GUEST POST #2: A Stranger in Hong Kong by Kelly Sun

Kelly is an amazing writer. This summer she has been sending me thoughts from her experience of working in China. Below are some thoughts from Hong Kong. Thanks Kelly - I miss you! :)

Last time I was in Hong Kong was a distant 8 years ago. I don’t remember much except for the shrewdness of local shop owners, and the shady math tricks they tried to pull on tourists when giving them change. This time, I wondered what I would see.

It all started on a high-note - The bus trip from Lantau (Airport) was breathtaking. I suddenly understood why so many people from this town flocked to Vancouver, British Columbia back in 1997. The sight of lush green archipelagoes scattered on an emerald ocean surface reminds me intimately of the drive just north of Vancouver. Some pre-reunification HK independence pioneers must have dropped by on accident one day and found the place shockingly similar, and realized that all it needed was a giant Chinatown, and good weather endorsed by Jackie Chan himself.

For a second I thought in shame and cold-sweat that this welcome drive beats two of my hometowns by far-- Shanghai’s shabby airport drive from the swampy farmlands of Pudong, and the overly artificial and over-manicured East Coast Parkway in Singapore, both cities are keen competitors with Hong Kong to be the top Chinese town in Asia. Soon, as the sun shines magnificently over the enchanting scenery, I got over my petty city-rivalry and let a sense of mainland Chinese pride take over. As I profusely thanked Margret Thatcher mentally for returning this Pearl of the East back to the Dragon’s mouth, I was busy scouting the city's prosperous outlook: Look at Victoria Bay and the signature buildings in the Central Skyline! And that of Tsim Shah Tsui on the Kowloon side! KthxImmovingtoHongKong.

Then, the bus took a turn to inner Kowloon and Mangkok neighborhoods and put a timely brake before I change my whole life’s plan for this. For a second I thought I was in the Bronx in NYC or the set of Slumdog Millionaire - the contrast of going from brand spanking new Lantau high rise condos to old-town HK was shocking. The buildings in these neighborhoods are full of hustle and bustle but wow, they look severely run down and almost dangerous from a construction perspective to live in. Suddenly I grew tremendous appreciation for Singapore HDB office’s mandatory renovation and renewal of all HDB flats to keep them looking decent, and my inner Mainlander / Singaporean reared their ugly little heads again taking comfort that okay, a good chunk of Hong Kong does look like sh*t, too.

The hotel nonetheless, was posh and new with friendly staff. Given that I only have about 12 hours of roaming time in this town and a laundry-list of duty-free items to haul back to the mainland, I stored my luggage and ran for a cab. Once again I smirked to my pro-Singaporean self to know that the HK cab drivers are just as weird, cuckoo and speak the same broken English in a different tone.

After hours of steamrolling through the stores military-style with clear targeting and precision, I executed my orders and earned a stripe as a new luxury-mule. This is a moment when I wish I was Buddha Guanyin and grew 998 more arms to hold all the shopping bags. I now understand why Shanghainese people call Hong Kong the new “Luxury Wal-mart”, because simply, everything is cheaper. Reason being, everything imported that is not a necessity in life – or, anything that the great copycat factory of China can make a replica for that the Chinese people are not buying, we get slapped in the wallet-holding side of our butt cheek with a 30-40% indescribable luxury tariff. So, as far as my eyes can see, Tsim Shah Tsui is swarmed with mainland visitors desperate for discounted luxury like starved sharks spotting a dancing school of tasty sardine. Then we get to come back next year and take a photo with our contribution to the economy, happily growing like mushrooms in the skyline of Causeway Bay.

My moment of peace, as in bad taste as it sounds, was when I finally get to sit down at the Peninsula’s courtyard enjoying the notorious Afternoon Tea ritual performed by tourists. I came here for nostalgia, really, I had fond memories of the tea eight years ago and I long for some solo-dining time. Soothed by a private string quartet and sunlight filled tea rooms, I made a promise that I will no longer laugh at the Western tourists sitting down at ChengHuang Temple sipping Long Jing if they do not laugh at me. The pleasure of enjoying exquisite food in relative peace and guilt for the splurge and tackiness was equal in this formula – as the teacake melted on my tongue I thought, thank God I didn’t pick Earl Grey.

Some notables that spoiled the mood just a little – the scene of a little Chinese boy fatally stabbing his scone with the silver dining knife with the silent approval of his mother, and the sight of a Louis Vuitton store at the far opposite corner of the opulent hallway immediately made my leg muscles tense.

After dropping off loads of shopping bags in hotel rooms, I roamed and wandered through the relatively clean streets of Mangkok with the backdrop of the choppy sounds of Cantonese, instead of the chirpy Shanghainese. A resurging cold dampened my plans to venture out to Lan Kui Fong, the party central and ordered me back to bed rest. As I lie in bed staring at the sleepless lights of the city, suddenly, I recalled a saying familiar, “Life is an opera with alternating high-pitched passionate noises and blissful silence.”

The next morning I woke up and got to the airport, the Hong Kong efficiency and speed allowed me to get out of line fast and free, with the only plan left in my pocket being spending the last colorful bill of Hong Kong dollars I have. I wandered into an Aji Ichiban planning to load up some snacks. The shop-lady was smiling ear to ear, enthusiastic and gave me all kinds of tasters, teasers and buy 1 get 1 packages – I on the other hand, resistance-less without breakfast, gladly took on some, if not most of her offers.

As I proceeded through the cashier my jaw dropped – how did I end up getting 800 HKD worth of snacks and a 5 kilogram shopping bag filled with boxes and bags ten minutes and seven smiles later? The math on the receipt this time was impeccable, yet once again I tasted the bitterness and amusement of a repeat defeat, with some relief knowing that the merchants of Hong Kong won’t let me off without a little rip-off – at least psychologically. At least, there is comfort in that I will have some very hungry and happy colleagues tomorrow to share my loss, and surrounding Ms. Hong Kong legally-smuggling Santarina, glowing in excitement like it’s Christmas morning in August.