Notes from the forest of steel and bamboo

There’s a lot that you expect from Hong Kong.

Money (or the impression of it).

The foreign (an assault of it).

The juxtaposition of East and West, crammed on a few tiny islands.

Whatever I expected, however – whatever mental image I had of the city, built up from business travellers and Wong Kar Wai films, wasn’t adequate to prepare me for the reality.

Walking through Central, I was shocked. Not because things were new, or strange, but because they were exactly the same – exactly, and off-puttingly, familiar.

It could have been a downtown anywhere; London, New York, San Francisco. Suits scurrying between glass highrises, lanky fashionistas perfectly balanced atop spiked stilettos, the furrowed brows of businessmen as they argue into cellphones.

And, you know, a Chinatown for good measure.

I appreciated the dimsum I had at a vegetarian tea house in Hong Kong Park. I liked the sunshine that day, too. But overall, Central was not my thing.

In Central, I realised how destabilising it was to suddenly be thrust back into a perfect Western context, and how much that was something I’ve been trying to avoid.

It was only once I got out of Central, away from the glimmering clean streets and well-pressed business attire and the shine of electronic dollar signs rushing through wires, racing across other cities and continents, that I began to get a fuller picture of what Hong Kong is.

Hong Kong is confusing.

Hong Kong is and money, and the foreign, and the juxtaposition of East and West, but in such a practised and seamless way that you can’t tell if you’re in Chinatown in a Western city, or Westerntown in a Chinese city.
Old and new, so closely melded together that it’s hard to even see the lines.

Temples sit next to banks, wet markets are crammed between office buildings, million dollar highrises gaze across the street at dilapitated, decaying apartment blocks.

The young drop money at tiny boutiques and Western chains and swanky bars, the old pray at shrines nestled in the alley around the corner.

And at night, under the scream of neon and the glare of field lights, there are no clear distinctions in the crowd at the racetrack.

Hong Kong was an experience that I couldn’t quite reconcile. The overall familiarity, the feeling that I could know this city as easily as I know the cities back home, was (for whatever reason) an unwelcome surprise. I felt like it was too easy, like things could be too easy. The challenges of travel were different here, they weren’t which bus to catch or how to communicate with a shopkeeper or whether or not everyone is looking at you because you’ve just committed some huge cultural faux-pas – they were how to find a cheap room, a cheap meal, how to avoid the persistant hustle of tailors advertising ladies’ suits, how to get into an English state of mind and remember which direction to look when crossing the street. They weren’t particularly new. They were things I’d done before.

I suppose this was a trip of the unexpected. I didn’t expect to be blown away by Taiwan, and I didn’t expect to be so underwhelmed by Hong Kong. But this latest adventure makes me wonder: is travel only special if you encounter the exotic? Do we travel only to find the unknown? Or is there merit in simply trying on a different version of what we know?

I didn’t find the answer for that. But, if anything, I’ll thank Hong Kong for putting me right up against a new question.


15 Responses to Notes from the forest of steel and bamboo

  1. Kirstin 8 April, 2011 at 20:50 #

    i looooove the perspective on the first shot. I can definitely relate to this post, I haven’t been to Hong Kong but there’s something a bit unsettling about encountering familiar things while traveling to a supposedly exotic location. Happens in Bishkek all the time, I’ll find avocados at the market, go to an Irish bar with a bunch of English-speaking expats, go play paintball, and think “Wait, I thought I was supposed to be experiencing the new, exotic, unknown-to-me Central Asia?”

    • na-o-mi 9 April, 2011 at 18:20 #

      It literally took me about 2 seconds to get that first shot. Those taxis are everywhere ;)
      Actually, I don’t mind encountering the familiar in some respect when I travel – one thing that I love about Seoul is that you can have the foreign or you can have the comforting whenever you want. I think Hong Kong just put me off because it was TOO picture-perfect familiar; literally, Central looked just like home. It was immaculate. I like my cities grungy ;)

  2. Valerie 8 April, 2011 at 21:05 #

    Interesting thoughts. I felt the same way on my visit in 2006. So much about Hong Kong felt familiar, almost like I was in a Chinatown or a predominantly Asian suburb/enclave in the US. But on my most recent visit, which came after I’d spent a month in the mainland, I got to see how much it differed from the mainland, a result of the colonization and Westernization. These days (and perhaps even before the handover) Hong Kong is thought of as China but it’s still very much a separate entity.

    • na-o-mi 9 April, 2011 at 18:21 #

      I think I would have a different perspective if I’d visited mainland China as well. Someday!!!

  3. LEAH 11 April, 2011 at 16:37 #

    I just stumbled upon your blog, great shots of Hong Kong! Love it!

    • na-o-mi 12 April, 2011 at 05:22 #

      Thank you!! Your blog kicks ass, by the way ;)

  4. Ekua 14 April, 2011 at 21:31 #

    Hong Kong was so strange to me! I thought it was because I was slightly jetlagged and feeling mellow because I’d been in SE Asia for while, but the more I see what others have to say about it, the more I think it would’ve been overwhelming regardless of all of that! Great photos, they really capture the essence of the HK experience. I especially like the first one.

    • na-o-mi 28 April, 2011 at 19:38 #

      Yeah, it’s certainly a disconnect from other places in Asia…

  5. Lauren Quinn 28 April, 2011 at 02:27 #

    Totally relate to this. I only spent 11 jet-lagged hours in the city, but it was bizarre and dream-like and kind of like a cross between an outdoor mall and a really clean Chinatown… Love the pictures by the way; you’ve got an awesome eye.

    • na-o-mi 28 April, 2011 at 19:38 #

      Haha, that perfectly sums up HK for me!! Thanks girl :)

  6. Ryan 1 June, 2011 at 12:01 #

    Wow, amazing photos Naomi! I love #1, and 2 the most! Nice work.

  7. Fon 9 January, 2013 at 01:05 #

    I have been to Hong Kong twice, but there are many things i didnt try yet. Reading your blog reminds me of the good time there. Your photo are nice, it makes me want to go find where exactly they all were captured :) Thank you for sharing :)

    • na-o-mi 11 January, 2013 at 18:35 #

      Thank you! Most were all over, I guess ;)

  8. Jude 23 March, 2015 at 14:53 #

    I think you didn’t see the real Hong Kong. Your description of Hong Kong is accurate for Hong Kong Island but the rest of Hong Kong (Kowloon & the New Territories) is very very different. We call Kowloon, ‘the dark side’ hahaha because it is the REAL Hong Kong. Central is just a white washed business district. If you visit Hong Kong again I recommend checking out the many country parks and beaches in the New Territories (Sai Kung especially). I really like the photos b.t.w. :)

    Irish Expat living in Hong Kong (3 years)

    • Naomi Alyssa 4 April, 2015 at 07:33 #

      I would love to! I was so surprised to hear that Hong Kong has parks, beaches and hiking trails once I left…guess I only saw the urban wilderness. Definitely on the agenda for next time. Thanks for the tips!

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