The 7 People You’ll Find at Every Hong Kong Gym

WARNING: May cause butthurt. Not in the booty-building kind of way.

1. The #hkgirl
She draws death stares from other women in her strappy-sports-bra-and-booty-shorts ensemble. She may not be able to fill out her Lululemons—but she’s totally owning that #thighgap.

2. The Gweilo
He can bench more than you and he’s just buffer and taller and handsomer than you in general. He grew up on grass-fed steak while you’ve been grain-fed all your life. Get over it.

3. The Ogler
He pays hundreds of dollars a month for a weekly first row seat in the spinning room to secure a close-up of the Caucasian instructor’s cleavage. Worth. Every. Cent.

Is that sweat? Or saliva? The Ogler always keeps you guessing.

4. The Know-It-All
You can count on this guy for unsolicited advice. You’d be an idiot if you didn’t listen to him yammer on about why you shouldn’t let your knees go past your toes when squatting. You can also count on him to spot you: he’ll do most of the work for you, because you’re struggling, obviously.

5. The Mr Hong Kong
He is all pecs and no glutes. He models in the centre of the open area, holding a barbell casually in one hand like it’s a stick of bamboo. You may think he’s checking out the girls stretching in front of the mirror—but really he’s just admiring his fresh undercut.

The One-Hand Barbell Hold: the ultimate courtship display.

6. The Hong Kong “Fit” Girl
She’s well-versed in BodyPump, yoga, TRX, pilates, kick-boxing, piloxing—you name it, she’s done it. She can neither do full push-ups or unassisted pull-ups, but prefers to keep it this way, or her Mr Hong Kong might get jealous.

7. The Foam Roller
She’s sitting on the floor with outstretched legs, eyes glued to her smartphone, upper back inhumanly rounded. Text neck? What “text neck”? See that foam roller tucked under her calf? It’s called “being healthy”.

The Foam Roller knows the importance of relieving muscular tension more than the average gym-goer.














For Starters (Part 8)

Read: For Starters (Part 7)

And malls, according to a local YouTube beauty guru, are the best places to spend Christmas in Hong Kong. “The Landmark, IFC, Hysan Place, and the Pacific Place are my top picks”, she said in her “8 Ways to Spend Christmas in Hong Kong” video. As if Hong Kong wasn’t busy enough as a world of its own, Christmastime malls are home to elaborate polymer-covered worlds complete with transport infrastructure, housing, shops, recreational facilities, and figurines. One Christmas, the Landmark wooed shoppers with a complex structure of wire tracks and racing multicoloured balls extending from the ground floor. I was stood by the balustrade, watching, like everyone else. Took me right back to Physics 101. Not very Christmasy, but I was mesmerised by how the balls stopped rolling, only to be carried to the next track to start racing again. It went on and on until the Landmark powered off the display, much to everyone’s disappointment. Another year, the Landmark built a snow-covered town in the same spot. Everyone kept their eyes on the electric toy train that circled the town, some tracing its tracks with camera phones. White cottages and street lamps were alive with yellow lights while plastic residents ventured out for Christmas shopping. Miniature pine trees overlooked streets that were virtually empty, against the background of a festive soundtrack playing on loop. The Landmark has outdone itself in capturing Christmas. “Half the best places to spend Christmas in Hong Kong are in malls”, I lamented in the response I posted to the video. “Maybe you should leave Hong Kong if you’re too good for mall Christmases”, a fellow viewer replied. Tempting.

Maybe that’s why Jules and I found ourselves in Taipei, wandering from one massive multi-storey stone monument to another. We saw the same bakeries, bookstores, clothing labels, the same crowds, over and over again. A heavy shower broke our pattern, and it dawned on us that a typhoon could be just around the next mall. When one day Jules did have class, I ventured out into the city myself, but retreated back into my suite after a middle-aged, pot-bellied man in a neon orange polo shirt began following me on his motorcycle near the train station. “Miss! Miss!” He tried to get my attention. “Can I have your number?” I ran into the station as he struggled to keep his bike at a reasonable pace. After the ordeal, I never left the room without Jules. By the end of the week, we decided would not hurt to stay in since the suite, though minimalistic, was roomy. While Jules was away, I either jumped rope or did five cartwheels in a row from the window to the door to keep myself sane.

