As if every passer-by were an Emperor, she kneels and rocks before us, paying her obeisance. But the school children do not see her, walking by with their noses in their smartphones, and headphones in their ears. The lines on her face are ingrained with years, but they look gentle still. Her skin, weathered and tanned, could be as hard as leather or as thin as paper. It is hard to see, for she keeps the backs of her hands to her face and her forehead low to the ground. Only the meagre glint from the few tarnished coins in her cap makes a grab for my attention.
Sitting under a deserted shop-front, an old man angled a square biscuit tin in vague protection of his modesty as he peed into it. His legs looked as thin as chopsticks: the sort of emaciation found only in an Oxfam appeal. The bus stopped in front of him, but his eyes looked at nothing, and no eyes looked on him. It was as if his withered, frail frame wasn’t there; as if his few possessions were invisible to all.
On the footbridge by the railway line the cardboard boxes that stand for houses. The other footbridge is always busy, the relentless crowds on the street found just as relentlessly up there. But this bridge never takes someone across the road. It seems a bridge to squat on, not to walk across. The crowds sense that it is not theirs to use, that it isn’t just a crossing or a walkway: that to stand on its concrete is to stand on someone’s hearth.
Hong Kong may be full of glitz and razzmatazz, it may be full of lights and sounds, and even full of energy and bustle, but it isn’t kind to all. Despite, or perhaps because of its wealth, it is an unequal city. Over a million live in poverty, priced out of their own city, their own country, their own lives.
Government tables show that the largest group of people earn somewhere between HK$10,000 – 14,999 a month, not much in a place that is as expensive as London; over half earn under HK$24,999 a month. That isn’t so different from the UK’s median salary, yet a long way short of London’s, which might be a rather more appropriate comparator. In the space of time that incomes have risen by 42%, house prices in Hong Kong rose by 154%. While the average house price in London was 12 times average earnings in 2015, it was 19 times for Hong Kong.
A 2015 poll showed that under 30% of “young adults” were satisfied with life in Hong Kong: a bad figure for the future. But it isn’t the future that is the problem for the old men and women who eke out a living selling bits of cardboard collected early in the mornings from the public bins in the streets. It is the present.
What a globalised world I find myself in. My Hong Kongese friend plays music composed by Mozart, printed in America, with Japanese writing on the cover.
In other ways, of course, Hong Kong has a distinctly local flavour. Take the deposits I need to pay for my electricity, gas and water bills that are worth more than a year’s worth of bills. Or the near impossibility of finding a normal bow tie: one that is not made of plastic, in hideous colours, with weird pointy ends or without a covering of sequins or other little glittering plastic studs.
Disappointment came in triplicate today.
First was my trip to the market for Christmas presents. The Ladies’ Market is usually a dependable source of presents for nephews and nieces. Not so this time. There seemed to be more fake watches and handbags than ever, but no appealing simple clothes or gadgets for children. There was a surfeit of in the inappropriate (including an elephant trunk thong, which, as I momentarily paused in front of it waiting for the crowds to let me pass, a perfect stranger assured me would be much too small for me), but a dearth of the remotely appealing. In the end I walked out with just a pair of children’s slippers. Except that they weren’t slippers: the seller assured me they were something pronounced “shoe-shees”.
Disappointment number two came as I went to buy a little table I had seen the week before. And yet getting to the inconveniently located shop, I discovered that the table wasn’t at all as I had remembered it. It wasn’t nice or even practical at all. So I slunk away, my pennies still in my pocket, but still sans table.
Never mind. By then it was late and dinner overdue. Mulling over what to cook, I realised I was only a street or two from a little restaurant I frequented for their wonderful pork “clay pots” (simple, but tasty, bowls of rice and meat). Buoyed up, I went in, sat down and scanned down the menu card, ready to tick off my favourite dish.
But where was it? In fact, where was anything? I didn’t recognise a thing on the menu. I called the man over and asked if he had given me the wrong menu or if they had changed everything. Delightedly, he explained that, yes, it was a new menu and the restaurant often changed it. So I had no choice but to pick something ghastly and eat it grimly.
As I left, the owner, perhaps by now aware that this kind of change was not what I had been looking for, asked if my dinner had been OK. I cannot remember what I mumbled. But it definitely had not been OK.
