Begins With A Single Step”
Hong Kong is jarring, but I’m an eager student. My sense of this metropolis goes back and forth, but each day it ends on top. This is the third version of this post that I’ve written because I can’t draw lasting conclusions, my observations keep getting challenged–I can’t decide how I feel.
One of the reasons I love to travel to new places is the questioning, growing, and learning. It’s usually a linear job that goes out, ideas formed from what I see and do, not from rattling my belief system. The best thing about going to new places is the creativity I feel, new possibilities, and then the percolating energy to try new things–live a little differently. Not as fun, are emotions and values swirling around, not settling into corners to consider and fill the space. This has been Hong Kong.
Exploring Far-Flung Places
Let me start at the beginning. One of my sons is studying abroad in this part of the world. He left home on New Year’s Eve for the long flight over, and it’s been four months since I’ve seen him. I’ve been anticipating this trip for so long, and excited about the amazing opportunity to blog about it too. I had envisioned a fashion slant of course. I’m meeting my son in Queenstown, and then we’re traveling on to Sydney. On a whim, I added four days in Hong Kong and one in Singapore, on the front end.
I arrived after a 16-hour direct flight from New York that puts you into the physics-challenging space of the future by 28 hours. The past few days I’ve walked the crowded city streets–paved, cobblestoned, escalatored, terraced.
I’ve viewed Hong Kong from sea level, the Mid-Levels, the Peak. I’ve been in nature, and at sea.
But the overarching experience has been shopping—it’s everywhere—high, low, flea, luxury. From street stalls like Canal Street on steroids, to high-end malls, to smatterings of local boutiques, Hong Kong is famous for its shopping.
Where have all the chic ones gone?
I thought my blogging focus would be on photographing street style, and sharing unique shopping. I was expecting to find a hallmark style, and an other-worldly experience. I would see chic Asian and European, couture-clad women, and funky street kids like in Korea. On the whole, that’s not been it. What I’ve seen is similar to the streets of New York—every look you can think of, and mostly the same stores. I was surprised at the intense Americanization. But what’s missing in Hong Kong is a Madison Avenue, Meatpacking district, beauty that extends beyond the eye. If I had to pinpoint Hong Kong style, I’d say it’s more casual, minimal and sharp—making their point without a lot of fuss. That makes sense in this city thronging with people. Function and living are key. I like that about Hong Kong. There’s this fortitude its people must have when suddenly a street climbs uphill, or the sticky streets are teaming with people. On a Sunday afternoon, their only day off, I saw people enjoying the outdoors while being forced to sit on sheets of cardboard! There aren’t any benches or ledges on which to sit and relax. Ironically, across the street there was a tiny parcel of grass that was cordoned off, with the sprinklers on.
I’ve seen few heels, or unnecessary accessorizing. Yet, the shops are filled with all the markings of the latest trends of excess and embellishment. The persistence of beautiful overkill isn’t going anywhere, unless the world becomes a brighter place sometime soon. Here’s the first of many inconsistencies—nobody wears this stuff.
I thought, okay, maybe I’m not going to the more luxurious areas or places in the city. But then, I was at the Landmark, a shopping destination that is “the epitome of top-tier, opulent shopping and lifestyle experiences.” This was on Easter morning no less, a holiday which has been promoted all over the city, so I thought people would turn it out. I had Dim Sum at Duddles, a cool patrician-meets-stylish restaurant. There were expats having Easter brunch with their families. I peeked into the Mandarin Oriental, and I shopped in high-end boutiques. I saw no errant feather floating, nor loose sequin nor glint of rhinestone. Neither was there an interesting draped skirt, deconstructed dress or flared jean.
The yin and the yang of Hong Kong produces more pondering than pronouncements. Like this…a people who value beauty and revere ancient ways, who have built a city that has few standout buildings and hardly any that are preserved from its British past. Modern glass buildings mingle with shanty housing in a jumble made more pronounced by a terraced city–there’s a sort of 3-D chaos that’s engulfing. Ditto for the lack of attention given to authenticity at a cultural institution, like Man Mo Temple. It is hastily preserved, with modern amenities sticking out like a sore thumb–for example the large, standing modern fans that hover overhead to circulate smoke from the overhead incense coils.
I stayed at a beautiful British-era throwback called, the Pottinger Hotel. Right outside the front door there are a variety of local restaurants, American chains (including Hooters), and hopping bars. Look the other way down a side street and outdoor provisional kitchens serve street food, with makeshift plastic tables and chairs. This mingling is fantastic. The place was like something in the outer countryside on, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. While my hotel room was carefully tended to every day with trademark organization–toiletries and shoes neatly arranged and lined up–there’s clutter on the streets and in the parks. In this tropical climate’s ability to support an enthusiasm for gardening and flowers, there are hardly any. And it’s difficult to become absorbed in your own world because it’s disrupted with the opposite. At the top of the city, Victoria Peak, with its magnificent grandeur and Hong Kong rising up to it from below, the viewing deck can only be accessed through a shopping mall!
Other conflicting curiosities include a city of 7 million inhabitants with scant violent crime, no honking car horns, floods of people who mind the crosswalks, efficiency, unbelievably gracious service and kindness extended at every turn. The people are the city’s soul in all its lovely messiness. My first night I ate outside, down that side street. I shared a table with two other women. They asked if I needed help with the menu, and then ordered for me. When given change from a purchase, the transaction is given care and the money is presented to you in the palms of both hands, like a blessing. There seems to be pride in a job well-done.
Will the real me please stand up!
While I struggle to make sense of this wonderful world, what really has me confounded is my sense of self. Who am I these days (okay, I guess just since I’ve been in Hong Kong)? The embroidered, encrusted clothing isn’t as meaningful. Instead I’m taken with the angles of a dress, the sweep of a sleeve. Are my standards nit-picky, choosing homogenized over authentic? After all the years of working to throw off perfectionism, have I relapsed after the daily toiletry line-up? Is there a bourgeoisie side to me that’s been latent, with underground longing for formality, ritual and etiquette? Has Zara lost its zing? (Never!)
A few days into this trip I was reminded how much travel brings the joy of self-discovery. Like the contradiction of bamboo used in Hong Kong’s scaffolding(!)—light and delicate, but fiercely strong–this time my searching hit opposite ends of the spectrum. The way Hong Kong got into my heart, so will I grow into these new discoveries in mine.
All Photos: Dawn Bell Solich