Although most of the time, we enjoyed playing house, Jules couldn’t last ten minutes without snoring, and left me lying in the cold when he swaddled himself with the blanket. Other times, he felt like a six-foot long radiator that wouldn’t switch off. So much for a romantic getaway. “When we get a place of our own, promise me we’ll get two blankets”, I said, after another cold, sleepless night. Other times, we did the laundry together with the small bottle of laundry detergent I’d brought in my backpack, and took care of our own meals. By that, I mean we ordered lots of takeouts and ate in front of a black TV screen. Given the occasion, sex was mandatory, and we did it until our genitals hurt. While my mom probably knew what Jules and I were up to in Taiwan, he couldn’t let his parents find out. “What if my mom finds out we’re doing it”, he said.

“So? Doesn’t your sister do it all the time during her weekly slumber party?”

“You know how my mom treats me different ‘cause I’m still at school.”

During our first few months together, his mom constantly reminded him, “Any time now, that girlfriend of yours is going to dump you because she’s going to find a man who meets her standards. And when the time comes, don’t be upset. You’ll always be my special boy.” Jules claimed he’d never taken her seriously, but I imagined him slamming the door in his mother’s face. “That boyfriend of yours is going to realise how throwing tantrums won’t get him anywhere once he gets out of school,” Mom says every time I come home upset by his tantrums. “You just wait.”

Sometimes, I wait longer than I should. Jules and I are out, caught in a disagreement, and he walks out of sight. I call his cell over and over again and he doesn’t pick up, and when he finally does, he refuses to tell me where he is. Surely Hong Kong isn’t too big for me to find you. In those moments, Hong Kong feels the size of Jupiter. Yet, I was afraid of getting caught running around searching high and low like a lunatic. After all, it is a small world. One of the first conversations I had with my new colleague at work was about PDApublic displays of anger. “I’ve seen it many times in Hong Kong. I saw a girl fight with her boyfriend once at the North Point MTR.” Too detailed, too familiar. I played it cool and said, “Maybe they just don’t have space.”

For Starters (Part 7)

Read: For Starters (Part 6)

My best friend in high school graduated with a huge chunk of money her dad gave her as a gift for making it out of university. I was surprised when she told me, because he had been laid off and was counting on the stock market. Maybe that explains her little getaway in Europe after graduating. It was months later when she decided it was time to look for a job back home, on the marketing team of a fancy hotel. Ching-yee whined, “No more floral dressessuits, every day! It’s like being in university again.” And, sure enough, when we met for dinner after work, she looked exactly as she did when she was doing crazy overnight meetings in our second year of university. In high school, Ching-yee and I had grand plans to become roommates once we graduated from university and got jobs. That never happened. Not too long ago, I asked her if she was worried about saving enough down payment for a flat. That was when she let me in on her secret: the chunk of money her dad gave her, was enough to dispel the fears.

Ching-yee often travels. She spends most of her money overseas. “It’s not about meeting new people or experiencing new things, she would say, “It’s about getting out of this cubby hole.” I’m sure her room would be less of a cubicle if she cleaned up more often. The first time I witnessed the mini avalanches in her room was back in high school. Everywhere I looked, magazines, nail polish, creams, books, articles of clothing and stationery were arranged in heaps and stacks that all looked dangerously close to spilling over. The only remaining space was a precious third of her bed. Her latest escape was our high school classmate Felicia’s flat, which overlooked London. Ching-yee showed off with daily photos of English breakfast variations on social media. Nobody knew what else she did in London aside from the breakfast she ate every day. Ching-yee went home to her cubicle before she ran out of English breakfast variations to post.

