Hong Kong: Where worlds collide
A ferry crosses the water from Hong Kong island, the famous Peak just visible behind the skyscrapers. (Pete Seaward)
During the final minutes before light, the harbour is shrouded and all its sounds muffled. Waiting for the Star Ferry I see the winking lights of tug boats as they fuss around a cruise ship. I can hear fog horns and grumbling engines and then countless lesser sounds: anchor chains grinding, a Chinese military helicopter heading for the New Territories, small waves slapping at the sides of fishing boats. At this hour, the city smells of the night’s dead heat mingled with oily water.
I feel a pulse of joy to be back. Hard to think that this was a city I first came to in a state approaching despair. Switching roles from BBC Southern Africa correspondent to cover Asia, I found myself longing for the open spaces of the continent I'd left behind. And then, in the last year of British imperial rule, my first child was born here. I had an intimate connection with the place. I made Chinese friends and learned that it wasn't a question of there being two Hong Kongs - one brash and commercial, the other Confucian and Cantonese. There were many Hong Kongs, all intertwined, a place where the traveller could be confounded by difference and cosseted by the familiar all in the same day.
Now I feel a childish enthusiasm crossing Victoria Harbour on the Star Ferry. Tubby and unlovely, with hard wooden seats, the ferry boats have plied these waters since the late 19th century. An Indian, Dorabjee Nowrajee, who made his fortune selling opium into China, set up the Kowloon Ferry Company in 1888. But the old drug dealer was not immune to the romance of the Hong Kong waters. A lover of poetry, he named his new ferry service after some lines of Tennyson, from Crossing the Bar, which contemplate the afterlife:
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea...
The long departed Mr Nowrajee understood that while Hong Kong might gain its vitality from the ruthless pursuit of profit, it was also a place of spiritual questing and romantic longing.
Within minutes of disembarking on the "Hong Kong side", I plunge into Wan Chai market, where plastic packets of dried seafood - some with medicinal qualities - are sold alongside knock-off Calvin Klein underwear. A little over £1 will see you happily munching starfish while draped in the finest pants a mainland sweatshop can produce.
On Bowrington Road, one of the small streets that bisect the area, there is a row of fish stalls where the produce flips, wriggles and claws in large tanks. The eternally elastic vowels of the Cantonese language bounce around the lanes as the traders harangue suppliers, and shoppers demand only the fattest fish and are told in return that they will have to pay more. The local Cantonese are perhaps the most enthusiastic consumers of fish anywhere in the world.
It is striking how many of the stalls are run by people who in the west would be dismissed as too old to work. An elderly woman pushes through the crowds hauling behind her a cart filled with vegetables. Dressed in the ageless garb of the Hong Kong grandmother - a dark, work-worn smock and trousers - she disperses all comers with a loud cry. A group of the elderly are taking a short break on the corner of Spring Garden Lane, gossiping raucously and resembling not an image of old age but of boisterous teenagers, determined to give no ground to the crowds thronging around them.
Noodles for breakfast
There is a noodle shop nearby where I try to have breakfast whenever I visit Hong Kong. Dickie Kwong's place always feels like a heightened version of the tumult outside. The diners are packed into a small room facing onto the street. Posters of the house specialities adorn the walls. Noodles with fish balls, noodles with pork, noodles with chicken etc. There is a delicate choreography of elbows and chopsticks as diners take care not to encroach on their neighbours' territory. In the corner Dickie and his cooks are enveloped in steam rising from vats of boiling water and broth. Every few seconds a heap of ivory white noodles is scooped into a bowl and dispatched to a diner.