If there is one word I would use to describe my trip to Hong Kong it would be grey. The physical surroundings were grey: grey sky, grey water, grey (polluted) air, grey concrete. The sentiment felt grey – I was there in the midst of the protests, just weeks before they hit a boiling point. And I felt grey – this was my twelfth week in a row travelling to another country and it was starting to catch up to me. I rarely get sick but I caught a wicked cold days leading up to the trip. I packed enough Cold-fx and DayQuil to make the border agents suspicious. And of course I grabbed non-drowsy, so sleep was not happening (nice move, Tanner).
I landed at 12am and I had an 8am local meeting, so sleep was going to be a challenge. I was also in the midst of an upcoming product launch in collaboration with a few other organizations for which I was the lead on getting it shipped. We were days away but there were a lot of bugs to fix. I spent the majority of my flight combing through the experience, and in that process, re-wrote all of the copy. I had to get that to the designer and engineer working on the project asap so that we had time to implement it. We scheduled a call for 3pm ET, which was 3am my time. My available sleep time just got cut in half.
I checked into the hotel at 2am, famished. I couldn’t stomach the airplane food. I cruised down to the hotel restaurant to grab some food before my call but the late night menu was scant: peanut chicken stir-fry, pork dumplings with a soy base, and a tofu salad. Allergic to all three – nice. My hour buffer now cut down to 45 minutes. The front desk informed me there was a convenience store a few blocks away so I hit a brisk jog, as much as my legs would carry me after the 14 hour flight. The overcast sky when I landed had now turned into a downpour – awesome. At least the cold rain woke me up a bit. While Asian cities are famous for a robust food selection, apparently 2am isn’t prime-time for re-stocking, so I was relegated to six hard boiled eggs. At least it’s something. Back at the hotel I am rinsing hard boiled eggs in the bathroom sink and eating them out of a coffee cup – a depressing scene, but at least I am satiated.
By the time the call wrapped up it was almost 5am. At this point I am buzzing on caffeine pills and cold suppressants so I took my L and decided to just keep rolling into the next day. I jammed a few coffees and figured I’d hit the gym to try and sweat out the cold. (One observation I have had after travelling to a lot of Asian countries is that everyone seems to be thin. After visiting a number of hotel gyms I have discovered why – they consistently keep fitness facilities at 30 degrees celsius, or 85 fahrenheit). The combination of drugs, caffeine, heat, and lack of sleep left me in a hallucinogenic state as I ran on the treadmill for what felt like hours, but turned out to be tens of minutes. Regardless, by 6am local time I was feeling good – like what I imagine a coked up, malnourished rocker would feel like rolling on-stage in the middle of a world tour.
A quick shower, a few more DayQuil, and another coffee had me ready to roll. I hit the streets en route to my first meeting at 8am. Typically if I can, I try to walk as much as possible when I’m in a new city. I find this is the best way to take in the energy of a city – there is a certain disconnection when you’re in a car, like you’re on a safari instead of running with the antelope. I want to be in it not just observing it. So while my meeting was an hour away, I hit the heel-toe express from Wan Chai to Central. As I walked the streets I could feel a hustle. A healthy level of anxiety, like everyone had somewhere to be. But this felt different than a New York hustle where some people seem busy for the sake of being busy, or that there is some status attached to their “hustle”. This felt like a hustle that was bred from a place of purpose. Like there was a reverence for diligence – a pride in the ability to contribute. It felt contagious. I showed up feel lethargic but now, less than 12 hours later I felt an extra push. That day was going to be a good day. I could feel it.
I won’t bore you with the description of the meetings themselves, but what I did find in every place I visited was the opulence of each building. This wasn’t excessive opulence though, it was tasteful. There were no statues or fountains, everything had function and form. The buildings were primarily glass, and the foliage inside the buildings, carefully curated, were an interesting offset to the concrete jungle outside which showed no forms of organic life outside of the herds of people. I am no architecture buff, but I do have an admiration for simple, flat design, and Hong Kong fit the bill.
Around lunch time I had a short break in between meetings, and as the drugs were starting to wear off my appetite returned. It was about time I got some food that wasn’t rinsed convenience store boiled eggs. The first place I went to was a noodle shop that a friend told me to check out: Tsim Chai Kee Cafe. I rounded the corner to the street it was on only to find a line that must have stretched longer than 150 meters. The cafe itself looked very unassuming. The signage was beige with green lettering faded to the point of being almost illegible, but apparently people were willing to wait hours. I was not willing to wait hours, so I kept going.
The next restaurant I went to was interesting. While it was busy, I got in right away and was seated at a small table with a bunch of strangers. I quickly learned they were strangers to each other also – this was the way they rolled. This didn’t bother me though. I mean, I did stick out like a sore thumb, but it was quaint to have 8 people crowded around a table clearly designed for 4. What did bother me was that as I sat down to eat, my table mate was getting his food delivered, and on that plate was a chicken. I have no problem with chicken, I like chicken. My problem was that this chicken was still fully intact, head, eyes, and all. I felt like it was staring at me as my neighbour started mutilating its carcass before my eyes. Yep – I was out of there. No thanks.
I decided to try next door. This was a stark contrast to the previous diner. Instead of crowded communal tables these were the equivalent of phone booths. You couldn’t have more than one person at a table if you tried. Clearly designed for single people like myself. In fact, it was even more introverted – instead of ordering with a person, you check off boxes of what you want and leave the order pamphlet on the side of the table. Someone comes to pick it up and then returns with your food. Beet soup with steamed shrimp and carrots, now this is what I’m talking about. Nothing staring me in the face – perfect.