In Hong Kong, traveling is part of every university graduate’s rite of passage. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the kid who lives off of your dad’s credit card, or the one who skips class just to make an extra dollar tutoring primary school overachievers. Wealthy, or just getting by, everyone wants out. In the final year of university, undergrads ask themselves, will Barclays be wowed by my leading role in the Business Association? Will I graduate with top honours? Will I be making $40,000 a month as an Administrative Officer in the government? But the final year is also about saving just enough to splurge every single cent on your grad trip, and have a nibble left for bus rides to get you to your belated job interviews back home. After you spend a disproportionately large chunk of money on backpackers’ cells, budget airlines and no room to breathe, you worry: if you don’t land that job, someone who didn’t spend all his wealth on a grad trip, will. The more time you spend waiting, the more time you’ll spend dependent on your parents. You can’t be going on grad trips forever. Tell that to Jules’ 21 year-old peers. “I had four hours of nothing to do until they returned to campus from their part-time jobs. Then we discussed our presentation for class.” Jules complained.

“Why can’t their jobs wait?”

“They’re saving up for their grad trips. The idea is to blow all your savings on one fucking grad trip ‘cause graduating is the end of the world, or something.”

My friends from university found it strange when I told them I had no plans to travel after graduation. They tried to talk me out of it. “You won’t have the time when you start working”, they said. But I’ll have the money. The closest thing I got to a grad trip was meeting up with Jules on his summer exchange programme in Taipei. He was in his first year, and I had already nailed the job at the TV station. It was our first little getaway. I booked a suite on the seventh floor at a place called “Hero House”, which is some sort of establishment with military affiliation. It was a large, grey, low-rise rectangular block with a wide, stone-cold lobby that looked a little like an airport’s arrival hall. The hallways were dark and bare, lit by white fluorescent light that looked blue. The suite was equally minimalist, with a large bed, a basic shower, two arm chairs, two bedside cupboards and a small coffee table. Jules’ school had booked rooms for him and his classmates on the second floor at the same hotel. I took a peek. Beds painted a muddy chocolate placed inches apart from one another. Pretty much like barracks.

“Lucky son of a bitch. You get the suite!” Jules’ classmate called out to him as we rolled his belongings into the lift. I waved to his classmate, who gave us a thumbs-up. “Keep the volume down, or I’ll let the prof know!” he shouted.

Jules only left the room to go to class at the National Chengchi University, or to work with his peers. The rest of the time, we played house. Our favourite haunt was the department store that was a five-minute walk from the hotel. The supermarket in the basement sold the best apples and carried Weet-Bix. We never bothered to look what was above the supermarket. When Jules didn’t have school, we wandered from mall to mall. They were spaced at least ten minutes away from each other, unlike the malls in Hong Kong, which are almost always interlinked. Maybe it’s true: Hong Kongers love their malls. “Because they can’t make a full turn in their flats without bumping into a wall”, says Mom, who tells me not to be one of those Hong Kongers who dart out of their homes into the welcoming arms of shopping districts come weekends. “I didn’t renovate this place for nothing”, she says. Sometimes, malls become homes. Literally. At the end of 2014, I saw two government subsidised housing show flats standwith lots of room to sparein the middle of a mall in Yau Tong. It had been more than a decade since the government released new subsidised housing units. The TV station sent me there for the big reveal2,160 new units in the New Territories priced at 70 percent of the market value. For my standup in the stark white model flat, I took six steps from the corner of the imaginary kitchen to the living room. “I look like an oversized Alice in a dollhouse”, I told the cameraman as we watched the playback. “This is as wide as I can go. Welcome to the real world, young lady.”

Over the next couple of months, thousands queued up outside the designated government office to apply for one of those tiny flats. Many were anxious parents queuing on behalf of their twentysomething working children, or university students. They told reporters private flats were out of their children’s budget, and some even said they would be willing to pay the down payment for their kids if they were so lucky to get their hands on one of the new flats. I wanted to warn them that not all offspring would be grateful. Mom’s friend’s son told his parents off for paying for his down payment, because he would then have to pay off the mortgage. “This is mental”, my colleague, Amelie said, surveying the long queues our crew caught on tape. “Why can’t the kids just download the forms from the government’s website instead of getting their parents to stand out there like idiots?” I heaved onto her desk a stack of booklets and documents introducing the new flats. It was my freebie from the media preview. “They’re probably queuing for this. Feels more substantial and promising, doesn’t it?” At the end of it, some 135,000 hopefuls vied for the 2,160 flats. They’d better start saving up.

