Summer riding piggy back on +40 centigrade during daytime and I’m frazzled by multiplying dust particles, the seeping lethargy and the unhealthy attachment to my air-con. The blanket of snow, recent visit to Calgary, seems an illusion, another planet. I rather have a glass of cool, refreshing Lassi (yoghurt drink) but then any hot beverage is an ideal companion to loosen thoughts.
The early morning walks are the best time of the day, before the sun lays claim to the land below., recently renamed Guru-gram, replacing Gurgaon. The sun too must be mystified as the name change has had no effect on animate and inanimate objects, except for change of status to ‘ first cousins of Insta-gram’ or ‘entire city is equal to a gram’. A full article can be devoted to this horrendous name change. The new name of Guru-gram is to honor Guru Dronacharya of Mahabharata fame.
But what truly is an epical spoof, of Mahabharata and Ramayana, are the gangs of monkeys staking claim to their habitat desecrated by concretisation. Instead of trees the simians terrace vault in search of food left for them by gullible humans who consider them as avatars of Hanuman (Monkey God).
On one of my earlier returns home I had a mother and son visitation. I was out for my evening walk and on nearing my building I could see the duo saunter into my apartment through the unlocked balcony door. I never felt so appreciative of my cell phone and called the colony Maintenance number. For a change there was prompt response and the minute the monkey duo heard the thuk-thuk of bamboo sticks they slunked out from where they had entered. Fearing the worst, I walked into the living room and kitchen strewn with contents of a ransacked refrigerator…. bread, vegetables, eggs, butter, milk all over the kitchen counter, the floor and living room couch. Food must have been on their bucket list as my laptop was still where I had left it…..on the couch.
Few days later, on a particularly scorcher of a day, a monkey gang yanked the neighbour’s terrace water tank cover and took dips in the cool water. It was their swimming pool for an hour as they took turns to dive in and out. Once done the leader, I suppose, slid the cover back and the ‘cool’ gang left. We had to tell the neighbor not to use the water and to have the tank cleaned.
There are monkeys in Hong Kong but not as brazen as the ones found in indian cities. In Mathura, North India, I remember a monkey swooping away my niece’s shades. Someone suggested that we should offer a box of sweets and it worked. The minute the monkey saw the sweet box he came down, took the box and left the shades. It makes one wonder whether they are trained to harass tourists/visitors.
This week the gang appears to be in hiding, except for the lone monkey, jay walking on a parapet. I can see him/her from my study window, and wait for its next move. A few minutes later there it was, swinging Tarzan, hiding in the branches of the of the Mango tree, enjoying raw mangoes. Few minutes later our Tarzan disappears and I am left staring at my laptop screen.
In two months time I am off on my travels, Canada, USA, and wish my simian friends the best of Gurugram ambiance.
‘…. travel is, deep down, about the real confirmation of very unreal dreams (PICO IYER…’CAN A TRIP EVER BE AUTHENTIC’)
2000-2008…a period of hibernation, of re-locations from Muscat to New Delhi to Gurgaon, Haryana. Property boom and strong industrial base had transformed Gurgaon, a sleepy village with affiliations to Mahabharata (one of the religious tomes of India), into a New Delhi clone. We were lured by green vistas, pollution- free air and manageable traffic, little realizing that few years down the line the ‘Dream city’ would emulate New Delhi’s traffic congestions and unruly constructions.
Not surprisingly the seven-year itch surfaced and 2008 found us jetting our way to Hong Kong, another country and another accidental expat experience. In between there were vacations to USA (meet with children), Singapore, and Thailand and cities within India. Every time we returned, Gurgaon would dip one notch lower in pollution index. The blue skies were fast disappearing to be replaced by perpetual grey, haze and smog.
