Direct flights from the U.S. to Mainland China were still scarce, so like most travelers to China, we entered through Hong Kong. Descending to Kai Tak airport, I couldn’t imagine how we could land. Mountains loomed up before us; we would have to turn or we’d be squashed like bugs on a windshield. The plane banked hard, and as I looked down it seemed that the wing would almost clip the roof of one of the buildings. We were close enough for me to see the laundry hanging on the balconies. A minute later, we were skimming over the water with no runway in sight, mere feet above the surface. Only when the wheels bounced onto the tarmac were we certain that we made contact with the narrow runway that extended out into the bay.
The plane slowed to a stop and the door opened. A blast of hot, sticky air whooshed into the cabin and even though I’d changed into a light cotton dress en route, I was immediately bathed in sweat. We walked, squinting, into the intense midday sunlight, across the black pavement that radiated heat, towards the terminal where double doors slid open to admit us.
Hong Kong was very western in some ways: English double-decker buses plied the streets, and all kinds of products were available: Revlon and Estee Lauder cosmetics, Goody Hair barrettes, Burger King and McDonalds, loads of stereos, cameras and watches, and Kodak, Kodak, Kodak. The place pulsed with activity: shopping, hustle, construction projects, traffic, congestion, pollution, noise.
Young people were fashionably dressed in the latest western styles: Levis and tube tops, cowboy boots and high-heeled Gucci shoes. But most of the middle-aged and elderly people looked worn down and bent, dressed in baggy pants and tired cotton shirts, shuffling around in black cotton slippers.
Everywhere we went, there were sweating, pressing crowds of toothless old men, skinny, boisterous children, chic young women and dudes with sunglasses. I smelled perspiration and cigarettes and felt damp flesh sliding across my own as I herded my way onto a ferry or across the street. In the midst of the pressure, I thought about the miles of uninterrupted cornfields at home, the bright blue sky and the brisk prairie wind. I dreamt about cracking lightning and torrents of rain that would sweep the air clean. Part of me was looking forward to the more leisurely pace of life in the mainland.