Writing a column on Hong Kong means trying to interrupt its apparently permanent rush of activity, information and exchanges. It means chipping away at the inexorable advance of each hour, each day and each week in order to take a look around, to slow down enough to actually stop and observe, to feel and to pay attention to the city around us.
Not many would associate Hong Kong with the condition of slowness — the condition cherished by the “Slow” movement — except to lament what stops you from going forward, from progressing, from reaching your goal in a city vaunted for its dizzying activity. Slow means a taxi’s sluggish climb up to Park View, a bus stuck in Causeway Bay traffic, the Sai Ying Pun escalator, the pedestrian blocking your path on Queen’s Road. And yet, Hong Kong cannot escape from slowness, this trend that suggests we make the most of each moment, that replaces quickness and haste with attention to quality and an awareness of the here and now. What if we rediscover our inner turtle, the one extolled by Carl Honoré in his 2004 book, In Praise of Slowness? It’s a turtle that symbolises the ancient Chinese conception of universal wholeness, with its flat, square body protected by a shell that evokes the night sky. It’s a turtle that surely has a lot to teach us.
Slowly, every morning, I walk up to the Peak, a physical and symbolic hike towards the highest point of Hong Kong Island, 552 metres above sea level. Step by step, I see the fixtures of Hong Kong shrink into the distance: the skyscrapers, the taxis, the Star Ferry. When you see them from the summit of Old Peak Road, buffeted by birdsong, often shrouded in fog, polluted but sometimes marvellously sunny, Hong Kong offers itself in a captivating way.
In the early hours of the morning, the Peak is not yet invaded by hordes of tourists, who will soon spill out of the Peak Tram, which has served as a link to Central since 1888. You can walk around the summit along Lugard Road and Harlech Road in a sixty minute stroll; faster if you’re a more sporty type. Moving to the rhythm of the boats tracing their way across Victoria Harbour, the planes and helicopters criss-crossing across the sky, Hong Kong unveils itself: contradictory, complex, at once terribly urban and freshly emerged from the jungle. The vertiginous panorama extends across Victoria Harbour to Kowloon and the north, to the islands of Cheung Chau and Lantau in the west, all the way to the south, with spectacular views on the junks and sampans of Aberdeen, with Lamma Island in the background.
Bamboo, banana trees and banyans shade the path shared by runners and ramblers of all ages and nationalities. Hong Kong people have happily reclaimed this ground, which was denied to them by the British colonials from 1904 to 1930. I pass by young professionals looking to rid themselves of the stress of the day to come, domestic helpers who stroll peacefully with sometimes outrageously coiffed dogs, mothers ready to do battle with their full schedules, not to mention the elderly, some of them couples, who make their way forward at their own pace. They are the ones who greet each other every morning with a knowing look, sometimes seizing the moment to stop and chat about life, often joking about its mishaps.
There is a poetry in this city that can seem intimidating when it is seen from such height. A butterfly darts around, a street sweeper sweeps with a twinkle in his eye. They accompany you along the 2,800 metres around the Peak Circle, laughing off the dollars churning below in the global financial capital.
Chronicling means suspending time to observe, to look at things with fresh eyes, whether you’ve just arrived in Hong Kong or you planted roots here long ago. I like taking a look at what falls between the cracks, far away from the well-trodden paths. It’s in the close-up look at its details that the poetry of Hong Kong reveals itself – if you’re prepared to see it. In a few words, a handful of sentences, I’d like to share this with you on a regular basis, before time regains its hold on our frenetic Hong Kong lives.
Translated from the French by Christopher DeWolf