In March and April 2014 I went on the “trip of a lifetime” (this is what my boss who begrudgingly gave me time off called it at least) from Beijing down to China. It was supposed to be with my mother, who would show me where she grew up (Hong Kong) and also to visit China for the first time. She wasn’t allowed into China. I later met her in Hong Kong. Here is the tale of our reunion.
We took a night train from Guilin to Shenzhen, the city at the end of China. Where the first night train that we got on the tour, from Beijing to Luoyang, pleasantly surprised me with its relative comfort and quiet, though less than optimal toilet facilities, the train to the end of China was much louder, smokier and dirtier. Someone dumped a whole bowl of noodles into the sink, which then became increasingly filled with toothpaste and spittle, but not soap, as the Chinese rarely use soap I found out.
The whole group were tired and on the brink of illness by Hong Kong, and that miserable night only made the situation worse. The last thing that you want when you think you’re coming down with a cold (maybe not the last thing) is a throat full of second hand smoke which has been inhaled over the course of several hours.
The train left at about 11pm so we got into bed quite quickly. The conductor was much less of an authoritarian than our previous conductor. Having a conductor with an authoritarian edge seems to be the way to go.
It was a 13 hour trip and, although we slept for most of it, with the bonus of doing this horizontally – the conditions of third class beggars belief #FirstWorldProblems – it still felt overlong. I was excited to finally reuinte with mother after all this time, and was particularly looking forward to saying goodbye to the group.
The border crossing was laborious, mostly down to queues and my cumbersome luggage choices, but quite straight forward. They scrutinised my passport for a hot second but let me through swiftly.
I needed the toilet since I left the train but held off until we were in Hong Kong. And what a choice it was! Toilets with seats! Locks on the doors! Toilet paper!! What luxury.
Several groups of school children passed us. Well dressed people passed us. We made our way to the MTR.
MTR platforms are very ordered. Train stations in China were borderline harrowing, with hordes of people fighting over the little space and cages of chicken and drums of oil being as acceptable a luggage item as a briefcase or vanity bag. I realise the MTR isn’t a mainline train station and I never tried the Chinese underground, but the little boxes on the platform telling you where to wait are far and away more orderly than anything that I witnessed in China. I got into trouble on several occasions for not standing correctly in the station. Even England is barbaric compared to Hong Kong.
I got a seat quite separate from the group. I was glad. I thought and watched as the New Territories hurtled past us and the buildings grew denser. The train got more full with people who looked more sprightly and Westernised than the mainland Chinese. Writing was in English and Chinese, as were announcements.
We got off at Yau Ma Tei. I wished there was a lift out of the station, trudging along with difficulty.
The hotel was around the corner. I was told that mother was already checked in. And thank goodness! It was a growing concern during the journey that she and I may never meet again. But here she was, just nine floors up.
I burst into the room and she was making tea, having clearly had plenty of time to set up camp already. We had half an hour to kill before meeting the group again. I showered, and it was by far the best shower of the trip. And best hotel. It was fortunate that this came at the end of trip, making it feel like somewhat of a reward. For the people doing the Hong Kong to Beijing trip, they certainly would have peaked too early and be left disappointed by the rest of the accommodation.
We met the others and walked to Victoria Harbour. We had a few group photos and were then given free time. Mother and I decided to go to the Peak, the others wanted to wander round Kowloon.
Three hours free time.
Star Ferry across the water.
A 45 minute wait time for the tram to the Peak. We would not be going to the Peak today.
Instead we went to the park, which was a well landscaped (without having too much landscape) urban park. There were turtles.
A wander and a catch up. Mother’s accommodation for her two weeks in Hong Kong hadn’t been great. She decided that she didn’t like the city much, far preferring the countryside. She had managed to get to the country a few times but could still see buildings so didn’t consider it a true enough countryside experience.
We couldn’t find the MTR, a problem that we were to have again two days later, so walked back to Star Ferry and back up to the hotel.
We were an hour late.
The final dinner with the group was one of the best of the trip. Our guide was grateful that mum was there as he couldn’t speak Cantonese and she could. The Cantonese fare was not unlike a lot of the Chinese food that you have in Britain, and people seemed to like it, even if they thought it not spicy enough. We did peaks and pits, and the unanimous peak was the Great Wall of China. Pits varied and were inconsequential.
We said goodbye. The guy from the group said that he could see where I got my good looks from (mother). He is married now. I saw one of the other girls the next day in the lift, and we said goodbye forever again.
For the remaining three days in Hong Kong our hotel was to be in Quarry Bay on Hong Kong Island: a “4* hotel”, as mother kept bragging. We hauled our stuff across Kowloon, the MTR and up to Quarry Bay.
