Travels to Hong Kong

Described as the gateway drug to Asia, Hong Kong got under my skin, removing the veil to the East, leaving me wanting more. In five thrilling but emotional days, this city pushed me to my extremes, lost in a daze of jet lag, the days flew by, yet five months later, I still feel its aftershocks pulsating within me.

Out on her dense packed streets where the humidity sizzles off of the sidewalk, I am out of my depth, lost without Google maps, feeling adrift. Just as I feel myself become used to being at sea, I am thrown back to familiarity, hearing English voices and English signs; remnants of Hong Kong’s colonial history.

Hong Kong island
Hong Kong

On a street called Knutsford Terrace, I drunkenly delight in the familiarity, thinking on the town called Knutsford, where I work and where my great uncle on my father’s side resided. It is the after-party of a friend’s wedding, where earlier that evening we dined on eight courses of Michelin star Cantonese cuisine before celebrating their nuptials in a bar, overlooking Hong Kong Island, Victoria Harbour and the Kowloon peninsula. We swigged tequila shots while gazing out over the city, lights stretching out for miles and miles. I am drunk, both on tequila and Hong Kong, unsteady as I walk along the cobbled streets, so akin to Knutsford itself, before stumbling into my Tesla S uber, it’s blue lights dazzle me. This is Hong Kong - East meets West; the ancient colliding with the modern.

As the heat and the noise of the city envelope me, I feel the tension between what I know and understand, and the uncharted, the exotic and the ancient. We walk through Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong’s poorest district, where wriggling fish are butchered live in front of us and tanks full of pythons writhe before meeting their fate as snake bile soup, a traditional delicacy. As a vegan of over four years, I walk the line of being saddened by what I’ve seen while also understanding that this is another culture with different sensibilities when it comes to the lives of animals. I am shaken, unable to make sense of how to respect this beautiful culture while also holding true to my own beliefs and the value I give to all living creatures by respecting their right to life.

Amidst this ferocity, I also witnessed the beauty that lies in the crates of freshly picked dragon fruit. Their pink skin glisten in the sun, their white flesh sweet to taste. Or in the lined face of the tiny grandmother who shuffles past our group before stopping in front of the Taoist temple, presenting her offering at its door. Her eyes are closed as she fervently says her prayers, and I am touched by her devotion. My eyes linger on her as our tour guide talks, and as she shuffles away, her back hunched, I long to follow her.

Sham Shui Po
Fabric shopping in Hong Kong
Fabric shopping in Hong Kong

I search out street vendors selling Chinese silks, their stalls set up away from the maddening crowds, down hidden alleyways. I have never seen so many variations of Chinese silks, golden patterns woven in the most brilliant blues, reds, turquoise and pinks. I touch each one, my fingers glide over the smooth fabric. Exquisite in its intricacy, I imagine the Emperors and Empresses of years gone by who may have adorned themselves in similar fabrics. I leave with several meters, and a smirking shop merchant no doubt delighted with his sale and my pathetic attempts at bargaining.

A 20 minute subway ride later and I’m back in central Kowloon where billboards advertising every western designer imaginable surround me, wealth dripping from the sidewalks. I count five Cartier stores within a five block radius. My senses cannot comprehend the flux of wealth and modernity interplaying with the ancient and the sometimes abject poverty. I am left dazed, perhaps from the heat or the intense jet lag, or on a deeper level, emotionally unnerved by such vast cultural differences.

The view from Lantau Island

The view from Lantau Island

We journey to Lantau Island to see the Tian Tan Buddha, a towering statue calling pilgrims from across the world into the lush mountains some twenty miles outside of Kowloon Island, our home for the last three days. Surveying the landscape from the top of the monument it feels familiar, as if I have seen it in a past life, one of Kung Fu, ancient warriors and fire-breathing dragons. Asia calls to me, speaking into my spirit, waking me up from my Western inertia.

From the Tian Tan Buddha, I make my way down the hundreds of steps to the rich and vibrant Buddhist Po Lin Monastery. As I meander down the ancient buildings, the air is thick with incense and rhythmic chanting, while bells sound in the distance. I am an outsider looking in, appreciating but not fully understanding. It’s as if I am circling the surface, while longing to dive into the depths of what is taking place around me. Only later, as I walk back to the gates of the monastery, do I begin to understand. Sitting on a bench underneath the trees, hiding from the stifling heat, I watch dozens of people walk to the shrines and light their incense in an offering. I am moved by their open outpouring and devotion, so far removed from any expressions of faith that I had experienced growing up. Their dutifulness and worship was beautiful in its purity, while leaving me milling over my own struggles with my faith and spirituality.

Po Lin monastery
Po Lin Monastery

Po Lin Monastery

On the second to last day of our whistle stop tour of Hong Kong, that I begin to piece together what it is that the city has been trying to show me, and it is only now, five months later, that I am able to write about it. I come back to Sham Shui Po, this time on a guided tour of the area, where our large, pony-tailed American tour guide shares more about the history of Hong Kong and why this area has more pawn shops on its streets than anywhere else. He explains that the Cultural Revolution of China in the 1960’s saw thousands of Chinese citizens flee mainland China and escape to Hong Kong, often with nothing more than a backpack of clothing and little else. Hong Kong represented hope and an escape from the brutality of violence of the Maoist regime, so violent that the bodies of Chinese citizens would often wash up in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. The streets of Shenzhen, a city in mainland China that borders Hong Kong, literally awash with bloodshed. These refugees would trade all they had in the pawn shops of Sham Shui Po for the opportunity to begin again.

Architecture in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
Architecture in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong

It’s in this understanding of the desperation and hope of thousands of refugees, that I see myself. All of the suffering that I had endured in the previous year, and the gamble I made to leave my home with next to nothing, all for the chance to begin my life again and to make something better for myself. I understand how very little separates myself from those Chinese refugees, how both our suffering and our capacity for hope brings us together, even now, fifty-five years later. I see how the journeys we take and the choices we make in a bid for freedom are part of a universal story of humanity, one that plays out over and over, across time and distance. Despite Hong Kong feeling so foreign to me initially, I have come to understand the common humanity that connects us all, across nationality, language and even time, and how I am more connected to this part of the world than I ever realised.

Hong Kong, or perhaps Asia, disrupted my understanding of myself and the Western life I have grown up with, while simultaneously waking me up to myself in a way that I had never experienced before. A beautiful, albeit chaotic disruption. I am less myself than I was before I visited her shores, yet more myself than ever before.

TravelSarah BothaComment