The first time I came to Hong Kong, I had a window seat. As the plane made its final approach, I saw tropical green islands in a sea that changed from shining silver to pale emerald to sand-yellow. Between the islands, fishing boats with nets slung out on booms amidships looked like water insects.
Today, from my seat in the center section, I caught only glimpses of gray-green water through gaps in the trailing edge of the wing. Hong Kong airport was wrapped in a warm white mist; the aseptic steel interior of the monorail that pulled up to take us to baggage reclaim smelled cryptically of mold.
On Lantau Island, a little way from the airport, we passed a large new train station in the throes of frantic construction. It seemed to have outstripped the town it was intended to serve which was not yet in existence: only a large patch of cleared earth a little further down the track showed where the skyscrapers were expected to take root.
If the train station and its incipient sky-scraping suburb - still only a gleam in some planner's eye - were still abstract, Yau Ma Tei was concrete in more than one sense, bustling with traffic and pedestrians. I had forgotten the sheer human density of Kowloon, or the way that the visual landscape of neon, bamboo scaffolding, the window-pierced cliffs of apartments, leaning corrugated tin walls, lines of fluttering penants and suspended lanterns approaches sensory overload.
We walked down Nathan Road to the harbor, and I promised M. that I would be good, and not assault the first person who offered to sell me a fake Rolex. Perhaps the ninth or tenth, but not the first. As if on cue, a man stepped out smiling.
“Copy Rolex?” he inquired brightly. I gritted my teeth and pretended not to hear.
Across the water of Victoria Harbor, Central was still wrapped in milky mist, the skyscrapers little more than outlines in the mist. A tugboat shunted a crane barge out into midstream, swirled deftly round it, attached a towline and hauled it briskly off towards the open sea. A pair of fish eagles hunted in amongst the shipping traffic, darting low over the gray water and then swirling high up among the buildings to fade into the fog overhead.