How do we deal with our memories?

I have never, it seems, been a good planner. For most of the past two years (two years!) I’ve been trying, largely unsuccessfully, to find some broader meaning to all of the experiences I posted on the Hong Kong Project. It began with time landmarks: one month, six months, one year…but nothing ever materialized. The easy way, I guess, would have been to catalog the new experiences I’ve faced since that fateful first flight, and to talk about how things have changed in the time that’s passed.

But  I’ve never been a good planner. Like most of the excursions, meditations, and frustrations that made the Project what it (surprisingly still!) is today, all the ideas I like, or think I like, come at the most unexpected times. Most of them die off, or float back to the surface in more disfigured, less recognizable shapes. Very few, if ever, have made it to shore.

Not this time. Because I think I’ve finally found a way to crystallize (“tie up/wrap up” conjures bizarre images) these fluid, amorphous memories. It’s not the easy thing to do, and it might not be the best way to do it either.

Then again, I’ve never been a good planner.

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Wan Chai (灣仔), Tuesday evening

We walk down Hennessy Road (幹尼詩道), amidst its garish neon signs and endless streams of traffic.  The sun, wherever it was – a cloudy day today, for the most part – has set; a fine light rain descends on the street.  People are either moving to and fro in a hurry or patiently queuing up for buses.  It is rush hour.

But I’m on a mission.  A final mission.  This is my last day in Hong Kong, and I’m grateful to be spending it with my family, who arrived here several days earlier just as my classes ended.  And as far as I’m concerned, there’s only one way for me to really tie things up, to bid a final farewell to a place I’ve called home for four months – a place that, I am now convinced, I will call home once again in the future.

If this really is the last time I will be in Hong Kong, then I am going to Joy Hing.  And if this is the last time I’ll be here with my family, then I’ll take them with me.

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How did/do communities develop in Hong Kong?

What impact do local communities have on Hong Kong society at large?

How are traditions processed, preserved, and perpetuated in Hong Kong’s communities?

These questions largely stem from the personal curiosities I posited regarding heritage and tradition with respect to the Cheung Chau Bun Festival – which, if you’ll recall, was an age ago… – but this time, the focus is on place more so than event.  More specifically, I would like to look at two very different, but nonetheless highly significant and influential ‘communities’ that have done much (and continue) to shape Hong Kong’s history and traditions.  These two examples also provide some insight (or at least a peek) into the complexities associated with defining any such terms as applied to Hong Kong itself.

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Sunday, midnight

A tall white tower stands in the distance, covered completely with plastic buns and radiating (or is it reflecting?) a blinding white light.  Voices carry over loudspeakers, but from where we’re standing (several exchange students and myself) at the very back of the crowd their announcements are meaningless.  Music fills the spaces in between.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a countdown (in Cantonese) begins – “10! 9! 8!…3! 2! 1!” – and with the final collective breath a sea of voices – and just as amusingly, phones and cameras – rise in celebration: the games have begun.  Contestants begin climbing the tower in a massive frenzy, knocking down buns as they scramble to the very top to claim those in the upper ranks (more on this later).  They fill their sacks and scramble back down, packs bulging under the strain of carrying so many buns.

This is the Cheung Chau Bun Festival (包山節), one of Hong Kong’s most unique and beloved annual festivals.  But even amidst all the excitement, the inevitable question remains:

What’s going on?

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Saturday afternoon

It looks pleasant enough as an aged building.  A four-story colonial building painted in bright blue, with balconies extending from the upper floors.  The surrounding buildings are draped with alternating hues: orange, green, purple, yellow – though the immediate neighbor is a stately earth-brown.  One wonders if the scene has been painted before.

But on street level, the name – first inscribed in Chinese, then its English translation underneath.  香港故事館: Hong Kong House of Stories.

A house of stories in the middle of Wan Chai (灣仔)?  Surely it’s a playful pun on the building itself?  But only the English allows for that possibility; the Chinese meaning is resolute.

So what, then, does one find in a “house of stories” in Wan Chai?  But as I mull the question over in my head, I can’t help but tinker with it, and ask:

What does one find in Wan Chai in a house of stories?

