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.

One of my best friends from college once told me about how his memory process worked in response to seemingly random triggers. If he smelled a particular bar of soap, for example, he’d instantly imagine himself back in the Midwest, on tour with his drum corps as they drove through the Great Plains or performed in various venues. He’s not alone. I spent last summer in Guangzhou (and Hong Kong to a lesser extent) in a suburb of the city, and as I turned the corner during a grocery run I thought, for just a flicker of a moment, that I was back in Flushing, watching Chinese and Korean families inspect fish and vegetables under bilingual awnings against the backdrop of the LIRR. And just the other week during a terribly wet weekend, I caught a whiff of the wood frame on the porch doorway and, not really knowing how or why, flashed back to ten years earlier, when I used to sit on the couch next to the window after school and play Pokemon Silver to pass the time.

But no trigger, I’ve realized, has been stronger for my memories of Hong Kong – and elsewhere, for that matter – than music has been. Since nearly every excursion from HKUST’s campus required taking many different forms of public transportation (and many of them alone), I spent a great deal of time listening to whatever I had on my iPod at the time. In fact, most of these entries were underwritten, in a way, by songs, albums, and playlists that I began to mentally compile as time passed. All of them survived well after the transition back to the states.

What follows, then, is a very small map unlike anything I’ve ever drawn before: an attempt to re-imagine the Hong Kong of my memories through a distinct set of songs. So without further ado…

“Rain” – The Beatles (1966)

Back when I was in Hong Kong, my favorite Beatles album was Revolver. (Actually, that’s a silly statement, because it still is.) It was my constant companion in the library, where I spent many hours – though you probably wouldn’t tell from this blog – poring over secular determinants and ketone rearrangements and characteristic polynomials and copies of J.M. Coetzee novels. Yeesh.

On the road (i.e. the bus), though, I always liked listening to “Rain,” and ironically enough I especially enjoyed the tune when it wasn’t raining, or hardly raining at all. Admittedly those days were few, but you get the idea. Those first ten seconds – Ringo kicking off swaggering with the drums (seriously, did he ever have a finer moment?) and George slipping in with that catchy hook – pull up the Hong Kong countryside whenever I hear “Rain,” whether it’s the mountainous terrain of Sai Kung or the flatter plains in the northwest. And the chorus (“Raaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnn…. / I don’t mind…”) with its beautiful time shift, not unlike “We Can Work It Out“…perfect for any and every rain and thunderstorm that hit the coast.

Like virtually every other British/Anglophone country and territory, Hong Kong went crazy for the Beatles. Well, sort of – their gig at the Princess Theatre on June 9, 1964 was apparently a shambles, despite the initial wave of popularity they still rode back then. As long-serving HK radio DJ “Uncle Ray” Cordeiro put it in an interview with SCMP: “[Their first concert in Hong Kong] was quite a flop because the teenagers couldn’t afford to buy the tickets…and the parents didn’t know who The Beatles were. So the theatre was empty.” The craziness also faded as the Beatles’ oeuvre became more experimental, but their impact was significant enough for local artists to usher in one of the earliest waves of “Cantopop.” My dad even recalls hearing “Can’t Buy Me Love” with his friends for the first time on HK radio but, not knowing enough English at the time to understand its meaning, they substituted Cantonese lyrics that amounted to “Walk Faster!” for the song title. Memories…


“Bright as Yellow” – The Innocence Mission (1995)

The Innocence Mission might well be the 7th degree of separation from all things related to Hong Kong. A folk-pop (pop-folk? though Wikipedia says “dream pop”) band hailing from rural Pennsylvania, the group found moderate commercial success in the ’90s with Glow (1995), mostly thanks to their single “Bright as Yellow.” It’s a calm and quiet but beautifully catchy tune, understated in its own elegant way.

So why should these folks pop up in a discussion about Hong Kong? Because funnily enough, I first heard “Bright as Yellow” in a used bookstore in Mong Kok back in February (of 2012!). The store’s purveyor (bless the man) was playing a radio interview with some other more contemporary artist who was talking about how she loved the song, before she began to play her own cover on the air. I don’t remember what I was perusing in that store (nor do I remember the cover artist, sadly), but once the song came on I stopped and just listened. Thankfully the Innocence Mission put in an easy chorus, so that by the time I got back to my room I found the song. It’s stayed on my ‘playlist’ ever since.

