THE DARK SIDE OF HONG KONG NIGHT LIFE 1

If you read the South China Morning Post, you may have noticed an article about a giant Chinese Banyan tree falling during one of the storms that blew through town all of last week. It was an awesome tree, growing out of a colonial-era stone wall on Bonham Road in Sai Ying Pun; over ten meters tall, arching high over the road and offering leafy respite to the summer’s oppressive sun. Ironically, it also offered shelter from the rain to people waiting for the minibuses that ply their trade along the busy two-lane street. Each morning I would stand directly across the street from the massive banyan, its roots clinging to the stone like the tentacles of an octopus, marveling at the combination of engineering and mother nature that allowed such a huge tree to grow out of a wall. When it finally fell in the wind and rain it landed right where I had been standing a few hours earlier that morning.

Luckily nobody died. A man who sits in his newsstand was hurt, and his newsstand crushed, but he’ll be fine. A Filipina maid was also injured, but not seriously. The newsagent is part of a vanishing breed in Sai Ying Pun – in other words, a local. His newsstand used to be on Bonham Road, in front of a ‘Russian’ restaurant called Czarina. It had been there since 1964 according to the sign. It was one of those Chinese versions of ‘Western food’, i.e. lots of cutlets, rice, cream sauce and ‘borscht’ spelled a variety of ways on the same menu. They had plenty of room in front, so the newsagent set up shop there decades ago. He sold Apple Dailies, celebrity mags and racing sheets to locals at the top of the steep stone steps at the corner of Centre Street until Czarina’s lease ran out and a new escalator and impending MTR station doomed it to the landlord’s avarice. It sat empty for a few months until the escalator became operational, and then it became a Café O.

And then it was ‘hit the road, Jack’ for the newsagent, as Café O decided they didn’t want this emblem of the old neighborhood cluttering the way into their shiny new overpriced healthy sort of café. But in a very Hong Kong way, he was allowed to relocate just around the corner on the steps, not unlike some makeshift temples you sometimes see between buildings. He erected a small platform on metal stilts, and there he was again, slinging packs of gum, pens and naughty magazines – until the giant banyan took his little shack out. I’m guessing he’ll be back, and probably with a nice new stand after suing the city – I hear that tree was meant to be taken down years ago but some well-heeled citizens who live above, on Babington Path didn’t want their view disturbed. Who knows, maybe he’ll get enough to retire if he wants to. I wouldn’t blame him. Every rice and homemade noodle shop, stationary/candy shop for school kids and cha chang teng is rapidly being replaced with wine boutiques, Soho restaurants, and craft beer bars. All pushed out for rents that have doubled, tripled and beyond.

When the banyan tree fell it took out the top of the shiny new escalator. It also crashed through apartment windows of flats that used to be cheap, and now are rapidly being filled with people who work in Central and walk around saying things like ‘isn’t that cool?’ as they point to a new fusion Korean restaurant where a learning center used to be. And, ‘It’s such a funky neighborhood’ when they walk by colonial architecture that the locals consider haunted. I don’t blame them. Everything changes – especially in Hong Kong, where Mammon rules. So what if they pay three times what their walk-up apartment was going for a year ago? Everything’s relative, right? The estate agent’s gotta eat too. My own time in the neighborhood pre-dates the escalator and the MTR station, but I doubt I’ll re-up when my contract runs out next year. I preferred the cheap local spots on High Street before the cut ‘n paste Australian and French F&B groups moved in. There are still a few left, and they serve inexpensive, honest, tasty food so they get my business. I go to the new places sometimes too. To be honest, they aren’t that good, but they do eggs in the morning. I’m sad to see that tree go down, just as I’m sad to see the neighborhood changing so rapidly. Ah well, what is it they say? The only constant is change.

tree falls

Slip Mahoney