Curiosity #55: Holiday Snapshots

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Christmas Eve

Hundreds of tourists gathered at The Avenue of Stars to watch colored lights beaming from Hong Kong Island, and teenage locals stood with signs offering free hugs. My Swiss friend and I drank champagne out of coffee cups, listened to Christmas carolers fresh from Church, and spoke of atheism. Around the corner, the courtyard of the Cultural Center glistened with holiday lights, and held in its center a giant pine tree shipped from a faraway continent beside two car-sized angels that sank and rose on pulleys.

Christmas vices

Christmas vices

Stefanie and I on Kowloon Pier, overlooking the light show

Stefanie and I on Kowloon Pier, overlooking the light show

Christmas

In a red auditorium, ten-year-old ballerinas danced on stage. The story of The Nutcracker came alive through mimetic dance catering to frequenters of Chinese opera, offering the most generous display of expression I had ever seen on a professional dance stage. Among the dancing “dolls” were a man and woman dressed in gold, representing the eroticisms of Ancient Egypt, who — in an astounding combination of acrobatics and ballet — and perhaps in light of Christmas spirit, enlightened the audience of the potential of human synchronicity by demonstrating how fluidly two human bodies might wind together like snakes.

Christmas dinner was store-bought pizza consumed on the outdoor stoop of the largest Mosque on Kowloon Island. The rest of the night was spent drinking wine on the patio of a young Frenchwoman named Helene, who had newly come into money and made it her business to befriend progressive-minded ex-patriots. Small gifts were exchanged, and I became the benefactor of sumo bath salts. The sloppy-haired architect next to me: a necklace of fish skins dried to flavor Chinese medicinal soup.

Among the other Christmas guests:

A forty-year-old identity-seeking Korean woman obsessed with Pakistan; the only self-proclaimed, “open-minded” person I ever met who actually made an effort to appreciate narrow-mindedness.

A colossal Scottish man who initiated every conversation by insulting his own gender and who drank glasses of wine like shots of Scotch.

A skull-capped man of indiscriminate age who spent his life wandering between professions. After reaching a recent point where he needed change in his life, he abandoned his apartment in the south of France and sought adventure abroad. He recalled the joys of his previous employment as a plumber: specifically of witnessing peoples’ gratitude as he fixed water problems of every variety, as if by saving his customers from their shame and discomfort he had actually saved their lives. A man of small stature, his cloud of cigarette smoke blew up larger than his face. Looking out at the buildings of Kowloon, he spoke fondly of the smiles of his customers, most of whom he would never forget. Of all the people present that night, this rugged friend had the most refined taste in pastry.

New Year’s:

In my friend’s apartment in Kowloon, we popped open beers next to fake valuables we bought at the Buddhist shop around the corner. Among the valuables were cardboard gold slabs, paper jewelry, and counterfeit money. The Chinese residents of Hong Kong purchase items like these to burn for their ancestors, often lighting up additional paper tuxedoes, watches, umbrellas, and even motorbikes so that their loved ones might stay comfortable in the next realm.

Paper offerings from the Buddhist shop

Paper offerings from the Buddhist shop

Stefanie and I knew little about ancestor-worship. Still, we made every effort to create a New Year’s bonfire as holy and as shrine-like as possible. I wrote a letter to my dead grandparents—Stefanie to “Love”—in which we communicated our concerns and gratitude. We made a list of our fears we hoped might burn away along with the expired year.

On the roof of Stefanie’s apartment building, we gathered cement bricks into a corner and arranged a sort of fireplace. There we started a flame with counterfeit money. One by one, we added our valuables to the fire, watching with relief as the flames ate away at the plastic-coated riches that earlier, even in their paper state, seemed too pretty to burn. The letters to our respective otherworldly addressees were the last to go, along with our fears, which – if only our psyches made it this easy – blackened into nothing within a matter of seconds. The entirety of this ritual seemed both a purge and a tribute, and, something I originally had not foreseen, a commitment to humility and change based on principles I had earlier been been too passive to implement.

Drinking beers, transcribing fears

Drinking beers, transcribing fears

Shrine prepped for burning

Shrine prepped for burning

Goodbye money

Goodbye money

Stefanie and I strolled with the crowds in Kowloon smelling of burnt plastic, each holding large bottles of Champagne. By the time we reached Helene’s house, it was almost midnight. When the New Year finally arrived, we yelled from the balcony and toasted to the crowds howling below us on the streets.

We took a Star Ferry to Hong Kong, where we wandered around bars overflowing with half-dressed women who sparkled. At last we found ourselves at the top of a large corporate building in Hong Kong, where we sang Karaoke with a Hong-Kongese colleague of Stefanie’s whose two companions kept sneaking away to fornicate and snort cocaine (God knows where). We kept the girl company by eating her friends’ peanuts, singing along to classic rock, and looking out at the VIP view of Hong Kong Island, which still glimmered at four in the morning. When it was time to leave, we realized that the male cokehead had left without paying.

Stefanie and I hopped on an underground railway that ran all night. When we got onto the tram, we saw that most of the passengers could not sit upright and so drooped in various positions in their seats. Stefanie watched them, nursing a beer she propped casually on her thigh. Stefanie and I walked the rest of the way to her apartment holding hands.

I stumbled into bed at 6 am and woke up with a large wire snowflake clutched to my chest.

