Cities Without Cafes

An affordable refuge: Café de Coral in Kennedy Town, Hong Kong. Courtesy Karen Cheung.

Hong Kong, Every afternoon

The most famous “cafe” in Hong Kong is not in fact a cafe; it is Café de Coral, a fast food chain known for its baked pork chop rice and meat tenderiser-heavy steak served on a “hot sizzling plate.” Here you will not find discussions about Nietzsche or poetry readings; instead, you get retired Hongkongers reading the newspaper or simply napping in the summer afternoon, trying to escape their stuffy apartments where they could not afford to turn on the air-conditioning.

“No industrial buildings – we play on the streets”: 2016 mid-autumn guerrilla show theme. Courtesy Karen Cheung.

Hong Kong, September 2017

The light rain painted splotches of color all over our mid-autumn night, and by the time we had supper they grew heavy and violent as the music that was ebbing through the underpass. E and I sliced through the mooncakes with a swiss knife a guitarist friend lent us and we sat on the floor, rolling cigarettes and watching our favourite band play. Pooches ran through clouds of weed-tainted smoke, barking along to the beat. These guerrilla shows, organized by the city’s underground artists and anarchists, have become a holiday tradition for those who had no family to turn to but our chosen ones.

Our old friends the police came over, telling us to turn it down a notch; yes sir thank you sir happy mid-autumn sir. They were merciful that night — perhaps the moon and her goddess had been working their magic. Earlier that year, the law enforcement had forced us out of all our factory livehouses after a series of raids, citing archaic licensing and land use laws. The city’s industrial era legacy from half a century ago had left behind cheap secret spaces where the working class quietly dwelled, dancers boldly jetéd, and musicians recklessly played.

Lung Ying-tai’s son, Andreas, once declared in an exchange with the Taiwanese critic that Hong Kong has no coffeeshop culture. That is a mistake: Hong Kong does have a coffeeshop culture, one that has plenty of room for overpriced coffee, Instagram aesthetics and brunch club tai tais — none for guitars. We couldn’t play in cafes, so we performed in industrial buildings; now that we’ve been chased out of those too, we turned to the streets.

Near midnight, slim creeks of water found their way to the equipment, busting the power generator. Everyone wordlessly handed over their umbrellas, newspapers and plastic floor mats, and E fetched a broom out of nowhere and begun shoving water to a side, as if we were moving along to choreographed steps. Minutes later, it came back on. The show must go on.

An izakaya in Tokyo, Japan. Courtesy Kris Cheng.

Japan, August 2016

The first time I came to Japan was with my family when I was ten. My brother and I marvelled at the canned cream corn soup that fell with a clunk in vending machines, feasted on teppanyaki prepared right before us and we marched through the hotel obnoxiously, singing the chorus of Linkin Park’s Numb. These were happier times, when my parents were still married, and Chester Bennington still alive.

More than a decade later, I was back. “The owner of White Noise Records told me that in Japan, you’d see office ladies who would visit Disc Union and Big Love in high heels after work,” F said. Well, we’re here now, and I don’t see any vinyl-clutching ladies.”

We were here on a pilgrimage: to see Radiohead live, a gig that had long been on our bucket list. We knew it was unlikely the band would ever be able to come to Hong Kong; they had been outspoken about their stance on Tibet, a surefire way of landing yourself on China’s blacklist. “Hong Kong is not China,” not really, not yet, but increasingly so, and we were not optimistic.

Now, hours after we tearfully sang along to Creep and being elbowed by sweaty Japanese fans who spoke little English but knew all the words, even the songs off Hail To The Thief — we were drunk on a musical high and copious amounts of sake. We managed to find ourselves an izakaya near our hostel, barely peeking out of a quiet alleyway, a beacon for weary festival goers. It was our last night here; after the weekend was over, we would be heading straight to work from the airport.

“I’m quitting my job,” J said as he refilled his dollhouse-sized cup. He had been saying it for over a year; then again, so have all of us. But F and I had greater freedoms, albeit less security — J’s parents had generously given him a down payment for his house for his birthday, and now he had to dedicate the rest of his life to paying it off. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to find a better paying job — and then I can’t afford the mortgage.”

