The bittersweet pleasure of returning to a favorite city, Hong Kong
by Charles Barnard
The Star Ferry is only three minutes' walk from the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong, and although I would probably never run for a commuter train in Connecticut, I am running now through a crowded ferry terminal to catch the next boat, running even faster than the scurrying Chinese, filled with an exhilaration I can't explain at my age. Is it pure joy at being back in a place I love? Or is it something else?
There is no real haste for me to cross the harbor at this moment — I'm going to be in Hong Kong for many days this time, praise be — but a pulse of memory urges me to run the length of the ferry pier as I did in the 1960's; to have the coins ready for the turnstile; to race against the light that will turn red and the bell that will clang to announce that the gate is swinging shut; to squeeze past the gateman in his blue sailor suit and
step aboard just as the man on the pier throws off the mooring hawser with that same weary skill I remember so well. In short, to be as quick now as when I was 39.
But it isn't just a race against getting older that I run; the calendar sets its own relentless pace, after all, and it never loses the birthday game. I run a different race. It is to stay ahead of change. If I'm quick enough, I say to myself, perhaps everything I love and remember will remain the same.
So today I run for the ferry.
It is often difficult for travelers to choose between the excitement of discovering
new places and the bittersweet pleasures of going back to a favorite city,
to memories and yes, to changes. In a lifetime of travel the early years
are the time for discovery. I will always remember my first astonished
look at Hong Kong from the forward deck of the ferry. We were headed across
the harbor from Kowloon to Victoria a quarter-century ago. A mass of tall
white buildings was even then starting to creep up the green flanks of
Hong Kong Island. I thought it the most exciting place I had ever seen.
Over the years I returned many times, and excitement turned to appreciation. Hong Kong and I matured together. Each time I came back, sometimes for only a few days, once for more than a month, I looked at my city as I look at my own face in the mirror. From year to year we didn't really change that much — did we?
Out of breath, I make the ferry. This one is Celestial Star. I wonder as I step onto the teak deck, How many times have I been on this same boat before? (And with whom as my companion?)
I used to be able to name all the Star Ferries. It was a recitation, a trivia catechism: "Morning Star, Night Star, Day Star, Celestial Star, Twinkling Star, Shining Star, Solar Star, Meridian Star, Northern Star" (Love empowers memory; you keep what your heart wants to keep.)
Once aboard the venerable vessel, the sounds are all as I remember them; the engine room bells, the slosh of the propellers, the creaking groan of the ferry's rub rail against the timbers of the pier, the chatter of Cantonese, the hiss of spume flung against the side curtains by the chop.
Seven minutes later, on the Kowloon side of the harbor, I allow myself to be surged off Celestial Star by hundreds of determined Chinese in a hurry; and I follow yet another impulse. Why not go see George Chen again? His shop is just nearby. People say he is still the best tailor in Hong Kong. He made suits for me long ago when he was less famous. One was a gray tropical with a fine red pinstripe; I always liked that one.
In the best tailoring tradition, George had made paper patterns according to my measurements. He assured me that if ever I wanted a new suit, I could send my order from Connecticut and my patterns-on-file would guarantee a perfect fit.
It made me feel special in those days to know that a famous Chinese tailor 12,000 miles away from home had "my patterns;" that just by writing a letter to him I could have a custom-made suit with all those little extra pockets and buttons and a wonderful silk lining.
As things turned out, I never did that. When the 70's arrived, that old devil, Change dealt me a blow and there were many things I needed more than tailored
clothes. There had been a divorce, a return to a city apartment, an attempt
at a new career. A dry cleaner had ruined the gray tropical, and I gradually
lost track of George Chen.
Now, years later, he looks exactly as I remember him, which pleases me. His new, larger shop, its walls stacked to the ceiling with bolts of fabric, looks much like the old one; same curtained fitting rooms, mirrors, fluorescent lights, and clutter of pins on the carpet. Eric Ng and Johnny Ho, the two apprentices I remember, have grown up, but not grown old. They say they remember me, which is polite, but I doubt that.
"We never forget an old customer," George says. "Come look at the file, you'll see why." His thin tailor's fingers walk over a tightly packed drawer of index cards. "Here you are: Barnard, C., Darien, Connecticut. Then you move to East Seventy-fifth Street. But where you go after that? It says, 'Christmas card returned, no forwarding address.'"
"I don't remember those years, George," I answer, remembering them all too well, "but I survived, I'm here now. What else does that little intelligence file of yours say about me?" (What do I want it to say? Happily remarried and back living in Connecticut again?)
"It says, 'Paper patterns on file,'" George reads with a smile. "And," he adds, tapping at my midsection with the backs of his fingers, "your figure hasn't changed so much."
Suddenly I know I am going to have a suit made. That wasn't the thought that brought me here, but now it seems an imperative, a way to win a round against change. The paper patterns, symbols of constancy, have done it.
"You wouldn't happen to have a gray tropical fabric with a fine red pinstripe, would you?"
"We'll find one!" says George, his face lighting up and looking very pleased. Without even a signal from the boss, Johnny Ho starts pulling down big bolts of fabric.
At this moment, it doesn't seem to matter a damn how old I am. It is 1965 again. All the unwanted changes of a quarter-century are suddenly erased. Hong Kong, like an old friend, has put its arms around my shoulders again. All is not lost.
That's what paper patterns are for, after all.
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