Most travel blogs provide the reader with a wealth of information: how to plan, when to go, what to avoid etc. They are hugely useful and I have consulted many of them in planning my odyssey. They require, from their authors, a level of detailed documentation of which I am, quite simply, incapable. My blog, therefore, will aim to share with you, dear reader, how places FEEL, what I find most beautiful, bizarre or bothersome.
To quote The Sound of Music (I grew up with musicians as parents and with 2 sisters – that makes this marginally more acceptable) “Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.” The beginning, in this instance, is Hong Kong. I moved to Hong Kong in 2012, having never before set foot in Asia. Arriving, jet-lagged, in a totally new country and culture, I needed to orient myself (pun firmly intended) and spent the first few weeks exploring on a level to which, to my eternal shame, I have never acceded since.
“Neon”, “High-rise” “Smell symphony” probably encapsulates my first impressions. I did much of my discovering in the evening, when Hong Kong becomes a polychromatic paradise of neon signs advertising everything from insurance to herbal remedies. Add to this the myriad office lights shining brightly later into the night than “work/life balance” would deem acceptable and HK positively glitters!
“High-rise” is a nod to the astonishing architectural ingenuity and “can-do” attitude of the construction industry here. Common sense would suggest that building a major metropolis on a semi-tropical island covered in mountains and prone to torrential downpours and typhoons might be a non-starter…..And yet, what a success! 40-story buildings, propped up on stilts are carved into perilously steep hillsides, one of the world’s tallest buildings, the International Commerce Centre, at 108 floors, dominates the cityscape of Kowloon (the more densely populated area of Hong Kong, across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong island) and lies on…..wait for it…..reclaimed land! Hong Kong pre-dates the 1989 Kevin Costner film of dubious quality – Field of Dreams – in proving that “If you build it, they (altered from the original “he” to help make my very tenuous analogy) will come.” And come they do, from all over the globe – tourists flock to “Asia’s world city”.
What about the “smell symphony”? I hear you say. Well, in a city where GPS is hopeless at street level due to the interference of the surrounding skyscrapers, the most reliable way to navigate, is by following you nose. HK is a place where you could close your eyes and describe your surroundings based solely on odour. In fact the name “Hong Kong” means “fragrant harbour” in Cantonese (the local language – be careful not to confuse with Mandarin, the two are distinctly different and failure to recognise this may provoke some side-eye from Hkers), but, as this link suggests, “fragrant” might be slightly optimistic at times. A stroll through almost any district will assail the nostrils with most of the following smells:
- Masonry and metalwork – HK loves to build and to repair – you are never far from a building site.
- Stinky tofu– Chao Dao Foo in Cantonese – this is a Chinese specialty consisting of partially fermented tofu doused in just enough sauce to make it edible. It’s sweetly pungent smell is unmistakeable.
- Siu mei – this is HK-style meat and rice, starring the delicious Char Siu – honey-glazed barbecue pork that melts in the mouth.
- “Dog water” – OK, so it’s a euphemism but you get the point – HK loves dogs; it has literally thousands of them in all shapes and sizes. What it lacks, however, is grassy verges and parks where soil and vegetation can absorb and mask the smells of a cocked leg. How absorbent are concrete and tarmac in comparison? Not very, it seems.
So, several years on and on the verge of departing its shores, what have I learned about the place?
- It is not part of China. “But wait, didn’t the Chinese re-establish sovereignty from the British in 1997?” the pub quiz mafia respond. Yes but. And it’s a Kim Kardashian of a but. HKers are fiercely proud of their country, their culture, their heritage. Much like Catalonia or the Basque country in Spain, they have no intention of having their independence of culture subsumed by Beijing. With it’s status as a Special Administrative Region due to expire in 2047, whether they can fight it (check out the Umbrella movement) is another matter.
- Luck is almost a religion. Most high-rise buildings don’t have a 4th floor because the word for “four” in Cantonese sounds like the word for “death”. The result, lifts that go 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, etc.; 8 is a lucky number; almanacs are consulted for auspicious wedding dates; Feng Shui is an arcane art and millions of dollars are spent by multinational corporations on ensuring that their offices are designed for optimum good luck. Examples are too numerous to list.
- Family and community are hugely important. Unlike many Western cultures, where children may fly the nest upon going to university and only return to visit on occasion, (or emigrate and be hopeless at staying in touch……erm…..sorry!) the family unit in HK culture is extremely close-knit. Many children will live at home until they get married (HK property market being the most expensive in the world makes this a necessity for many) and frequent meetings and meals with extended family are commonplace. This makes for wonderful support networks and some explosive arguments!
- It’s unique. Above all else, HK has an energy, a buzz, and synesthesia of novelty that makes it unique. I would recommend everyone who can to come and visit. If you need some tips on what to do and where to go, let me know – I might even write a post on it!