Travel in music: Chapter 25 - 2004, Hong Kong
2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!
2004 – Chapter 25 | Upon finishing the steel project in Taiwan, I flew to Hong Kong, without the customary pit stop back at headquarters, for a report on the textile industry. I was thrilled to remain in Asia and to be pursuing my discovery of the great, enigmatic China, albeit through its “fringes”. Reflecting on it now, I feel strange to have lived in both Taiwan and Hong Kong and to have visited Macau but not to have ever set foot in mainland China itself. I hope to visit it too one day.
Of course, the island-city has its very own, thriving, differentiated identity. As recent events have proven, it is willing to fight to preserve it. Therefore, to conceive Hong Kong only though its relation with China may be a little reductive. Yet, it is also impossible not to. We were interviewing textile traders, retailers, designers, sourcing specialists and fashion houses who all had their factories and warehouses in China, even if their storefronts were in Hong Kong. The visible part of their business, the one they showed the world and the world saw was in the bustling metropolis, while the rest was in the mainland. Hong Kong is a crossroad. Rather, more accurately, it is a bridge between China and the rest of the world.
That feature actually defines the territory’s cultural identity. From the moment Britain forcefully took possession of this tiny enclave, at the end of the first Opium War, in 1842, Hong Kong was poised to become the foremost commercial gateway into China. The 1997 restitution, after 150 years of British colonial rule, and the passage to the current “one-country-two-systems” status did little to alter that. Nowadays, Hong Kong is still one of the planet's most significant trading centers: it is the 10th-largest exporter and 9th-largest importer worldwide. At the time of our report, the entire textile sector was preparing for a major global regulatory change. The WTO had decided to scrap all trade quotas as of 2005. It generated some uncertainty but most business leaders we met were full of optimism. They believed that China would become the world’s largest textile manufacturer by far and that Hong Kong would reap the benefits.
Because it is so small, so densely populated and so wealthy, the city is also an expensive place, where space is a luxury. We lived in an apartment smaller than a broomstick closet, in North Point, a neighborhood on the eastern edge of Hong Kong Island. From our skyscraper windows, we could see the Kowloon peninsula across the water and the incessant ballet of ferries in the bay but when I stretched my arms, I could touch both walls of my bedroom. Somehow, the absence of space did not weigh on me at all. I spent most of my time on the streets anyway. During the day, when we were not interviewing businesses, we often worked out of the solemn foreign correspondents club, a gorgeous Victorian building downtown where a press card gave you unfettered access to a desk, multiple TV screens tuned to global news networks, daily papers, a café, and the jolly company of other journalists. During the evenings, we were out in one of the million eateries that give Hong Kong its reputation as a gastronomical paradise. Restaurants, whether posh, downtrodden or simple street stalls, all served delicious, varied and exotic dishes. I do not even recall if our apartment had a kitchen. It if did, we never used it. Even at night, we were more often out, bar hopping in the glamorous districts of SoHo or Lan Kwai Fong, than in our minuscule flat.
Finally, on weekends, I would also roam the streets, endlessly trying to soak in each neighborhood’s particular atmosphere. The posh, neon-lit central avenues where luxury brands lured Asia’s billionaires caught my eye but I did not dwell. I preferred the eclectic atmosphere of Tsim Sha Tsui, across the water, where small boutiques overflowed with random items: electronics, photography equipment, tacky souvenirs, music and movie rip-offs, antiques, old books, postcards, knock-off brands, vintage clothing, and fake luxury items of every possible kind. Ironically enough, the imitation Louis Vuitton bags, Armani T-shirts and Jimmy Choo shoes were more than likely made in the same Shenzhen factories as their real-deal counterparts. A subway connected the Kowloon peninsula to Hong Kong Island but I enjoyed taking the ferries. In the morning, mist sometimes cloaked the city and hid the skyscrapers. Emerging from the fog, traditional sampans would cross the ferry’s path and throw you back to a time when Hong Kong was nothing but a sleepy fishing village. Sailing across also forced you to sample the Victoria Harbor docks and I loved observing the throngs of people that flowed through. On Sundays, the crowds were mostly Filipino women. Hundreds of thousands of domestic workers served the rich. On their only day off, they would escape their microscopic maid rooms and invade the plazas and parks of the Central district. They sat on the pavement or on benches, in clusters, and gossiped loudly. Some played cards; others broadcast Tagalog religious sermons or romantic ballads on portable stereos. During the Hong Kong leg of the famous rugby 7s, the streets filled with a different crowd. They were equally loud but they hardly blended in. Their broad frames and alcohol-flushed pink cheeks stood in sharp contrast to the locals. Flowing in and out of the pubs and strip clubs, this rowdy Ozzy-Kiwi-Saffer-Brit bunch, the Queen’s best, seemed perpetually drunk. They donned colorful costumes, bellowed out fan chants and collapsed on the sidewalks when dawn finally broke their resistance to liquor.
Lounge music was all the rage at the time. The gazillionth Buddha Bar or Hotel Costes compilation still sounded in trendy bars, from Ibiza to Miami Beach. The formula was simple. Sample atmospheric music from times gone by, rev it up with a few chilled electronic beats and sign it with a French-sounding, pompous DJ name. Hong Kong did not escape this worldwide phenomenon but, true to form, it provided its own glamorous twist and Chinese-infused atmosphere. Shanghai Tang, a local fashion brand, embraced the trend and produced a CD of remixes to promote its collection of garments and décor objects. The husky, resuscitated voices of 1940s Shanghai jazz divas provided the sonic background for its catwalk shows and luxury outlets. To be honest, it is a little too slick and too cool for my personal taste but I love the musical era it rescued. It illustrates Hong Kong's dazzling "tradimodernity" so well that I could not pass up on making it this chapter’s soundtrack.