Saturday, February 21, 2015

A happy new year in Hong Kong

Pak Tai Temple

If I weren’t heading back to Budapest on Friday, I would stay on here in Hong Kong for another month or two. I think it has resurfaced as a place I’m very happy to call home for a while. If all goes well, I’ll return early next year for an extended stay. So, home for me is now Budapest, New York and Hong Kong: a very nice balance of the old world of central Europe, and the new worlds of the West and East.

View across to Kowloon from Bowen Road on a clear day

Hong Kong is still fascinating, three decades after my first visit on a business trip  from Sydney in 1985. I moved up here in 1986, and left at the end of 1993. I’ve been back to visit half a dozen times since then, but this time has offered up something quite different: not just the chance to spend time with old friends who live here (I’ve known Cathy and David since 1971, Peter since 1987, Polly since 1988) or whose visits coincided with mine (I’ve known Chris since 1973, and Linda since 1985), or with people I’ve gotten to know on more recent visits (Cathy, Carol and Christopher in 2010 and 2011). I've been fortunate this month to meet some new people who already feel like part of my cobbled-together family of friends: Joanne, Jocelyn, Andy… At the start of a new lunar year, I’m very aware of how lucky I am to have all these interesting, courageous, creative, empathetic, funny, generous and loving people in my life.

The air quality in Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta is appalling. Some days it’s just a grey soup. But once or twice there has been a break in the haze and there have been glimpses of blue sky and clouds. I don’t know when was the last time there were stars visible at night.

Chinese New Year decoration at I.M. Pei's Bank of China building

Ferry to Lamma Island from Aberdeen

Reclaimed Central waterfront area

Old Hong Kong, Ching Lin Terrace, Kennedy Town

Fishing village, Cheung Chau Island

I’ve enjoyed getting away from Central and doing a walk up in the New Territories with Cathy and Jocelyn, and across the Dragon’s Back to Shek O on the other side of Hong Kong Island with Polly, Peter and Sally. Jocelyn has become my occasional running partner along Bowen Road, where over the years I’ve run countless repeats of the 4 km path that skirts the hillside and overlooks Central, Admiralty, Wanchai, Causeway Bay and Happy Valley. I have two half marathons coming up and will need to get back into a better routine in Budapest.

Last week I spent two days in Zhuhai, near Macau, visiting a very old friend who was visiting his wife. It’s a long story… The best word I can think of to describe the whole area around there is “blighted”, but it was fun to spend time being silly with Chris. We went to a small village where we were a novelty and the local people seemed all to be on happy pills.

Hong Kong actually comprises something like 260 outlying islands in addition to Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula that’s attached to mainland China. Fishing is the traditional industry on the inhabited islands, and it’s always fun to visit a fishing village for a seafood lunch. I went with Cathy and David and friends of theirs to Lamma a week or so ago, and with Joanne and Andy and other friends to Cheung Chau yesterday. I have many memories of other lunches and dinners in those villages. Hong Kong is about so much more than shopping. (But I HAVE bought a couple of pairs of shoes!)

With Rose and Xiao, my old friend Chris's sister-in-law and wife, Zhuhai District, Guangdong Province

I’ve visited a couple of new temples I wasn’t aware of when I lived here, one with Sylvia, a local history buff and head of the Hong Kong Gardening Society, and a former publishing colleague, Peter. The other one I discovered by chance after a run last week. I gave a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) to about 20 members of the Women in Publishing Society, which Polly and I started in about 1990. I’ve been to see a couple of films with Cathy (“Nightcrawler” and “St. Vincent”). (I’m timing my visit next year to coincide with the European Union and International film festivals.) I love that Cath takes lunch to the movies, complete with a little salt-and-pepper shaker and napkins. Polly and Charlie made a traditional New Zealand roast lamb dinner at Pol’s gorgeously renovated apartment to usher in the Year of the Sheep. Her fat cat Cartoon must be on his (her?) eighth life by now. Christopher invited me for a drink at the FCC, where we talked with a friend of his from Agence France Presse about property (Chris self-publishes in this area), scuba diving and publishing.

Linda, Polly, Catherine and I had an unexpected opportunity for a reunion dinner when Linda’s visit to Hong Kong to see her married son (he was six or so when I last saw him!) coincided with my visit. We were able to have a couple of long chats, our first since August 2013 when she came up to London from her home in Cornwall to meet me for a two-day catch-up. Polly has taken me to dinner at the FCC and the LRC (Ladies’ Recreation Club, where she plays tennis). I’ve walked all around the SOHO area, which didn’t exist when I lived on Old Bailey Street, opposite Victoria Prison, in the early 1990s. There are new areas being gentrified all the time, with lots of fabulous cafes and restaurants. The relocated Police Married Quarters is also now a very groovy showcase area for local artists, designers and other creatives. The area behind Queen’s Road East is also having a resurgence.

I have seen my accountant and finalised my accounts for the last two years, done a heap of work, and read some books, including a reread of “Never Enough”, about the murder of an American Merrill Lynch high-flyer by his shopaholic wife in 2003, a case that shocked the expat community and delighted the local Chinese. Nancy Kissel is still serving her life sentence at a women’s prison here in Hong Kong. I’m talking with two people here about books they are writing, one about the horseracing scene which is hugely popular with the local Chinese. I went to a dinner in Hong Kong Park where I spent a lot of time talking with an expatriate New Zealander about publishing, dogs, art and many other topics of mutual interest. Joanne and Andy invited me for a delicious dim sum brunch at City Hall, on the edge of a wasteland that used to be the seabed in Victoria Harbour. Jo grew up in Hong Kong in an American expatriate family, went to college in the US and returned to Hong Kong to live. Andy, a Briton, lives in Thailand. Through Cathy and David I met Liz and Ian, who divide their year between Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Barcelona; and Heather and Craig, who have done a lot of walking in places like Nepal.

This has all been in just three weeks! My visit has coincided with Chinese New Year. It feels to me like something new is beginning; that I’m entering a new stage of my life. It’s a life I never imagined I would have and I’m profoundly grateful for it.