Is it possible to love a city as if it was the first city you have loved, or that loved you?
Start with a definition of love.
Love is not the adoration, constantly delivered, that keeps your pupils dilated, or the skin flush. Love is more like the horrible sense of self -awareness that your place in life is not going to be easy at first, or that it may sometimes be rather difficult, in fact. But you will get through.
If love is a mix of the good and bad feelings we feel by living, then Hong Kong is possible to love, and it is possible to be loved by Hong Kong.
But it is also impossible to do this if you submit yourself to the wiles and hedonism of Hong Kong. There is plenty of it, and it rushes at you, as complex and as imposing as the architecture here.
Sai Ying Pun, just on the western edge of the super-modern Central district, just at the part of the island where the ferry terminals stop existing, and where the island begins to curve south to the pastoral Kennedy Town and the nearly barren Cyperport.
It smells like fish here, and rotten lizards. Shark fins hang from the storefronts. People are bustling by here, or crawling like the laggard elderly. In fact, many are the laggard elderly, and one must practice patience in their passing. They often fail to pass.
You will see some, being taken out for walks, for air, to be shown the sun. They stare up at the sun unblinking, peering through the smog in the air and the fog in their brains, mouth slack jawed and drooling. They are the infirm.
But Hong Kong is a hyper-manic LED explosion that swaddles the ugly, the old, the sick, the dirty. In fact, it tends to embrace the dirty as no other sophisticated city on earth can embrace it. It showcases it, while Bentley’s ply the streets the contrapuntal flip-flops of the garbage scavenger rushes against the traffic. She stoops to pick up cardboard, bind it and haul it away, as a driver pushes forward the ritzy couple’s Rolls Royce (there are more of these per capita than in any city in the world).
Sometimes it is easy to dislike the city that claims to have style, but that is so garish, so crowded, so rushed that there is never any time to enjoy whatever style that would be. And then you see things like the Times Square winter wonderland display in Causeway Bay and you wonder if the etiquette rules need to be written to say, “Do not EVER try to pass this shit off as classy, or style. The fact that you even put the word style in this display is an affront to the laws of physics.”
But then there are reasons to love it, and to accept that love is not perfect. It has to be said that if love is a journey then this experience pays off in rewards that are too innumerable and even too intangible to count.
And should reward or love be counted? No. It’s a feeling. It’s that feeling of grace. You come to accept things.
I accept that Hong Kong, five years ago, was the place where I became another person. I accept that that person I became was not a healthy one, and not one that was able to appreciate the small wonders of life.
To get that back, I walked up Eastern Street, a steep hill that leads at the top to a road called Hospital Road. At the top of the road is a giant fortress like community center that I think used to be a government building, or a sanitarium. It has huge medieval looking walls.
In there is an nursery center. I knock on the door.
I have a stuffed Armadillo, called Dillo, that my friend Marissa wanted me to give to a kid that needed it. I was going to do this in Beijing, but my visa was wrong and I never made it there. So, I pick this day care center out of the blue, walk up and knock on the door.
One woman, and then another woman, answer the door. They want to know what I need.
“I know this sounds strange, but I have to give this stuffed animal to a child that might need it. My friend in California makes these stuffed animals out of recycled materials and this is my chance to give it to a child so she can have fun.”
She looks at me.
“So is it, you want to promote this product,” she asks.
“No, not really, I want to give this to someone. Do you think the kids will enjoy having this to play with?”
This is incredibly weird for her and she is probably wondering if I have planted a bomb inside the stuffed armadillo.
She says, “Just a moment,” and in utter Chinese courteousness leaves me standing there, but puts a block in the door to keep the catch from locking. It’s a small gesture to signify that she is working on this issue, and she will be back. No disrespect.
A few years ago, I lived right down the road, and I had some struggles. I probably drank too much. I was bitter. I worked very hard through grad school and tutored kids on the weekdays and the weekends, for just enough money to pay my rent, to pay for food and to pay off my graduate school tuition.
It’s hard to say this, but I didn’t treat people well during this period. I was selfish. I was angry. I was struggling a lot. It was not easy to be a caucasian journalist in a city that was mostly Chinese. There was a lot of competition. There were rumors. Some of them were true.
Essentially, I didn’t treat my friends very well, and I didn’t treat my girlfriend very well, and whatever cosmic force in the world that exists to humble me, I didn’t listen to it.
So, it humbled me.
It humbled me daily, sometimes severely so. And that followed me to New York, where it continued to humble me, until I gave up. I submitted to a force greater than myself and I said, “I quit.”
Just like Philip Larkin did a long time ago. I remember reading about him in a British literature class when I went to school in London.
Come then to prayers
And kneel upon the stone,
For we have tried
All courages on these despairs,
And are required lastly to give up pride,
And the last difficult pride in being humble.
Flowing then through the kind of hedonistic life that Hong Kong lent me, I lost myself to chasing women, chasing pleasure, chasing money. I chased and chased anything that I thought would relieve me of an existential loneliness.
But being humbled by it brought me to the realization that I had something more in me, something that required me to give of myself, because, as wasted as I became, there was something there, something in the core that throbbed and refused to die.
And that’s in the end what it requires to live. Giving.
I had spent a lot of time in my life rolled up like a little armadillo, shielding myself from real love, from real intimacy with friends, in whatever form, by drinking, by disrespecting women and men, by being mean when I felt I had to, by really refusing to give, or give in. I feared being weak, because in a very materialistic way, I had not much to give.
But I never realized that I had a pretty generous spirit, that I was made of something that is probably love. I think it’s love. Love has kept me sane. And I have learned to pray. Prayer keeps me calm. It allows me to listen to a soft voice in my head that can tell me what to do.
Life is tough otherwise, for me.
The secret of life — if it is even a secret, it seems so obvious and in my face right now — is that one must not have to try so hard, to be. One is what one is, and by just accepting what one is — a mere human — one begins to do what is right. Life is very soft that way.
Love is really a kind of grace. A platitude, yes, but it’s true.
Down below the massive community center, the traffic is swarming and hustling. The woman comes back to the door.
“We would be glad to take your armadillo, and the kids will enjoy this,” she says.
It is my silent wish that giving this little gift of a stuffed armadillo will make some kid happy. Made from recycled parts and carried with me for three weeks, through maybe 21,500 miles or more, it sits in my hand.
So, I take the armadillo from my hands and put it in her hands. And she tips her head towards me in a courteous bow. And I thank her and she thanks me.
And I take her picture, and that is what I did on Thursday.