Hong Kong Dispatch: Fluid and Flighty in a Soho Cafe

BY KEN BASIN

Apologies for being out of print last issue. But as I was actually in the United States, attending my sister’s nuptials (congratulations, Mila!), I thought it would be disingenuous to write a column called “Hong Kong Dispatch.”

Of course, I had no ethical problems checking in with updates from Malaysia and mainland China. The lawyer in me would draw a distinction, pointing out that as this column is essentially a glorified travelogue, any location in Asia is fair game for a column, while the United States does not fit in with the spirit of this endeavor. The realist in me would point out that I was probably lazy and distracted, and forgot.

I am nothing if not a realist.Since returning to Hong Kong, I’ve been experimenting with new ways to explore and embrace my identity as an expatriate in Hong Kong for the few weeks I have left here. In many ways, Hong Kong and I have been in something of a spat in recent weeks. I’ve grown increasingly critical of the city, and in vengeance, it has been effectively kicking my ass. But I think we’re reaching an uneasy truce and learning to accommodate each other.

I recently spent a lazy Sunday afternoon in the Brunch Club, a Soho spot I’ve always been fond of. It’s a Western-style café/coffee shop in Soho with an extensive wine collection, free magazines on the walls, and free-and-fast wireless internet. The staff speaks excellent – in some cases, surprisingly unaccented – English, and everyone who comes seems to be a regular. It offers good food, good prices, a nice environment, and absurdly slow service. In other words, it is Los Angeles. No wonder I love it so.

I was reading this month’s issue of Harper’s, which may be an even more self-consciously, self-righteously hyperintellectual publication than my beloved New Yorker, the reading of which I already regard as a willful act of pretension. I had just finished a reprinting of a Hunter S. Thompson piece that appeared in Rolling Stone in 1973 when I peered over the top of my magazine and saw a fratty-looking American guy at the table across the way. Apparently, he was from South Carolina and was a student/fan of the university therein, because he was wearing a red t-shirt that read across the chest, in big, bold letters, “COCKS.”

In most countries in the world, I would be awash with a feeling of shame on behalf of Americans everywhere. But in Hong Kong, it just seems to make sense. This is a city of transients, the central portions of which are essentially defined not by the locals and lifetime Hong Kongers, but by the Americans, Canadians, British, Australians, and mainland Chinese who are just passing through for 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, 5 years, 7 years, okay, maybe they’ll just stay forever. Every popular bar or restaurant is located “where [some once-popular, now-defunct bar or restaurant] used to be.” The city is fluid, flighty, and cosmopolitan, and – whether as a result or as a cause of this – the expatriate community seems to feel no overwhelming desire to try to truly integrate itself. And in a sense, why should they? No matter how deeply and intricately a Westerner embraces the local customs and culture, they will always be visibly, verifiably, outsiders, if only because of the color of their skin. The solution to this problem that most people here seem to have come to is, why bother?And so, unlike in Paris or London, I don’t assume that COCKS man is like one of the guys featured in the Borat movie, transplanted to a foreign environment on a half-baked, booze-addled two-week vacation, after which I will have to spend weeks undoing the damage to the American reputation that they have wrought in a matter of days. He’s probably an analyst at Goldman’s Hong Kong branch office, who has lived in Hong Kong for twice as long as me and will be here long after I leave. And probably makes more money from his expatriate package alone than I will as a first-year associate in Los Angeles. That ass.

And – at least for the next few weeks – he, and I, and the greasy, shirtless grizzled-looking laborer unloading sacks of dried seafood in Hong Kong’s so-called “Chinatown” district, can all be Hong Kongers together.

Tune in next week to see which of two conclusory columns I’m already writing in my head – a glowing soliloquy in praise of the study abroad experience, or a scathing indictment of Hong Kong as the shallowest, most cultural immature metropolis in the world – makes it into print. Maybe both?

Ken Basin is a 3L who is currently studying abroad at the University of Hong Kong, and is being every bit as diligent in Hong Kong as he would be in Cambridge. His complete adventures are chronicled at kbasin.blogspot.com.

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