With another 30 minutes between my next meeting I decided to take the scenic route. There is a section of the Central district that is a series of ascending outdoor escalators. It feels like an open bazaar of high-end luxury shops and a smattering of other popular western brands: Nike, Adidas, Reebok. But my favourite part was that brands that used to be poppin when I was in middle school are having a resurgence in Hong Kong. I wish I still had my Fila and Fubu.
My favourite part of the afternoon, however, was a chance trip through a small underground passage-way. As I was traversing the outdoor escalator park it started to rain. I saw a herd of people scurrying towards a single entrypoint at the base of an unassuming building. Naturally, I followed the herd – when in Rome. This proved to be fortuitous, both logistically and experientially. As it turns out, there is a robust tunnel system between major buildings. The most endearing quality of this uber efficient system though is that every couple hundred meters there is a piano situated in the middle of the walkway. If it was anything else – a trash can, a bench, a kiosk – it would be an annoyance as it breaks the flow of traffic in a narrow, population dense throughway. But in the midst of the chaotic flow of people, the break in traffic was a welcome reprieve from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
At the first piano checkpoint I encountered, an elderly man was playing Hey Jude softly as people gracefully moved past the piano, many of which dropping money in a jar. I noticed a few others perched on stools throughout the hallway, in no rush to get anywhere, clearly just there for the music. That is living. The next piano I hit, a child that couldn’t have been older than 5 was sitting on her mother’s lap. They both played together – it felt like half lesson, half performance, and there was again no shortage of spectators. What struck me was the confidence of the little girl. She was soaking up the energy of the crowd – and as one of the many in the crowd, I can say we were getting energy from her. Children can bring such a breath of life through their untainted, unbiased, positive view of the world. This girl playing basic scales on a piano in the middle of a crowded underground hallway isn’t worrying about the next meeting, or the next thing she feels she needs to buy, or what others are thinking about her (probably all thinking: wow what a cute and talented child). She’s just enjoying life. She’s not aware of the increasing tension boiling over just above us in the growing protests. This is the heart we should strive for.
Although I still haven’t slept, and I’m mostly running on cold medicine, coffee, and beet soup – my spirits couldn’t be higher. I feel human.
I spent the remainder of the day in big office buildings running through the corporate gauntlet. By all accounts it was a success. On my way back to the hotel though I happened upon a small tattoo shop. The signage was barely visible, but I couldn’t resist checking it out. I buzzed into the building and was immediately let in. What surprised me upon entering the building was the nature of the building itself. It didn’t strike me as commercial, this felt very residential. In fact, it most certainly was residential. I checked the directory and saw a bunch of surnames with one outlier: BLACKOUT TATTOO in all caps. 9th floor – en route.
I knocked on the door of the unit and was greeted by the owner, a slender white male, about five-ten, grey beard and bunch of faded tattoos on his forearms and calves. He told me he was Rick, the owner.The apartment itself was small – couldn’t have been more than 500 square feet. In the corner, scribbling away on a notebook was a small gothic looking woman. She introduced herself, Maja. I asked what she was drawing, and she turned around her notebook to show me a storm cloud with hard edge lightning bolts coming out the bottom – it looked killer. She said she was hoping she could tattoo it on someone at some point – well naturally I couldn’t pass that up. I offered my left bicep as her canvas. Maja was excited. As she busted out the gun, I took my shirt off to get ready. She then saw I had a fair amount of work done and asked if I could shave my own arm and prep the area – this was new for me, but this tattoo experience felt different. It was collaborative. While the storm cloud doesn’t carry the same level of significance as some of my other tattoos, it has some implicit significance in the nature of serendipity that sparked this experience. Before we got started Maja asked if she could free-hand it. I told her to go for it. Even with all the straight edges, I liked the idea of letting her do her thing. We didn’t even agree on size or proportions, she just got to work and I trusted it would turn out. Thirty minutes later we were done. The tattoo has an 80’s comic book feel. It stands out as different than much of my other tattoos that are soft and realistic. I like the contrast. And most importantly, I like the experience – this is something I won’t forget.
The last thing I needed to do before I was done was get my hands on these famous noodles. I trekked back across town to Tsim Chai Kee Cafe and was pleasantly surprised to see that (1) they were still open at 10pm and (2) the line was now about 25 meters. That was something I could sign up for, even though I was beyond tired. This line though, as I quickly found, moved at a rapid pace. The staff were efficient pros at getting people in and out. Within 15 minutes I was at the front, and I could now see why they were so efficient. You had no say on where you sat, they told you where to go. In fact, there was a couple in front of me in line and they got seated at separate tables. It felt like we were cattle being herded in – fine by me. I’m just here for some noodles. There was little variability on the menu. You had two choices to make: thick or thin noodles and chicken or beef brisket. I went thick beef brisket. The bowl showed up about five seconds later. I looked around and could see that no one was socializing. There were about 50 people in the restaurant at the time, all slurping in concert – no words were spoken, just a loud chorus of noodles snaking their way into 50 separate mouths. Now I am a slow eater and the staff made me feel it. I was self conscious with all of the eye balling, so I started choking these noodles down. These were the best noodles I had ever had – the seasoning was simple, the broth was neutral; there is not one distinguishable quality. Everything was just right. I was conflicted because I wanted to savour this, but I also couldn’t put my chop sticks down – not just because I enjoyed it but because I feared for my life if I did. The small lady behind the cash was eying me.
I scarfed the rest down, left a bit of broth, and was on my way. Another way they keep it simple is with no customization, your bill is simply a function of how many bowls. There is a lady with a cash box at the door and you give her cash for how many bowls. No change. If you have to overpay, well, you overpay. I was happy to give them the extra. The best noodles and the best way to cap off a whirlwind of a day and a successful trip.
Looking forward to the next one. Maybe next time I’ll wait in the lunch rush for the noodles. Worth it.