As I type this, I'm sitting in my dressing room awaiting my final show in Hong Kong. I say dressing room, it's a top floor balcony room at the famous Jumbo King restaurant (google image search it now!). There's a warm breeze coming off the water as I look up from my laptop at the boats pop-popping by in the harbour. I feel like Chow Yun Fat, having a peaceful and reflective cup of tea before capping a bunch of gangsters in elegantly choreographed slo-mo. I'm not though, I'm a trick-throwing gagman who, by dumb luck and good fortune, has just had a rather excellent week.
I arrived 8 days ago, to do two headline cabaret spots at two gigs, with a week in between them in which to explore the city that birthed so much culture I love, but which I had never visited. I'm met from the airport and unloaded into my home for a week, a hotel with a view from the window that seems to unreal to be actual.
First things first, though, and I got taken to the Hong Kong convention centre to meet everyone, soundcheck and rehearse for my show. It's all smooth, and the event producer has a badass haircut, so we're all good. It's a James Bond themed night, so there are video screens showing montages of classic moments, a huge gold 007 backdrop, bars pushing vodka martinis.. its all very expensive and fun. My opening acts for tonight are a chanteuse singing Bond themes and a bona fide Hong Kong stunt team somersaulting off the stage and doing a fun little action sequence. Then its me, and fighting jet lag like Roger Moore fighting Jaws (and by that I mean unconvincingly) I do my thing. Seems to go great, they clap and laugh in all the right places. Like Lorne Michaels famously says, “It's easier when they laugh”.
And then I'm back at my hotel, and that view has turned into a real world screen saver of Blade Runner twinkly lights and video billboards. Totally future-beautiful. I have a little nightcap, toast to my reflection in the window, and plan my week. I've got some things that I want to do here.
It's a busy town, but somehow doesn't feel aggressive. Not sure how they did that – every other place I've been to where bustling people are packed tightly into each others personal spaces, there's at least a slight feeling of “grrr”, but I just didn't get that here. Then there's the smells. Oh my god, the smells – like a patchwork quilt of invisible-until-you-walk-into-them signifiers. So many, and so different. Gorgeous wafts of food cooking, spices, something hot and sweet, something meaty and crackling, and then a hellish rotting stench that might knock you over with its sudden pungentness, were it not short-lived and closely followed by smells anew. I thought it might be like this, and I thought I'd hate it, but I didn't. I grew quickly to love the smells. They're somehow evidence of a living city, of stuff going on. I think I'd rather have them all, than a homogenised none of them.
The main impression my first few expeditions into getting lost in the city left me with was a simple one, though. I've rarely seen a city with such a perfect balance of the old and the new. Gleaming luxury cars share the roads with clanging hundred-year old trams. Beautiful, placid temples with sweet incense-thick air sit in “rest gardens”, just a few paces from the busiest high-end shopping streets. Shiny glass skyscrapers half-built, held up by bamboo scaffolding lashed together with rope. And you won't find a living analogy to this city better than that.
I do some touristy stuff. I ride the steepest funicular railway in the world up to “The Peak” - the best view of the city, and its quite the bobby dazzler. The rest though is the usual shopping centre banality. I mean really, who goes to the most famous view in one of the most exciting cities in the world, and buys a Bubba Gump hat? I walked back into town and had a big bowl of gorgeous chewy noodles and some fried pumpkin. I don't regret not buying the hat, but goddamn I'm glad I didn't miss the noodles.
Went to a bunch of markets. I do love a good market. When I was a kid, a couple of times a week me and my mum would walk the 15 minutes up the road to Edmonton Green market and meet my grandma for lunch in the co-op cafe. I have very happy childhood memories of Edmonton market – the smells of fresh produce, the butcher, the flower stall, even the mothbally smell of cheap clothes. The sounds of stallholders yelling how many, exactly, one could expect for “A PAAAAAAAHND”. Markets are a comfort zone and a happy place, and Hong Kong has some doozys. Meat, pastries, fish, clothes and toys in the maze of streets off Hennesey Road in Wan Chai. The ladies market in Kowloon for knock-off everything, and scared, overwhelmed tourists being effortlessly fleeced. The Temple Street night market for souvenirs, electronics, toys, tshirts, gadgets, and all sorts of crazy oddments. Went to them all. Loved them all. And don't be a rube – HAGGLE.
