Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A Night in Causeway Bay

Out of curiosity I spent a few hours at Causeway Bay last night, visiting a few new shops and practising photo-shooting with my digital mirrorless camera. It was certainly a relaxing but thought-inspiring evening.

Causeway Bay is one of the best known districts in Hong Kong among shoppers. It is so crowded that many of us, the local residents, try to avoid on weekends and holidays. Yet I never notice even the skyline of Causeway Bay has been cut into awkward shapes by the skyscrapers and concrete blocks.

What a clue to the cityscape of Hong Kong - the perfect illustration of how physical, visible aspects of the city are made by the intangible, subtle schools of thought that even many people are unaware of.

Eslite, the renowned bookshop from Taiwan, has made quite a fuss with its first branch in Hong Kong. I have been to various branches of Eslite in Taipei during my previous visits, but it doesn't really impress me as much as some other friends may feel. The bookstore setting is by all means cosy and user-friendly, but their collection of books doesn't really suit my taste. I'd rather spent hours strolling along the old bookstores on Chungking Road South, where I can get tonnes of good titles on classics, history, literature and philosophy.

Located on the eighth to tenth floors of the newly open Hysan Place, where Hennessy Centre used to be, Eslite has certainly becomes a tourist spot, if the destination of cultural pilgrimage. Ming Pao Daily reported earlier this week, quoting a security officer, "When did Hong Kong start loving reading so much?" Pardon my prejudice, it would be too much to ask for a bookstore to convert more Hong Kong people into booklovers. We are who we are, and we are not going to change our authentic character just because of what we do and where we go. Many of us simply do whatever and go wherever we believe would make us look good, tasteful and sophisticated. That's all.

Hysan Place is very smart for introducing Eslite to create the noise much needed for its soft opening. But I'm not sure if the overwhelming attention to Eslite instead of Hysan Place would create any hard feeling in the landlord. It will be quite a challenge for Hysan to sustain the momentum when we all know the talk of the town will soon lose its place to something else. Whether Eslite's success in Taiwan can be repeated in Hong Kong also remains a big question. Look around when you commute and you should notice how few people here actually read a book. Not even a comic book these days with the birth of all the latest electronic gadgets.

Culture never really enjoys the respect commensurate with its importance in Hong Kong daily life. We should be ashamed thinking of all those world-class scholars who had fled the mainland and devoted their lives to preserving the gems of traditional Chinese culture here. While they are duly recognised for what they did, we never take our responsibility seriously enough to pass on the heritage. Or at least there are too few of us. Reading has never taken root in our life. We have too many excuses that I don't want to waste time repeating them. As a result, bookstores are often driven out of the best locations by outrageous lease conditions because bookselling is never a lucrative business. It is seen as a reluctant necessity that few people want unless required. The fact that Eslite was given three high-rising floors in the shopping labyrinth of Hysan Place might as well be another piece of proof of my scepticism. Or does it mean we always have to look up to cultural heavyweights as long as they come from other places?

The three-storey Commercial Press megastore on Yee Wo Street, which is merely five minutes' walk from Eslite, is one of the most eyebrow-raising exception. And their collections never really fail me. But the number of visitors in the final hour of its opening last night was absolutely embarrassing. "When did Hong Kong start loving reading so much?" What a question it was!

After visiting the bookstores on Hennessy Road and Yee Wo Street, then I let my feet took me to the quiet corners of Causeway Bay. But I didn't expect they were so quiet.

A friend said the Chinese economy has been dwindling and thus the retail market of Hong Kong, now predominantly supported by Chinese big spenders, is among the first to feel the heat. For ordinary citizens like me, it seems a bit incomprehensible when you see flocks of Chinese tourists packing the streets with bursting shopping bags and large suitcases. But I must say I was surprised to see how quiet it was in the slightly less accessible corners of Causeway Bay. What does it tell you about the seemingly invincible spending prowess of Chinese tourists?

Then I stopped by the Pacific Coffee Emporium, which was also recently open for business. It is a cosy place for coffee lovers. You never really get bored even if you are alone. They also offer premium coffee at a small bar, where you can chat and learn anything you want about coffee from the coffee master. I sat by the bar table long enough to overhear two men exchanging insights with the coffee master. And I learnt a lot about coffee tasting.

Indeed, nothing closes my day better than a nice coffee, Costa Rican Siphon, and a delightful chocolate cake with hazelnut with a sweet after taste between my cheeks and an unusual feast for thought.

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