The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

O Fortuna!

Underneath a red awning and sitting next to a cage of fortune-telling birds, a man with speckled-grey hair stared at my face silently. Not knowing what else to do, I looked right into his eyes as he told me:

“You are not a lucky person. You have small ears.”

An old woman, who was feeding the birds behind the Kowloon fortune teller, smirked. I was stunned. This was not the fortune I’d imagined.

“Your youth will not be easy,” he continued as he judged my physiognomy. “You will struggle to succeed. But your ears are high up on your head so that means you’re clever. You would do well to make money for someone else. You’re a bad entrepreneur.

I can see in your deep eyes that you have an old and beautiful soul (remind me to use this line). But, your nose tells me that your forties will be hard; your forties are all in your nose (but not this one!). On the bright side, forty-five will be a good business year for you.

You have a straight mouth, which resembles the character for the number one. This means you’re very eloquent. You’re good with your mouth.

Still though, your fifties will be difficult. You have a big chin. Old age can be read in the chin, and starting in your late fifties, your life will get better. In your sixties, you can finally lay back and relax. The world will come to you, and you will be content.

You want to know about your love life? Well, this year will be lonely. However, 2008 and 2009 will be good years. Your best relationship will start off slow—with some real conflict. You won’t know it’s right in the beginning, but gradually, it will become better and better. Twenty-five will be a good year to take the relationship to the next step. The seeds will be there, but like a tree, you will need to feed it. You will do that. I can tell.”

On Power Plants, Escalators, and Accidental Night Hikes

From the top of Victoria Peak, the city becomes graspable. My twenty-six story apartment building looked quaint amongst the other residential high-rises. The white lights of I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Building pierced through the Hong Kong haze, and the Central Plaza Building stood proudly erect, declaring that it was the biggest building in Hong Kong. While the neon lights of Kowloon turned the bay into a rainbow of reflected color. But Hong Kong is not just concrete, steel, and glass, the city is also covered with large swaths of jungle, which at night, look like green jig-saw pieces, interrupting the urban fabric. We had just been down there, meandering through Central, the clubs of Lan Kwei Fong, the posh boutiques of Soho, and a sloped jungle. Now, we were high enough that we couldn’t make out a single person. The view was breathtaking, and it wasn’t just the pollution.

It’s not often that a hike ends at a peak with such an impressive view, and it’s not often that one accidentally walks there.

Despite the pouring rain, we started the day with a ferry to Lamma Island. There are no cars on the island; everybody walks everywhere through the lush jungle and by beautiful beaches. The slow pace of the island is immediately evident as it stand in stark contrast to Hong Kong Island. The most arresting part of the island is one beach where people swim next to a coal power plant. Have no fear; one local resident, who invited us into here home, told us, “Don’t worry, all the pollution floats to Hong Kong Island.”

After a delicious seafood meal on Lamma, we took the ferry back to Central and wandered, taking in new parts of the city as we gawked at the shiny lights. I felt a bit like a freshman in New York. Then, we hopped on an escalator, and there is certainly nothing like that escalator in NY. Hong Kong has the world’s longest escalator system, an elaborate infrastructure of moving stairs that through residential and commercial areas, clubs and street markets, and we wanted to see it all. Lan Kwei Fong, an area home to Hong Kong’s only jazz club and a variety of stylish bars and hip clubs, is a fun area to explore but certainly not cheap. But the escalator transported us through the snippets and smells of other people’s expensive nights out. We glided by Germans quaffing Australian wine and Brits drinking American beer. We saw people dancing in clubs and crying in the streets. Without spending a Hong Kong dollar, the escalator put together for us a collage of a full night out.

The entire ride was made all the more surreal, because people burned “hell money” and incense by all the roads for the visiting spirits and ancestors that come down during the Ghost Festival. The entire city was veiled in smoke, and the smell of incense mingled with the already aromatic city.

As we effortlessly slid past downtown, we realized there just had to be a view at the top of the escalator system. But when we reached the top, walls of residential buildings blocked it. As three stubborn Americans, we wanted a view, so we just kept walking up and up and up. Before we knew it, we saw a sign to Victoria Peak. We finished up the walk and took in the most famous of view Hong Kong with the herds of tram-taking tourists. However, we couldn’t dilly-dally too much on the Peak. We received a call that a dozen people also doing a Princeton-in-Asia program were passing through Hong Kong. To finish the day, we danced the night away in Lan Kwei Fong in a basement club with other PiAers.

Eau de Hong Kong

Smells are elusive. They are difficult to describe and harder to categorize. They evoke inchoate memories and unconsciously alter one’s behaviour. A smell can open a door of recognition to one’s past, and of all the senses, that link is uniquely direct—straight from the nose to memory centers in the brain. Smell can take one a journey to other places and times without one having any choice in the matter.

