Sleepless Nights

Sunny is visiting from Manila. He lived in Hong Kong for 8 years, but left the city, and his bank job in 2005. He is my big-time food buddy. You know that saying about the Cantonese–that they’ll eat anything with four legs that isn’t a chair, anything with wings that isn’t an airplane? The truth is that most Hong Kong people I know are fussy eaters. Leung won’t eat shrimp or anything with fish sauce. He doesn’t like crabs, too much fuss. Ah Lan doesn’t like cheese. Anh-thu is–my god, the horror–a vegetarian. Only Sunny, the Filipino banker, will eat ANYthing. I mean anything. Everyone should have a friend who feels free to call you up and say, “Hey, I’m going to Sheung Wan for duck blood soup, and afterward we’re going to get some fried pig ear, wanna join me?”

Tonight’s a light night, for us–just a plate of lo seui ngo and some crispy-fried taro at Sheung Hing. Afterwards, I lead Sunny on a long, post-prandial hike back to my apartment the roundabout way, snaking up and down narrow stone stairs, then along my favorite little street, Tai Ping Shan Douh, and across the little “sitting out” catwalk that’s  behind and above Bridges Street. It’s Sunday, and silent. Heavy incense from the three temples on Tai Ping Shan, and from private houses fills the air with perfume. The roots of stately, ancient banyan trees drip across the sides of old Chinese buildings, tong laus. “You stand here,” I say, “And you can imagine what Hong Kong was like 40 years ago. I don’t think much has changed.”

“Yeah,” Sunny quips. “It’s probably next up on the ‘urban renewal’ list. It’ll be gone the next time I come back to visit.”

We descend to Bridges Street, and bam! Back to neon and boutiques, overpriced French and Italian food (there is now exactly one real Chinese restaurant left in Soho) and “civilization”, aka “Urban Lifestyle District”. I know it is civilization because the real estate shops (which, in Soho, now outnumber laundries and even 7/11’s) have all of their signs posted in English. And the signs are not favorable.

“Jeez, $15,000 for 370 square feet? What are they thinking?” says Sunny.

It’s boom-boom time in Central. Real estate in my neighborhood is through the roof because few or none of the Western newcomers to Soho is paying his rent with “real” money. As Sunny explains to me, the big financial corporations usually give their expat workers a housing allowance. “I had one when I was working for XXX investment bank. I lived in the most gorgeous apartment I will ever live in, in my entire life. It was way too much, it cost $30,000 a month. But I had to spend the allowance on housing, or else I’d lose it altogether.”

Interesting. I’d never thought of this before. What a boon to the Hong Kong island property cartel– 200,000 expats with non-transferable housing allowances! Meanwhile, because expats tend to cluster in neighborhoods with other expats, the per-square-foot price of certain Hong Kong areas–Soho, MidLevels, Causeway Bay, Star Street, Happy Valley–is soaring, boosted by this foreign “funny money”. I’m afraid to speak any more, because my rent level is pre-boom, and I’m superstitious. On the other hand, the texture and local life that drew me to this neighborhood has pretty much disappeared. I have to skip down remote back alleys on Sunday nights to find a hint of it. Not to mention put up with the clatter and commotion of new construction and renovation by day, drunk rugby fans by night.

And what about the housing situation of Hong Kong citizens? Lately I have been scouting around outlying nabes (Sai Ying Pun, Tin Hau, Tai Hang, Shau Kei Wan) looking at flat prices…just in case…and I’ve rarely come across anything posted that is renting for less than 30 dollars a square foot. Or selling for under 2.8 million HKD. (And the ads I’m checking are only in Chinese, no English). Yet there are lots and lots of Hong Kongers–taxi drivers, for instance– making only 10 or 15,000 a month. How can anyone afford to rent a flat, much less buy one?

With the district elections coming up, it’s becoming au courant for HK politicos to concern themselves with the housing and economic squeeze that Hong Kong’s regular folks are suffering, during this time of crazy money. In fact, there’s a bit of a real estate “boom” in the making at the low end, as politicians scramble to experience the grassroots lifestyle for themselves. This past week, DAB vice-chairwoman (and corporate managing director) Ann Chiang Lai-Wan bunked down with a family in the blighted Tin Shui Wai district. Well, she stayed on the sofa in their public housing flat for one night, anyway, before fleeing to the Harbour Plaza, a nearby luxury hotel. “If I don’t get enough sleep, how can I study the problems of the district?” she told reporters.

Indeed. Meanwhile, in Chai Wan, our erstwhile DAB-endorsed candidate for LEGCO, Regina Ip, spent a night with a family in a public housing estate, to personally investigate the residents’ complaints that noise from the nearby MTR train was disturbing their sleep. Ip did manage to survive the entire night–but to be fair to Ann Chiang, she did have her own private bedroom

(the family’s daughter, in a very haak hei gesture, relinquished her room to the distinguished guest and former Security Secretary.)

With all the politicians rushing to slum it in Hong Kong’s housing estates, it’s worthwhile to remember that there is one–and only one–prominent local politician who doesn’t need any help in locating a public housing estate flat to “investigate”…

Hey, maybe Long Hair should invite some of his DAB colleagues in the Legislative Council for a sleep-over. But they will have to bring their own teddy bears.

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