From the icy airplane window Hong Kong looks like an infection. High up we are afforded rare macroscopic glimpses of the Earth, its geology a painting and the plane’s small windows the frame. We puncture thick clouds and through the mist see what teases us down below – cerulean water and deep emerald peaks that surround and infiltrate Hong Kong City. And then there’s the city. Tall sharp apartment buildings arranged in vaguely swastika-like and diamond formations; even higher sky scrapers stand with presence as if surveying their dominion, one of the most economically advanced in the world. Scale is lost on this disease – what seems large from an airplane window is impossibly, swallowingly large from the ground. And these thousands of buildings look like an army invading something, erupting from the soil, crawling out from the sea, and then plunging a red lotus flag into The Peak. One has to ask: Who owns whom?
You know someone’s a tourist if they’re in a big city and they’re always looking up. I can’t help it. The buildings hypnotize; slice by slice they repeat themselves (the extent of this copy-and-pasting reaches 118 times). Here, though, the act of looking up is as much awe as it’s admiration. These structures are feats of engineering, beautiful in their purpose of sheltering humanity. I gaze at one apartment block and wonder what the people are doing in there. A grandmother could be watering her plants by the window, a daily ritual as a strong sun shines through. Meanwhile, a boy realizes that he’s forgotten his history essay on the kitchen table and dashes out of the closing elevator doors to retrieve it. The boy passes his neighbors’ open door, and sees the six-year-old twins won’t be attending school today because they’ve gotten each other sick, and are now fighting about who started it. Higher up in the building, someone is having a private morning moment over a cup of hot milk tea, half thinking about their tasks for the day, half wondering what it’d be like to be an astronaut.
And so it goes like this, apartment after apartment and around seven million times. The settings of these singular moments are intense by standards of aesthetics and enormity; the buildings are so different. Some appear Soviet, some completely decrepit, others glassy and new-age (though one of the larger buildings, the Bank of China Tower, was charged with “cast[ing] negative feng shui energy into the heart of Hong Kong”). Most look modern-Chinese in their utilitarian style, built in the last four decades to accommodate the continuous surge in population.
And what of the population I’ve experienced? I arrived in the late morning Tuesday and went straight to Sister Wah’s, a local favorite known for its gossamery beef brisket. The man taking orders there wasn’t merely nice, he was upbeat and interested in my origins and general purpose in the world, all while catering to a busy restaurant. Risky, a barista at a swanky cafe called Elephant Grounds, straight up introduced herself and started telling me how much she loves coffee. I sat down in a noodle shop on Sugar Street, looked utterly confused by the menu, only to be saved by an old woman chock full of recommendations and an eagerness to help. All of my (albeit limited) interactions with Hong Kongese have been of the same cloth, and from these fifteen-or-so collisions it is difficult not to resoundingly like all inhabitants of this city. I like people-watching here especially. Their styles are so distinct, their way of walking. I wonder where they’re going, where they’ve been, what they’re thinking, how is their relationship with their father, and what they had for lunch. Would they recommend it?**
I’m stupid tired after a long sleepless layover in Singapore’s airport. Nighttime is coming around and my only objectives are to get a good dinner and buy shampoo. While eating my ramen I’m operating in a half-daze and I can’t seem to put the noodles on the spoon. They keep sliding off and with a plink! disappearing into the opaque Tonkotsu broth.
The buildings are the skeletons, the blazing lights their skin. Impossibly bright, blinking with aggression and desperation of all colors. This is a normal scene at night in Causeway Bay, and I am wandering through this incandescent maze with dirty clothes and a very bad want for darkness.
I smell the cosmetics shop first, then see it. I reckon it could carry shampoo. “Do you have shampoo? I ask in a soft and pathetic voice. “Yes, of course,” and he leads me to a mirrored – mirrors everywhere! – section with shampoos that are minimalist and sleek in their packaging, and the cheapest one for twenty-two US dollars. I was tired but not yet so delirious as to spend this kind of money. So it went, shop after shop of gourmet shampoos.
I didn’t venture very far distance-wise, but this street, this world, was one I hadn’t known. Music thumping from so many places it felt like it had no source but the sky. The lights spazzing out everywhere, the buildings caving in, everything vibrating slightly. The people, hordes of people, floating by quickly all around you like specters, some looking neutrally ahead, some laughing in larger groups, some peering at you. You see them too, but it feels more like you’re looking through each other, trying to see what’s behind but there’s this goddamn person in the way. The apathy is palpable with these nanosecond-pseudo-collisions, and you adopt this ugly dirtbag version of yourself in the face of a gorgeous diversity, and think, “What’s one more?”
The cheap shampoo was hidden in a cardboard box in a back room; a sales clerk retrieved it for me. The people of Hong Kong are so nice.∗
**[The middle section of this essay was revised on the 31st of July, 2015, because I wasn’t happy with it. Now I am happier with it.]