Notes from Hong Kong: Temple Street Night Market

Say it with me: Temple Street Night Market.

It’s not a name, it’s an invocation. It’s not a place, it’s a world. It’s the brightest spark of the deepest night shining out in all directions, a compass rose that calls the faithful to prayer with the true north of twelve o’clock midnight. It’s elemental, a bagua of phoenix fire and djinn-soaked air, fish-fluid and scale-slippery yet as earthbound as Prometheus.

You start at the harbor and walk up Nathan Road, running the gauntlet of bright young Indian men hawking watches, purses, hashish and hedonism; past the respectable stores with open fronts and uniformed doormen, past the neverending news stands run by mummified great-grandmothers to a thousand generations, but the moment you hit Temple Street you’ll know you’re not anywhere else.

We’re between Temple Street Spicy Crab and the San Miguel Open Tavern, with uniformed waitresses beckoning us to sit for one beer, one beer, one beer for the gentlemen. Whole families sit over open-flame woks and card tables unfolded into impromptu leaves for the unexpected guests. The smell of sterno and spices fill the air, along with plastic Chinese flags strung between the apartment buildings looming to either side. Laundry hangs out of every habitable window alongside the ubiquitous window-mounted air conditioners, monuments to ancient structural architecture and the warping heat of this tropical island.

We pass our first policemen, serious young men in well-pressed blue shirts, talking in low tones with one of the vendors whose cigarette is ash and filter. We pass the Circle K, Moneygram, Tashafudhi, Ching Mai Records, Temple Beauty, Creation Jewelry, Golden Bauhina Jewelry, Avant Gold Jewelry, Palace Jewelry, Mastery Jewelry.

We detour down a side street in between produce stands. Lettuce, bok choi, whole ear corn, cauliflower, black brocolli, tomatoes and yams. A roadside shrine squats alongside, red and gold and piled with brass bowls of apples and oranges, tucked inconspicuously into the corner of the street, a holy fire hydrant for any passing dogs. The Thailand and Southeast Asia grocery stands full of tamarinds, tofu and spiked fruits. A tea shack sells crockery, loose-leaf tea, pots and porcelain, oddly delicate despite the bustle.

Back down the booths of tourist-bait – bags, waving lucky cats, mounted insects and music from pirate CD stations. There are t-shirts featuring Kurt Cobain, Christ, Mao and Adolf Hitler; something I haven’t seen marketed successfully back home. Axl Rose looking younger than he is on a Chinese Democracy tee which costs about as much as the album cost to record. Lingerie that looks like it came from Milwaukee’s Secret, mobile phone accessories and Mickey Mice, strains of Irish fiddle and tin whistle music coming from a softcore video store tucked behind two watch booths.

A pregnant woman dines on noodles, a police van sits outside Lee Kwong Lee China Wear. Foot Massages are offered for $88 HKD, around $11 American, with hotel outcalls available. A series of neon lights that scream Boystown at an unlabelled establishment, outside of which lounges a wiry bouncer in a Fighting 84th Division camo jacket. The buildings are covered in cracks and falling to pieces, the first four to eight floors of every one devoted to commerce while they’ve built the booths further into the street and the harpies hover in their one-room apartments overhead.

We’re in threatened by trucks and Maseratis at every corner, blinded by neon and a starless sky, the pregnant moon elbowed aside by air and light pollution. Ying Tea, Fat Sun, Wing Hing, Thai Pat, and Ren Nin Exchange make up a single office block, a bicycle parked alongside an abandoned mattress leans against the railing.

We pass booths hawking homeopathic hematite alongside double-headed dildos. We’re alongside the Temple in Temple Street now, straight into the fortune tellers’ section of the market. Tarot readers, face readers, feng shui consultants alongside Shanghai and Market Streets. Palmistry by Simon Chan, Master Joseph as featured on the media, Madame Tina set up in her tent outside the public toilets. Family fortune telling, accurate astrology by Vienna, numerology and Esther and Mary Ho, Ming the Little Woman Tarot Reader.

We’re warned against taking photos of the street performers by a gentleman wrapped in tattoos, not so much a figure of authority as a figure who might be packing. It’s all right, as the performers are not really anything to write home about, reminding me more than anything of my Aunt Bernice playing Rock Band circa 1958. The fortune tellers now keep tortoise shells on their tables outside the Yao Mi Tai Car Park and Government Offices. Uncle Uncanny offers to read our auras.

There’s Bombay food, Thai food, Tong Tai deep fried rabbit fish and pork intestines, young pao fried rice – a live crab whose eyestalks alone can move from side to side, trapped in bamboo-leaf bondage by the harsh mistress of hunger. Fried snails, raw snails, sea slug and live catfish swimming in styrofoam coolers. Cruelty to animals has never smelled so good, and we’re stopping here for dinner, sitting in the middle of the street next to a party of French women and across the way from a band of Chinese. They’re dining on fried prawns and chili noodles with a two-liter Haizhu beer, big enough for two but strong enough for one. We follow suit by ordering East Wind Blood Snails and a Clay Pot Rice with Short Ribs. Both are fantastic, the snails like escargot without garlic or butter. The sauce is spicy-sweet, tamarind and peanut.

