Published in The Kathmandu Post on 13 January 2018

Notes from the depths

Notes from the depth

To dive and discover the underneath. To see what hasn’t speared the surface. Chang was from mainland China, soft-spoken, sophisticated. Muy was a Hong Kong native; her parents’ had swum to the island-city, part way, in their twenties. To understand, I listened, mostly. It kept coming up—the handover, the movement. So I injected a question, “How does it feel?”

Muy mentioned jobs. That year, 1997, she was in university; had not paid much attention to politics. She had been worried about employment, the increase in rent. Perhaps her response was instantaneous because the truth was larger, evasive; like clouds above us, ever-changing. Then I looked at Chang who started slowly: “I mostly feel sad,” she said. “The wheels are turning; it’s unstoppable. There is some hostility in Hong Kong towards people from the mainland. Since my Cantonese, not being fluent...” Those were some of her words.

“And when did the movement start?” I pressed on. I had browsed through articles in Nepal. The Hong Kong democracy protests of 2014, the Umbrella Movement, was triggered by an upcoming election, was tied to a government’s policy related to education.

“I was in France then,” Chang responded, “There were discussions, gatherings to show support. But to my friends and me, it seemed a bit dramatic.” At this point, she smiled coyly. “Because we grew up with the same curriculum and turned out fine. We learned to say Yes even though we feel No inside.”

A couple of hours passed in this way. We were inside a room above Causeway Bay. Then we took the lift downstairs. I turned towards Wan Chai, walked along the glittering street. On the train, I kept thinking. Once inside the flat, I kept reading. I dug deep on the internet, I browsed through books I had received on Wednesday. The topic switched from politics to art. That’s how I came across Martin Wong. He was a Chinese-American gay man who had grown up in Frisco. He was a painter, had lived in New York City in the nineteen-eighties. He collected graffiti, bought Asian antiquities from Christie’s, sold them at Sotheby’s. He lived on the Lower East Side, fell in love with a playwright with a dark side. I kept reading late into the night, kept going deeper in this city of heights.

Today is Sunday. The weather is gloomy. It took a turn on New Year’s Day. Last night was drizzly; it’s been breezy. But it was different when I first arrived. I was immersed in colours soon after landing, that bright, sunny Friday morning. Green and orange traffic lights blinking; on smooth black roads, yellow lines dashing. Starry blue trams quietly glided, sparkly red taxis paused, then darted. I had instantly fallen into a long nap, then clambered down the tenement, not caring what I was wearing. On the street, I stood still, once again admiring, looking at people bustling, signs flashing. Then I headed to a destination unknown, looking for food, craving coffee. There was Hotel Ibis, there was a supermarket, so many buildings, so mesmerizing.

But I did not know then that that interlude marked the beginning of my solitude. I would be by myself for three full days, not just one or two. Today is Sunday and once again, I am thinking; I am writing. I am recording what arose within. Retracing, remembering, feeling slightly stronger, somewhat surprised.

That Friday afternoon, I had encountered clusters in front of shops during my first walk. Groups of beige, wrinkled cylindrical sausages, dark brown, almost red. There were immaculate glass jars, the shapes and sizes various, neatly assembled. These housed round black shells, bone white pieces of cartilage. I was in the Dry Seafood District. Amused, I turned a corner to a busier street, lined with puffy, sugary cakes, with grapes, with small oranges. At one point, customers pointed to steamy displays.

What did I want to eat? Where could I get coffee? With these questions, I turned left, found a midrange-looking place. There I made my entrance casually, ordered udon with beef confidently. The coffee was served in a steel mug that was shiny, its handle curvy. The bowl that came was big; could not finish all the meat. What next? Slunk into the supermarket. Bought a bottle of water and a pack of blueberries. With my stomach full and senses perked, I did some research, clicked on icons, pushed buttons to orient myself. Most signs pointed to Queens Road Central; rush hour traffic could now be heard. I saw Namaste Kitchen as I sauntered, then a cafe serving congee, a Dutch joint offering wine and cheese. It was remarkable to walk up ‘ladder street’. Locals gathered under a large red sign; Cantonese fluttering on fabric. I kept following my instincts. By the time I landed back on De Vouex street, my hamstrings hurt. It was dusk. There was a Starbucks.

I searched for The Cupping Room early on Saturday. Ordered an Americano and a plate of mashed avocados that came with poached eggs and a spicy chorizo. Read Virginia Woolf’s Diary while waiting, mind buzzing. Woolf, who has anchored me in this strange city, is a pedestal, a rock on shore, to which I swim daily.

After brunch, I headed to Man Mo; I was on the go. The temple was a perfect starting point to explore. Inside, I stood still for a moment or two, then stepped out onto Hollywood Road. Soon I noticed Whitestone gallery. The show was called Intermixture; use of materials, motifs, colours and forms had brought the works of three Japanese artists together. Then I walked through SoHo. I wanted to get on the Peak Tram but the wait was too long; what to do! On an impulse, I hopped on the Big Bus for a city tour, found a seat on the roof deck—there were a few more hours of daylight to go. The bus barrelled down neon avenues, snaked inside a tunnel, zoomed through seaside neighborhoods. Small hilly islands appeared in the distance, lush green foliage greeted. Somehow I ended up at the Stanley Plaza promenade, a place perfect for a sunset photo.

Another Sunday began with another cup of coffee. I bought a doughnut and a coconut roll. Breakfast taken care of, I stood in front of a dim sum place. Small round bowls were filled with freshly cooked noodles, meat, rice and eggs. When I pointed to a platter, a lady uttered “fish roll”. That would be my lunch, would eat at the flat, having decided to spend a relaxed day reading inside. Carrying the takeaway bag, I bought a large packet of big grapes and a cup of coffee to go.

The morning progressed, afternoon arrived, the year was rapidly ending. I had no fixed plans for the big night, nowhere to go. As the sun set, melancholy threatened to set in. I went to the roof and took some more photos. I waited for a sign from that elusive one hiding inside. What did he want to do? Where did he want to go? But first, I had dinner to sort. The streets were emptying, shops were closing. No, I did not want to lose control. I did not want to drink, did not want to see the firework.

Gradually, the answer arrived - I would spend the night on my own, celebrate my thoughts, lose myself in words.

The evening hours deepened into night. Virginia Woolf led me to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Elizabeth Taylor was instantly captivating. When the city rumbled with sounds and the air filled with noise, I briefly peeked outside. Across the harbor, 2018 flashed vertically along the length of a dazzling skyscraper. I returned to bed, to my quiet conclave, typed a few greetings and resumed the movie.

Another night passed; another morning arrived. It was the beginning of another new year. I settled into a chair, feeling slightly stronger, somewhat surprised, asking myself, “What did I do? Where did I go?”

Go back <-