The next time I move home, I increasingly find myself thinking, it will be a big, radical change in terms of environment, work and lifestyle. I bought my place in what is now Soho the best part of two decades ago; it was a neighbourhood of pajama-wearing old folk, quietly industrious blue-collar types and a few kids playing badminton in the street. Then they opened the Mid-Levels Escalator and we woke up one morning to find the area swamped with 7-Elevens, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, restaurants of a hundred barely distinguishable themes and hordes of newly arrived expats happy to pay HK$25,000 a month for 500 square feet of newly renovated walk-up studio.
Many of the aboriginal proletariat fled; the family next door to mine washed up in Wanchai in an apartment costing half what they got for the old one. Those that are left seem nonplussed (in the sense of ‘underwhelmed’ rather than ‘freaking out’) and carry on as if nothing had happened other than to get a laugh trying to extort ever more ridiculous sums from investors apparently desperate to buy property in the area. The newcomers are unaware that the place wasn’t always a neon-filled strip of nightlife. As the unwitting pioneer of this gentrification, I have a foot in both camps; I do things like nip over to the convenience store in my bed-wear and slippers but pull a jacket on first.
I can’t stay here for ever. Well, actually, I can. But as I say any move will be more than mere relocation. Once I am more than 10 minutes’ walk from the office, for example, I work from home or not at all. I don’t do commuting. Nor do I do suburbs – or the Hong Kong version of them, which would be Shatin or somewhere. So where? Some barely discovered low-rise backwaters in Kowloon are superficially semi-appealing, but I would probably bring the curse of Soho with me and accidentally wreak trendy rejuvenation upon the place. It’s either the thick of downtown, or the clean and quiet rural area-with-shops/transport, which probably means an island.
Lamma is the stereotype residence for a refugee from the city. On the plus side, it has space, a useful range of retail outlets and that quiet hum of the power station that seems to keep the inhabitants in a permanent state of tranquility. The downside is that has a vibrant international community, which invariably means dog hospices and other horrors. And then there’s the embarrassment of saying you live there.
Cheung Chau is a more grown-up and tasteful alternative. I used to know the island’s police chief (he also ran Lamma) so I am familiar with the backstreets and their vaguely Mediterranean ambiance. Outsiders sometimes maintain that it is hard to meet people, which sounds like heaven to me. On the other hand, others say it is hard to find a decent apartment. Also, I have just finished reading Wordjazz For Stevie (of which more later), which through no fault of its own does little to boost the island, not least by mentioning the giant killer centipedes that do so much to make Soho seem more attractive by the minute.
This leaves Lantau, which essentially means Mui Wo. While not unaffected by the ongoing (and seriously under-reported) three-way civil war among the island’s Cantonese, Hakka and Western tribes, the little town is agreeably un-charming. Such feng-shui features as a truck park and dump of steel pipes on the waterfront successfully ward off the malevolent arty, tie-died influences that could so easily take hold.
Sounds perfect. Or at least it did, until I received this from Silvermine Bay…
Today is the day the not-immediate-but-potential killer tree meets its doom, so Mui Wo can perhaps relax for a while. But are there any more objects in or around the town that, if thoroughly examined, would lead civil servants to confirm that “although it does not pose immediate danger, it poses potential danger”?
The last time I was there, during summer, I recall encountering: bicycles, a bus terminus, a supermarket with all manner of goods stored on shelves, a dinner (including prawns), buildings (many with potted plants on roofs), and much, much more. Plus those huge steel tubes piled precariously near the shore, assuming they’re still there. None posed immediate danger, it is true. But potential? Undoubtedly. Everywhere you look. The place is oozing with latent menace.
So Soho it is for another year.