Personal geographic

Memories lie dormant all over this city. In Fuxing park, after years away, they return suddenly. A February afternoon, jacket collar up against the wind, slips over me despite the heat of May. A face I haven’t pictured in years comes back instantly, bringing with it hand-holding and small pleasantries I had thought ashes of personal history.

They fade, says a rumor of memories, are dulled by repetition and become faint traces barely accessible with conscious effort. This is true, in some way, as oft-recalled scenes are now at least part composition, part invention, rather than their original fact. Graduation day’s weather, easily confirmable through photographs and weather sites, is reassuringly mapped onto memories of that day. I do not believe I have any real ability to visualize the clouds, if clouds there were, puffy and scattered. Perhaps seeing the hill, the view of the lake through the trees would suddenly snap the sky into focus in my mind. Perhaps not, and that amphitheater would instead evoke other days, as the layers of personal history are deep there, the days set upon one another like palimpsests.

A small town can not hold as many of these ambushes. Each place has been too frequently visited to retain only a single moment. No place has been forgotten for long enough to shock. Thinking this I remember a bridge and a long-dead friend perched upon it’s girders, slung below the road surface yet high above the gorge. It is a place I haven’t visited in a decade, and I am chill at the memory. No, these mental ties to geography do not require size, not always.

Barefoot now and throwing a frisbee in the late afternoon sun amid a flock of kites the shape of eagles, my memories are of another evening, drinks outdoors in the garden visible beyond a hedge. The friends of that evening are not dead, thankfully, just far away. They have long since relocated to London, to Australia Boston New York Maine Hawaii Hong Kong, and they are only three people. Years gone now, my routine is of passing around this park but never through. The memories lie unmentioned, untouched, with their participants scattered.

Yet the size of a place does enable this forgetting, allowing frequented pathways to be forgotten by a change of job, a move several blocks north. A dumpling shop on Jianguo Lu closes for May holiday, three days. The owner purchases new chairs and tables in the interim. A crazy night there comes back to me, from years before at three am. Another expat in a three-piece suit and too drunk to see, ranting about something, his face familiar but name unknown. The winter of ’03, perhaps. The day is not clear, the need for dumplings at such an hour even less so. Only that face, the suit, and the hour return upon re-entering this recently redecorated tiny restaurant.

Rooftops, carts, and cats

The streets of Hong Kong are packed with delivery motion. As Manhattan swirls at three am, so does Sheung Wan bustle in the morning as dried fish in vast quantities is hauled off trucks by men with giant metal hooks. At break time they leave these implements carelessly in giant bags of rice, handles up, points embedded in the compacted mush. Each sack in turn is flung from truck to cart, bundled up into a store, frontless, wares open to the air. Each bag is sliced open and dumped into bins for later measurement again, into smaller bags individually carried home. So many stairs in this city, so much vertical travel, and all of these homes furnished, all of these kitchens filled, all of this waste removed. What of this massive expenditure every day, to carry vegetables home to supper? The cost of yet another tower does not include this.

The carts themselves, ubiquitous on the streets, will be tied to poles at the day’s slackening, around three. Their metal handles, circular and hollow, will fold down to the bed, compacting the entire device into a rectangle of green steel with four blue wheels. The wheels are fixed. These carts are so basic, so mass-produced, and so communal that they have neither names, nor dates, nor manufacturer’s brand. The flat slats of metal that form their weight-supporting base seem not to mind the pounding of sacks tossed from trucks, the blue wheels seem not to heed the curbs they are perpetually banged into up and over. At least one per shop, the carts outnumber the trucks, themselves a half-dozen, most with Japanese engines. There are, later in the evening, twenty carts scattered around unoccupied and seeminly unowned on this three-block stretch. A sense of public space pervades this city, which has so little that all must be carefully shared.

In a park near Lan Kwai Fong a trio of ladies rehearses a dance routine at mid-morning, before the rush of lunch and smokers, after the street sweepers have cleared the broken bottles away.

From our Sheung Wan rooftop the cats seem multitude. They scale the construction site, they swarm the streets and fences, alleys. This vantage point reveals their secret paths, startles one with their numbers, the city below in constant motion. Strange too, as most of the cats I find on the ground spend large periods of time hunkered down beneath some shade. It is early April and Hong Kong is beginning to sweat. We lie on the roof top at night, assailed by mosquitos, in gym shorts, barefoot and considering the skyline. Rooftops like this are a gift, sitting as it does above an apartment that barely slept five, all laid out next to each other, last November. The roof top triples the floor space. The roof top raises the ceilings to the clouds.

Which are themselves coming down. The air here is getting worse, the view shorter than it used to be. So they tell me, people everywhere during these two weeks. So I can see from my vantage point, high above Sheung Wan and watching. The air may indeed be getting worse, smog pouring out of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, all of the motherland to the west. Hong Kong remains the most beautiful city I know of, a mass of thin towers and green peaks that slide into the water in a confusion of street vendors and colonial organization. For two weeks in April it is a gracious host to me, a peaceful place of feline grace and hand-pushed cargo transport, and I am glad of the hospitality.