I hadn’t been back to Hong Kong in seventeen years.
When I left I was a skinny, comic-book collecting, fourteen year old boy, and it was after living in the fabulous city for two years. Now I was back for a two day business trip.
Hong Kong was the last stop in our family’s world tour. When I was growing up we moved every three years thanks to my father’s job at IBM. Completely uprooting and then transplanting to an entirely new city (often in an entirely different country) became more and more difficult as I got older, and I still remember the resentment and the tears I shed having to leave my best friends. There’s something about living expat life that condenses or concentrates all your life experiences and seems to make them that much stronger. I still remember my friends from that time: Freddie Fiddler, Derek Chan, Kevin Fox, Alex Bennett (who later moved to a town right next to Princeton).
I remembered a lot about how much I loved living in Hong Kong.
But I was worried about how different it would be. I left in 1990. How much would the transition, seven years later, from British to Chinese rule have changed the place. How much would still be there from what I remembered, and how well would I remember it?
Somehow, the idea of passing by places that I had had intimate connection with and not recognizing them, walking blithely past the places that were so important to me at the time and not paying them their due respect, seemed like a terrible sacrilege, all the more shameful for being ignorant of committing it.
When I flew into Hong Kong it was to an entirely different airport than the one I flew out of. For some strange reason I remember the fact that the old one had painted beige concrete walls, looked old-fashioned at the time, and had black rubber flooring with raised circular dimples that seemed intriguing at the time. Funny the things that you remember. The new Hong Kong International Airport is a fantastic display of modern, angular, white architectural triumph in marrying an airport and a shopping mall and coating them all with marble and glass. It’s also better air conditioned than the old one.
I had two days in the city. One full day was taken up with the workshop I was doing with my colleague Ute. The meeting took place in a hotel in a remote area of Hong Kong called the “Gold Coast,” about twenty miles away from the city. To get from the island with the airport to the mainland I took a bus that went across two newly constructed giant suspension bridges. After the airport, they were my second indication that I was not in the place that I remembered but in a new place which I could claim little familiarity with.
Nearly thirty Asian colleagues from Japan, Hong Kong, Beijing, Seoul, Taiwan, and Kuala Lumpur listened politely to us for an entire day. Then they took us to dinner near the hotel. There was no chance to get into the city the first night.
The next day I told my colleagues I would be coming to the office in the afternoon, I needed to do some errands in the morning. Perhaps it was suspiciously lax work ethic to my notoriously hard working Asian colleagues, but I didn’t care. I was going home.
The next morning I took a taxi to get from the hotel (which was on the mainland) to Hong Kong island. The taxi was green, and the driver didn’t speak English, and didn’t know where I wanted to go. He took me to a “downtown”-ish area and started pointing and talking in Cantonese. After a while I understood that he couldn’t take me to Hong Kong Island, I had to get into one of the red taxis. The red taxis were licensed to drive to Kowloon (the part of the mainland directly across from the island), and to Hong Kong Island. Apparently, the green ones were not. The driver of the red taxi spoke very good English and knew exactly where I wanted to go when I instructed him: “Number 8, Old Peak Road.”
The ride was long. Almost an hour. I kept looking to see if any of it was familiar, but I don’t think I ever drove from the Gold Coast to Kowloon when I lived there. But certain things struck me as familiar.
The big blue road signs in Chinese and English, done in the style and font of the British road system. A poignant reminder of the city’s history and debt to British infrastructure, which criss-crossed the mountainous landscape with narrow, windy highways that often had to be blasted through the rock.
The feeling of being in a strange sort of jungle. Tall trees everywhere, and everywhere the color green. Hong Kong is subtropical. Hot and humid most of the year, unbearably so in the summer (although it was relatively cool for the time of year).
The humidity. As soon as you step out of the air conditioned buildings you begin to sweat. Move any amount, for any distance, and you start sweating. Women walk around carrying umbrellas, not for the chance of rain, but to block the sun and afford a modicum of relief from the heat.
The buildings. Every one of them at least thirty or forty stories high. The entire city is covered in them. As we approached Kowloon they became more densely packed together, like strange, gigantic concrete blades of grass that have taken root along the side of a mountain.
That’s what Hong Kong is, a series of mountains sticking straight out of the ocean. There is hardly any flat land. The inhabitants deal with this by simply defying geography, cutting their windy roads into the landscape, and building their massive skyscrapers further and further up the slope from the small shelf of flat land just before the water.
Everyone lives in a building in Hong Kong, there are no houses. Perhaps a few, up on the slopes of the mountain, for the super-affluent, but there are probably fewer than a few hundred of these in a city of seven million. Everyone lives in apartments, the only difference is how nice your building is and where your building is located.
