To the bit of my heart I left in Hong Kong

8 minute read

I remember the car journey from the airport to the centre of the city. By the end of the first day, I had a crick in my shoulder, from instinctively looking up to find the tops of buildings I could not see. I was coming from Kolkata, after all - a much shorter and fatter city.

View towards Victoria Harbour from Tsim Tsha Tsui
View towards Victoria Harbour from Tsim Tsha Tsui Tall buildings dressed in glass. One side of Hong Kong.

I remember another ride, on a bus this time, to the Tai O fishing village, and feeling transported to a different world, far away from the tall buildings dressed in glass. Here there were villages and shops selling sea-food that I had never seen before. Was this really less than an hour away from the city? I would later discover that the tall buildings were just one facet of the place - about 70% of the region is forested land!

Seafood store at the Tai O Fishing Village
Seafood store at the Tai O Fishing Village featuring inflated pufferfish above the door.

I remember the first time I went to the CUHK campus, at first loving the fact that I would be spending one-and-a-half months in that green campus on that hill. Almost immediately, though, I remember loathing the fact that I had to trudge up the same hill, dragging a heavy suitcase on steep footpaths on a warm and sweaty summer day. It reminded me of Kolkata, the heat and the sweat.

The Ho-Sin Hang Engineering Building
The Ho Sin-Hang Engineering Building that houses the Institute of Network Coding, my workplace for the summer.

I also remember how I was looking at a map on the street corner, trying to figure out where the room I was going to stay in was, and the kind elderly lady who appeared, asking me what I was looking for. She then walked with me, in the opposite direction to where she was originally going, into random buildings and even more random elevators, until she put me on the road to iHouse, block 3, and ensuring that I could get back to the place where she had found me. We talked on the way. She said that people new to the campus often get lost. I would learn over time.

In a couple of weeks, I could walk up from the metro station at the bottom of the hill to iHouse, where I lived, and from there to the Ho Sin-Hang Engineering Building, where I worked, taking all the possible short-cuts through buildings and the elevators there-in and not even being out of breath. The campus had adopted me. Revealed to me her secrets. The elderly lady on the first day had made me feel like home; this made the place feel home.

I remember going to one of the many canteens on campus on one of those first few days, walking past the densely forested slopes, accompanied by my parents. I remember looking at a sign that said that the canteen was for students and employees of the university only. I remember asking the person at the counter whether my parents could also come in, but her not understanding English beyond whatever was on the menu, and the man who walked up to me, asked me what the issue was, and when he heard me, who gave me a big smile and said ‘But of course everyone is welcome!’ and then proceeded to explain to me all the meal plans that I could avail at that place. 

I remember exploring different kinds of food at the many canteens on campus, trying real Chinese cuisine for the first time. You know I grew up in Kolkata, and my liking for chowmein and chilli chicken or fried rice and chicken manchurian. I had heard that Chinese food in China is nothing like Indian Chinese. Very true, that. What I had also heard was that if you like Indian Chinese, you won’t like Chinese Chinese. I completely disagree! You know how I loved every single dish I had there, including a very hot chicken dish that came with a free litre (!) of Coca Cola to make it bearable. I also learned to use chopsticks, so much so that by the end of my stay, having chowmein was easier using chopsticks as compared to a spoon and fork.

Spicy chicken
Spicy chicken with a litre of Coca Cola on the side. I absolutely needed the Coca Cola!

You also know how eagerly I waited for mooncakes to hit the shelves as I was approaching my last few days in the city, and how fulfilled I felt after buying the two cases as they came to the stores just on the day before I left.

Mooncakes! The mooncakes came in this beautiful box. Kee Wah had a store at the airport stuffed to capacity with them.

I remember being naïve and thinking I could ‘pick up’ some Cantonese while staying there, and my disappointment at discovering how different and therefore complicated the language is. You know how I found out about name seals, and how on one of my weekend trips I sought out the small, telephone-booth like shops along Man Wa Lane, Sheung Wan that sold them, getting my name translated and getting one made for myself.

Name Seals
Name seals On the left, my name seal and a porcelain ink pad containing a vegetable dye. On the right, the nice old gentleman who made it for me. His fast and precise movements were a joy to watch.

I remember how, after my parents left after us enjoying the city for a week and also celebrating my mother’s birthday, I left every weekend to explore the city. It was the first city I really roamed around alone. Every weekend I left iHouse, walked down the hill to the metro and travelled to the middle of the city, seeking out something I had read about the day before on Google and found interesting. While coming back my phone would be almost out of charge, and I would need to know which metro stop to get down at and the way back to my room because Google couldn’t help me any more. I can now take my phone and travel fearlessly, cheaply and conveniently to any part of a modern city, having since done so in both Paris and Washington DC.

I somehow also love how I have recounted so many happy memories without even mentioning the research group I was part of, the amazing advisor I had there and what my time in the city means to me academically. You know how I had only recently changed my research area from quantum computation to classical information theory, and how stressed I was about the switch. You know how very happy I was when I finally had an academic internship for the summer of 2018. The time in Hong Kong not only gave me a wonderful advisor whose recommendation letter and general guidance made navigating graduate school applications and finally getting and deciding on an offer a much smoother experience but the papers I wrote directly based on the work I did there helped my applications a lot. You know how I used to be iffy about embarking on a PhD, but how one conversation with Sid gave me the confidence that I wouldn’t feel like a fish out of water while doing my PhD. We went on research meetings on the beaches, enjoyed Chinese food at restaurants recommended by my advisor there and so on - there’s a lot!

Research meeting at the beach
Be-search We had research meetings at the beach, which we ended up calling Be-search. This photo was taken at the Cheung Chao beach. My be-search talk on zero-error information theory and the Lovasz theta function was in progress when this large labrador decided it was an interesting topic. When we stopped to watch him, he moved on to the football, which didn’t last long.
Institute of Network Coding
Institute of Network Coding featuring my weird smile.

I grew up travelling to and from school on the Kolkata metro hearing frequent comments about how I should carry my bag differently, and even how schoolchildren with heavy bags on a crowded metro were an inconvenience. I can now contrast that with the day I left the city, carrying two heavy suitcases on the metro during rush hour, half expecting someone to tell me I couldn’t carry them, or to berate me for doing so. I don’t know whether I didn’t overhear any stray comments simply because I don’t understand the language, but you know what, I will go out on a limb and say that there were none. It seems in line with my other experiences in the city. It felt like a pat on the back, a last bit of understanding, a last memory to cherish.

I now read about the turmoil the city is going through for months now, and I remember all of these memories. I see protesters. I see university campuses under siege. I see pictures of roads that I know blocked and tear gas shells flying over fields that I have walked past. I feel like people I know are in the crowds of people I see on the news. Maybe they are. When I also see videos about people recording goodbye messages to their loved ones, not knowing what the government’s reaction might be, I feel scared. But some part of me also feels proud that some people somewhere in the world are standing up for their rights.  I feel concern for the well-being of the friends I made in my few weeks in the city, and the places and institutions I got to know. It feels like another lesson from the city, even though I am now miles away - making me realise, for the first time in my life, that the crowds protesting are made of people, and are not just faraway masses in faraway places.

I hope you are well. I hope the city resolves its problems and remains as welcoming as it was to me when I washed up on its shore for the first time. I hope that I can recognise the city when I get an opportunity to go back there and reconnect with you.

You, the bit of my heart that I lost on the streets of Hong Kong.

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