I ended up exploring Hong Kong with three enormous men. Big is clearly big and the other two men were Somerset farmers who I have grown up with as a child. I have always preferred male company. Stag do’s have always sounded so much more fun than hen do’s. I have decided that actually boys do have more “fun” and laugh more, are more silly and immature and less concerned with appearance and shopping. Well, Hong Kong although very westernised is still made up largely of short people so travelling with these dear friends was amusing from the moment we stepped off the plane.
Immature humour and drunkenness made me laugh until my tummy hurt. I allowed myself to dance on chairs till 4am, to forget responsibility to relax over boozy lunches ignoring “bath time”, “story time” and to just have fun. Pure unadulterated fun. Boat trips, market trips, champagne toasts, massages, manicures, shopping, horse-racing, Buddha visiting, cable cars, beaches, we didn’t stop for a week.
For those of you who haven’t been to Hong Kong it is…tall. Your neck aches at the end of the day from looking up. Incredible buildings that reach the clouds and pavements that put a new definition on the word “busy”.
For the westerners living out there, there is an opportunity to have a life of pure indulgence. The tax is so low that everyone has an obscene relative amount of disposable income. The norm is to have live in helpers who basically appear to do everything! For the western woman there is no need to shop, clean, cook, and walk the dog, to even drive anywhere. Their sole focus can be on self-grooming in the form of manicures and massages and fitness and the world of colonial sports clubs. These women really do “lunch”. Initially I found myself quite star struck and giggly. Imagining myself not in Honey bottom but as a beautiful groomed, slim, trendy, calm and elegant lady living on “Mid-levels”. One night we had champagne in the tallest bar in Hong Kong (and I think the world?!) over looking the lights, the harbour, the tiny luminous dots of the taxi drivers as they weaved themselves up and down the grids of roads.
I looked out of the window in silence just absorbing these new mind stretching sights. I was aware of the silent shifts that were taking place in my brain. No longer would London look so busy or the busiest. The memory of buildings and the norms were all being stretched. Light displays and the pure concentration of inhabitants and activity were just breath taking.
But all this free time allowed me to reflect on so much.
On our final day in Hong Kong, I wanted to explore the other side of this incredible island and to see the world of the locals and the traditions and the pavements that are littered with cardboard rather than designer shops. We had a whole day to kill so hopped on the MTR to Prince Edward, to see the flower markets and the famous bird markets.
The flower market was beautiful. We smelt our way there like drug hounds. Amongst a city of alarming smog and neon lights we discovered streets of real beauty. Flowers that could never be reproduced by man, colours and scents that were far more exquisite than any Gucci perfume found on the other side of the island. Shop windows bursting with extreme colours yet intricacies. And I noticed that there was immediate evidence of appreciation. At the front of most of the hundreds of florists were buckets of individual roses. Closer examination of these buckets revealed that someone had taken the care and the time to carefully wrap each bud with fine netting, capturing and containing the perfection of each flower. Unlike England where most supermarket bouquets contain at least three stems where the bud has carelessly been snapped off, these flowers were carefully protected and appreciated in a simple yet symbolic way that made me notice. The poorest Chinese woman who had clearly worked an unimaginable day of real labour were spending there precious pennies, not on clothing or shoes or technology, they were spending their money on bunches of flowers. Flowers they could take home and place on their tiny balconies on the 111th floor, in homes that are so small they resemble kennels not houses. But these tiny buds were encapsulating real beauty and surrounding them with treasures of a far more valuable kind.
Rather than smelling our way to the bird market, we could listen and follow our hearing. The noise was incredible. Hundreds, no probably hundreds of thousands, of tiny birds all contained in small wooden often individual bird cages lined the streets.
Previously I have never been a fan of birds. I still hate the way that an animal that has the unique and enviable ability to fly across the open skies is then cruelly contained and restricted. It remains something I disapprove of but that day did teach me some lessons that I will take to my grave.
Chinese people don’t seem to smile much. The taxi drivers that I met during that brief week had frowns on their faces and were not interested in even making eye-contact. The maids in the hotel would scuttle into the elevators and look fiercely at the walls having hammered their required floor button with a clear impatient resentment. They also always appeared to be in a hurry. The drivers were keen to throw you out of their cabs or cram your bags into the boot in a record breaking time before joining the carriage way with an impatience that felt rather death inducing every time! They drive with their heads down elbowing the neighbouring car with reckless disregard of any driving laws or regulations. Positively terrifying most of the entire time to be honest. Your plate at the restaurants is cleared whilst you are chewing your final mouthful.
But the bird market, nestled within the busy grid of streets away from the designer shops was a place of complete serenity and opposites. Initially I was struck by the sheer noise coming from the market, the auditory volume of the streets, the noise that countless flocks of birds can make. The smell of bird poo and the dirt and dust around the endless open mountains of bird seed and bird paraphernalia. But if you stop before your enter the market, you notice that the locals are not feverishly arguing and grabbing at the stock with a desperation of bartering that occurs at every other market. Instead the customers are generally old Chinese men with faces of serenity who look almost smug as they slowly peruse and peer into the tiny bars of the cages. I stopped and sat on a wall watching them. It became apparent that many of the men were holding meticulously woven and clean cages that they hadn’t just bought or wanted to sell but that they were holding with pride and with a sense of real social status. They were not flashing the label of a designer product or trying to sell you something whilst armouring you with flattery and cold refreshment. This tiny microcosm had discovered a secret, the priceless, the uncopiable, the beauty of nature and of life.
The Chinese man that caught my eye was about 80 years old and his face and body were brown with dirt and engraved with experience. He was lifting up his tiny bird cage and peering into it with a face of pure enlightenment. His tiny eyes were as round as they were capable of getting. His pupils enlarged and absorbing every trace of beauty that they could retain and capture. He was smiling with a sincerity that mirrored pure happiness and enlightenment. He was looking at a yellow bird. A small yellow fluffy bird that was picking seed from the tiny but noticeably beautiful ceramic birdseed container that had carefully been attached to the side of the wooden cage. It was just a bird, like all the birds that continually inhabit our gardens at home, like all the birds that fly past our windows every second of the day. It was whistling and whistling a very similar sound to the ones that whistle in our gardens that almost disrupt us in the mornings and sing to us in the evenings. But this old and very wise Chinese man had stopped and taken the time to really look at it and to listen to its call. To contain it, perhaps only for a short period but to appreciate it and to wonder at its life and the magic of its existence.
To look at its tiny beak and to smile at the wondrous whistle and song it could effortlessly sing. This was life in a cage. A priceless entity that even the Chinese can not copy and reproduce.
What feels very potent to me now is that I am once again sitting back at home in my study in Honey bottom. Its 5 o’clock in the morning as my body clock struggles to find normality. But as I tap away at these keys, I can hear the sound of bird call out of my window. I have brought back from this amazing holiday, a suitcase full of fake bags and watches and presents but also an awareness once again of what really matters.
I have saved my own life. I have been given the opportunity to appreciate these new sights and to embrace the things that are really important in life. For that tiny yellow bird was singing such an important message. It is not what we look like and what scars are drawn across our bodies. It is not how much we earn, where we live, what cars we drive. What is important is our contribution to this world. Appreciating the tiny quiet song of the yellow bird and making sure our own song is as beautiful and as priceless.