Jesus, it’s so pretty. I didn’t expect it to be so pretty. No matter how many travel guides or blog posts I read that said that Hong Kong was a predominantly green and mountainous island I couldn’t reconcile it with the neon-lit, vertical glass, dirty streets I had seen, and fallen in love with, in films.
Once we reach the centre of the city we stream off the bus and have to try to negotiate this place on foot and at ground level, an unnerving prospect. I feel like an ant, a pitiful little thing that might be stamped on at any moment, and as I’m imagining what idiots we must look like from the sky, rushing about in every direction, I realise that it is very much not okay to stand still in Hong Kong. I need to move, it doesn’t seem to matter in which direction, just any direction but none.
People use metaphors from nature to describe cities like Hong Kong. It’s an ‘urban jungle’, a ‘forest of skyscrapers’ but being in Hong Kong is nothing like being in a jungle or forest, it’s more like being in tunnels underground because everything rises up so high around you that you can only see what’s right ahead. And actually you can spend a lot of time underground in Hong Kong without even realising as underground walkways link subway stations and take you under fenced off-roads or buildings that don’t agree that the ‘the sky’s the limit’ and have leeched down under ground level, creating glorious caves of commerce deep underground.
You can get tunnel vision if you’re not careful.
Any place that is big is composed of many, many places that are small and every building in Hong Kong is a bee hive. The apartment block that houses the tiny room the three of us will be living in for the next week is no exception. A carefully followed series of directions that ends with a code of numbers and letters ensures we get the right door out of the millions of others around us and we drop our bags in what can reasonably be described as a hovel.
We carry out our first-day routine of ‘getting our bearings’, which means walking the streets and looking for places to eat and find ourselves in an MRT station trying to get from somewhere to somewhere. It’s not even rush hour yet but the station is a blizzard of bodies.
In theory the MRT system is super-organised. The walkways have arrows, towards the trains on one side and away from the trains on the other. There’s advice on how to stand on the escalators, how to board the train and what to do when you’re on the train but I watch people indulging in little acts of rebellion and it makes me smile. Walking against the arrows. Stopping abruptly before getting on the escalator. Refusing to hold on. These things would annoy me at home but here they make me happy. Just imperfect humans doing imperfect human things.
I reach that point in the day when I need to be alone and right now I’m in an ice-blended coffee and cheesecake café in one of Hong Kong’s trillion mega-malls and I’ve got the Cranberries in my ears, so ridiculously loud it’s kind of hurting. I don’t often listen to really loud music anymore, I listen at a safe volume, the kind of level where you can still hear traffic and you notice if other people talk to you but the café’s really busy. So busy that I can tell me sitting here on my laptop using the wifi with only the cold dregs of a black coffee in front of me is really pissing people off and a group of five people next to me are encroaching on my table which is only a two-person table anyway so, like, how can I make myself any smaller and everyone’s shouting to be heard and shoving their insanely expensive cheesecake into their mouths and I’m concerned this isn’t quite the Hong Kong I had imagined.
What better way to spend a night in Hong Kong than at the races? In order to get to the Happy Valley racecourse we must again run the gauntlet of the MRT and it makes me feel like I’m back in London on some long-weekend, enduring the bodily assault of the underground to be rewarded to get to the good stuff – that gig, that club – at the end of the journey.
I already feel completely disorientated by the accelerated pace and scale of Hong Kong and the culture shock of being surrounded by the Cantonese language so add to this altered state of mind by getting drunk. We make a silent but mutual agreement that we might have to spend all of our money tonight in Hong Kong and that’s okay and spend hours sitting up in the stands, drinking the super-expensive German beers and running up to the intimidating row of people in booths to bet on horses that incredibly never fail to lose but have so much fun doing it that we don’t really mind.
We’re in a little café/restaurant in the Mong Koi district of Kowloon, close, I think, to our hostel. I’m not expecting much from this place. It’s kind of dirty and the menu is plastered over the walls on sheets of neon coloured paper, handwritten in beautiful black slashes of what I assume to be Cantonese. Every now and then they’ve added a laminated photograph of some kind of food and it’s a good job they have because the man taking our order doesn’t speak any English. We point at a picture of deep-fried squid, one of fried pak-choi and then point towards the bowls of rice on the next table.
The neon signs outside are blinking and so is the TV that just so happens to be showing English football. Newcastle vs Aston Villa. Brilliant. It doesn’t matter how far away I go, I can’t escape a toon game. There are only five tables in the cafe and the place is packed and my eyes are stinging because you can smoke inside here and I’m yet to see an old Chinese man in Hong Kong without a cigarette on the go. The food comes and it’s delicious, simple but really delicious and we shovel it down because we’re drunk and we haven’t eaten all day and the man serving us, who may also cook the food, seems really happy to have us and we’re really happy to be there and all is well.
We really aren’t happy with our room. It’s tiny and pretty disgusting in all honesty, my sheets are upsettingly damp, so when we spy an open room across the hall with two beds that looks much cleaner and bigger we take the misguided decision to occupy the new room and deal with the fallout in the morning. We’ll pay the extra, we decide, no one checked us in so we can say we were in this room all along, we decide, it’ll be fine, we decide.
A very, very angry Cantonese-speaking lady bangs on our door until I take one for the team and open it. I haven’t yet learned the Cantonese word for ‘sorry’ so I just listen, for hours it seems, to a free-flow stream of rage that is absolutely understandable. When she’s finished she says ‘okay’ and I assume that means we can keep the room so she goes away and I go back to bed and feel terrible about it all.