Monday, January 21, 2008

Orange Trees

A few days before Chinese New Year in 1998, I decided to go into the office early. By this time I was living on the South Side of Hong Kong Island, in Repulse Bay, well away from the hustle of the metropolis to the North.

Although it was less than three miles from all the skyscrapers, my view from my apartment was of the beach down below, and out to see where at night the horizon would glow orange from the cargo ship's lights.

As I set off, the day was just beginning to break, it looked like another overcast day as it had been for much of the previous week. I was undecided yet to take a taxi or the bus to Causeway Bay, but settled on the latter by the time I had got to the bottom of the hill.

I waited and looked back up towards my apartment, which was one of only two tall buildings in the bay. Behind I could see the mountains, known locally as the "Twin sisters which I had hiked over the previous weekend.

It seemed strange to see trees in bloom so early in the year, and I thought back to my visit to the US, three weeks earlier, were the snow was still hard packed on the ground. Here I am just a few weeks later on my way to work in shorts and a t-shirt. The mode of dress was out of necessity, even in 'cold' season, when the local Cantonese dress in thick padded coats, the temperature hovers around 80-90 degrees, with oppressive humidity. Luckily all offices have shower facilities, with mine having a rooftop restaurant in amongst the A/C units, and two squash/racquetball courts. So suits and dress shirts stayed at the office, this slight inconvenience was my price for getting out of the city, with it's attendant noise and bustle. Here I could choose to spend quiet time, while still being able to take a 15 minute bus or taxi ride either to the teaming city night life, or a quieter evening down on Stanley waterfront.

As I ride the bus, we ascend the gap through Wong Chai Gap, and the view across Deepwater Bay to some of the houses and apartments always has me wondering how people can afford these, these are no 800 sq. ft, US $5,000 per month abodes - multiple cars outside, Porsches, Ferraris and Rolls Royces, anything les than an S Class Mercedes without you own driver and you are a nobody. As we cross the top of the gap, the panorama of skyscrapers comes into view, first Causeway Bay, then Wan Chai and finally Central, which is the skyline everyone knows and thinks of when you say Hong Kong. At first this was my impression, but slowly I began to appreciate how little of even the Island is actually occupied, and how easy it is to find solitude in the mountains. For an Island of only 9 by 3 miles, with three million people it never ceased to amaze me that within 20 minutes of hitting a trailhead that I could escape the madness and noise that went with the city. The incessant bleat of a hundred cell phones, the shouting, traffic and car horns...

Soon, we pass the racecourse and begin to circle the back streets of Causeway Bay, I decide to get off early and enjoy the ten minute walk to the office on what at 6:30 am are still relatively quiet streets. As I pass through the Island market, stalls are beginning to be set up, the artistry of arrangements on both vegetable and flower stalls already evident. The flowers amaze me, varieties and colors rarely seen in the west, stargazer lilies nearly nine inches across, with the scent following me. All too soon, the familiar smell of Hong Kong streets returns, together with the overpowering odor of the fish section of the market. Even this early people are choosing their fish from the tanks, and I briefly watch one of the workers expertly fillet the fish in almost seconds, how they do this with such accuracy with a traditional large Chinese cleaver is spectacular.

I soon come upon Wan Chai, a pale shadow of its former reputation during the Vietnam war, long gone are the working girls of Suzie Wong's time, to be replaced by seedy Thai strip bars, fast food stalls and western style themed drinking establishments, as I cross the street, I begin to notice all the orange trees , a tradition around Chinese New Year, they are a little over two feet tall with the darkest of green leaves and covered with small bright oranges, they are everywhere, in doorways, by stalls, in windows. Suddenly it seems as though the drab pre-dawn springs to color. I cross the square in front of my office, passing under the windows of Mulhanny's Irish Bar, towards the corner occupied by Joe Bananas Aussie nightclub, these places quiet now, but the familiar sounds of pounding drum and bass music can still be heard from places such as the Big Apple, the Kit Kat Club and Crossroads, the occasional early morning reveler appears from a doorway, a girl from the bar half on his arm and half supporting him - bleary eyed, clothes half askew and blinks in the daylight, perhaps surprised to find that night is almost ended.

As walk towards the escalator walkway that will take me into the second floor of my office building I pass a man crumpled in a doorway, a puddle at his feet, sadly not one of Hong Kong's few tramps, but a westerner, from his pin striped suit he could well be a banker, not a young man, and certainly too old to be sleeping in doorways. Part of the sad underbelly of Hong Kong life.

I reach the office, passing through the doors to a huge orange tree, newly arrived last evening - this one is full size. In addition to the oranges, there are hundreds of Lai See packets, covered in the traditional Chinese script in gold lettering. Tradition dictates that at Chinese New Year, a manager will hand out a packet to each of their staff, containing money as a good luck charm for the coming year.

I ascend to the roof, and collect my morning noodles, sitting at a table just as the sun makes it's first appearance for the week and collect my thoughts before showering and changing for the day ahead


The Guv'ner said...

I'd love to visit Hong Kong. It's quite fascinating. Plus I hear there's some good shopping to be had (hey, I'm a girl, I can't help it) and I imagine it to be a photographer's paradise. One day. One day I get to all the places on my travel wishlist.

trigimper said...

It's certainly an interesting place, living there was very much a love/hate relationship. The best way I can describe it is that it is a city of extremes, with no middle ground in any area of life.

I have a website somewhere of all the old photogrpahs that illustrate this article, but was loathe to post the link.

The Guv'ner said...

I have a similar fascination for Japan. I think it's the allure of a totally different culture and architecture, etc. I'd take five trillion photos of every little thing for that very reason. I have to visit my friend in Australia one day and stop off in the far east en route. That would be a fabulous trip!