Like a prodigal son returning home, I stood at the peak of a mountain I once lived on, looking out at a city I once knew better than the pipa and violin calluses on my hands. In Hong Kong, every building shone like a beacon in the night. It brought a different kind of peace than the nighttime quiet that Arkansas provided. During the two years I lived in the Natural State, I became familiar with the type of still where you could hear the night breathe. Never still, Hong Kong brought the sort of peacefulness that came with screaming, a sounding declaration of human existence. I am here, look at me, look at me, look at me. As my parents laughed somewhere behind me, I wondered if we looked out at the skyline and saw the same neon green tinted memories of streets and insect glow.
We had begun our hike up Lion Rock just as the sun barely grazed the crooked horizon line, painting the harbour skyline warm gold instead of searing white. Fireflies, their yellow-green tails twinkling like stars, had danced amidst the swaying wild grass and tree branches. My father and I used to catch them in little glass jars and bring them home to watch the glowing dots fly around the living room, all the lights switched off.
“Do you remember that time we saw a snake one night?” My father had asked as we inched our way up the road, the salt and pepper of his hair standing out though the leaf-speckled dusk. “You were so scared afterwards, I had to carry you home.”
“I was five, but okay,” I replied. “Many-banded kraits are venomous. I had every right to be terrified.”
My father looked wistful. “You’ve grown a lot since then.” He spoke with a heavy blend of sadness and pride. I understood. Everything seemed much smaller now, less giant than they had been when I was a child. An oasis within a metropolis, mountains remain immortal, but the people stepping foot in them do not.
We had arrived at the peak just as the sky turned a vibrant pink, the sun tinting the glass skyscrapers and grey estates orange and rose. Last time I stood here, I had just hiked it with my aunt seven years ago. Some part of me still longed for the recklessness of my childhood, the thrill I got from climbing the rocks just a little too close to the edge. Pictures of me standing on a boulder with my arms stretched wide as I yelled into the wind still floated around somewhere in the family group chats. We had started in the comfortable winter morning chill when the sun was just rising and took the long way up, arriving just before noon. I could still feel the weight of my then-long hair, brittle with cold and mountain wind, and how bright everything shined, sunlight making crystals out of windows and concrete.
Closing my eyes, I thought of my American friend Rose’s backyard in the middle of nowhere, Arkansas. Once, we had driven her back home after a day over at my house in the suburbs. The hour-long drive south took me down winding roads through places I called forests and she called woods. Listening to the soft lilt of her voice in an accent that had become familiar, I had placed my hands, dry and scarred from cold winters my body had never known before, against the car window and imagined rough tree bark breaking the skin apart.
If my hands were charcoal-stained instead of string-callused, I would have captured the view in watercolour. If Hong Kong was a mural, a shattered marble mosaic, Northwest Arkansas from the I-49 was a forgotten Andrew Wyeth, tucked away and awaiting display, gathering dust in a museum drawer.
That March evening, I had learned that Rose actually did live in a log-walled cabin in the middle of the woods. I also learned the feeling of speeding in a golf cart, the adults we left behind in the dust yelling at us to go slower.
Rose taught me to find constellations from her little hill top in West Fork, Arkansas. Start with the North Star, and you figure it out from there. She had laughed when my weak eyes, blinded by city lights, failed to do even that. But just before my mother called for me to get in the car, I picked out Cassiopeia, that little flattened W, hanging by the corner of the navy sky, tucked between two tall shadowed cedar peaks.
Although I kept my eyes on it the entire way home, I still lost it when I ran from the garage to the yard.
On Lion Rock, the sun was almost entirely gone. Only a few strands of pink and purple remained, streaking across a navy sky now illuminated by the lights of highways and buildings. The Remains of the Day, I thought. Ishiguro understood metamorphosis, that thin tightrope line between cultures, the way values and morals and everything changed with time and place. From up high, Kowloon—the district I grew up in, a home within home—didn’t look all that different, but I knew better.
The stationary shop I used to buy pastel blue mechanical pencils from shut down three months ago, replaced by a Chow Tai Fook selling diamond necklaces no one in the area could afford. The building across the street from where my cousin used to live caught on fire a year ago and turned the sky the colour of opium smoke, burying my childhood in its ashes and ruins.
I watched the lights in apartment building windows as they flickered on one by one, forming little stars on the ground. 8 p.m., and in some ways, the city just came alive. Just as the boulder I was leaning on had once brought me to the top of the world, my hometown that had once seemed so big I now understood as a pencil speck on an atlas. My love for it felt too big for my heart, and the streets of Kowloon seemed like too much for any one person to know. And yet.
I could tell you where to find the best noodles (Kam Ho Restaurant on Fuk Lo Tsun Road). I knew where to find good quality boba and fruit tea drinks for impossibly low prices (Hoi Saam Guo Yuen, Happy Fruit, on Yuk Wah Crescent). Po Kong Village Road Park allowed for moon-and-street-lit strolls and teenagers practicing kickflips, making it the best place for late night walks. A pro-protests and pro-democracy store, Dai Gai Siu Goon had the best desserts, my favourite being the coconut pudding with taro and grass jelly.
The window lights made constellations as the night grew deeper, imaginary but symbolic figures and patterns appearing in a night sky of human life. Rose had seemed to know every star and tree and pebble in her woodland backyard, and I now wondered if I could ever hope to know Hong Kong, or even Kowloon, just as well. The memory of yellow revolution banners flying in the wind of this very spot burning fresh in my mind, I thought of all the people who loved this city just as much as I did and fought the urge to fall to my knees.
Basking in the light of Kowloon blooming and coming to life under the warm blanket of darkness, my parents and I began our journey down. I only had a month left in Hong Kong, summer vacation only lasted so long. Moving down the path that a few months ago was lit up by a human chain of protesters, I swore an oath to every crystalline speck of light that made this city beautiful. I was a Hongkonger, and as long as I still breathed its fragrant harbour air, I would not waste a single day away from its streets.
Chiu-yi Rachel Ngai (she/her) is a high school student hailing from Hong Kong. Currently studying in Arkansas, she works closely with her school’s award-winning literary magazine, Footnotes. She also serves as Blog Director for SeaGlass Literary and writes for Intersections Magazine and Project Said. Her work has been published in Skipping Stones, Paper Crane Journal, and Unbroken Journal. She hopes you have a lovely day!