Hong Kong: the most crowded city on the planet. Over seven million people vie for a mere 1,000 sq km of space. Wherever you look, wherever you go, you’ll be surrounded by a mass of moving people.
Down the escalators to the metro in the morning. Along Queen’s Road to pick up noodles during lunch hour. On the tram going home in the evening. In the shopping malls on the weekends. People, people, people everywhere. A constant circus of bumping into each other or trying to dance out of each other’s way.
Except for right now. Chinese New Year has just kicked off and suddenly you’re alone in the city. The shops are closed. The dry-cleaners have stopped spinning. The fruit and veg sellers have boarded up their stalls. The street-food vendors are gone. No offices are lit late at night and though buses still run, hardly anyone’s on them.
For the locals this is a time of celebration and get-togethers, of huge family dinners followed by more of the same in an endless 10-day New Year feast that is meant to be so satisfying it fills you up until the next New Year comes around in 12 months.
For us foreigners living in Hong Kong, Chinese New Year is a time of solitude and calm. While the city’s churches, temples and dinner tables are filled to the max, the streets are empty, given up to us non-locals. At first the realisation that you can have Hong Kong to yourself for a few days, without the thronging, pushing and showing, makes you ecstatic. What freedom to walk however you want to walk, fast or slow – even in a zigzag if you like.
But the next moment you’re spooked as you look around and see that the city has taken on a sort of post-apocalyptic eeriness. You wonder, where has everyone gone? And, more importantly, will they come back? You might even start to peer into doorways to see if you can detect any life, anyone at all moving around in the high-rises. But all you can see are the lovely little miniature Mandarin orange trees that decorate every nook during the festivities.
Hong Kong may be a more bearable place to live without the millions of people you have to share it with on a daily basis but without them, all together moving forward on the roads, getting on the elevated walkways, pouring out of the metro stations, running in and out of shops, it’s no longer Hong Kong as we know it. As family obligations release Hong Kong-ers back to their everyday lives, people return to the city’s streets, soon clogging up every corner of every neighbourhood again. To that I say happy Chinese New Year, or gong hei fat choi!
Liv Lewitschnik is Monocle’s Hong Kong bureau chief.