feet from the harbor, and when the big typhoon swept in last month, they were flooded and in some cases badly damaged by mammoth waves. “Preservationists want these houses left in place but many of the homeowners are waiting for a buyout from the city that will allow them to move into housing that isn’t so vulnerable to the storms,” my friend told me.
I could well understand. The cottages were small and even with an air conditioner making them cool enough to live in, they were still dark cement boxes with little natural light. Although the beauty of living near a harbor with a generous amount of public seating could perhaps replace a living room, the unpredictability of the current weather patterns had to trammel that advantage. If you had to evacuate because of a coming typhoon, unsure of what you would return to, or if you sweltered for months in temperatures that soared to almost unlivable heights, an apartment in a tower would begin to look better every year.
At the end of the pathway, a little scarlet temple, built to court the protection of the sea goddess, Tin Hau, ended the community. Across the bay were the crowded highrises of Hong Kong Island, with the skylines of the Island and Kowloon etched on the horizon, the future of this small village closing in on three sides.
There is so much to see, so much to swallow, in this city that stretches far beyond the island that I’m exploring now that it may be my sole focus for the next ten years--and even then, I will die knowing that I haven’t seen it all.