Guest Post: On Neighbors and Navigation

From collaborative posting to guest posts, you must think I'm going all lazy on you! Not true, just finishing up some other projects (read: paid projects!) and giving you glimspes of Hong Kong from other voices.

Our friend Heather is probably the first friend we made in Hong Kong, not counting the one person we already knew (Hi Tuan!). Heather teaches English with Matt and is a fellow Breadloafer, though they've never been at the same campus. In her final two months of a three-year stint in HK, we are going to miss her like crazy when she leaves. She has introduced us to cute, hidden bars, crazy-good hidden Indian restaurants, and yummy jasmine tea. Plus, she loves Finn, and taught him the forehead-bump game which he continues to play when he should be eating dinner. What more do you need in a friend?

Heather and Finn

nori love

Heather is graciously letting me post some of her words, from a series of emails sent home to family and friends.  I love the way she captures the scenes and personalities that make up wonderful Hong Kong street life. (note, the Mr. Chan referenced towards the end is the taxi driver who picks up a set group every morning--sort of the HK equivalent of a carpool.)   


When I move out of my apartment in June, I will have lived here, uninterrupted, for two years and nine months. That is easily the longest I have inhabited a single space in my adult life. Long enough that the contours of the rooms are navigable in darkness and the people at the laundry across the street know my name and spell it correctly.

Now that I know I’m leaving, I wander about waxing nostalgic for the neighborhood I feel I’ve ignored while plowing through my days. I’ve been composing mental arias of appreciation to the tiny streets, the men drinking beer at card tables on the corner, the perpetual bustle of the wet market.

So, in this edition of my emails from Hong Kong, I leave you with a few odes. I’ve never talked to any of these people. I don’t know their names. But they’ve become features in the landscape of my life here, ways of marking place and time. And I’m grateful for them.

The Umbrella Man

 The Umbrella Man lives around the corner on Bridges Street, on a bit of sidewalk in front of an old shophouse, just before the neighborhood flips into a glamour-fied cosmopolitan’s playground. During the day, he sits on a straight-backed chair, left leg crossed over right, elbow on his knee. His gray hair is pulled back into a small ponytail at the nape of his neck. He smokes. He watches the world go by. He belongs in a French cafĂ©, languorously reaching for his espresso and sighing at the beauty and boredom of it all. Sometime around dusk, his home blossoms around him. Umbrellas—blue, green, red—line the edges of his one-man foldable cot, enclosing him in a neat cocoon. I’ve never seen him put them out or take them down. But every morning they are neatly stowed, and every evening carefully arranged. They form a thin but definite barrier between his home and world of the street. Passersby attend to this distinction. They grant his street-side boudoir the dignity that his posture commands.

The Man with the Long Eyebrows

He sits on a corner of the wet market, next to a vegetable stand. His knees are tucked up to his chest, and his legs frame a small plastic box. The tails of dried fish poke above the edges of the box, creating a neat square in the air. Their perky verticality is echoed in his eyebrows, which are perfectly white and draw upward into neat points about an inch above his eyes, giving him an air of surprise. His hair, too, is white and spiky. Despite the generous personality of his ‘do, he generates a kind of quiet around him. The hustle of the market stills in his little corner, where, as far as I can tell, he neither sells nor buys. In the evenings, he hooks a walking cane into the handle on one side of his box and pulls it down Hollywood Road. He passes Pacific Coffee, the French bistro, and the Chinese temple. He walks with the stoop as he turns onto my street, dragging the plastic box across the asphalt. At the corner, he turns right, onto one of the oldest streets in Hong Kong, and shuffles off into the neighborhood beyond.

Po-Po of the Flowers

Once you’ve selected your flowers, she picks up a pair of garden shears and gestures at the stems. You indicate where you’d like her to cut them, and she shears off the bottom few inches. Her knuckles are enormous, arthritic. They look out of place on her tiny hands. Altogether, she must stand less than five feet. She wears black, in the traditional style: trousers, black slip-on shoes, and a Chinese-style collar. Her hair is always neatly bunned at her neck. Her face is marked by a massive mole just above her left lip. The women who buy from her call her “Po-Po,” Grandmother. “How much for yellow lilies… and these, already half open?” One day, I realize, after my bunch of pink lilies have been trimmed, that I’m only carrying a 500HKD bill, a large enough denomination that taxi drivers and shopkeepers will grumble when asked to give change. I extend it apologetically, and she looks at me in the eye for the first time in two years. I have no idea what she’s thinking. She unzips her fanny pack and rifles through an enormous wad of cash. As she pulls out the cash, she grips the bills between her fingers, rather than with her fingertips. Once again, I wonder how those hands manage the shears day in and day out. Another customer arrives, “Po-Po…” She hands me my change, and doesn’t look at me again.

The Musical Printer

My neighborhood, Sheung Wan, is what New Yorkers would call “transitional.” There are a few contemporary art galleries and, recently, some hip interior design firms. These are cheek-by-jowl with old storefront temples that burn incense at all hours of the day. But mostly, the ground level shops are either car mechanics or printing houses. The printing presses all seem to be from the 1970s. Stacks of paper fill every inch of the two- or three-hundred square foot rooms. Just around the corner from my house, there is a small shop that leaves its metal gate half open most of the day. From the door, you can see the main press, the owner, and a red shrine, some version of which appears in most family businesses in Hong Kong. He listens to Beijing Opera on the radio all day long. If you pass by at the right time, you can catch a glimpse of him—in his shorts, sandals, and an undershirt—operating the press, swaying gently, and singing along.

The Peaceful Security Guard

I don’t stay out past 2am often these days, but when I do, I take the long route home, up the hill to Staunton Street. The first half the block is dark, bordered by a construction site on one side and the old police headquarters on the other. At that hour of the night, the light from the first apartment block’s lobby spills out onto the street. I cross to the far side and walk slowly. The lobby is like a small, well-lit stage. Framed between the straight silver lines of two elevators is the security guard. He is standing; his arms are at chest level. He swings them through the air, moving fluidly from one tai chi position to the next. I wonder if he knows how beautiful he looks, how quiet the night is around us.

 And, because no one can resist a sequel, an update on Mr. Chan.

 Last fall, Mr. Chan contracted TB. He’s been a smoker forever and had been working 7 shifts in the taxi a week, which meant working one set of consecutive day/night shifts—twenty four hours in a car without sleep. He was treated with antibiotics and is doing just fine now. But his doctor told him he had to quit smoking. This was a blow to a man of few and very simple pleasures. Every morning we would check in with him: “Are you still smoking Mr. Chan?”

“Only one yesterday. So hard. But I must do it for my Yi-Ling and my Jason.” His teenaged kids were on the case. In early November, Mr. Chan discovered a new inspiration: “Change is good! Like Obama!” he said, pumping his fists in the air. Obama’s mantra became our non-smoking rallying cry. “Yes we can! Yes we can!” For Mr. Chan, Obama is both a sign of hope and a way of softening life's blows. When I told him I was leaving Hong Kong in a few months, he reassured me, “This is okay. Because we have special relationship and you can be with Obama.”

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