Dispatches at The Prospect are brief reflections from our writers that focus on their experiences during the summer.
Hong Kong is the perfect place for a clueless foreign correspondent to thrive. To the uninformed Westerner, the city offers itself up for you to both normalize and exoticize as your heart desires. On subway maps, Causeway Bay is right next to Wan Chai; Prince Edward is right next to Mong Kok. The district of Central is jam-packed with European businessmen strolling through locales named Jardine House, Exchange Square, and Edinburgh Place. Sheung Wan, the next district over, boasts Cantonese-speaking locals passing by cha chaan tengs, the incense-filled Man Mo temple, and traditional yum cha spots. Forcing an “East-meets-West” perspective onto Hong Kong is just about the laziest way to describe this place, but that doesn’t stop people from getting away with it.
Let me try to do something different, even though it feels beyond my reach to do justice to Hong Kong. Let me tell you about the cramped streets, the open-air market stalls, the crisscrossing sky bridges illuminated by the glow of the occasional neon sign — about how, when I first arrived in Hong Kong, everything in the city felt like sharp edges and wrong turns.
Let me tell you about the sweltering summer humidity, which made it impossible for me to stay outdoors for longer than ten minutes at a time, even after midnight; let me tell you about the rainstorms that appeared out of nowhere and what the downpour looked like through the window of a skyscraper.
Let me also tell you about the cast of characters I met in bookshops, cafes, and yacht clubs: A proud Communist who flipped real estate property on the side; a bookseller with the long, stringy hair of a washed-out beach bum; a French expat who hand rolled her own cigarettes; a government civil servant who spoke five languages and asked me what type of porn I liked to watch.
I carved out an existence for myself in Hong Kong. I experienced the most intoxicating and alluring of highs coupled with the deepest, most abject of frustrations. Some days, I typed up drafts in Yau Ma Tei bookstores, conducted back-to-back interviews for hours in Happy Valley, then dumped the contents of my notebook into my laptop before crashing at 2 a.m., utterly exhilarated. Other days, shot through with anxiety, I did little more than retreat to a gentrified café steps away from the Kennedy Town waterfront, where I mixed vanilla ice cream into an espresso and tasted cool, milky sweetness giving way to warm, intense bitterness.
In Hong Kong, daily life always marched on, even when I wanted it to stop. I suffered from insomnia, I bummed cigarettes, and I let others pay for my meals. At night, alone on the streets, I listened to ’80s Cantopop hits on repeat, wondering whether I was doing any of it right.
As the weeks passed by, the strangeness and wonderfulness of this city receded from my view. The unfamiliar became familiar, then personal. It turns out Hong Kong has a way of breaking your heart — but I didn’t know that until it was too late, far too late, for me to do anything about it.
Joshua Yang is an associate editor for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @joshuaqyang.
Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.