Over the summer I went to do some tai chi training in Hong Kong, which happened to be where I sent Nadia and Jake in the final book, 88 North. When I wasn’t training, I spent quite a bit of time re-tracing their steps in Wan Chai, Central, the Peak, Victoria Park, etc. It was like doing research after the writing. Upon my return, I was asked by a local Paris magazine (Panache) to write about Hong Kong and Taichi, so here’s what I wrote.
IN STILLNESS, THERE IS MOTION
REFLECTIONS FROM A WEEK OF TAI CHI IN HONG KONG By J F Kirwan
Most ex-pats flee Hong Kong in August. Yes, it’s holiday time, and most Hong Kongers work like hell. But mainly they leave on account of the rising temperatures and the humidity – it’s cyclone season. I head over there in August to do tai chi, because it’s quieter, cheaper, and my instructor has more slots available. But it means sweating a lot, and always carrying an umbrella, because it can pour with torrential rain at a moment’s notice.
Hong Kong is nowadays firmly part of the Republic of China, but the colonial flavour still lingers, even if the local Cantonese language is slowly being replaced by Mandarin. Electric plugs are British-style three-pin af- fairs, and Marks & Spencers, though disappearing from Paris, is still a thriving institution in Honkers. Not that I go there for shopping…
In August, without a doubt, it is a sweatbox. Despite this, it is one of the most animated cities I’ve ever vis- ited, with people bustling around, white and red cabs zipping along the inner and outer highways that run the length of Hong Kong island facing Kowloon, competing with the ancient and ridiculously cheap trams trundling along on their
narrow gauge tracks. This is my favorite way to watch Hong Kong drift by, paying a measly HK$2.60 (30 cents in Euros) to travel from one end of Hong Kong to the other, seeing the locals go about their business, and travelling with them. The Star Ferry that criss-crosses the narrow strait between Hong Kong island and Kowloon costs the same, yet here you get fantastic views of the skyscrapers that define this workhorse state, as well as the Convention Centre whose roof is shaped like the back of a blue whale.
The only better view is from The Peak, a very touristy affair located at the highest point on Hong Kong island, offering stunning views of both Hong Kong and Kow- loon skylines. The ideal time to go is late afternoon, when you can watch as darkness falls and the lights come on, and the skyscrapers transition into works of art, strutting their stuff with their light shows.
But I go there for tai chi. Early in the mornings you can catch people of all ages (though mainly older), practicing this slow, circular form of movement, whether in the parks or underneath bridges in case it rains. They’re not showy about it, and sometimes you get to see real adepts doing sword tai chi, or a group of blue-rinse ladies practicing a tai chi fan in perfect synchrony. Once I was there during the build-up to the annual Wu Shu championships, and I saw breath-taking gymnastic Kung Fu feats I had thought were only the stuff of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies.
There are five main forms of tai chi, the oldest being Chen style. I do Yang style, which is the second oldest, started by Yang Lu Chan, a student of the Chen family. My instructor in Hong Kong is from the original Yang lineage, so it’s a major privilege to train with her. (There’s plenty of tai chi in Paris, too—you can see people practicing in the Jardin du Luxembourg most mornings.)
But I can’t do tai chi all day in Hong Kong, so I walk around a lot, usually in the area of Wan Chai, visiting the food markets where you can buy anything, and all the fish and seafood are still very much alive. Last time I was there, the sirens announced a Level 4 cyclone, and within a minute the streets emptied. Sopping wet, my broken umbrella in a bin, I walked up onto a deserted overpass normally crammed with traffic, and watched the lightning storm rage over Kowloon on the other side of the strait. That sight inspired the opening of my recent thriller, 88 North, and fully a third of the book takes place in Hong Kong. In August, naturally.
I always come back humbled from Hong Kong. The locals work hard, even if they don’t play hard. They are quiet, modest, just getting through life with the minimum of fuss. I never see beggars there, either. Even the poorest find something to do. And the martial artists there can be extraordinary, though you never hear of them, and have a hard time tracking them down. I got lucky.
No sooner had I got back than I started looking at my calendar, wondering how long it would be before I re- turned. Despite all the outward sweating, this place gets under my skin every time. But when I practice tai chi, even in the relative calm of a Parisian park, part of me is always back in bustling Hong Kong. As they say in tai chi, in stillness there is motion.