Temple Street slows down when you sit down, no longer pushed and drawn. It’s nearly nine at night, seven A.M. back home and I’m eating street snails and drinking beer. My spare ribs are better than the Peking Duck I had for lunch atop Victoria Peak, crispy and burnt in all the right ways. It may be the best food I’ve had on a trip period.

It’s Monday Night and early. I can’t imagine midnight on a Friday.

Notes from Hong Kong: Monday Evening I

After doing the requisite work yesterday morning I headed out for a quick exploration of Nathan Road and its environs, picking up some cash at a street ATM as well as batteries for my MP3 recorder at a 7-11. This would prove wise, later; and also allowed me my first view of a Hong Kong convenience mart.

They’re tiny, as so much here is – the scales are in extremes, with massive buildings towering over the skyline and wrestling one another for dominance, view and desirability, but the street-level stores require a great deal of economy once you’re within them due, no doubt, to the staggering rents required to live here. We’re on mainland Kowloon rather than any of the islands, but it’s still a remarkably expensive place to exist according to all I’ve heard and seen.

The group as a whole headed toward the harbor where we boarded the Night Star ferry and took the surprisingly rough channel waters across to Hong Kong Island proper. We decided that walking would be more fun than the bus, and so thirty minutes of more or less zigzag travel up the crowded streets brought us to the base of Victoria Peak.

The Peak was the height of desirability in terms of location during the British administration, largely because the top of the mountain was constantly cooler than the low-lying areas around. It took rickshaws a full three hours to pull beefy, florid Englishmen and their luggage-intensive families up the incline which can reach a grade of over 15 degrees. That was in times both less enlightened and less mechanical, and since the 1930s a tram has existed to pull residents and visitors alike up the mountain.

At the top, a slight attack of vertigo followed by sightseeing. The deck is not large, but it’s big enough to afford views all across the island, the harbor, and well into ocean and mainland alike. A pair of eagles soared over our heads by mere feet, huge birds with earth-colored bands across great black wings. The buildings which sprout from the riotous green seem offensive, somehow; garish pink or corpse-grey, the cracks in their walls and foundations are visible even without the pay-per-view telescopes.

Lunch was Peking duck and a few pints of Tsingtao before heading to the street markets. Bit of a letdown here at first, as we never reached the real Chinese markets and found ourselves surrounded by cheap children’s costumes and bangles for the dead-of-mind before calling it a draw and moving back to the ferry.

Still, I’m smiling as we cross the choppy waters, and a one-dollar piece goes into the brave and briny as a promise to return sometime when there’s less work to do and more time to spin the prayer-wheels of the tongue and heart.

I called the group around to lay out options – I have one big thing I want to do on this trip, but it doesn’t require coconspirators, and I’m not going to force anyone; while Norb has another venue in mind in the opposite direction. We agree to follow Norb tonight and those who wish can join me in a few days on my own trip out, but we’re take the scenic route home along the Avenue of Stars, looking for Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee along the endless parade of names that mean so little to our deaf ears and blind eyes. For myself, my sights are on the harbor, the shipping boats and ferries, the walls of concrete, steel and glass which dominate the skyline.

The flags flown by the boats are shoeshine rags, the bright red of the Revolution reduced to anarchic black by the leveling powers of time and air pollution. It’s a surprise, really. In a nation as symbol-obsessed as my own such things wouldn’t be tolerated, preferring to burn the things the moment they’re touched by the hands of entropy. Perhaps it’s a thumbing of the nose at the unspeakable reality of how bad the air can get, more likely, I suspect, it’s that nobody on board those ships has a spare moment to spend on laundering their national pride.

Once at the hotel, however, plans change. Everyone’s been walking more than they’re used to and one by one they make their excuses and drop out, leaving only Norb and I to walk the gauntlet of faux watch sellers and Bangladeshi tailors to find Temple Street Night Market.

I’ll be honest; I don’t have time to continue about the Market. If Hong Kong is a tornado then the Market’s the apocalypse, and there’s just too much to tell. I surrendered photography duties to Norb’s multiple lenses and sense of visuals while I chattered endlessly into the MP3 recorder all the sights, sounds and wonders that exist in a place open from seven to midnight every day of the week, wrapped in more chaos and confusion than I ever thought possible, eyes wide and wondering while we were pulled along by the Kowloon night.

I’m going to write it down – all the confusion and beauty – but this has been the better part of an hour and I’ll need to get ready for the coffin-horse they call a job before I can keep dancing. It should be a quiet day, followed by a requisite dinner with our Chinese hosts; so I’ll plan to come back tonight and present you with the pearls of the previous evening.

I appreciate all the comments everyone’s sending, by the way. I wanted to bring everyone I knew to the city I adore, and it’s nice to know that it’s working after a fashion.

