Written by Jordan Bishop
olding my favourite sweater as for the first time, I like to let its soft fabric roll through my fingers. I observe its ribbed cuffs, one of which stands erect when I lay the garment on my oaken shelf. This is not Manchester. This is nine hundred miles west of Manchester, where the sun shines so brightly through my picture window that it has me squinting. Just beyond, a pot of flowers of the most remarkable pinkish hue lean toward me with the conviction of a drunkard pursuing that which cannot be had. Grinning, I run my hands over the fabric once more, revealing its sewn-in tag. Not surprisingly, it reads: Made in Hong Kong.
From the nadirs of central Buenos Aires I once happened upon a garment bearing the same mark. If the label was indeed true, and it had no reason not to be, it had traversed some of the world’s most unnavigable waters to get there. On London’s finest shopping streets, wedged somewhere between Piccadilly and SoHo, I’ve seen that same marque by the constellation – too many to count and too far from home to be coincidence. Compulsions are easy to come by and hard to explain. Mine include reading such labels, which I do with acute attention, the fact notwithstanding that I’ve yet to actually purchase one of said garments. These days, the principal pieces of my modest wardrobe arrive upon happenstance, and they disappear in the same manner. This last one came to me by way of a good friend who works for an online retailer headquartered in Wong Chuk Hang on the Island. Wouldn’t it have been rude for me not to accept it? Besides, I’ve become close with more than one of the retailer’s employees; just seven days ago I attended another’s birthday party at Shek O beach. It wasn’t until I waded into the Pacific and was promptly greeted by a swath of errantly-floating plastic that I was reminded I was still in Hong Kong. Following the lead of a woman fifty meters down the sand, I got off my high horse and collected the trash. I’d like to live past one hundred, thanks.
Living in the moment is both a sin and a savior here; on one hand, it distracts you from a distinct focus on the future (sin), yet on the other, it gives you the opportunity to discover ways of speeding up even more (savior). Over time, the freneticism gets to you, yet there’s no denying it: the pace of life in Hong Kong goes unmatched.
The fastest city in the world.
Take Octopus, the city-wide payment system that’s been in order for nearly two decades. With Hong Kong’s population already well beyond capacity and growing, urban planners approached the equation logically: if we can’t decrease the number of people using our services, how can we increase the speed at which they use them? And thus Octopus was born, accelerating every transaction from subway and bus rides to alcohol purchases at 7/11 and ham and egg twisty pasta at McDonald’s. The city sped up, and its citizens sped up with it.
Not everyone accedes its efficacy. Ask Lindsay Jang, who grew up working at her family restaurant in western Canada, filled nearly every role for Japanese sensation Nobu in Manhattan, and is now the visionary behind several of Hong Kong’s finest eateries.
Jang: “We succeeded because we prepared in a way that not many restaurants in Hong Kong do. They get swept away by the fast pace and expect foot traffic to bring in customers, but we were a lot more deliberate. Sometimes, in this fast, fast city, you need to slow down to create lasting value.”
In fact, there is less to it than that. Hong Kongers have patience in the taxi driver range. They stumble across a novel venue, poke their head inside, and move along if they’ve not been greeted within a dozen seconds or so. When their next endeavor goes unmet, too, they begin to flutter in and out at even shorter frequencies. In their defense, various pressures concatenate and force them to keep moving, no matter the opportunity cost: vacant tables are not easy to come by, and corralling one in a prime location like next to the pass is not a small task. It is infra dig to cause undue delay to your companions, and here, undue delay arrives in a matter of seconds, not minutes. There’s no stopping them flitting from place to place, eyes wide and lips pursed. I sit and watch, keeper of the keys, observer of the known. I am Hong Kong’s least likely guardian.
ne holiday weekend, I boarded an early commuter train to visit an inflatables factory in the tiny district of Shiwanzhen, part of the Fuzhou region in the city of Shenzhen in southern China. Upon arriving at the nearest station, a monolithic monument worthy of a great many photographs, I was to be picked up by a man named College (I’d later call him Carl). Whatsapping with his colleague, a woman my age strictly maintaining a two-to-one emoji to word ratio, she asked me to describe myself so College/Carl could identify me. I replied, “Big, white.” It was enough.
