The Great Wall of Hong Kong

On the way to see my lawyer in Central (Hong Kong), I made a detour to take a picture in Lan Kwai Fong.  Here it is.  Not very exciting, is it?


Why was I interested in a wall?  And it doesn't even have anything to do with Pink Floyd.  This wall is plainer than plain.  The following SCMP article had been saved from a month ago, just waiting for this picture.

(SCMP)  The Other Great Wall.  By Lu Ping.  May 9, 2005.

There is a wall in Hong Kong ... A spectacle occurs every weekend there. I am sure you have seen it: Lan Kwai Fong on a Friday or Saturday night, a formidable crowd of swaying bodies attached to the stems of wine glasses - communing beneath the wall.

The scene certainly makes a bold impression. It looks like the end of the world but, actually, it is just the end of D'Aguilar Street. On the other side of the wall lies the beginning of Wyndham Street. The stone wall is the foundation of an apartment building, but through some trick of the light, it seems to marry the Earth and the sky. 

The people spilling out from nearby bars lean against one another in the meagre space by the wall. Clutching their wine glasses, they seek one final hurrah before the apocalypse. The atmosphere is a little bohemian and a little decadent; as though what is at stake is whether the sun will rise tomorrow. And this is exactly what makes Lan Kwai Fong at night exotic.

In a corner directly opposite that wall is a restaurant: Stormy Weather. You must have noticed it, with its Canadian national flags hanging everywhere. Inside, a compass hangs on the wall next to a nautical chart under a glass plate. Perhaps the customers have magically climbed aboard a ship. Perhaps the whole of Hong Kong is not an island, but rather a seafaring vessel.

After a night of debauchery, in the daytime, the wall appears plainer than plain. Marks of bureaucracy are evident on it. Besides the "slope registration number" sign from the Highways Department, there are signs in both English and Chinese, such as: "Anybody who puts up [a] poster on this government retaining wall will be prosecuted." But surely, this poster banning posting should have been banned, too!

Another reads: "Illegal dumping of refuse/building debris is prohibited. Offender[s] will be prosecuted."

But still, there are people who risk prosecution by scrawling phone numbers in large, black print. One is an advert about ditches. Ditches? How many are there in need of dredging? Yet ditches are not the only things that are clogged up around here. For me, there is a wall missing in Hong Kong.

Since I arrived, I have been hunting for a particular grey, stone wall. It appears in Eileen Chang's short story, Love in a Fallen City. It is not in Repulse Bay, as in the story, so where is it? Could it be that some gale-force winds have blown it from Repulse Bay to Lan Kwai Fong? It is not entirely unfeasible. Murray House, built in 1846 on Garden Road in Admiralty, was hauled over to Stanley Plaza where it now stands dislocated and anachronistic.

What a divine coincidence that there is a grey, stone wall in Lan Kwai Fong. If only the Highways Department would remove their warnings and instead attach a little plate to the wall (it can be in the humblest corner) that reads: "Those who wish to know the story behind this wall should refer to Love in a Fallen City." Or they could write something more literary like: "As in a dream, Tassel makes her way to the foot of the wall once again. Coming towards her is Liuyuan - she finally meets Liuyuan ..." Surely, something that romantic would capture the imagination of anyone who found himself or herself beneath the wall.

The wall's story can provide abundant meaning even for westerners not familiar with the book. Perhaps we could add some notes in English, such as: "Love in a Fallen City is a Hong Kong legend that some regard as the Gone with the Wind of the Orient. Tassel Pai's counterpart is Scarlett O'Hara, while Fan Liuyuan's is Rhett Butler. There are myriad similarities between the two stories ..."

Oh, to outlast Heaven and Earth, even when what lasts is ... but a wall. Standing beneath that wall, I let my fantasy enclose me in rapture.

Here is the relevant paragraph from Love in a Fallen City:


[translation by Karen Kingsbury, in Renditions, Issue No. 45, 1996]

"Let's walk over there a bit," said Liuyuan.

 Liusu didn't say anything. But as he walked, she slowly followed. After all, it was still early, and lots of people went out for walks on the road -- it would be all right. A little ways past the Repulse Bay Hotel, an overhead bridge arched through the air. On the far side of the bridge was a mountain slope; on the near side there was a grey brick retaining wall. Liuyuan leaned against the wall, and Liusu leaned too, looking up along the great height, a wall so high that its upper edge cannot be seen. The wall was cool and rough, the colour of death. Against it her face looked different: red mouth, shining eyes, a face of flesh and blood and feeling. 

"I don't know why," said Liuyuan, looking at her, "but this wall makes me think of the old sayings about the end of the world. Someday, when human civilization has been completely destroyed, when everything is burnt, burst, utterly collapsed and ruined, maybe this wall will still be there. If, at that time, we can meet at this wall, then maybe, Liusu, you will honestly care about me, and I will honestly care about you."

From Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities:

The Great Khan has dreamed of a city; he describes it to Marco Polo: "The harbor faces north, in shadow. The docks are high over the black water, which slams against the retaining walls; stone steps descend, made slippery by seaweed. Boats smeared with tar are tied up, waiting for the departing passengers lingering on the quay to bid their families farewell. The farewells take place in silence, but with tears. It is cold; all wear shawls over their heads. A shout from the boatman puts a stop to the delays; the traveler huddles at the prow, moves off looking toward the group of those remaining behind; from the shore his features can no longer be discerned; the boat draws up beside a vessel riding at anchor; on the ladder a diminished form climbs up, vanishes; the rusted chain is heard being raised, scraping against the hawsepipe. The people remaining behind look over the ramparts above the rocks of the pier, their eyes following the ship until it rounds the cape; for the last time they wave a white rag."

"Set out, explore every coast, and seek this city," the Khan says to Marco. "Then come back and tell me if my dream corresponds to reality."

"Forgive me, my lord, there is no doubt that sooner or later I shall set sail from that dock," says Marco, "but I shall not come back to tell you about it. The city exists and it has a simple secret: it knows only departures, not returns."

It may be true that Liuyuan will find out about true love this way, but should it be at the cost of the destruction of human civilization from which there is no return?