Eighteen Days in Hong Kong
I don’t recall the last time I saw the waters of Victoria Harbour gleaming in such a radiant blue-green hue. The summery conditions and flawless blue skies are wholly unexpected on this late October morning. Several days into my first trip back to Hong Kong after almost three years of Covid-induced separation from my parents and extended family, I’ve boarded a ferry to eastern Kowloon for an 8:15 appointment to renew my local ID card. I’m more than a little envious of the dozen or so other passengers on the ship – no commute in traffic-clogged Jakarta is as scenic and relaxing as this. With another few hours to go before a midday PCR test, it made perfect sense to turn these errands into a fun excursion.
The formalities for replacing my ID take less than 20 minutes, and before I know it, the same vessel has brought me back across the water to Hong Kong Island’s North Point neighborhood. A leafy, recently opened harborside park is filled with retirees socializing or reading newspapers in glass-roofed pergolas. Some set up fishing lines on the water’s edge; I do a double take at a long brown eel writhing on the ground next to a small blue pail. Farther down the promenade, a group of housewives four rows deep practice a dance routine, their movements delightfully out of sync.
And what about breakfast? While waiting to cross the street, the irresistible aroma of freshly baked bread wafts into my nostrils. That mouth-watering scent comes from a place just two doors away – an illuminated sign over the entrance reads FRESHDAY BAKERY in bold. Its shelves are filled with childhood favorites like pineapple buns (erroneously named because they don’t actually contain any traces of the fruit), Some even have a thick slice of slowly melting butter wedged into a cut down the middle. A butter-stuffed pineapple bun makes it onto my tray, alongside an open-faced sausage and cheese bun and a mini chicken pie with a flaky pastry crust. All three are still warm when I eat them on a shaded bench some 10 minutes later at another new waterfront park, built around the ventilation shaft of an underwater bypass that wasn’t there when I left for Indonesia in 2016.
My wanderings lead me past Ngo Wong Temple on a small plot of land shaded by two majestic banyan trees – an oasis of calm amid the traffic and high-rise buildings. Later I learn that the unassuming structure is the only temple in town dedicated to the deified Song Dynasty general Yue Fei. Just up the road, I tour the grounds at Oil Street Art Space, which operates out of a century-old former clubhouse of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. I’m impressed by its sympathetic new extension and adjacent courtyard with contemporary art installations. On a raised deck beneath a pedestrian bridge, a few wood-and-canvas beach chairs beckon visitors to sit back and watch surreal videos on a giant screen angled in two directions.
But my time in Hong Kong isn’t really a holiday: much of it is spent working remotely while running errands, doing household chores, and helping out with dog care. Most mornings are spent taking Tasha, our feisty 10-year-old Labrador retriever, on long walks; there are also dental appointments, medical check-ups, and the aforementioned PCR tests. Some days revolve around family meals and visits to my nonagenarian grandma, who is now far less mobile and energetic than she was before the pandemic. I also catch up with my newly married younger cousin and meet his wife for the very first time. At grandma’s place I sit through an uncomfortable (and deeply ironic) on-the-spot interrogation from an unmarried uncle. “Do you have a girlfriend yet? S has already tied the knot. When will it be your turn?”
Just before a late-season typhoon skirts the city, Second Aunt and cousin E offer to take me way out into the New Territories for lunch at a popular lakeside dim sum restaurant in a semi-rural residential area. A light drizzle patters against the windows as snow-white egrets stand on the opposite shore. Every now and again a modern commuter train glides down the grassy railway embankment across the lake. “Doesn’t this look like something out of Totoro?” Second Aunt muses.
Each time I return to Hong Kong, I’m reminded of how much I still have yet to see. My father and I manage to fit in a weekend day trip to the sparsely populated island of Tung Lung Chau for a bit of hiking, and the nature of my work allows me to explore new attractions like the reinvented 1930s Bauhaus-style Central Market. Inside, a few preserved stalls show how ordinary residents back then might have procured their rice or fresh fruit and vegetables, but the rest of the building houses pint-sized wine bars, coffee shops, patisseries, and other upmarket venues. On the first floor, a once-dead passageway cutting through the building to the Mid-Levels Escalator now hums with activity: there’s a grocery store with a small-scale hydroponic farm, a florist’s, and stalls selling pastries, drinks, and beef brisket noodles to go. Of course, not everyone is happy about the transformation – Central Market 2.0 is primarily geared toward expats and finance types who can easily afford premium foodstuffs from Italy and plates of overpriced tapas.
