At Times Square in Causeway Bay there are two long flights of escalators. The first carries people from street level up in to the atrium. The second carries shoppers further up and on to the first of several shopping levels.
I got to know Times Square and the surrounding neighbourhood twenty years ago when, as a secondary school student, I made some extra pocket money running errands for a company whose offices were in Tower 1. Each day that summer I would take the escalators.
The first flight of escalators brought me to the office lifts. It was a Times Square that I slowly discovered – a place of drab cubicles, laminated desks and hissing photocopiers; and a place of work. The second escalator brought me to the Times Square I knew. It was a more familiar and welcoming place. My mother would buy tennis shoes for the family here, and a few storeys up was the games arcade where I would meet friends. I never particularly liked the mall, but it was still an environment I recognised, and a place I could understand within the context of living in Hong Kong.
Returning to Times Square recently I was struck by how different it has become. It is not that the shops have changed and gone up market. It is far more than this.
I did not notice it at first as the escalator carried me up to the atrium. A large manga-style pirate ship hung suspended from the high ceiling, and below it swarmed a mass of people eager to view and be photographed with exhibits from the current One Piece exhibition that the mall is currently hosting. Though the crowd was generally young, it was not so different to the those on the streets below. There were singles, couples and families. It being summer many were in tee-shirts. Some wore sandals or flip flops. There were older men studying the merchandise on sale, whilst young children ran around shouting in excitement at the colourful attractions before them. A father coddled his baby girl against his shoulder as mother kissed her to sleep.
As the second escalator carried me further up into the mall itself I felt myself being drawn away from all that energy. Shopping at Times Square has become more expensive. The shops, as in all malls in Hong Kong, have gone up market. The clientele has changed. But so too has the feel of the place.
Alighting from the escalator I felt I had left Hong Kong. Hardly anyone was speaking Cantonese. On the shopping floors their was a noticeable hush. The women here applied more make-up. The men, more stern faced, seemed less wide eyed. Groups of shoppers, some couples, but mostly women, laboured by me with an awkward air of gracefulness. These people seemed to live less and shop more.
I went to the site where once my family had bought our trainers. The shop has long gone, replaced by yet another luxury brand store. There were no children now to peer sheepishly down at the shoppers below.
It was not just a difference in language, but a difference in the way language was spoken and used. People walked differently, reacted differently, and dressed differently. But what I found most uncomfortable was the way I felt I was being looked at.
At the atrium I felt among people so accepting of my presence that I did not register in either their eyes or in their thoughts. I felt among a crowd. But among those shopping I felt noted. People met my eyes a touch longer. It was not that I felt unwelcome, but I rather an intrusion; as if I was the visitor, and that this part of the mall, these shops and this environment, was theirs rather than ours.
As I entered a brand name shop, browsing a collection of products my family had once bought, I felt the shop attendants stare. When finally an attendant approached me I noted how differently I was addressed. The attendants were still polite, but also more formal and clearly less interested. They were not trained to serve someone like me.
In the shop another shopper was treated in a similar tone, if with a good deal more interest. The level of attention and the sales approach seemed natural to this shopper. They were in their element. I was not. Leaving the shop I felt that my business was not important.
Returning to the atrium I once again felt the energy of the people in whose company I feel most at home. The volume and tones of the chatter were once again familiar, and the conversation overheard seemed natural. People interacted in a manner I seem to instinctively understand.
A young man by my side talked excitedly to a friend about something he had just bought. What he chose to say and how he chose to say it struck me now as comfortingly familiar. How he valued what he had bought related to a sense of value I find myself sharing. His boasting was playful, an act that his friend was meant to and did see through. They shared a laugh together. I smiled too.
As I descended on the first flight of escalators on my way out of Times Square I found myself looking at the people passing me as they rode the parallel lines up in to the mall. There was a group of four young women, all in shorts and a tee-shirt, their skin glowing from the touch of the summer sun and sparkling in the humidity. Behind them an elderly man spoke to his young grandson, who looked upwards excitedly and I imagined the smile that would cross both of their faces as the Pirate Ship came in to sight. As these people passed they all seemed beautiful to me in a way that none of the shoppers or shop attendants I had seen a few levels up could match.
Every city changes. But we should ask for whom has this change served? We must not be blind to the perception that a certain class in our city has come to be associated with a culture that is increasingly alien from our own. It may not be best for business, but perhaps a compromise needs to be considered.
(Photo: By Wuaiubon via Wikimedia Commons)