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  • City Out of Breath
  • Ken Chen (bio)

So all night, we walk in one direction: up.

This is really the only direction you can go in Hong Kong, a direction hinted at by skyscrapers and aspired to by the Hong Kong stock exchange. By "we," I mean my father, myself, and our guide—my step-grandmother-to-be—who somehow possesses both our combined age and our combined speed. Trudging up the stairs behind her, my father and I are already panting. We stop and laugh—really only an excuse to catch our breath—but by the top of the stairs, we're bent and sagging, our hands on our knees. And there, at the end of the street, she's waving at us to hurry up—almost as if to fan away whatever remains of our quaint Californian version of walking. When we catch up with her, she says—in what seems like an especially Chinese blend of ridicule and public affection—that we walk too slow.

If an American city at night is film noir, then Hong Kong is just a camera blur. The residents of Kowloon speed around with the same look on their faces, as if they're irked at their bodies for not being cars. You feel that if you stood still, the city would just rotate past you—as if you have no other choice but motion. Hong Kong accelerates as though located on another, faster-spinning Earth. Anyone who has been there knows that time and space can flick off their objectivity and instead pulse and jump, symphonic rather than metronomic. In Hong Kong, the world stretches time until time—along with space and language—goes elastic. It's like a Chinese painting, in which conflicting perspectives soak through the landscape like radiation. A McDonald's sits next to a vegetable cart tended by a woman who looks about five hundred years old. The all-Chinese police band plays bagpipes and marches in kilts for the Saint Patrick's Day parade. Street markets are the opposite of flowers: opening up at night and closing at day. In Hong Kong, all times are contiguous. All times are simultaneous. This essay is an attempt to describe a city that is itself already a description—Hong Kong is a description of time. This essay is also an experiment in time travel—an artifact of memory from July 2000. Hong Kong is now the same city but a different place. Prosperity—once the city's one-word gloss—is slowly becoming synonymous with Shanghai. "I hear everyone's real depressed over there," I say, at dinner, to the mother of a [End Page 50] friend of mine from Hong Kong. "That they're jealous, with all the jobs heading over to the mainland and all." She chews on a piece of lettuce and says, "Yes, they are jealous. But they have a right to be."

Five years later, we spend the next half-hour taking elevators that lead to stairs that lead to elevators. I don't have any idea where we're going and just follow my father, an immigrant from Taiwan whose Mandarin, I realize, makes him only a third less lost than I am. He's following our guide, who, like Hong Kong itself, is all energy and no conversation. "We're headed for Victoria Peak today," my dad announced this morning. The touristy lookout could be the only spot where Hong Kong can be made comprehensible.

Suddenly our guide stops. Are we lost? This possibility is not surprising. It feels like we've been going in spirals, victims to some kind of geographic hoax. Our guide decides to ask for directions in Cantonese. She stops a man with a dark complexion who reminds me of the vendors at the Taipei night market. He has short, wiry hair that resembles a scouring pad and is wearing a security-guard uniform. Chinese—I think—obviously. Probably a migrant from the mainland. "Where is Victoria Peak?" she asks him in Cantonese. The security guard looks at her and says, "Do you speak English?"

Dad and I look at each other. He says, "This is a strange...