I had visited Hong Kong for the first time shortly before the British were to return the city-state to China. There was a palpable sense of uncertainty on the island. I wondered if this is how it had been in Goa in 1961 as the enclave lingered between Portugal and India. My layover in Hong Kong was on the return journey from what had been my first visit back to Goa after I had emigrated to California. Already, I missed being with family and friends.
Seeking a sense of familiarity, I followed the spice route – or at least the fragrance of spices – in the narrow hallways of the building in which I was rooming and arrived at a tiny Indian eating place. It was so nondescript, it could not even be called a restaurant. Mostly incongruous because it was nestled in a skyscraper, it fit right in with the other eateries and little guest houses crammed into the many floors of the building. Throughout this Kowloon landmark, backpackers, entrepreneurs, and clients from across the globe made up its hustle and bustle. Infamously captured in a Wong Kar Wai film, the ground floor shopping area had been reduced to nothing more than a seedy underworld. There was much comfort to be had in this world within, ensconced as I was among these fellow migrants of similar hue. It was the best Indian meal I have ever eaten. True, I do not even recall, now, what the dish was. All that mattered was that it was eye-wateringly pungent and that the South Indian waiter, who nodded a welcome, had filled my plate with more food than that of any of the other patrons there.
Nearly twenty years on, at a dessert cafe in a back alley that can only be described as a hipster paradise because we are seated by the side of trashcans and the weekend crowd we are engulfed in would not have frequented this neighbourhood in times past, I tell the people I am with that I had been to the now-Chinese territory before. They are a group of expatriate architects that I meet because of the conference I am attending in Hong Kong. “I’m sorry,” one of them scoffs when I say the name of the place where I had resided. He recapitulates quickly upon not receiving the reaction he had expected. “They’ve cleaned it up lots, I believe,” he equivocates.
Certainly, when I stopped by the building a few hours prior, I had noticed the changes. An anthropologist colleague had accompanied me to the iconic building which she had read about in Gordon Mathews’ book, Ghetto at the Center of the World. There, we found what we had scoured the entire city for – a pair of dolls from the Disney movie Frozen. The popularity of the film had caused the toys to fly off shelves and appear on eBay at several times their original value. “My daughter will be so thrilled,” the anthropologist said as she studied the knock-offs. “And when she’s old enough, there’ll be even more of the story to tell her because I got them here,” she mused, as we walked around the warren of shops. The place had not changed to the point of being unrecognizable. Somehow, in this ultramodern city, it had managed to retain its unsanitised history – a hive of multiculturality, at once retrograde and the very definition of globalised modernity.
Just before leaving for Hong Kong on that maiden voyage two decades prior, a European student who was on holiday in Goa gave me some advice on traveling to the then colony. “Whatever you do,” she warned, “do not stay at the Chunking Mansion.” I remember staring up at the sign outside the building after I had gotten a room there, and I had thought to myself how amusingly inappropriate the name was.
An online version of this piece as it appears in print can be seen here.