Carl took me to see his factory, which, to my discernible disappointment, was not operating due to the holiday. Does my frustration that Chinese workers are not toiling away on public holidays go unwarranted? These are moral questions I choose to abstain from. Either way, operating or not, Carl showed me every corner of the factory, marveling himself at the machinery and its creative abilities. I marveled, too, most notably at the speed and skill with which Carl’s accomplice – whose name I dismissed as superfluous after failing to learn it thrice – packaged away several hundred items while Carl and I made sufficiently awkward only-partially-translated small talk.
Over lunch, though, is where Carl’s cohort came to life. He marched into the restaurant like he owned the place – though I’m fairly certain he did not – the waitresses giggling as Big White strode in just behind. Ordering one of nearly everything on the menu, he showed me the back page as his way of offering me a drink. Still brushing up on my Mandarin, I selected what I soon learned to be melted chocolate slowly cooled by a surrounding encasement of ice, all mixed with far too little milk; nonetheless, with my Olympic sweet tooth in high gear, I conquered it happily. Thirty minutes and a dozen words had not elapsed before we had vacated the restaurant and I was being dropped off back at the train sanctuary. Clearly the ‘speed kills’ sentiment so prevalent in Hong Kong has crept north to the mainland as well.
A few days later, at that birthday party at Shek O beach, I had the brilliant idea of climbing some rocks on the far southern piece of the beach to get a better aerial shot of the commotion going on in the water below. The first set of rocks I came to was easy enough; I leaned on my gangly legs more than once, but they brought me to the perfect vantage point, a foothold high enough to acquire the photos I so desired yet not so high as to put me in any substantial danger.
But as my feet and hands descended, my adrenaline only rose. What if, I surmised, I could get to the top of that? That, of course, was a nearby hillock, innocent as any from afar, but a treacherous route from my position at its base. Knowing myself as I do, I was well aware that I had no choice but to begin the ascent; the only thing more difficult to surmount in that moment would’ve been my own ego.
It was never a fair fight. Still, it wasn’t until grasping my attempt as futile and turning ‘round to assemble a plan for descent that I realized the irony in the whole game. Those folks frolicking in the water, the same ones who I intended to capture in film upon my reaching the top, were holding their iPhones to the sky and taking shots galore of Big White stranded partway up a seemingly simplistic climb. I scratched my bare legs more than a few times in my haste to return to ground level.
They only reddened as I rode the bus back to the city, a thousand small pink crosshairs sending such a throbbing warmth through my lower half that I could think of nearly nothing else. It was one of those pains that makes you unsure whether ice will help or hinder, whether an ointment will be a savior or simply a sour ending. So there I stood, people whirling all around me, wondering what I should do next. And in typical Hong Kong fashion, not one of them seemed to so much as notice my distress. I could’ve stopped any one of them to inquire about a pharmacist who would know how to treat my blight. But I didn’t. Instead, I waited for them to pass me by, turned on my heel, and walked out behind them. In a world where our collective velocity increases with every passing day, it’s only getting easier to feel totally and completely alone.
ou get off the ding-ding, close your eyes, and sometimes are able to identify your locale by scent alone. Victoria Park after a long rain oozes everything you know to be clean and fresh. Des Voeux Road West reeks of dried fish, which you later learn to be shark fin. Around Shau Kei Wan steamed dumplings fill the air. Lamma Island does not smell like the tropics. When you open your eyes again, you can tell how long you were out by the number of confused Hong Kongers tossing you sideways glances.
I once spent a large chunk of an afternoon watching a shopkeeper from the relative comfort of an abject set of stairs. With the carcass of a large hog hanging from her makeshift window, she sliced off pieces for a surprisingly consistent stream of buyers. When the flow of traffic finally slowed, thirty minutes or so into my viewing her, she took to organizing some of her marbled slabs. To my dismay, one such slab fell to the ground, right in the spot where a customer had been standing not sixty seconds prior, triggering my small but audible gasp. Unfazed, she picked it up, ran it for half a second under the neighboring shopkeeper’s garden hose, and promptly sold it to the next customer. It is tempting to say that I was the only one to witness the event, and a certainty that I was the only one to bat an eye.
