Life in Neon, Hong Kong
Above the crowds of Causeway Bay, the late afternoon sunlight floods onto oversized billboards and stacks of grimy air conditioner units. The traffic light is ticking red as a mass of pedestrians swarm noiselessly across the intersection.
I am on the top deck of an old electric tram, taking the slow route across the northern shore of Hong Kong Island. Affectionately known as “ding ding”, these lovable, gentle beasts have been plying the streets for more than a century.
With nothing else to do, I sit comfortably in my seat, observing and listening to my fellow passengers. The two women behind me are speaking a soft, soothing form of Mandarin. Just up ahead a local girl, dolled up in blue eye shadow and a floral patterned dress, chatters with an excitable young German. He leans his head out the window, almost recklessly.
We glide past I. M. Pei’s irreverent Bank of China Tower and into the colonial realm of Statue Square. On one side the old Legislative Council building sits in sombre granite, pediment still adorned with the Lion and the Unicorn. Across the paving stones the first in a trail of designer superstores – Armani, Bulgari, Prada and Louis Vuitton, where the moneyed elite and wealthy mainland visitors drop thousands each day.
The tram rumbles beneath a pedestrian walkway and slows to a halt. I am heading for the undefined boundary between Central and Sheung Wan, a district that smells more of dried seafood, Chinese medicine and the occasional whiff of incense.
Side-stepping to avoid the pools dotting the worn concrete, I weave my way through a maze of fresh produce, scented flowers, Styrofoam boxes, and further up the hill, dried noodles and neat rows of fish, all of it protected under makeshift canopies in green and stripy flashes of blue and red. It’s gritty, grimy and just a touch chaotic, but it’s the real Hong Kong.
On Gage Street it takes me a moment to recognise my surroundings. A row of shop fronts have already disappeared, sheathed behind a curtain of bamboo scaffolding. Plans have been approved to demolish three entire city blocks, making way for a hotel, a high-rise office building and two residential towers. The street market, ironically, will be replaced with a sterilised version of its former self.
I can see the future from where I am standing. Just down the slope a warren of narrow streets have been totally obliterated, bulldozed for a glossy cathedral to commerce that also serves as Hong Kong’s fifth-tallest skyscraper. Like a spaceship it hovers silently over bubbling fountains and stands of imitation bamboo.
When night falls I return to the tram line running along Des Voeux Road. A steady stream of double-deckers thunder past, rolling beside pavements now emptying of weekend shoppers. Life is stressful, tiring and often unforgiving in Hong Kong, but in spite of all the city’s flaws, it’s still home.