Travel Advent Dec. 24: The Fragrant Harbor

There are few places on this Earth that I love more dearly than the little island teetering off the coast of Mainland China — the territory that packs a punch like no other. Hong Kong has filled my dreams since the day I left in 2018, and while I lived there I may not have been entirely happy, upon leaving I feel the utmost nostalgia and love towards this harbor that housed me for half a year and showed me the beauty it possesses.

No other city I have visited has energy quite like Hong Kong. It is orderly, yet chaotic. Rude, but one of the most charming cities. Gracious, yet so taxing to its citizens. Free, but caged. Hong Kong has entranced me still, and every day I spend away from it is a day I wish I could be back. No other city can be so grey but so green. Hong Kong is the only expansive sprawling city that offers gorgeous remote mountainscapes and forests within a short subway ride. No other big city in the world can offer such natural escapes as Hong Kong with such an ease of public transport to get you from the concrete jungle to the Dengue fever rainforest without leaving the metro.

No other city can be so welcoming yet so harsh. I would often go with my fellow exchange students to the infamous Mr. W’s, a restaurant known by all foreign exchange students for its cheap bottomless food and beer. Mr. W welcomes you with intense graciousness, taking you to the alleyway table because the restaurant is full but there’s always space at Mr. W’s. He makes jokes and makes sure there is food for you within 10 minutes. He comes and brings ice cold Kingsway beers, stored in their cheap dark green cans to soothe the humidity of the night. We spend hours drinking, eating, and laughing wondering what Mr. W’s true identity is. How else could he serve bottomless beer and food so cheap? At the end of the table, a mountain of cleaned plates and empty beer shells pile by the end of the table — a trophy to our trashiness. Soon we see some other foreign exchange students, a friend of mine from Copenhagen who climbs at the same gym as me. He comes over with a friend visiting from Copenhagen, a hippy Dane who joins our group of wandering exchange students and fits right in. As we drink, Mr. W and his associates clean the place and you remark at how quickly his mood has turned from jovial to “Get Out” so smoothly. You all go to the bottomless Kingsway fridge and put five or six each in your pockets, and go to the nearest park to keep drinking. As you sit and drink more, throwing empty cans at rats, you realize that you are the epitome of a terrible exchange student. The thing locals think and shudder at when they see us walking down the street.

Hong Kong is the city where you can get on a subway and be deep in the forest, completely lost among monkeys and mosquitos without any memory that one of the largest financial centers lies just several kilometers away. Here you can breathe the mountain air, surf in the seas, explore the biodiversity, skinny dip in the waterfalls, and be free like never before. Here you can wander holy sights, tranquil nunneries, and temples with shuffling nuns and monks going about their chores. You can be completely still, watching koi swim in ponds and resurface several minutes later in the hustle of downtown Kowloon.

Hong Kong is the city where you need to be messy when you eat. The city where a group of Hong Kong bankers go out to eat at the table next to you, get ridiculously drunk, and keep eating while their coworker vomits on the table. The city where you go out with your American, French, and Estonian friend with his Hong Kong girlfriend for dim sum on a Wednesday for lunch. The waiter brings sweet pork buns and tea. The Estonian’s local girlfriend, quite traditionally, takes a bowl and fills it with tea. She proceeds to take every bowl, cup, and chopstick from the table and wash it in the bowl of the tea. Why are you doing that? You ask. “Because these places don’t clean very well…” she says under a hushed tone, dwarfed by the size of your mountain of an Estonian friend. The food comes, and you all begin eating quite pleasantly. You are all content, but your Estonian believes that something isn’t quite right. “Where is the mess?!” he says in his booming voice, his muscles of an amateur bodybuilder pulsating. “You are all eating too politely! It is not dim sum unless we ruin the table with our food!” He takes the teapot and pours it out across the table until every napkin and plate is thoroughly drenched in warm amber Oolong tea. “There, now it is good dim sum. Can we have more tea please?”

Hong Kong is the city where a beautiful Hong Kong lady of the night almost seduces your mother. Your mom comes to visit, and you are so excited to show her around especially since she’s got space for you in her hotel room in central Hong Kong. After a long day visiting temples and being in the crazy atmosphere of the city, the two of you go down to the hotel bar to listen to a European quintet play some French gypsy Jazz. The bartender knows just what you want — a strong Negroni with an extra smidge of gin. The two of you sit at the bar writing haiku’s on the bar clad in brilliant bronze with a thick fatty leather border to rest your elbow on. Across the counter sits a beautiful Chinese woman in an elegant black dress, drinking slowly from a martini. Your mother makes eye contact with her, and asks, “What’s her story… she has too much personality to be all alone.” You shrug and continue writing haikus deep in your Negroni. The woman, noticing your mother’s eye contact, comes over and introduces herself and pays no attention to you at all. “You look like Lauren Hutton!” she tells your mother in broken English, to which your mother is flattered yet a bit taken aback. They hit it off instantly, and this mysterious woman introduces herself as “Lily”. Your mother tries to delve deeper into the past of this mysterious charming woman, but she passes it off with smiles and laughter and goes back to her spot in the bar to listen to the French gypsy jazz. Your mother is flooded with curiosity, and in her naivety lets her curiosity grow at this mysterious Lily. She comes over once again to talk, hoping to make a deal. But your lovely mother keeps talking, trying to connect with her new Hong Konger friend before Lily realizes this is no deal she can make. She sets off, and you and your mother finish your drinks and head back up to bed. Just as your drifting to sleep your mother, deep in thought, yells in revelation, “OH MY GOD….she was a prostitute wasn’t she!”

Hong Kong is the city where everyone is welcome — where you go to the Wanch every night for live music. The beers there are 50 HKD, the same price as three Kirins at 7-11. So you come prepared, with your 3 Kirins and a red bean bun from the 7-11. You stoop out on the street face, drinking your beers and listening to music and talking to the other locals that call the Wanch home. But you never go in — for fear that you’ll have to pay — and because there is more air outside than in. The owner, a fellow musician and music head, looks at you from afar and waves, seeing a younger version of himself too cheap to pay for expensive beer yet still wanting to listen to some live music.

Hong Kong is the city where the only riff-raff in the city, the only dangerous folks out past midnight are the ex-pats who stay up late to drink and party. No locals would be caught dead outside too late. You get to the bus station, fresh from a live gig at the Wanch or an Underground gig at 3 AM. You stand and wait, alone in a city of over 7 million people. The only other person alive is a white man walking toward you, who as he walks nearer you realize is your journalism professor who’s been in Macau with a colleague all day. “Small world!” He shouts out. Not a small world, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a city of dreams and stories. A city where everyone seems to have a story but are too busy to tell it. I dream to return, yet, it is the city that I know will never live up to the illusions of grandeur that I hold for it. I was lucky to experience Hong Kong in 2018 when it was still free to some degree. Now, for better or for worse, I know that if I ever return to Hong Kong it will be nothing like the Hong Kong of my dreams. Whether the Hong Konger’s gain independence, or whether they just become another Chinese city, Hong Kong will forever be a different place than the way we once knew it. And maybe that’s not a horrible thing. Still, I will always dream of the Fragrant Harbor.

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