I have been coming to Hong Kong for several years now. I usually stay in a hotel that is paid by the company I am working for. It has been the same hotel for a several years now and it started to feel like home. A home I do not want to go to. The hotel has world class accommodations but at some point I got tired looking at happy vacationers and newlyweds while dragging myself back to my room after 11 h workdays.
John has worked out an arrangement at his company that allows him to travel with me for a portion of my trips. This time we decided to use Airbnb to book someone’s apartment for three weeks. It would have to have two bedrooms and kitchen. Also we wanted to stay in Mongkok. Mongkok is on the peninsula territory that belongs to Hong Kong. It has numerous street markets that offer electronics, antiques, clothing, “copywatches” and fake designer purses. People, shops, and restaurants are mixed into caleidoscope of smells, colors and sounds. It felt like a welcome change from the predictable Hung Hom area where I stayed before.
The pictures of the apartment on the Airbnb website looked bright and happy. According to her profile the host was a girl named Hazel, she looked about 16 years old. I booked the apartment and Hazel emailed me an address in chinese for a taxi driver and a map of the area.
When we finally arrived to Hong Kong the taxi driver dropped off at the corner of a tall building where we had to wait for Hazel to lead us in. It was around 11.30 pm. It was quiet and dark. We were jetlagged and we silently watched a cockroach three inches long crawling out of a crack in a sidewalk and away to his nightly business. Finally an old man approached and waved to us. He did not look like the 16 year old millionaire real estate owning Hazel. I think John looked disappointed, but we were ready to settle in.
The apartment was small. Correction, it was tiny. I knew that Hong Kong apartments are small but I never expected that I would live in a doll house. We asked the man to show how to turn on air-conditioner. He flipped a switch, and then he was gone leaving us with our luggage that was taking up one third of the two bedroom apartment. I shoved my suitcase into the smaller bedroom. It took up the whole bed. I thought a room is someplace where you can walk in and turn around if you are so inclined, and a closet was where you could just stand in front of and sort through things to wear in mornings. This was a closet where you sleep. The larger bedroom also did not have anything frivolous like a chair, a hanger, or a nail in the wall, but the bed could sleep two slim people simultaneously. It was good enough.
As we shuffled around bumping into walls and each other we noticed that the air conditioner was not cooling. We opened the window hoping that the breeze on the 23rd floor would cool the tiny apartment and we went to bed.
It did not cool.
It just added stink to heat and humidity making the set of unpleasant sensations complete. I was laying there and thinking what a giant mistake this was and longing for the soulless coolness of a hotel room.
We woke up early. The sun was rising over the jungle of Mongkok roofs. The tiny apartment looked clean and bright in the morning light. The building was made of units joined by stairwells and corridors. This type of design allows the windows to face four sides. Some windows were overlooking other apartments not even 6 feet away. Smells of breakfast and clean laundry were mixing together. I am usually not even remotely active in early mornings but dug through the ample stash of cleaning supplies and washed the windows and John repaired the shower.
While cleaning I bumped the air conditioner unit and a hidden lid popped open revealing controls. I believe that at very same second there was a halo surrounding these glorious controls and I think I heard a chorus singing. But it could just be a car horn. We turned the air conditioner on cool and instantly got 85% happier. The other 15% was attributed to hunger that we still needed to take care of. The windows were never open again. We liked our cool, fresh air too much.
Fast forward 3 weeks… My suitcase was packed and and as I was giving the apartment a last look I felt a tinge of regret. John and I got used to and even liked it quickly. It provided for basic needs – a shower, place to cook, sleep, and charge our numerous devices, and had everything I was looking for – great location, authentic living opportunity, sense of exploration, still no Hazel though. I never got to meet or hear from her/him again.
It was definitely an adventure. For the same money we could have lived in a four star hotel with a pool, 24 hour concierge and room service. We choose something different and I do not regret it a bit. The size of Hong Kong apartments will give westerners a culture shock. This 2 bedroom apartment would easily fit in an average American livingroom. The prime real estate is expensive and it is common to see families of 4 or more living in apartments like ours.
Meeting neighbours in the hallway, exchanging smiles in the elevator, commuting on busses where gweilos are rarely seen, trying to figure out where to buy and what groceries, haggling at the markets, and other mundane encounters made us feel submerged into local Hong Kong culture. This is an experience we would have not gained by staying at a hotel overflowing with mainland China and western tourists. There is a room for that too in our lives, only not this time.