Hong Kong: Opposite City

I came to Hong Kong at the suggestion of a friend. He billed it as follows in an email:

“Perfect balance of clean/dirty, shady/straight, exotic/familiar.”

That’s actually a pretty good way to summarize it. And in a perfect case of right place/right time, work brought him to town in the middle of my trip, which meant that I had someone familiar to explore the exotic with.

And that we did.


As if to illustrate Hong Kong’s duality, we followed our day of hiking with a stroll through a night market in Mong Kok. We weren’t looking for anything in particular, but when we happened upon a stall of handmade, pop-up greeting cards, my friend remembered that he needed to get one for a wedding.

“Don’t get the American one,” I said, swatting the three-tiered white wedding cake with a traditional bride and groom topper out of his hand. “This is China.* Get the red one.”

“The red one?” he asked. “You think?”

“Definitely the red one!” I yelled with the subtlety of someone who has never been to a market. “I mean, the red one is the only one worth buying. Clearly. In fact, if we don’t leave with the red one, I’ll lose my mind.”

That speech is an exaggeration, but not by much. And upon hearing it, the woman selling the cards decided that the one “we” picked was HKD $70.

The look my friend gave me seemed to say, “Why are you like this?” Actually, you don’t have to imagine it because I have a photo of him doing it earlier in the day.

Side note: Don’t get excited. We weren’t on a date. And don’t try to argue with me and say that it probably was and I just didn’t realize it. Because despite not knowing how to “talk quietly” or “buy a greeting card,” I do know when I’m being taken out. But I understand why you’d have your doubts so consider this: He brought his co-pilot along. (Literally.)

Anyway. Eventually, my friend talked the woman down to $40, which is a little over $5 US. It was expensive as far as greeting cards go, but he bought it anyway because, like I said, it was pretty much the best card in the world.

“Wow, you really overpaid, huh?” I sighed as we walked away. “That’s too bad.”

Because my friend is patient, all he said was, “Could you put this in your bag, please? And don’t let me forget it?”

But he did forget it. Because that’s what happens when someone (me) steers the group into a nightclub that’s equipped with both a fog machine and a stripper pole. It was hours later, with Katy Perry blaring from the speakers and smoke pouring out of the DJ booth, that he properly complained about the price of the card.

“I wouldn’t feel bad,” I said. “That lady didn’t give you much room – starting at $70 like that.”

“Because of you!!” he yelled. “She started at $70 because of YOU!”

And I really thought this was uncharitable of him since, first of all, I picked the card, which, again, was beautiful. And also because I had just spent the previous 12 hours graciously demonstrating how not to do things in Hong Kong for him and his co-worker. If it weren’t for me, those two would have been touring island after island just catching every bus on time and reading all the trail maps correctly. Most likely, without me in the picture, everyone’s bank card would still be fully functional and no one would have had a reason to produce a stack of paper towels from a handbag. And they probably definitely would have made the final train back to their hotel instead of rolling up to the station just as the gates closed for the night.

And where’s the fun in that?

As we said our goodbyes in the cab line, I used my last ounce of clarity to remember that I was carrying around a high-priced greeting card that didn’t belong to me. It was a pretty impressive move, considering the circumstances. In fact, when you think about it, I kind of saved my friend $5 because if I didn’t remind him to take the card, he would have had to buy a second one at the airport on the way home.

So, basically, we’re even now. If anything, he owes me a thank you. A formal one. Perhaps in the form of an ornate, handmade card.

*Not really.

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