If you know anything about me (and if you don't, how did you end up here reading this?), you'll know that I'm a floozy for a nice bit of tailoring. I'm a schmutter-slut. So of course right at the top of my HK-to-do list was getting some suits and shirts made. A quick trip on the Star Ferry (Which, by the way, immediately became one of my favourite things in the world. As I sit here typing this, knowing that I'm going home tomorrow, I already know I'll miss it. Just yesterday, as I rode it for the 8th, and last time, I realised that, without any thought or planning, I had a favourite place to sit. Good sign), and I'm at Sams tailors in Kowloon being measured and consulted. I'm a suit nerd, so I'm very clear on what I want, and choose fabric, cut, style, detailing, lining etc. Despite everything that everyone knows about Hong Kong tailors, I still find it insane that they'll have two bespoke suits and two shirts, all made from scratch for me, ready in two days flat. But two days later, as I'm scanning the walls of previous satisfied clients (Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton, Prince Charles, DAMMIT Donald Trump), here they are – perfect fit, exactly as asked for, and beautifully made. That's how you get a customer for life.
The other thing I wanted to do while I was here was touch base somehow (I wasn't really sure exactly how) with kungfu. I've been a student of various forms of martial arts for most of my adult life, and used to be a devoted practitioner of a few various forms of wushu and kungfu, before moving into a little Jeet Kune Do, and various other arts. I figured it would be a waste not to at least try to find a little tuition of some kind while I was here. I put out some feelers, did some research, and managed to secure a little quality time with a couple of teachers. My take away, apart from a few sharper techniques, and things to work on, was how kungfu is truly considered an art here. The term “Martial arts” is used globally, but perhaps rarely actually thought about. These are systems of combat, of course, but that's often not completely why they were created and developed. The people I spent time with considered, no – assumed – that kungfu is of the same family as painting or sculpture, a folk art, to be treated with national pride, preserved and understood, with a legacy and history of great practitioners who – like all great artists – invested some of themselves into it, in order to personalise and develop it. As one of the gentlemen I met with, through English that was not perhaps as broken as he pretended, told me: “It's art, like painting a portrait. Not just fighting, like painting a house. But a portrait painter can paint a house, and it would look pretty good, huh?”. Then he lit another cigarette. Awesome. Wisdom from a kungfu teacher in Hong Kong? Ticked off the life list.
Other fragmented memories of the past few days.. Let me think.. Oh yeah, whoever invented the little pastry and hot bean curd dim sum thing? Give them the bloody nobel food prize. That's a thing, right? Holy cats, that was the good stuff. Along with a double espresso and egg tart, which is the correct way to start your day. Had that so often that even though I was only in town for a week, the coffee bar next to the hotel now know my usual.
And now we've flashed forward. The last 24 hours were a blur of crispy noodles, being on stage, packing, checking in at the airport, and grabbing the occasional nap, all of which brings me to the now – sitting typing this, bleary-eyed on the last third of the six thousand mile flight home. I'm no longer in that crazy city, my little adventures of discovery have moved into a different part of my brain and become memories, locked and saved. All done, achievement unlocked, game over. Months ago, when I found out that my absurd job would be taking me to Hong Kong, I was excited, sure – I'm always excited to be able to spend some time in a new town – but I really didn't foresee falling in love with the place to the extent that I did. It's noisy, smelly and busy. Go to any main street and if you tilt your head backwards you'll struggle to see the sky through the cacophony of signs hanging out from walls or from wires overhead. Alleys are lined with trays of flapping gawping wet fish, piles of crabs and fruit and vegetables of the most unlikely, star-trek-ish design. The same market stall will sell religious iconography right next to iphone chargers that light up and play a tune as they give your phone juice. I'll never forget the similarities between the rows of various beautifully carved Buddhas in the temples and the toyshop windows crammed with equally expertly made figurines of more modern icons – Iron Man, Kamen Rider, Princess Leia. And talking about temples - the way the open slats in the roof of Tin Hau temple let the incense smoke create layers upon layers of diagonal beams of sunlight, which light up statues like spotlights on a stage will stay with me, I think, for ever.
I always get a little self-concious writing these pieces. I sometimes worry that they might come across as smug, as “Hey look at my exciting showbiz life”, but that's really not the intention. The point here is that when I was a geeky, nerdy young teenager, with very little, prospect-wise, I found a thing – juggling – that for whatever reason, seemed to mean something to me. Back then, the idea that it might be able to pay the rent, even just for a little while, seemed fantastic. Nearly thirty years later, and I am continually slack-jawed that its given me the opportunity to have adventures like this. To meet so many astonishing people, to have seen to many incredible sights, to have been to places that I genuinely would have never believed I would get the chance to go to. So maybe that's what this blog is – letters back to the teenage me, telling him to not be so shy and unsure, to have a little faith that the thing that he found, despite what others may have thought, despite obvious conventional wisdom, was...the right thing. So, here's to having a thing.