RE­VIS­IT­ING MY HONG KONG 20 YEARS AF­TER THE BRI­TISH LEFT

As the city changed, I met a friend who came to de­fine my time there. When I re­turned to search for him, it awak­ened the ghosts of my youth

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES - Nicholas Kul­ish (Nicholas Kul­ish is an in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter for The New York Times and the author of a novel, Last One In.)

I knocked and knocked on the door to the artist’s stu­dio, be­side the plas­tic logo of a painter’s pal­ette. It had been so hard to find the ad­dress of this musty com­mer­cial build­ing on Hong Kong’s Wyn­d­ham Street, I was be­gin­ning to think it was time to give up on find­ing my old friend Ng Tak Tung there.

In 1997, just a few days af­ter my col­lege grad­u­a­tion, I moved alone to this is­land in the South China Sea to work at a busi­ness mag­a­zine. Much had been made of the Bri­tish hand­ing over con­trol of their colony to the Chi­nese, which for many marked the sym­bolic end of an em­pire and an era. I wanted a lit­tle his­tory, a lit­tle ad­ven­ture and a lit­tle ex­cite­ment, and ended up with more of all three than I was pre­pared to han­dle.

From the deck of a rented junk bob­bing off Stan­ley Beach, I watched teams of men and women fu­ri­ously pad­dle their brightly painted dragon boats, the carved wooden heads, teeth bared, jut­ting from the prows. I re­ported from a demon­stra­tion for the first time, a can­dle­light vigil in Vic­to­ria Park with tens of thou­sands of par­tic­i­pants to hon­our the democ­racy pro­test­ers slain at Tianan­men Square eight years be­fore.

A few weeks af­ter that, I sat in a tiny store­front cafe festooned with Christ­mas lights and watched a tele­vi­sion news re­port show­ing that, just be­fore dawn, ar­moured per­son­nel car­ri­ers brought Chi­nese troops over the bor­der from Shen­zhen. That same week­end, at the red-and- white brick For­eign Cor­re­spon­dents’ Club, a gi­ant of a man in muddy black tuxedo pants and an un­tucked pleated shirt head­but­ted me be­cause he couldn’t get what he wished to have.

And I had a darts part­ner from the Chi­nese is­land of Hainan, a painter who spoke as lit­tle English as I did Hainanese, which is to say none. But Tak Tung and I be­came un­likely friends at the cafe across from my of­fice on Hol­ly­wood Road, the Globe. He had a knack - con­found­ing the Bri­tons we de­feated - for miss­ing the easy throws and then hit­ting the bull’s eye with im­prob­a­ble con­sis­tency.

Since our words flew un­in­tel­li­gi­bly past each other, we com­mu­ni­cated by draw­ing on nap­kins and coast­ers. We sketched the peo­ple we knew. We drew maps, of Hong Kong and China, of the world, of boats and air­planes and the dot­ted lines that de­scribed our re­spec­tive jour­neys.

The last time Tak Tung and I saw each other, he in­vited me back to his stu­dio. He picked up the phone (a lan­d­line, of course) and di­aled a num­ber and handed the re­ceiver to me. A woman was on the other end - his wife. She said she was in the hos­pi­tal and that her hus­band was hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time be­cause of her ill­ness. He wanted me to know it meant a lot to him to have me as a friend.

Soon af­ter, I left that part of the world. It was long be­fore Face­book. A lot of peo­ple didn’t even have e-mail ad­dresses yet. And when you made a broke, dis­or­derly re­treat from a city as I did, you lost touch with most of your friends half a world away.

Now two decades on, the only relic I had of Tak Tung was a small re­pro­duc­tion of a paint­ing he had made of the Lan Kwai Fong nightlife district. As I pre­pared to re­turn for the first time since the au­tumn of 1997, I searched on­line and found only a paint­ing of bot­tles sold at Christie’s a decade ear­lier and an an­cient-look­ing web­site for an art school with the pur­ple pal­ette logo I had come to stand be­side now. No one an­swered my knock­ing.

He could have moved back to the main­land, em­i­grated to the West or, for all I knew, passed away.

As a last-ditch ef­fort, I took out a busi­ness card and scrib­bled on the back that I was in town and to please call or write. That is, I added, if he even re­mem­bered me. I slid the card un­der the locked door to his dark­ened stu­dio and left.