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Sunday afternoon

Does lightning really strike twice?

On the Light Rail again, and, not for the first time, a huge, colorful structure catches my eye.  A large, tiled orange roof seated atop of a dizzying palette of colors stands next to an even taller glass building.  The surrounding streets are rural and gritty, in stark contrast to their boldly – almost brashly – polychromatic neighbors.

What is this?  Or rather – where is this?

The Light Rail rushes past too quickly to discern anything specific, but the moment it stops, I get off and start exploring.

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Sunday afternoon

What roles do nature and environmentalism play in the lives of Hong Kong’s citizens?

What can Hong Kong’s exchanges with nature tell us about its traditions, and vice-versa?

Why are all these flowers so beautiful?

I still don’t have answers to all of these questions, but after having explored the Hong Kong Wetland Park (香港濕地公園) in Tin Shui Wai (天水圍) today, I’d like to think them through.

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I knew I had to come back at some point.

It had been two long weeks since I had done any serious, recreational traveling in Hong Kong.  One week (actually, spring break) was spent in Guangzhou (廣州) with family, which offered a much-needed – and well-taken – chance to reconnect with my mother and my grandparents, the latter of whom I have not seen in four years.  It was a fantastic opportunity to catch up, listen to stories, help run errands (which included cooking, for once!), and be in the company of loved ones.

The second week (when I got back), on the other hand, was largely  spent within the walls of UST’s library and its labyrinthine shelves of texts and tomes, studying for exams and preparing research for a senior thesis.

It wasn’t pretty.  The second week, at least.

So when I learned that Friday would offer a reprieve, and the potential for a fresh new look at a place I’d been to before and fallen in love with, I seized the opportunity, dropped my books, and set off.  That opportunity came in the form of the Tin Hau Festival (天后節), which in turn told me exactly where I needed to return:

I was going back to Joss House Bay (大廟灣).

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Sunday afternoon

I thought, at first, that it was a local monastery, a temple.  All you can see from the Light Rail between Tuen Mun (屯門) and Yuen Long (元朗) are the green-red roofs and orange-yellow brickwork, set amidst a local hospital and apartment complexes.  But the crowd on Sunday was large and two-directional – masses of visitors moved in and out.

This is nothing new, I thought.  Weekends (and certainly sunny weekends) are a natural time for worship of any faith in Hong Kong, and on such a beautiful day like this it all made sense.  So I exited the Light Rail myself – I didn’t really plan on going all the way to Tuen Mun at that point; I just wanted to see the local scenery – and followed them.

Just beyond the main entrance, hordes of families, children, visitors, and the elderly were purchasing paper; eating lunch; ascending and descending staircases.  The grounds themselves were even more brightly colored than they looked from afar.

But it wasn’t long after arriving here that I discovered – with genuine internal shock – that this was not just a local monastery.  Nor was it just a temple.

This was a burial ground.

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Sunday morning

Dear reader,

I want to tell you something about the market town/city of Yuen Long (元朗).  I really do.  This is a wonderful place – a magical place – that I can’t believe I’d overlooked before.

But it’s difficult to do anything like that if I’m not sitting next to or across from you, maybe with a cup of milk tea (奶茶) in one hand.  The milk tea isn’t really necessary, in truth (unless we’re having breakfast), but the contact (or potential for contact) is.  Because I would much rather tell this story using hand gestures; visual cues; call-and-response; scents – anything but words, either in English or in Chinese.

This is how it seems to work in Yuen Long, too – how it has always worked here, everywhere in Hong Kong (and elsewhere) since the beginning, as I’ve realized.  Histories and cultures are codified not only in words and images but also in tone and pitch, in gruffs and laughter, in aromas and sounds and tastes and textures.

That’s the ideal story I would like to tell.  No, scratch that – this is the ideal conversation I want to share with you.  A conversation that lets both of us discover what makes this place so remarkable, so compelling, so beautiful.

But since I am here and you are there, and because these screens cannot reconcile the distance between us…well, could I ask you to use your imagination a bit?  To take the skeins of text and imagery I’ve compiled and to put them together?

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