The night view of Hong Kong from my airplane window showed pitch-black darkness enlivened with gold-illuminated dots everywhere. To me, it looked like a kid’s Lite-Brite creation, with the glowing pegs scattered all around without much thought or purpose. The aerial scene of Hong Kong both excited and scared me. I felt like a child, entranced by the beautiful display of lights and wide-eyed at the thought of being an exchange student in Asia. Though I was excited, there was still that mysterious and empty darkness.
I hadn’t come with much of a thought as to what Hong Kong was. I figured it was a place I had to go, propelled by some kind of strange intuition telling me to get in touch with my roots and the belief that I could find something meaningful there.
I’m ethnically Chinese but my parents have had history in Hong Kong – it was their port of departure before permanently moving to America in the late 1970s. I wanted to understand Hong Kong in its entirety, figure out this mysterious place and walk away with some deeper connection to it. Perhaps this was just too much to ask for.
To be honest, Hong Kong confused and tested me more than any other place. I felt disconnected and unable to weave my way through to the real Hong Kong. It seemed to me that Hong Kong was an illusory space, with people blinded by the shiny lights and concerned with the superficial.
I felt that wherever I turned there was a multiple-story mega mall with shoppers all around. Hong Kong’s love of shopping is apparent almost everywhere and they don’t seem to catch a breath. One thing I didn’t think I would have to hone in Hong Kong was my agility. Walking through the local mall, Shatin’s New Town Plaza, was like a dodgeball game with human bodies coming from all directions.
Though it was difficult at the beginning, crowds and the rushed life of Hong Kong became the norm, something you just had to accept. This was easy, but I still couldn’t come to terms with the utter obsession with money and material consumption.
It just lent more to the illusory image of Hong Kong I had built in my mind. Even Hong Kong’s evening skyline, with its massive corporate buildings and the deep South China Sea, struck me with mixed feelings. Although the view was picturesque, I couldn’t help but think of the money and greed behind these buildings. Unlike the optimistic feelings I had on the plane, I was disillusioned by the night-lights.
The widely known translation of Hong Kong, “fragrant harbor,” was also just an illusory idealization. While reading a poem by Hong Kong poet Louise Ho, I encountered the real meaning of Hong Kong: “incense port.” As early as the Ming Dynasty, Hong Kong was a trading port for incense. Because “incense” and “fragrant” are homophones, the name has come to define Hong Kong, evoking a romanticized and exoticized image.
The shift from Hong Kong’s Chinese heritage to a diverse cultural mishmash over the years has mostly been a result of colonial influence. Hong Kong has had a long and drawn out history with British colonialism and rule, totaling 156 years.
The historic 1997 Handover sent Hong Kong into a state of limbo with the British giving back sovereignty to the Chinese. Hong Kong was to remain unchanged for 50 years, which only left uncertainty for Hong Kong’s future and identity, something I am able to relate to.
As I neared the end of my stay in Hong Kong, I felt unsatisfied at being unable to understand it all and have that special connection. This wasn’t the love affair I had hoped to find but rather a complicated relationship I struggled with.
During the past months in Hong Kong, I focused too narrowly on the obvious symbols of Hong Kong: the crowded streets, massive skyscrapers and status as a mecca for international business. It was common sense and obvious that these symbols represented only one part of Hong Kong, and the real heart and soul of the place was found within the diverse mélange of people.
I was connected to the people, the friends I met and the individuals I encountered every day. For example, the fourth-floor cleaning woman who greeted me every morning with a friendly “jo sun,” Cantonese for “good morning,” with the warmest smile on her face. She made my early mornings a bit more bearable. I now have friends from all over the world — ones that I spent every waking minute with, weaving through the crowds, exploring a place where locals, foreigners, tradition and modernity coexisted.
I eventually found that Hong Kong could never be defined in such a linear way and no single definition can encapsulate a place. As vague as it may sound, Hong Kong for me represented a place of juxtapositions, complexities and above all, uncertainties.