Whenever my friends and I travel, we play a game.
The game is to draw a mental caricature of the city. To the best of our abilities, we amass our newfound understanding of the cultural and socioeconomic mechanisms of the city to conjure a person that best represents the city. We were to be specific about the person’s appearance, demographics, history, and of course, personality. And so, over the years, we’ve put together a party of interesting city-people.
The process is incredibly entertaining: we come up with ideas, refute them, and come up with new ones. Occasionally, though, there are some cities that prove themselves to be exceptionally difficult. One of such is my hometown, Hong Kong.
Lying beneath a San Francisco breeze, we contemplated what Hong Kong would look like. First, our minds leapt to the financial district. After all, Hong Kong champions the freest economy in the world. I pictured Central and the reflections of its neon lights on the angular panes of the glass-clad skyscrapers on the Victoria Harbour, and there she was – a middle-aged woman dressed in Shanghai Tang, sleek and proper, with her hair in a bun.
Then my friend asked, what of the back alley dai pai dongs you take me to? And the Wong Tai Sin temples that are flooded with worshippers every Lunar New Year? How about the fisherman’s stilt houses in Tai O? Perhaps Hong Kong should be an old fisherman, weathered and experienced in the division of Hong Kong between East and West, old and new.
Yet, both characters seemed equally representative of Hong Kong. We thought of merging the two, but it was simply impossible. Indeed, the chemistry of East and West in Hong Kong is quite peculiar. By all means, Hong Kong is the epitome of East meets West. Yet rather than one assimilating the other, both cultures run parallel with each other. They compliment one another, and are inseparable. In Causeway Bay, Gucci is sold next to Chinese medicine; in Mong Kok, Outback sits atop a messy host of Taiwan night market-inspired snack shops; British double-decker buses cruise alongside the vintage green trams. Everywhere you look, Hong Kong is a mix of this and that, old and new, East and West. Surely, there was no way you could choose one over the other.
And so, we found ourselves stuck in a dilemma, and we marked Hong Kong as ‘to be decided’. The blank space next to ‘Hong Kong’ only worries me. Perhaps we’re doing something wrong – are we trying too hard to strain the cultural essence out of the cities we visit? Have we, in doing so, diluted our cultural experiences instead of enriching them? Are we doing these cities an injustice?
Curiously enough, after we failed to personify Hong Kong, we never played the game again.
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