It was a snazzy hotel, but I preferred our Kowloon hotel. The room was bigger, the shower nicer, and there was free wifi. The cost of wifi at this hotel was £30 a day. Crazy.
Prices in Hong Kong (food, transport) are more expensive than China but still a heck of a sight less than England. A dim sum feast for two for £20 is hard to come by.
Before our trek to Hong Kong Island we returned to the same restaurant that we had visited for the final group dinner. Mother got chatting to a sole female diner next to us who said that we needed to order an extra dish because it was some sort of death holiday. We did and were quite full (this was pre-my glutton life).
After dumping our stuff at the new hotel, showering, and having many cups of tea, we went to a nunnery. It was a newish nunnery, but still had its charms. It was made to look much older than it was, so the charm was in its deceit. There was a nice garden next to it. Mother was dressed like a crazy person. She commented on how it was such a shame that high rises were billowing from everywhere.
“What a nice mountain that should be.”
We hung around in a shopping mall to steal wifi.
We went back to Kowloon to explore the Ladies Market and Temple Street Market. I got a silk kimono from the Ladies Market, which I have since seen in several markets in London and also once on the hit Showtime show Californication. Sometimes all I want is to be unique.
A dinner of crispy seafood noodles was had at a dai pai dong. This is one of my favourite meals in the world and I had high hopes for real Hong Kong. Young Cheng in London remains my restaurant of choice for crispy seafood noodles.
Two tourists came up to us.
[Slowly] “Do you know where Temple Street Market is?”
Mum (who has an English accent and speaks perfect English, quite contrary to what her face may suggest): “Ladies Market is better. I got this [tacky] top from there.”
One of them [slowly]: “Temple Street Market.”
The other: “Oh. I wasn’t too impressed with Ladies Market….”
Me: (considered mentioning the impressive stretch of sex toys along one street; decided against it) “You just go down this street, carry on for about two minutes and you’ll see it on both sides. You can hardly miss it.”
Them (clearly pleased that they could communicate with the Chinese so well): “xiexie”
Swing and a miss. As English people, we had communicated to them in perfect English. Also, everyone knows that thank you in Cantonese is “mhgoi”.
There is a nightly light show at the Victoria Harbour at 8pm. Do go along.
Used some wifi from the 7-Eleven across the street from the hotel. Used the gym. Then went to sleep on one of the most comfortable beds I have ever had the pleasure of lying upon. Four star, baby!
The next day was pretty much the whole reason for coming on this trip: we were going back to where my mum grew up. I was excited and nervous and quite unprepared for just how long the journey there would be.
MTR to Fanling. Mum suggested we got some more real dim sum here. There used to be markets in Fanling where my grandmother used to sell produce. All of this was gone. In its place is a “soulless” mall. There were a fair few restaurants but only one dim sum place which was – unsurprisingly, especially considering it was a Sunday (family day) – rammed. We took a ticket and waited, only to be seated far more promptly than initially anticipated.
We made some faux pas when ordering, though the exact details escape me. The other people on the table (you get seated where there are seats) were kind enough to point out our flaws. Chinese people are often only nice when they are able to show either how you or wrong or how they are better than you. The dim sum was phenomenal. Cantonese food will always be a cuisine that I hold dearly.
Next a bus. Then another bus. (We got on the wrong bus first. I am so grateful that I was with someone that could speak Cantonese).
Sing Ping village.
From what my mother had described throughout my life, I had expected something far more rural. I think I had pictured the countryside from My Neighbour Totoro, which was, fun fact!, the first film that I ever saw. This was not My Neighbour Totoro, it was a rather unattractive Hong Kong village.
Mother commented that it had become rather industrialised since she last came, which meant that there were now a few more telephone poles and buildings.
The house that she grew up in was still there. Her brother owns the land around it so she thought we would have a mooch. There was a community group there having an event which she was outraged about (my aunt was also outraged when I told her) though I thought it was nice that the land was still in use.
There are two houses on the plot: her family home and her uncle’s home. Her uncle has been dead for a while but his wife still lives there. Mother said that we should say hello. The aunt answered the door and they had a curt conversation in Cantonese (which sounds rather curt even when expressing the most tender of sentiments) on the doorstep. We were in the pouring rain. The aunt and mother did not get along. They abruptly said goodbye and we went to explore her childhood home.
In the mid-1990s, one of my aunts suggested that they got air conditioning as comfort was king as we approached the millennium, and it has remained so ever since. The air con was fitted by “a cowboy” and shortly after installation it went up in smoke. My grandfather has held it against that aunt ever since. He is quite a bitter man.
It was the first time that mother had seen the house since its fire. She looked sad, then angry that it looked to be purely cosmetic, rather than structural, damage and could have quite easily been fixed were it not left for twenty years.
We looked in the windows. Ruins.
We opened the door to the kitchen. Poor safety but great for intrigue.
