It is completely counter-intuitive to feel you need to run back to the apartment in order to have enough space to breathe, but that is exactly how I feel here in Hong Kong. And Masha's apartment is tiny, although it is huge by Hong Kong standards – it has a living room, after all. The room I am sleeping in is just big enough to fit a bed and a closet, or a bed and a desk, but not all three pieces of furniture at the same time.
I am walking on the overpasses leading from one subway exit to another, or over the street. The overpasses, along with other public spaces – areas under bridges, the streets - are filled with women: Filipino women, Thai women, mostly women from Southeast Asia. They are sitting on the floors on blankets, or on pieces of cardboard, and eating, hanging out, drinking, talking, watching movies or listening to music. Some seem to be selling food and snacks. A group of women is dancing to a song, laughing.
One of the women I see somewhere else set up cardboard partitions, a cardboard palace of sorts, and is sitting on the floor and watching a movie. And although the partitions are high, I can still see her and I feel as if I am entering her private space that she set up here, in public, in the open, where everyone can see her.
I want to approach them, but I am too embarrassed to do so. In this space, so public, I feel as if I entered their private spaces, as if I entered their living rooms. I want to photograph them, but that makes me feel even worse. In the end I secretly take out my cellphone and take a couple of photos, filled with shame.
Later, they explain to me that these women come to Hong Kong to work as nannies, caretakers, maids. They get one day off at work, usually Sundays (although I saw them every day) and since they don’t have money to spend it in restaurants and cafes and they obviously do not want to be (or can’t be) inside their bosses’ houses, they spend their days outside, in makeshift public living rooms.
I make reservations for a donation-based Kowloon Free Tour during which we are supposed to be shown the “real” side of Hong Kong, behind the glitzy façade of the city. But when I arrive the tour guide tells us it has been cancelled because not enough people applied and I am left there alone, in Kowloon. I guess making money is more important than showing the true face of the city.
I find a cheap wonton place near Masha’s and I eat lunch there for the next couple of days. I keep dropping the pieces of wonton in the soup, the liquid splashing everywhere around me. I continue to use Mandarin Chinese as lingua franca.
In a different wonton place I eat in silence when a lost foreigner sits opposite me. I always feel so weird in situations like these, when people struggle with language. I want to help them because I have felt that feeling of being lost, but I do not want to engage in conversation. And this one is hungry for conversation. I, on the other hand, treasure my peace and solitude. But this foreigner, man. He is really struggling, trying to get noodles in a dumpling shop. So I ask the waitress if she speaks Putonghua and explain what he wants.
But then he starts to engage me in conversation and he keeps talking to me. Asks me whether I am Chinese and then when I answer I am from Croatia, he proceeds to tell me he knows a Croatian in the Canary Islands (where he lives) who was convicted of war crimes. But the big countries like the States, they also commit war crimes, but no one holds them accountable. Like it matters, dude. Like it matters. I finish my wontons as quickly as I can, because I do not want to be seated opposite this ball of sadness anymore.
The rest of the days are spent in silence, wandering the city which stretches into height rather than width, and in which it seems even breathing costs money.