It turns out I am obsessed by tea. Who knew? My daily routine of a decent cuppa for breakfast isn’t just a habit. It’s a necessity. A crutch that supports me through whatever insanity each day throws at me. I did not fully appreciate my addiction until this journey to the Far East, which, I would like to point out, is allegedly the home of tea. Pah. Tea, my arse.
It is almost a daily struggle to find a cup of black tea with milk. It has meant occasionally resorting to Starbucks, a surrender I never had any intention of making. Buy tea in a café and it is brought to you with no milk. In the coffee shop next door to our Hong Kong hotel (coffee shop! With umpteen varieties of coffee! What is it with coffee’s domination of the world?! Revolting stuff), I asked for tea. Fine, that was a rookie mistake. The barista burrowed to the back of a cupboard and brought out several tins of herbal and floral-flavoured tea.
“These are excellent flavours from our favourite tea producer,” he said, caressing the tins.
“Yeeeeaahh… Do you have just black tea? With milk?” I asked. He looked at me.
“Ah. You’re British, yes? I have some Earl Gray somewhere… Here, it is my last teabag.” I refuse to feel ashamed by my tea addiction. My Britishness, maybe. But not my tea addiction.
(Oh, and on another tea-related whinge, our hotel room had a kettle… but no tea bags. No. Tea. Bags. Why the bloody kettle? (Also, and this is perhaps slightly more concerning, there was no hand soap in the bathroom. This matters, people. I have stayed in approximately 58 hotels and there has never been one without soap. What hotel doesn’t carry soap?*))
Hong Kong’s many wealthy residents have live-in housekeeping staff, migrants from countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. They work six days a week, with only Sundays free. On these Sundays, each nationality meets up in a different area of Hong Kong, and it is quite a sight to behold. Oblivious to this tradition, we found ourselves in a sea of veiled women as we walked to the ferry port. They lined the roads, sitting on picnic blankets, eating tubs of ready prepared food and selling used goods. They amassed in the park, lining the paths and the fountain wall. Some played drums and sang. One pedicured a friend. Another extracted nits (we think) from a friend’s hair. Many took selfies. Most were smiling and laughing. Many grinned at us as we passed, staring at them with unconcealed bafflement. I felt as though they were the oddity; yet we were the minority.
“It looks like a refugee camp but everyone’s happy,” said son.
A bit of research afterwards revealed that this area was the “base” of the Indonesian domestic workers. Since they live in-house with their employers (which is required by law, apparently), on their one day off they don’t want to spend any more time there. They have little money for entertainment. They meet up with their fellow workers, who share their language, their culture, their history, their position. They dress in beautiful colours. They relish their minuscule portion of freedom. It’s heartbreaking.
We walked on and found the port for the ferry to the Kowloon Peninsula. We were momentarily distracted by the fresh fish stall at the port, with its boxes of horseshoe crabs, flatfish, lobster, starfish, something else and what-the-bloody-hell-is-that. Son pointed in awe. Daughter leapt back in squeamish disgust at every splish.
The ferry across Victoria Harbour laid bare the humid, smoggy pollution of the city; our sudden boundless position on the water revealed the grey clagginess nestling in the tops of the buildings, stifling the ozone. “Where are we going?” asked daughter. “Across to Kowloon, which has fewer tall buildings,” I told her confidently.
I know nothing. “There are lots of tall buildings,” said daughter accusingly when we arrived. And indeed, Kowloon was immediately no different from the Hong Kong we had just left: streets lined with poorly maintained apartment blocks, paint peeling, washing flapping at windows. But there was no Chanel, and no Yves Saint Laurent. This was no tourist destination, and I felt all the more smug for being there.
One pleasant surprise was the discovery of a community art project in the centre of this residential area. What was formerly an abattoir has not been delivered on a plate to developers, but adopted by a collective of young creatives, who host workshops for locals and exhibit their own art. We watched a workshop being held by one young woman who had made moulds from old tin toys and now uses those moulds to make crayons. Son and daughter were given a crayon each in the shape of a soldier, bearing arms. I imagined the toy from which this crayon had evolved, and gave daughter strict instructions not to use it to draw anything. “This is a piece of art,” I said. I couldn’t work out whether I was being educational or a pretentious twat.
The small exhibition we saw consisted of pieces by artists born since 1990. Young, I thought. Incredibly young. But the texts they pinned up beside their art spoke with voices of cynicism and nostalgia. “The forces of capital are constantly promoting creative destruction, corroding the native ecology of the community,” said one (Wong Ming-sum), a message repeated by the different works of art. The rapid construction apparent in Hong Kong is altering beyond recognition the memories of even the relatively young.
We left the abattoir and found ourselves in back streets which were crowded with market stalls and more scenes of bloody murder. Well, you know, people chose a fresh fish and the stall holder decapitated it in one fell swoop with a sharp knife. It was an eye opener for avowedly carnivorous daughter. Even son, who has consciously chosen to give up meat but still eat fish, was a bit taken aback. I laughed, coldly. (I could, since I’d walked off before the execution. There was no way I was going to watch that and not vomit.)
Eventually, the heat, smells and crowds were too much for our sensitive Western souls. We waded into a shopping mall and bought restorative ice cream, before catching a bus back to Hong Kong Island.
By the way, the buses are brilliant. Comfortable, clean, cool and uncrowded. They’re a bit incongruous in this hot, dirty, densely populated city. AND you pay for them using the Octopus card, which is like an Oyster card but 1000 times better, since not only can you use it on the buses, you can also use it for trams, trains, vending machines and some newsagents. It means you can carry out many transactions without speaking and so not needing to know any Cantonese. The Octopus card is possibly the single most civilised, useful thing about Hong Kong.
One last anecdote about Hong Kong. On our third night in our tiny, fashionable, unfriendly hotel, husband became convinced he could smell cigarette smoke coming through the air vent. I mostly slept through his anxious search for the source, and his phone call to report it to reception. “Nobody is smoking,” was apparently their dismissive reply.
At 2.30am, I sat bolt upright, now fully woken by his fidgeting and the sense that my throat was scratchy with fag smoke. “I can totally smell that,” I said. Another call to reception produced a porter with a can of air freshener. I started Googling nearby hotels. Long story short, at 3am we packed our suitcases and woke the children, shoving their pyjamaed little bodies into coats. At 3.30am we left, startling the receptionist with our unkempt appearance. Hong Kong is surprisingly quiet at that time of the morning. Delightfully quiet, in fact. No people. No taxis. No shouting. We walked five minutes round the corner and were greeted at the new hotel by a smilingly unjudgemental doorman. Turns out not all Hong Kong folk are rude.
* #firstworldproblems #luckytobeprivilegedenoughtohavetheseproblems #butstill