Ever since moving to Hong Kong, I feel like I’m back in my freshman year of college, when my three roommates and I, crammed into a single room, squabbled about everything from sink space to how to divide up the refrigerator drawers. After growing up in a roomy house in suburban New York, the tight quarters got on my nerves. We tried to avoid each other by carving up the space with Chinese screens and scrappy curtains. But in the end, we still fought and went our separate ways.
In Hong Kong, where space comes with a hefty price tag, it’s tough to go your own way. There is literally no place to go — at least for those of us who can’t afford to live on the Peak or some other place with more space.
So you get to know your neighbors.
Every night, after the dishes have been washed and my godmother’s favorite soap opera has ended, the drilling begins. The walls vibrate and the ceiling shakes. “Shut up!” we scream, but the mysterious culprit who has been renovating his flat continues. This has been going on for about two weeks.
Usually he stops after about 10:30 p.m., but on this day he works through 11, and we finally storm up and ring the doorbell. “What the hell do you want?” the voice inside cries. “Do you know what time it is?” I ask. He finally opens the door and looks really annoyed. “It’s not me,” he lies, as he tries to hide the drill behind him, and he slams the door in my face like the gatekeeper of the Great Oz.
We stomp down to the management office, where the security guard beckons a colleague — The Mediator — to see what this latest crisis is about. He nabs the culprit and gets him to put away the toolbox. “You seem like you’re an old hand at this,” we compliment him.
He says he’s seen plenty of squabbles between couples, a few cat fights between wives and their husbands’ other women, and even one case where a grown son slapped his aging mother. “The problem is everyone is too close to everybody,” he concludes.
When I first moved to Hong Kong four years ago, I complained bitterly about my loss of space, but I have since accepted that in this city, private life becomes very public.
My first flat, rented at the property peak, was a single room inside a suite of six rooms rented by various transients. The bed ate up much of the floor space and the bathroom shower hooked up to the sink. The rent: HK$5,200 (about $660 U.S. Dollars).
Since then, I have lived with my godmother and her family in a succession of flats that are bigger, but also more crowded. I have suffered the trials of living and interacting with a constantly revolving list of characters including a gaggle of gossipy ladies — watermelon-seed crunching mahjong types — and an assortment of relatives and acquaintances who have a tendency to invite themselves over with little notice.
I’ve adjusted to this place where gossip runs thick, where there’s constant pressure to go out and be in a group, and in a crowd. Some days, though, I still hunger for peace.
Up Close and Personal
Here in the apartment complex where we’ve lived for the past year, vehicles and taxis whoosh down the curving roads into the wee hours of dawn. We can see inside our neighbors’ living room so well that I once watched in fascination as the old man next door picked at a scab on his foot. I am sure that they know as much about our lives as we know about theirs. But in the elevator we are once again strangers, and simply nod hello.
I have been told again and again that I am lucky and should be happy with whatever space I have. There are lots of tiny flats housing three generations. A real estate agent once told me that in this city, 1,000 square feet is big and 2,000 square feet is a mansion.
In the end, space is really a state of mind — something that one has to seek out, or create, when it isn’t readily available. Like the entrepreneur who many years ago built a dirt garden in the middle of New York City and charged space-starved people to come in and smell the earth and gather their sanity.
As for me, I recently escaped to a tiny studio hidden inside an aging building where there are only twenty flats and two elevators. It is small but incredibly sweet and a wonderful hideaway and a bit of paradise.
I confess at quiet moments, I miss the sound of drilling, the swoosh of mahjong tiles, the old man who wails Cantonese opera, the teenager who blasts Andy Lau tunes, the old woman in the wheelchair parked out in the lobby who smiles sadly at me. I even miss my godmother’s chatty Filipino maid and the cast of friends and family, who as annoying as they seemed, brought color to my whole nomadic experience.
Public and Private
space is really a state of mind
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