Japanese Nonfiction Review: A Rolling Hong Kong Gathers No Moss

(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.

2 thoughts on “Japanese Nonfiction Review: A Rolling Hong Kong Gathers No Moss”

  1. A majority of my reading in Japanese is in fiction but this sounds like a really interesting travel journal. Will definitely have to keep my eyes open for it next time I am at a Japanese bookstore, though generally the ones in the US have a pretty limited supply so I might just have to order it eventually.

    While I know very little about Hong Kong, I associate a certain harbor view that I think is commonly used for travel marketing. It looks like something out of a science fiction book, and certainly some SF authors and illustrators have used Hong Kong for reference in some way or another. So, in that sense, maybe actually visiting a city like that would give me a new type of inspiration.

    You didn’t mention much about the Japanese level. Did you find yourself frequently looking up words or kanji? Or was it a pretty easy read? Though I am sure I could get through it either way, knowing it is an easy read would make it higher priority on my list (:

    A coworker from a previous job said he lived in Hong Kong for a year, and when I found that out I said “Wow, so you speak Chinese?” But I was disappointed by his answer, since he said that he basically spoke English the entire time.

    Experiencing new cultures through Japanese is definitely a really awesome perk of knowing Japanese which I need to try more myself.

  2. I doubt this would be at a bookstore since it’s kind of old.

    The picture of the bay you are imagining is actually what it is like. It’s worth going, but I’m not sure how easy it would be with a family. I noticed that flights to China are generally cheaper than Japan or even Europe from the East coast.

    As for the level, it was in regular modern Japanese. It was a bit tricky trying to keep up with Chinese names and places though. For example, if there is a person’s name from the mainland, would you think about it in an English approximation, katakana reading, on-yomi, local mainland dialect, Mandarin reading, or Cantonese reading? It can hurt your head if you overthink it, but usually the katakana is there, although I hate how low resolution katakana is for other languages. Also, she sometimes just throws in Chinese words like 再見, which I guess would be like us saying adios.

    The book is in short episodes, so you can pick it up for a few minutes at a time. The stories are self contained and each have a point she is getting at, but many of the people are in multiple stories. If you like the sample, then the rest of the book is more of the same format. Basically, It’s an easy read in that it’s bitesize.

    I can’t imagine living in another country and not trying to learn a language, but then I love languages. I respect people who can make a decision not to learn a language when looking at the cost and benefits. There is a place for light language learning though. I listened to one CD to learn some Italian before going to Italy and I think just having a small amount to try out helps the travel experience.

    I think Japanese is a great language to learn about other cultures. I may try to read some more about China or even Southeast Asia at some point too.

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