Hong Kong, they say, is an easy place to navigate. "Their MTR is amazing," they say. "You'll never get lost," they say. And yet every time I am go there, I do get lost. Hong Kong has no chill - in a good way. For somebody who is all chill, it's chaos. It's a chaos I've learned to love at an early age.
The first time I visited as an adult, my now-estranged BFF and I fought the entire time, over little things like "Where in the world is Soy Street?" I had a bad haircut and hated all our photos, and the only pair of shoes I brought hurt.
My next visit was my first trip alone and there was a typhoon. Victoria Harbour was chocolate brown, raging, almost like the Mekong on a good day. I got stuck in the hotel and almost missed my flight home because no cab would drive to the airport. A tree fell on a car. I stayed in the entire time.
Several visits later, I've gotten used to Hong Kong's oddball charm. Somebody always yells at me in public, mistaking me for someone who owes them something - without fail. I still can't navigate the city to save my life, but I've learned to enjoy getting lost.
Case in point: on my most recent visit, during which I stayed at the very well-placed Cordis Hotel at Langham Place which sent a very welcome basket of egg tarts to my room after checking in, I set out to hunt for vinyl records like I always do.
These little record-hunting expeditions of mine don't always go as planned well, more like never. This time around, I planned on visiting a place called Zoo Records on Nathan Road. Nathan Road is 3.6 kilometers.
I had to turn on my GPS to avoid wasting precious time. I arrived at President Commercial Center, a huge building that's hard to miss, at around 1 p.m. I know vinyl store shopkeepers are not early risers,there's one I go to in Makati that's rarely ever open - closed for NBA finals, closed for birthday of niece, closed because woke up late, so I thought coming after lunch would be a good idea.
I asked the lobby receptionist where Zoo Records is. He looked at me like I was out of my mind, so I looked for it myself. The shop, naturally, was closed. I came back at 4 p.m. Still closed.
I ended up in a small record shop with a nondescript second-floor entrance. I wasn't feeling so optimistic until I opened the door. When Doves Cry filled the place like buttery aural sunshine.
It was the day after Prince had passed away. The shop owner was blasting Prince hits from his super-impressive setup. There were about five customers in the room sifting through the records: four dad-like figures and myself. One of them bought "Purple Rain" - I salute the store for not inflating its price. I didn't buy anything but I went out feeling like the trip was worth it. It was a cool, solemn moment I shared with a bunch of Chinese strangers. You can't buy that.
That's the thing about being a stranger in a strange land. You get to bond with people over the oddest things, and then you never see them again. Like when I was walking down Argyle Street and stopped at a teashop that sold that tea with the "blooming" flower inside. I was told it'd been there forever. The lady handed her recommended tea over: "It's a beauty potion. Good for eyebags," she said. I did a real-life spit take. "It's okay, not for everyone," she laughed, and then gave me regular tea "for the road."
I sipped on it all the way to the Ladies Market, a treasure trove of familiar goods and memories of aching feet. It hasn't changed much, although I remember it being much more of a labyrinth. Behind the main street is a completely different look - where there were once stores of vintage clothing (a dress for $10), there stood an entire lane of shops that sold Stan Smiths and its hundred variations. Farther down the street are gadgets and electronics. Nothing looks familiar, save for the pavement. Wet, gray, stranger-friendly.
Other familiar things: that lone casino, the egg-waffle store that's always crowded, the flower market, the bird garden. Mongkok was a farming village, considered prosperous - now it's a market, a merging of past and present. Locals say if you want a taste of the real Hong Kong, plan your stay around Mongkok.
Cordis Hotel proved a convenient base; everything was within walking distance. I walked around with music on. I find that this helps me absorb the city better. In the same way that a perfume sears an event into memory, songs take me back to places I've wandered through. Now when I hear Wave of Mutilation, I will remember rushing back to the hotel for dinner and drinks, stinking like a sundrenched five-year-old.
Dinner at Michelin-starred Ming Court was epic. I will never, ever, say no to Chinese food. My favorite was the crab, served in a crabshell, on a silver crab plate. Crabception at its finest. Then the bartender at Alibi in Cordis served me a tito drink - something with a vodka and ginger beer, served in a sweaty copper tin mug. It was delicious. I had two.
In Hong Kong, the night is always young. After-drinks drinks were in order. I met up with a friend in Sheung Wan, at a bar that faced a sushi place, a closed massage parlor, and a stationary monk that everyone told us was a fake. Then I made a second attempt to see PMQ, which is always half-closed when I go, and it was again, as luck would have it. I cabbed it back to Mongkok and found that, at 2 a.m., it takes on its full market form. Fish, flowers, fruit, boxes upon boxes of all sorts of streets lined the road back home.
In my room I found a new very-welcome tray of goodies: three shot glasses that contained jelly beans, gummy bears and marshmallows, and three nail lacquers in Cordis Hotel's colors: orange, beige and black. I ordered room service to express my gratitude.
Mongkok, highly underrated, is the place to visit if you find yourself craving the real Hong Kong - not that any other part of it is less authentic, but Mongkok still has that old Hong Kong smell. You know that smell. Pavement, deep-fried street food, sweat. It's not unlike Manila at all, but you know it's of a different breed.
On the way back to Manila via Cathay Pacific, I enjoyed the peace and quiet of The Bridge and The Wing, havens for those who've already spent way too much to do any more shopping (or those too tired to do any more walking). After a noodle break and a generous serving of mango sticky rice, I am whisked to the plane for my return flight home, still kind of smelling like Mongkok , a welcome souvenir.