“I want to go to the old city centre.” It was the third day of the Chinese New Year. I was in Taichung with my parents and we had been celebrating the arrival of the wooden horse by eating an obscene amount of food. We’d also been spending time with grandma, and the extended family from my mother’s clan. They are a rowdy bunch and demand constant attention. Dealing with family for an extended amount of time is always mentally draining, and on top of that, I had not been sleeping well. The room I was sleeping in was infested with mosquitoes and I slapped myself awake multiple times throughout the night while trying to kill a buzzing insect above my head. By the third day, I was showing signs of tear and wear, and my dad, being an empathetic human being, asked me what I wanted to do on the third day. “Why do you want to go there?” Mom made a face, “there’s nothing there. All the shops are closed and nothing to do.” “Exactly, I want to go and take pictures of abandoned buildings.” We parked Dad’s old dark green Benz from the late 90’s next to an abandoned department store. The building still looked every inch a department store, but it had been neglected, the light fixtures were falling off and everything was covered in dust. There was such a contrast between the festive mood elsewhere during the holidays and this forlorn building. Looking into the windows lacking dressings and shoppers, I was thinking perhaps 15 years ago, all the dressings were screaming in loud red and gold, enticing excited shoppers with their wallets bulging with red pocket money. Now it was standing there, empty, abandoned, and not serving its function as a place of merry consumerism. Both my parents are from well established families in Taichung. In the 60’s, Taiwan was not open for trading with other nations. However, in Taichung City, there were lots of shops that specialized in imported goods from Japan and America, brought in to Taiwan by the American military. Back then, Taichung was a prosperous city, teething with energy. In addition to import shops, there were an array of restaurants. “Look.” Dad pointed at an empty store front. “I used to eat dumpling there when I was younger. When we first moved to Taiwan, you kicked and screamed and refused to go inside because you thought the place was dirty. You were standing outside while we ate, and your aunt had to convince you to come inside.” He laughed as he retold the story. I was 6 when I moved to Taiwan. Even as a small child, I remember the busy streets of the city centre. However, as I walked around with my parents on the third day of new years more in the year 2014, the streets were deserted and many of the buildings were abandoned. We walked by the Second Market, which was a very famous market in Taichung. Even today, there were many signs for shops, but I imagine most were no longer there. One of the signs brought back waves of memories. It was a sign for a shoe shop that was called “Cinderella”, and the sign was written in Chinese characters. It was still placed prominently at one of the entrances of the market. I am not sure if the shoe store was still there, but I remember distinctively looking up and seeing that sign as a child when I was forced to go to the market with mom. I could see my childish self, a 6 or 7 year old girl, dressed in delicate floral Japanese dress, pouting, and following behind her mother meekly with her head down. I was cringing and watching the dirty red tiled floor carefully, trying not to step on puddles. Every so often, her mother would yell, “hurry up!” in Japanese. The former glory of the city had dissipated. On any given street, 6 out of 10 buildings have been abandoned, and the others were struggling to not crumble. “Ha, this is the movie theater I used to go to.” Mom stopped in front of a fading cinema with old movie posters still inside the display. “Grandpa knew the owner of this place so I used to go there, whose house was right behind the theater. After my friend and I have a snack we used walk through the backdoor and go directly into the cinema.” “Free movies? Very nice.” Snapping a picture, I noted the movie poster of the last film they were showing. It was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This means that the cinema had been abandoned since 2001. 12 years ago. “Yes, free movies.” in a nostalgic tone, she said, “this cinema specialized in foreign films too.” “Maybe we could walk by Grandpa’s old clinic?” Dad suggested after we passed the cinema. “Yeah sure.” Grandpa was a prominent obstetrician who delivered many baby boomers in Taichung. After he died, the clinic was boarded up. However, Grandpa’s name still lives on a plaque on green tiled wall. Chang Obstetrics Hospital. Head Doctor, Chang Yao Dong Medical Doctor graduate of Tokyo University. A place where many people’s lives had started, was now abandoned, like so many other places in the city. In the car on the way home, I was reflective. “Dad, why was the city abandoned?” “Well, you know the city centre is very old, and as the city grew, it became very crowded.” Dad explained as he steered the car. “There was lots of land outside of the city, so they started to develop it in the recent years, especially near the big Eslite bookshop that you like.” “Back then, those were all rice paddies.” Mom chimed in, “People who owned property way out in the middle of nowhere are now rich.” “But why didn’t they just renovate it? Fix it up?” “People in Taiwan want to live in high rises with modern facilities like elevators and underground parking lots and not have to park their cars out on the street. They want to shop in grocery stores and not in the wet market.” He sounded a little melancholy as he drove us back to my grandmother’s house, which was located at the edges of the old city centre. On the way home, we drove by a large, burnt out building. It was despondent, tattered, and yet it still occupied a space, silently protesting; traces of its former glory echoing in its hollowness. I like to imagine what the building was like in its heyday, when it was serving its purpose. Was it a night club? A multi-purpose building with many restaurants and shops? I also like to imagine what happened before it was burnt down and abandoned. Was it a careless accident? “Well, I like the old city centre.” I said, seeing myself as a little person pouting in the dirty market, my mother wearing her school uniform watching a foreign film, and my dad as a teenager eating dumplings at the same place where his daughter refused to go in 20 years later. The ghost of our former selves will always live on in this abandoned city, and even though either my parents nor I live in Taichung anymore, every time we visit, the past will always come out to say hello.
