Hong Kong In Due Time

Hong Kong blurs in and out of reality. For 6000 I’ll claim allegiance. A few days ago I was having dinner with a few artists and curators from Hong Kong at the Brooklyn headquarters of the Asia Art Archive, run spiritedly by Jane DeBevoise. As with most conversations about a specific art scene, the usual complaints surfaced: lack of sophistication and money, and bumbling government intervention in the arts. The night ended with a listening session of the sound work of Cedric Maridet. One piece revolved around the buoyant Tagolog conversations of Philippina domestic servants as they hung out in contingent public spaces on their lone Sundays off. This fed thoughts about the manic audio quality of the city where I was born but to which I have no tangible connection.

Wong Kar Wai’s film Chungking Express is Hong Kong to me. It shows two consequential sides of that packed city: first the twisted dark side of drug gangs and violence spilling out into labyrinthian shopping quarters, and then the breathlessness of youthful yearning. The latter is soundtracked by the obsessive recurrence of California Dreaming by The Mamas & The Papas and the closing cry of the Cranberries’ Dreams, re-sung by Faye Wong in Cantonese. She is Hong Kong to me: a bored, dark butterfly, grounded by this tough, glittering city of cash, by a gray and unamusing world, banal all the way to its core. Beautiful, but undangerous, she stares out the window of her older cousin’s corner fast food joint, dreaming of some other reality besides this one.

Rewind it back to my teenage days working at my parent’s dry cleaners in San Mateo (A-1 Cleaners) where we frequently hired Hong Kong girls attending community colleges in the area, looking to land at one of the nearby University of California schools. We hired them to work the counter, taking in customers’ cloths and completing orders after everything had been washed and pressed. On long summer days near closing time, but before the after-work rush, these girls, dressed in the HK style of the time – loose and layered, colorful like children’s thoughts – would set both their elbows on the counter, lean forward with their butt out, chin resting on their cupped hands, their legs criss-crossed behind them. I didn’t bother them, just let them stray with their thoughts, but I wondered about their dreams. How did they look? How did they sound? These Hong Kong girls’ dreams in the blunt informality of Cantonese.

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2 Comments on “Hong Kong In Due Time”

  1. Ian Shin says:

    I was also born in Hong Kong and raised in northern California. My memories of Hong Kong are, interestingly, less aural and more olfactory and visual. Hong Kong, for me, is about smells and colors. The street markets — gai see (literally street city) — stand out in particular: glowing orange lamp shades hanging low over half-rancid fish. Although I’ve yet to encounter the former in New York’s Chinatown, we can experience the latter each day on Canal Street, especially in the steamy summer heat.

    • Herb Tam says:

      Thanks for your comment Ian…yes, I distinctly remember the smells of SF’s Chinatown. They were nearly vomit-inducing as a kid, but now these same smells on Mott St., Manhattan make me nostalgic and strangely proud.


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