At the nearby market dinner can be bought for pennies. And not only that. While the supermarket vegetables are lacking both taste and texture, the stuff in the market is really good. The freshest and most fiery of ginger. Onions, big and juicy. Bright broccoli. Big bulbs of garlic. Beans grabbed by the handful. Sweet oranges. And, oranges aside, all for pennies.
It is quite pleasant to browse the stalls and pick out lunch and dinner, and to cook a varied range again.
Though it be endless domesticity, for now it is an exhilarating change: a bright and raucous life that Hong Kong throws at me.
I finally have the kitchen sorted out and stocked enough to cook a simple dinner (the oven, of course, has still not actually been bought). An entirely uninspiring supper of pasta ensues, but somehow there is something very therapeutic about sitting alone at the dining room table to eat it.
Lunching in the Cosy Corner I noticed that the fake marble column had come loose and was being held in place with several rolls worth of sellotape.
It has been a bit of a week and I still haven’t fully recovered from dinner on Thursday evening. I tried out a new (only to me: it was a decrepit, local affair) restaurant and was astonished by just how delicious the food was. At the time of eating, I felt that it was perhaps the best food I had ever had in Hong Kong. Like as much it was drowning in monosodium glutamate (C5H8NO4Na).
Whether or not the scientific purist will allow me to blame the MSG, the fact is I slept not a wink on Thursday night. As a result, Friday probably wasn’t the best day ever, though the evening perked up over dinner with a banking friend in “a little French bistro” he knew. Loud conversation about the social implications of inclusive liberalism in the context of the nation state ensued (helped by the liberal inclusion of wine). It is just about possible that, by the time we left, the little French bistro was empty but for the participants of this important discussion and three tired waiters.
This morning proved trickier still. Despite its sellotape bound fake plastic column, the Cosy Corner served well as partial restorative. Unfortunately, my post-prandial walk around a rather charming local Chinese-style garden failed to revive my spirits, reviving instead only my hunger.
With great care I have been keeping the little stickers my local homestores gives me when I am reduced by necessity to buying something I well know I already have back in storage in England. Disappointingly, I discovered that my horde of stickers does not enable me to claim for free any of the useful items pictured in the accompanying leaflet. Instead, I am entitled only to an insubstantial discount on an impressively expensive item of no possible use.
Loyalty reward schemes are somehow not what I remember them being.
I had to apply for my Hong Kong identity card this morning, a bureaucratic process par excellence: one has to visit three different people behind three different desks all in the same office but each with their own special waiting area. I had booked an appointment but, arriving early and asking where I should wait, I was sent to the head of the queue.
While waiting the girl sitting next to me brightly asked if I am English and told me how much she enjoys meeting new people. Alas, it soon turns out that she is a Mormon missionary and we spend the next half hour with her pretending that she isn’t trying to convert me and my pretending that I haven’t even noticed.
Later, arriving a few minutes early for a meeting, I pop into a neighbouring bank. Opening a bank account is becoming something of a priority if I am to avoid near-term embarrassment. Alas, banks out here have varied reputations, and the few high street banks that I have had recommended have cheerfully turned me away for being too poor. Today’s discussion got past that stage, but I was disconcerted by the woman’s reaction when I answered her question regarding my nationality. On telling her I was British she shook her head and said that would cause a problem. They would need to do additional risk checks on me given possible sanctions against my country. Had I missed some headlines, I wondered. I gently reminded her that this was a British bank. She smiled.
Feeling that, after all this, it was time to start cooking, I went to buy a frying pan after work. The process (though successful) convinced me to have a last supper at a little Japanese restaurant I had been to once before. I remember it being tasty food, if a little slow.
I ordered the simplest things on the menu thinking they would be quick. It turned out, they were so simple the kitchen completely forgot to cook them. After waiting forty minutes for my salad, I decided to cut my losses and leave. On explaining this to the waiters it seemed for a moment as if they had not only forgotten my order but also forgotten me.
Suitably chastened I entered a couple of supermarkets on the way home and stood in front of the fresh meat and vegetables. It was enough to make me feel I might have to try a few more last restaurant suppers before I cook again.