For Starters (Part 6)

Read: For Starters (Part 5)

It’s every parent’s dream for their kids to enrol in prestigious schools. For the parents of kids at the Sheng Kung Hui Kindergarten, it’s St. Pauls’ Co-educational College. Together with the Diocesan Boys’ and Diocesan Girls’ schools, the trio make the Anglican crème de la crème in the local secondary school world. The Reverend Liu, a family friend, joked, “Many Christian adults go to church three times in their lives. First, to get baptised; second, to get married; third, for their funerals.” Some join the church for easy access to members of the clergy who can help their children write letters of recommendations to prestigious Anglican schools, including kindergartens.

I was lucky to have attended primary school in Singapore. I was born in Hong Kong, but moved to Singapore, partly because Mom thought highly of the education system there. When I came back at 12, Mom enlisted the help of the clergy to get me into St. Stephen’s Girls’ College, which is quite prestigious. During my first interview (ever), then-vice-principal Mrs. Chan asked me if I was a native English speaker. I didn’t know what that meant, so I said “no”. “Do you even know what ‘native’ means?” She raised a brow above her gold-rimmed glasses, revealing a sliver of lavender smudged harshly across a crepey eyelid. Her burgundy lips pressed together in a thin smile.

Well, are all of your students native English speakers? “No”, I said.

“I see. What sort of musical instruments do you play?”

“I play the piano. I used to play the violin, too.”

“Used to?”

“I stopped enjoying it.”

“All of our girls at St. Stephen’s must be familiar with at least one musical instrument. So, you’d better not stop enjoying the piano! Ha-ha-ha!”

Even in that quite-prestigious school, we were expected to participate in as many activities as we could to make our profiles look better. I was in drama, debate, choir, and participated in a number of English-language speech festivals. Don’t ask. At least I wasn’t one of those kid who opened their mouths so wide for “better enunciation”, they could engulf a toddler’s head. Still, I flunked my fifth form citywide Chinese exam and had to migrate to a different education system, which got me into university just fine. That was in 2010. Pretty much the only thing that nagged at my fellow Bachelor of Arts undergrads and me was, what if we spent three years of higher education just to score an average desk job printing YouTube videos of cats and investigating the mystery man in some colleague’s Facebook profile for our fifty-something supervisors who spent half their lives under the thumbs of their bosses because they never made it past upper sixth form? Of course, many of my peers participated overzealously in all sorts of nocturnal dorm-related activities (not orgies, unfortunately!) and marathon student society campaigns because our seniors told us that’s the stuff employers look for in our CV’s. Essays? Revision? Surely that’s not what university is for. A common complaint I heard, which, which will likely be here to stay for the many decades to come, is about mainland Chinese students snagging the top scores and occupying university places that rightfully belonged to other local students who probably managed to get into some sort of Higher Diploma or Associate Degree programme. Some girls from my quite-prestigious high school spent one to two years in those programmes before getting into “real” university programmes.

Most of us graduate underpaid and overqualified, holding on to pieces of childhood.

Graduation photographs come about six months ahead of the ceremony. Nowadays, it seems to come earlier every year. You kind of expect first-year undergrads to start taking graduation photos in their second semester. Social media trends dictate that every grad photo needs: a gown, a cap, a bouquet of flowers, a stuffed toy, lots of friends (a.k.a. props) dressed for the occasion, a cheap tripod you got from some mall selling tech stuff in Wan Chai, a DSLR camera your parents gave you when you got into university (not the best, but still better than your iPhone 5S), and, of course, your selfie stick. Girls bring out the eyeliner and false lashes and foundation that’s two shades too light, and boys make an attempt to upgrade their hair to something more grown up and manly. And everyone, I mean EVERYONE, cradles a stuffed toy dressed in graduation gear in their photos. Come graduation season, ads for customised graduation toys pop up all over Facebook and on campusperfect for avoiding the who-wore-it-better’s. In those six months, graduates find more photo ops than they will ever find in their lifetime. When they already have a photo their favourite bathroom, they take their mission beyond campus. The world is their studio. Malls, parks, lampposts, monuments, churches, schools, and for the lucky few, in the middle of Queensway during Occupy Central. I “Like” graduation photo album Facebook uploads without even looking at them. Most of us graduate underpaid and overqualified, holding on to pieces of childhood.

