Postcard from Kowloon

Din and distraction in Hong Kong

By / September 2015

Near midnight one night this summer, I walked through the Ladies Market in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district. I say I walked. I hardly moved. Nobody did. The market, even at that late hour, was a crush of people. Families, mostly. But groups of teenagers and elderly couples, too, all out shopping when they should have been sleeping, all out in the street when they should have been in.

It was the middle of the night but it might have been the middle of the day. The market was bathed in the pink and orange and the polychromatic light of stacked neon signs.

It was awful and it was absorbing, a flagrant commercial free-for-all. Tung Choi street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, was lined with tables of glossy faux-leather wallets purportedly from Coach, Gucci, and Prada. There were stalls crammed with electronic gadgets, trinkets, bags, balls, toys. The big crowd gave the illusion of anonymity. But the hawkers, they had their eyes out for easy sells.

I knew I was inching into a tourist trap, one of the worst in the world, but even so, I wanted, for some inscrutable reason, a souvenir. When my attention fell on a stack of paintings, I was swarmed. “Discount for you,” I heard a voice say between snatches of Cantonese.

The art was going for 200 Hong Kong dollars a pop. I offered 150. The woman running the stall shook her head and sighed with great theatricality. I offered 170 and she forked over the canvas, a picture of the Hong Kong skyline and harbor, not beautiful but not bad either. It might have been a rip off but the haggling had made it feel like a bargain. And, besides, who could say in this liminal space and time where everything, even the hour, seemed hazy and askew?

Up ahead of me, I saw a toddler wobbling toward a window full of fancy-looking shoes. Where were the parents? I was having trouble hearing myself think. Along with the hum of the patrons and the persistent calls of the hawkers, tinny Chinese pop music poured from loudspeakers while, down at street level, buskers strummed guitars and pounded on drums.

I shouldered in the direction from whence I had come, passing shop after shop after shop after shop, never less alone in my whole life and yet, for all that, still alone amidst the drumming noise and the bright, bright lights. With ever increasing urgency, I creased through the crowd, anxious to escape with my painting, with my sanity, back out into the Hong Kong night.


 Debbie Porter is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.