HK Alphabet :: V

V :: Victoria Park
(photo by mikeleeorg)

August 3, 2008: Matt and I, our five month old baby, and 5 large suitcases got off a 14-hr flight and rode a shuttle to L'Hotel (pronounced locally "el-hotel"), where the school put us up for a week while we found housing. Right in the heart of Tin Hau, a neighborhood we came to love and later live in, on the edge of Causeway Bay, a bustling shopping and nightlife district, and across the street from Victoria Park, a sprawling oasis, this hotel was perfectly situated to aquaint us with our new home. But we didn't know that then. It felt sort of dirty to us, and commercial--not at all residential or peaceful. (What, you might well ask, did we expect in Hong Kong? Good question.)
And the park. As much as we enjoyed watching people play basketball and tennis all day and night from 20 stories up, the park's strangeness struck us most forcibly. So much concrete! So much landscaping! So little grass! We walked across the park in search of dinner that first night, both of us quiet, neither one wanting to admit that we couldn't imagine what we had been thinking, how we had made this colossal mistake. Until we did admit it, and found relief and laughter in the common question.
And then, slowly, things began to change. The park became familiar, and eventually a refuge. The playgrounds there are where Finn learned to climb, to swing, to run and to ride his bike. We made friends there, became part of a crew of kids and helpers who came at the same time.
We discovered the lone patch of grass in Hong Kong and took Finn there for soccer and frisbee, and we found rogue bits of dirt for Finn to play in, notwithstanding the disapproving looks and even reprimands from the old Chinese ladies. I ran around the jogging track in the evenings, and I admired the old people doing their tai chi. We found the motor boat pool, we saw Venus Williams warming up before a tournament, we went to flower markets and moon festivals and June fourth celebrations there. And we learned to love Sunday afternoons.

Sundays, you see, are when domestic helpers get a day off. But without a place of their own to gather in, they descend in large numbers on Hong Kong's parks, gathering with friends, sharing meals, passing the time. Victoria Park was a destination primarily for the Indonesian helper community, and the grounds--concrete walking paths, playground, soccer courts, grassy field--were literally covered with plastic tarps and women. Women lounging, sleeping, playing cards, playing guitar, singing, chatting, fighting, sharing their food, reading. Groups of Muslim women would kneel and chant, Christian women would sing and preach. Rebel-types would practice hip hop dance moves (which Finn loved and tried to imitate, much to our embarrassment and their amusement.) Most of the women were physically affectionate with each other, as is normal in their culture, but there were some with stereotypically "butch" haricuts, masculine clothes and foul mouths that seemed to particularly luxuriate in Sunday's freedoms. Some young women carried around large, beautiful dolls, that they dressed and groomed much as I did as a child.

I'm writing this now from Ohio, and we have a few nice little parks we visit, all with playgrounds, and some with walking paths, lakes, or basketball hoops. None of them, however, come close to having the sort of life and vitality of Victoria Park, a vitality unique to urban parks, I suppose. It was a vitality that often saved me as a new mom in a new city, offering contact with people, no matter how anonymous, when that is what I most needed.

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