IN HONG KONG, THERE are men without shirts. They haul things in carts or on the front of bicycles peddled by sandal feet. Some drape towels around their necks to catch the sweat. It makes good sense. The humidity on the island is such that, upon waking our first morning here, even our blankets felt moist, like in a tent with too many campers.
Dodging the heat while still exploring the city, then, was a key goal in mind as J and I contemplated the day over a breakfast of dim sum and jasmine tea. We caught the Star Ferry over to Kowloon but the breeze aboard the boat, an open-deck vessel built in 1964 that rollicked and rolled in the greenish waters of Victoria Bay, was only slight. The shade in the park next to Nathan Road offered little reprieve. And the Hainan chicken we ate for lunch, tender though it was, seemed to only further dry our mouths.
It was at the Hong Kong Museum of History (free entrance on Wednesdays) that we finally took refuge in chilling A/C and dipped into a bit of local culture, beyond Hong Kong’s flashing retail surface. A special exhibition on the evolution of the qipao, the Mandarin-collar dress worn from the late Qing and still occasionally at dinner parties, displayed over 280 pieces. Each showed signs of their wear. These were personal artifacts, appealing as much because of their craftsmanship as their hints of intimacy with the owner’s story.
The hottest part of the day over, we emerged and blinked in the sunlight, skimming a pamphlet we picked up at our hotel. There was still time to go to the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple, “one of the most popular temples in Hong Kong.” A brief ride on the metro put us at its gates, where tiny stands adorned in red hawked incense and other items for worship. A sign at the entrance warned that burning large joss sticks was not permitted, nor was lighting a fistful of incense instead. A young couple followed the rules and dutifully said their prayers with one thin stick each.
Popular or not, the significance of the temple seemed to have been entirely manufactured. Its building shined with cheap looking paint. The covered corridors of the garden, opened in 1991, were being adorned with red Christmas lights. Turtles struggled to traverse the bottom of a drained pond. After about two minutes, we left, HK$4 lighter and with one word to describe what we had just seen: plastic.