There’s a lot that you expect from Hong Kong.
Money (or the impression of it).
The foreign (an assault of it).
The juxtaposition of East and West, crammed on a few tiny islands.
Whatever I expected, however – whatever mental image I had of the city, built up from business travellers and Wong Kar Wai films, wasn’t adequate to prepare me for the reality.
Walking through Central, I was shocked. Not because things were new, or strange, but because they were exactly the same – exactly, and off-puttingly, familiar.
It could have been a downtown anywhere; London, New York, San Francisco. Suits scurrying between glass highrises, lanky fashionistas perfectly balanced atop spiked stilettos, the furrowed brows of businessmen as they argue into cellphones.
And, you know, a Chinatown for good measure.
I appreciated the dimsum I had at a vegetarian tea house in Hong Kong Park. I liked the sunshine that day, too. But overall, Central was not my thing.
In Central, I realised how destabilising it was to suddenly be thrust back into a perfect Western context, and how much that was something I’ve been trying to avoid.
It was only once I got out of Central, away from the glimmering clean streets and well-pressed business attire and the shine of electronic dollar signs rushing through wires, racing across other cities and continents, that I began to get a fuller picture of what Hong Kong is.
Hong Kong is confusing.
Hong Kong is and money, and the foreign, and the juxtaposition of East and West, but in such a practised and seamless way that you can’t tell if you’re in Chinatown in a Western city, or Westerntown in a Chinese city.
Old and new, so closely melded together that it’s hard to even see the lines.
Temples sit next to banks, wet markets are crammed between office buildings, million dollar highrises gaze across the street at dilapitated, decaying apartment blocks.
The young drop money at tiny boutiques and Western chains and swanky bars, the old pray at shrines nestled in the alley around the corner.
And at night, under the scream of neon and the glare of field lights, there are no clear distinctions in the crowd at the racetrack.
Hong Kong was an experience that I couldn’t quite reconcile. The overall familiarity, the feeling that I could know this city as easily as I know the cities back home, was (for whatever reason) an unwelcome surprise. I felt like it was too easy, like things could be too easy. The challenges of travel were different here, they weren’t which bus to catch or how to communicate with a shopkeeper or whether or not everyone is looking at you because you’ve just committed some huge cultural faux-pas – they were how to find a cheap room, a cheap meal, how to avoid the persistant hustle of tailors advertising ladies’ suits, how to get into an English state of mind and remember which direction to look when crossing the street. They weren’t particularly new. They were things I’d done before.
I suppose this was a trip of the unexpected. I didn’t expect to be blown away by Taiwan, and I didn’t expect to be so underwhelmed by Hong Kong. But this latest adventure makes me wonder: is travel only special if you encounter the exotic? Do we travel only to find the unknown? Or is there merit in simply trying on a different version of what we know?
I didn’t find the answer for that. But, if anything, I’ll thank Hong Kong for putting me right up against a new question.