Favourite Places (2015)


I didn’t believe in “favourite places” before I went to Hong Kong. I thought the whole concept of a favourite place was churlish. How could anybody in this grand world full of grand places ever have a favourite?


Preferring your hometown above all else, that I can get, but it’s not the same.


I thought no serious traveller would ever have one. I could see some young oik who’s never seen the sea being carted off by orange parents to Majorca and pronouncing it her favourite place because it has a beach and she likes the beach. But someone like me really having a favourite? How could it happen?


I ended up in Hong Kong the first time almost by accident. I had wanted to go to mainland China as I was living in Pakistan at the time and it seemed like the nearest interesting place. After trying and failing several times to find a tour company to take me across China from Pakistan (they all wanted me to start somewhere else), I decided to go to Hong Kong after some good PR work from a friend who grew up there.


I was 17 and I had travelled a lot earlier than that, but never truly alone. For example, when I was 12, I flew Emirates alone from Karachi to Manchester via Dubai, but I had an aunt picking me up at the other end.


That trip to Hong Kong marked a number of firsts for me:

  • First time checking in to a hotel on my own
  • First time using an underground train (subway) on my own
  • First coffee in a café on my own
  • First meal in a restaurant on my own
  • First time hailing a taxi on my own


Perhaps that makes me seem sheltered – I wasn’t, I just had never had the need or want to do these things on my own before. I travelled alone in a taxi to school and back every day, but I never needed to hail or pay for it because it was done on contract. I had done all of these things many times with family, with friends, but not all by myself.


Now, cynics would say that this is why Hong Kong became my favourite place: the memories, the feeling of self-reliance. They would have a point, except for the fact that similar events for me have happened elsewhere and I did not develop any great attachment to the place as a result, including places in which I have lived.


It wasn’t the people: apart from the Hongkonger friend I mentioned earlier, the only other contact I had with Hongkongers was from boarders at my school in England. My fellow White pupils largely didn’t get along with the Hongkongers because the Hongkongers’ English was weak and they fell asleep in class and got away with it. I tried and succeeded in getting along with them, which was easy: they were quiet, polite and clever.


If I were the one doing the rationalising, I would say it’s because, although I hold many citizenships and have studied many languages, my British citizenship and my knowledge of Japanese preponderate. Hong Kong was more-or-less conquered by both the British and the Japanese. Coins with the Queen’s head are still legal tender and affinity for the British more than lingers.


The Japanese did a far worse job of governing the place, as a museum I visited in Hong Kong made plain. Nevertheless, shops with names like “tokidoki” and “Okashi Land” seem to do enough trade. Japanese drinks are sold in 7-Elevens, which are quite literally everywhere. People joke about the number of Starbuckses in New York City, but really, they have nothing on 7-Eleven Hong Kong.


I had neither lived in nor visited Japan before going to Hong Kong the first time, so I don’t really think it was the chilled green teas that made me feel at home. However, I did feel at home. Very much so. Within about half a week (I was there for a fortnight), I had gotten used to the place. The smells, the streets, even some grasp of local etiquette.


I had a lovely hotel, the Harbour Grand (the one on Hong Kong Island, not the one on Kowloon), but I have had lovely hotels in most of the places I have stayed, and I feel no great attachment to those places. I have created fond memories in many places and there are a number of places I would like to see again, but I do not feel the same sense of belonging as I do with Hong Kong.


When Hong Kong had its recent pro-democracy protests, I felt remiss that I could not join them. This is despite the fact that I generally dislike protesters and democracy. I didn’t exactly feel solidarity with the Hongkongers, it was more like a solidarity with Hong Kong herself, and Hong Kong herself without people is just a few rocks. So if those people aren’t happy, Hong Kong herself isn’t happy.


You might think that having a favourite place means being ecstatic every minute you are there. Perhaps that’s the case for other people, but not for me. For me, it means feeling unrealistically comfortable while I’m there and feeling unreasonably morose when it’s time to leave.