By John P. Lee
When I was in fifth grade, we moved back to the States from Hong Kong. Everyone in my new school thought I was going to be Chinese—I don’t blame them, look at my last name. I think I disappointed many: Bruce Lee, the master, was the action hero of that era. When my neighbor, a boy my age, came over to greet us, forced by his father to do so, what he saw wasn’t a Chinese martial arts master but a dorky, American kid with a Red Sox cap pulled tightly down over his head making his ears Dumbo out like palm leaves.
Only three years, that’s how long we lived in Hong Kong. My dad got a job with a small investment company that wanted footing in Southeast Asia, so we moved halfway around the world from Newport, Rhode Island. I was already a watery kid. But what Hong Kong did was combine water with a huge city and this, I am certain, shaped who I have become. Not that it made me wildly interesting, a scholar of Chinese history or culture; but my time there did give me the strange blend, almost verging on the impossible, of loving both fish and nature as well as the industries that seem to exploit them.
Hong Kong Harbor and the ships and the fishing junks—they got deep into my little head and stayed there. The seaport, back then as well as now, centers around the harbor. The whole city seems to face it. When you walk downhill you always end up there. Water was a draw for me: it was so alive and crazy and busy, so full of color and sounds. And the thing is, I didn’t even know it, didn’t understand how charged-up it made me. Kids don’t really know what gets under their skin. Rumination, to a kid, is like breathing. It’s constant. Or it was with me.
But there was no intellect. Just feelings and energy, a kind of rawness and presence, which, unfortunately, is easily lost when we grow up and act like grownups. My fuel was visual that’s how I made sense of the world (still do) and Hong Kong Harbor was as visual as any place can get. Ships from all over the world, tugs, junks, sampans of a hundred different styles. It was also loaded with things adrift. Every kind of flotsam was in Hong Kong harbor in the 1970s and I stared at it, hoping to see something, I’m not even sure what.
In the 1970s everything on the planet was made in Hong Kong and even today, it ranks as one of the world’s busiest seaports. I never knew what I might see. One day I saw a cow’s head, another I saw the entrails of some animal trailing off like a massive jellyfish. I saw plastic toys and a dead dog. I saw all kinds of wood and bamboo. Crates and baskets and buckets. Styrofoam that formed in drifts along the bulkheads. I saw little fish along the ferry docks and watched the Chinese fish for them with handlines. All this may sound a bit off-putting: a kid into garbage, and I’m sure even I thought that, but it also held some mystery to me. To this day I am unable to walk by water without staring into it. What I’m looking for, I still don’t know…
The other thing that I think I carried back to the States was a fascination with fishing boats and life at sea. Again, it was completely opposite of reason and intellect, and had to do with the unknown. There was a part of Hong Kong called Aberdeen and this is where the fishing fleet tied up. This fleet made New Bedford look artisanal, like a cute New England painting. The boats went on for what I perceived as miles, one tied to the next in a long chain of wooden junks. These junks were homes. The owners, after a fishing trip into the South China Sea, did not head back to their apartments for some rest and family time. The boats were it, all-inclusive. The whole family—generations deep—lived aboard in floating villages. This was sensory overload for me. And it was more than fascination it was something I felt, as if I swallowed it whole. And the fish they caught, many of them alive in tanks in open-air markets held a strong pull for me. I had to peer in. These markets were the very opposite of a Whole Food experience in Manhattan or Boston, where everything is clear, bright, smoke-free and no one is yelling. Again, now years later, I am still more at home in a fishing port with fish being handled and trucks and ice and pallets, shouting people, than I am at the beach, mall, or fancy marina.
One of my favorite memories is from that time and it’s the kind of memory that I wouldn’t mind revisiting when I’m laying down to die. We would often go off into the hills after school and hike around. Hong Kong had both temperate forest and also this savanna-type grass that would grow on wind-swept faces. The funny thing is, even though Hong Kong was incredibly dense with people, there were also large sections where no one lived; so we’d hike around, go exploring.
I can still picture this one particular day, sunny and clear, dry. I was with my brother and maybe another friend. My brother being in charge, as the big fifth-grader. I recall standing on a big rock watching the wind blow the grass, and on three sides of us stretched the South China Sea, beyond that, the land of China. Seeing the hills of China way off in the distance—China was an enigma, a hard nut to crack. Hong Kong was under British control when we were there but China had closed borders and was under communist rule, the era of Mao Zedong had just ended—and to my little head, a third grader, China was as bad-ass as any place could possibly be. So there we were, on the edge of nowhere, on a map that didn’t exist to us, following trails that few people ever walked—parent-free and wild.
Photos taken by my mom or dad.