Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Story of Chance: Wandering in Hong Kong

When I meet a new city, I prefer to walk it. Exploring on foot I have found a smattering of tucked away shops and cafes, but nothing yet compares to two discoveries made in Hong Kong. One with the help of a Couchsurfer turned friend. The other by chance.

This is the story of chance.

In Hong Kong, it is essential to walk and explore. Any Hong Konger will tell you the best way to experience the city is on foot. Skip the subway. Skip the buses. Skip the taxis. Pick a direction based on a hunch, a curiosity, or a destination, and walk.

Exploring on the Kowloon (mainland) side of Hong Kong, I started at the ferry terminal and Nathan Road. Then I decided to get off the main drag. I headed north in search of a gallery which promised a new perspective on “Touch” and art. Briefly disappointed and feeling lost after looking at immature work, thinking it looked childish for established artists, and only at the end of the exhibition finding out the work was done by students. (Thank goodness for the docent who told me!) I wandered back south.
I walked into the flower market, full of orchids, roses, lilies, rhododendrons, azaleas, bamboo. I was overwhelmed by scents and shoppers as I wandered.

Flowers in buckets and bouquets wrapped in paper. Vans picking up and delivering flowers in their daily routine. Tall buckets full of long-stemmed flowers packed tight. A florist trying to make room for more. Buckets toppling like dominoes. Water streaming into the gutter. I watched as staff slowly and calmly picked up the buckets. Their actions calculated movements, as if this was part of the daily routine.

Afterwards, I found myself in a bird garden (market) full of dissonant chirping. I heard a cacophony of birds trapped in cages, calling out, looking for a familiar voice in the mix. I saw beautifully carved cages, porcelain food and water dishes, multi-colored birds, old men and women sitting in stalls or outside the gates of the garden with so many songbirds. I could not take it all in. I left feeling stressed and confused. I sat on a bench trying to process the ordeal, taking a breath, writing some notes, eating a pear.

I wandered back to the street, more flowers, more open shops, garden flowers, and a main road. Prince Edward Road. Shops on the main level full of touristy goods. A subway station ahead. “I have been walking for hours. I am tired. Maybe I will go to the subway, head back to the hostel, and take a break.”

Then I see it. A sign. Literally, a sign. The sign marked the historic building I stood in front of. A building which retained original art deco elements from the font of the address on the door, to the ironwork on the doors themselves. I quickly skimmed the sign, and then I had a look for myself. On the second floor was a ceramics shop. Always on the look for unique moments when exploring cities, I wandered up the stairs. At the first landing, I looked at the doors, briefly confused at the lack of a ceramics’ shop, and then realizing for the umpteenth time that I was only on the first floor according to Hong Kong’s system of counting levels. I continued up the stairs.

Stairs with original tiling.


I pushed the door open and heard a chime which reminded me of a small metal wind chime. 


I heard in an accent I couldn’t quite place. 

“Hi,” I said, as I walked into the shop mesmerized by everything around me. I may or may not have made eye contact with the shopkeeper who sat behind an antique looking carved wooden desk with a large tapestry acting as a curtain behind him.

As I wandered around his shop, looking, not touching, amazed at the variety of ceramics I saw before me, enchanted by the lovely, detailed painting on a small porcelain tea set, he must have watched me. While I can’t say for sure that he wondered about my presence in his shop, as I walked around to the first shelf, his question gave me a hint. 

“So, what brings you in? You just wander into any open shop?”
Apparently I did not look the part of his usual, purposeful customer. I also had not initiated a conversation, secretly hoping that his curiosity would start the conversation and nearly overly excited at the chance to speak about my own wonderings and slightly out of breath, I said, “I saw a sign that this was a historic building, and I happen to like ceramics.” 

First he told me about the apartment. He drew my attention to the floor, “original tile.” I could tell by the lilt in his voice that he was happy to have a customer who appreciated the finer details of his apartment. I let him indulge, asking probing questions here and there, and finding out that he had to petition to rent this apartment. He made a proposal that he would keep everything original, while supporting and promoting local cultural arts. He won the bid. He hosts a variety of workshops at the apartment and at another location.

“What kind of ceramics do you like?” he asked.

“I like all kinds from very detailed porcelain to contemporary abstract works.”

He showed me his most prized items, kiln supports from an ancient Chinese dynasty, which had been discarded by the potters at the time because a bowl had been partially glazed to them. These kiln supports were rugged, heavy grog. The porcelain inside delicate and glazed with with celadon, a light green glaze praised by many potters because of the difficulty of achieving a perfect mixture.

I asked if he had work by local Hong Kong artists. We talked kilns. He showed me work he had purchased in Korea, opening the door for me to talk about my story. He then launched into his. He lived in Melbourne for 10 years before returning to Hong Kong and opening the shop. Finally, his accent was put in its place.

After my own wandering and his tour, I knew I could not leave without a piece of this place. I knew what I wanted but worried it was out of my price range. Luckily, I had just enough for two small teacups minimally and artfully painted. Perfect reminders of my trip and this lovely discovery.

Before heading back to wash and wrap my selections, the shopkeeper pointed me to a beautiful selection of fabrics and clothing, which he had seen me brush past in my excitement about pottery. He told me he had a large selection of fabric woven in Shanghai in the 1950s, and he had decided to try his hand at designing clothes. I then noticed, the shirt he was wearing came from the same selection of blue and white striped cloth. 

This was heavy fabric. Beautifully dyed and woven. I immediately thought of my grandmother. And as he slipped away to take care of my tea cups, I admired his handicraft, but mostly the weight and feel of the fabric. Modern fabrics are woven by machine, but these fabrics had the feel of hand-weaving. Uneven, thick, rough, and masterful. Realizing there was no way I could carry a whole bolt of fabric with me back to the hostel or back to Korea, I looked down. Remembering that I had seen other storage areas on lower shelves around the shop, I found the remnants. When he saw me sifting through them, it was as if he knew I was wondering about price. 

“Pick one,” he said across the shop. “Those are scraps. For you, take one for free. For the memory.”

“Really? Wow. Ok! Thank you so much.”

These were very well kept remnants, and I selected one which I found the most attractive of the lot.

Giddy with the excitement of the discovery of this shop, the fact I was spending my last 350 HKD and still had a couple days left in town, the pleasure of knowing that I would soon be the owner of two beautiful tea cups, and holding the remnant, I headed back to the front of the shop and his desk. We conversed a bit more, and then I walked back out to the street.

Out of the shop, suddenly I was exhausted. I needed to find food, an ATM, and get back to the hostel to take a nap so I could keep going for the rest of the day.

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