SocietyMay 25, 2024

In the place I grew up, I am always lost


Reflections on a childhood split across Hong Kong and Auckland.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

I arrive in Hong Kong with my mother in the middle of summer. 

t’s not a good time to travel here, she tells me. It’s June. We’re walking through the Hong Kong airport – famously large, filled with glistening surfaces and smooth floors. Luxury stores line the walls. Bakeries with dense yellow goods sold by the dozen, wrapped in plastic. Nothing in the open air. There is a sense of organised scale, entrances and exits clearly demarcated.

My mother tells me the old airport was in the middle of Kowloon. Planes would fly so close to apartments that you could see right into people’s living rooms. I imagine the wingtips of the plane twisting to avoid the edge of a building. Our suitcases make a satisfying whirr as they roll. 

Whenever I’m back in Hong Kong, I get memories. 

But are they my own or someone 


It’s not a good time to travel because it’s hot. Before we leave, I add Hong Kong to my weather app and look at the symbols. Storm clouds and lightning bolts. Hong Kong summers are notoriously rainy, my mother reminds me, leaning back on her chair in her house in Devonport. They’ve renovated it recently and there are now huge glass sliding doors that look out on a large patch of grass. When the light streams in it pools on the wooden floors. It’s a little white villa that sits on a road filled with little white villas. 

For a long time I resented that question: where are you from? 

Sitting across the dining table, I turn to my mum. That makes sense, I say. Because I recall the typhoons that blew across the city. I watched them as a child from the 12th floor of our apartment building, where I shared a room with my siblings. From our room we could see the dark sea, glistening. I remember how dark the sky could get. Clouds sweeping over the tops of the skyscrapers then sinking down to hold them. Black with destruction. I was a princess high up in a castle. Sometimes I thought I could see the buildings swaying. 

sometimes, I can’t tell what’s mine and what I found 

on the TV screen, from words out of my friends’ mouths, or my

parents, or my parents’ friends in one place, or another, or was it just a glittering skyline on

a postcard? 

We land in Hong Kong. Despite summer, despite heat. My mother is here trying to sell the apartment I was born in. 

Walking across the airport, she leads me to the train that will take us into the city. We won’t even have to set a foot outside. On the train, she lets me sit by the window and I look out. The land rushes by. Identical apartment buildings stick up in pastel clusters – baby pink, yellow, and pale blue. They look like matchsticks. They flicker past, interspersed with trees that I don’t recognise, though they look lush and verdant, full in the humidity. Hong Kong is so green, I say, and she tells me how the government flattened an island to build the new airport. I imagine someone slicing off the top of a hill. 

My ancestors came to New Zealand from Southern China in the 1800s. 

My Por Por was born in Eastbourne and grew up working in fruit shops.

My mother calls her “champagne Grace” because of how fine her tastes are. Opera. Art galleries. Knowing where the Western cutlery should sit on the table. 

Our assimilation strikes me at times

knife like and perfect.

The first few days in Hong Kong we are staying with my mum’s friend Rachael, my aunty in everything but blood. She gives up her room for us. We walk in and the sky is a deep, muted purple. A fake kind of purple. I’m struck because I haven’t remembered this – the way the smog diffuses the rays of the sun so nothing is piercing, the way the city coughs light into the air and it lingers in a haze above the buildings. It’s not what I remembered.

I moved to Auckland at 12 and everything was oversaturated. The sky was wide and the fields outside my school spread out forever and ever in green. I remember leaving Hong Kong. Pulling away 

from our apartment block, shrouded by trees, watching my friends cry in front of the stone lion statue as we pulled down the long driveway. The long driveway. 

I shower in Aunty Rachael’s ensuite and peer out the small crack of a window. From my vantage point I can look down and see the green of a stadium, the small blue rectangle of a pool on the terrace of another apartment building, a red string of lights; cars braking at a stop light on the road. There is so much density. Everything I remember about this place rushes through my body as adrenaline, catharsis. I turn up the shower pressure. Water rolls hot down my back. Something like excitement is rising in my chest. Maybe this is where I belong. I think.

Once, I went to dinner with my friend in Wellington. We had Chinese at KC Cafe. Staring up at the billboard containing the menu – hundreds of items, rendered in peeling stickers, the background white and chalky – he asked me what I wanted to order and I said I didn’t know. We sat down and talked briefly about Hong Kong. 

Sounds like living there didn’t really affect you much, he said. 

It’s impossible to measure how much he is right. 

The next day, my mum and I travel into Central. She is the perfect tour guide, walking at the correct pace onto the train, weaving through the crowds, her black head of hair disappearing into the others. In the place I grew up, I am always lost. I recognise the pattern of the subway tiles but I can’t name a street. I spend hours trying to find a particular kind of golden bun, filled with a coconut paste, only to realise, days later, it’s a feature of every bakery but goes by a different name. Everything is as I remembered but just out of reach. I wonder if I’m really “remembering” or just reverse engineering a kind of memory.

