Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Living in the past

Today, the Hong Kong Museum of History.

I love it, even before I get though the doors. I say to the children, If you would prefer, we can spend the afternoon at the Science Museum. I will take you to see Doctor Death and his safety data sheet. Remember? He orchestrates all the singing chemicals. Brother Corrosive, Aunty Acid. That sort of thing. You can learn about different ways to experience mutilation on building sites in Hong Kong, and then find out how an escalator works. Or, and here is your other choice, you can spend the afternoon with me at the Museum of History. I will buy cake on the way, give you spending money, show you where the gift shop is, and you can do what you like once we're inside, because this time I'm having the audio tour clamped to my head. No pressure either way. It's totally your choice.

As luck would have it, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger made the right decision. The museum was quiet and spacious and crowd free. The children went on ahead. They can direct and control their own histories. Left to my own devices, I got to play all afternoon with my geological time blocks. Then I chose some new neolithic buddies - the ones found on Lamma Island - and I added more play pals to my gang from the Shang to the Q'ing. I had tea-time around the Opium Wars before spinning forward into the twentieth century. There's a street in the Museum of History, and when I'm grown up, I'm going back to live there. I can spend all afternoon between the strange curiosities of the herbal medicine shop and the familiar smells of the tea shop. And I like staring at the ancient Singer sewing machine on display at the tailors, thinking, we've got one of those at home. Wait till I tell my mum.

By five o'clock, Shark has found me in my hiding place round by the Japanese Occupation and she's tugging at my sleeve and reminding me about going home and eating more sticky buns like I promised.

I have to crunch the gear changes in my head to bring myself back to responsibility again. I have to give up the narrator who's happily wandered in and out my head all afternoon from the audio headset, and I'm given control of things and moments when bags and water bottles are thrust at me. Then I must be in charge of people when demands are made of me to show everyone where the toilets are, and explain how the taps work. Worse, I have to change my whole step and speed and focus when I leave one of my most favourite museums to enter the teeming Hong Kong street. From here, I have to navigate three other bodies back to the Star Ferry. It's also my job, apparently, not to lose anyone on the way.

Hong Kong, Kowloon side - one of the most densely populated and busiest commercial areas in the world - is thronging. I'd call it rush hour, but it's difficult to find an hour when the streets aren't pulsing with people. They are lifeblood to the city; they bring it alive. And there are thousands of us on the streets at any one time, this, our here and now.

I lose the children the moment we join the people flow. Or, rather, I set off travelling down the street and hope my children are following close behind. Sometimes I quickly glance behind me and check; often I cannot. This is one reason why London in their early years remained out of bounds: I have two hands and three children. We had to wait for the point where they no longer needed to walk side by side, and didn't reach out for a hand to hold.

Now, in Hong Kong, they are older, and I trust them not to demand their own pace, but to fit the crowd and follow. There are safe moments when I can turn to check my foot passengers; mostly when we all slow our pace uniformly to a shuffle. Not otherwise. I daren't, in full people flow, try any sudden stop, backward turn, or overtaking manoeuvre with fancy side-stepping footwork. I would cause street wide mayhem. People travelling towards me could not predict my sudden change of sideways direction; those at the side of me would startle with my sudden change of speed. We would all crash in a heap. Then let me see how far my Cantonese for sorry sorry sorry takes me with several thousand crumpled bodies.

I suspect this is the Hong Kong that drives Tiger mad. You have to fit in. You have to travel this length as everyone else does. Step foot on these streets and you simply have an unspoken obligation to the rest of the seven million people sharing this communal space. That is, do not overtake each other. Move politely in a socially minded citizen manner at all times and you will arrive safely at your destination.

This can be awkward. I can find myself walking step by step, in time for a whole street's length, together with a young Asian girl who is more beautiful, taller and elegant than me. By far. In England if we were moving on the street squeezed tightly this close, someone would imagine I was trying to be her boyfriend. Here, she won't be intolerant, tut, bat an eyelid, nor flick her head to stare at you suspiciously. Neither will the other several thousand people moving slowly with and around you. They're walking ridiculously close to you, too. We are all just people moving, and we all move like this, shoulder to shoulder, step in time. It's the only way to walk.

Thanks to the enormous tolerance despite our diversity, we make our final destination maybe an hour later. The timings all worked and the travel went smoothly. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger tell Dig over dinner what bits of Hong Kong history we learned today and how the gift shop is too expensive, although the pandas are reasonable.

I can say, well, today I saw the future. One day, we'll all be so crowded together on this planet, you'll navigate like me. Not by stars, but by neon signs. I shout backwards to my fellow street travellers, Turn right by the pink Wah Cheung! Cross the road by French Connection! Turn left by the red Wing Fook! Stop at Loo's Fat Eats! I can tell you now, it seems to work. My tribe make it across Kowloon like that. My tribe, me, and thousands upon thousands of others, all moved in time, but no-one else listened, and if they did, they didn't show, because I didn't pick up anyone else along the way.


sharon said...

How brave of you all. I find crowded streets absolutely horrifying. I used to loathe working and travelling in London back in my childless days. After children although we were quite frequent travellers to the City we always went outside of claustrophobia time.

Gweipo said...

Macau's history museum is also GREAT, with a lovely "street" and all the street sounds.

Grit said...

it's a necessity sharon; i don't think there is a quiet time on hk sreets! but during the day, and apart from wednesday afternoons when it's free, the museums are quiet. the only groups then are the crocodiles of school parties who walk through and they're come and gone in ten minutes.

hi gweipo. thank you for this! we will have to make the trek to macau, and your recommendation now gives me a proper reason to go!