in a Blender: Hong Kong’s Multiple Personalities
By Arun Mistry
scent whirled around me in the thick, hot air of Tsim
Sha Tsui. Here, Hong Kong’s cultural food processor
has overflowed to the mainland, mixing the aromas
from every kind of merchant and food vendor you can
imagine into its soup of pollution from endless, jostling
lines of cars.
Upon my arrival in Tsim Sha Tsui,
I had been warned about the dangers of a tourist black-hole,
otherwise known as Chungking Mansions. The building,
styled in no-nonsense sixties architecture, is on
the hectic Nathan road, surrounded by modern hotels
and office buildings.
Originally built as a five-block
apartment development, the building now houses many
budget hostels, tailors, shops and restaurants. It
houses a labyrinth of passageways and dimly lit areas,
exotic smells. The crowds of men who loiter at its
entrance reinforce the shady reputation it earned
during its days as a gold smuggling center. Rumors
suggest that smuggling continues to this day.
As I approached the entrance, the
hawkers smelled fresh tourist blood. While wading
through a sea of flailing arms and business cards,
I learned I was in need of a fake watch, a hand-tailored
suit and an early dinner.
I had not eaten in ten hours, so
I could not resist an offer of the “best Indian food
in Hong Kong” from a man named Ramesh. Once I had
chosen a partner for this dance, my other suitors
lost interest and moved on to the next mark.
Ramesh led me through a maze of
dimly-lit passages, the walls stained with red streaks
of beetle nut juice. The local young men chew the
beetle nut to increases virility and keep them awake.
Its juice dyes everything it touches a blood red,
including the mouths of anyone chewing it, as Ramesh
was proud to show me.
The warm scents of cumin and garam
masala washed over us as we climbed a flight of stairs.
In the bright hallway at the top, a flickering sign
announced that we had arrived at the Taj Mahal.
The owner emerged from the restaurant,
glowing with pride, and welcomed me with a firm handshake.
Ramesh disappeared into the darkness without a word.
To my surprise, the restaurant contained
a well-lit, comfortable dining room. The place erupted
with aromas so strong I could practically taste the
food as I walked in.
The waiter presented me with rich,
spicy dishes, each with its own array of flavors.
I finished the meal stuffed and disappointed that
I was not blessed with greater capacity.
After my feast, I swam against the
flow of fresh tourists, back to the main entrance
of Chungking Mansions. Like many aspects of Hong Kong,
the myths surrounding Chungking Mansions seem to attract
more tourists than they repel.
After experiencing the chaos
of Tsim Sha Tsui, I decided to cross Victoria Harbor
to meet a friend living on Hong Kong Island.
The Star Ferry, a slice of Hong Kong’s colonial past
that has run for the past 100 years, ferries tourists
and business people across the short stretch of water
that joins the two main areas of the territory.
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