Oddly enough, though, I don’t think of Mong Kok or that particular bookstore whenever I play “Bright as Yellow” now. Instead I find myself wandering through a dimly-lit high rise. There’s a small garden at the window with some ferns, and I can see suits walking through the hallways of other monolithic office buildings across the street. It’s raining, probably, and only the gray light and green ferns fill the otherwise dark room (oh, the irony). I’m not sure exactly why this particular scene plays in my head once Karen Peris’ voice really gets going, but I suspect it might be colliding with another Hong Kong feature someone else did.

“No Knock on My Door” – The Verve (1995)


The scene: Clear Water Bay.

Minibus 16 speeds down rolling hills, past seaside villas and beachfront parking areas. Sunday afternoons in late-April Hong Kong are glorious – bright gold and sky blue, kelly green and creamy sand. Even the T-shirts, where they appear, add to the palette: yellows and whites and flecks of red, pink, blue, purple. Birds chatter outside the bus; old mothers and veterans echo their conversations from within. An elderly lady in the front sits in the aisle seat – right arm grasping a blue tote bag, left arm gesticulating to another aunt sitting across from her. Both are wearing sunglasses.

Of course, it’s humid – heat is not a problem until it morphs into a wet blanket. Sea breezes are far and few between. But the color, all that fresh color and light? It’s more than enough.

Stepping off of the bus is easy; figuring out where to go next is not. The road goes in two directions – uphill and downhill – and neither one helps with orientation. Then again, it’s Sunday, and planning never works. Why not?

So uphill it is. Cars, even trucks are speeding by. Those with their windows down have all the time in the world (a rare thing around here) to enjoy the day; those with their windows up are running out of it. The trees just watch. Down the mountainside, the waves crash against the shoreline. Every now and then there’s the sound of a kid jumping into the water, a whistle following not long after. The wind picks up for seven seconds, lets go after another three. Trees sway and stiffen.

Everything is still bright, and none of it – the colors, the chatter, the conversations, the cars, the cannonballs – has changed. Not in this memory space, not in these five-and-a-half minutes.

Not even after two years.  



But like I said earlier, I’m a terrible planner. And in a way, the blueprint I planned out for this post got shelved as I started writing it, and there’s still so much left unsaid. So what is there left for me to say?

I guess what I’ve really been trying to say, not just during the five months I was in Hong Kong but also the nigh two years that have passed since then, is that I love this corner of the world. I still do. I don’t think there’s been a single day where I haven’t flashed back – with the help of music or otherwise – to the fog at Lei Yue Mun, or the disheveled stacks of books in Central, or the sun-baked beaches of Clear Water Bay, or the incredible sanctuary of the Tin Hau Temple (yes, that one). There are people and friends and meals and sights that I miss more than I can put into words.

In retrospect, then, this Project wasn’t just a real-time, free-form map of Hong Kong’s city streets, villages, parks, trails, and shores. Instead it became a legible memory bank, an experiment in giving shape and sound to ideas, sensations, and images I was hardly conscious of before the journey began. Selective hindsight, of course, distorts our experiences far more than we might think (or want to believe) at any given moment, but the point is that Hong Kong taught me to see another ‘world’ that, at the end of the day, is just as ordinary as any other. The playlist in my head, and all the images that flicker in the mind’s eye, have pretty much hammered home that point every single day since I returned home.

That’s one point down, I suppose. The other point I failed to say in that “Finale” way back when, is that the Hong Kong Project could hardly have become one of my proudest creations without…well, you. Every set of eyes, every scroll of the mouse, every finger flying across the keyboard at some point in space and time has made this project of mine even greater than I’d expected. I’m not sure if this blog ever lived up to its tagline; if it did, I know it wasn’t always consistent in doing so. But I want to thank you – each and every one of you – for stopping by, be it vicariously or in Hong Kong itself. It’s been a real pleasure.

And that…is that. Oh, hang on – I almost forgot! There’s one last story I have to tell; one final Hong Kong tale to fill your eyes and ears before the Project returns to my – no, our – memories.

Here‘s how it begins.

– C. Chan, 4/11/14