The main “downtown” area of Hong Kong is called Central. It’s on the island, just across the bay from the mainland, and it houses the tallest and richest of the buildings. When I was there the headquarters of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank was the most interesting and tallest building. But even when I was there they were working on the Bank of China building, which was about twenty percent taller. Now they have a 100+ floor monster spire called the International Finance Center, built right on the water, not 100 meters from the Star Ferry, which steals the skyline.
I lived in an area directly above Central called Mid-Levels. It’s just a collection of luxury apartment buildings, all squished together about two kiometers away and one kilometer higher than the downtown area. I remember I used to run down to Central from my apartment in about ten minutes, because I could take the pedestrian paths straight down, while the cars had to wind themselves around switchbacks to get down. I always got sweaty and out of breath doing that, but what did I care. My main concerns were comic books and video games.
It’s when the taxi started taking the windy road up the side of the mountain that it all started to look familiar. From ground level, even the areas that I used to frequent, like Wan Chai and Central, looked different. But the roads are the same. I asked the driver what the name of the road was. “Garden Road,” he said. When he said it, I remembered it. As we came up the final curve I pointed and said, “This is my old building. Well, this is the back entrance to it.” The driver nodded politely. “It’s left up here, right?”. The driver nodded and turned left onto Old Peak Road.
Let me try and describe this road for you. Stand on a mountain covered with jungle like trees, point yourself straight up the forty degree incline, cover the earth with pavement, and drive straight up in a four-cylinder Japanese made taxi. Actually, it doesn’t matter what kind of car you have, they all strain in first gear to get up Old Peak Road.
I remembered when the bus dropped me off, at the bottom and it was raining. The rain raced down in streams from the top of the mountain, gathered in the gutter of Old Peak Road, and flowed down with a force so strong that we used to stick our feet in it just to feel them get pushed down the hill like a giant’s hand had thrown them. When the rains were strong the water could not be contained by the gutter and our feet would get soaked on the pavement and we would have to be very careful not to slip because if you did, you might go a long way, scraping yourself on the tarmac, before you stopped at the bottom.
The taxi drove up and the driver counted out the street numbers. “Numbah too, numbah foah, six.. next one?”
“Yes, left right past that tree.” I remembered. The tree actually took up the entire sidewalk and we would have to walk in the street for a second to get around it.
A uniformed guard came out to meet me from the security office in the lobby. Some things never change I guess. I explained to them that I used to live there, on the fifteenth floor, seventeen years ago. They were very courteous. They let me put my bags in their office and took pictures of me in front of the entrance, and in front of the sign that said “Garden Terrace No. 1” which was the name of my building. “8 Old Peak Road.”
I can’t explain it. I was standing in the same place I used to walk through every day for two years, and it hadn’t changed at all. Tan marble walls and floors. The strange three tiered rock garden that faces you when you come in. Two cramped elevators to your left. They had installed a fitness center on the ground floor, that was new. Everything else was the same. My home. Well, one of them anyway.
It brought back such good memories. So many memories. Happy times. I was just becoming a teenager. Still at the age when friends and movies and music and comic books were more important than anything else. Still at the age when I could walk down a foreign street in a foreign town, surrounded by people of a different race who couldn’t speak a word of my language… and feel at home. In fact, felt like I owned the place. And in a way I did. Hong Kong WAS mine.
The city was our playground, and we entertained ourselves by taking taxis to Wan Chai to play video games, taking the Star Ferry over to Kowloon to go to the movies, taking busses to the water park in the summer. The city’s transportation infrastructure was so good, and so cheap, that a thirteen year old kid could get anywhere in about half an hour, do anything he wanted, buy gas-powered pellet guns for example, then run around shooting at his friends in the cavernous parking garages of the apartment buildings.
Hong Kong was so good to me. The city gave me so many good memories and such a rich life. I couldn’t help it. I shed a few tears for my lost life. A time long gone in a city which existed only in our memories. Today’s Hong Kong is in many ways unchanged, but the red flags with the yellow stars that fly from most buildings let you know that things are different now. But I guess it wouldn’t have mattered even if the flag had remained the same.
Like my father is fond of quoting, “You can never go home.”
Because home is a time, and not a place. And looking around Garden Terrace No. 1, located at 8 Old Peak Road, in Hong Kong, Special Administrative Area of China… I knew he was right.
You can go back. But you can never go home.
And something happened while I was standing in the lobby of Garden Terrace No. 1 that put things into perspective and helped me walk away feeling content about my lost childhood. But to know what you will have to read Part 2.