by Emily Frost
Even in the half-dream state before my alarm buzzes, I am hazily aware that Hong Kong is pushing ahead full throttle and I am already falling behind. Heavy truck wheels rumble by and dump scrap metal into heaps nearby, as I scurry around my shoebox-size apartment dressing for work on the glitzier, cosmopolitan side of Hong Kong known as “the island.” I’m on the Kowloon side, in a neighborhood called Mong Kok, which translates into “busy corner” from Chinese — the place vibrates with activity, as though the very buildings themselves were on Ritalin. My commute begins when I step into the heavy, hot air and onto the grimy street where I’m careful to avoid the remains of cockroaches squashed last night. Shops pushing goods from medicinal tea to stationery to pork buns line the streets. A woman with a microphone hawks plastic umbrellas. No space is left unfilled. Street vendors carve out space in alleys, and restaurants spill onto the sidewalk with plastic tables and chairs.
In Mong Kong, people throng the streets — school girls in uniforms, old men with high-waisted pants, women shoving fliers into your hand, the rare expat walking his golden retriever. My neighbors are a true melange, united by one thing: their ability to move. The Hong Kong hustle can be seen everywhere you go, and even more so in Mong Kong where the streets are narrower and the air conditioning sparser. Before I became one of the crowd, moving quickly enough to not stand out, I made lots of sweaty, tense wrong turns in a maze of streets with Chinese signage. Few people speak fluent English in this sweltering jungle. At each turn, I learned the density never stops, nor do the surprises. Pink buildings. Scaffolding made entirely of bamboo. A smoke-filled gaming room full of adult men.
Will I ever become inured to the nauseating smells from the sewer; or the bucket of slop being tossed across the sidewalk right in front of me, or the vision of freshly butchered pig’s head being chopped up? The first time I made this trip, I felt cheated. Where were the sophisticated shops or the electric skyline I’d seen in photos? Even a businessman in a suit would have been some comfort.
By the time I get in the subway it is 9 a.m. Sweat streams down my face. Everyone waits silently, expectantly for their stop. I notice one hilariously mistranslated t-shirt: “Guns don’t kill people, People’s badness kills people.” It helps to keep my eyes from glazing over and slumping into submission.
I get off at my stop and step quickly into Hong Kong’s ferocious pace, orchestrated by the mechanical pedestrian guides, urging walkers to pick up speed when it’s time to cross the street. Taxis come flying around corners, with near-misses a part of life. People walk, unless they can find something faster. Ninety percent of the population uses public transportation — either the sleek, silent and lightning bolt fast metro, the double decker bus, or the mini-bus, which pops you from one destination to another for mere pocket change. Or you can always hail a taxi. They’re cheap and don’t seem to obey any speed limits (if there are any?…)
After all this movement, life slows considerably for meals. At my office’s canteen, patrons bark at the waitresses and waiters for their order to come quickly, but then tuck into a multi-course meal. I’ve joined the Chinese workers at the canteen, sitting silently surrounded by single men amid the din of the lunch hour. We’re served a hot Chinese soup and warm tea, which are included in your purchase and prolong the meal. I watch as groups of friends at nearby tables eat together, splitting multiple dishes, spinning them back and forth to each other using a lazy susan. Bellies satisfied, we’re off to the race of work and the return commute.
This time, on the way home, I stopped for a bowl of wonton soup in an alley way. I savored the soothing umami broth. It was one magical moment before I resumed the rhythm of subway, work, sleep.