I was fiddling through local beers in a small liquor shop near the Belcher Bay harbour. A girl I met the first time I went to Hong Kong brought me here, “It’s my friend’s," Rebecca says, "and he owes me a lot, so you can have all the beer you want”. Three men came in, each bought a bottle of whisky. While paying for his, the last man told Carl, the indebted liquor shop owner, "I haven’t bought a bottle in three years. But I need it today.”
Before the tiny space of the door slammed shut behind the man, I saw the whimper of my voice outlined a comical text mid-air “That bad, huh?”. I quickly collected the text and returned them to my gaping open mouth as I stood there while the door chimes jingled their last. I looked at Carl. He was counting his cash.
That night, I photographed boys skating along the harbour. It made me remember the nights I spent falling down borrowed boards in my college town, which didn’t give me more than a few hundred meters of courage skating downhill, before I jump out of the board and try not to twist my ankles. I guess I didn’t fall hard enough, or often enough, to get better. Here I was behind the lens, instead of the wheels. I wasn’t sure which I preferred.
That night, we climbed on top of freight containers and talked about memories of ill-fated childhood. The rest of the city transformed around me, as Rebecca pointed streets a few hours ago were to me just what they were, streets. I was edified by their significance, whether to the city or to the person. In Seoul, a few months forward, my Swiss roommate would pinpoint previous sites of closed bars, in now what seemed to be glowing bright alleys, as he recounts spending his high school in the pretty capital city.
On top of one of the many hikes I’ve done in Hong Kong, I ogled over a huge campsite where permanent cottages were set up. The sight took me over like a fresh wind. As birds flew over my head, I held back a tear and screamed. In the right end, a small port is littered with fishing boats. I was wearing a skirt, a decision I did not consciously make, which blew around ragingly, manifesting a cold I’ve felt only emotionally before.
I spent sunsets after sunsets in trails. Ferries, in islands where the last one would leave before dark. I once took a wrong path and ended up in a dense jungle for what seemed to be an hour, before I saw ribbons, sometimes shoelaces, tied around branches that led me back to the established trails. When I came out, I looked back to a sign that said I should enter the path on my own risk.
On these islands, I rode bikes and ate fresh fish upon docking. Some of them are so small they don’t allow cars, others too tiny there’s not one place to eat at. They all had parks, trails, or beaches, which always kept me moving. Or standing still.
Back in the city, I frequented a cinematheque that showed independent movies. I was inhaling a cigarette furiously in the adjacent alley, puffing away the emotions from the film I just watched, when a girl on the main street started running after her dog. The dog was on a leash and wearing a muzzle, both of which it got away from. They ran past by me, one after the other. I saw the muzzle lying on the street from where they came from, cars ready to run it over.
In Hong Kong, when something unusual happens, most people would stop and stare. I saw a bunch of people standing and turning their heads towards the direction of the girl. A lady picked up the muzzle. She was undecided about what to do. I put out my cigarette and started walking towards her. As she was about to put the muzzle back down on the ground, I grabbed it from her hand. I tried to explain by hand language that I will give it back to the girl. She seemed grateful for being saved the trouble, or the conscience, whichever decision she ultimately makes.
I found the girl at the other end of the street, pinning the dog as if she was hugging it, so it could not run away again. I gave her the muzzle. She told me, “She [the dog, a rather large Corgi] wants to go the park,” in a thick British accent I’ve then only heard from English-speaking Cantonese, “She knows where the park is, but I can’t let her go. We have to go home. She needs to eat."
Slowly, we tried to put the leash back around the dog’s neck, but it was new, loose, and could be tightened only to a point. We eventually had to escort the dog—her holding its front, and me clutching its rear—up to the end of the street. It was too big to be carried and too agitated to be loosely leashed. I laughed with the people passing by, who were laughing at the sight of us, while we motioned the dog to move forward. The girl was taking none of it, she also just wants to go home. Soon, we reached her apartment building. I opened the door and they quickly got inside, the girl gesturing me to close it right away so the dog can no longer escape. The door closed in front of me, the last of its digital lock clinked shut.
I lit another cigarette.
A few days before I left, I finally met the owner of my hostel. We kept missing each other in the two weeks that passed. We both didn't know what the other looked like, but we exchanged messages when I had questions about the house. One day, I decided to leave later than usual. The blisters on my feet are getting the better of me. I was reading a book on a small reclining chair when the door opened and a man came in, holding bags of laundry and toiletries. I looked at him and asked, “Tony?”. He froze for a bit. In the same breath, he knew it was me.
I helped him clean out and we decided to get food afterwards. He wanted to bring me to this authentic Hong Kong food court hidden among one of the many buildings I only imagined would be another apartment or mall. I found myself yet again being ushered into alleys I did not know exist, that were plainly walkable had I squeezed myself hard enough. We arrived at this large foodcourt thronged with plastic tables and chairs on the second floor of a market building.
Most of the stalls were closed when we arrived. I was told they close after lunch and would open again for dinner. There was one however that seemed okay to serve us, so we sat in front of that and ordered. Tony, however, knew a stall that served good pho, owned by an old Vietnamese couple. They were out of noodles, but they did have coffee. So Tony got those for us as well.
It took a while for the coffee to arrive, but boy, it arrived when it did. The old Vietnamese lady came over to our table with a tray that contains two empty glasses, two glasses with ice, two shot glasses of milk, two teaspoons, and a pot of coffee. We were then instructed on how to use them. Tony knew the drill, but the lady had to be indulged. So when Tony tried touching the glass while the lady was in the middle of explaining, she slapped his arm with a fury. She was giving instructions in Cantonese, and much as Tony wanted to translate, he did not dare interrupt the lady again. Afterwards, she realized I could not understand a thing she says, and then in English, she asked me where I was from. She then held my hand and wished me luck. She left, but looked back and shouted something in Cantonese to Tony.
I later asked Tony what the old lady told him after she left. She said that if he did not return all nine pieces of her stuff, she would not give back his $100 deposit. I could not stop laughing.
Maybe it was the coffee. Maybe it was the blisters in my feet.
I always forget what brought me back to Hong Kong. The purpose of coming to a place is always overthrown by the memories of what you actually experienced inside. A few months prior, I bought tickets to a three-day art convention in the center of the city. I ditched most of it, partly because I felt surrounded by glamorously dressed artists and their buyers (I was neither), partly because it was very difficult to avoid lighting a cigarette after a piece of art slices your soul. I always wanted to get out.
I tracked down art events happening around the city in lieu of the convention. I ended up scouring the streets for live mural painting. I watched as one of the artists that did murals in my own city painted one in Hong Kong. But I soon realized how incredibly painful it is to sit on the ground and look up at a tiny person in a scaffolding paint inch by inch of a five-floor wall in scorching heat. So I ditched that one as well.
I took the train to a district that is supposed to have more eye level murals being painted. I sat on sidewalks and happily sipped a beer I bought at a nearby store, whilst looking at art being made. Sometimes, children of the artists run about or take turns in passing the spray can, other times, a co-surveyor strikes up a conversation. I was soon walking around the district with a street artist from Kuala Lumpur that was looking to get a wall painted himself.
I told him how I went to a Picasso exhibit in the city center the night before and how rare the pieces that were shown. He told me how no wonder I looked familiar, because he was there as well. I eventually lost the guy to local artists who seemed interested in giving him a wall. As they chatted, I slowly backed away step by step until I was no longer in sight.
I walked and took the last train home.
M. Fashafsheh, June 2018
for Hippo Magazine
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