618 Shanghai Street, a not-for-profit mall across the harbor in Kowloon’s Mong Kok neighborhood, is another heritage revamp but with a lot more soul; it has breathed new life into the largest remaining cluster of pre-World War II shophouses (tong lau) in the city. Realizing there was no way to keep the entirety of these deteriorating tong lau while fulfilling the latest building codes, the architects decided to preserve the street frontage and rebuild everything behind the façades and verandas at a similar scale, creating a stark yet beautiful contrast between old and new.
The mall also offers a glimpse into the local youth culture and the creativity of Hong Kong entrepreneurs. Japanese teahouse–inspired Douguya is the place to pick up small antiques and home accessories, and at social enterprise Restore, there’s a grab-bag of quirky souvenirs like handmade mahjong tiles, postcard prints of the city’s old-school trams, and tote bags adorned with a painted pineapple bun. One floor has a wood-paneled shop dedicated to vintage American apparel and a funky Japanese-style thrift store filled to the brim with random knickknacks. A lip-smacking bento lunch of grilled eel and onsen egg with tea-soaked rice awaits at the cozy rooftop café Poach, where the terrace is decked out in Halloween colors at the time of my visit.
On the Kowloon waterfront, I indulge in the simple pleasure of a soft-serve ice cream by the sea as the late afternoon light bathes the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island in a warm glow. The five-minute crossing on the Star Ferry is as romantic as it ever was. That evening, at the city’s oldest Ukrainian restaurant, I meet a former mentor who arrived here in the early ’90s while halfway through a round-the-world trip. We inevitably broach the topic of my hometown’s gradually changing character as its political environment more closely aligns with that of Mainland China. An ongoing crackdown on dissent has yielded more self-censorship, growing interference in the courts, and a new emphasis on performative patriotism in schools. “I don’t think I’m prepared to leave just yet. There are still a lot of reasons to love Hong Kong,” my ex-mentor says matter-of-factly. “That’s if you are willing to live with and adapt to all these changes. I know some people who have managed to thrive on the Mainland.”
He laments that the social scene at his local neighborhood café, once popular with like-minded expats, has hollowed out. Fed up with the uncertainty of ongoing pandemic restrictions, longtime residents have simply packed their belongings and moved abroad. Days later, an old friend who co-owns a pair of stores in two of Hong Kong’s busiest shopping districts also weighs in on the broader exodus. “Don’t you feel there are less people [in the streets]? We just lost our marketing person – she’s emigrated with her whole family.” More than 140,000 working-age Hongkongers have voted with their feet in the two years since Beijing imposed its vaguely-worded National Security Law (which, by the way, applies not just to those in Hong Kong but to all 8 billion people on this planet).
And yet, over the barely-concealed discontent, there is a veneer of normality. Wealthy expat investment bankers in their suits congregate at Liberty, the indoor-outdoor bar right outside the stock exchange, for happy hour drinks. I join a Halloween barbecue organized by a high school friend, and since there will be multiple families with small children at the event, we must all do rapid antigen tests and share our negative results via WhatsApp. (No matter how many times I self-test with an RAT kit, I will never get used to the sting of a nasal swab.)
Hong Kong has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first places to enter the pandemic and one of the last to get out of it, thanks in large part to the ad-hoc, unscientific approach taken by the local government. Which international visitor in their right mind would want to run the risk of spending seven days in Covid isolation at a quarantine camp? Even now, as China hurriedly abandons its zero-Covid policy, Hong Kong officials have not put forward a clear roadmap to end all restrictions – including pre-departure and on-arrival tests – and fully reconnect with the wider world.
The halls of tourist-centric Western Market are deathly quiet when I arrive at the 80M Bus Model Shop. Bama has asked me to buy a Star Ferry miniature to add to his collection of transport-themed souvenirs from his global travels. The shopkeeper seems brusque at first (not unexpected in hurried Hong Kong) but softens up immediately when I make an offhand comment about the lack of visitors these days. “It’s not that there are very few,” she tells me. “Actually, there have been none.”
“Not even from the Mainland?”
The silver-haired proprietor shakes her head and sighs. “But we Hong Kong people have been doing our best to support each other. If there’s no rice to eat, we can just have bread. At least we’ll survive. There is nothing we can’t endure and we will pull through – a rainbow will come after the rainstorm.”
I understand now, what the Portuguese mean when they talk about saudade. That deep, melancholic longing for someone or something absent, memories of an earlier time now lost forever. I feel saudade for the freewheeling spirit of the Hong Kong I lived in as a young adult, a place where, not so long ago, hundreds of thousands could march peacefully in the streets to defend their way of life. Where it was once possible to openly commemorate events in recent Chinese history that are simply not mentioned just across the border.
I feel saudade for my carefree Hong Kong childhood, filled with weekend excursions when Dad would take us to the Peak or on car ferries across the harbor for trips into Kowloon and the New Territories. Other times Mom brought the family along on hikes with dear friends, one of whom was arrested in December 2021 simply because he served as the science editor of a popular (and now defunct) pro-democracy news outlet. He was released on bail, but dozens of prominent opposition figures and local activists are still behind bars. Some will likely stay in prison for the rest of their lives.
I feel saudade for my late granddad, an inveterate foodie with an open mind, ever-cheerful disposition, and generous heart. Quarantine and travel restrictions meant I could not be by his side when he passed away the previous October; his body had gradually given up after spending a year bedridden in hospital from a stroke. A visit to Hong Kong doesn’t feel quite the same without sharing a dim sum feast or sushi lunch with him and the rest of the grandkids.
The Cantonese term for being nostalgic is waai gau, which literally means “to cherish the past.” Amid Beijing’s ongoing efforts to mold the territory in the image of Mainland China, Hongkongers young and old are increasingly protective of the things that remain of their East-meets-West culture and collective identity. A social media–fueled outcry stopped the demolition of Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir, a recently rediscovered cistern dating back to 1904. Its rows of brick archways on sturdy columns hewn from local granite have drawn comparisons to Istanbul’s famed Basilica Cistern (albeit on a smaller scale), no doubt because the design was inspired by the civil engineering works of ancient Rome.
Hongkongers mourned the recent closure of the legendary Lin Heung Tea House, a beloved institution known for its traditional dim sum and famously surly staff. The city’s iconic neon signs, such a celebrated part of its visual culture, are gradually disappearing too – many of the larger, best-known examples have become casualties of government regulations that deem them hazardous, even when they have withstood decades of sun and rain and weathered countless typhoon seasons.
One Sunday, I arrive in Mong Kok just before sundown to shoot a classic Hong Kong scene from a long pedestrian footbridge where groups of Indonesian and Filipina domestic workers picnic on their weekly day off. The timing is perfect. It’s blue hour when I come across two oversized neon and LED signs above a mahjong parlor, lines of minibuses parked on the street below, flanked by ’60s or ’70s tenement buildings. On the next block there are yet more signboards advertising a store selling traditional vinegars and sauces, and one for a pawn shop – its distinctive shape depicts an upside-down bat holding a coin, symbolizing the arrival of good fortune. The sight is bittersweet. I don’t know how long these particular signboards will last, and if they will exist only in photographs the next time I come back.
For me, no visit to Hong Kong is complete without a meal of “soy sauce Western,” the fusion-y comfort food served at innumerable Hong Kong neighborhood diners. Fourth Aunt is keen to treat me to dinner on my final night in town, so she books a table for four at the Causeway Bay branch of Tai Ping Koon, the second-oldest of the restaurant’s four outlets. A beautiful vintage neon sign hangs proudly over the door.
This spot has been around since 1970, and the old-school interiors certainly look the part. Dad, Fourth Aunt, and my uncle are surprised to see glass bottles of Green Spot, an orange-based soda that was ubiquitous during their younger days, lined up on the higher shelves near the bar. We share generously proportioned beef tongue in salmis sauce; Macanese baked Portuguese chicken rice drenched in creamy, turmeric-infused coconut milk; moreish stir-fried beef hor fun; and a dish purportedly invented at Tai Ping Koon: “Swiss chicken wings” in a sticky-sweet soy sauce. The story goes that a Western patron decades ago remarked to a nearby waiter that his plate of wings was “Sweet! Sweet!” The listener, who barely spoke English, misheard it as “Swiss,” and the name stuck.
Then comes the biggest soufflé I’ve ever seen, served in a casserole dish and large enough to share between four. Our server tells us the soufflé-maker, now over 70, has been working in the kitchen at Tai Ping Koon since his 20s; he still uses the original recipe. An expected low-key tussle over the bill does not ensue because my observant aunt hands the waiter her credit card when Dad is distracted. Outside on the pavement, she leans in for a tight hug; her eyes are smiling above her mask. “Next time,” Fourth Aunt says, “bring Bama along with you.” With that, we go our separate ways into the neon-tinged night. ◊