Walking down a busy Hong Kong street, the variety and intensity of smell takes one on an olfactory adventure—even when compared to New York. The dense air gives the smells a heaviness to them. It somehow feels as if the humidity allows more and larger aromatic particles to float in the air, ready for inhalation. Most of the smells are pleasing.  One moment, I transport back to my college suite to when Brendan made stir fry with sesame oil. The next moment, I’m reminded of the muggy hall outside my Oma’s condo in Bradenton, Florida. Most of the time though, I’m left with a vague feeling that a particular smell carries some deep memory that I just can’t quite place. The smells of the Hong Kong street draws one’s senses into an unknown, loosening oneself from familiar distinctions. Then just as one is engulfed in the aroma of the unknown, one somehow instantly recognizes a smell one has no idea one could identify. In one case, I immediately recognized the combination of dried jerky, squid, and salted fish. What’s strange about Hong Kong is that the city can have an intense smell even if there is no obvious source in the area. An area can smell of sewage of coconut for no apparent reason.

A lot of tourists seem to be struck by the smell of Hong Kong (many negatively). To me, Hong Kong just smells like adventure.

The eagle has landed… in Hong Kong.

From the air, it appeared as if a giant nimbus cloud came down from the skies to greet Hong Kong only to become impaled on the sharp buildings of the skyline. Unable to wrestle free, the great cloud engulfed the city in grey. Stepping off the plane, I ducked to cut through the thick cloud. After a summer of anticipation, all I could see were effulgent neon signs and white halos from distant street lights. After a long and sleepless flight, it was exhausting just to fight through the viscous air.

As the day went on, the cloud slowly disappeared revealing the city. Initially from my room on the 26th floor, I could only see the dozens of nearby residential high-rises, some covered in over thirty stories of bamboo scaffolding. Later, I could see the bay, dotted with ships of all sizes. In the middle of the bay was a perfectly rectangular peninsula, the remains of a runway from the old airport. By midday, I could see Kowloon across the bay, until recently the most densely populated place on earth. It was wall after wall of high-rise residential buildings. By four, I could see the outlines of mountains in the distance, the site of future adventures, I’m sure.

Jetlagged, I went to bed early, but also excited to explore my new home in the upcoming days.

See the view from my room.

Resting by a Mountain Lake.

I watched their flight, butterfly after butterfly; a flutter of wings in the scree, a zig-zag in the grass, and one monarch probing my sun-tan lotioned feet with her proboscis. I tried to count them as they darted around the volcanic rock: two, five, seven. Ten, because three flew from behind all at once.

Just one. I noticed a Great Blue Heron right in front of me, unimpressed by my presence. After inspecting the lake and finding the amount of fish simply unacceptable, she flew up to another mountain lake, hidden deep in the talus fields to my left. I lost her as she became a flattened ‘m’ against the snowfields of South Sister, like a bird I would draw in elementary school. A few minutes later, she flew away from the hidden lake, curving left and right as if hanging from an invisible pendulum as she floated on an updraft.

Eleven, twelve. The monarchs were still wheeling and swirling in the grass around me, distracting me from the heron. Two of the butterflies at my ankles were surely new. They had a fleck of green in their otherwise orange wings. Zero. The blue heron had disappeared by the time I’d looked back up—thirteen, fourteen—but the butterflies were everywhere.

The backpacking trip in the Three Sisters Wilderness was exactly what I needed between my time in Manhattan and my adventures in Hong Kong: a time to simply relax and count the butterflies.

See related photos: here, here, here, here, and here

Lunch Break at a Meadow

If you squinted your eyes, the meadow could have looked like the Serengeti from those nature shows on the Discovery Channel: tall, light grass all around (though perhaps a shade too green). Years ago, this was exactly where the greying professor had seen a mountain lion. But with open eyes, the mountain meadow looked liked any other meadow: pretty but not something that makes a unique imprint on one’s memory. We stood where the lion had been, imagining scenes from television of lions crouched in the high grass. We hiked on; we had a few more days in the wilderness. I guess for now, I’ll just have to squint and picture Planet Earth™.

See related photos: here, here, here, here, and here

The Magical Powers of Hot Chocolate

I think everyone can agree that certain foods and beverages have magical powers. Tea—particularly proper British tea—has the power to cure the sniffles. The chicken and rice from a cart on 53rd and 6th in Manhattan has the magical ability to allow young, urban adventurers to keep walking six more hours all the way through sunrise. However, the most magical of all is hot chocolate.

The first night in the Three Sisters Wilderness, my soul had gone into hibernation. Souls tend to do that when it gets cold and windy. I was left with only my reptile brain, giving me a vague fantasy of basking on a rock in full sun. Despite my desire to crawl into the tent and continue dreaming of warmer weather, the professor insisted that we stay outside and wait for him to make hot chocolate. He would share, he promised. After shivering for a while, we could all finally stir the chocolate powder into the boiling water.

Sipping the hot chocolate elixir, the heat spread from inside my soul to the tips of my fingers. I could think human thoughts again, and I remembered all the other times that hot chocolate had magically brought me back. In elementary school, Mrs. Knab dispensed Swiss Miss after every rainy day of traffic patrol with the same enlivening effect, and I realized that throughout human history, people have realized this exact same thing that my gradeschool teacher must’ve understood. For example, Montezuma drank hot chocolate several times a day, from gold beakers which were destroyed after only one drink. Though Aztec backpackers would have been out of luck; only Aztec leaders were allowed to drink hot chocolate. They wanted to themselves the special powers it gave them. I finally understood the big deal: hot chocolate is magic.

“Now was the hot chocolate worth it?”

I smiled. It wasn’t really a question; he could see that I now understood the powers of hot chocolate too.