Postcard from the Future: Christmas in Hong Kong

A transplanted Hongkonger looks forward to his annual year-end break to catch up with friends and family.

A Star Ferry boat crossing Victoria Harbour at sunset.

When Flight GA860 from Jakarta touches down at Chek Lap Kok, wheels screeching on the northern runway, my eyes are fixed on the bronze-hued mountains of Lantau island that almost seem to glow in the late afternoon light. My friend Bama is occupying the window seat; his presence is a convenient excuse for us to get out and explore the four corners of the small territory where I grew up. We’re happy to trade in the sweltering heat and humidity of Indonesia’s rainy season for the cool winter air.

On streets thronged with Christmas shoppers in light jackets, a few people wear face masks, but most are comfortable enough to go without. Elevator buttons have been taped over with a thin plastic sheet; a bilingual notice in cartoony red lettering says the transparent cover is disinfected twice a day. It seems perfectly normal because, as any Hongkonger will tell you, this has been standard practice since early 2003. By now, several months after the pandemic has passed, all of us have gained a newfound appreciation for the small things we once took for granted: a handshake or hug, sharing a meal with loved ones at a restaurant, a simple stroll in the neighborhood park, even queuing up at an airport check-in desk before a vacation.

On Christmas Day, we’ll gather for an annual tradition at my grandparents’ home—a buffet-style feast with all the close relatives who haven’t flown off to Japan or Thailand. My eldest aunt looks me up and down and fires me a question that never seems to change: “How many kilos have you gained in Indonesia?” I brush it off with a smile. Around the table, we clink glasses of champagne and wish each other good health. I look over at a cousin, who, like hundreds of thousands of lucky patients around the world, experienced the virus with only mild symptoms. He’s got his eye on one of his favorite comfort foods: fluffy wok-scrambled eggs cooked to perfection. The still-steaming dish takes pride of place on a counter running almost the width of the dining room, alongside a whole roast turkey served with stuffing and two kinds of gravy, a tub of fork-tender poached salmon in a clear stock flavored with mirepoix, gammon ham with Madeira sauce, mashed potatoes, braised abalone and stir-fried Chinese broccoli (kailan). I make sure to leave space on my plate for a childhood staple: home-cooked spaghetti with slivers of onion and luncheon meat in a sweet tomato sauce, topped with shredded cheese and baked in the oven until the noodles on the edges begin to crisp.

Tai Kwun’s main courtyard, complete with an enormous Christmas tree, as seen in December 2018.

Bama and I work off those calories on a half-day hike with my family in the New Territories; another afternoon is dedicated to Tai Kwun, a historic police station and prison compound that is now a den of contemporary art galleries, spaces for heritage-themed exhibitions, and a handful of high-end bars and restaurants. In typical Hong Kong fashion, the main courtyard has been taken up by a tall and ostentatious Christmas tree. I’ve timed our visit so we can stroll down the hill to Central for the five-minute passage to Kowloon aboard a Star Ferry boat to catch the sunset, when Hong Kong’s skyline is at its most glorious. It’s comforting to know that these green-and-white pill-shaped beauties have been plying Victoria Harbour since 1888.

Despite spending almost 20 years of my life in this city, the view from the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront never gets old. I doubt it ever will. Under the darkening sky, we sit and watch the lights flicker on across the water. “Season’s Greetings” is writ large in LED bulbs across the glass facades of corporate towers, some of them adorned with blinking bells and angels with trumpets, snowflakes and reindeer, Santa on his sleigh. Leisure craft bearing gaggles of camera-wielding tourists glide effortlessly through the choppy waves. Amid this procession of human activity, I recall the tumultuous year we’ve been through and am grateful for the fact that I am simply alive.

The Hong Kong Island skyline at dusk.

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