In the frenzy of rush hour, Hong Kong is more like a hurricane than a metropolis. With the rush of people going every which way – left, right, over, under, and seemingly right through you – it’s a shock that the typhoon flags at the Observatory don’t rise every day from eight to ten and again from four to six. Sure, you can escape the crowds here and there – in abandoned alleyways, for example – but you certainly can’t get very far without rubbing elbows with more than a few hurried locals. Such a parade reminded me of a friend I’d met in Singapore, a bottle of energy who claimed he was incapable of becoming dizzy. Calling his bluff, he and I went out to Marina Bay and, from within the silhouette cast by the eponymous hotel’s iconic infinity pool, I watched him spin in ten tight pirouettes before breaking into a lightning-quick 30-yard dash. Needless to say, I was astonished that he had indeed proved his point, so I invited him to Hong Kong the next weekend. Not thirty minutes after arriving in Causeway Bay, he directed us to a vacant park bench and asked with chagrin, “Is this what it feels like?” We all have our moments.
There’s more to decode here than a visitor’s impression of the city. Wherever we are, whether it’s back in our hometown or visiting somewhere new for the very first time, we arrive with a particular set of expectations. We think we know how to interact, how to behave, how to get from A to B. But much of the time, we’re completely and utterly wrong. Our expectations are not only dated, they’re backward. And this fundamental tenet, this dissonance between what we expect and the reality that surrounds us, is the essence of the joy of traveling. There is a time for the old, and there is a time for the new. Have you ever felt the longing for a city you could admire? For somewhere, not to slow down for, but to speed up to?
he southern edge of Kowloon, from Kwun Tong all the way west to Tsuen Wan, has all been built upon reclaimed land. The original Kowloon coastline sat somewhere between 200 and 1,200 meters inland from where it currently resides, but as Hong Kong grew throughout the 20th century, it became obvious that more land space was necessary. Much of the canal separating Kowloon and Hong Kong was filled in with completely decomposed granite and topped with a thin layer of fill material so it could be built upon, and while Victoria Harbour still exists, it’s significantly smaller today than it was even a few decades ago. Today many would say that it serves more as a platform for the daily 8pm laser show than anything else. I digress.
It happens that a great number of ferries traverse that exact stretch of canal with alarming frequency, so I step onto one on a cloud-covered Wednesday afternoon and wait for it to depart. As I do, I take a peek at the tiny display on my camera, a black, stout digital SLR that to an untrained eye looks like all the others, and to a trained eye looks like all the others but performs slightly differently. The past few weeks of my time here, the early mornings and late afternoons spent at Choi Hung Estate, Tsing Yi, Sham Shui Po, Yau Ma Tei, and the Sai Wan Swimming Shed, all flash across the screen in delightful color. I purge a few, those obviously not fit for public display, and resolve to attend to the intricacies of the others later on a larger screen.
Just looking at those photos surfaced an idea I’ve been pondering for a while: how different would our lives be if we weren’t able to capture moments like these whenever we pleased? How would our methods of storytelling change if we couldn’t augment those stories with the vivid, visual descriptions that make so many words unnecessary? Would we lose our ability to effectively paint pictures with words, and if so, would we ever regain it? I’d be lying if I said the prevailing thoughts on my mind were not troubled ones.Yet in that same moment, the boat shook, a fine sea spray crashed upon its bow, and my companion passengers walked toward the exit: without my knowing it, we had crossed the channel and reached the other side. The surprise from such a jolt prompted a similarly startling larger thought: Is this what it’s all about? Here I am, worrying about infinitesimal technological matters, while a fragment of the world passed me by. Is it possible that such absence is proliferating on a much larger timescale – not just minutes, but one of years or even longer? Am I but a pawn in a balancing act between the pace at which a place evolves versus the depth of our experiences within it?
In searching for the answer, I did what I always do to ground myself, whether it’s as I alight the ding-ding in Sai Ying Pun or upon realizing I’ve just been moved without knowing it. I closed my eyes, took a slow, deep breath, and adorned a visible smile. This is Hong Kong, one of the finest places in the world, and I couldn’t be happier to call it home. For now.
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