At the moment when women all over the world are demanding a right to be heard, columnist Indra Chopra is here to remind us that an expat spouse is a person in her own right, with her own voice. Something else that makes her column well timed: it is about Hong Kong. I can guarantee her descriptions (particularly of food!) will put you in the mood for Chinese New Year, which is just around the corner… —ML Awanohara
In a previous post, I described my family’s expat life in Muscat, Oman. Our next big adventure was a move to Hong Kong, which took place after a planned hiatus of six years in our home country.
I agreed to the Hong Kong move, not because of the Indian family tradition of a wife walking seven steps behind her husband—but because I, too, am into adventure.
Join me as I take you into the fabulous, fragrant place I initially encountered.
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Water brings luck
No sooner had I agreed to our move to Hong Kong but I am looking down from a rental suite on the 38th floor of Harborview Horizon in Hung Hom, Kowloon, at the teal waters of Victoria Harbour. There is a line of vessels—scampering ferries, catamarans with orangey-brown sails, nose-in-the-air cruise ships with names like Star Virgo and Pisces, rusty junks, barges and sampans—silhouetted against the vast blue sky, with brawny mountains in the distance.
I spend the entire day settling in while taking sneak-peeks at the unfolding harbour scenes. By the time night falls, it looks as though someone has taken a painter’s brush and dabbed sequined color on the concrete structures in the distance and then streaked the water in rainbow hues…
On the day of our arrival in Hong Kong, a friend told us that staying near water brings luck. Hm, is that what the Britishers felt when they first set foot in “The Fragrant Harbor” in 1841, and is that why they stayed for so long?
A taste of “home”
The so-called City Island is eons ahead of staid Muscat, and I find myself unsure of how to approach my new life: as a novice or as a widely traveled person critically appraising what was on offer?
Being Indian, I am naturally drawn to Chungking Mansion (Nathan Road, in Tsim Sha Shui, Kowloon), a building full of small, family-run Indian and Pakistani restaurants serving traditional food. Believe me, the best Indian snacks or spices in Hong Kong can be found in little peek-a-boo stores under stairs or between shops—dark patches one could easily overlook while being bombarded with DVDs, mobile phones, suitcases, watches, currency exchangers, not to mention steady streams of locals and foreign tourists. I would taste the best butter chicken I would eat during my time in Hong Kong at a Pakistani eating-place on one of the floors of Chungking. I like the feeling that no one can ever get to the bottom of this cavernous, mysterious place. The possibilities are limitless.
Our fresh-off-the-boat year is mesmeric…and exhausting. We are constantly meeting new people and making new friends among Hong Kong’s potpourri of nationalities. I never get homesick, except for family, thanks to the sizable Indian diaspora.
Now, it would be easy to be a stay-at-home wife who joins the various kirtan (prayer) groups, coffee mornings or kitty parties. Watching me deliberate on which Indian ladies to befriend, a British friend is surprised: “What’s the big deal, aren’t you all Indians?” Well, yes, but each of us has our own individual traits.
But something within me desires a whole set of new experiences. I know I won’t rest until I can understand more about the vignettes of daily life I keep witnessing as I navigate my new surroundings.
Perhaps energized by Hong Kong’s Autonomy Movement, I start asserting my own autonomy. Joining the crowds on the Peak Tram and the Mid-Levels escalator, I step out of my comfort zone and start peeking into the curtained windows of posh villas and spa treatment facilities that reek of Chinese herbs and other concoctions. I sense there is something unique about this place. Part of it is a sensibility but there is also an aroma that is manifestly Chinese.
I start taking day trips to Macau, China’s Las Vegas clone. I queue up for weekend ferries to the outlying islands of Chueng Chau, Lama, Lantau, Peng Chau, Pui Oh, Tai Wan Long, and Sai Kung. I even join some treks and hikes, including to the Ng Tung Chai waterfall, the biggest in Hong Kong, and within the lush, secluded greenery of the New Territories.
I visit the former Kowloon Walled City (Kowloon Walled City Park), the history of which traces back to the Song Dynasty (960–1279), when an outpost was set up to manage the trade of salt.
Strolling through subterranean air-conditioned passages or along overhead walkaways, I find aspects of my adopted home enchanting. I stand mute in front of the iconic lions as I reach the front of the HSBC Main Building in Central, which was designed by British architect Norman Foster. Catching sight of the International Finance Centre (IFC), I visualize French Spider-Man, Alain Robert, doing loops atop its towers; and, as I make my way through the high rises of Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, I feel like Moses as he walks through the parting seas in The Ten Commandments.
Hong Kong has an excellent public transportation system, and I even manage solo travel to Lo Wu, which lies on the border between Hong Kong and mainland China, though I do not cross over to Shenzhen as I still don’t have my China visa.
On brutally hot days, I hop on a bus or a train and escape to an unknown neighborhoods in search of alfresco cafes, local designer stores, tearooms, parks and gardens, art galleries or libraries.
Whenever I feel I have seen and done it all, I have a niggling doubt there is more.