Notes from Hong Kong: Monday Morning

I’m sitting eighteen stories in the sky, looking out over bright blue sky and a busy harbor. I’m drinking Sumatran coffee with a French chanteuse serenading me through one box, official Chinese news murmuring seductively about the U.S. State of the Union address through another, and am paging through the portfolios of twenty-three international photographers looking for photos of Kowloon, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul and Shanghai to warp, manipulate and upload. The whole time I have access to my network of friends fourteen hours and oceans behind me through the chat feature of Facebook.

Keep your flying cars, I’ve got my future right here.

The work that needs to be done: After training in Toronto wrapped up, we got some video testimonials from the users which we want translated into Flash and uploaded for our Chinese hosts to preview, along with a ten-minute b-roll about the project overview. This is going to take a bit of time and processor power, but not a lot of energy or thought.

I can’t say the same for the photo work. I’m looking for photos of the major cities in which we do business to preload for their viewing pleasure, but not every area has quality, available stock photography in my usual haunts – and I’ve hamstrung myself a bit by beginning with wonderful night shots of the skylines, which cuts down on the number even further if I want to keep a visual tie-through.

Still, I expect it will all work out. I’m using the downtime of the processor to write all of this out and plan the afternoon at the same time. We’re planning to take the ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island for a trip up Victoria Peak, likely followed by visiting the street markets through the island proper. The main thing I want to accomplish is a ferry trip along the harbor during the nightly light show, followed with supper and drinks at the Intercontinental and Sky Bar. That’s if I’m playing cruise director for the group, of course; which so far has been working out extremely well.

To be honest, what I want to be doing is writing. Even here in the relative sterility of the hotel room I can feel the city thriving around me, grabbing my biceps and pointing out places to be, to do, to look, to experience. I’m lucky in that my Edge of Propinquity work is in the editing stage; I don’t know how I could write convincingly about the Fox Valley from here but I’d be game to try.

To that end it’s going to have to be earlier mornings. I sprang out of bed at 6 today for the first workout in a week and felt fantastic, so I’m setting the alarm for 5 tomorrow. I’m hopeful that will give me a full hour to spend getting all the night-spice out of my nose and onto the pages in between the official reason for my presence in this sweet soul city.

Notes from Hong Kong: Sunday Evening

It’s 11:45 PM on a Sunday night in Hong Kong. I think I’ve slept 1.5 hours out of the past 28. I’ve been crammed into an airborne cattle car, denied access to expected pleasures, fed two airline meals on a 16-hour flight … and God help me, I’d do it all again to get back to this city.

There are some temptations you should know not to return to. Hong Kong is one of mine. The minute we could see the low mountains rising out of evening mist, swathed in a lusher green than any northern climate can grow; the minute the blast of sweet and welcome humidity plastered itself against my face like the touch of a long-lost lover; the minute I hopped into a red cab for Kowloon with a man behind the wheel to equal all the other maniacs in this spinning, burning city, I was grinning like a madman waiting for the straitjacket.

Night is more … night here than anywhere else I’ve been. It’s close, and sweet, and heavy. It makes your eyelids droop and your tongue instinctively lick at your lips. It’s bright as day is back home from the neon and headlights and gaudy, tawdry invitations. It’s miles high, either in high-rise buildings covered with bamboo scaffolding or mountain peaks too fierce and wild to be graded, paved and built upon. It’s stories deep, beneath subways and subterranean restaurants. It’s the highest of divisions between the immacultely coiffed Chinese ladies in rabbit jackets and leather boots swing by the myrmidions of watch-sellers, massage artists and veiled beggars seeking alms. It’s culture and noise, chaos and structure.

It’s the tricky bastard stepchild of Monkey, Jack o’ Tales and Coyote. It’s a dream given weird shape that’s lurched to life all around its dreamers and outgrew them, outpaced them, outgreened them, outlived them.

I knew I’d missed Hong Kong. I didn’t know how much.

Notes from the US: Through the Gauntlet

The airport was surprisingly simple, though considerably bureaucratic. It seems to me that the real reason for all the extra security may be the government trying to solve the unemployent issue, given how many hands were on my person and luggage over the course of a half an hour. Laptop out, turn it on, turn it off again. Wave the magic wand across me. Etc etc etc. One nice thing I found is that my rings and belt no longer seem to trigger the metal detectors, which is great.

The strangest bit, though, was what we decided must be THE DEADLY UNDERPANTS CHECK ZOMG. The “suspicious” line is divided by gender. I assume this is for searching purposes, but no. When I am escorted to my female agent, she asks me to put my hands fully in my pockets. I comply, and then she says “Rub them up and down.”

To say this surprises me would be a bit of an understatement. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Rub them!” She put her hands on her hipbones and made a wiping motion up and down. I’m afraid I probably laughed but I complied, after which she swabbed my hands with some kind of chemical detector cloth, put it through the official-looking machine, and told me to move along.

Amanda didn’t get the same treatment. I guess the logic is that … women bombers wouldn’t be willing to wear bulky underwear? I mean, that’s all I can think of, when I try to think like a fear-obsessed bureaucrat. “Ladies love silky things and don’t want to ruin their figures, so let’s just check the Y-fronts.”

Not, you know, that I wear Y-fronts.

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