The Pearl of The Orient 01: Intro
"Chapter One: To fall in love with Asia, is one thing, to fall in love in Asia, is another. Both, have happened to me. The Star Ferry to Kowloon at night, the lights of Hong Kong behind me, it's a gift, a dream, a curse. The best thing, the happiest thing, yet, also the loneliest thing, in the world."
- Anthony Bourdain
The view on the ferry, looking back in Victoria Harbour towards Central Hong Kong, presumably heading to Kowloon. Photo Credit: Alex Mao via Unsplash
I was quite shaken when I first watched Bourdain's final televised excursion to Hong Kong. Those words. I had connected with my idol, someone I truly looked up to, on a tangible level. I spent three months living in Hong Kong in 2014, and experiencing Asia for the first time, while simultaneously experiencing new love, was a truly transformative experience. I've been enamored with Asian culture for about as long as I can remember, dating back to that Christmas my grandmother managed to get her hands on imported Japanese Pokemon cards for us grandkids. Why were most of the Japanese card illustrations so much better than their American counterparts? Before the pandemic hit, I was in the early planning stages of a solo trip to Japan, fully prepared to spend the majority of my life's savings.
Why? I wanted another transformative experience, like I felt in Hong Kong. I felt my only option was to throw myself into a new place, where nothing felt familiar. Like I felt on that late August night, making our descent into Hong Kong. What a landing. As we got low enough to see individual ships and cranes in the yards by the harborside, we hit a rough patch. Heavy turbulence, lightning striking right next to the plane, it was the perfect entrance. Hong Kong International is actually located on Lantau Island, the largest of Hong Kong's Islands. I'll never fucking forget that cab ride from the airport to the hotel. Peering up at the lush greenery running up the hillsides on either side of the highway, soon gave way to seemingly endless bridges, where all you could see was the faint lights of a city center in the distance, or the dimly illuminated container cranes of a waterside terminal. I was blown away from the start with this fantastical place.
Timelapse of a bridge in Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Red John via Unsplash
This entry is numbered, because I don't know when, or if, I'll run out of things to say about HK. When I recall my life during that time, it feels crystal clear, strangely. I was solidly addicted to uppers by this point, and with the lax drinking laws, I don't think I had a sober day those three months. Yet, those memories are eerily vivid, thankfully. Having been robbed after returning to Savannah GA, everything that had a photo from my experiences on it was gone. Now, I've got some shitty quality Facebook versions of a couple hundred not especially interesting photos to show for it. But I can still conjure up so many things from those days. Recall the heat, and the haze, the sounds and the smells, the steep hills and gorgeous oceanside views. I think the way Hong Kong is portrayed in media often focuses on its more industrial aspects. Its high rises, its luxury areas, its famous food spots, its neighborhoods gripped by poverty. But HK's surrounding islands are legitimately breathtaking. Quant microcosms, entirely devoid of vehicles, these places defied my beliefs of what can exist in such a small and remote space. As a great man once said, "Life, uhhh, finds a way."
The view when exiting the ferry on Lamma Island, my personal favorite of the "microcosms" I'm describing
I am of the belief, that when it comes to the overall experience of Hong Kong, and the experience of food there, one cannot come without the other. Maybe I just never adjusted fully to life there, but the new and exciting environment surrounding me every time I ate, changed the way the food tasted. When I remember the flavors of some of those meals, they're clearly bland and unimpressive. However, when I recall the whole experience of the meal itself, not just the food, it shines a very favorable light on my initial recollections. I ate a lot of McDonald's in Hong Kong. I ate a lot of Pizza Hut, I feasted at Outback Steakhouse, you get the idea. My willingness to experience new things in food was not what it is today. If you were to visit Hong Kong, you could probably eat better than I did at the turn of every corner. I'd hope you're not reading this because you think I'm a legitimate wealth of knowledge in the field of food critique, I'm not. Right now I'm just an ex-addict line cook, whose primary hero in life was another ex-addict line cook. I'll let someone else handle the strenuous and likely pretentious job of food critic, I'd prefer to eat food I like and write stories about it.
All that said, I didn't only eat American fast food in my time abroad. I tried local spots, I tried chain places I'd never heard of, and finally, likely the most entertaining, were the places recreating dishes from other countries. I ate a lot of noodles, I ate a lot of dumplings, I tried snake soup, I stepped outside my comfort zone in the limited ways I knew how at that time. Here's what's great, Hong Kong is big, there's a lot crammed into not much space, and it's an absolute food wonderland. If you read this, and decided to book a trip to Hong Kong, your trip there will likely not be much like mine was. I think it's a very personal thing, to experience this place for the first time. Not to mention, this is a city that changes fast. Your experience won't be much like mine, but it likely will be of the same magnitude. It will be vibrant and violent, chaotic and entrancing, it likely won't mirror anything else you've ever done. My recent trips to NYC couldn't even come close in terms of the sheer volume of stimuli contained within Hong Kong Island and its surrounding territories.
You'd do best to heed the warning of a young Matthew Broderick in Hong Kong, gorgeous scenes like this are waiting to be happened upon in abundance in its various territories and neighborhoods.
I hope you get some entertainment out of my discoveries and blunders. I still think about my time in HK regularly, seven and a half years later. For some reason, I've never written about it, despite my obsessive retelling of a limited and exhausted list of some personal "highlights", which I often look back on with some form of regret. I don't know if I haven't felt like it, I don't know if I've ever felt like my limited writing abilities were capable of capturing the beauty of Hong Kong. but I know my memory won't be this clear forever. On top of that, I have a healthy fear of ever returning, risking destroying those memories I hold so close. Maybe it's nostalgia, maybe I have rose colored glasses when remembering that time. It was also full of stress, anger, heat, frustration, and disappointment. It was perfectly imperfect. It was so beyond the boundaries of what I thought I'd get to experience in terms of travelling, that to this day I don't have anything to compare it against. It transcended any expectation I could've held from a place of comfort. It is truly a place unlike any other.