Hong Kong is awesome

Hong Kong is awesome. We first saw the city through the diffusion gauze of a rainy morning. We’d had a flight that despite being marked by turbulence came in at an hour under time. A tail wind, apparently. An easy flight, once we’d set to the side the extraordinariness of warmly living bodies committing themselves to being slotted into the most utilitarian spaces – like battery hens – to be conveyed at enormous speeds inside steel cigars through freezing zones of the atmosphere, setting sides the curious question of why they started doing so in such enormous numbers – our flight was full – and the ingenuity that anyway is ordinarily taken fore granted behind the strange greedy fragile machine permitting them to do so.

We’d slept, eaten, moved around as much as we were able, and seen The Girl Who Played With Fire. And a bit of some doco. One, The Man in or With The Hat… who was the last person to play with fire. But I suppose McLeavy did, in his way. The doco was however remarkable for lacking any kind of drive or fire of its own, in despite, giving him the benefit of the doubt, of its subject.

Arriving at HK, we were warned of bad weather, which would at least be warm, and rain did lash the plane on the tarmac and pelt down on its roof, but the wave of tepid air that greeted us on the skybridge or walkway was wonderful. Redolent of that mystery by which one day we are in early spring’s crisp air and the next in late summer’s wet warmth.

The airport also came as a reminder of something you forget after a long time stuck on our islands: architectural scale. How exciting it is to come across an interior vista that almost reaches the vanishing point of perspective. We were confronted with how large the terminal really was when we had to board a fast train, inside, to get to the immigration and baggage claim areas. And in keeping with the sense of scale, people generally whispered when they spoke, a hush prevailed, especially from the frowning woman directing with clear hand gestures which queue to join to have our passports checked. A process that had more to do with data collection than a check.

No sign upheld for us to make our transfer, we asked a short and happy official for directions. He pointed us towards the nearby desk belonging to our hotel. We were soon wearing colour-coded stickers and following a relay of different guides through the terminus to our bus. It came as a surprise to one man, whose wife had gone for a wander, with what expedition the process of transfer was conducted, since he had to be left behind, his wife not being back in time.

The bus had that particularly Chinese, and once Eastern Bloc, character: fake wood arms, fake leather, underpowered engine, rough riding on a highway that can’t have been as pocked and holed as the suspension made it seem. And HK soft-focus behind the windows. Cranes looming out of the rain and hot fog, islands and boats, and enormous suspension bridges, and towers of apartments – rather than apartment towers.

They shot up thin and often in groupings, like asparagus, and organic, somehow, with unexpected colours, pink, teal, blue, shoot-green. But it was also odd how colonial the mess of buildings and desperate greenings of tiny spaces, sometimes epiphytes hanging off walls of stone or concrete, and roadage, how homely it seemed. Like Auckland, the official buildings rounded at the corners, paint peeling: it produced that same sort of feeling of bureaucracy fallen into disuse and the architecture of bureaucracy fallen into picturesque disrepair as a New Zealand city. Clearly the hills were from Wellington.

We had been fooled, by the time we got to our hotel, that the bus’s air-conditioning reflected the actual air temperature and again had the shock of stepping out into soup. The concierge became more concerned at there being a missing envelope, which we had been told to expect by the guy whose business it was to run the bus transfers, than he really ought to have, but managed to upgrade our room to one with a harbour view – true – taking our pre-booking forms from an ancient cardboard concertina file in the largely swanky though over-perfumed – frangipani? – surroundings of the lobby. I was a little concerned at how difficult his accent was to understand. And this was the general pattern: English is not widely spoken and when she is, it is broadly, with an accent.

Having checked in, even got into the room, despite the early hour, we had to come up with what to do with our day not knowing a great deal about the city. So we jumped on a tram and headed into central to find the Peak Cable Car to take us up to the top of HK Island, the idea being that this might help us get our bearings. The trams are double-deckers. I got tangled up in the turnstile on the way in but luckily was tall enough for it not to do me any damage. Tall enough also to be a finger away from the wood of the ceiling. But the trams are magnificent. Tall narrow and windows open threatening to remove limbs. No air-conditioning. We wondered if this accounted for the demographic using them, Sunday, mainly women, not speaking ‘Chinese’ but possibly Filipino, Malay? Many of them wore headscarves.

