The Smell of Hong Kong

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Everywhere has a smell, distinct and unique, and the many smells that make up a place are inextricably bound to each other. I strongly remember a Calvados distillery somewhere in Normandy; the smell of the oak barrels, the alcohol vapour and the crushed apples. I remember nothing else except the smell.  

Rural idylls do not possess the monopoly on this either. Months in Nairobi left not just a bitter taste in my mouth, but a lingering stench in my nostrils. The sour smell of refuse, mingled with sweat, gun smoke, acrid exhaust fumes and red African dust in the thin air of that city and has stamped out a place in my brain’s olfactory centre.

London by comparison smells rather pleasant, though the scent shifts from borough to borough. A certain undernote of Chanel wafts down the King’s Road. Brixton has a nose of spices, ginger and other exotica. This is all the high note which comes before the essential London scent. By its very ethereal nature scent is hard to define. But there is a profusion of electricity, excitement and grass wafting from the underground and from the parks.

Hong Kong has a scent all of its own. Like Barcelona, and certain other cities with their faces to the sea, there is an essential base note of salinity, a marine quality. Unlike in small former pleasure resorts, let’s leave them anonymous, where turning the corner and finding a rusting harbour and a stretch of dun coloured sand is a surprise, the ocean in Hong Kong is ever present. It is never a surprise to find Victoria Harbour lying resplendent at the heart of the teeming metropolis.

On top of this base note comes a particular exotic scent. The air is thick with the smell of ginger and unknown things. There are spices which I cannot name or describe. Vast boiling pans full of noodles and tripe can be found on every street, usually within a stone’s throw of each other. Weird, unusual and odd dried things erupt into a potent scent in the many bubbling cauldrons which populate the streets of the city, this pearl of the east.

Alongside these noodle stops are shacks with bamboo steamers stacked five, ten, twenty deep, full of wonderful parcels of magic and intrigue. Perhaps this little bamboo casket contains Char Sui Bao, a rice dough steamed with a filling of spiced, sauced pork erupting in violent scarlet. Or perhaps it might be a little delicate Har Gau, minced prawn in a delicate translucent wrapping. Or maybe you might even find dreaded chicken feet. Each package is steamed and that steam, fragrant and sweet, also fills the air.

Step off the market streets and into a housing block and the smell of incense is strong. Each flat, it seems, keeps a small devotional burning sticky, sweet, and sacramental. These black fumes wave and dance through the ether most delicately. In temples, of which there are enough, the incense fumes are so thick that the joss-stick emissions do not dance but charge towards the nostril. A thick wall of sensory attack, breaking into the defences of reason and rationality ready for a spiritual riot. These temples’ send forth their fumes and they hang heavy over Hong Kong and Kowloon.

Back onto the streets are little medicine tea stalls offering herbal brews for every ailment found under the sun and even some under the moon. There is a witchy note to these. The mixing of bizarre and mysterious herbs and other resinous items into a concoction of variant strength has the spectre of Salam and of Pendle to it. I wonder whether all these potions are well intended. Good or ill, a smell emits there which is at turns potent, sour, bitter, repulsive and attractive.

More simply vile are the spiky, huge and monstrous durian fruit which oppress far too many grocers and vegetable stalls. These brutes have a prehistoric look. They are scaly as much as spiky and a primitive green-yellow in the same hue one imagines some wicked dinosaur. Their flesh is prized as being as rich as custard. The vile odour is faintly surgical. There is a sourness like the vomit from too much vodka and too few carbs.  And let me not be coy, as if ever I were: the fruit has  a sewer note, as if in one of those passages of effluence might be a deceased and rotting cow. Indeed, the scent of the whole city breaks down the defences of those who come to stay.

The scent hints at more than the prospect of exploration of a mysterious and exotic land. It whispers sweet enticements to cross Victoria Harbour, or climb The Peak, to drink that elixir. Perhaps those dark potions bubbling away emit a scent that bewitches.

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