The flight from BKK to HK was surprisingly wearing but that might have had to do with getting up at 5 am to drive to Suvarnabhumi Airport with my favorite driver who hates early hours. However, he knew exactly what to do when we hit a jam, looping us swiftly around it, through barely awake concrete towns, via local roads. 6:30 am traffic jams are so modern, up to date and First World.
The traffic was modern but so was the imbroglio I found myself in when I tried to get a ticket for the train into HK from the airport. The one machine that takes credit cards was under repair, all others took only cash and the human behind the counter was only allowed to take cash. So I got on the train without paying and paid at the HK stop where, mysteriously, the humans were allowed to take credit cards.
Sue met me at the Airport Express a great kindness. After we deposited my bag at the Helena May, she dropped me off at GrEAT in Pacific Place, a supermarket for the rich, the beginning of my HK sticker shock. Then she had to go because, although she could start the car, this was puzzling, she could not find her car keys.
My room in the Helena May measures almost twice the size of my room in the A One, besides being elegantly decorated with pistachio moldings and a bright green, cream and black rug, a big black desk and a comfortable chair. However, there is a sink in the room and WCs and showers, one bathtub, are down the hall.
True to her custom, Sue supplied me with an orchid, this year a double stemmed three foot giant with arches of purple flowers and buds, the coffee machine, two phones that with both of us on WhatsApp I don’t think we will use, and far more chocolate from Maison du Chocolate and the Mandarin than anyone needs.
My bill at GrEAT didn’t seem worse than last year but the deposit for the Helena May has doubled, and when I stopped to register at the Pure gym I could get no plan and was told I would be paying almost 45 US a day to exercise. That was a punch.
I love the first part of the walk up from Pacific Place, which takes you by IM Pei’s building for the Bank of China; it is all angles that are emphasized by steel bands. He said he was inspired by the shape of bamboo. His ability to abstract an essence of form from an object fascinates me. On either side of the building are stairs up the hill that pass a Chinese scholar’s garden of rock shapes and running water. There was a girl, maybe six, working her way across rock and dashing water to some flowers under her mother’s watchful eye to pose for a photo.
After Pure the climb becomes serious and I try not to measure my progress, just walk with head down.
At the Helena May I unpacked, did my laundry, arranged myself and even washed my hair.
As I read SCRAPS OF WOOL edited by Bill Colegrave, a collection of delectable, inspiring, thrilling, hilarious travel pieces by everyone, I heard booming noises and went out on my verandah that faces, across Garden Road, the lane beside the US Consulate. Looking down hill I could see, in the slender channels between the buildings, fireworks leaping up in the harbor. The days of interesting buildings in HK has passed but the HSBC, which is a bit like the Pompidou in Paris, having its intestines on the outside, and the IM Pei Bank of China are two monuments to the time when amazing things were happening here. Between the HSBC and the Pei is the monumental glass block mediocrity of the Cheung Hong building. On one side, as the booms continued, I could see bloody sparks being thrown in the air, on the other, golden showers of light were flung up, as though King Midas was casting his wealth up into the sky.
I had lunch with P who goes back to live in Australia from time to time, sternly telling herself it’s the right thing to do, to be near her children and grandchildren. After about six months she usually loathes the place, finds the people unfriendly, insipid and uneducated, and starts hunting for a job in HK. This time she found one in Macau and is cheery, happy and grateful to be back.
I would l like to return in thought to the day in Chiangmai with the half renovated temple by the stream. There are places that enter you, a larval infection into the blood stream. This may happen even before you travel. I used to lie on the floor of my room turning the pages of the family atlas, like large unwieldy sails, fascinated by the colors of countries, by an incantation of names in my head that seemed to rise dispersing rich odors, subtle perfumes—Kabul, Gilgit, Kashgar, Lhasa, Quito, Sucre, the unpronounceable Ushuaia, the angry crackle of Caracas, the gawky awkwardness of Florianopolis. It was hard to breathe the excitement of the names was so intense.
And when I got there some were wildly, vividly dramatic, spilling over my expectations—the white backbone of the Himalayas, revealed at 5 am from a balcony, no longer in existence, of the Kathmandu Guest House, stretching its irregular snowy vertebrae from one end of the horizon to the other. Or, they could be small, soft, transient as the green tattoo of a lichen on the paw of a stone, Buddhist temple lion—Luang Prabang thirty years ago dusty above its rivers, steps up to teak houses littered with children, temples drowsing in the morning sun as monks in orange robes walked barefoot through town and laughed at my inability to divide the alms rice into suitable portions. There is the road I shall never take and never forget. On a ridge in Tibet we stopped, I turned my back on my companions wanting to be alone to be alone and watched a scrim of dust move away from me on the wind over the frail tracks of the road branching to the left.
