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.
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.
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.