For Starters (Part 5)

Read: For Starters (Part 4)

The battle continues. I used to live in a seminary next to a rather prestigious kindergarten, separated by a basketball court. Mom worked for the Anglican church. Once a year, I navigated through the court, filled with eager parents, babbling multilinguists, bawling musicians and drooling athletes waiting in line to be interviewed at the Sheng Kung Hui Kindergarten. These days, children have to be multitalented. Mom’s colleague has his five year-old granddaughter sleep over three times a weeknot because the child’s grandparents want to spend more time with herbut because their home is closer to the girl’s tuition centre. “She’s very busy during the week, with music and art classes. It’s better if she stays with us for her language and math tutorials”, Mom’s colleague said.

Private tutoring is big business in Hong Kong, and the main source of income for university undergrads. Every other undergrad I went to school with was signed up on, a website which matched students with, well, other students. I was matched with a girl who lived in a swanky apartment with a white marble lobby and concierge. On my first day, Yvonne’s mom presented me with a stack of books that toppled over upon touching the table. “Yvonneshe’s already fouris attending a course on kindergarten interviews,” she said, picking up the books, which read: CAMBRIDGE YOUNG TALENTS. “This is course material. I want you to go through these interview questions with her in English. She will ask you to tell her stories, but if she doesn’t complete at least three sets of questions, no stories. Is that clear?” I nodded. I looked at Yvonne, who was hiding behind her mother. “How old are you, Yvonne?” I asked in my best sing-song voice. She raised three fingers. Her mother looked at her sternly. “Yvonne, what did I tell you?” Yvonne paused to think, and raised one more finger. Her mother turned to me, “Make her talk.” With that, she sauntered into her room. “Do you want to do this?” I asked Yvonne. She shook her head. “Do you want to play?” She whispered, “Yes.” I asked her an interview question from the course material anyway. “What is your favourite book?” She rummaged through the stack of books and pulled out an anime version of Beauty and the Beast. “What is this called?” I asked gently. “Beat”, she said, lips quivering. I started reading to her. By the end of our two-hour session, her mom was horrified to find Yvonne rolling around on the floor, laughing. She pressed four hundred dollars into my palm. “You don’t have to come back.” I took the money without saying anything. It was not like I wanted to make money off of forcing kids to grow up faster than they should.

For Starters (Part 4)

Read: For Starters (Part 3)

Anyway, babies here have it worse. They either never get a taste of breastmilk, or are weaned off before their first birthday because their mommies just don’t have the space to do “taboo stuff”. During my second week working at an ad agency, a locked door with the sign “ESTHER’S PRIVATE TIME” stuck on it stood between me and the pantry. I got the ad agency job less than a month after my job hunt began. I wanted to take a break from being a reporter, which took up so much of my time, I’d stopped writing. How come Esther gets her private time and I don’t? Who is Esther anyway? I guessed she was in charge of stock-taking, because cardboard boxes were stacked from floor to ceiling around the six by eight feet pantry. I fingered the electronic lock on the door. A few digits lit up, along with a row of Korean characters. The lock started flashing dangerously. Empty mug in hand, I knocked on the door. “Who is it?” Esther called out. “I would like some water, please.” After about a minute of fumbling, Esther, a pale, annoyed woman with bloodshot, bulbous eyes, opened the door. I apologised profusely for interrupting her private time. She tried to explain, “Just so you know, I’ll be using this room at a certain time every day.” I apologised again after haphazardly filling my mug. When I got back to my desk, I asked the intern, “Calvin, what’s ‘Esther’s Private Time?” Calvin’s usual toothy grin faded into a solemn look. “She’s lactating.” I opened my mouth to laugh at what I thought was another one of Calvin’s boob jokes and quickly closed it when he didn’t flinch.

