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9 Nov 2020

Street View: A sensory experience of Hong Kong

Having arrived in Hong Kong in August of this year, Chatteris’ own Jack Salmon reflects on his experience of this vibrant region.

Traditional neon signs light up this Kowloon street at night | Image by Luke Athow
Traditional neon signs light up this Kowloon street at night | Image by Luke Athow

Arriving in an unfamiliar and distant destination for the first time usually comes with a silent, internal commentary about the feelings and sensations you encounter upon arrival. I can only speak for myself, but I often feel that my senses are slightly more heightened in this scenario. Whether there is any scientific basis for this rather pedestrian hypothesis is for someone more qualified than I in that field, to answer. However, I think a lot of it boils down to the fact that it is much harder to take for granted, or make assumptions about, the environment in which you now find yourself.

When I learned that I was coming to live in Hong Kong, the anticipation around how this moment of arrival (for want of a better phrase) would manifest, began to build. Landing in a different country on the other side of the world, where you’re likely thousands of miles from anyone you know, is a daunting but uniquely liberating experience. At the risk of sounding somewhat abstract, my expectations for the moment of sudden realisation that I was actually here in Hong Kong were oddly specific. I envisaged being overwhelmed by the excitement, opportunity and freedom of it all, stepping off the plane wide-eyed and accompanied by an insatiable sense of curiosity. Picture a YouTube montage or travel video – that kind of thing. Even better if it’s set to music, non-copyrighted of course. 

One of Hong Kong's plethora of buzzing markets | Image by Jack Salmon
One of Hong Kong’s plethora of buzzing markets | Image by Jack Salmon

Whilst the wideness of my eyes was questionable given limited sleep on the flight over, and the excitement of rolling through the airport post-landing was hindered by the multiple Covid related checkpoints (seamless as it was), I did still feel present in a way that I think is harder to access during the day-to-day. Very little manifests exactly how you imagine it, so some discrepancies between expectation and the actual realisation of a particular moment should be allowed. Call it reality’s artistic licence. A particularly big dose of this was served when I learned my suitcase had been left in London, naming no names (@virginatlantic). 

Given my relative fixation on the arrival in Hong Kong, I hadn’t spent too much time considering everything else that was to follow, and how the environment would feel after acclimatising to operating within it on a daily basis (in a literal and metaphorical sense). It sounds very cliché, but Hong Kong is a sensory experience within its own right, and has an impact irrespective of any pre-existing conditions that may exaggerate your emotional or internal response to being here. This feeling is something that I’ve found (thus far) hasn’t really worn off! 

I’ve been in Hong Kong for three months now, which means I’m still in the interesting phase of simultaneously perceiving the city as my home, as well as a relatively new travel destination that I’m still in the process of exploring. I believe it is this duality that has prolonged the feeling of presence I referred to before. The day-to-day is existing within a different and non-conventional set of parameters that serve as a reminder of the uniqueness of the experience. Whilst inevitably the novelty of being in Hong Kong will at some point begin to wear off, the good news is all you have to do is take a wander outside of your 13th floor flat and take a big sniff of that unmistakable thick city air. It won’t be long before your nostrils are flooded with the scent of noodles, fish and sweet tarts all mixed in with the delicate smell of some nearby unemptied bins and sewage. 

Views of the city and mountains from Hong Kong Island| Image by Jack Salmon
Views of the city and mountains from Hong Kong Island| Image by Jack Salmon

If you think the range of the olfactory experience sounds impressive, you’ll be pleased to know that this diversity extends to the other senses too! Visually, Hong Kong is a place of stark contrasts, and not just between the glass, steel and concrete of the city and the rugged, lush greenery of the surrounding mountains. I’ll file my disclaimer now that I know essentially nothing about architecture, but luckily you don’t have to to appreciate the variety of the man-made marvels that dot and dissect the streets of Hong Kong. The city’s visual composition sits on several axes: modern versus old; eastern-influenced versus western-influenced; polished glass apexes versus unpainted concrete slabs. This ubiquitous confrontation is epitomised by the presence of summital cannons, which point accusingly in the direction of nearby buildings considered to have bad feng shui. 

Whilst the Island’s skyline is undoubtedly something to marvel at, there is an undeniable charm about Kowloon that makes it feel like the true soul of Hong Kong. The abundance of street food and markets, with the sounds and smells that come with the general buzz of the place, make strong cases for it claiming the stomach and heart too. Set against the unconventionally pleasing aesthetic of high rise concrete blocks draped with laundry and littered with air-con boxes, you get a real sense for the hive of activity that is unravelling above your head, as well as at street level. The city is alive in multiple senses of the word. 

Eager to explore and experience Hong Kong like Jack? Apply now to become a Chatteris tutor.

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