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
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