2019, BLOG XXI: HK
Despite my worries about demonstrations all was calm at HK airport and there was no excessive police presence. However, one stop on the train had been temporarily eliminated because of previous protest activity.
To my astonishment, I had a taxi driver who knew the Helena May and knew how to get there through St. Joseph’s back yard. In some twenty-five years of visiting HK I have never had a driver who knew the name Helena May. However, the passage to St. Joseph’s backyard was chained off because previous police-demonstrator clashes had injured the pavement. My driver was not only knowledgeable but kind. He pulled over on Garden Road just above the Helena May and got my bags and me onto the sidewalk, a not legal operation. I tipped. I didn’t have to brake going down the hill for as far as I otherwise would have. You brake because the hill is extremely steep. I have a recurrent nightmare in which my suitcases somehow elude my grasp and go hurtling down ending up crashing into Chater Garden or fouling traffic on Queensway.
My second astonishment was that not only were they expecting me at the HM but Ah Ling had stayed on to greet me. She takes care of the women on the second floor. She is a superb person and disapproves of my going barefoot in the corridor and bathrooms, providing me with hotel slippers to ensure my respectability. I gave her a big hug.
The Helena May was the mansion of the Governor of Hong Kong. His wife, Helena May, in her will, dedicated the building to be a hotel for women. That was about 1900. The women’s quarters are two floors of good-sized, nicely decorated rooms with elegant shared bathrooms. Men stay in small, but not for HK expensive, plain rooms tucked under the highway. They have their own baths.
Sorting things in my room, I noticed Garden Road was exceptionally quiet. I went out on the balcony to see below a police van, car and motorcycle. Further down there seemed to be a mass of people.
An elderly Chinese man walked down the hill swinging a blue plastic bag. When he came to the vehicles, the police were standing outside of them, he began shouting and punching the air. It didn’t require a knowledge of Cantonese to know he was cursing them.
I went out an hour later intending to go to Great Food in Pacific Place but when I passed through the Helena May’s front door I could see that the mass I had noticed was composed of police in battle costume, shields, rubber bullet guns and other equipment. I went back into the Helena May.
Later my neighbor came out on the balcony to look too and when I told her about my food-shopping dilemma she suggested I go up hill to a grocery named Fusion. I did.
Coming back down again I encountered a woman telling people it was all right to walk down. They were hesitant because of the line of police across the road at the St. Johns Building. I walked past the van, car and motorcycle and just as I was reaching into my purse for my notebook with the door code in it a man’s head popped out of the door. He laughed when he saw my notebook saying, “Yes. I had to do that in my first weeks.” He let me in both doors.
That was the extent of my contact with demonstrations in Hong Kong.
Sunday, a friend picked me up with a car full of people for lunch at a dim sum place. Both company and food were good. She and I went off on a full stomach to the Chinese Emporium. This is a government store that sells all kinds of Chinese things from jade carvings to silk lingerie. They are cheaper than other venues and are always busy. My best buy was when the store was Kowloon side, around the corner from the Peninsula Hotel. I bought on sale, for 100US, a handsome leather jacket. The size was XXL, which is why it fitted me. I was, however, this time, buying Chinese style children’s clothes. I bought enough to qualify for a free stuffed panda.
We took receipts and chits to the right counter but when we saw the panda on offer we recoiled in consumer horror. He had a curly black moustache, like a melodrama villain, but his cheeks were rouged like his virginal victim.
We took the metro back to HK side. People gave us seats; there was more friendly contact than I remember in former years. When there is the stress and fear that HK is going through now, people are often more open and eager for contact. A feeling of community, “We’re in this together,” is prevalent. I also felt people were subdued. Hongkongers are an ebullient crowd and they seemed hushed.
When I had my manicure and pedicure with Kitty next morning I learned that her son, a tuba player who has performed in Europe as well as HK, had participated in some demonstrations. Pushing back my cuticles, Kitty said, “I prayed. My God told me, ‘Shut up. Leave him alone.’” I could stand a god like that in my life. Her son has decided not to go to the demonstrations since the violence has escalated.
Talking to friends, I had a moment’s aperçu of the complexity of the situation. Their families are fractured by the demonstrations, but not quarreling. One friend’s father-in-law and son-in-law refer to demonstrators as rioters. His daughter, wife and he are pro demonstrators.
My grandson E came into HK, after being delayed in Beijing for twenty-four hours because demonstrators had been trying to close down the road to the HK airport. The Chinese weren’t going to let flights in until they were sure people would be able to get out of the airport.
The next few days were a blur of activity. We needed Chinese visas to go to Guilin where we were headed in three days. That wasn’t difficult. I have a good travel agent in HK and he sent a man to the HM who took our pictures. The Chinese are particular about these—no smiling– and he tried to get my hair to lie down as officially required but it would not. He went to the necessary offices, delivering the visas to the HM two days later.
Friends and I got E to some of HK. He took himself for walks on his own familiarizing himself with glittering Central.
We took him to Mountain Folk Craft, a favorite store of ours run by two bent over ladies, who sell bits of china, carvings, old children’s hats—now very expensive—puppets from Indonesia and China, block printed fabric, paintings on glass and jewelry. We mailed the Chinese children’s clothes to Albany, going on to the Star Ferry because you cannot say you have been to HK if you haven’t been on the Star Ferry. Getting out Kowloon side we walked to the Peninsula for a cappuccino in the upstairs’ lounge. We didn’t have time for the tea downstairs, unfortunately.
On our way back to the ferry E saw the teashop I have never entered but whose windows I have gazed into for years. I admire their tiny teapots and diminutive cups knowing I need none of these. E, who is fantastic about language, never cowed by it, dove in and tried out his Mandarin on Vivian who, with her mother, runs the little shop. They conversed back and forth between languages discussing tea. Often on this trip when he would say something in Mandarin people would just stare at him puzzled, then laugh, not at him but at the situation of incomprehension.
The next day S and E and I lunched with a friends at the Helena May before one drove us to the zoo entrance saving us a grand up hill slog. I love the HK zoo. Unfortunately my favorite orang was napping on a high platform where his amazing face could not be seen. He has great flanges, a sort of face decoration orangs grow but not until they are around 20 years old. Females prefer orangs with flanges.
We walked down through the caged birds looking at flamingos and a good-looking kookaburra, plump and white, pleased with himself. We crossed the road going up hill to the enormous netted aviary, one of my favorite places. It started to rain gently as we walked with unfamiliar birds all around us, on branches over head, on branches below us and a magnificent, white pheasant taking a stroll by the side of the palm lined stream at the bottom. Some had long green tails; others were chubby and blue sitting together, a tea party on a branch over head. They were unfamiliar but as fabulous in their colors as rare gems. Since you are not a threat they let you get close.
We went up to a second set of cages in further rain but after the aviary caged birds did not enthrall, although there were a lot of hornbills. It must have been mating season because they were making incredible squeak-squawk noises while lifting their heads and stretching out their necks. We were the only people among the cages.
It rained off and on all the way home to the HM where we finished our packing for China.