I haven’t sat in a coffee shop and had the kind of free-ranging conversation that coffee shops engender for a long time. Not that ever did that sort of thing very often in Hong Kong but, still, before I began carrying around a little person inside of me, I did drag myself off the cocoon of my couch occasionally and meet people beyond my minuscule friends circle of convenience.
Anyway, yesterday I did it. The friend I met was not even someone I like very much but she was in town after a while and I felt obliged to meet her and she chose a coffee shop. I keep in touch with her because she is persistent, because she is not entirely uninteresting, and because sometimes I think I’m not in a position to be choosy. Mainly though, it’s the persistence… which is the reason I keep in touch with a lot of people in Hong Kong who I then end up having these coffee shop meetings or far flung meals with.
The reason I don’t like her very much is that she is one of those people who says the word “classy” in her conversation too much, aka the person who only wants the fine-dining, lacquered over experience. There are many such people around in Hong Kong, especially among the expats many of whom have not set foot out of Hong Kong island unless they are on their company junk and some of whom have not ventured beyond the confines of Causeway Bay-Sheung Wan. I find such people lacking in character. Sure, I like the high life but I like the low life too. I enjoy sitting in a chi-chi coffee shop as much as I enjoy sitting in a faintly smelly cha cha ten drinking my drink of choice, the ubiquitous ice-lemon tea. If I had to choose I would pick the backstreets of Sham Shui Po and their dilapidated, now disappearing mom-and-pop stores over the calculated cool of Soho (and I do love Soho) simply because I believe the former to be authentic and irreplaceable and the latter replicated in almost every major city in the world, just as fine-dining restaurants and malls are.
I recently met a visiting writer from Syria who was troubled by Hong Kong. “Where is the culture?” he asked. “Why is everyone always playing with their mobile phone? Why does noone look you in the eye?” How easy it is for a foreigner to pick up on these things that make this city superficially soulless. “Now that I’ve seen Hong Kong, I understand Dubai,” he went on. And finally, despairingly: “Where are the coffee shops? How can you have a literary community without coffee shops.”
I don’t agree that literary communities must congregate in coffee shops (that is a cliche too) but I agree with almost everything else. I told this writer to venture into the backstreets to experience Hong Kong, to take a ferry to outlying islands (he finally went to Lamma and said to me with relief when I next met him: “Now I like Hong Kong”), and to look upstairs for the real coffee shops because the rents have pushed spaces that are entirely commercial onto the second and third floors. I’m sure my friend had never been to an upper floor coffee shop.
Where was I? The point of this was not to talk about coffee shops or to go off on my poor friend and her class-fixation. Or at least not yet. It was the conversation. But this has gone on long enough so… TBC.