Mother told me a few stories from her childhood, which I can’t remember specifically.
I was struck by how small the house was, particularly as they had five children. We walked around the gardens. I went to the toilet in a port-a-potty (still better than most toilets in mainland China) and mother was annoyed that there was a port-a-potty in her childhood garden.
She pointed out that where the community event was going on used to be a pig shed. She hid there once when she tried to run away from home. Could have tried harder on that front. Running away to the front garden isn’t really much of a statement.
Next she showed me the area that used to be her family’s land, but was now owned by other people and technically meant that we were trespassing. The land wasn’t as big as I had thought that it would be; maybe growing up in Kent has given me a skewed view of what land plots should be.
While walking around in the rain, as guard dogs barked and residents wondered who we were, mother described the fun that she had in her childhood her. I wouldn’t call my mother a very sentimental person, but as she described the happy memories from her childhood I could hear, for one of only a few times in my life, that maybe she felt some regret. She moved over to the UK when she was 13, where she lived in a bedsit (surely there should have been some child protection thing?). Her older sister had moved before her, and mother decided that she would have better education and employment opportunities, so she left her ancestral home and her family for a new life overseas where she led, from what I can tell, a life that was quite fractured from her siblings, but for whom she sacrificed a lot for.
She isn’t close to them at all now, but until her older sister got married, they remained quite good friends. After 40 years, the UK is definitely her home. She says she doesn’t miss Hong Kong at all and wouldn’t visit again. It has changed to much, she says. She may not miss Hong Kong as it is now, but I could definitely see that there is a nostalgia for her old village that she still feels, even if she can’t admit it to herself.
This whole experience was quite emotional for both of us. As Aziz Ansari put very well in an episode of Master of None, the children of first generation immigrants rarely think about what their parents have been through. I absolutely cannot comprehend what kind of life my mother lived before I was born. I can’t imagine growing up in this village (though when I was born mother asked her mother if she could look after me, to which she was told that this could only happen if I was sent to Hong Kong, meaning that this could have been my life), I can’t imagine leaving my family at such a young age, I can’t imagine having independence thrust upon me at 13, I can’t imagine having to go to school somewhere where I didn’t speak the language at all, and I can’t imagine having to make so many sacrifices for family all through my teens and twenties.
My understanding of and relationship with my mother has changed since this visit, and my respect for her has grown exponentially. I – and many people my age – am quite a self-involved person, and I am incredibly grateful tat her sacrifices have allowed me the freedom to lead my self-indulgent lifestyle.
We went to the ancestral grave, where mother said she used to swim.
We wandered around the sad village some more.
Mother wondered out loud whether her mother’s best friend still lived in the village. We went to her house and knocked on her door. She wasn’t there, but her daughter was and said that we could wait. We waited. They came. Cantonese chatter. I ate soup. Then more soup. Cantonese chatter. We were given some type of..I’d like to say sweet, but whatever it was, it was the least pleasant thing that I have ever eaten. They gave us some mushrooms and tea, all of which were out of date. I took photos of them and was mildly upset that they didn’t comment on how good looking I was, which had been a feature of interaction with Chinese people throughout my life. Thinking about it, I probably looked awful at the time.
Journey back to Hong Kong Island. Sauna. Sleep. I dreamed about the mattress.
There is a free bus from the hotel to Central, and on the free bus there is free wifi. I sent emails and admired the skyline.
We went to the Peak. There was a queue, but it wasn’t as bad as the queue from two days beforehand. The tram is quite steep. The walks around the Peak are nice, and, after two weeks of many hikes, it felt good to be back among nature after a few days in the city. It was moderately foggy. I expect on a sunny day the views are quite stunning.
Chinese desserts are underrated. My favourite Chinese dessert is the custard tart (a Portuguese dessert..). There is a shop atop the Peak that a Hong Kong politician apparently goes to where they sell exceedingly good custard tarts. The base is cookie rather than the usual filo (is it filo?) but they are filled deeply and sumptuously and come in several flavours.
We went to the zoo and the park and I got frustrated at how poorly signposted the MTR is.
Packing. Wandering. Travelling to the airport.
My flight was delayed. Mother’s flight was fine, so off she went. There was potentially going to be a 24 hour delay, and they would tell us more in 5 hours. They got me on a flight with another airline, Finnair, who I would wholeheartedly recommend that you avoid unless you enjoy no legroom and a poor movie selection.
The arrival to Helsinki is beautiful.
There ended my China excursion. I was exhausted. And grateful that mother didn’t manage to get into China. Four days in Hong Kong with her was quite enough, and China would have been the living end for her. The universe works in mysterious ways.
Peak: Great Wall of China / Sing Ping village
Pit: the second night, where I thought that mother would throw all of her money at this trip and end up stranded / Hong Kong airport