Britain’s daughter and China’s surrogate child — or maybe it’s the other way around — Hong Kong is a strange island of paradoxes. Seven million people are stacked high and dense here, yet walking through the narrow, winding streets brushing shoulders with strangers, even as I trailed behind my family with my face pressed against a camera, made me feel incredibly isolated in this constantly buzzing city.
Hong Kong revels in displaying its shininess. The city’s tourism board is quick to point out that their skyline is the canvas of the world’s largest permanent light and sound show. Hong Kong is quickly rising as a fashion capital of the world and a metropolis of the new, the expensive and the luxurious. During the day, the general grime associated with any city is apparent, but at night, bright neon lights are a flashy distraction.
Somehow, mom-and-pop shops thrive. Vendors in alleys and atop long staircases that seemingly could never compete against the Louis’ and Alexanders and Michaels of the world are frequented daily by residents looking for the basics. In Hong Kong, sellers seem to either hyperspecialize or offer everything under the sun that they could get their hands on.
Walking down one street filled with kiosks, I found a man who sold exclusively ribbons, a woman who only sold Chinese dominoes for pai gow, an old couple selling second-hand camera parts with a crude “No Camera Photos!” sign hanging in the doorway. One bored owner read a newspaper at his teapot shop, while a tailor next door sat hunched over, away from the street towards her little station, a halo of sewing supplies and fabric surrounding.
Political problems are perpetually deferred here, and I wonder if this great experiment will be in beta forever. Maybe it’s better to keep improving impulsively, relentlessly, than it is to make careful calculations that have permanent consequences and need thorough explanations. Just keep looking at the sprawling pastel skyline against a rich green landscape and don’t ask which is encroaching on the other and which is forcing the other to change.
One day, the sky was an incredible shade of azure. It was unbelievable. Most of the year, Hong Kong is experiencing either torrential downpour or a steady mist that dampens your rain jacket and seeps into your bones. Grey clouds, of course, rolled in after about 30 minutes. But it was nice to see some color bouncing off the reflections of a thousand windows.
The subtropical weather practically year-round means frozen pipes and drafty windows are almost never an issue. The buildings may be falling apart, but most are equipped with rows and rows of air conditioners dangling over the heads of passersby. Plumbing is fastened on the outside, giving the facades a crude, utilitarian look that is unsettling against building walls of pink, lavender and yellow. The city is always dripping on you.
There’s construction everywhere, the cacophony of booming machinery echoing across the city and up the mountains. Scaffolding 10, 20 stories high made entirely of bamboo trembles slightly at the weight of thousands of employees headed to work, the laughter of children being walked home by nannies and the clicking and clacking of a Prada heel or two. Buildings with pretty glass windows with marbled lobbies have dilapidated exteriors from the second floor onward. Escalators hum as they carry wealthy expats down to the station, as maids young and old make the long journey up a never-ending set of stairs.
I first arrived to Hong Kong in a long train that silently passed through the outskirts of the city during the sleepy morning hours of the day. Dark buildings with perfect circle windows loomed in murky gray fog. I left Hong Kong on the same long train, sitting close to passengers playing some smartphone game I’d never seen before, a female announcer’s voice washing over everyone in Cantonese, then Mandarin, then English.
Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ayoonhendricks.