The Driver’s Seat

Sometimes sitting in traffic on Gloucester Road, inching my way toward the Aberdeen Tunnel, I fantasize about becoming a taxi driver in Hong Kong.  It hasn’t always been this way.  When I first arrived in Hong Kong I swore I would never, ever drive in this city.   This is a city where driving is in large part left to the professionals, relegating the faint of heart to hiring drivers or taking public transportation.

Winding, single lane roads with sprayed concrete on one side and precipitous cliffs on the other are treated like speedways by aggressive trucks and mini buses, double-decker city buses and confident professional drivers careening around hairpin turns only to find a lycra-clad cyclist on a training ride, or unexpected slope maintenance underway.  There’s no margin for error on these slick streets.

Nonetheless, a few months after we arrived, we bought a car from a departing expatriate.  One quiet afternoon, in need of milk, I reluctantly took the keys and white knuckle drove to Stanley, a five-minute trip to an easy outdoor parking lot.  That became a regular route.  Later I drove to Redhill Plaza to see a friend and to Repulse Bay to a big indoor lot.  Within a month I was a relatively confident “South-side driver,” never intending to venture to the other side of the island.

But one day my son had a tennis lesson at Wong Nai Chung Gap up the hill.  I gripped the wheel and made my way up the windy Stubbs Road to the top, turned into the lot and parked.  I was sweating, but I made it.  Later I reasoned that if I could get to the top of the hill, I could probably venture down over the other side.  That sparked the next automotive milestone when I committed the route to Pacific Place to heart and drove to Wan Chai.  For some time I would park there, run errands around town via MTR, trolley and taxi then return to Pacific Place.   I’d spend just enough money at Great supermarket to get three hours of free parking and head home.   This was good enough in my book.  After all, I had heard stories of people making one wrong turn and ending up in China.

One fortuitous social day changed my perspective.  A friend who lived in Pokfulam invited me to go for a hike.  I drove from my house in Tai Tam to meet her at the horse stables in Pokfulam.  We parked there, hiked up to the PEAK and looped Lugard Road on foot, then headed back to our cars.  She suggested we have lunch at the yacht club in Aberdeen, so I followed her in my car, around Kennedy Town, through Central to the club in Causeway Bay and we had a great lunch.  I left there and took the Chai Wan route back to Tai Tam.  I made it there in time to meet the school bus.   I realized that I had gone all the way around Hong Kong Island (with a hike and lunch too) in less than an hour’s driving time.  So, I reasoned, as long as I am driving on HK Island, I’ll eventually come to a place I recognize.   If I mistakenly end up in a tunnel and find myself on the TST side?  No problem.  All signs lead back to HK Island, and then refer to rule number one.

With Hong Kong Island less of a mystery, I made it my business to identify parking lots all over the city.  Learning to park at IFC gave me Central, and Centrium Building, a tricky spiral of a lot with a one-way section, gave me LKF.  I found a lot in Sheung Wan and that mostly covered the places I needed to go on the island.

But what about Kowloon side?   Early in my driving tenure, my friend Debi told me there was an ice skating rink and a Bed Bath and Beyond type store in Megabox; an easy trip through the Eastern tunnel.  I decided to try it one day, but unfortunately missed the exit.  I spent the next forty-five minutes driving through neighborhoods on the Kowloon side I could never identify.   I actually laughed out loud when my haphazard impulsive turns eventually took me right to Megabox.  That time being lost in the city was fundamental to my learning curve.  I could drive to Kowloon side.

I learned to drive to King’s Park and KGV School thanks to a brief foray into the world of soccer mom.  My kid gave up the sport, but left me with two more parking lots under my belt.  Mongolian BBQ with long-time HK resident friends gave me Nathan Road, the need for a new cotillion suit for my growing teenager opened the door to Shenzhen, and my determined hiking quest gave me Sai Kung.  Now we’re getting somewhere!

But there are places even the most seasoned drivers take a deep breath before tackling.  One of these for me was the elevator parking lot.  My friend Eunei drove me in her little Prius for lunch at Din Tai Fung in Causeway Bay one afternoon.  We entered the lot and she drove into an elevator, turned off the car and the door closed behind us.  We were taken up to a floor with available spaces and she backed out and parked.  I was amazed, but planned never to attempt it myself.  Certainly my Volvo station wagon would be too big.  But then, several months later another woman who had lived in Hong Kong for a year less than I had, pulled in her mirrors and drove the exact same car as mine expertly into the car lift.  I went back that same week to do it myself.

My husband drives just enough in Hong Kong to be dangerous (or at least that was the case at first).  After casually rolling out into a busy intersection in front of a minibus, forgetting that a right hand turn is across traffic, and being one lane off for the tricky Wong Chuck Hang to Repulse Bay Road cut off that sent him unnecessarily through the clogged Aberdeen Tunnel on a busy Saturday afternoon, he relinquished the keys and left the driving to me.  My driving in Hong Kong is the “talent” he singles out for the most amount of praise.

As time passed, my grip on the steering wheel loosened.  I began to turn on the radio or plug in my podcasts.  I delighted in a new route, parking garage or street discovered.   And, returning to Hong Kong for our fifth year, I am thrilled getting back in my car and venturing out into the city.  Driving in Hong Kong is more than transportation to me.  It is a daily recognition that, contrary to popular opinion, it is not impossible to “teach an old dog new tricks.”  Just don’t try to convince me that the same logic might apply to learning to speak Cantonese.

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