An issue of National Geographic Traveler was stashed on my nightstand for months, salvaged from one of my mother’s eclectic international packages. I’d put it there intending to read the article entitled, “Ghosts of Hong Kong.”
And yesterday, in preparation for our weekend trip, I finally got around to it.
The article begins with the haunting story of Hong Kong’s naming:
‘The Chinese believe smoke is a way to communicate between the world of the living and the world of the dead,’ I explain to my friend Leslie. It’s just around lunchtime, and we’re walking to one of my favorite Hong Kong places, the Temple of One Hundred Names. We slip through the narrow gate, clamber up a flight of steep steps, and pass through the antechamber, where 30 or 40 spirals of burning incense spin lazily from the ceiling like coiled snakes.
The air is thick with sandalwood smoke. Leslie stifles a cough as we hasten through the smoldering clouds to the inner altar room.
Hundreds of years ago, so the story goes, Chinese fishermen passing by in their boats noticed this same smoky aroma as it wafted out from the shoreside temples and began calling this island in the South China Sea “Heung Gong,” or Fragrant Harbor. Hong Kong is perhaps the only city in the world named for a smell. You breathe in, and it feels as if you’ve inhaled a spirit, something alive.
…and it follows the authors’ return to the fishing villages of her youth, which have become the modern skyscraped city of today.
But she ends with a moment in a tea house that could only happen in China:
I go for a cup of their (For Kee) famous yun yeung cha–tea mixed with coffee and hot milk. ‘How’s your bird today?’ I’ll ask the old man sitting at his table, his tiny yellow warbler chirping in a bamboo cage at his feet. ‘She’s sad,’ he’ll say, holding back a smile. ‘That’s why I have to take her out for tea.’
Some afternoons when I’m running I’ll pass an old man or two on the sidewalk taking his bird for a walk. And I’ll smile, too, appreciating that only in China do older people tend to caged birds, gather in the courtyards in early morning to do tai chi, light incense in the tiny altars inside their homes, and walk backwards for some unknown benefit!
But it occurs to me that I’ve always loved Hong Kong for its modernity and not for its history.
This time maybe we’ll try to get into ghost territory for some hiking, perhaps see the giant buddha on Lantau Island, or stop into one of those tea shops and sample this strange coffee-tea concoction.
There’s always more to China than meets the eye.
5000 or so years of history will do that to a place, you know?
p.s. I found this great list of free things to do in Hong Kong on National Geographic Traveler’s website.
p.p.s. Check out this crazy article on 4000-year old noodle remains found in China!!