I never saw Esther’s sign again. I figured, from Esther’s Instagram, that it’s because her kid has grown a reasonable size to get bigger but, not to grow up. I am permanently logged into one of the ad agency’s Instagram accounts, and spend my downtime tracking my colleagues’ profiles. In real life, Esther looks too young to be the owner of a selfie-free, baby- and cat-packed Instagram. Since our encounter in the store room, her bulbous eyes have shrunk to elegant, almond-shaped peepers. It was the post-pregnancy puffiness that made her look old and dumpy. She has now changed out of her black, stretchy dresses into structured, form-fitting fashion. Pale, bloodshot-eyed Esther has even begun smiling “goodbye” to me when I clock out every day! I searched her Instagram captions for her stance on the milk powder front, but, nothing. Since tainted milk formula became a thing in China, people from the mainland have been flocking to Hong Kong to stock up on it. Text messages from supermarkets and drugstores informing me of birthday deals all end with “IMF & selected items excluded.” Infant milk formula has become such a popular and prized commodity, it’s abbreviated, and hidden in STAFF-ONLY areas. Milk powder smuggling has become so rampant, the government has imposed a two-can IMF export limit. “Nobody walks out with more than two tins!” warn signs put up in drugstores and supermarkets. Funny how the government allowed mainlanders to have unlimited access to Hong Kong so they could keep the city’s economy afloat, but now resorts to imposing restrictions on everyone because the mainlanders have become too generous.

For Starters (Part 3)

Read: For Starters (Part 2)

“I’ve been thinking about joining a writing course,” Rose said, about a month after her return from studying in the States. “Tell me about yours at HKU. What do you have to do?”

“You have to be committed. At the end of it you’re going to have to write a 70-page thesis.” I was doing a course in Creative Writing.

“70 pages? Nah.” She later signed up for a free online rhetorical writing course which she then forgot about. She said she had taken a rhetorical writing course at university, and liked it a lot. “There’s so much I want to do!”

“Aren’t you concerned about being good at everything but not being excellent at anything?” Conversations with Rose always involve walking a tightrope. It’s probably why she considers me someone she can banter with.

Rose laughed. “I want to be excellent at being content.”

“You’re failing miserably.”

“So I’ve been told, in a different context. You have no idea how many people in Hong Kong have told me that it’s better to focus on finding my career path. But as I’ve learnt over the past few years living abroad on my own, even if I do many things at once, life is easy.”

Easy for you to say, Rose. I was learning how in Hong Kong, the battle for success begins from the womb. I remember watching on the news this uproar with expectant mothers swarming across the border to have their babies so their newborns would get permanent residency. Back then, I still saw myself as a potential mom, so I turned to my own mother for a solution. Her answer? “You’ve got better chances at a private hospital, but make sure you can afford it.” Eventually, the situation got so bad, the government had to impose a “zero-birth quota” on expectant mainland mothers so local mothers would have room to give birth. People then got creative. A couple from the mainland was so desperate for their child to be born in Hong Kong, the mother pretended she was Filipino. They even spent more than $250,000 to make a fake Philippine passport. True story.

Thus, while working as a reporter for a TV station, and my boss nudged me for story ideas, I said, “breastfeeding”, just because it was taboo. That did it for her. I went on to interview a government official, who told me Hong Kong, in 2014, still did not have a single baby-friendly hospital, and that there was a glaring lack of nursing facilities in public places. Malls here barely have enough toilets as it is. Massive queues outside female bathrooms are expected any day of the week. One time, I passed out from a severe stomachache while waiting in line for a free cubicle. I had to be wheeled out of the mall on a stretcher, but not before mall staff granted me special access to the bathroom. I was lucky I didn’t shit myself, or hit my head on the ground.

For Starters (Part 2)

Read: For Starters (Part 1)

When she finally did come back, Rose went hiking almost every day before starting her new job. “My sister threw a glass at me last night. She hates having me back. She keeps complaining to my parents about how I got to go abroad while she stayed in Hong Kong. She must be jealous at how I got to meet ‘smart’ people and she didn’t. Remember what she said about Americans when she visited?” Rose panted over the phone. She loved calling me on her hikes. It was probably because she did not have anyone else to call in Hong Kong.