Those moments are yours in a manner that is inexplicable. They don’t belong to you. They are imbedded in you. They do something to your DNA perhaps. Certainly they inoculate you against the lies and thefts of your culture’s dogmas.
Things that make HK special: getting up early while the traffic is almost nonexistent on Garden Road and having my breakfast at my desk while reading, then doing email, listening as the traffic thickens into Hong Kong’s day. Sometimes I then go down for the communal breakfast.
I had a 10 o’clock with Kitty for manicure, pedicure, and to hear about her son’s progress in life. He has now graduated college, is teaching music to young children and looking about for a position to play tuba in an orchestra. There is, apparently something in the wings, but it is not secure enough for him to officially tell his mother so her information is filtered through his father. I hope he gets a wonderful job in a good orchestra. There aren’t a lot of tuba players so he should do well in a market where there is a shortage.
Sue arrived at the end of my session and we went for dim sum at Dragon i where Karen, only the second Karen I know to pronounce it my way—she also has a Danish grandmother—joined us. It was good but noisy. We had deep-fried crab claw, shu mai, ha gao, spinach dumplings, soup with a lovely big dumpling in it and two veggie things because Karen is a veg.
Then up alleys this way and that, into an elevator and out into a calm, dim, brown and beige reception room. In this hush we were ushered into a room with three beds for our foot/leg massages. Mine was as strong as I could stand. I thought maybe my skin was going to peel off. I have bruises on my calves from bumping into the bed at the A One in BKK. By the time he was through with me, those bruises were 90% gone. We were all as limp as over boiled macaroni. It was 75 minutes, 3 of us in a row on beds with two men and a woman. My man asked Sue in Chinese, “How old is this lady?” He was quite happy when she said, “82.” The Chinese get a kick out of age.
Then Sue walked me over to Venise’s place for a facial with cream, steam, and suction machine. The trouble was Venise talks and at this point I wanted silence to snore in.
The next morning Sue and I had a pastry breakfast with friends A, a Native American who is an actor in films and TV here, N from Kenya, cheery and round of face, and M from the UK who these days seems to spend his time going in and out of China. It was a very talkative breakfast, good to catch up.
We went down to Central where Sue has a private, family, four-car parking space in Tak Shing on Theatre Lane. Theatre Lane is a pedestrian street so when Sue turns off of Queen’s Road and noses the big, white BMW into the crowd waiting to cross, people are always shocked, although they always make way. Occasionally someone will look angry or affronted. Sue and I adjust our faces to apologetic smiles, as she turns into the crowd apparently ready to mow down rows of pedestrians. The doorman at Tak Shing comes up, lowers the chain of the parking lot and then takes the car keys from Sue. We always know who in her large Chinese family is about in Central.
As we walked from the family parking lot, we could hear a vehement drum being beaten. The new Swatch shop on Queen’s Road was insuring its future prosperity by having a lion/dragon dance. The small Purple shimmied about on all fours while the Big Red leapt like a flame shivering all his scarlet dangles. Then he climbed a pole, brown arms coming out of the dragon’s mouth and an assistant with a stick bringing up his tail behind him until he did a hand stand, one hand, on top of the pole. The big gold drum thrummed him up.
We climbed up to Mountain Folk Craft where the same three little ladies are tending the store. They are now on the far side of middle age, backs getting a bit humped, hair dyed piano key black. The store always has interesting things: Chinese puppets, shadow puppets, embroideries, wood carvings, blue and white block printed fabric, old ceramic bowls, jewelry, inlaid boxes and on and on. There is a very battered green crystal frog there who is always tempting, in part because he is battered and cracked. There’s a big chip in his lower jaw.
We went to Miranda’s tiny store but she is travelling and it was closed. Among other delectable treasures in the window she has a piece of white jade so finely carved it might be a tracery of mist.
But it was time for me to treat Sue. I was taking her to China Tang, David Tang’s last restaurant. I only just heard about his death from Sue. He certainly did some wonderful restaurants and shops. This restaurant serves the cream of HK business with their favorite foods. The atmosphere is elegant, unobtrusive; the chairs which gently embrace you are covered with fabric with Chinese cloud patterns. The noise level is very pleasant and conducive to conversation. We had a junior and a senior waiter. The junior, often unsure of his English, would give an embarrassed little bow and then go off to find his senior who would give us a full English explanation of whatever.
We had a lobster bisque soup dumpling each with gingered vinegar dribbled over it; white bitter melon in pomelo sauce presented in the form of a tree; exquisite strips of tripe in a perfectly tuned hot sauce; shrimp dumplings; Japanese beef dumplings rolled in sesame seeds. The dessert was a disappointment; some sort of almond milk with egg white but the cappuccino was superbly perfect. I am perhaps too confirmed a Westerner for Chinese desserts.
