I am and probably always will be a city person. When I was five, I had the great fortune of going to Paris. Upon setting foot in the city for the first time, I declared, “I love it here – it’s even louder and dirtier than New York!” (Perhaps Paris seemed dirtier because at that moment I was surrounded by hundreds of pigeons. Or perhaps it was because of the cigarette smoke that hung in the air no matter where we went. Looking back, it seems inconceivable that Paris could actually be that dirty, but it felt so then…) Now, Paris and New York don’t make the most likely comparison – one is known for its beauty and charm, the other for its grit and cutthroat, fast-paced lifestyle – but my five-year-old self thought it completely natural.
In fact, throughout my life New York has always been my frame of reference for understanding a new city. Thinking of my hometown allows me to measure a place — to gauge its cultural landscape and appreciate its built environment. Even when I lived in Chicago, I constantly found myself comparing the two cities, trying to suss out their similarities as well as their unique characteristics. Some would argue that this process inevitably shortchanges the city in question, because, really, what can compare to New York? While I admit there is some truth in this, I also think it’s important to think about how places function in relation to one another, whether they’re 1,000 or 10,000 miles apart.
So it was during my recent trip to Hong Kong. Although I was there over a month ago, when I look back through my pictures it still feels so real, so very present. Something about the city was very visceral – you have to brace yourself for it. The smells, the crowds, the noise, the diversity, the well-heeled and the desperately poor, the side streets and alleyways, all of it enmeshed in a dense web of spectacularly tall buildings.
Sound familiar? Well, in many ways Hong Kong reminded me of New York, which was both strangely comforting and a bit disconcerting. At times, I even felt like I was on Grand Street in Manhattan, with all its familiar sights, sounds, and smells – the flaky Chinese pastries in bakery windows, shoppers haggling with store owners over the price of produce, the pungent aroma of dried scallops contrasted with the briny scent of fresh fish.
Needless to say, Hong Kong was also new and unfamiliar in countless ways. The seediness of the infamous Chungking Mansions was unparalleled, and I can attest that Wong Kar-wai’s film actually does the place justice. When we walked through one night after dinner, most of the first floor shops had already closed, but there was still plenty of activity. Some men were listening to reggae music in a corner, while others were eating cheap Indian curry and snacks, and yet others were hawking substances of dubious legality (::ahem::). (Luckily, we stayed at a different guesthouse just up the street, so we didn’t have to deal with the latter folks on a daily basis.)
There was plenty of other excitement to be had as well. On our first morning, before heading to dim sum, we came across these goat heads in a market.
Later, we rode a cable car up Victoria Peak to take in views of the famous skyline…
…which was just as spectacular from below.
We generally walked around a lot, enjoying the street life and stopping for freshly squeezed mango juice and other tropical treats along the way.
Thankfully, there were plenty of opportunities for intra-city travel, both on the sparklingly clean MTR…
…and via boat to charming (and blissfully car-free) Lamma Island.
By the last night, we were utterly and totally exhausted, and actually looking forward to the relative calm and quiet of Tokyo. Of course, once we returned we immediately missed Hong Kong’s astounding array of cultures and their associated culinary establishments (Indian! Indonesian! Vietnamese! Malaysian! Taiwanese!) Indeed, it was truly a little taste of home on the other side of the world.