Hong Kong: Sultanate of Oman and Hong Kong are on different trajectories: one a traditional laid back nation and the other glitz, glamor and restlessness. Hong Kong’s lingering British influences amidst ‘Red’ mish-mash of opportunism is probably what lures visitors, us included, to its crowded streets embossed with glass fronted buildings. The British came in 1789 to what was then ‘Fragrant Harbour’, a sobriquet derived from the scents of trees and flowers that once adorned the hills and shores. They liked what they saw and stayed on finally being reminded of their status as over-stayers in 1997. One cannot blame them as ‘Some can just jump right in, others take their time and watch from the sides for a while… ultimately to succumb to the allure’ and continue to stay on. For millions who followed over the years, Hong Kong continues to be a dream destination despite being swamped by constructions, traffic fumes, odorous exhalations of raw meats and cigarettes and political shenanigans.
We came to Hong Kong in 2008, for a year, and found ourselves queuing at the Immigration office to get our extensions stamped for two, three, seven and permanent residency. There was no single reason for taking root in this neatly packaged multi dimensional concrete localebalanced by yan ching mei ( essence of humanity) but combination of these assets that presented Hong Kong as an exotic experiment. Maybe, I was waiting for such a change.
Cuisine Trap: A clichéd way to knowing a country is to step on its food trail and my introduction to local cuisine was through Chin-India cuisine, Chinese cuisine flavored to Indian taste. The surprising part is that I am not a food person but differentiating the fake (Indian –Chinese) from the real was a choice I willingly made and splurged on the rainbow additions to my culinary choices. Other ‘food’ firsts were the squirming fishes in restaurant water tanks, different species and hues, and till date I ask a table farthest from the mini tanks. Wet markets were another self-imposed banned areas till my helper asked me to accompany her once, Nose scrunched I followed her to realise that I had missed out on the color riot of fruits and vegetables.
Another reason for hopping onto to the food cart is that writing about Hong Kong is similar to being repeatedly pushed through topic shredders. The Island city is prodded and pricked with every alphabet and the F word is way out of the maze. The choice is unlimited from Michelin star, five-star or simply neighborhood open-air food stalls or the once popular Dai Pai Dongs, book cafes and fast food outlets.
The ‘food trail’ facilitated tasting of the esoteric and exotic such as Snake soup, whole pigs or fish varieties and talking about it.
One year down the line the ‘Chinese Takeaway’ in words of Betty Mullard (KOWLOON TONG by PAUL THEROUX) became more than food exploration; it became a way of life. We changed residence from service apartment to a fully furnished apartment in Laguna Verde, Hung Hom, along the waterfront. My days followed a set pattern; morning and evening walks along Tsim Sha Sui (East) promenade watching ‘still’ fishers and seniors risking cold water dips in the Bay; walks in Hutchinson Park to gawk at feisty seniors in coordinated tees swinging to ‘Sugar…Sugar…Honey… Honey’; afternoons and evenings were leisure and writing times, social outings and television viewing. I discovered South Korean serials, watching most from start to finish.
Communication, as in Sultanate of Oman, was/is without bumps or lumps except when faced with unblinking faces in crowded MTR, the mute cashiers at general stores, the gruff fruit sellers at wet market stalls expecting exact change or the ‘No cheap’ commenting shop assistants of brand showrooms because you happen to be from the Sub-continent.
In seven years my discoveries multiplied, in step with the burgeoning verticality as I walked streets, alleys and subterranean air-conditioned walkways, checked on numerous eating-places metamorphosing with drop of chopstick, watched tenacious seventy year olds, bent back tiptoeing on tiny feet, pushing carts stacked with cardboard boxes through crowded pavements. My initial response was to help, but one withering look and I backed off. In a way it was an inspiration to step out of my comfort zone of ‘non-labor’. My glance went to her feet, tiny, but not the ‘iron feet’ of Chinese girls we had read in geography books, in school in India.
