Hong Kong's nooks and crannies
Malaysian writer Louisa Lim shuns the congested and sweaty streets of Hong Kong for the little lanes, discovering their kooky characters. -The Star
By Louisa Lim
Think Hong Kong Island is all chaos and clatter? Think again.
As a guide-book-devotee-turned-rebel, I'm not entirely convinced when people tell me that the sweaty, raucous streets of Hong Kong are a force to be reckoned with.
Sure, there may be more people jammed together than anywhere else on earth, and yes, the din of the 24-hour traffic may be incessant, and the air quality may be less than healthy, but Hong Kong is also considered a shopping and eating destination by many Malaysians. Full stop.
Malaysians are evidently more than willing to brave the legendary rudeness of the city's shop owners and restaurant waiters just to indulge themselves senseless. This isn't a bad notion, really, but they are completely missing the point.
There's much, much more to this industrious, little metropolis beyond its shiny, steel surface, and that was why I found myself gravitating towards doing the opposite of what an average traveller would do.
Me, I opted to seek out the antithesis of Hong Kong's trademarks by looking for quiet places away from all that hullabaloo.
Upon setting foot outside the hotel, I realised that it wasn't going to be easy. The smells and colours of the city hit me like a ton of bricks as soon as I emerged into the summer heat.
Apart from the parks, temples and the green respite in the New Territories, every nook and cranny in Hong Kong was just like a hot, whistling kettle with steam spouting out.
That is, until I discovered the little lanes in - you never would've guessed it - Mong Kok, home to some of the island's most congested working-class areas and busiest shopping districts.
"Surely, this can't be Hong Kong," my friend whispered to me in awe at the sheer number of fish for sale in little plastic baggies along Tung Choi Street. "It's just so . . . weird!"
We were standing on the edge of the block. Before us was the Goldfish Market, spanning about 2km in length.
Unlike what its name suggests, the market is made up of more than a few dozen shops selling multi-coloured aquatic creatures, from graceful koi and frisky mini tortoises, to aquarium thingamajigs, and there's even a pet shop or two.
There were few customers and even fewer vehicles here on this sweltering Monday afternoon. But it was business as usual for the vendors.
It seemed like a tough life for both men and fish. I am told the fishes are kept in holding tanks overnight and re-bagged every morning. But goldfish, I learned, originated in China approximately 1,000 years ago, and these men were proud of their roots as well as their work.
"Yes, come see, come see. Just like Ocean Park, but free!" an elderly man said to us in Cantonese with a toothy grin (sarcasm perhaps?) when we stopped to admire a massive three-storey store dedicated to nothing but fish.
Trying to quell my curiosity, I asked if any of his fish was edible.
"No," he replied brusquely, a little offended.
"These are all ornamental fish. We Chinese believe that certain fish bring good luck to the home. You can go into my shop to catch your own fish if you don't like those that are already displayed outside. I can give you very good price!"
But so can the shop next to his, who claim that they have the best price on the street and, as a bonus, the rarest fish to boot.
As tempting as the offers sounded, I was positive Nemo wouldn't be able to survive a four-hour plane ride home. So after politely turning down both offers, we made our way.
To our surprise, we came upon another market hidden just around the corner.
The sight of hundreds of flowers in full Technicolor splendour greeted us as we stepped onto the semi-covered sidewalk of the Flower Market. For a moment, I felt like I was entering a different world altogether.
The traffic sounded like it was a million miles away, the colours were postcard-pretty, and cool gusts of wind ruffled my already unkempt hair; they came from the shops we passed. Each one had their air-conditioning turned on full blast to keep their livelihoods from wilting away.
Apparently, I had stumbled upon the hub of Hong Kong's wholesale and retail floral business. This is the place where most of Hong Kong descend to buy up armful of blooms, gardening implements and accessories.
"Look," my friend said, pointing to a beautiful, but bizarrely shaped blossom. "I don't think I've seen this flower before in my life! Is it even real?"
Just as he reached out to touch its bright purple petals, a shop owner glared at him.
"It's called Blue Bell Tunicate," she informed us. "Very rare. Imported."
"Let's try to keep our hands to ourselves from now on," I said, trying my best to fight off the temptation to feel the beautifully arranged roses, chrysanthemums, orchids, tulips, carnations and lilies myself.
As we approached the end of the street, the sound of chirping birds grew louder. We followed the sounds and it led us to a Chinese-inspired courtyard with moon gates and enough caged birds to perplex an animal activist.
The sign outside read: "Yuen Po Street Bird Garden".
Rearing songbirds was supposedly a time-honoured pursuit by many affluent Chinese households back in the day, and this garden - built for the sole purpose of trading various types of birds, including macaws, songbirds, mynahs, cockatiels and starlings - is Hong Kong's tribute to this prestigious pastime.
"Wow, and you thought dogs were a bloke's best friend," said an English tourist beside me, after we spotted a few elderly men fussing and fawning over their feathered friends.
"I've read that some of them even feed honey nectar to the birds so their songs would sound sweeter and they could be sold for a higher price," continued said English tourist.
There were about 10 stalls altogether, each with its own bevy of admirers and proud, twittering orchestra.
Also lined up in front of the stalls for sale were intricately carved birdcages, live insects (for food) and decorations like porcelain water dishes.
The place was unusually tranquil for Hong Kong. Despite the endless chirruping of birds, a hushed, contemplative silence usually reserved for religious sanctuaries surrounded us. Traffic had been reduced to a muffled honk or two.
"People still congregate here every day to show off their prized pets, but it's just not the same anymore after the 1997 outbreak of the H5N1 virus," a vendor told me sadly. "Many hobbyists were forced to get rid of their birds and we lost many exotic species along the way."
"I don't know what the future holds," he continued, feeding a little wren some freshly chopped grasshoppers with adeptly held chopsticks. "But things seem OK for now. Being with this little guy here brings me peace."
Just then, we heard a loud tyre screech coming from beyond the high wall. Peace, it seems, comes in beautiful and unusual forms in this stubbornly busy city. You just need to look in the right places.
Top photo :Hunting for the lucky stone in Hong Kong's Jade Street.
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