Saturday, January 31, 2009

Hong Kong

It was about midnight when we stepped out of the airport bus onto the streets of Kowloon district. Things were still busy, not just open but actually busy. We pushed through the sidewalk like it was 9 am in Manhattan.

Our hotel was located in a great area, right in the middle of things and just a couple subway stops from downtown. The room itself wasn't great, but it got us by for the 3 nights we had to sleep there. But that first night, we weren't quite ready to sleep when we checked in. We headed back out onto the streets to see the shops starting to close the shutters and people beginning to migrate into bars and clubs and apartment buildings. Hong Kong is very bright, so it didn't feel like 1 am, but it was. We got ourselves lost and then found again before deciding to try to sleep.

I didn't have a watch and our room didn't have a clock, so I can't be sure that it was about 3 am when the sound outside woke me up. It sounded like a flock of chickens clucking. It would quiet down and then roar up again, as though some predator was circling. I looked out the window to see about 50 men swarming and moving up and down the street. They were swarming, but not like bees. They were like ants on a crumb. At first the crumb was one man in the group and then another, seemingly chosen at random.

"Cluck, cluck," they would say and swarm toward him.

Occasionally one man would decide to run out of the group and a tendril would flick out and pull the whole mob after him. It was like watching an amoeba move along the street. They didn't seem to be physically fighting much that I could see. There was a lot of pushing, but I couldn't see any blows thrown. Just lots of shouting.

The group ran off before I could even hear the sirens. They seemed to have a sixth sense about the police, maybe built up from years of clucking on the streets. By the time the car actually pulled up, there wasn't anyone there. And when the car left, one by one, they were dragged back into place and started to cluck again. By the time the police made their second pass, all fifty or so were back and were running again before I heard the sirens. I expected to hear them the moment I started seeing people run away this time. The shouting continued in swells and ebbs as they ran away. If they came back again, I didn't hear them. I just went back to sleep.

The next morning Hye Sook and I woke up early and headed out into Hong Kong. Hong Kong stays up late, but it wakes up late too. Hardly anyone was on the street when we left our hotel at about 9 am. Not even Starbucks was open yet.

We headed downtown to take a bus to the peak overlooking the city. Near the bus station, dozens of women sat in small groups on flattened out cardboard boxes playing games like bingo, doing each others' hair, and chatting. They didn't seem homeless, as most of them were well-dressed. There wasn't a man among them. We weren't sure why they were there, and never figured it out, even as we saw similar groups scattered here and there through the city--always only women, always playing games and chatting and doing hair.

After coming down from Victoria Peak, we decided to just walk though the streets of downtown. It was packed in like it was the night before by now. There were dozens of small booths selling flowers. I'm not sure if this was a regular occurrence or was for Chinese New Year the next day.

For dinner we sought out a tiny little vegetarian place near our hotel but were never able to actually find it. As luck would have it, though, there was another little vegetarian place just a couple blocks away. The food was pretty terrible, greasy and bland. We found that Hong Kong food was really hit or miss like this. I wasn't particularly wowed by anything, but some of the food was at least palatable. Nearly everything we ate was very greasy, though.

We wandered the streets again in the evening. Like I've seen in most Asian cities, there were a lot of people begging on the streets. Some of them were pretty colorful, though: we saw a woman who had to be pushing 70 playing songs on a banjo outside a little coffee house and a dirty British man who insisted that I looked Spanish and kept trying to talk to me in what he presumed was my native language.

We also saw every imaginable product being sold out of hastily propped tents nearly everywhere--everything from video games, to iPods, to clothes, to sex toys all found conveniently right in the street for any passerby to pick up.

The next morning we went to Ocean Park amusement park, which ate up most of our day. The evening was spent again just walking the streets and taking in the city. Our last full day in Hong Kong was Lunar New Year, and we were right in the middle of a well-populated area. It was packed. Banners on the street for the event were actually even put up that said things like "full beyond this point" and police were standing guard making sure that no one else tried to crowd forward. There was a lot of performances and celebrating. There was a parade downtown being broadcast on huge TVs into our area. We headed back to our hotel room after getting sick of the crowds and realizing we'd never get close enough to actually see anything.

I tossed and turned that last night in Hong Kong. I'm not sure if it was because I didn't want to go or I wanted to get home. Regardless, it was nice to sleep in my own bed again.



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