Talking with friends I learnt that ‘iron feet’ was ‘lotus feet’, a custom of ‘applying painfully tight bindings to the feet of young girls to prevent further growth.’ This excruciating custom had originated from the upper classes, court dancers of Imperial China (Song dynasty) and percolated down to the masses, a status symbol of beauty and sexuality for a prestigious marriage. Dorothy Ko in ‘Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet (2002)’ writes that the Han Chinese women were bowing to social dictates of the time wearing embroidered and colorful symbols of prosperity. By seventeenth and eighteenth century the custom had percolated down to the masses. In 1887, Alicia Little, had referred to bound feet ‘six year old girls instead of hopping, skipping or jumping like little girls in England, were leaning heavily on sticks taller than them or being carried on a man’s back or sitting sadly crying’.
I do not have ‘Lotus feet’ but my feet size is 4 and it was a joke in my hometown (India) that ‘ you will find your size only in China’. But I have a hard time finding my size amidst the present large shoe sizes of Hong Kong. I see dainty, normal size feet and it is a relief that human frailties and their callous results consigned to the past.
Explorations and Visitations: 2008 onwards was also a period of acclimatization and exploration. Weekends saw us boarding ferries and public transport for surrounding islands (Cheung Chau, Peng Chau, Lamma, Lantau), walking commercial streets and alleys, visiting temples, libraries, museums and to watch commercial and residential areas turn into grand commercial carnivals of decadence and expectations. The trips were ‘mystical flashes of belonging’, of windows opening to another life, of feeling confident about our move to an island country existing in different time zones.
The journey continues and when someone asks me ‘Don’t you miss your country’ my answer is ‘Why. Even after seven years of stay, Hong Kong never ceases to exist’. (John Le Carre“When you leave Hong Kong,” …”it ceases to exist.” in ‘The Honorable Schoolboy’.
Kyoto, Japan (2010)…a sudden encounter and transfixed we ogled. “Perhaps it seems odd that a casual meeting on the street could have brought about such change. But sometimes life is like that isn’t it” –Arthur Golden. Memoirs of a Geisha
View from Calgary Tower…..watching the sun set. Downtown Calgary, Canada
The perfect antidote for a oscitantically boring day is to walk Hong Kong …on ground, below ground, elevated walkways, vertical and horizontal escalators, promenades, alleys, hiking trails. It is the cheapest and easiest way to banish ennui and as Scott Bricker of America Walks puts it “Your brain functions quite differently when you walk.”
Apart from health benefits walking Hong Kong is vibing with the ever-increasing hordes of multilingual tourists and locals thronging its markets, lanes and buildings. The vibrancy of the surrounding waters add the ephemeral to ancient landmarks and temples, the stretches of greenery peeping in between vertical glass towers making Hong Kong a city best savored on foot.
We did just that…strolled to Taikoo Shing from Quarry Bay MTR station; a 15-20 minutes walk aided by a combination weather, drizzle and 32 0 heat, ricocheted of the pretentious structures. Another option would have been to start the day with hiking in Tai Tam Country Park (expanded towards Quarry Bay in 1979) with its comfortable, family friendly walking trails along the Reservoir and then come down to the market streets.
We are in the Western part of Quarry Bay or Lai Chi or “late as usual” on Kings Road, which till 1984 was the singular road for traffic entry into Quarry Bay and prone to traffic congestions. Previously Shau ki wan Road, it was renamed Kings Road to honor the Silver Jubilee of King George V’s reign in 1935. The walk turns into a minor peripatetic pleasure due to high decibel chattering of the lunchtime crowd, professionals, seniors, helpers, tourists and it is difficult to imagine that Quarry Bay was once what its name suggests, a rock quarrying area during Colonial era when Hakka stonemasons settled in this area of Hong Kong Island. Rocks were quarried from the hills for construction and road building and carried to the coast to be shipped. The acoustics may have changed but the buzz of new activities helps Quarry Bay play catch-up with its classy neighbours…North Point, Causeway Bay, Wanchai, Admiralty, Central…..
Another tag that Quarry Bay lugged for some time was being called Tsak Yue Chung (Chinese) or Arrow Fish Creek (British) because of crucian carp found in the once-upon-a-time stream (19th century). The waters, since then, have been pushed further away due to reclamation and construction.
