Thursday, November 01, 2007

Hong Kong: more than just a polluted, overcrowded metropolis

Earlier this week, to take advantage of the suddenly temperate climate (and get a change of pace from Hong Kong city life), I ventured to Cheung Chau Island. I originally attempted to recruit others to join me, but after a few people declined, I became enamored with the idea of going it alone. I'm pretty bad at doing things by myself. Part of this, I think, is's fun to point at something that's cool and say "cool," and have someone actually hear you and agree. But I really can be too dependent on others to have a good time. One friend once observed of me that, for someone who actually doesn't really like people, I sure do need them a lot.

So off I went to Cheung Chau, flying - or ferrying, as they case may be - solo. From the time I woke up until the time I went to dinner later that evening, I might have said a total of 50 words aloud. After a while, when I realized how little I had actually spoken, I started making a game of it. I began saying "thanks" instead of "thank you" just to keep my word count down. I quietly celebrated every transaction I could carry out merely by pointing at something, smiling, and saying "thanks." It was totally invigorating, if only because it was so unlike me.

Cheung Chau itself is an incredible change of pace from Hong Kong, and it's easy to forget that one is actually part of the other. It's essentially a fishing village, and the whole island economy seems to be sustained only by fishing and tourism. The main harbor is lined by crowded stalls peddling freshly-caught seafood, while the opposite side of the island offers (comparatively) clean beaches and watersports. In between are various walking trails that snake through the hills, passing by small temples and vista points along the periphery of the island.

Almost immediately upon arriving on Cheung Chau, I was accosted by a group of young HKU students who were conducting a survey. "What country are you from?" they asked. Why, the United States, of course. "What is your name?" they asked. My name is Ken, I told them. "Sign here," they requested. I complied. Survey over. I have no idea what this accomplished. Where do western tourists to Hong Kong come from and what are their names? I think they just wanted an excuse to talk to cute western boys. When I told them that I was also an HKU student, they giggled incessantly and insisted we take a picture together. Perfect time to deploy the peace sign pose.

Cheung Chau renewed my fascination with graffiti in Hong Kong. You see very little of it in the main metropolitan part of the city. They're fastidiously clean around here...spitting and littering can get you a huge fine. But enforcement is pretty lax in the outlying areas, and it looks like teenagers take advantage of the situation to make some mischief. Graffiti in English tends to be random to the point of nonsensical. In the U.S., tagging is an act of braggadocio, with the tagger usually just identifying himself, as though staking territory. In Europe, it tends to be highly political. In Hong Kong...well, "fucking cool" was apparently an important enough thought that it needed to be committed to paint and wall, along with a little cartoon that looks like a cross between a television and a robot. The graffiti in Chinese, though, always seems so much longer and more involved, like a real statement is being made. I always stare it with uncomprehending curiosity, wondering what secrets are buried in those characters. Or maybe it just takes a lot of writing to say "fucking cool" in Chinese, I don't know.

The only thing on Cheung Chau that one might consider a "tourist attraction" is the so-called "Po Tsai Pirate Cave," a small cleft in a rocky outcrop that - as I was warned by an intrepid friend who blazed this trail before me - would never attract notice as a cave without them specifically pointing you toward it. As you can see, the little arrow drawn on the wall helps a lot. According to the most florid and optimistic of the guidebooks you might read, the pirate cave was frequented by legendary 19th century pirate Po Tsai, who may have stashed his treasure there. But a surprisingly forthcoming sign in the vicinity concedes that there is actually no evidence that Po Tsai ever even visited the cave, and that several areas of Cheung Chau and many of the surrounding islands are named for him merely as a show of admiration and historical awareness. The sign also admits that this populist pirate hero eventually capitulated to the Chinese navy and retired in leisure. The sign was so refreshingly honest, it made me not even care that the island's only tourist attraction was total B.S.

Side note: a particularly salacious Wikipedia biography of Po Tsai reads: "A famous pirate in Hong Kong, he was a fisherman's son who lived in Xinhui of Jiangmen but was kidnapped by the pirate Cheng I and his wife Ching Shih when he was 15. He became the pirate's lover and was adopted by the kidnappers as their son. After Cheng I died, Ching Shih had a love affair with her adopted son and soon married him, having already made him her lieutenant. Cheung Po later took over the pirating business from his adopted parents." Saucy.

Other than the pirate cave, I spent the afternoon quietly hiking the island's hills and listening to my iPod in secluded peace. I smiled at passers-by, and they actually smiled back. I looked out on the open water and felt like a Californian again. I entered the small temples that dotted the island and appreciated them with the same innocent sense of wonder I felt when I entered one for the first time in Stanley, just 3 days after I first arrived in Hong Kong (ahh, those were simpler days).

Before boarding a ferry back for the bustle of Hong Kong Island, I stopped to admire the sunset and contemplate my feelings about this place. It honestly hurt when I realized that I didn't love Hong Kong. I fell crazily in love with London when I studied there, and the day I left, I asked myself when I could come back. When I finally returned in April of this year, it felt as much like home as ever, even more so because I found that even though the dynamics and composition of my social group there had changed dramatically, my feelings about the city remained the same. I wanted to experience that again. But, whether it's because of me or because of the city or both, Hong Kong doesn't feel like home. I don't love it. A lot of the time I feel like I don't even like it. But waiting for my ferry, watching a junk sputter lazily into the sunset, I realized that it's okay. I can be happy here for the time I'm here, and then I'll leave, and that'll be enough. I'm still better for having done this.

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