Hong Kong, Day 3: The Sound of Silence (there is one)

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Day Three in Hong Kong

Four in the morning. Either a chunky dresser is being shoved repeatedly across a dry linoleum floor, or roommate Wayne is snoring again. I don’t stay awake long enough to find out, only to register the sound. Even though I only went to about eight different places on Wednesday, jet lag is still weighing me down, which lets me fall back asleep until a more human hour. At eight, I shower and go find coffee.

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The subway is already packed, but what should be an overwhelming wall of noise and motion is merely a dialing-up of the night sounds of the city, which filled in the quiet spaces when the dresser wasn’t being voilently rearranged. On the sidewalk, the low soundtrack of the streets is punctuated by the insistent voices of Middle-Eastern men who single me out of the stream of people to offer custom-tailored suits and watches. I’m practiced at ignoring them now.

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I grab a reviving cappuccino and immediately head back to the hostel, downing the drink before getting back in the subway (there’s a huge fine for eating/drinking; that’s why it’s so clean).

That’s the pace of Hong Kong so far: like the subway, a constant on-and-off, acceleration and a sudden stop, and even when you’re standing still you may be rushing. You eat quickly and leave the restaurant. The escalators carry you up and down and into the bellies of the subway trains.

Thomas, who is from Taiwan visiting his HK girlfriend, whose other friends are busy during the day, joins my whirlwind schedule. We grab breakfast at BreadTalk (raisin loafs, ham & cheese bread, and apple werm [the name is worse than the taste], milk tea) and go back to the subway. I’ve already spent half an hour mapping out each location and how to get there from each subway station – when you don’t have unlimited data, you really have to prepare – and now that I have a plan, I’m willing to deviate from it. Thomas tells me to do whatever I want, that I’m way more prepared than he is, so we set off.

Hong Kong Island

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We sit down on the ferry as it carries us across the harbor, then to a gigantic mall in the financial district, and then to the street.

We find the Man Mo Temple, dedicated to the gods of war and literature. Its interior reveals a reverent twilight disturbed by construction.

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We walk down Hollywood road to find Flow Bookstore, the first of two used bookshops on my list for this side of the water. That may sound boring to some people. When you’re in another country, why of all places go to a bookstore? Two reasons. The first is that, from any good trip, you want to bring back knowledge – of yourself, of the world, of life – and there is no more concrete form of knowledge than a book. And visiting a used bookstore is an analogy for any trip. You’re not sure exactly what you’re looking for, you never know exactly what you’ll find, but you hope for the best possible outcome: a book you’ve never heard of that gives you exactly what you’re looking for. Like traveling, going to a used bookstore is trusting in providence to teach you what you most need at this moment.

And secondly, used bookstores are air conditioned and quiet. And at any given moment during an HK day, both qualities are needed. As Thomas says, “In Asia, you sweat every day.” I drank a gallon of water already.

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Unfortunately, Flow isn’t open, although we arrive three minutes before noon, its opening hour according to the sign. About six other white people are lining up for it to open, but after 15 minutes, it doesn’t. Thomas calls the number and finds out the opening is delayed, so we leave. No time to wait.

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Collectables is closed too, and then we struggle to find Lan Fong Yuen, a famous cha chaan teng (tea shop) recommended by Thomas’ girlfriend. Google maps saves us, and then Thomas saves me by ordering our food in Cantonese. We have some awesome milk tea, and I have roasted goose. The street swelters. We sit in the air conditioning and watch the vegetable and meat vendors sell to the lunch crowd. An open-air butcher shop in the heat is not the most appetizing thing I’ve ever seen, but the goose is delicious.

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Perseverance pays off when we go back to Flow – it’s open, and everyone who had been waiting at the door an hour ago is now in the shop. It’s an incredible fire-hazard treasure-hunt of a bookshop. Thomas, not a big reader, is content to peruse in the relative cool and quiet while I start digging through piles.

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[Editors in the audience, forgive the upcoming shift in tense. I wrote this at 5 am and am too lazy to edit for consistency.]

After about half an hour, I found several books, but this was the first:

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It seemed too closely aligned with my reasons for coming to Hong Kong to be ignored, so I bought it, along with a few others. How am I getting these books back to Arkansas? Maybe I can find one on creative packing techniques.

