It will soon be four years since we moved into our current apartment, the longest I’ve lived in one place in Hong Kong. Out of all the places I’ve lived in, this one wouldn’t have been the one I envisaged sticking in. (Just as my current job has turned out to be the longest I’ve stayed with an employer, and it wasn’t one I foresaw myself doing, leave alone being largely satisfied and peaceful in.)
My first home in Hong Kong was in Kennedy Town, a small flat in an old building that had a stunning sea view from both the hall and the bedroom. Kennedy Town is the place I hanker for the most. When we were there it was predominantly an old and very local neighbourhood. Most expats hadn’t discovered it yet. One could hear the tram line from our apartment, and the bustle of the street and watch old ladies practice tai chi in the park. It was home to a local bakery that possibly still sells the cheapest and most excellent raisin buns in all of Hong Kong, the salon where I first got my hair straightened by trendy young things, and the best facial place I have ever been to where the facialist told me in halting English that we could be friends when I told her I had just moved. Now it’s slowly getting gentrified as more expats more there and the rents have gone through the roof with the promise of an MTR station.
We moved because V decided we must move to a bigger place but by then the rents were already rising (though they now seem downright cheap) so we decided to look way across town to the east of the island where I worked. And that’s how we landed in Quarry Bay. We had a beautiful mountain view, and we bought our own furniture, of which the highlight was a red leather couch. We went hiking in the mountain our flat overlooked when we could, while the other side of the street was very busy and beyond commercial buildings were coming up.
The first and only apartment we owned was in Quarry Bay, a beautifully done up space on the top floor with a wonderful roof, which inspired us to host more parties than we’ve ever done before or since. The value of that flat rose so stupendously that we sold it in eight months and moved to where we currently live in Tseung Kwan O.
We have finally arrived at what might safely be called the boondocks. It’s a relatively new town which was literally created out of nothing on reclaimed land. The whole community is underpinned by the MTR stations, which are crowned by malls and estates rising above them. Many expats have expressed the opinion that these new estates are monotonously characterless. Nevertheless, they are extremely convenient with great facilities and locals seem to like them. There are loads of young local couples with kids, because these are probably the only flats they can afford, and also Mainlanders, who don’t bother me at all.
I have grown to like the neighbourhood. For one, it’s quite airy (although reputed to have a smell, that I rarely get a whiff off and when I do, I’m happy) and lots of fairly empty pavements to walk on as well as cycling trails for Benji to race his scooter on. A design institute opened just next door and we sometimes pop into their exhibitions for our easy culture fix. Mainly, I think the character of the district is provided by the lower income residents of the public estates in the area. I am fond of taking the kids to play in the playgrounds in these estates, where the atmosphere is very like India. Bored mothers gossiping and ignoring their children who run riot and make their own alliances, as opposed to the helicoptering that goes one when upper-middle class parents are involved. In other parks, there are old men smoking and playing mah-jong and sometimes having a beer quite early in the morning. There are shops full of cheap things and one of a kind restaurants and the ubiquitous McDonalds packed with grandmas and dim sum places where people are raucous, waiters are surly but nice to children, and there are live lobsters waving their tentacles in the air.
We visited friends in another conglomeration of upmarket private estates in Kowloon and what I found there was that the streets were dead because there were no public estates. So everyone was upper middle class and stuck to themselves. Boring.
Living where we do has made us explore and very familiar with parts of Hong Kong people who live on the island rarely do. On Sunday, I visited a friend in a more upmarket part of Hong Kong island and after ages took a minibus through Midlevels, where most Indians who have at least one person in a banking job tend to stay. The charm of it is in the old buildings crammed together, the run-downness despite real estate here costing the moon, the higgledy-piggledy streets. And yet, there are the traces of Western civilisation – picturesque delis, cafes and the like. To live amidst this costs money, and we have never indulged in that pleasure.
Living far away, in the thick of Chineseness, has its own rewards.