Dear Jackie, Bright Lights, Big City!

Dear Jackie,

Wow. I’m a little bit in love with Hong Kong.

And, I think of you! I know you have history with this city and orchestra, and that you’ve played at Jimmy Lin’s Chamber Music Festival (which, coincidentally, starts tomorrow night! I saw a program in City Hall today and crowed with delight. If we had one or two more evenings in town, I’d be jumping on tickets immediately…). I can imagine you being at total ease here; fitting right in with the people and experiences and sounds and smells. This can be partially attributed to the fact that I have been reminded strongly of Vancouver BC, on several occasions–when I take turns onto particular streets, get a whiff of something fantastic, hear the unmistakable sound of a distinctive dialect. A local today told us that about 10% of Hong Kong natives left in the 1990s, so it’s suddenly making a lot more sense why pockets of Vancouver have such sweet reminiscence to here.

Despite your background knowledge of the city, I’m feeling compelled to take a few moments to share with you Hong Kong from my view. I imagine that, though our vantage points are different in many ways, we share some similar angles and perspectives.

Firstly, the energy here. It buzzes and vibrates. It’s a city that never sleeps? Apparently so. I have a whole list of nightclubs that have peak hours between 1 and 6am. The reflexology place I got a foot massage at earlier today is open until 2:30am (and yes, as far as I know, it was a legitimate massage parlor, not a front for something else. Though I do wonder what the vibe is like in the wee morning hours…). The popular restaurants we’ve eaten at don’t close until after midnight–a dream for night-owls like you and me (also, true confessions: I’ve had a few moments when I’ve marveled at how different Rice would be if nestled in the heart of a city like HK. We’d definitely have more late-night dining options than Mai’s, the sole H-town establishment for so many years…). And when we walked around the Times Square building just blocks from our hotel, last night at 10:30pm, the sky was so lit up by bright lights: billboard ads spanning the length of buildings, and enormous screens broadcasting video commercials. Wake me up from a deep slumber, walk me there, and ask me the time, and I’d tell you oh I dunno, 2 or 3pm? without hesitating–that’s how bright it was. Not to mention, there were crowds streaming the streets, taxis lining the alleyways–and so many seas of pedestrians at each intersection that we were forced to wade, in slow motion, as the light slowly turned from solid green to red.

Secondly, I find the skyscrapers and high-rises truly extraordinary. The urban area is extraordinarily dense–like, way more so than any city I’ve ever visited before–and the way they pack in so much housing by building up-up-UP takes my breath away. Apartment complexes with 50 or more stories as standard fare? And literally hundreds, stretching across the downtown area and then sprawling onto surrounding islands?! It’s hard to believe. I found myself gazing upward, mouth agape, on several occasions today–and thinking to myself I hope Hong Kong’s not in an earthquake zone…

Thirdly, travel anecdotes. Our day today unfolded organically and beautifully. There’s a beauty to going with the flow while traveling, a feat that’s not always possible when coordinating with several different people’s unique set of needs, desires, expectations, and energy levels. It’s also particularly noteworthy when you have a distinctive set of personalities to add to the mix–namely, my mom, who is a planner and fixer and anxious when things don’t go just right; my dad, who is a Virgo, and who has a mind that doesn’t easily budge once it’s made up; me, who can easily be plagued by FOMO, therefore often tries to bite off more than I can chew. We’re also all three prone to becoming stubborn, controlling, and disgruntled when we don’t get our way. Just one of the reasons that I often opt to adventure alone–though that too comes with a cluster of challenges! I know you understand: you are very familiar with both solo travel and working on a tight schedule that’s dictated by someone else (or in your case, like, a whole symphony or chamber festival full of ‘someone elses’…). 

But today, my parents and I were well-suited and in sync. We left our hotel this morning (yes, a high rise, in the heart of the Wanchai district–what a vibrant cosmopolitan metropolis! We headed to the cafe our hotel recommended for breakfast, which ended up being a totally authentic breakfast locale, so full with locals that the waiters never stopped moving the entire time we were there. The early morning menu was a bizarre and fascinating blend of Chinese and Western dishes: scrambled eggs and white toast served alongside instant noodles with processed ham slices; fish fingers with mashed potatoes and gravy; croissant filled with either condensed milk or peanut butter; strong coffee or black tea with lemon. I got a vermicelli noodle dish with fermented pork and vegetables, and when I ordered water, it came steaming hot. This happened last night at the Peking duck restaurant, too. It’s been interestingly enjoyable to sip at hot water, rather than chilled–especially since the climate is considerably cooler than in the past 4 countries we’ve visited.

