View of Hong Kong from the 1960s

View of Hong Kong in the 60s

View of Hong Kong in the 60s – half of this picture is land now

I scanned this photo from my grandma’s albums back in 2004 when I visited my grandparents for the first time after many years. I had sort of frozen them out of my life, and 2004 was when I started to warm back up to them. From that point on I would visit them regularly until 2009 when my grandpa died.

Fast forward to now, and all of a sudden it’s been 6 years. Due to some issues with my dad’s side of the family, I haven’t seen my grandmother in over 4 years. Another freeze, I suppose. I’ve kind of convinced myself that she’s lost her marbles already anyway, that it doesn’t make a difference if she doesn’t see me. She’s well into her 90s now, and chances are I’ll probably never see her again.

Life sure can be complicated sometimes… or, perhaps, maybe it’s just we stupid humans who make it complicated.

The Bus

It’s Monday morning, and I have the early shift again. After I leave the house, I remember that I used up my Octopus card yesterday, so I stop by Circle K to get it topped up. It’s about 5:30 in the morning.

Now I get to decide if I want to take the bus or the MTR to work. The bus is a relatively new thing that I discovered only recently. From my area, there’s one that goes to the airport that also happens to pass by the office. It costs more than the MTR, but because it goes to the airport it’s more decked out than a normal bus, with leather and reclining seats, and subdued lighting. It’s a very comfortable ride, and it’s pretty much door-to-door. As much as I love the MTR, I’m really not awake yet and don’t need the bright lights and loud speakers blaring at me at six in the morning. Bus it is.

The bus arrives and I quickly board, tap my Octopus card, and climb up to the upper deck. I take one of my favorite seats at the very front of the bus, on the left side closest to the sidewalk. From this seat, I can see the world coming as the bus moves forward, and I can also people-watch through the side window. It’s one of my favorite activities in Hong Kong. Of course, in the early morning there’s not much people-watching, just a few air travelers carrying their bags onto the bus. About thirty minutes later, I’m in the office.

I wish I discovered this earlier. I’ve always enjoyed Hong Kong’s buses. From a young age I could already recognize the different models of vehicles used in the fleet. Because of Hong Kong’s limited space, during its development both buildings and vehicles expanded upwards in order to accommodate the increasing number of people. As a result, we now have a unique combination where if you sit on the upper deck of a bus, not only can you much better see what’s going on on the street, but you can also very often catch a glimpse of what’s going on inside a building. Maybe that’s why it’s so much fun to ride on the bus: there’s always something to see.

The other cool thing about buses in Hong Kong (or, perhaps just in the areas I visit) is that there are lots of overlapping routes, which means that if I miss a bus I don’t have to wait long for another one. This is especially vital in the summer, when it can get really hot and dusty at the bus stop by the side of the road. Ironically, it’s usually the buses that cause the heat and dust with their air conditioning and engine exhaust.

Now, it’s four-thirty in the afternoon. Once again I make my way down to the bus stops next to the Western Harbour Crossing toll plaza. The Western Harbour Crossing is the third cross harbour tunnel built in Hong Kong. The original Cross Harbour Tunnel opened in 1972, and ever since then there have been bus stops at all the harbour tunnel toll plazas. Interestingly, there are no bus stops on the island side of the tunnel, probably due to lack of space. I wait for a bus from one of the overlapping routes.

After work, I prefer to sit in the very back, on the opposite side, away from the sidewalk. After a long day, it helps to zone out and look at something distant, like the other side of the street. I sit back there with my headphones on, imagining a time in the future when I won’t be able to ride a double-decker bus in Hong Kong anymore. If we do end up going back, I will miss this aspect of living in Hong Kong.

The Air

I look down towards the street from our 16th floor apartment, watching people going about their business, walking their dogs, crossing the street, old people walking slower than young people, and I wonder what it is about this place that keeps me here. Today’s weather doesn’t seem too bad; it’s 24˚ and 81% humidity. The air seems OK too, but a quick check of the Hedley Index reveals that it’s actually still at very bad level. It’s pretty much at this level every single day. Pollution is pretty bad here.

Last Wednesday I woke up early and had a chance to play some basketball at Victoria Park. It was the first time I ran around outside in weeks. Afterwards, it didn’t take long for me to start coughing. It felt like I had inhaled some smoke, which I guess wouldn’t be too far from what actually happened.

On some days, when I take a break from work and look out the window, I’m appalled by what I see: a thick plume of gray through which I can barely make out the outlines of the buildings across the harbor. After work, as I walk home from the MTR station, I find it difficult to breathe, like I’m about to pass out. I’m afraid to inhale deeply. Finally, once I’m home, I’m completely exhausted even on the days when work hasn’t been particularly intense.

Hong Kong Smog

Smog City

Hong Kong is a place of many smells. High population density means there’s probably someone near you right now making a smell. At this moment, I can smell the fragrant incense that one of my neighbors is burning. When JC takes a shower and I have the window open, I smell the scent of her shampoo being expunged from the bathroom fan. When I walk past a storm drain, I smell the noxious fumes coming from below. Alleys reek of cat (or human) urine and dirty dishwater from cha chaan tengs. I’ve noticed that, for some strange reason, the exhaust from armored vehicles in Hong Kong is particularly bad. Although I don’t recommend inhaling it, try to keep your nose open the next time you’re around an armored vehicle – you’ll probably see (or smell) what I mean.

One of the worst smells in Hong Kong is that of cigarette smoke. Despite efforts by the government to curb smoking, you still see and smell people smoking everywhere. The government says that the smoking rate in Hong Kong is now 1 in 10, but I wonder if that number takes into account visitors and expatriates from other countries, especially Mainland China, which has its own smoking problem.

An eyesore (or nose-sore) in Hong Kong is the trashcan, where people congregate to smoke. The smokers gather around because of a built-in ashtray on top (some trashcans don’t have the ashtray, yet smokers still pretend its there, leaving behind burn marks and melted plastic). A major problem with these combo trashcans is that smokers don’t always extinguish their cigarettes when they’re done, so the cigarettes continue to burn inside the tray, creating a super cigarette that clobbers anyone walking by with a carcinogen-laced poison punch. I’ve often wondered whether it’s some sort of game to the smokers, to see whether they can keep the fire going. Because of this and because Hong Kong trashcans are spaced so closely together, you can pretty much walk down an entire block without not smelling cigarette smoke.

That’s not to say that all the smells are bad. For example, Hong Kong is named for the scent of its harbour. When I take a walk alongside, I understand why. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing in from the harbour, the sweet smell even makes it inland. When I come home from work, the smell of steaming rice intermingled with burning incense brings a sense of familiarity that I could never get in SF. These are the smells of childhood, smells I remember from my Granny’s house, from before we moved to America.

If we do decide to go back, these are the smells I’ll miss the most. The pollution and cigarette smoke, on the other hand, I won’t miss at all.