Not My Brother’s YMCA

I’m looking out the 9th floor window of the Salisbury Street (downtown) YMCA in Hong Kong. Actually, I’m in Kowloon, all part of the territory so proudly reclaimed by mainland China in 1997 from the British, but Kowloon is the part attached to the mainland. The black and silver, soaring, hugely titled buildings — Panasonic, Olympus, Epson — across the harbour are on Hong Kong Island, along with Kowloon the densely populated, high-rising part of the “New Territories” of HK. (By the way, in Mandarin the newly returned “Special Administrative Region (SAR)” is known as Qiang Kang, “Fragrant Harbour”. It looks reasonably fragrant on this bright afternoon.)

It’s a city that works, that is remarkably clean, one that genuinely enacts the concept of “mass transit”, moving incredible numbers of people efficiently and, at least in the district where we are, making walking a useful and do-able way of getting around. They’ve maintained, through the decades, a lovely downtown park with massive old trees and lots of water. But the big feature of downtown Kowloon, largely lost on me, is the shopping. Part of the “masses” being moved around Qiang Kang are retail tourists from the mainland – yes, folks here still call it that, though technically it’s all China – and they are everywhere. Apparently, these fellow citizens are not entirely welcome by the locals, those at least who don’t run high-end shops, and there is real antagonism between Chinese and Chinese. Hospitals here are considering denying mainland women who come here not only for Gucci but for high-class birthing, it seems. Visitors are often scorned as cultural rubes and economic vultures, and the mainlanders decry the “running dogs for the British” characteristics, so-called, of the Fragrant Harbourers. (Xenophobia takes such interesting forms in China!) But there’s money to be made and spent, and that is the predominant perfume of Hong Kong.

We’re staying at the Y, which is a symbol of the smell of money here. Rooms here are more expensive than the be-pooled and beachy-keen Thailand tourist resort we treated ourselves to last week, and its furnishings and general ambiance – there’s not a down-and-out grizzle-bearded old buddy to be seen, but there are many smiling men in hotel uniforms – make it unlike any YMCA I’ve seen. Still, it’s the cheapest proper hotel in the SAR, so far as we know. The place is also full of mainland families, the women trooping back to the Y in the late evening, their shopping bags made of fine paper stock and sporting the really great names. (The bags themselves will be objects of some pride back home.)

Today I went across the street to run the harbour-side Promenade, after warming up with a little squash-court action with my son. My wife is now checking out Marks and Spencer’s, and a superb English-language bookstore called Swindon’s. She’s on the stand-by list for a performance this evening, across the street in the HK Cultural Centre, of the Hamburg Ballet. We’re lucky folk, and a couple of nights with the Young Men’s Christian Association is a fortunate and fragrant harbour for us, indeed.

And I think of an old friend, whose period of living in the downtown YMCA of Hamilton, Ontario was among the lowest of his generally declining last years. The Y there is a fine place if you’re looking for a swim or some of the best basketball action in town, but it’s no place you’d want to live in. I doubt my aching, money-troubled buddy would have been grousing, as we have, at having to pay extra for Wi-Fi access in the room.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *