Thursday, 23 April 2009

Probably too good to be true

Our arrival in Hong Kong is seamless. Lounging across the barrier at the arrivals hall is Jaz, an acquaintance of Dig's. This is the first time I've met him, although I've heard about him often.

Jaz is a teenage spirit spilling out the body of a middle aged man, and he suits Hong Kong perfectly. For years he's shuttled between the dark nights of Scandinavia and the bright lights of Hong Kong. Now he's thinking about finally taking the plunge and making that commitment, buying a flat in a prime location on Hong Kong island, taking those vows and staying put because, he adds, behind the glamour, Hong Kong is a filthy mess, and for that, he loves her. I wouldn't trust him. He may back out of the deal.

Jaz greets us warmly, jovially, hugely, with a wry smile, loose limbs and suit, and the minute we put a foot wrong, he'll probably take advantage of us, smiling, and let us know it at the same time. We may hand over several hundred dollars in order to be taken advantage of all over again. He looks at Shark, Squirrel and Tiger and mixes them up, deliberately. He forgets their names, captures their attention by shouting out 'hey team!' and casually offers himself at their disposal as the arbiter for dispute when they see their bedrooms. As he teases them, he charms them, referring to himself as 'that horrible man'. Girls, never trust a lounge lizard. One day you might thank me for that advice as you hang off his words and give up those shy smiles.

Jaz leads us to a smart blue people carrier parked close at the airport and we're helped aboard with bags and kids. Then we start on the journey to the island where we are to stay in a residency block with sweeping views over the harbours heading towards Kowloon.

From the airport I can look at this landscape for the first time in nearly twenty years. There is a new town development close by. Large skyscraping towers rise up, like striding giants flicking a casual fuck you as they pace a steady beating path by the base of a soaring mountain. The road around them curves a broad concrete smile; as we drive, yet more structures sprawl only up and up. We are in the world's most vertical city, where the only reason to come down is so you can go up again.

The territory of Hong Kong, one of the world's greatest ports, is made up of several islands, although you would never think so. We stride the sea distance between them effortlessly by road and bridge. Sweeping into the denser networks of roads alongside vast docks we can see why Hong Kong is one huge product hub. Those items you're using at the breakfast table this morning? We saw them loaded. Millions of them in thousands upon thousands of metal containers, reaching you by sea and road.

The meeting of road and water is part of Hong Kong, but it's made up of the daily work of thousands of people too: we quickly turn into a wide street churning with pedestrians, trams, taxis, noise, lights, and then into a smaller road with bars, shops, folks sitting out on narrow streets on barrels, then again a turn and we find ourselves crossing tram lines and back along the waterside. Suddenly it's a stop and we're out, staring up at the sixty floors that we'll call home for the next week.

The resident block is shining with smoked glass, gold effect mirrorwork, marble style floors. Jazz leads us to the lifts. We have to take the slow lift and not the express lift. The slow lift serves floors to 35; the express lift doesn't stop until floor 36, whooshing past the lower floors because there isn't time to stop. There's no floor 4, 14, 24, anything four. It's bad luck, because in Cantonese the sound of four sounds like death. Three is lucky, is life, and this sound saam is the first word I learn, rippling behind us approvingly from desk staff and doormen.

From the lift, key cards, security codes, more doors. Privacy is hard to come back in this densely packed city of millions of people, but when you have it, keycode it.

The flat is surprisingly spacious and beautiful. Huge picture windows show a panoramic view of Victoria harbour. A fight breaks out immediately between Squirrel, Shark and Tiger when they see their rooms. Far below we can see the harbour sweeping away into the pollution smog and mists over the South China Sea. Skimming over the waters are ferries, tugs, catamarans, loading platforms, fishing boats, a sailing ship, a pirate ship lost from the wrong century. An enormous sea going cruise ship sits motionless while all the water traffic skims and crosses. The churning water behind each vessel leaves long trails of white streaks, like the vapour trail from aeroplanes. The argument over the bedrooms goes on. Jaz laughs and makes it worse by suggesting ever more complex solutions, sometimes requiring staff and men with lorries. Even the children laugh. In the harbour, vessels skim past one another, and by right those ships should have crashed, and everyone on board fallen and lost at sea.

After another twenty minutes I interrupt Jaz's negotiations and broker a fragile peace, at the discreet cost of a packet of chocolate biscuits solely for the girl brave enough to stay in the worst room, perversely with the finest view. But Jaz hasn't finished with us yet. He's taking us out onto the streets to find the supermarkets, and on to the restaurant, where the children can experience their first genuine Cantonese meal, learn to use chopsticks, and discover that fish swimming about in tanks outside do not signal pet shop.

Outside the sky is grey and the air a heavy mix of humidity and pollution. Jaz laughs when I ask him if Hong Kong has blue skies. Three times a year he roars. But mostly it's this. Through the distant mists I can make out lumpen shapes of mountains, but I can't see them clearly. As we walk along the narrow streets, pulsing with colourful shops signs, people moving in and out of bars and shops, brilliant reflections from shining windows, Jaz points out the hanging wires, battered air con units hanging from walls, the sharp twist into a dark cut where no one would accidentally turn. Some of these streets skim round the backs of shops and restaurants; figures emerge carrying bags. They might contain refuse, or they might not. I can see why he feels he might need to stay.

I worry about dinner, but I don't say anything. Years ago I felt Hong Kong was one of the worst places a fussy western vegetarian could eat. I ate McDonald's chips and vowed never to eat a turtle, as if a vow was necessary.

I shouldn't have worried. Jaz introduces us to a Cantonese colleague, who says the children can eat what they like, because she'll sort it. She sits the waiter down at the table with us, and together they make up dishes the vegetarians can eat. Tofu, in moderation, pak choi with garlic, fungi, which is nothing like mushroom, something we are told is sliced lily root, carrots carved into delicate shapes, and cabbage, lots of it, lightly braised. And if all else fails, there is rice. Nothing fails. It is delicious. For now, I am converted. The sweet green bean soup for desert will do us all good assures Jaz. It is an excellent digestif, assures good balance in our spirits, and promotes restful sleep. On that he is right. We fall asleep with the millions of lights shining from tower blocks around us and the harbour still buzzing below. And for today, I am regretting that we stay only for one week.


The Gossamer Woman said...

Wow, what a beautiful description of your first day in Hong Kong. You have such talent to tell the tale right and your description of the food was marvelous. I could almost taste it. Looking forward to the rest.

lotusbirther said...

Glad it is you there Grit to tell those of us stuck at home all about HK today. I am impressed that you are able to remain so coherent, thanks!

sharon said...

Wow! Almost with you there.

Jax said...

with the others on the descriptions, it sounds fantastic.

Rubberbacon said...

Grit you did great! I never doubted your descriptions of Hong Kong would be brilliant. Love the comment about the fish tanks! Laughed a little too hard at the blue sky question - my my it has been awhile since you were in HK!!! I know for the last 9 years I've been going it's been stone gray and coming from S. Florida where it's sunny 360 days out of the year you can imagine my shock.

Paradise Lost In Translation said...

What a great description of Hong Kong! Jaz sounds great fun, just the sort of person to whisk you confidently around.

Brad said...

I really like your very atmospheric writing. It's almost like being there.