Walking about Central five ten years ago, one would see Chinese women trying to be blonds with straw hair or hair of a particularly chemical red which is what happens when you bleach black hair. Now what I see must cost multiple earths because it is beautiful, often tawny blond, soft and swaying, rippling to the owner’s walk. From the back one becomes convinced that the person is Caucasian until you come around their corner. Blond still doesn’t really work with the Asian complexion, but it must be stutteringly expensive and the owners are obviously pleased.
When Kitty found out how much I was paying at the gym a day she started scouting among her friends for a deal. What she found was that other places were even higher. But her effort is much appreciated.
Yesterday as I climbed slowly up the hill from the gym I passed the little cave like stall on the corner squeezed in between the traffic cross over from Cotton Tree Drive to Garden Road on one side and the sheltering bulk of the St. John’s Building on the other. There is a big, old tree in front of the shop and they surround it with their wares, nodding arcs of yellow freckled orchids, pots of ivy. But inside hover the dark faces of purple orchids and white ones like geishas. As you pass, the odor of moss and meadow wafts out into the traffic.
Here an elderly woman, possibly younger than I, her very black hair contrasting with her face paling with age, and her fragile, greying husband have their flower shop. As I trudged by she called out to me, “Do you have far to walk?” I called back with my reserved breath, “Only to the Helena May.” She nodded me on.
Sue picked me up in her low slung, sexy, silver Mazda X something. She immediately led me, of course, into financial peril in a place called Joyce—trousers, admittedly very beautifully cut, for 2,000 US. She ended up buying a gorgeous McQueen black jacket with iris embroidered on it in white. We looked at shoes but nothing for me worthy of the price.
I did buy presents at Shanghai Tang, which will get shipped out before I leave.
We had lunch at Duddell’s, so named because it is on Duddell Street next door to Shanghai Tang. We started with a few pieces of dim sum, followed by fish maw with bok choy, the maw is crunchy and delightful in texture, and excellent soup, a couple of shrimp swimming amidst a couple of vegetables, dryly cooked fried rice and Chinese sweets. Sue wiped hers out. Mine sat there forlorn and unloved. We ended with a cappuccino, which may seem anomalous but is quite common even among Chinese however it does make the waitress smile.
We drifted through the Yewn, a miniscule shop whose specialty is square rings set with diamonds or beasts carved out of gems, or laced with emerald tendrils of ivy. They start at 20,000 US. They had a very unusual, asymmetric teapot in the window that had caught Sue’s eye.
We walked on through the Landmark building to Harvey Nichols to look at shoes where I was waited on by a young woman of great enthusiasm and a brain you would have had to excavate for through strata of make up. But with Sue’s help, not the sales woman’s, I found and tried on repeatedly the shoes I had seen the day before. I bought them. After a certain age one’s feet develop enormous character. Their preferences are totally capricious. They will purr over a pair of shoes one day which the next they declare to be a gift from Torquemada.
Sue, who by now was on a tear, got us on a tram, my second tram ride in all my years in HK, to the Western Market which upstairs houses a fabric market where, perhaps ten of fifteen years ago, I bought some purported silk which turned out to be excellent rayon. I still have the outfit made from that faux silk. So I approached this whole enterprise with a bad attitude. The black wool crepe I bought, however, seems to be very good quality at a good price. Moon will correct me if I am wrong when I deliver it to her in BKK.
Coming back we stopped to buy cheap, Chinese clothing for a little girl I know. These are bright and enormous fun—little cheongsams, little padded jackets with Chinese frog buttons marching their loops down the front.
While I wait for Sue at the taxi stand in front of the St. John’s building I count the number of BMWs between traffic light changes. The record so far is six. I also do, “One Mercedes, two Mercedes, three Mercedes, four….” It is usually several traffic lights between Rolls Royces.
The next day I had a nasty sore throat and life has largely been at a halt since then as I have been confined to quarters. I went to Sue’s GP in Central, Peter Chow who to my great amusement is, although Sue uses him as a GP, a plastic surgeon. He listened to me breath, agreed that my lungs were infected and heaped me pills for all times of the day and a nasal spray. I have been dutifully taking the pills ever since.
When I left Dr. Chow’s office, I walked down the line of taxis on Pedder Street forgetting that the front line is for Kowloon. I walked back and got a cherry driver who looked me over, “How old?” he asked.
He chuckled approvingly.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“A mere child,” I responded.
That night I disobeyed common sense and went to City Hall to hear Stephen Hough, (for those not English, this is pronounced Huff) who is, the program proclaimed the premier pianist of England. He played to a large, attentive, mostly Chinese audience Debussy, with bits of Schumann and Beethoven at the end of each set. His rendering of Debussy was brilliant, the best I’ve ever heard, I think, for its delicacy. Sometimes Debussy is too abstract for me. There was a ten-year-old Chinese boy sitting in front of me with his mother. He too had trouble with Debussy, less with Schumann and with the Beethoven Sonata in F his spine uncoiled like a flame and he shot up, attentive leaning into the music.