Hong Kong areas are twirling emulations of each other and with hyperventilating crowds everywhere, sometimes the comfort of seclusion is a better choice. Food adds a bit of recherché to the mundane but since food is a means to survive I did not sample the eating-places along Pan Hoi and Hoi Kwong streets ( Foodie tour: Quarry Bay.Timeout.com, Hong Kong) continued to tramp on our pavement space, peeking into stores, searching for 1049-1056 King’s Road. Finally after a few wrong turns we are in the courtyard of the striated Yick Fat Building inserted in between Yau Man Street and Quarry Bay Street.
Dilapidated and crumbling with peeling paint and closeness, beehive style, lending it the impressive outage to feature on the cover of photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze’s book Vertical Horizon (2012). The cubes or cages with red, blue, green hued balconies, fluttering limp-washed clothes, the ground floor clutter of launderettes, massage parlors, electrical and mechanical workshops and isolated eating places set around a rectangular courtyard are a sharp contrast to the looming glass towers nearby. The buildings’ uniqueness is certainly something to cash upon. In October 2013 director Michael Bay was attacked by two men demanding HK$100,000 ($12,900) for filming their premises for the movie Transformers.
A few steps around the courtyard, no buzzing sound from anywhere, and trying to catch the perfect angles of the piled-upon construction, we are out on Yau Man Street and Kings Road towards East Point Center, a warren of veritable Chinese medicine shops, clothes, household goods and Dimsum Master restaurant.
The entrance is deceptive, squashed in between stores, till you step inside a fabricated food cave with attentive staff waiting to guide you to the nearest available table. The place is crowded, lunchtime traffic, and a brief check of the menu, restricted our selves to savorless Fried Rice, Chicken Corn Soup and Pork Dumplings, large helpings to satiate our derisory hunger pangs.
I prefer ground level or a rooftop-eating place, when it comes to restaurants, to watch sunshine streaming down on ferries and yachts gliding down the South China Sea or the moving traffic on various arteries of the city. The ‘cave’ crowded and abuzz, a hurried lunch and we take the escalators to sunshine and continued short walk on King’s Road towards bus stop, hop onto a bus bound for Mong Kok, Nathan Road.
The bus ride is a skim through repetitive market scene, store signs at short intervals morphing into Fortress Hill and North Point till we turn towards Cross Harbor tunnel and onto Nathan Road with its own cliquey sets.
Hong Kong is forever in a flux; in a constant need to replenish and re-engage its outer casings. The latest, at least I visited it few days back, is the perky changeover of the former airport Kai Tak *and its surroundings.
The runaway has been converted into a cruise terminal and the three levels no-trims attached building features passenger and service areas including drops-offs, waiting halls, concourse and an elite shopping area awaiting footfalls of cruisers. On the ground floor level are fascinating snapshots of the airport through the ages and on the rooftop another iconic symbol, a gleaming ‘golf ball’ radome.
The highlight of this 23,000 square meters revamp is a rooftop garden reminding me of the 1.45-mile-long High LinePark in Manhattan, (Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street, between 10th and 12th Avenues) on the elevated section of the disused New York Central Railroad spur or the West Side Line. Redesigned as an aerial greenway and rails-to-trails park it is an intoxicating cultural and relaxing hub amidst the bustle of New York City.
The Kai Tak Rooftop rendezvous offers family fun on the extended central lawn, fountain plaza, concrete walkways, viewing platforms for incredible views of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula.
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, loosing our way and mix-ups on distance, but the crabbiness vanished on sighting the luminous cruise liner against the harbor vista. ‘The Old Hangar’ ambiance of ‘a cool industrial/vintage chic space with high ceilings’ was tempting as refuge from afternoon sun, but, we preferred the open spaces, the flora and fauna lining the concrete pathways, the strategically placed benches, temptations to laze well into moonlight or starlight, the closing time is 11 pm, and an interesting way to end the day.
*Kai Tak or the Old Airport made way for a new International airport on Lantau Island on 6 July 1998 after 77 years of service.
Address: Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, 33 Shing Fung Road, Kai Tak, Kowloon, Hong Kong