So much had hap­pened in the 20 years of Chi­nese rule - the SARS epi­demic, creep­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, the protest move­ment - I did not ex­pect to recog­nise Hong Kong. Look­ing on Wikipedia be­fore my wife, Rachel, and I left for the trip, I saw that 18 of the 20 tallest build­ings in the city had been built since I de­parted. I could pic­ture the mod­ern sky­scrapers as they rose, cloaked in can­vas and the city’s tra­di­tional bam­boo scaf­fold­ing.

But as we scanned Google Maps for ho­tels, I pointed out my old apart­ment on Lyndhurst Ter­race, traced my finger along the path I used to take down to the ferry pier. Rachel noted that I re­mem­bered the street names from 20 years ago bet­ter, in some cases, than those in Crown Heights, where we have lived for three years.

Upon our plane’s de­scent into Hong Kong, I looked out the win­dow onto cargo ships slowly ply­ing through grey-green wa­ters, the ship­ping con­tain­ers like so many pri­mary-coloured Le­gos stacked on their decks and could see the dark masses of the out­ly­ing is­lands jut­ting up from the wa­ter. I found it all in­stantly recog­nis­able.

De­spite our ex­treme jet lag, I goaded us into a lengthy walk­ing tour, each mem­ory push­ing me a few more steps, and the next sight lead­ing to an­other mem­ory. I showed Rachel the in­cense-filled Man Mo Tem­ple and the stone wall trees, banyans whose sprawl­ing grey roots clung to the faces of old re­tain­ing walls like dense webs. The rank mar­kets of raw flesh and liv­ing sea crea­tures still de­fied the ad­vances of ster­ile su­per­mar­kets. And when there was no an­swer at Tak Tung’s stu­dio, I pushed us on­ward.

The Star Ferry chugged us across the har­bour, cheap as ever, of­fer­ing amaz­ing views of the bristling for­est of high-rises scal­ing Vic­to­ria Is­land. We dis­em­barked and surged into the crowded in­san­ity of Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon, on the main­land side, more densely packed than ever but the ex­plo­sion of warm neon light largely ex­tin­guished in favour of cheaper lights.

We plunged into the themed clus­ters of shops in nearby Mong Kok, tour­ing the Gold­fish Mar­ket, with thou­sands of colour­ful lit­tle fish swim­ming tiny cir­cles in the rows and rows of plas­tic bags where they were dis­played.

We saw Flower Mar­ket Street’s pro­fu­sion of blos­soms, in­clud­ing lo­cally grown lilies and chrysan­the­mums. And we watched proud own­ers in­tro­duce their brightly plumed, squawk­ing par­rots at the Yuen Po Bird Gar­den.

This was a far cry from my old rou­tine in Hong Kong. I did not spend a lot of time on Flower Mar­ket Street pe­rus­ing fresh blos­soms. I spent most of my time at the Globe. For any­one raised on back-to-back syn­di­cated episodes of Cheers as I was, the Globe rep­re­sented an ideal: Not just an af­ter-work hang­out, but a life­line in a new city, with a built-in group of friends.

By the time I vis­ited this year, the Globe had shut down on Hol­ly­wood Road, but avid pa­trons had chipped in to re­open it around the cor­ner. The old metal sign from out­side had been sal­vaged and now hung on a wall in­side. The sig­na­ture paint­ing of a map of the world presided over a nook filled with games and books. At the old Globe, meals were made - or should I say, cheese was melted - in a toaster oven. The new it­er­a­tion was a full-on place with del­i­cate fish and truf­fle po­lenta.

The change in the city’s sky­line was most ev­i­dent from the clam­orous, ever touristier van­tage of Vic­to­ria Peak. I M Pei’s Bank of China Tower, once a dom­i­nant fea­ture on the is­land with its twin masts and white tri­an­gu­lar pat­terns, was now eas­ily lost among the many Go­liaths that stood shoul­der to shoul­der in Cen­tral.

We had just fin­ished eat­ing egg tarts at Tai Cheong Bak­ery, as I puz­zled over which fancy bou­tique had moved into the ground floor of my once-grimy old apart­ment house, when I re­ceived a What­sApp mes­sage. “Hi Nick, I’m Tak Tung! So ex­cited to see your name card! Are you in HK now?”

I ar­rived at his stu­dio to find the door propped open. Wooden frames were stacked against the wall, along with a few brightly painted pink and blue can­vases of flow­ers. Ng Tak Tung had round, black-framed glasses I didn’t re­mem­ber and a white goa­tee now cov­ered his chin.

De­spite the 20 years that had passed, he was in­stantly recog­nis­able to me.

On a street in cen­tral Hong Kong

A stop for dim sum at the tra­di­tional Luk Yu Tea House, which has wooden booths and ceil­ing fans

A flower mar­ket in Mong Kok

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