“Yeahshe said all Americans are smart.”

“Right, just ‘cause the people I hung out with were smart. She’s totally buying into the whole white supremacist thing.” She huffed. “Coming to think of it, though, besides you, I haven’t really met people who are at my level here, know what I’m saying?”

I suppose? “You’ve only been back for two weeks.”

“But still. I just want to be surrounded by people I can have intellectual conversations with.”

Rose tells me there are very few people in Hong Kong who are truly outstanding. I know she has kept in touch with me throughout the years partly because she thinks I’m one of the outstanding ones in her mile-long list of friends. I think people here are just too preoccupied with life to be outstanding. One time, I fell on her bad side: inspired by a conversation between two white-collared workers she overheard on the tram, Rose took to Facebook for a rant: Those local Hong Kong people who bitch about the mainland Chinese are so stupid. They only got the balls to call the mainland Chinese out on social media for the same actions they do themselves… A developed city like Hong Kong leaves us with less room to judge and criticise others! If only Rose could empathise with those “stupid locals”. Maybe after spending a healthy amount of time in this pressure cooker of a city. She defended herself. “It’s discrimination against your own race”, she said, taking our Facebook debate to the phone. “I’ve met many mainland Chinese who are very decent and well-educated people. Why are so many local people so narrow-minded?”

While promoting Save the Children at her new job, she met open-minded Malaysian Mr. Chiew. Hong Kong is the kind of place where if you try to have a friendly conversation with a stranger, it makes you weird. Men do not even catcall at women. They just stare. The trick is to stare back at them, hard, so they turn away, surprised and embarrassed. One time, my technique backfired. The old man who was half-leering at me, smiled, even as he was crossing the road. I had no choice but to flip him off. Mainlanders. Anyway, when Mr. Chiew struck up a conversation with Rose, she couldn’t resist. It had been a while since she had a casual conversation with a stranger after leaving the US. That night, Mr. Chiew sent her an email.

Hi Rose,

I was impressed by you, your spirit, your great vision and charitable heart that inspired me to help out children around the world. You’ll have a great future. Since I started out at One World Action, I’ve been eradicating malaria, building hospitals, and providing medical care and laboratory services in Africa. Rose, you were sent by God to remind me of the children’s plight. I’ll soon be moving to Bangkok, but hope to meet you again before I leave. Do call me sometime…

Warmest regards,

“I’m going to meet this Mr. Chiew for coffee. He is so inspirational and so different from regular Hong Kong folks.” Rose squealed after showing me the alleged Malaysian businessman’s email.

Why did I feel like he was more interested in Rose’s genitals than her “charitable heart”? “Maybe you should suggest meeting him at his office.”

“Over coffee is fine.” She waved it off. “I’d love to work for someone like him. I may be inexperienced, but my passion and willingness to learn makes up for it, you know? There’s so much to prove as a twentysomething female.”

Mr. Chiew never wrote back after Rose asked to meet up. “He’s probably busy.” I sensed disappointment in her voice. But, you see, as a twentysomething female with a lot to prove, Rose jumps at every opportunity. In Hong Kong, we all do.

For Starters (Part 1)

Read the previous chapter: “Telling Stories”

I came back to understand why they say the lucky ones get to leave.

When we were nineteen, my close friend, Rose, left Hong Kong, looking for space to grow up. It was only a matter of time. Ever since I could remember, she had been telling me how stifling Hong Kong was. I asked her why. “You grew up in Singapore. You won’t get how it feels to spend your whole life in Hong Kong.” I know a thing or two, but am hungry for more. When Rose’s grades sent her to a local university that hovered on the outskirt of the world’s top 200, it was her cue to leave.