All the people in these pictures are people I don’t know and their lives are completely different from mine. Yet, we walk the same streets, and breathe the same (polluted) air. I took these pictures because they are contrary to the the glitzy, shiny, materialistic image Hong Kong portrays.
During “normal” hours, Queen Road Central is a busy and crowded street. At 6:15 am though, the newspaper men are my only companions. I run past them at around 6:15 am. The butcher typically start chopping up his merchandise by the time I run by him, around 6:25 am or so. This shop is in Sai Ying Pun. I see the newspaper men and the butcher 3 or 4 times a week during my morning run, and I had never stopped, paused and wondered what their lives are like, until now.
In Causeway Bay, there is a little area under the overpass where women gather with their Taoist deities. This is where you go if you need advice on love, business, health, or any other arenas of your life. I hear these fortune teller ladies can also put curses on someone on your behalf or make someone fall madly in love with you. I don’t believe in fortune telling, but I do like that they are camped out on the street with their deities. It’s such a contrast to the bankers. I wonder if some of their wives visit the fortune tellers and put a curse on their husbands’ mistresses.
I don’t notice street performers very often in Hong Kong, though I did notice this one. This young guy was parked outside Central Station singing for his supper. According to the sign in his box, he’s Korean and he does not speak any Chinese. People seem to be quite generous with him though. It seems awfully un-Korean (un-Asian in general) to allow your son to travel to another country and earn money this way. I wonder what his story is. I gave him $10 HKD. I hope he got into a decent hostel for the night as it is getting chilly in Hong Kong!
In Hong Kong, people are unusually obsessed with using their smart phones to document their lives by taking pictures of everything- performances, scenery, outings, food. I have been fascinated with the local Chinese people taking pictures in front of elaborate Christmas decorations all over Hong Kong (some of these decorations are just plain weird– almost like Tim-Burton weird but not quirky enough). This is a meta-documentation of my life in Hong Kong, through other people’s pictures:
Our phones are altering our memory and how we interact with the world. Since we have tools to capture our lives quickly and easily, we now live in a state of distracted amnesia, oscillating between the Instagram and Facebook apps on our smart phones. Who needs to remember special moments when we can take a picture of everything and anything and post them onto the collective memory… umm, I mean, Facebook? Look how early we start indoctrinating our young:
Remember back in the days when films and development of films cost money, we were more cautious about creating images? Those days seem like a lifetime ago. Our parents have bound albums of old photographs in the attic and we occasionally look at them. At least with a photo album, we can just open it and browse. “Oh, look, there’s me when I was 5 covered in jam! How cute!” And when our parents took those pictures, they took them with the intention of looking at them, together, and remembering. When I look at people taking pictures today in HK, it’s hard to imagine that they have the same purpose. By the time our children are grown, how would they retrieve old digital images from a 30 year-old portable hard drive?!?! Our children will be inundated with digital trash in the form of hard drives… of selfies.
Asians are famous for taking pictures of the food they eat. Only after taking the perfect picture, posting it on Facebook/sending it to their friends via Line, can they enjoy the food before them. Apparently though, we enjoy food more if we don’t Instagram it. Let’s regain our lives by not obsessively documenting our mundane lives with our smart phones. Let’s teach our children to remember special moments by telling them a story. Let’s not be so narcissistic, and if we must, let’s spend that energy pampering our loved ones. Why not attach the selfie in an email and write a proper letter to that special someone in your life? We will be happier and actually live our lives to remember each passing moment when we are not preoccupied with getting the perfect Instagram.
I propose an Instagram/Facebook moratorium. I’ve started already.
Some of you may know that I wake up at crack of dawn to go running. Getting up at 5 am sucks but you know what? You get to see a side of Hong Kong not many get to see. Like this.
This is taken at Tamar Promenade overlooking Wan Chai.
This is the first post of Kayo’s Hong Kong diary in pictures. Stay tuned.