As my taxi whizzed by the port of shipping containers that could have contained anything from construction materials to Louis Vuitton crocodile-skin handbags, I had to remind myself that this time I hadn’t come to Hong Kong to shop, eat and generally kill time. This time, I had come for my Grandmother’s 81st birthday party.
Having visited Hong Kong for more than a decade, the city is still foreign to me at times, but it’s a place that grows with you, journeys with you. Though each trip in the past had been obligatory, this trip was an exceptionally mandatory visit as Grandma was about to hit 81 and we had planned a party for her with 100 attendees. I was nervous. But, despite my past visits, I somehow thought to myself that Hong Kong would soothe my nerves afterwards.
View of Hong Kong from the Peak.
It was a fleeting idea because exiting Hong Kong’s International Airport meant bracing the city’s assault on the senses.
After my taxi flew by the port, it flew by the high-rise malls frequented by visitors on their shopping pilgrimage. At street level, it’s a different arrangement. The street markets, spanning three or four blocks, are the yin to the yang of the shiny commercial towers. These markets are stalls covered by plastic tarps, their tables filled to the square metre selling goods ranging from portable stereos to handbags to underwear to toys and stickers. No price is fixed. Everything is up for bargain. But fair warning: haggling on the streets of Hong Kong is not an exercise for the uninitiated.
Surrounding the open-air markets are the rows of mismatched stores. There are tech shops crammed next to beauty stores featuring the latest in hydrating face masks straight from Korea or Japan that could rival the produce available at the local supermarket. Then there is the watchmaker’s stall, whose worktable and bench take up as much space as a standard-sized fridge, sandwiched in between two bakeries: one, a boulangerie, selling New York cheesecakes, croissants, and pain au chocolat while the other bakery sells old-time Chinese soybean drinks, black sesame soup and sweet tofu dessert. And next to that is a senior vendor selling dried sardines, ginseng and red Goji berries in a tight alleyway. Being constantly packed with people and products, Hong Kong is a 21st century Alibaba’s cave brought outdoors.
A typical street view of HongKong. The city is known for the massive billboards that hang from the apartments. Though they have been known to be a hazard for the pedestrians below.
But what really sets Hong Kong apart is its odour.
Hong Kong’s signature aroma is a mix of seawater, exhaust fumes and heat. One scene from the novel Noble House by James Clavell set in 1953 Hong Kong is the most accurate description of the infamous scent that I’ve read to date. Two business men are descending from a plane when the odour overpowers them. The second character pinches his nostrils and demands to know what stench that is? The first man replies wisely, “Stench? That, my friend, is the smell of money!”
With the shopping towers, street markets, beauty and tech stores, old and new bakeries and everything else in between, it’s not an absurd idea that dollar signs could naturally be apart of the air molecules in Hong Kong.
And taking place in this aromatic and visually overwhelming city was my grandmother’s birthday party.
My relatives came and so did the friends we’ve long since considered family, such as the local tailors (who have been custom-making outfits for my grandmother since before I was born), or the secretary and her family (who have been employed by my grandparent’s real estate agency for the past two decades), as well as the local bankers (who have been giving us financial advice longer than I can recall).
One of my favourite superheroes (Anpanman) from my childhood in edible pastry form.
60 bottles of red and white wine were available, a buffet dinner of seafood and steak lined the walls, the mah-jong tables clacked at deafening decibels, the karaoke machine was the star entertainer and the guests were guffawing, applauding and boisterously toasting to my grandmother’s health.
And then there was the smell. With each bottle of wine uncorked, each plate emptied then refilled, there was no doubt that dollar signs were hanging and evaporating in the air around us. I was grateful that we didn’t have to stay for the cleanup.
The next day I went shopping, thinking I could get some solitude from the night before. Though the malls were glitzy, this trip stripped away Hong Kong’s shiny façade. The privilege of choice was nauseating at times. I could choose to eat on the high end of the spectrum or on the obscenely low side. I could buy classic, French haute couture or bargain hunt in the street markets. The amount of everything that was available rose to the brim of the city and spilt over constantly.
The boat with red sails, known as a junk which is a traditional wooden cargo ship, carries tourists between the Hong Kong harbours.
Yet, the city still felt empty.
The sheer amount of stuff available made the city feel claustrophobic, alienating even. But as I sat in my pyjamas, sipping tea, and chatted with my octogenarian grandma for the first time in a few hectic days, I learned that she was grateful she got to throw a party and give her friends a good time. I dwelled on this and realized that maybe that’s what Hong Kong is about, it’s a place where you can acquire anything but instead of keeping what you get, you give it away to others. And it’s this constant generosity that makes Hong Kong, an outdoor Alibaba’s cave, a treasured city.