And I had a darts partner from the Chinese island of Hainan, a painter who spoke as little English as I did Hainanese, which is to say none. But Tak Tung and I became unlikely friends at the dive bar across from my office on Hollywood Road, the Globe. He had a knack — confounding the Britons we defeated — for missing the easy throws and then hitting the bull’s-eye with improbable consistency.
Since our words flew unintelligibly past each other, we communicated by drawing on napkins and beer coasters. We sketched the people we knew. We drew maps, of Hong Kong and China, of the world, of boats and airplanes and the dotted lines that described our respective journeys.
The last time Tak Tung and I saw each other, he invited me back to his studio. He picked up the phone (a landline, of course) and dialed a number and handed the receiver to me. A woman was on the other end — his wife. She said she was in the hospital and that her husband was having a difficult time because of her illness. He wanted me to know it meant a lot to him to have me as a friend.
Soon after, I left that part of the world. It was long before Facebook. A lot of people didn’t even have email addresses yet. And when you made a broke, disorderly retreat from a city as I did, you lost touch with most of your friends half a world away.
Now two decades on, the only relic I had of Tak Tung was a small reproduction of a painting he had made of a bar scene in the Lan Kwai Fong night-life district. As I prepared to return for the first time since the autumn of 1997, I searched online and found only a painting of wine bottles sold at Christie’s a decade earlier and an ancient-looking website for an art school with the purple-palette logo I had come to stand beside now. No one answered my knocking.
He could have moved back to the mainland, emigrated to the West or, for all I knew, passed away. As a last-ditch effort, I took out a business card and scribbled on the back that I was in town and to please call or write. That is, I added, if he even remembered me. I slid the card under the locked door to his darkened studio and left.
So much had happened in the 20 years of Chinese rule — the SARS epidemic, creeping authoritarianism, the protest movement — I did not expect to recognize Hong Kong. Looking on Wikipedia before my wife, Rachel, and I left for the trip, I saw that 18 of the 20 tallest buildings in the city had been built since I departed. I could picture the modern skyscrapers as they rose, cloaked in canvas and the city’s traditional bamboo scaffolding.
But as we scanned Google Maps for hotels, I pointed out my old apartment on Lyndhurst Terrace, traced my finger along the path I used to take down to the ferry pier. Rachel noted that I remembered the street names from 20 years ago better, in some cases, than those in Crown Heights, where we have lived for three years.
Upon our plane’s descent into Hong Kong, I looked out the window onto cargo ships slowly plying through gray-green waters, the shipping containers like so many primary-colored Legos stacked on their decks and could see the dark masses of the outlying islands jutting up from the water. I found it all instantly recognizable.
Despite our extreme jet lag, I goaded us into a lengthy walking tour, each memory pushing me a few more steps, and the next sight leading to another memory. I showed Rachel the incense-filled Man Mo Temple and the stone wall trees, banyans whose sprawling gray roots clung to the faces of old retaining walls like dense webs. The rank markets of raw flesh and living sea creatures still defied the advances of sterile supermarkets. And when there was no answer at Tak Tung’s studio, I pushed us onward.
The Star Ferry chugged us across the harbor, cheap as ever, offering amazing views of the bristling forest of high-rises scaling Victoria Island. We disembarked and surged into the crowded insanity of Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon, on the mainland side, more densely packed than ever but the explosion of warm neon light largely extinguished in favor of cheaper LED. We plunged into the themed clusters of shops in nearby Mong Kok, touring the Goldfish Market, with thousands of colorful little fish swimming tiny circles in the rows and rows of plastic bags where they were displayed.
We saw Flower Market Street’s profusion of blossoms, including locally grown lilies and chrysanthemums. And we watched proud owners introduce their brightly plumed, squawking parrots at the Yuen Po Bird Garden.
This was a far cry from my old routine in Hong Kong. When I first arrived in the city, I discovered that I was working semi-legally at best, dispatched by hydrofoil to the Portuguese colony of Macau (now part of China) when my tourist visa was about to expire for a new stamp upon re-entry. The only room I could afford was hardly bigger than the single wooden-framed futon I slept on; once I put it down, the tiny bed filled the entire floor. My clothes hung on a pressure rod above my head so I could stand up only by pushing my shirts and slacks aside.
Instead of a shower there was a hole in the bathroom floor and a spray nozzle attached to the sink. The kitchen consisted of a single burner attached to a propane tank.
I did not spend a lot of time on Flower Market Street perusing fresh blossoms. I spent most of my time at the Globe. For anyone raised on back-to-back syndicated episodes of Cheers as I was, the Globe represented an ideal: not just an after-work hangout, but a lifeline in a new city, with a built-in group of friends.
One night we decided we didn’t know enough jokes so we required all customers to tell one before they could order a drink. We drew up lists of countries and cities each had visited for fun. Bets were settled with a paperback Guinness book, a dictionary and a complete works of Shakespeare. The darts matches went late into the night, and even when you had to wake him up for his turn, Tak Tung still hit the bull’s-eye.
One of my starkest memories was from the night of the handover fireworks display. We had propped open the door to the stairwell of a nearby office tower and expected one of the best unauthorized views in the city.
When the time came, we hiked the auxiliary staircase to the roof. But as the fireworks started, all we could see was a flickering halo around a dark rectangular silhouette. The hulking unlit mass of a skyscraper under construction, which had sprung up since the last fireworks display, eclipsed the light show for this political theater piece.
The handover was planned and choreographed far in advance, but the Asian Financial Crisis was pure improvised catastrophe. The magazine where I worked was Thai owned and after the baht collapsed they stopped paying us. I was evicted.
