‘…. travel is, deep down, about the real confirmation of very unreal dreams (PICO IYER…’CAN A TRIP EVER BE AUTHENTIC’)
2000-2008…a period of hibernation, of re-locations from Muscat to New Delhi to Gurgaon, Haryana. Property boom and strong industrial base had transformed Gurgaon, a sleepy village with affiliations to Mahabharata (one of the religious tomes of India), into a New Delhi clone. We were lured by green vistas, pollution- free air and manageable traffic, little realizing that few years down the line the ‘Dream city’ would emulate New Delhi’s traffic congestions and unruly constructions.
Not surprisingly the seven-year itch surfaced and 2008 found us jetting our way to Hong Kong, another country and another accidental expat experience. In between there were vacations to USA (meet with children), Singapore, and Thailand and cities within India. Every time we returned, Gurgaon would dip one notch lower in pollution index. The blue skies were fast disappearing to be replaced by perpetual grey, haze and smog.
Hong Kong: Sultanate of Oman and Hong Kong are on different trajectories: one a traditional laid back nation and the other glitz, glamor and restlessness. Hong Kong’s lingering British influences amidst ‘Red’ mish-mash of opportunism is probably what lures visitors, us included, to its crowded streets embossed with glass fronted buildings. The British came in 1789 to what was then ‘Fragrant Harbour’, a sobriquet derived from the scents of trees and flowers that once adorned the hills and shores. They liked what they saw and stayed on finally being reminded of their status as over-stayers in 1997. One cannot blame them as ‘Some can just jump right in, others take their time and watch from the sides for a while… ultimately to succumb to the allure’ and continue to stay on. For millions who followed over the years, Hong Kong continues to be a dream destination despite being swamped by constructions, traffic fumes, odorous exhalations of raw meats and cigarettes and political shenanigans.
We came to Hong Kong in 2008, for a year, and found ourselves queuing at the Immigration office to get our extensions stamped for two, three, seven and permanent residency. There was no single reason for taking root in this neatly packaged multi dimensional concrete locale balanced by yan ching mei ( essence of humanity) but combination of these assets that presented Hong Kong as an exotic experiment. Maybe, I was waiting for such a change.
Cuisine Trap: A clichéd way to knowing a country is to step on its food trail and my introduction to local cuisine was through Chin-India cuisine, Chinese cuisine flavored to Indian taste. The surprising part is that I am not a food person but differentiating the fake (Indian –Chinese) from the real was a choice I willingly made and splurged on the rainbow additions to my culinary choices. Other ‘food’ firsts were the squirming fishes in restaurant water tanks, different species and hues, and till date I ask a table farthest from the mini tanks. Wet markets were another self-imposed banned areas till my helper asked me to accompany her once, Nose scrunched I followed her to realise that I had missed out on the color riot of fruits and vegetables.
Another reason for hopping onto to the food cart is that writing about Hong Kong is similar to being repeatedly pushed through topic shredders. The Island city is prodded and pricked with every alphabet and the F word is way out of the maze. The choice is unlimited from Michelin star, five-star or simply neighborhood open-air food stalls or the once popular Dai Pai Dongs, book cafes and fast food outlets.
The ‘food trail’ facilitated tasting of the esoteric and exotic such as Snake soup, whole pigs or fish varieties and talking about it.
One year down the line the ‘Chinese Takeaway’ in words of Betty Mullard (KOWLOON TONG by PAUL THEROUX) became more than food exploration; it became a way of life. We changed residence from service apartment to a fully furnished apartment in Laguna Verde, Hung Hom, along the waterfront. My days followed a set pattern; morning and evening walks along Tsim Sha Sui (East) promenade watching ‘still’ fishers and seniors risking cold water dips in the Bay; walks in Hutchinson Park to gawk at feisty seniors in coordinated tees swinging to ‘Sugar…Sugar…Honey… Honey’; afternoons and evenings were leisure and writing times, social outings and television viewing. I discovered South Korean serials, watching most from start to finish.
Communication, as in Sultanate of Oman, was/is without bumps or lumps except when faced with unblinking faces in crowded MTR, the mute cashiers at general stores, the gruff fruit sellers at wet market stalls expecting exact change or the ‘No cheap’ commenting shop assistants of brand showrooms because you happen to be from the Sub-continent.
In seven years my discoveries multiplied, in step with the burgeoning verticality as I walked streets, alleys and subterranean air-conditioned walkways, checked on numerous eating-places metamorphosing with drop of chopstick, watched tenacious seventy year olds, bent back tiptoeing on tiny feet, pushing carts stacked with cardboard boxes through crowded pavements. My initial response was to help, but one withering look and I backed off. In a way it was an inspiration to step out of my comfort zone of ‘non-labor’. My glance went to her feet, tiny, but not the ‘iron feet’ of Chinese girls we had read in geography books, in school in India.
Talking with friends I learnt that ‘iron feet’ was ‘lotus feet’, a custom of ‘applying painfully tight bindings to the feet of young girls to prevent further growth.’ This excruciating custom had originated from the upper classes, court dancers of Imperial China (Song dynasty) and percolated down to the masses, a status symbol of beauty and sexuality for a prestigious marriage. Dorothy Ko in ‘Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet (2002)’ writes that the Han Chinese women were bowing to social dictates of the time wearing embroidered and colorful symbols of prosperity. By seventeenth and eighteenth century the custom had percolated down to the masses. In 1887, Alicia Little, had referred to bound feet ‘six year old girls instead of hopping, skipping or jumping like little girls in England, were leaning heavily on sticks taller than them or being carried on a man’s back or sitting sadly crying’.
I do not have ‘Lotus feet’ but my feet size is 4 and it was a joke in my hometown (India) that ‘ you will find your size only in China’. But I have a hard time finding my size amidst the present large shoe sizes of Hong Kong. I see dainty, normal size feet and it is a relief that human frailties and their callous results consigned to the past.
Explorations and Visitations: 2008 onwards was also a period of acclimatization and exploration. Weekends saw us boarding ferries and public transport for surrounding islands (Cheung Chau, Peng Chau, Lamma, Lantau), walking commercial streets and alleys, visiting temples, libraries, museums and to watch commercial and residential areas turn into grand commercial carnivals of decadence and expectations. The trips were ‘mystical flashes of belonging’, of windows opening to another life, of feeling confident about our move to an island country existing in different time zones.
The journey continues and when someone asks me ‘Don’t you miss your country’ my answer is ‘Why. Even after seven years of stay, Hong Kong never ceases to exist’. (John Le Carre “When you leave Hong Kong,” …”it ceases to exist.” in ‘The Honorable Schoolboy’.