“China has a lot of problems,” my Uncle Patrick said, shaking his head sadly. “You look at Hong Kong… and then you look at China,” he continued. “You can see a big difference…”
I was speaking with my uncle (my mother’s older brother) on an express bus that was taking me into the downtown centre of Hong Kong from the airport. It was the first time I had seen him in person, and within an hour of meeting him, we were already engaged in a discussion on the environmental problems that plague China.
I decided to take a trip to Hong Kong with the main purpose of visiting relatives and seeing where my family grew up. Once there, I got to meet my uncle, aunt, and cousins, who I found to be amazingly generous and accommodating people. My Uncle Patrick picked me up from the airport on a Saturday afternoon and at first, I was a little worried about being able to communicate with him, as my Cantonese is worse than my Korean, and I speak Korean like a two-year-old. However, it seems like most people in Hong Kong speak English at least at a basic level, and I had no problem at all talking to my uncle, who is extremely informed and who I suspect has better English grammar than I do. The founder of an environmental advocacy initiative called The Green Great Wall Foundation, he has produced documentaries on China and environmental sustainability and has traveled throughout China and even to the U.S. to speak about his work.
Our first stop was to my hotel in Causeway Bay, a swanky neighbourhood not far from where my family actually grew up. My uncle is friends with the hotel owner, so he managed to procure a cheap rate for a private room. It was super tiny with no private bathroom, but this seemed adequate to me as I have been living in Korea for the past three years and so have become accustomed to making my life work within the confines of closet-sized spaces. However, my uncle was horrified, and after what seemed like a great deal of wheedling and arguing in Cantonese, I was upgraded to a much bigger room with a private bathroom and TV! Now, my understanding of Cantonese isn’t great, but it seems that bargaining happens with the buyer angrily and persuasively arguing their case while the seller holds their ground and appears bored or standoffish. The impasse is breached when either the buyer is irritated enough, or the seller is humiliated enough, to concede. Which is basically how I debate movie options with my friends.
That evening, after a much needed nap, my uncle took me out for dinner with my cousins, Natalie and Howard. I was excited, despite my fatigue, as it was also my first time meeting them. Natalie and Howard also spoke impeccable English and within minutes of our first greetings, they were already intently focused on helping me have the best trip possible. They provided me with maps, coupons, brochures, and plenty of great advice on things to do in the city. I think I may have been a worrisome sight for them, as I was exhausted and looked a mess, and it was my first visit ever to Hong Kong. But I had to convince them not to be fooled by my drooping eyelids or the perpetual glaze over my eyes that might give an observer the impression that I am constantly lost or confused. I was actually quite an avid traveller, I assured them, and very capable of making my way around the city alone without any major mishaps.
After dinner, I was persuaded to try some Hong Kong desserts with my cousins and my Aunt Susie. Okay, Hong Kong desserts are pretty much the best thing ever, and a great example of how you can never judge something by its appearance. At first glance, they may be intimidating: unnaturally neon colours, strangely-textured gelatins, and odd fruit / nut / bean combinations abound, and it’s almost impossible to tell from the picture if any given dessert will be hot, cold, sweet, or sour. Plus, with almost intentionally unattractive, unglamorous names like “Frothy black tea with pearl tapioca” (what??), “Sago in mango with glutinous rice balls” (nothing says “delicious” more than “glutinous rice balls”), and “Crunchy bun covered with condensed milk” (ewww…), it is understandable why an unknowledgeable tourist would choose to avoid these seemingly unsavoury desserts. However, you should not let these minor superficial concerns stop you from trying the greatest thing to come out of Hong Kong since Bruce Lee!
The rest of my trip was spent frantically dashing to the far reaches of the island and back, visiting a mélange of tourist attractions, temples, shopping districts, and museums as I attempted to make the most of my too-short vacation. On my last night in HK, I decided to check out Temple Street Night Market, which carries an assortment of useful – as well as not so useful – merch for the intrigued tourist as well as for the bargain-hungry local. I sorted through goods ranging from the electronic to the erotic, the obsolete to the obscene, searching for cheap – although maybe not entirely unique – souvenirs. During the two hours I spent there, I think Uncle Patrick called me about fifteen times, worried about my safety at being out by myself so late at night (it was 9:30 pm). Although I definitely appreciated the concern, I had to remind him that I was, in fact, a hostile-looking, six-foot-tall Amazonian with a black belt in hapkido, and that, despite my navigational ineptitude and tendency to perform spontaneous acts of clumsiness, I was perfectly capable of handling myself on a busy, lighted street at 9:30 at night!
Before I made my way to the airport the following afternoon, my uncle was kind enough to show me the neighbourhood where my family grew up. Although it has changed immensely from when they used to live there, it was still exciting to see the place where my grandfather’s shop used to be. I imagined my mother, aunts, and uncles walking down these same streets, taking these same trams to school, and sweating to death in the same tropical heat…
Before I left, I showed my uncle some good luck charms that I had purchased for my friends in HK’s famous Cat Street Market. As I was taking them out of the package, I dropped one into my coffee. Chortling, Uncle Patrick said to me, “I guess they’re not so lucky after all!”
Here is my Hong Kong photo album on flickr!