Among the Fray

It is difficult to recall my first meeting with AB in any amount that exceeds a vignette. To be fair, my memories always turn fuzzy when any degree of alcohol is involved. That night we met in his favorite underground bar, Le Boudoir, a setting that teetered on the edge of cool and seedy. It wasn’t the sort of place you’re supposed to remember clearly the next day. My next few weeks of summer were to play out on and off the stage of Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s historic lane known for its bars and clubs that cater to ex-pats, and he was to be my guide of sorts.

I’ve always felt that there are three outcomes of two people of color meeting in a sea of those not like them. There is either outright elation, muted competition, or—as it was for AB and I—a combination of the two. Both brown, college undergrads on a decaying velvet booth in the farthest corner of the room, our conversation flowed like a melody being played by one who doesn’t know all the notes yet. In a crescendo, there were moments that were achingly relatable, and we swapped stories of being brown in Hong Kong, coming out to parents as the firstborn child, and the politics of our respective American liberal arts colleges. 

And yet there were also times when a sour note was hit, and I would remember that I did not properly fit in this space. Sitting across from me was a graduate of Hong Kong International School, the premier school on the entire island, with students so rich that when I’d asked someone what the school was like the only words I received were “rancidly privileged.” When this note was played, I’d be brought back to the fact that this man was testing me. Was I worth speaking to? Who were my parents? Did I have at least two passports? By the end of the night, some lie had eventually rolled off my tongue about having been to the same parties as Sasha Obama while in high school. 

Originally from Mumbai, India, AB spent his formative years—13 through 18—in Hong Kong. His understanding of self is intrinsically enmeshed with the city, his memories scattered across its red taxis, mountains, beaches, and crowded streets. The only time AB and I ever hung out in the daytime, we walked the contours of Wan Chai and he pointed out the especially striking buildings that littered our path. “How do you think they came up with that?” he asked me, and I couldn’t respond, my appreciation of architecture falling significantly short of his. He would later tell me that the urban fabric of a city is how he stays connected to it once he leaves, a sentiment that is rooted in a complex and amorphous understanding of home.  

It struck me, his ability to have feelings about the banal. All summer, his Instagram stories were filled with images of parties and mountains and sunsets, each doctored with a filter that made them seem as if out of a vintage film. He’d captured the beauty in the ordinary so well that you’d almost be convinced you hadn’t been in the same room. I’d figured there is either beauty everywhere he goes or he is determined to make sure all his memories are beautiful. The latter was a premise that stuck with me even after we both left the island. 

If a sense of ephemerality emanates from this story, then it is being portrayed correctly. In the past two years, Hong Kong has been a city plagued by change. While enduring the repercussions of COVID-19, like all cities throughout the world, Hong Kong found itself at the behest of an increasingly aggressive China. The historic principle of “one country, two systems” is evermore challenged. Hong Kong continues to fall steadily on the Democracy Index, and in the aftermath of the 2019 – 2020 protests, the increased police presence is palpable. Change is newly interwoven into the spirit of the city, which continues to suffer a mass exodus. It’s not uncommon to hear “this might be my last time in the city”, or “I don’t know when I’m coming back” in conversation, words that AB himself echoed to me.  

The same day he revealed himself to me as a burgeoning architect, AB admitted his lack of relationship with Hong Kong politics. It seemed to be a trend that carried throughout his high school friends, all of whom attended HKIS. I immediately took it at face value: the casually rich aren’t forced to pay attention to politics. But AB chalked it up to his expatriate identity. He would tell me later, “Who am I to speak on behalf of a city I do not truly belong to?”. Yet it must be noted that this relationship has evolved, as relationships so often do. Whether it be due to college or new friends, he recently professed that his earlier sentiment doesn’t befit the love he has for the city: “Having no position is ultimately a disservice.” 

For most of that summer, I viewed AB as a safe space, albeit relative and alien. Hong Kong remains a place with a high bar of entry, one raised by non-whiteness, an inability to speak Cantonese, and failure to attend its consortium of private schools. Yet AB unknowingly helped me navigate this barrier. While part of an untouchable orbit, he remained the first person I called after my throat started bleeding from smoking, a habit that began and ended in the backrooms of Le Boudoir that same summer.

The last time we called, each at our respective American colleges far from the sounds and smells of the city, our conversation took on the silhouette of a goodbye, one tinged with politics, architecture homework, and acceptance. “I feel really nostalgic for a period of Hong Kong that I wasn’t even remotely alive for, in the ’70s and ’80s. Those moments from Wong Kar Wai films, those moments when you truly fall in love with the city, [moments with] this certain sort of energy…”

The call disconnected briefly, and while waiting for the sound of his voice to return, the stark difference in our current realities compared to our first meeting occurred to me. On BeReal, AB had posted an image of himself in a deep green sweater paired with matching eyebags and architectural sketches in front of him. I wondered what buildings would be embedded in his memories from college.

“…[Hong Kong] is never going to be a place that I cannot love in the present, and only love in the past. But I think it’s becoming harder and harder to find those moments. Maybe it’s because I’m changing as a person. Maybe it’s because the city is changing.”