I wonder if this even matters at all.  Lots of people have written about the faultiness of memory: the classic cases of people merging their own experiences with things they saw on TV or heard from a friend and recalling it with the forcefulness of a worldly truth. I hate the idea of singular truth. I hate when questions are addressed to me that seem to be asking for this, like what is Hong Kong like? I don’t know. It’s an entire region. You tell me. 

I hate singularity with a kind of singularity. 

My mum takes me to a good noodle shop, the kind of thing she has a sixth sense for locating. We sit at the end of a long table and my mother orders wontons and a leafy vegetable that, when it arrives, I recognise only by its taste, not by name. The wontons – her favourite – sit in a clear broth. The skin of the dumpling is slick, filled with small prawns, whole. It doesn’t taste like this in New Zealand, she says, and of course, she is right.  After that, we part ways so I can have some kind of solo travel experience, a feeling of independence at the age of 25. 

I walk around. The footpaths are narrow and busy, and even though it is raining, people navigate seamlessly around each other, lowering and raising their umbrellas as they walk in silent orchestration. I walk down back streets that contain small restaurants with faded green signs and then mainstreets that are punctuated by malls – large, wide buildings, their entire exterior a screen that loops advertisements over the street.

In the small alleyways that connect the streets there are markets that my mum suggests I go to. I enter an alleyway and pick through piles of clothes while the shop owners side eye me. I think that I make more sense to them as a tourist, but less sense to myself that way. 

I’m hungry. I walk outside. Where should I eat? I pass a series of western-style cafes, sleek and minimalist wooden interiors, all lower case font. But I don’t want something that reminds me of the west. I want something that reminds me of what I think Hong Kong was like when I was a kid. I keep walking. 

Hours pass and I’m still walking around the same three blocks. My feet are sore and I’m growing weary. I stand with my back close to the entrance of a department store, so I don’t get in the way of people walking. There is a security guard in a suit standing next to me. He nods. I can feel the air con cool against my neck as the sliding doors open and close behind me.  People rush past in either direction. If they are a river flowing, I am a stone. In my creative writing for my master’s, I’ve written about the way the sea can be sighted between buildings. I mentally erase that line as I walk around Central. 

It does not apply here.

I meet my mum in a bustling plaza outside a large glinting mall, and she’s smiling. There is a breeze blowing through her hair that is not discernable in mine. How are you going, Han?, she says. I admit that I’m tired. But it’s great, I say, so many people. She nods and looks around. Something about her makes sense here, I think, and I see her, arriving from New Zealand in the 90s. Short black bob. Sunglasses. Tiny flannel sports shorts and a white polo shirt. She is glamorous and young; effortless. I think of her in our first rental house in Auckland, scrubbing the dingy sides of the bath, some stains impossible to remove. It’s funny being here again, she says, looking around. Your dad used to lose me in the crowds. 

I am glad she feels at home here. 

Explanatory ancestors interlude

I know about my ancestors because my mother has been researching them. She treats it like a full-time job, filled with new information about them each time I visit my parents in Auckland. She has printed out photos and lined them in rows on the walls of her study. Black and white faces look outwards.

Her study doubles as a guest room. Months after our trip to Hong Kong, a friend comes over and stays in the room. I think of my friend, lying in the single bed, my ancestors looking down at them at night. How does it feel, I wonder. To be watched by people you don’t belong to. 

We catch the train back to Aunty Rachael’s house and my mother chats about our ancestors. She’s focusing on the Chinese gold-mining families, in particular the women. When the men came from China, she reminds me, they left behind families and wives. This was because they never thought they’d stay in New Zealand. It was never meant to be their home. But some of them did stay. Married second wives and lived in camps on the outskirts of town. Some of them never went back. 

I look at her. We’re standing on the underground train and I recognise things. The smooth metal interior. The way the seats feel – matte and cool against the backs of my legs. The tone of the automated voice that announces each stop in Cantonese then English. My mum and I hold on to the handrails that hang from the ceiling. We sway to and fro as the train rushes to a halt. There are people on the train who stand, head tilted down, one hand in their pocket and the other on their phone. The difference between me and these people, I think, is that they don’t need to hold the handrail. A difference, I correct myself. The train stops and my mother leaps to action, gesturing that it’s time to get off.

In Auckland, my mother does puzzles. There’s a trestle table set up in the lounge and 1000 pieces sit on it. A fractured image of a man with glasses surrounded by clocks of different sizes. Clocks line the walls. They appear to float through the sky. 