The women of HK were taking back the pavements and steps and in fact anywhere there was room for them. They brought umbrellas, raffle tickets to sell, agendas to promote, pamphlets to hand out, diaries to fill with networking details, food to eat, food to share, food to sell, produce to share and sell, plastic sheeting to sit on, lie on, share with friends, in groups of two, three and ten, in their millions, is how it seemed. They found shade and we first saw them in real numbers where we disembarked, under the flanks of a commercial building, like bag-people, but obviously on more of an outing, because of the umbrellas, the parasols. They resembled a sit-in. As if the women who worked at the building wanted to protest sexist working conditions.

Going up the hill, the Peak, a little way, to the cathedral, there were more women gathered. Perhaps that’s it. There wasn’t room in the church to keep up with the demand. But what about all those wearing headscarves? Mysterious.

We took the Cable Car. It not only climbs at almost forty-five degrees, it varies its incline in a way that is quite disconcerting. One minute on the level, the next at a ridiculous angle to the skinny upright towers that process up a ways into the green park which covers the peak. And it climbs. Climbs again. Levels off, takes a corner or two, climbs. Until we’re at the Galleria, a multi-storey shopping centre with a head like an adze, which, on top of the collection of rip-off and kitsch stalls and stores, Starbucks, Gumpy Shrimp American something, occupying the tower, boasts a perfectly preternaturally sheltered viewing platform, or roof. With views back over Kowloon Peninsula, over the Norman Foster building, whose work we’ll be encountering again, I hope, in the Millau Viaduct. And out the other side, over islands and junks and villages of small craft and container ships: both views still hazy from the rain, clearing.

Out from the Galleria there was an authentically charming cobbled area with an expensive restaurant on it. We didn’t. Though starving, we were carried on an endless looping cable back down the hill. When it was first built, the Cable Car reserved two seats for the Governor until five minutes before departure of every car, just in case he might turn up.

A series of beautiful buildings. Arranged so that even on foot new vistas are constantly opening up, new facets to the towers on show, other towers beyond them revealed. Back down into the market zones looking for a bite.

From the tram we’d seen Hay Hay Kitchen Hay something. Succeeding in finding it, they did the best black bean chilli squid on flat noodle, and the best sweet and sour pork, and Singapore noodles ever. Then, we were ridiculously jet-legged. And the sun was out fully now, beating down on our heads, making every store with a cool breeze blowing from it attractive. Did a little light shopping. Brilliant.

And on our way back to the hotel, women filling the footpaths, thousands. I asked one group whether they spoke English. No. Another, no. Same thing a couple more times until I struck a woman lying on her side, long shirt dress, pants, head-scarf. Why? I asked. Protest?

No, she answered. It is my holiday.

But just for women, ladies?

No. We do this every Sunday. Anybody can.

Maybe the rooms in the endless serried ranks of towers are so small that released on Sunday, everybody takes to the streets, changing them into one vast living room. Could be the case were there not a predominance of women, were it not belied by a sense of urgency in the women, despite their relaxed bodily attitudes, as if more were at stake.

We got lost. We got blisters. And too much sun. And HK is awesome for being so idiosyncratic in its mass-orientated-ness. For having such bizarre elements clash in it, especially the very large and the nearly microscopic. Love its lost spaces, and mad back ends of businesses, often brought around their fronts, or contesting which deserves to be out front, nowhere more so than in the arena of smell. Smells we’d relegate to back ends waft out like banners from apothecaries, butcheries, teashops, fish shops, even building sites, smelling of burning concrete, and other sulphurous smells advertising who knows what.

We ate fresh broiled chicken with chilli ginger garlic paste on rice for dinner and a vege soup on the side. It was excellent.