24 hours in Hong Kong: Microlives
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It’s early. Bowls of hot porridge are being served to its loyal customers, who have been coming to this family-run congee shop unwaveringly for the past 30 years. The shop is tucked away in the middle of a quiet neighbourhood behind the hustle and bustle of Causeway Bay called Tai Hang – where a fire dragon traditionally roams through the streets once a year during the mid-autumn festival.
The owner and his children look after the much-loved eatery, and they are rooted very firmly in the Tai Hang community. They can be seen wearing the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance shirts in its simple red and white colours, days before the festival.
His grandson takes my order.
“A boiling bowl of fish porridge and homemade soymilk, right?” he repeats, mocking the tone of an adult in Cantonese.
The line has started. The daily grind begins and it will not stop until 11pm. On my way back home, whether at 6pm or 6am, I see them laboriously preparing Hong Kong’s real local delicacy, cheung faan, a kind of rice pancake stuffed with either prawns or pork, without any kind of fuss and muss.
This is precisely the stoicism and the ethic of hard work instilled in the older generations that make up the success of Hong Kong since the Second World War. The steamer continues to cook the meat, and the people refuse to lag behind.
Noon: Kowloon City
Next to the green lettering of a famous Chinese-Muslim restaurant in what used to be a lawless part of town before the massive cleanup and revamp in the early Nineties, one cannot ignore the flickering pink light on the building.
Beyond the mouldy stairs, an assortment of adult entertainment can be found. The first room to the right displays some posters with Chinese characters, “Long-Legged Beauty”. Another door has “Suck Till You Explode” plastered across it. Every single door on this floor showcases the specialty of each professional prostitute behind the door. The main attraction here is the creativity in their expressions.
I climbed further up, my curiosity pushing me as I noticed the surveillance cameras installed on each floor, pointing in different directions. These one-woman brothels are common in Hong Kong and prostitution in itself is not illegal.
On the second floor, a man with glasses walked out and quickly dodged me on the stairs, as if to avoid an infectious person. The woman was still standing in the corridor and gave me a head-to-toe scan with her tracking eyes, lined at the edges.
“Uh, how’s business today?” I asked, attempting to diffuse the blatant tension.
“Usual,” she replied with an accent in Cantonese, her thick eyelashes curled so far back that they were almost touching the bottom of her fringe that hovered just above her eyebrows.
“So I was just passing by… I think I’ll go now,” I gave her a big smile and bade goodbye.
“Oh, I thought you came for a trial at the job,” she said, fixing her frock and assuming some form of comradeship.
I left before I could reply, but her last words reminded me of the darker side of the city, where the world’s oldest profession will never be out of fashion, no matter how many “cleanups” the government conducts.
7pm: The University of Hong Kong, Rooftop Farm of Runme Shaw Building
A big white screen had been set up for an outdoor film screening of “Into the Wild”, an American film that is based on the true story of “Alexander Supertramp” – an Emory graduate who decided to live his life out of the money and status-crazed society, literally in the wilderness.
It was fitting that the screening itself took place on a rooftop farm, where students from the university grow their plots of plants, ranging from Chinese lettuce to rows of carrots. During the film, there were birds that hovered above the projected screen, timed so perfectly that one might even think that it was choreographed.
The programme is part of Asia Art Archive’s “The Third Space: Sai Wan Winter Camp” and the film formed a part of the dialogue the programme wished to include.
Michael Leung, the co-organiser of the camp, gave a refreshing talk at the beginning of the evening where he encouraged everyone to take part in his or her own “rucksack revolution”.
He also stated that, “In relation to Hong Kong, the film confronts the pressures graduate may face from their parents, the effects of consumerism and capitalism on society and one’s access to the commons.”
He paused for a moment, and then said, “It is a hot topic here with regards to highly-governed or privately-owned public space, farming politics in the North East New Territories and the recent lead-tainted water issue.”
Mr. Leung’s words echo and resonate with a lot of the younger generation in Hong Kong as food security and high rents in recent years have become salient and politicised issues that form the agendas of Hong Kong’s politicians. The solutions remain to be seen but the enthusiasm of seeking alternative approaches is growing, especially with these programmes sprouting across university campuses.
Midnight: Hollywood Road
It was not the first time Mr. Zhang Yue-you stood on the curb of the sidewalk, in front of a throng of Western bars that are frequented by those longing to spend some of their disposable income on fancy, handcrafted cocktails with incomprehensible ingredients.
“I moved to Hong Kong almost 20 years ago!” exclaimed Mr. Zhang while he struggled to take his identity card out of this bag.
The reason behind the struggle was not because he was inebriated, like many of the passersby. It was because he did not have any fingers left.
“During the day, I sell toys in North Point, all kinds of toys. Hello Kitty, Santa Claus…” Mr. Zhang said with a proud sense of dignity. “I have many customers, especially before Christmas holidays,“ he asserted while clutching onto his pouch where he collects charity from those who noticed his hands.
“I had nothing to do tonight so I’m here,” he said defiantly, as if to prove that he did not have to be standing here.
Mr. Zhang’s family still lives in Shandong province, where he originates. He claimed to see them every year and that he lived in a social housing in North Point, but he refused to say what happened to his fingers.
When I asked him about the other beggars with twisted legs, asking for money outside of Central MTR station exits, he immediately said, “Some of them came from China on a tourist visa and then they go back!”
The disparity between the rich and poor, the attractive and the invalid, seen on these stretches of steps from the metro station to the antiques street, tugs the strings of hearts.
Tonight, Mr. Zhang will go home alone, while some will inevitably tumble home with flushed faces and empty wallets, leaving taxi drivers flustered.