(転がる香港に苔は生えない – 星野 博美)
Usually, I write about fiction books, but I’m making an exception for this nonfiction work by Hoshino Hiromi for three reasons. First, I’m beginning to learn Cantonese so I want to read books in Japanese that help me get a better understanding of the culture associated with the language. Second, I took a vacation to Hong Kong in the early 2000s and was fascinated by the lifestyle—Hoshino decided to actually live the lifestyle. Finally, I think it is an interesting and unique book and want to share it.
Hoshino’s goal was to live in Hong Kong surrounding the handover from England to China. She goes there on a student visa—though not particularly interested in the school part—and lives in a modest apartment. She meets all kinds of people, less of the elite bankers and cosmopolitan Hongkongers that Hong Kong may bring to mind, but the everyday middle-class or working-class people as well as new immigrants. Much of the book is her conversations and interactions with these people, shedding light on different aspects of the local culture.
She serendipitously finds the perfect place to live by a public transportation mishap leading her to the Sham Shui Po district. She falls in love with the area with its deafening sound of jets overhead, ignored by the locals, and a particular waiter at a restaurant that becomes her home away from home for sipping hot milk-tea. The area captures a part of Hong Kong that most non-Chinese outsiders don’t come into contact with. Later one of Hoshino’s friends describes Sham Shui Po as the Hong Kong of his childhood.
A perk of this being nonfiction is that Hoshino was living in a real place, and she includes a map in the book so we can see the exact location. Thanks to Google Street View, we can actually go there without leaving our home. Although, I’m sure it’s quite different by now since this book is set in the late 90s.
Coming to Hong Kong, it’s easy to glamorize life in the dense urban habitat, like a jungle with pipes and wires as the vines. Hoshino actually lives it. Her apartment in an area where no other Japanese people live, and she faces the reality of plumbing not originally designed for the number of rooms in the building, where apartments have been subdivided again and again to maximize the use of space. Sometimes the strangest things bubble up in her toilet. She finds her garbage from the night before for sale on the street below in the early morning “trash market”, along the street, which is time-divided into various uses throughout the day. For me, I think living in the heart of Sham Shui Po is best experienced by reading a book—and this is the book that will take you there. Hoshino describes it as a chaos that’s full of vitality in opposition to the sanitized lifestyle in Japan, where striving not to inconvenience others means less opportunity to depend on each other and connect.
The best part of this book is that you can read the stories of all types of people. The man she meets in Kowloon Walled City in a bun factory, who died of cancer before he had a chance to start a family. Those waiting for years divided between the mainland and Hong Kong waiting to get permission for their family to live together. Those who would do anything for a foreign passport and those who felt disillusioned after getting one while opportunities in Hong Kong passed them by. The man at Hoshino’s favorite restaurant saving for years to take is hypothetical girlfriend on a vacation in Japan.
I am very glad to be able to read Japanese so I can read this book. This isn’t the kind of book that will likely be translated into English, but it provides a perspective of Hong Kong much different from what I could experience. Hoshino knows she will never be able to make a permanent move to Hong Kong because of her strong sense of “home” and expectation for things to have continuity, as opposed to the mentality in Hong Kong that more resembles a rolling stone. However, when she meets people, they don’t know what to think of her at first glance. They don’t know she is Japanese. She is an outsider but can see further inside than I ever could. I would guess that many books about Hong Kong in English are either from the perspective of an insider or an outsider-at-first-glance such as myself. I appreciate being able to read about this amazing city from Hoshino’s perspective.
The featured image is used under the Creative Commons License.