Humidity enveloped my clothing in a blanket of sweat as I trudged from the subway stop, taking great care to follow the path delineated in my Kowloon walking tour map. Halfway through a week in Hong Kong and its surrounds, I was ready to throw in the towel. My feet hurt from several days of walking, my legs bore the wrath of a thousand mosquitos, and my head barely held itself up in the wake of jet lag.
To put it colloquially, I was a hot mess.
Arriving at the park entrance, I glanced at my brochure. “Kowloon Walled City Park… Chinese-style park… yadda yadda… pre-war concrete relics… yadda yadda… The Garden of the Chinese Zodiac, the Chess Garden, the Mountain View Pavilion… other landscape features worth appreciation.”
Having already hiked the scenic Tai Long Wan and explored the urban oasis of Hong Kong Park, this park had nothing to offer in comparison. Alone in my exasperation, I wandered through the garden desperate for a place to sit, bored at the umpteenth pagoda I had already seen on this trip. Like any typical Asian, I pointed my camera at the scenery, snapping photos mindlessly.
My thoughts were interrupted by an elderly Asian man donning a long black shirt and jeans.
“Do you want me to take your photo?” he asked.
“Sure…” I replied in trepidation.
Wait, how did he know that I didn’t speak Cantonese? In the several days since I arrived to China, I had not yet encountered a single resident who didn’t assume I was from Hong Kong.
My suspicious instincts kicked in, but it felt rude to say no. I stood poised and cautious, ready to run after the man if he decided to take off with the camera. He suggested I take several pictures, posing me in various places as I stood rigidly with a half-smile. He gave my camera back. “My name is Uncle Man. Are you from the United States?”
“Why yes,” I said.
“I went to the United States before. To Las Vegas. They showed my art at the MGM Hotel,” he claimed.
“How nice,” I said, just barely disguising my disinterest. I couldn’t help but think there was some ulterior motive to this whole conversation.
“Here. Stand this way.” Uncle Man turned me to my right, then pulled out a blue piece of foil and began to rip at it. After a few minutes, he presented it to me. “For you,” he said, sliding the piece of paper into a small plastic sleeve. I looked at it. He had hand-torn a silhouette of my face into the foil.
I could manage few words in my awe. “Wow. Thank you.”
I looked up from his gift. “So, you from Hong Kong?” My attempt at small talk felt very feeble at that point.
“Yeah, I love coming to this park,” he replied. “Very peaceful. I used to live around here.” With that, he wished me a nice day and walked off, whipping out a flute and playing himself off into the day.
* * *
Many months after returning to the States, I found myself killing time in a tiny bookstore. A large picture book caught my eye. City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City.
Inside were photos and illustrations documenting Kowloon Walled City, one of the most famous slums in the history of modern civilization, a high-rise shanty town with more than 30,000 residents — mostly immigrants — living and working within the 6.5-acre area. Apartments sat atop factories, cobblers atop grocery stores, unlicensed dentists atop Triad-run drug dens, all interconnected via an Escher-esque maze of ladders, bridges and alleys. The sheer density of this place was such that sunlight could not reach its deepest recesses; those on the ground level lived in perpetual darkness.
The Hong Kong government demolished the walled city in 1993, leaving behind a few relics from its 19th-century days as a Chinese military fort. Any trace of seedy history was wiped clean and replaced with a meticulously manicured park.
It hit me. Kowloon. Park. “Oh my god, I’ve been here before!”
How could I have missed this incredible piece of Hong Kong’s history? I went home to dig up my Wong Tai Sin/Kowloon City walking tour map. The pamphlet was as vague as I had remembered. I thumbed through my old travel journal to see if I had jotted down any notes.
“Kowloon Walled City Park — Met the coolest guy. Uncle Man.”
Tucked into the back of my journal was the foil silhouette, still encased in a plastic sleeve. I tried Googling the name and the style of art, but to no avail. Who was this mysterious Uncle Man? Was he really a famous artist? Could he have lived in the fabled Kowloon Walled City?
So many unanswered questions.
* * *
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science.”
— Albert Einstein