How long is the sixteen-hour flight to Hong Kong? It’s long enough that the plane nearly ran out of water. We didn’t get into “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” territory, but the captain told us to stop running the taps about an hour before landing. How long is a sixteen-hour flight? It’s long enough that I chose to watch Get Smart on my seatback video. And, given the restricted amount of oxygen pumping to my brain, I was mildly amused. Sixteen hours means you can get a full night’s sleep and your flight is still only half over. It’s long enough that the flight path—depicted on a CGI globe, the only way to show the distance involved--from JFK is due north, over the North Pole and onto the other side of the earth.
The idea of coming out the other side in Hong Kong rings true, somehow. It’s an alternative-universe New York; New York with a goatee, New York wearing a cheongsam under a business suit. My first trip to Asia started in Hong Kong because I thought it would feel familiar. My college roommate was from Hong Kong, and he told me time and time again that New York couldn’t compare to HK. My hometown had 400 people--I was just happy to get food delivered—but seeing New York and Hong Kong as analogs stuck with me.
That logic placed me in a Hong Kong that felt familiar yet wasn’t. I could get around, but what I knew was cockeyed. Fighting a cold, when I was able to identify and purchase cold medicine in a Lang Kwai Fong pharmacy, but the cashier wouldn’t let me buy a chilled bottle of water to wash it down. He insisted it would just make me sicker. “It’s bad for your throat!” I gave in. I wanted my pills.
Walking the streets on my first night was a pleasant waking dream laced with cold medicine, jetlag and neon. In Tsim Sha Tsui, I turned down Hau Fook, a crowded street with dozens of inexpensive restaurants and home décor store named Homeless, that, of course, was going out of business. I had my favorite meal in the city here, a $4 bowl of Yunnanese-style cold noodles with pork belly, cabbage and peanuts. And what service! My waiter was champing at the bit to name six of New York’s famous bridges to me. He even remembered the Verrazano.
I find Kowloon more accessible than Hong Kong proper. It felt ten years behind Hong Kong proper—making it just the right speed for an overwhelmed first-time visitor like me. Crumbling bits are everywhere, like a half-antiquated, half-futuristic alleyway bathed in blue lights and lined with air conditioner exhausts. It looks like a lost set from Brazil. Nearby, the city’s ubiquitous bamboo scaffolding add a touch of Blade Runner.
It’s hard to find chink in Hong Kong’s armor. I only get flashes of what the real, solid, or old. Walking though a side street in Central, I pass a small restaurant row lined with plastic chairs and tarpaulin roofs, with fish dangling in front of each establishment. The turnstiles at the Star Ferry have a satisfying clunk; my subway pass is made of chunky plastic thicker than any of my credit cards. But these are just remnants. The rest, it would seem, was chewed up but modern Hong Kong—just like New York.
On my last night, I notice a corner bar in Tsim Sha Tsai named Athena. The mountains of flowers piled outside lure me, looking for all the world like a makeshift memorial. When I get closer, I see that the flowers are from other neighboring bars wishing their new competitor good luck. A nice gesture, though the funereal bent from the flowers is more ominous then generous. Inside, a Mariah Carey concert DVD plays on each the bar’s flat-screens and over the sound system. I buy a beer and listen to the high notes. Mimi sure seems emancipated. I feel emancipated, too.