Return To Hong Kong

A good thing about a city is that it stays the same. Its man-made skyline might be altered, but something about the city just cannot be taken out and replaced. The only thing that changes is us. I once came to Hong Kong as a ten-year-old kid on a vacation. Returning fifteen years later, this time with a heavier heart, I try to reconnect with that child to find out what he saw and how he felt in this strange city. However I realize that I know not where to find him. He has long been gone, and until now I have never been bothered to recognize the empty space he left behind.

I have a feeling that what surround me are the same busy streets my younger self lightheartedly trod, and the same wet air he breathed. But those innocent times have passed, along with that ten-year-old boy. He has slowly perished in negligence while my twenty-five-old self flourished. The skyscrapers, tramways, and the taxicabs seem to have retained their voices after all these years, yet I have failed to retain my innocence. Hong Kong is trying to tell me something, as it once did to that child. But its whisper falls only on the deaf ears. I have changed, indeed. I am older, and stupider.

Most people seem to become wiser as they age. However it seems that I have only grown stupid and reckless. In fact, I have returned to Hong Kong only because I was stupid enough to chase something beautiful. I had to stop it from slipping away from my life. It was never the plan, but then again the life is never the way we plan it to be. This theater we call life often humiliates our naive plans. It slowly but surely exhausts us to the last option, and eventually deprieves us of it. When presented with that last contingency, we have to make a choice. We can either walk away, or stay with the plan despite knowing that we will fall. This choice fascinates me, because when we stick with that last option, we essentially choose to fall.

Can we live with ourselves despite knowing that we are falling? The truth is, I made a decision to come to Hong Kong knowing that I was riding for a fall. When I booked my last minute ticket to Hong Kong, I could live with myself. When later it finally hit me that I was indeed falling, I could still live with myself. In that free fall we are not permitted to feel or hear ourselves hit the bottom. We just keep falling. And in that moment I was even happy in a way. There seems to exist in life a condition under which falling is a lonely yet an agreeable choice.

In a hope to recollect myself while riding for my own fall, I decided to partake in the festivity of Hong Kong SAR’s 20th anniversary firework. Before the firework began, I happened to sit next to a family at a run-down eatery in Tsim Sha Tsui. They were a couple and a young boy, and he reminded me of the ten-year-old child that I have forever lost contact with. In many ways I envied him for his innocence, and was worried that he might someday lose touch with his present self, just as I did. I was also worried that he, too, might fall someday. And my worries made me sad, because I knew that he probably might, and that there was nothing I could do to stop him.

The place had a lively vibe filled with anticipation of the festival, and naturally the couple and I sort of struck up a conversation. I told them about why I came back to Hong Kong, and about the nagging self-doubt that perhaps my coming back was a mistake. The man calmly told me to take it easy, and ordered me a bottle of coke. I must have looked very gloomy. He said that even at his age he makes mistakes all the time, and that I was young and it was fine to make one. The lady said that my coming here was not a mistake, because I would live to regret in the future, had I not come. She was right. There is one thing more tormenting than a fall, and it is regret.

Salinger wrote that “the mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” Perhaps I am an immature man, but I clearly see a reason to die nobly for a cause instead of living humbly for one. Walking away means regret. Living humbly with regret is, to me, million times worse than dying nobly without one. We are helpless in regret because there is nothing we can do to cope. But if we choose to fall, at least we have chosen to fall on our own terms. I doubt that it takes an immature man to see that falling as a martyr is a much more sensible choice than living in regret. Here is a truism: we choose to fall if the alternative is worse than falling. One does not need to be stupid or immature to understand the meaning of this self-evident truth. In this way, we can definitely live with ourselves despite knowing that we are falling. We happily march toward the end of the road, and even find ourselves happy in the midst of a free fall.

Sometime later the firework began. The night sky wet with heavy rain suddenly glittered with lights of all colors and shapes imaginable, and it roared with a thunderous voice reaching out for miles. Everyone was cheering and could not take their eyes off the dazzling light. Many were even running through the pouring rain competing for a better view. And the sight made me sad, because it was apparent that people only pay attention to what screams the loudest, and only cheer for what looks the nicest. There is nothing glamorous about things that are falling. When we fall, we simply keep falling all alone while the whole world is busy admiring the things that look grand on the outside. No one ever looks twice at falling things and tries to learn why they had to fall. While the crowd all looked up to the firework, I kept on falling down. And I had a funny feeling that I was slowly disappearing each time the night sky burst out in bright colors and noises.

Without knowing where to go, I took a tram to the Victoria Peak, trying to retrace the footsteps of my ten-year-old self. I knew that he would quietly watch over me as I fall, and that his attention would somehow keep me from disappearing. Yet when I reached the peak, he was not there. I was probably riding on the same tramway he rode, and looking at the same slanted night view of Hong Kong he saw. But his trace was nowhere to be found. What greeted me at the top only made me feel sad. The side of the Victoria Peak overlooking Hong Kong and Kowloon island was bustling with people. Everyone was loudly awing over the spectacular night view of Hong Kong, just as they did over the firework. The area was so packed that it was hard to even walk around.

I got to the other side to get away from that sickening commotion. And there I could see this lonely town at a distance. It consisted of some dimly lit buildings by the shore where some fishing vessels were idly floating by. No one was around to pay attention to it. However something powerful drew me in, and I had no choice but to stop and watch. The sight was so much more beautiful than the ostentatious presentation that everyone else was busy taking pictures of. The town simply stood there, not caring about whether anyone was around to see it. And it made me happy. For I knew that no matter how superficial this insane world gets, there will always be that town dimly glowing peacefully in the dark, away from all the grandeur and cheap attentions. For I knew that no matter how hard I fall in life, there would be something quiet yet powerful always pushing me right back up.

I have since left Hong Kong, and returned home to Sydney. It was time to put an end to my impromptu vagabonding for some time, and repair the weathered vessel so that it can once again set sail when the time is right. The plane touched down to wake me from a red-eyed sleep, and just like that I was back to Sydney and to its familiar surroundings. The Central station was empty as it always had been on a Sunday morning. The platforms were filled only with cold breeze and lazy sunshine. Everything was exactly the way I left it months ago. On the underpass were the same street musicians and homeless people. I crossed the same traffic lights and stepped on the same cracks on the curbs. Yet I knew I was not the same, somehow.

When we choose to fall, we simultaneously lose and gain something in ourselves. It is in that compromise that we become different. In short, I failed to retain the beautiful thing I was chasing in Hong Kong. But upon returning home, I realized that I had taken something else with me. A piece of that faraway and bucolic town was glowing in me casually and yet strongly. At home, I again found myself among the struggles of my current self. In everyday battle toward the height of my aspirations, I might again lose touch with me, the same way I forever parted ways my ten-year-old self. But sometimes I will close my eyes and take a look at that town, for it represents something better, something stronger within me that catches me in my free fall and brings me back to my feet.