Hong Kong had, up that moment, disappointed us. True, the sci-fi looks we had expected were as shiny as we wanted them to be, but everything else was too sanitised, too franchised and too blatantly volgar for us to like it. I had come to see the future and, at the same time, the heritage of a culture with thousands of years of history; instead I found tourist traps and market filled with fake goods that I could find in any run-down convenience store in any periphery of any town.
It was one of our last evenings in town, and we were facing the grim realisation that our best memory of this place would’ve been of us eating fish balls on the waterfront at night, which was quite disappointing if you think that we flew more than 12 hours for it. Then, however, we decided to give Kowloon another chance and, by sheer luck, ended up near Reclamation street.
It was a hot, steamy afternoon that soon gave way to an equally torrid night, when we districated ourselves from the sticky embrace of the sellers of the Jade Market. The place stood out in the neighbourhood like a sore thumb, an establishment dedicated to the art of parting tourists of their currency in an area where all the other businesses seemed to cater for locals: rows upon rows of DYI shops competing against each other for the dingiest interiors, and restaurants that didn’t bother translating their menu in English.
The locals watched us going by, men with beer bellies protruding above their belts and left en plein air by rolling their shirts up and older folks all gummy smiles. The buildings towered above us like surly conjurers, old tenements with rusty air conditioning units at every windows, covered in heavy, convoluted neon signs in Chinese, some so big that they even loomed above road junctions. The façades were an interesting melange of colours, as if the tenants had decided to call different decorators, each and everyone of whom gave a sample of their art by painting a small portion of wall and that was basically it.
We loved it.
Sadly we’d come too late for the market to give us anything but a few yelled calls from a couple of sellers and that smell of fish that only markets can give. Reclamation street, however, made up for it. It’s a small, unassuming road of the kind you’d pass by without giving it a second look, but for me it’s now a special place. The dual carriageway has been since long occupied by a double row of market stalls selling fruit and vegetables all day long. We walked down the aisles, past the bundles of snake skin and smoked pig skin, looking at all the vegetables we knew and those we had no idea what they were. Temple road was a few meters away and yet we were the only specimens of tourists there.
The pavements had long since disappeared under thick PVC sheets thrown from the buildings to the market stalls, forming a sort of hot, steamy arcade lighted by the erratic flashes of neons. There, we found the promised land.
It was a seller like all the others but had a longish queue of locals: on my books, the unmistakeable sign of good food. We tested this belief to the maxinum since, as we inched towards the first spot, unreassuring signs started to surface: the greasy blocs of meat, left there on the plastic counter; the bucket with spare change, from which an occasional dollar note would fall and spiral downwards; the rice steamer, which must’ve preceded the Chuenpee Convention. Then there was him, the owner: a small, diminutive man who, sweating like a fountain, would chop the meat, throw it in a styrofoam container with rice or noodles, push the meal down, close the box, collect the cash and wipe sweat off his forehead. All with the same hand.
The queue rule, once again, didn’t let us down. The meal was delicious and, if anything, it’d have given our immune system a good workout. The Hong Kong of squeaky clean floor, sanitised metro and shiny skyscrapers gave away to a different town in the few streets around Reclamation street and Aberdeen. It was a place where bulky women rolled and cooked juicy dumplings, while corner shops fried crab noodles and slimy spicy fish balls, all within walking distance from an endless supply of cheap Tianjin beer.
We spent hours in those streets, up to the points that the (fake) monks collecting alms stopped propping their boxes towards us and started nodding at our passage. We were full beyond comprehension but every shop, every stall, offered something that deserved to be tried anew. Finally, a long time after we entered the neighbourhood, we walked down the road towards the busy waterfront, the ferry terminus and all the fake watch sellers. Bobbing on the waves, shiny Hong Kong looming around and above us, we watched the sophisticated shopping malls, Mandarin-branded hotels and starred restaurants and those who were there, and shook our heads in commiseration.
The city had so much to offer, so close to them, and yet they seemed to be ignoring it, busy as they were spending for goods they could find anywhere else or for imitation of the real culture of this place.