Asia, China

Hong Kong’s Cacophony

Asia China

I’m not sure anything can prepare you for the wild ride that is Hong Kong. Jitters accompanied me as I looked ahead to the leap across continents–it would be my first time in Asia, first time in the Eastern Hemisphere, first time experiencing a collectivist culture as opposed to the individualism we self-important Westerners prize. Imagining how Hong Kong would hit me, I pictured shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and only marginally organized chaos, Chinese-lettered signs and fried rice galore (I would later be sorely disappointed by the lack of the latter), a pervasive feeling of smallness and anonymity amidst the stifling denseness of millions–the bustle of New York City without any of the familiarity.

Hong Kong is all of that and more. Emerging from a boxy taxi into the honks and humidity of Sai Ying Pun, I took my first deep breath of Cantonese air. And gagged. Dried sea creatures happened to be this neighborhood’s stinky specialty (stores all selling the same thing tend to congregate into one area). Storefront after storefront presented boxes and baskets spilling forth some of old Hong Kong’s favorite snacks: crunchy, tongue-shriveling salty sea cucumbers, squids, shark fins, and more. If it can be found in the sea, it can be found dried to a crisp in the pungent streets of Sai Ying Pun.

The clutter and chaos of Sai Ying Pun

Only a couple other staples of local fare turned my stomach more than the plethora of sea creatures dehydrated in the open city air: entire pigs strung up in the back door of restaurants and the resigned pouts of ducks hung by their necks at nauseatingly odd angles. Over the next few weeks, I would come to accept that the stench of Hong Kong’s more “authentic” streets is something you never grow accustomed to (and would come to embrace aroma-less dim sum as my go-to meal of choice) -only to eventually understand that, in fact, all of Hong Kong touts that dynamic, that permanent newness.

View from Victoria Peak–high-rises and green, far as the eye can see

More than a sight or a smell, what I remember most about Hong Kong is a feeling best described as awe and overwhelmed confusion. It was the surprise of a culture radically different from any I had ever known. It’s an island, in both the literal and metaphysical sense; the push and pull of the city sucks you in so thoroughly that you forget any world exists outside Hong Kong. It’s a finance and technology hub, yet so much of the past peeks out from its twisted web of alleyways and staircases. The old and new dance like oil and vinegar in the many vignettes of Hong Kong I’ve stored in my mind. For example, a traditional red-sailed junk boat silhouetted against a sea of neon lights, or a tiny dim sum restaurant sandwiched between skyscrapers. Unlike China, its glorified parent, it’s a region with a short history, a place that blasted onto the map as soon as boat loads of pirates and opium docked. Ever since those early days, it’s been a land of contrasts; new and old, booming but teetering, costs of living far beyond the affordable yet a place to get rich quick.

Inside a temple in the heart of downtown

Take the tram a few minutes in either direction (Hong Kong proper is actually an island, and the most happening parts of town spread out east to west on the northern end) and you’ll encounter utterly different worlds, from stopped-in-time traditional scenes to buildings so tall and shiny (and cocktails so expensive), they make even the most refined of the jet set stop to straighten his tie. Space is of the essence in Hong Kong; visitors and residents alike clamor for the chance to score an apartment smaller than most Americans’ closets, and no one bats an eye at how dirty and decrepit most buildings appear. This is Hong Kong, after all; being here is enough.

The true wonder of Hong Kong is how so much fits into so little, how contrasts click together in harmony. The city packs a punch that compares to nowhere else, and it’ll leave you feeling exhilarated, winded, confused, and eager to be lured to return.

Downtown Hong Kong