November 15 We were greeted at the Hong Kong Airport with a brochure for The Modern Toilet: a restaurant with toilets as chairs and with food served in mini urinal and mini bathtubs.
Nov 16 A little black cloud with a cold front attached is following us around. It joined us on our second day in Cape Town and stayed with us the whole two. weeks. It climbed on the plane with us and watched a newly sunny Cape Town disappear into the distance. It seems that it travelled with us all the way across the Indian Ocean (a 13.5 hour flight!) because the cold and clouds arrived in previously warm and sunny Hong Kong at exactly the same time as we did.
Nov 17 Hong Kong is the most modern city I have ever been to. Free internet kiosks in the subway, not a piece of chewed gum ground into the floor or a scrap of paper to be seen. People politely line up to board the train – which comes every 2 minutes or so – in order of arrival. (Why can’t New Yorkers be so civilized?) Outdoor escalators whisk you away to uphill destinations. I think it might be possible to walk the whole of central Hong Kong without setting foot on the ground, making use entirely of the elevated pedestrian breezeways that connect each building to the next, a few stories above the street traffic.
It is actually made up of many islands as well as a peninsula from the mainland. The skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, an area on the mainland peninsula where we stayed, stand off against each other across Victoria Harbor (if it were a competition Hong Kong would win with one hand tied behind its back, but Kowloon has most other cities in the world beat). From a distance the seem equally buzzing modern metropolises, but on much of Hong Kong Island the modern eclipses the traditional. Not so in Kowloon.
That smell is far more pervasive in Kowloon. It is a putrid smell that permeates everything. I’ve finally identified it: fish food. A flood of memories comes to me, the little yellow plastic jar of papery flakes the colors of autumn, that I had to pinch into the fish tank when i was little. Except this smell is stronger. And it’s everywhere. Which makes sense I guess because fish sauce and fish paste are integral ingredients of most local dishes. But seriously, it is everywhere.
After a few days the persistent smell has come to epitomize for me the contrast of the modern and traditional here. Traditional wet markets, where merchants gut the organs of live fish, sit at the base of gleaming skyscrapers. Individually wrapped antibacterial disinfectant wipes are provided alongside tea sets steeped in tradition. Fortune tellers and sooth sayers take breaks to text the friends from their iPhones. The dichotomy is far more pronounced on the Kowloon side, which makes me glade that we stayed over here. It is a fascinating place for observation.
Nov 18 On the menu in Hong Kong last night: goose liver, jellyfish, pig knuckle, fish brains… and PBR beer? How about a burger and fries? I am endlessly intrigued by the aspects of Western culture non-Westerners choose to adopt, and those they don’t. I imagine they think the same about us (What? They’ll have acupuncture and stick needles in themselves but won’t eat a little jellyfish? Crazy talk.)
Nov 19 It seems, based on the prevalence of PBR beer, that Hong Kong somehow ended up with a Williamsburg hipster in charge of beer importation. Yesterday we went to a Taoist institute and temple. At the vegetarian cafe a small old man with the traditional pigtail hairstyle sat next to us, eating bean curd… and drinking a can PBR beer. (Nevermind the Taoist flyer discouraging consumption of alcohol.) There aren’t many foreign beers around, but PBR is everywhere.