Slight divergence to yes, talk about the weather: it’s winter here in Hong Kong, meaning highs around 70 and lows around 50 (not so different than Houston ‘fall’ or ‘early spring,’ or whatever we call those rare months where temperatures and humidity linger at some tolerable range). Feels absolutely magnificent to me, as I’ve most recently been in Africa and Sri Lanka temperatures ranging from high-80s to mid-100s, and no sign of cooling overnight. I took my first hot shower in three weeks (three weeks!) yesterday, and felt cleansed by those steamy waters in a different way than my refreshing cold showers have been providing. I also worked hard to conserve water all through Africa (in Cape Town was the most extreme, as the government has placed 2-minute caps on shower times), so here, it was a simple luxury to let the faucet run for about 7 minutes straight while I bathed–rather than turning it on and off between lathering and soaping up.

I’ve been giggling quietly to myself about how bundled up people are when walking outside. On our stroll through the illuminated epicenter of Wanchai yesterday, nearly every person was wearing a large coat of some kind–usually down, sometimes knee-length. I, on the other hand, was feeling refreshed in a small sweater over my tee. The contrast between this heat and the blazingly hot highs of Hong Kong summer is, admittedly, extreme–but still, by my West coast of the United States standards (which my East coast friends scoff at and call “wimpy”), it is decidedly NOT coat weather here. I can’t remember whether I acclimated to Houston enough to shiver at any temperatures below balmy, but I imagine that you spend enough time in cooler locales to not become a total cold-weather wuss.

Another thing that’s been truly striking is the contrast between the pace of life here and the pace of life in Sri Lanka and across Africa. This feels in total alignment with the value that’s placed on efficiency here–which Botswana, the Seychelles, and Sri Lanka seemed to be completely devoid of. Personally, I’m a total fan of efficiency–particularly in relation to how I run my business and my life. I often take pride in doing things as quickly as possible; I’m often on the lookout for a way for to expedite tasks, and reach my end goal of producing results. When I wear this hat, I fit right in here in Hong Kong. In fact, from what I’ve observed, efficiency seems to be one of the most important values–along with working hard, which I also appreciate, but not quite to the extreme that I’ve seen modeled here. Fascinatingly, our first Uber driver told us: “things move too fast here. People walk fast, drive fast, work fast. There is so much work that must be finished by the end of each day, and people often stay in the office from 8am until 8pm. It’s too much stress.” And that’s where I see the flaw in this system, and in my own system of placing such immense value on being quick and productive. At biting off as much as I can possibly chew. At what cost? Is there space for relaxation, in this society and in my own life? Does working 12-hour days for year after year after year really yield the “results” I’m hoping for, both personally and professionally? I’m hoping for much more than simply “getting shit done.” I’m hoping also for fulfillment, satisfaction, joy. I’m hoping for my cup to be filled at the end of each day, not depleted. I get the sense that many people in Hong Kong walk around pretty depleted, a lot of the time. And sure, they take weekends to recoup. (And eat lots of ridiculously delicious carbs.) But is that what life is about? I know you too think about these things, oh extraordinarily busy one.

And yes, I know I’m being reductionist. I’ll share more tomorrow about my experiences exploring the villages and more rural areas surrounding Hong Kong, including the beautiful Dragon’s Back hike we took today. There’s clearly a whole lot more to the city than just blazing electronics, ultra high-speed internet, and people in go-go-go mode all the time. All of which–the old and the new, the traditional and the flashy modern–is part of Hong Kong’s irresistible allure. Really, I’m having a hard time not being won over. I predict I’ll leave a little piece of my heart here.

Thinking of you, today and many days of this journey. You’ve traveled more than most anyone I know; been on innumerable plane rides overseas, seen cities with shockingly different flavors, colors, characters. But how much depth of knowledge and exposure you have with the cultures you visit, that I wonder. I wonder, too, how many cities hold pieces of your heart. Perhaps many.

Missing you. Sending love to you and yours.

PS Today’s cover photo is one of those quintessential ones, taken from the top of the Peak Tram viewing platform. I still can’t get over the breadth & scope of this magnificent place.

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