I had no recourse or safety net but the bartenders at the Globe, who adopted me. I found myself sleeping on the sofa of a kindly barmaid and her electrician boyfriend. As my financial position deteriorated, my beers were slipped surreptitiously on to the checks of rowdy bankers who were never the wiser.
By the time I visited this year, the Globe had shut down on Hollywood Road, but avid patrons had chipped in to reopen it around the corner. The old metal sign from outside had been salvaged and now hung on a wall inside. The signature painting of a map of the world presided over a nook filled with games and books. At the old Globe, meals were made — or should I say, cheese was melted — in a toaster oven. The new iteration was a full-on gastro pub with delicate fish and truffle polenta.
Rachel and I ate in Hong Kong as I never could have back when cut-rate scallion pancakes and cheap, filling McDonald’s value meals were all I could afford. We had Sichuan fried chicken and pork belly buns at Little Bao; dim sum at the traditional Luk Yu Tea House, with its wooden booths and ceiling fans; and black truffle dumplings at the Sohofama restaurant in the converted police barracks, the PMQ, now a hip mix of art, retail and dining in Hong Kong’s Soho neighborhood.
Short for “South of Hollywood Road,” I remembered Soho as a smattering of bars and mostly quiet restaurants near the giant series of escalators that eased the steep commute from the Mid-Levels. Now throngs of young people spilled out of the many locales, a group of young women in colorful wigs even drinking as one sat on a yellow fire hydrant. We had a couple of quick Gweilo Pale Ales at the local craft beer bar 65 Peel before succumbing to jet lag.
The next day, to escape the rain, we hopped one of the old trams and coasted along the busy waterfront all the way to North Point, where we watched thousands of maids from Indonesia and the Philippines picnic wherever there was shelter, under bridges and overpasses clogged with their day-off celebrations.
At the western end of the subway line in up-and-coming Kennedy Town, I toasted my old bartender friend Scott Wrayton at his new restaurant, Shoreditch. Scott, a small-town English boy, recalled arriving a quarter-century before in a neon city where the clouds shrouded the tops of the skyscrapers from view and thinking he had landed in the movie “Blade Runner.”
The change in the city’s skyline was most evident from the clamorous, ever touristier vantage of Victoria Peak. I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower, once a dominant feature on the island with its twin masts and white triangular patterns, was now easily lost among the many Goliaths that stood shoulder to shoulder in Central.
We had just finished eating egg tarts at Tai Cheong Bakery, as I puzzled over which fancy boutique had moved into the ground floor of my once-grimy old apartment house, when I received a WhatsApp message. “Hi Nick, I’m Tak Tung! So excited to see your name card! Are you in HK now?”
I arrived at his studio to find the door propped open. Wooden frames were stacked against the wall, along with a few brightly painted pink and blue canvases of flowers. Ng Tak Tung had round, black-framed glasses I didn’t remember and a white goatee now covered his chin. Despite the 20 years that had passed, he was instantly recognizable to me.
The name on the cover of the books of his paintings, however, was not. According to them, he was now Ng Chung. Then I understood why it had been so hard to trace him. He brought out two Cohibas to celebrate. We puffed on the Cuban cigars as I admired the books.
His assistant translated for us as we spoke and occasionally had questions of her own. “How did you talk to each other when you don’t speak Chinese?” she asked. I explained that we would draw on whatever we could find. As she related what I had said, he flipped through the books excitedly and pointed to reproductions of his sketches on the backs of beer coasters and scraps of paper, two nude women, a fish biting a finger, a scrawny youth who looked a little familiar.
I joked about how he was so good at hitting the bull’s-eye and he squeezed one eye shut and mimed holding a rifle. His aim was so good because he had been a crack shot in the People’s Liberation Army, including during skirmishes on the border with Vietnam.
His story began to pour forth, more complicated than I ever could have guessed. He came from a family of property owners and they had a difficult time during the Cultural Revolution. After military service he went to art school at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, where he met his wife, and followed her to Hong Kong.
Was his wife sick in those days, I asked, testing my memories; in the hospital even? Yes, she was. Did she speak English? Yes, she did.
As part of his artistic transformation, Ng Chung had abandoned his realist training and thrown himself into neo-Expressionism, sinking into Lan Kwai Fong’s dissolute bar scene like Toulouse-Lautrec into Montmartre. “He started off from this foreign place, discerned the feeling of alienation everywhere he went, and comprehended what loneliness and helplessness meant,” as one of the essays in the book put it.
Like me, he had only just moved to the city at the time. More than I understood then, our friendship sprang from a shared loneliness that neither of us had been able to articulate. He changed his name, he told me, to change his luck, to start fresh. He had found success — his paintings now belonged to the collections of major museums and he lived on the Peak, the aspirational address high above the city.
In the years after I left, the stories I told about this place were always fun and lighthearted, the dragon-boat races, Chinese dice games, Cantopop karaoke. Then I found an old leather-bound journal I had kept and was dumbfounded at the misery. Down and out wasn’t fun, getting rocked by a financial crisis didn’t feel like a roller coaster, losing your first job out of school, getting evicted and spending all your savings just to survive was romantic only in retrospect.
The city was too big, too expensive and too tough for me. What made it tolerable and, through the hazy tint of memory, a wonderful time, were the friends I made. Ng Chung led me down a back staircase, to a bar where they knew him as well as they used to know us at the Globe. His assistant left and we drank happily, as before, chattering away without comprehending the words but still understanding.