I remember two small pictures: cows beset by traffic in an Indian city street; and Hong Kong, with a narrow street encumbered by all sorts of signs and red double-deck buses plying it. Somehow I always thought the images from the old textbook pictured a situation of the past, as modernity surely must have swept over those places too and, for instance, driven cows off urban areas in India.
I was delighted to find it not so upon my visit to Rajasthan, but here, in Hong Kong, on my way from the airport into town, I was beginning to think this would not be the case. Clusters of soaring towers fence off the coastal area from the land beyond them, an awe-inspiring sight, amid the verdant landscape of sandy coves framed by lush vegetation thriving in the tropical climate.
Then the bus passes the cargo harbour: piles of containers and myriad cranes ready to load them on ships which will deliver cheap Chinese goods to the four corners of the earth. Finally the route gets into the city proper and skirts more neighbourhoods of tall buildings, but this time weathered in decades of existence. Every side street reveals a view that grows more and more crammed with commercial signs and advertisements, sometimes quite old, sticking out from the façades and secured on sturdy metal structures designed to resist gale force winds.
The picture gradually comes to resemble the one I had in mind, and I’m glad it does. It traces a link with my past, but especially with this very city’s past, which has not been completely disowned as has happened in every single other Chinese city. When I finally see the first double-deckers, I understand I have found the Hong Kong I’d secretly been dreaming of all along, since my childhood.
Unlike the glittering, but shallow modernity of mainland China, I can appreciate a new dimension here, namely depth. The Kowloon peninsula has lived through successive ages of time and bears a mark from most. You can see a richness that is much more that the typical Chinese artificial urban landscape, made of steel and glass or plastic materials. Some run-down buildings point to eras gone-by and give you a reassuring sense of history that you can hardly perceive in other places in China. They mostly appear to have been built over a weekend in haste and bad taste, even when it is the fake-looking historical monuments turned into tourist attractions with the help of disastrous renovation programmes.
Parallel to Nathan Road runs another fairly important street, wholly occupied by a charming street market selling all sorts of food and other items. Again you’re plunged into the long history of Chinese traditions, arguably more present here than in other places because a favourable cultural context and the absence of a revolution have allowed them to survive.