I imagine her, standing by the table, weighing the pieces in her hands. Clocks broken into barely discernible pieces – little black and white and numbers, and dashes, and hands frozen. The order of time split apart.

Obsession makes sense to me. To drive the complexity of the world through a form. To choose something to burrow into. You could choose to make it puzzles, or rowing, or a career. You could make it your ancestors. You could make it treating their lives like a puzzle. My mother is so meticulous. Her mind like a laser. I see her piecing it together. History. The ultimate puzzle because it will never be complete. There will always be more than one image. 

I puzzle alongside my mother, writing articles about my ethnicity, and my upbringing, and my mixed-race angst. I realise I am iterating the same idea, chewing it over in my mouth until it turns to pulp. I spend some time fashioning the pulp into different shapes, changing forms, trying non-fiction, poetry, a draft of a novel, then back to non-fiction. I send things to people. Implicitly, I am asking if my work is legible. Does it make sense? Do you like it? 

I find the more things make sense the more false they feel to me. The more they could only be called stories. 

My mother knows this too – the inevitable frustration of a fixed story, how quickly when one is writing, things start to feel too concrete.  What started as a simple attempt to recount the facts of our ancestors’ lives becomes, for her, a series of mysteries. The questions are numerous. Simultaneously broad and specific. Like, why would a white settler woman marry a gold-mining Chinese man who lives in the camps? And, why would a man from China not go back there? Or, why would a woman give up her child?

I rewrite her questions in an attempt to reduce them: 

Why leave

Why stay

Was it better

Was it worse

Did you like it

Did it hurt you



After our first day in Hong Kong, I lie awake. My mother and I are lying next to each other in twin beds, with only a small table between us. The air con has dried out the air and our room is filled with our bags – hers is closed and serene, and mine is half-unpacked, spilling out and messy. It’s almost midnight and neither of us can sleep for the jetlag and something about our proximity feels almost confessional. To lie away next to someone at night. Outside, flashes of light reverberate over the city, through the large window and up against the walls of the room. 

She starts speaking. Don’t you love the lights of the city? she says.

Yeah, I do, I agree. Really, I’m thinking about the little time I’ve spent here. How it felt to look out the window in the shower on the first night, the elation. The way I messaged my boyfriend afterwards saying, maybe we should live here. Now, I’m not so sure. 

Outside, despite the late hour, there is still so much light. It reflects up from the city and eclipses the stars. 

In bed, my memories take on new meanings. I think about Lantau island, the largest island in Hong Kong but with a much smaller population than the city. I’d go there for holidays with my parents and siblings. We’d drive over hills, dense with trees, on a winding path that looked over the sea, passing occasional villages until we arrived at our house by the beach where there wasn’t a high-rise building in sight. Each night, we’d go up onto the rooftop and my parents would look at the stars. As a child, I’d found the tradition at times so rote. The spectacle was always in my parents oh-ing and ah-ing at the night sky, more than the sky itself. 

I turn towards my mum and her face is half-lit. I understand, I say. It’s never really dark here. I talk about Lantau and looking at the stars.

We loved Lantau, she replies. But the city lights are beautiful in their own way too. 

I think of the sky in New Zealand at night. How sometimes the darkness is so thick you want to cut it. Split it open and hold it over your face. I think about walking down the street to my flat in Hataitai in the evening. Even in this suburb, one layer removed from the city, it’s possible to walk down the middle of the road and feel like you’re the last person alive in the world. The only proof of other beings in the small glow of houses flecked through the hills.

What would you choose, if you had to choose one, my mum says, the darkness of the New Zealand night sky, or this? 

I look out the window. It’s true the colours are different here. Burnt-out oranges, faded and hazy.  Purples like bruises. It’s not just the colour tones, it’s the way they spread across the sky like a paste. But the hills – once you’re high up, you can look out the window of your building and see the green staring back. It reminds me of Wellington. 

I recognise my mother’s question – she often asks me questions like this. Sometimes, I think they all arc back to the same inquiry: am I happy that we moved? Or perhaps, am I happy? 

I think about answers. Answers feel reductive. Why leave, why stay. An answer can imply completion, that something is fixed, pinned down, understood. A wise person once said to me, it is better to ask what than why. 

I find that I keep telling stories. It seems only natural. I write about places I know and have known and places that elude my understanding altogether. Sometimes, the legibility of any story I tell lasts for a second. Sometimes minutes, months, years. But it always leaves. Then I speak and the words fall dull from my mouth. 

To try and catch something, and in that process, watch it slip through your hands; to realise the impossibility of pinning something down. I can only describe it as an arrow shooting through me. A pleasure and a sorrow, and ultimately, a gift. 

I like questions with no answers and I like trying to tell stories. And when clarity strikes me like a gong, I take it. I watch it. I wait for it to reverberate and leave. 

Keep going!