I once did the maths, and found that it would take me 70 years to afford a 500-square-feet flat at my current salary.

“I’m moving to Japan, and I’ll buy vinyls with office ladies in high heels every day,” J said. Then his head fell onto the table.

Hong Kong Reader’s rooftop gathering. Courtesy Karen Cheung.

Hong Kong, December 2017

The owners of Hong Kong Reader hadn’t initially planned on opening a bookstore. They wanted to run a cafe, but decided against the idea after one of the founders witnessed a group of students asking for Monopoly and leaving in a huff when the owner said that they didn’t have the board game. What they envisioned was a cultural space where intellectuals could gather and hold talks with readers; they have since organized 700 talks over the past decade.

For its 10th birthday, the bookshop held a “birthday party” at the rooftop of Hong Kong Reader’s tonglau building. Rooftops of tonglaus — old Chinese-style tenement buildings — have long been a space for the grassroots population to gather and chat at the end of a day, an escape from claustrophobic and at times subdivided flats. But rooftops also had less-than-friendly connotations; the city’s mental health system was unequipped to handle the vast number of patients, and many had taken to leaping off the roof of such buildings.

On this day, young pro-democracy activist Chung Yiu-wah, known for his role during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, remembered one such friend. He was a terribly moral person, Chung said; he would berate all who shopped in supermarkets, telling them off for benefitting oligarchies instead of small shops. When everyone else had returned to their normal lives in the aftermath of social movements, he would urge all of them to continue fighting. Later, when Chung ran a bookstore of his own, he came over to donate books but did not say a word and left.

Soon after that, his friend went back to their alma mater, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and jumped off.

“At his funeral, his dad said to me, ‘Maybe, if I didn’t discourage him when he told me how much he cares about these issues, he wouldn’t have died,’” Chung said.

“Maybe, if there were more of us in the city insisting on just the small things in life, and we had a space to exist, he wouldn’t have to die.”

“A Sunny Day in Glasgow.” Courtesy Karen Cheung.

Glasgow, September 2014

Years ago I had found myself in a Scottish city that shared an industrial past with my hometown, but without the bright skies to make up for its bleakness. The fog drenched through my clothes, seeping into my mood and clogging up my brain. When I was younger my best friend had joked that I was often more emotional when it was winter; it took me years to realize she had not been joking.

On a September morning I found myself with hours to kill in between classes and took a long walk around campus as millionaire bars crumbled in my mouth and auburn leaves crunched under my boots. I stumbled across the prettiest building I’ve seen here yet, all gothic architecture and a pointy top, and headed in without a word.

“Are you here for a play a pie and a pint dear?” a woman with rosy cheeks and wiry curls that looked like she could be my Scottish grandmother said from behind the counter.

“Um — I could do with a pie. Perhaps it’s a bit too early for a pint?”

She laughed. “You get all of them for ten pounds, that’s what we famous for. You haven’t been to Oran Mor before, have you?”

The building was formerly a church and had since been restored into an arts space; it was known for its lunchtime shows and Christmas pantomimes that attracted hordes of Glasgow’s theatre lovers. I ordered a vegetarian pie and timidly sipped my pint of Tennents. By now I could no longer recall what the play was about, except that it revolved round The Coral Island; I do, however, remember the lady who sat next to me.

“You see this name on the programme? That’s Juliet Cadzow. She’s an actress and wife of David MacLennan, the founder of A Play, A Pie and A Pint — he passed away this year.” She had a faraway look in her eyes. “You here on your own, love?”

I was, I told her, although I do have a boy back home. Home was thousands of miles away. Yes, I do miss him terribly. Perhaps this was why Glasgow felt so depressing all the time.

“Yes — the weather is a bit of a downer, eh? Not the best place for missing someone. You see, I lost my husband this year too.”

We fell silent. I looked around; most of the audience members were now gone. “Shall I get us a couple more pints, then?” she smiled.

“Yes, that would be lovely, thank you.”

I waited till I was late for my next class, but she never returned.

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