Sunday, September 26, 2004

Pok Fu Blog.

Another warm weekend. It’s all I can do to sit in front of the iMac and transcribe from old papers. Actually, it’s easier after dark, since the nights are becoming chilly, as if to remind the days that in a post-equinox environment, they need to think about cooling down too.

September 20, 1990.

My very first impressions of Hong Kong –- not counting a blurry late-night ride from the airport -– was Pok Fu Fa Yuen in the morning. My hosts’ apartment was one of many hundreds in this residential complex on the west side of Hong Kong Island, comprised of at least a dozen straight-up concrete towers, 30 or so stories each, connected by brick plazas, long sidewalks, a couple of roads, and tall curving staircases what lead you to –- more staircases. The place is a modernist vision of about 1970, sporting serious coats of soot on its walls, with hundreds of families’ laundry dangling out of the windows of even the highest floors.

Kathy and Jos, my hosts, led me through the complex that first morning to a bus stop that formed the transit nexus of Pok Fu Fa Yuen. A number of gray-green double-decker buses idled there, occasionally farting black smoke. Even this early in the game, I was getting used to that peculiar smell of Hong Kong, pungent Chinese cooking-pot odors mixed with faint whiffs of rotting food and exhaust. Commuters dressed for office jobs, mostly Chinese with a sprinkling of white faces, waited in clusters or queued alongside the buses.

“That’s your bus,” Kathy told me. “Here’s some small change.” She handed me some coins, including a few HK$2, a flower-petal disc I soon grew fond of.

“Where do I get off?” I asked.

“Just ride it to the end of the line.” Just then my bus grunted and people started to get on. I joined them.

“Get ready for the ride of your life,” Jos called after me.

It was an exaggeration, but not by much. Still, my ride on China Motor Bus No. 37 to Central Hong Kong was my real introduction to the city. One of the satisfactions of a new city is figuring out all the ways to get around. Hong Kong has the pleasure of a multitude of systems, and I did them all: bouncy, see-it-all bus rides; urban trams, or sardine cans on wheels in rush hours; subways, which always meant long walks through windy corridors and near-endless escalator rides; the well-known Star Ferries with their terrific views of the skylines of Victoria and Kowloon both; and even the cog railway up the side of Victoria Peak. I also took taxis from time to time, which are startlingly cheap, and convenient too, provided you know your destination in Cantonese.

The No. 37 bus takes you along the western rim of Hong Kong Island, overlooking the sea out to Lamma Island and a clutch of lesser islands. You pass gas stations and construction sites and a cemetery sloping down away from the road. And more construction. A construction site is a construction site, but if you look closely enough, you notice bamboo scaffolding.

Before long, No. 37 turns onto a smaller street for the descent into Central. The shops and midrise flats and Chinese signs are practically in your face. People and their possessions are everywhere. Most of the buildings are aging concrete, ugly and dim and defaced with iron bars. But the essential ugliness of the place isn’t oppressive, somehow, because of the life flowing onto the streets. Businessmen and day labors and women and children are all out among each other, smoking cigarettes, buying mystery meats from the butchers’ racks, dodging traffic and smoking more cigarettes. I have this persistent image, even now, of a shopkeeper I saw on the same corner in the same chair in the same position every time I went by. He sagged in belly and in face, and always hung a cigarette carelessly from the outer edge of his mouth.


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