Rose made sure the world knew about the fantastic life she lived outside Hong Kong. Her first night-out, makeup with wobbly eyeliner and white foundation, her first kiss, the bearded white guy she lost her virginity to, her first yoga session, the first of her many business internships, moments with every one of her sworn siblingsall documented on Facebook. For about a month, I also received Snapchat updates from Rose throughout the day, until I deleted the app after realising I was only one of the hundreds of followers getting her Snaps, or whatever they’re called. She Skyped me the details. “I did it! I finally had sex.” I faked a lost video connection in this facepalm moment. Rose had always been eager to lose her virginity. I even had to talk her out of fucking that tea salesman at her summer job. When she finally satisfied her curiosity, I was relieved. She had told me she was seeing this white guy with alleged yellow fever. Rose said his ex was Shanghainese. I gave her the obligatory, “How was it?”

“It wasn’t as good as I thought it would be.”

That first time opened the floodgates to multiple white men, although Rose admitted she had never made more of an effort to stay fit, dress up and paint her face than she did with her first. “One day,” said Rose, “I just decided that being hot didn’t matter anymore.” As a young teen, Rose gushed about how gorgeous Caucasian men were. “Local Hong Kong guys don’t even come close!” But the floods of white men have either been too fat, too skinny, too old, or too grubby. Her selection of partners weren’t exactly winners in the looks department. Still, I was happy for Rose, whothank Goddidn’t just experience the world through her vagina. Rose creates. For a while, it was home-made jewellery. She captioned photos of her creations until she got good enough to make roses look less like mangled wires. She has also been sketching. Her emaciated self-portraits with heavy smile-lines make you wonder if there was something she wasn’t telling you. She looked old. “What do you mean ‘old’? That’s what I look like now”, Rose said defensively. She was an exchange student in Germany, and a business intern in San Francisco. While studying abroad, amateur yogi Rose was everything but employed. “My dear sister, learn to live and love freely,” she told me. And because she always tells me how I am one of the few who understands her, I censor myself. I never said “‘independence’ does not mean living off of your dad’s credit card”. It means you stop waiting for something to happen.

Telling Stories (Part 4)

Read: Telling Stories (Part 3)

Eventually, Mom and I came back. Mr T reappeared as a taxi driver, his voice unrecognisable from years of smoking, drinking, and doing time. We met at the Chinese restaurant our family used to frequent on weekends. They made the best spring rolls. “Look at you! Your mother should do something about that,” he said, referring to my pimply, teenage skin. Although we regularly flew between the two cities during the first half of our separation, I was always weighed down by the feeling that every trip might be the last. For the first few years, Mr T called every night. Then it was every other day, then weekly, fortnightly, and slowly, sporadically. At 13, I found myself defending the state of my skin against the observations of a familiar stranger with whom I shared long-distance goodbye kisses over the phone. “Hormones.” It’s not like he would know how to deal with these things. The discomfort didn’t go away. As dinner wore on, it became obvious that my hopes of a happy reunion were based on the flimsy memory of missing my father. My mother wore a permanent frown between her brows as Mr T approached every word with caution. “I can get you two an apartment in the Central and Western District.”

“Where are you going to get the money?” Mom replied bluntly.

“Don’t worry about me.”

Mom never took up on the offer, and we never saw Mr T again after that dinner. Mom said he was put away. But he made sure I knew the offer still stood. Years later, when Mr T and I reconnected online, he told me he could give me an apartment under my name. “No,” I wrote, recalling his affinity for telling stories. “I appreciate your offer, but no, thank you,” I repeated firmly. “Just so you know,” he replied, “the offer is always open.”

I still wonder if that big, middle-aged man with Buddha-esque ear lobes standing across the street is my father, or if I would climb into a taxi and find Mr T behind the wheel. But since he had told me he was moving to Australia with his wife and son, maybe not. “That’s his first wife”, said Flora, pointing to the family photo Mr T uploaded on Facebook. The portly trio stood next to Batman and Catwoman at Movie World on the Gold Coast. The photo was unpleasantly similar to a family photo I took when I was at Movie World over a decade ago. I could see why he left the first wife for Mom. I did a little victory dance in my head. “But I can’t tell you much more about your father.” Flora took a final gulp from her cappuccino. “You’re too young.”