The underground rail station: note the beer in Stefanie's right hand

The underground rail station: note the beer in Stefanie’s right hand

New Year's passengers

New Year’s passengers

Curiosity #54: Your Journey up Hong Kong Island

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At the summit of Hong Kong Island is “The Peak”, a tourist destination where visitors can look out upon central Hong Kong and the Kowloon peninsula. To get there you can take a tram and idle your way to the top, or you can set out on foot through cement paths that lead to the mountain’s crest.

Choose the first option and there is little to note. If you choose to brave the hike, however, I appreciate your willingness to take “the long way” to your destination (or anywhere for that matter) and, in the most overdramatic sense, suggest you prepare yourself for the psychological / philosophical / spiritual revelations that might arise from your readiness to sweat.

Your journey will begin in Hong Kong Park. Here you will walk through the manicured Tai Chi gardens, pass through an aviary with a wooden walkway pegged with signs that boast “This is disinfected four times a day.” If you continue upwards through the park, you will arrive at the Visual Arts Center where a Chinese doorman will point you in the direction of the pedestrian path up the island.

The well-sanitized aviary in Hong Kong Park

The well-sanitized aviary in Hong Kong Park

Several apartment buildings and a few corporate skyscrapers will stretch above you on quiet streets that will contrast starkly with the metropolis you will see bustling below. At last you will see the tram railway and a series of steps rippling upwards beside the rail. Now you begin climbing, convinced that your butt will be stone by lunchtime.

Lunchtime arrives, and you find yourself on a separate cement pathway that winds snakelike up the mountain, where the tram rail is nowhere to be seen and where there is zero indication (besides the path’s steady inclination) that you are headed in the right direction. Above and to the side of you are lush forest plants bearing fearsome, thick leaves and blossoms blanketed by surrounding shadows of dark green; and beyond: the intensity of unobstructed sky, and – even farther away, corporate buildings on the blinking harbor. These buildings shrink beneath your ever-rising point of view.

Suddenly you find yourself high above Merill Lynch, HSBC, and Bank of China, and you commend yourself for getting there on foot. How’s that for figurative victory? (I should note that your wallet is almost empty.)

Your view from the cement path.

Your view from the cement path.

You climb like this for almost two hours, stopping with increased frequency as your legs begin to burn. Each time you look out from the path, you marvel at how far you’ve traveled, and then look up at the remaining lump of hill left to climb. You start to believe in the existence of Heaven. Half-an-hour ago you thought you had reached the top and now new spines of the mountain reveal themselves in patches that – until reached – remain mysterious and out of sight.

At last, panting as much out of exhilaration as exhaustion, you reach Victoria Peak, an area indicated by a sign but holding nothing besides a single empty road wrapping around either side of the mountain. A giant brick wall lines the road like the side of a fortress, blocking off another hill that hints at more land left to climb.

After coming so far, you refuse to consider yourself lost. Right or left? You ask a construction worker nearby and he points you in the direction of a cement walkway you hadn’t seen before. The sign reads “Hospital Path.”

Your thighs strain, you believe, for the last time that day. After hiking so long on an empty stomach, you damn well deserve a good view. Perhaps all this has induced a state of delirium, so now you consider the mountain itself a mystical thing: a teasing beast or a cruel demon, sent by some all-knowing universe to discourage you from reaching your aim, providing a new challenge each time you feel you might actually prove something to yourself.

Of course you must complete the challenge, especially now you that you can see beyond the top of the mountain, and there: an overlook that seems to provide a magnificent view. It’s less than one minute’s walk away. As you pace towards it, you notice that the overlook is blocked by a gate that reads “Private Property. Do not enter.” You become confused. Then incensed. Have you labored this far to hit a dead end, secured by a flimsy gate implanted by the possessive upper class?

No one is around. It seems there is no sign of a camera that would detect your violation. You place one foot on the gate to climb over it. Just as your foot leaves the ground, your cheap phone falls out of your pocket, letting off a hard clack of breaking plastic. Startled by the noise, you climb back down. As you crouch to inspect your phone, you take another look around and notice that a Chinese garden-trimmer beyond the gate is watching you. You wait for her to turn away and wonder if you should attempt climbing the fence again. It would be easy: no more than a five-second hoist and a jump.

Then you wonder. Perhaps you did reach the overlook, and then someone asked you what you were doing on private property. Perhaps you would be caught in your crime and fined. You think of your friend waiting back at her apartment in Kowloon, and how much you look forward to spending the evening drinking wine with her at one of the many open-aired restaurants where you can look out at Hong Kong’s diverse populace, and then– begin your stroll home through the night market of colorful trinkets. How much more enjoyable this might be without fear of responsibility or debt? And how sad it might be if these plans were compromised due to some proud need to beat your chest at the top of a mountain where desk-jockeys planted their flags.

The fence blocking your path to the summit

The fence blocking your path to the summit

You look around at the clouds that have now covered most of the waiting view, at the beautiful shrubbery lining your end of the path. Your breath, which has been steadily quickening since the beginning of your journey, now begins to slow. You take a flower and press it inside your journal beside a butterfly you found dead on the trek up, and you decide that this keepsake is trophy enough.

On the way down, you feel you have learned something but can’t quite pinpoint what it is. It is only when you step onto the Star Ferry that you realize that you have, at least for the time being, learned that the process of liberation is more important than the prospect of victory, and – furthermore – the most liberating thing is letting go.