I was buckled in my seat and about to take off, the space next to me brazenly empty, when the tears finally came. And they didn’t stop until we were somewhere over Greece. It was more than 20 years since I had left Hong Kong and my husband should have been sitting next to me as we travelled back to the place where we began.
We met in 1995 in a bar in Lan Kwai Fong, the party district on Hong Kong Island. Friends first for six months, until a big night out when we became more than just mates. And that was it. After Hong Kong, we travelled the world for two more years, moved to London and then Brighton. Twenty years and three children later, our relationship was now unravelling at a hefty pace.
It had been difficult for several years, but over the previous 12 months, illness, grief and surprise debt meant our marriage was on a knife edge.
It was 2017 and I had an opportunity to return to Hong Kong to research a story. I asked my husband to come with me. It was our special place and I hoped it could restore what we once had and get our relationship back on track.
We’d tried everything – marriage counselling, my therapy, anti-depressants, date nights – but the connection was gone and contempt was starting to set in on both sides.
For me, the trip was the last chance to save our marriage. But he said no. Although all our costs would be covered, apart from his flight, he was adamant that we couldn’t afford it.
The first time I flew into Hong Kong I was 23. I arrived on a one-way ticket bought on the loose promise of some bar work when I got there. It was my first time in Asia and I was blown away by the sights, sounds and scents of this 24-hour metropolis. I fell in love with the place.
In the 90s, Hong Kong was a backpackers’ paradise. A British colony packed with bars, it was also an easy place to make money before travelling. My first job was at LA Cafe in the Admiralty area, where I met a group of like-minded travellers, most of whom I’m still best friends with now.
Returning more than 20 years later, it felt familiar, yet entirely different. As did I. Instead of the scuzzy two-bedroom flat we’d lived in – at times with 10 of our closest friends – I stayed at Kerry Hotel, a beautiful five-star property by Shangri-La that overlooks the Victoria Harbour.
From my suite, I could see the green-and-white Star Ferries bimbling back and forth over increasingly diminishing waters. I was reminded how lucky I was to have experienced it the first time. I met my best friends there, and really grew into myself. I remembered who I was then, before marriage and kids.
Over the next few days, I would swing from being angry at my husband’s absence, frustrated by the situation, and then inconsolably sad at what this meant for our marriage.
I walked through Lan Kwai Fong, the scene of so many amazing nights from my life in the 90s. It still felt familiar, yet there were few bars remaining from my time.
Every moment of recognition came with a pang of regret that I was seeing it on my own. In Sheung Wan, where we’d lived, the pungent scent of dried fish shops slapped me in the face, just like it always had. Outside our former flat on Wing Lok Street, I felt so overcome with emotion that I had to sit on the curb to recover.
Luckily, my packed itinerary helped balance the tsunami of memories it unleashed – boozy nights dancing on bars in Wanchai, lazy Sundays on Lamma Island, beach hopping in Stanley. This time, I browsed art galleries in the South Island Cultural District, saw the parades at the bun festival on Cheung Chau and dined in fancy restaurants on Lee Tung Avenue in Wanchai.
Over the five days, I ran the full gamut of emotions. I was worried that my memories of Hong Kong would be tainted as my marriage ended, but it was quite the opposite. It was the catalyst to the latter half my life and incredibly formative to who I am today. It also reaped a 20-year relationship, three beautiful children and many life-long friends.
On the last afternoon, I took the Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui over to Central, a journey I’d taken a thousand times. On deck, looking out as the late afternoon sky bounced off the spiky silver skyscrapers, I remembered who I was back then and decided that I owed it to myself to be happy.
When I returned home, things had definitely shifted in me. Finally, it was his lack of interest in this important trip, and in saving us, that made me realise our marriage was over. It would take another few years to finally end it.
On occasion, I still feel sad about what could have been. But that trip – and others since – have given me the space to see the relationship from afar. Even if he had come to Hong Kong, our marriage might still have ended. After my solo trip, I felt like I’d come the full circle and could move forward with no regrets.