We then made our way to Cafe Corridor, a literal hole-in-the-wall indicated only by a small, sun-bleached sign, invisible under the gigantic Burberry billboards of Times Square, Hong Kong.

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The idea that empty tables in a coffee shop means I’ve found a good place is again confirmed here. Thomas is incredulous that I found this. The noise here is a familiar, quieter noise, and there’s no wifi. Like Kubrick, Cafe Corridor understands its function as a shelter from the whiplash pace of the city. It’s harder to map your next stop; you’re supposed to sit for a while. I add the events of the day to the small notebook I bought from Kubrick.

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Hong Kong Park

At 3:30, Thomas and I part ways; he goes back to Kowloon to meet up with friends. I want to explore Hong Kong Park and then hike to The Peak to watch the sun set over the city. In the park, I hope, there is quiet. I live in Arkansas in a house in the woods (sort of). I need trees over my head.

The park, the aviary, the overlook, and the tai chi garden were peaceful. The trees have twisted, dynamic shapes that you don’t see back home, and the aviary reminded me of Jurassic Park, except the flying things won’t carry you off and eat you.

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Some high school girls were taking what I assume were senior pictures in the tai chi garden; I found other corners of it to photograph.

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Peaceful, yes, and the skyscrapers loom over everything. I wandered through the Visual Arts Center (closed, mostly), the Flagstaff Teahouse Museum (not my thing), the Hong Kong Squash Center (something akin to tennis?), and the entrance to the Peak tram. I briefly considered taking the tram, because there was no way I was hiking up – I’d walked for about 9 hours straight and my knee was twinging a bit. But neither was I going to wait in that line.

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You probably have experienced moments when you wonder what the heck you’re doing with your life, a moment of doubt even though you’re working towards your goals. One of those moments hit me, and I was tired, and a little overwhelmed by the incessant barrage of consumerism and noise and strangers on every corner. So I sat down by a fountain.

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The only real silence you can find in Hong Kong is at this water fountain. The sound of silence is in the space between this one powerful, persistent noise and all the others that it drowns out. Grateful for this break from sensory overload, I pulled out The Artist’s Way and started reading.

And damn. This was exactly the book I needed. Divine Providence in action. If you’ve ever felt creatively blocked or artistically frustrated in any way… get this book now, because it is the antidote. Get it from Amazon if that will get it for you this week. It’s actually a 12-week course, so I’ve barely scratched the surface, but the exercises are already having an effect on me.

It sounds ridiculous but sometimes you have to travel to the other side of the planet to learn something about yourself.

And sometimes, writing things down makes them seem more sappy than they actually are. Anyway, catharsis, self-awareness, etc. By the time the streetlights came on and the fountain turned off, my thoughts had taken a complete 180. Wandering where I felt like, I found the High Court of Hong Kong. Its view over the island feels like something out of a scifi film, a mix between Blade Runner and Equilibrium.

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Then more espresso.

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Then I bartered for a notebook in the Temple Street Night Market (I still got scalped) to use for The Artist’s Way exercises, then a beer, and then went back to the hostel.

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Surprisingly, I was alone. In a hostel smaller than my house, where about seven to 10 people live, for a few days or for several months, no one was home. I drank my beer, read more, and started filling the new notebook. I have a tendency to collect notebooks because each one contains the possibility of many a clever sentence being written, but that first page is hard to spoil. The first sentence might be stupid. As I know now, it’s best to just dive right in. There are no notebooks in the library.

The evening tapered off to rest as people started coming back home. I texted some pictures to people in that in-between hour when America is just now awake and Hong Kong is not yet asleep. Then I slept.

At around 4 am this morning, someone started pushing that heavy dresser across the floor again. I felt rested and this blog was rolling around in my head, so I had to get up and write it. Breakfast is next; BreadTalk is open, and more coffee shops open soon.

Also on the docket for today: the Golden Pavilion of Absolute Perfection at the Buddist Chi Lin Nunnery. I might not find absolute silence there, but that’s alright. After all, I’m in Hong Kong.

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