Performed at “Exits & Entrances,” on December 9, 2019.
“Speech! Speech!” Matthew’s friends chant as he stands on a chair trying to keep a hold on his leaving gift: a framed photo of The Peak.
“It’s been a great time. Really. Epic. Such a wild city. Insane. I mean seriously. Epic. Where else can you visit IKEA, go on a junk and eat Michelin starred food next to a dive bar in one day? I’ll visit you, don’t worry!”
Everybody laughs and claps. It’s a rather vanilla departing speech but I’d put it 12th in the rankings of those I’ve heard already this year. It’s also the 40th time I’ve seen that framed photo handed to a departing expat, and maybe the hundredth time I’ve gone through this same process: a few weeks of inaccurately pooling taxi fares, wet market ‘gorn boi!” choruses and boozy overpriced brunches on rare patios, all culminating in that farewell hug and group photo atop IFC mall.
After Matthew leaves, I head to 7/11 in Soho and stand on a corner with a Tsing Tao in my hand, feeling the liveliness around me. Taxis beep their way through reluctantly parting crowds. I see strangers drunkenly knock into each other, apologise, chat and become fast friends. It’s still a marvel to watch, this two-minute time lapse of what would be an entire year of icebreaking in other places. Next week some of these new friends will be starting nights out together, then thinking of group birthday gifts, organizing flat shares, holidays—and one day attending each other’s weddings or even being godparents to their children. The social scene in Hong Kong is a gift to be cherished.
It’s exciting to observe, even if I can’t be a part of it. The only people who engage with me are of a specific type. As I take the fourth sip of my beer, I spot one approaching me.
“Yer’all right, mate? Saw you looking a bit sorry for yourself here staring at everyone here! You new in town?”
Tim is sunburnt, wearing one flip-flop, and half-drunk—but not in that annoying aggressive way. He’s warm and friendly. He talks about the Wilson trail, breathtaking views at sunset and how Lantau can be done in a day if you set off early enough when it isn’t humid. The classic expat speech.
He buys me another beer and suggests I join him and his mates this weekend for an excursion to Sai Kung. A flicker of hope murmurs in my throat but then, right on cue, Tim delivers the unsurprising news.
“Yeah, it’s the last big hike to be honest, mate. I’m starting a job in Singapore next month. You just get more space for your money there. Plus, you know, we have a two-year-old and the education system here well, you know – ”
I nod in numb agreement. Tim gives me his number, pulls me in for a drunken hug and then walks off into the crowds.
I look at his name nestled in my contact list. It sits before Samuel, an investment banker into dragon boat racing who left at Easter. I scroll up a bit. There’s Inez, the chirpy drama teacher who made you feel like you’d known her your whole life with one smile. Garcin, the yoga instructor. Three Adams. Two Annas and one very posh Jessop. All gone. Unreachable. I return to Tim’s number. Should I just delete it now?
I admit I used to enjoy making others feel lonely or somewhat insignificant. My first years in Hong Kong I was raking it in, partying it all away and then making more. Every bonus quarter I threw crumpled thousand-dollar bills at bar staff. I shouted at cab drivers when they asked me to put on my seatbelt. I recall unashamedly trying to take selfies with those poor elderly people pushing trolleys of rubbish up through Lan Kwai Fong. I ignored calls from family back home because I was either too coked up or too hungover. One night was particularly bad: I woke up my girlfriend by entering her flat with a girl I had met that night. She chased us outside, spitting something nasty sounding in Cantonese. I ended up drunkenly falling into the little joss stick shrine at the foot of her building. She said I deserved this shallow, transient life I was leading and that the spirits would punish me.
When I awoke the next day I was in a carnivalesque world, one that I haven’t been able to escape since. I tried to call my friends but they’d all gone, back to America, France, wherever. My TV, internet and data were unusable. Several dozen calls to PCCW left me on hold for hours. No technician ever came. Words on newspapers blurred in front of me, unreadable, like the swarms of people crossing roads. My passport was gone and an application for a new one denied. I couldn’t leave Hong Kong.
Over time, I discovered that I had become bait, a honeypot, a loyal remora for perpetually departing expats: someone to keep close for a few weeks, squeeze group brunches and hikes out of, and then leave. To everyone else, I’m pretty much invisible; they might look at me but won’t ever engage. I roam from brief friendship to friendship. I did manage some romance one night. We giddily went from bar to bar to Tsui Wah to her place and talking about everything but leaving. When I woke next to her I playfully placed my cold hand on her stomach but she was already up and doing online check-in. The blue light from her phone gave her the ghostly pallor of someone not quite really here, a temporary vision.
I’ve finished my beer and Soho is winding down. Although I’m exhausted from Matthew’s party and the brief interaction with Tim, I don’t want to go back to my silent flat yet so I head to a little park in the mid-levels.
I see in the shadows a man resting on the children’s slide. The smoke from his cigarette unfurls up into the banyan trees.
“Stop right where you are!” he shouts. “Don’t come any closer.”
I stop, confused—then gingerly take another step forward.
“Stop!” he cries. “I mean it. Have you just moved to Hong Kong? Are you on a stopover for two nights on the way to Sydney? Are you on the second week of your fucking gap year?! Leave me alone!”
I slowly raise my hands.
“Sir, I’ve been here eight years. I can prove it.”
I open my jacket and, without any sudden movements, retrieve my Permanent Resident ID, place it on the floor and step back.
He inspects it using the light from his cigarette.
“Oh, thank God!” he cries and visibly shakes with relief. I recognize in him a familiar pain, so I share my story. He nods rapidly, eyes wild with mutual understanding.
“It’s the same with me. Everybody I used to know is gone. The only people I meet now are perky new arrivals or prudent holidaymakers from the UK. The same conversations: I’ve explained the concept and functionality of an Octopus card to a hundred people. I’ve directed a hundred more to the Star Ferry and if another twenty-something in a start-up tells me that Hong Kong is the ideal base to explore the rest of Asia I swear I’ll cripple them.”
He breaks off into sobs, then calms a little. We share a cigarette and talk. We talk about many things. Things I haven’t been able to for so long: movies from childhood, chocolate bars that no longer exist, how fast a gazelle can go and even my ex, and how I feel ashamed about who I used to be.
We go on for hours, elated to be having a seemingly normal conversation. For the first time in a long while, I feel as if I actually live somewhere real; as if I myself am real. I reflect on this while listening to this new friend talk, knowing our conversation will end eventually. I wonder when he will leave and when my life will return to what it was. I have come to appreciate Hong Kong so much more by watching those I cannot reach blossom in its unique nurturing streets. Within my prison walls I hear the banter of Cantonese I cannot understand, walk the silent paths of Lugard road by night where I pass the time—and of course, stare endlessly at that gorgeous fragrant fucking harbour.