Fabulous, fragrant…and fatiguing
Although Hong Kong still has pockets of antiquity here and there, with links to the region’s rich historical past, much of the region is in flux. For instance, Sheung Wan, one of the earliest settled places by the British, and part of the Central and Western Heritage Trail, is rapidly turning into a dining hotspot and bustling shopping mecca. The same is true of Sai Ying Pun, an area once known for its small lanes and historical buildings.
Similarly in Kowloon, Sham Shui Po—Deep Water Pier in Cantonese—the peninsula’s commercial and industrial hub, is fast becoming a street-shopping mecca.
Talk about change—one has only to look upwards at the constantly changing skyline. Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than anywhere on the planet, with its notorious shoe-box apartments piled atop shopping malls piled atop subways stations. Then, two years ago, a giant wheel suddenly landed in the midst of all these shifting layers, giving Hong Kongers their own version of the London Eye: what a fantastical embellishment to this swathe of reclaimed land!
Not long after my initial arrival, my feet are in urgent need of pampering. I have never done so much city-walking before—so followed the lady handing out leaflets in one of the by-lanes to a third-floor cramped salon that offered reflexology massage. It’s not one of the cleanest experiences, but soon I will have my favorite places, where I take visiting friends and family when they, too, are in need of some down time…
Travel writer Paul Theroux has said that travel is a state of mind. In Hong Kong, the fear is you may never get out of that state… No sooner have you taken in the brightly colored tong laus (19th-century tenement buildings) than you find yourself in a murky alley full of yan ching mei (the essence of humanity). It can be difficult to take in the sounds of traffic and never-ending foot-falls, the smells of traffic fumes, cigarette smoke, raw meat and fish…and not feel overwhelmed.
Making my way around this cacophonous Island city, I pick up many lessons, two of which stand out:
- Silence is golden—best exemplified by unblinking people in malls, the surging and pushy crowds of the MTR, and the mute cashiers at general stores.
- Survival is an art. You have to learn how you deal with the guttural rudeness of fruit sellers in wet markets, the pestering sales-peddlers of “genuine fake” watches and purses on Nathan Road, and the “No cheap” snide comments of shop assistants in brand showrooms once they notice you’re from the Sub-continent. After a while, I begin to comprehend the “I stay in a beach-side villa” hand-flick of long-time expat residents, the “couldn’t care less” attitude of locals, the jostling Mainlanders on weekly shopping sprees, and the hired helpers laying siege to open spaces and parks on weekends.
I shadow a friend as she navigates past umbrella-poking pavement walkers; impervious-to-others, 70+ matrons pushing carts laden with used cardboard boxes; cell-phone strollers; feisty old ladies twirling to “Sugar Sugar Honey Honey” in a neighborhood park; and Rambo seniors swimming in the cold waters of Hung Hom Bay. Little by little, I am getting in step.
A member of my writing group suggested I should spice up my writings rather literally, with more mentions of food—not a difficult task when it comes to Hong Kong, which entices its visitors into alleys, eateries and restaurants with its distinctive smells.
It is not long before I learn there is more to Chinese cuisine than my favorite dishes of Indian-Chinese Manchurian chicken, chow mien and hot & sour soup. In my various gastronomic quests on both sides of the Island, I discover finger-licking fish balls, succulent dim sum dishes, as well as slurpy wanton noodles, at the cha chaan ten (traditional Chinese eateries). In time my list of favorites comes to include:
Food is a kind of entry point into the mysteries of Hong Kong, the key to pinning down some of its elusiveness. I learn what people consider to be esoteric or exotic (e.g., snake soup, whole pigs or fish varieties) and become aware of the apparently important need to distinguish between dim sum, the word for a traditional lunch or brunch where one eats small portions of food served with tea, and dumplings, consisting of small pieces of dough wrapped around various fillings (meat, veggies or even fruit). Dumplings are not dim sum but a dim sum dish.
By making the restaurant rounds—from Michelin starred restaurants. to neighborhood open-air food stalls or dai pai dong, to book cafes and fast food outlets—I come to know parts of Hong Kong I might not otherwise have encountered.
Most important of all, I discover The Toothpick: the fine art of flicking food particles from in between tooth gaps, after one finishes eating. It is fascinating to watch all the Chinese people immediately reach for a toothpick at the end of every meal. A friend always carries a packet of toothpicks because “some eating places do not place it along with sauces and the salt-and-pepper set.” Now I, too, am addicted and my mouth craves that instant gratification.
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In John le Carré‘s The Honorable Schoolboy, it is said at one point that “when you leave Hong Kong it ceases to exist.” That was not my experience. After a seven-year stay, Hong Kong never ceases to exist for me.
To be continued…
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Thank you, Indra! As always, you bring a unique lens to your travels and expat experiences. I wonder, does Hong Kong seem familiar in some ways to you because of its British colonial heritage, not unlike India’s? —ML Awanohara
Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails.
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Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Other photos supplied or else downloaded from Pixabay.