The Hong Kong of mythology is nothing like my childhood. First-timers expect van loads of hyper-violent triads, waging turf wars on Nathan Road. Corrupt cops abetting smuggled coke via the mainland or poker sharks bedding Portland Street streetwalkers in the pay-per-hour rooms of Chunking Mansions. You can blame John Woo and his ‘heroic bloodshed’ films for that.
Instead, my Hong Kong is all about Mong Kok district circa 1986-91, where eating and haggling is religion. It crams 340,000 fast-talking, food-obsessed, unapologetic Cantonese per catacombed square-mile. Officially, it’s the densest place on earth.
After 16 years abroad, I’ve still got that city-dweller instinct of crowd-weaving pedestrian streets without bumping into a soul. A useful skill learned, tailgating mum’s weekly night-market forays between Fa Yuen and Shanghai Streets as a five-year old.
Neon signs hang iron-bolted to crumbling pre-war buildings. Their glow splashes the streets like day-glo warpaint advertising pawn shops, massage parlours, third-generation Indian tailors, and siu mei stores displaying garish porcine products in the hundreds.
Striped tarps and bamboo scaffolding canopy the masses as they navigate stalls. 34ºC heat and 90% humidity amplify shoppers’ voices, haggling for a HK$1 discount. We ignore the “I Love HK t-shirts”, calligraphy scrolls, knock-off LV bags, searching for the the lane that demarcates tourist-land with the locals-zone.
We make for the fruit merchants who guard pyramids of lychees, mangosteens, and lady-finger bananas, sing-songing the going price. They open pillow-sized jackfruit with flathead screwdrivers and pry out the flesh for us to taste. A verbal back-and-forth ensues until we settle the price. It’s more ritual than business anyway — we always buy from the same gang of sun-browned men in threadbare wife-beaters.
On school nights, we visit the hawker stall off our street. It opens after 11pm and is down an alleyway that looks perfect for a mugging. Alongside the cardboard cities of the homeless, an old man with a one-burner kerosene stove attracts bar flies and off-duty taxi drivers. We share tables with shirtless men sporting gold chains and smoking Marlborough golds, curses littering the air. Their triad affiliations are advertised by a mass of green tattoos long before “ink” meant cool. It doesn’t matter who we sat with because we are all here for the only thing he serves — steaming bowls of pork-bone congee. In Hong Kong, food is the great equalizer and talking smack over a dish of something tasty is guaranteed to break class barriers.
On sporadic visits home, I linger at the open-air shacks where impatient waiters slam down food and their verbal abuse is a badge of honor earned. The stall is no longer there, but the streets remain chaotic. Hong Kong beckons, and I’ve left and returned and called many places home, but she’s always under my skin.
I return to be squashed cheek-by-jowl because I miss the feeling of being overcrowded. I return to have my fortune told by quacks along Temple Street, asking if I’ll ever live here again. I return to watch double-decker buses — colonial monstrosities completely inappropriate for Hong Kong’s narrow roads — as they careen along the hot tarmac. I return to stalk the nighttime city streets that threaten the brightness of day. I return to see the ghosts of the past overlaid by a city hurtling into the future.
I return because I’ll always be from Hong Kong.
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