Three versions of Hong Kong churned in my subconscious as we sailed there on the Diamond Princess in January 2020. We were anticipating celebrating the Lunar New Year in that iconic city famous for its elaborate fireworks over the harbor and exuberant parades. There were scenes from my childhood of sampans in the harbor and the views from Victoria Peak; the center of the opium trade at the end of the 18th century, which I wrote about in my novel “Flowers in the Blood”; and the modern metropolis featured in the book “Crazy Rich Asians.” I hoped for clarity instead of the hazy images seen through the blurred lens of memory and embroidered by my imagination. What I hadn’t expected, though, was that the day would be laced with a frisson of fear.
Only a few weeks earlier we heard reports of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, but we had no worries since the closest we would get was 500 miles away. A day before our arrival we were disappointed to learn that the typical festivities were canceled due to both the pro-democracy demonstrations and to avoid crowds. The officials were being extraordinarily cautious, so we had our temperatures taken as we went through the immigration area — the first but far from last check of the voyage.
We were traveling with two other couples and had hired a private guide with a van to help negotiate what we had assumed would be a crazy quilt of traffic and parades.
“You’re in luck,” our guide, Amy Overy, said. “We’re going to be able to do far more than I thought.”
A few minutes later, she dropped us off at the entrance to the Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon. Celebrants were converging from every direction and circled the exterior.
“What are the pinwheels for?” I asked.
“In Chinese, the word spinning means change, so the pinwheel can change your luck from bad to good,” she said.
Huge Chinese lanterns alternating in yellow and red were hung from wires between the buildings. Part of the temple was built around a vast courtyard that was filled with worshippers — mostly older women who knelt on red cushions while bowing and gesticulating to the heavens. Many held up burning incense in supplication.
Overy walked over to a shelf and brought out a cylinder.
“This is kau chim,” she explained. “They’re filled with sticks.” She shook it until one stick popped out and fell to the ground, then picked it up and read the number and matched it with a list in her phone. “Not my lucky day,” she said.
After a short ride, she pulled the van to the curb by the entrance to the Star Ferry.
“This is the best way to get from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island,” she said, handing us the tickets she had already bought. “I’ll take the bridge and pick you up on the Hong Kong side.”
Although Hong Kong had been transformed since I was there as a girl, the outlines of the hills and piers struck a familiar chord. Once we reached Hong Kong Island, Overy led us to an office building with a glitzy interior. We ducked under a red banner into a dim sum restaurant. Most of the dishes served in bamboo baskets looked Instagram-ready. The barbecued pork buns were shaped like cartoonish pig heads with pink ears and snout, and the molten custard buns had emoji faces. Little bird dumplings were served in a real bird cage.
After a trip to iconic Victoria Peak, Overy drove us to Stanley Market. My eyes lit up as I scanned the array of garments, costume jewelry, scarves, toys and appealing souvenirs. She gave me hints on bargaining for decorative pillowcases and then went to help the others pick out silk bathrobes.
I had asked Overy whether it was possible to get a reservation at a Peking duck restaurant — a Hong Kong specialty. She made a few calls and was surprised there was space at Peking Garden, her family’s favorite.
We all ordered the Peking duck special. We watched as children gathered at a marble counter where deft chefs carved the duck into thin slices and arranged them, pinwheellike, on platters. At 8 o’clock the lights dimmed for the one Hong Kong event that had not been canceled: the spectacular Symphony of Light show. The music that blasted from the restaurant’s speakers coordinated with lights flashing from dozens of skyscrapers on both sides of the bay, along with projections, searchlights, LED screens and lasers simulating pyrotechnics that lit up the sky and were reflected in the black waters of the harbor.
Children ran to the middle of the restaurant to watch a master chef making noodles by pulling, stretching and twisting long strands of dough.
“Is this special for New Year’s?” I asked the waiter.
“No, every night — lights and noodles!” he said.
We toasted one another for a “Happy New Year,” a moment that is frozen in my mind because we had no idea that the coronavirus was about to interrupt not only our trip — but the whole world.
WHEN YOU GO
Guide Amy Overy: www.hongkonggreeters.com
Yum Cha Dim Sum: www.yumchahk.com
Peking Gardens: www.pekinggarden.com.hk/en