Just Look Up: An Ode to Hong Kong

Journalist, ceramicist and award-winning writer Ilaria Maria Sala takes a mindful walks across town and finds that Hong Kong’s charm remains ever in its idiosyncrasies.
2 Mar 2022
Words by: Ilaria Maria Sala

For a place that is used to being as super connected as Hong Kong, two years without travel is a lot. It feels a little unreal to think of how we would go to Macau for the day, just to see an exhibition and stop for a caldo verde soup made with potatoes, thinly cut kale, and a glass of Portuguese wine. Or that we’d hop on a plane for a weekend in Shanghai, Taipei or Singapore without giving it too much thought or preparation. To see relatives overseas, too, was arranged at short notice. I don’t know what any of us would have thought had we been able to foresee just how much Covid was going to ground us all.

We’ve never been quite this close to each other, Hong Kong and I. And while I would love to hug the family members that I miss so dearly, until these last two years of uninterrupted time spent here, I’ve also never been more grateful to Hong Kong itself.

The last couple of years have seen me visit so many places for the first time – and there are still many I haven’t yet been to. It’s always said that Hong Kong is small; but looking at the plethora of little islands, or at the multitude of the city’s secret temples, I’m not entirely sure I agree. As usual, it’s all about one’s willingness to look.

The New Moon Library, Just Look Up: An Ode to Hong Kong, red flowers of bombax ceiba, also known as cotton tree flower, photograph by Bing-Jhen Hong
Cotton Tree Flower, Bombax Ceiba. Photograph by Bing-Jhen Hong

From Tree-Tops to Under-Toes

Just this week I saw that the plump, red flowers of the bombax ceiba, commonly known as the cotton tree, are starting to bloom. Thick, round and bright red, the petals of the flowers are like a Spring smile amidst the gangly branches. Soon, the flowers will crowd around the city – you’ll be able to spot them even in the packed streets of Central or Tsim Sha Tsui. And while cotton tree blooming season is short, every second of it is a beauty.

When the rains begin, the cotton tree flowers will fall. Still large and red, they’ll slowly transition into a darker maroon, before melting into a pale, reddish-brown that will dot the ground with a gracious, impermanent presence. As Spring turns into the hot Summer, the pods of the cotton tree will silently explode, depositing a white carpet of fluffy cotton onto the sidewalk while the tree branches finally clothe themselves in leaves. Since spotting the first burst of red, I’m keeping an eye out for other joys to come.

The New Moon Library, Just Look Up: An Ode to Hong Kong, red-whiskered bulbul
Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pycnonotus Jocosus
The New Moon Library, Just Look Up: An Ode to Hong Kong, mountain bulbul
Mountain Bulbul, Ixos Mcclellandii


The birds seem interested, too. Bulbuls, or Pycnonotus jocosus in Latin, use their beaks to dive inside of flowers for a snack. Distinguished by brightly rouged cheeks that match their red under-tail feathers, and crowned with a spiky black crest, the bulbul is one of the prettiest birds in Hong Kong. If you’re near Tai Po, you may spot the mountain bulbul, or Ixos mcclellandii. They are larger, and have feathers of grey and light brown. They also have delicate olive hues painting their wings and tail, and carry themselves with an amused, if judgmental, air. Chinese bulbuls, or Pycnonotus sinensis, are plump little things; brown and white, with elegant white markings around their heads. They attempt to look casual as they fly in and out of their nest feeding their chicks, all the while avoiding the attention of any predators that may be lurking nearby.

The nest is a dangerous place. In spending every day in Hong Kong, I’ve learned that bulbuls lay their eggs in summer. Birds must grow incredibly fast, because every minute in the nest unable to fly or protect themselves means being vulnerable to all sorts of perils and predators. Like the typhoons that have sent entire buildings hurtling to the ground, let alone a bird’s nest; or the large, crow-like Greater Coucal, that wear chestnut coloured feathers on their back and wings, and cast beady red eyes around, looking for a bite. The Great Coucal usually hides, but when it can sense a nest nearby, it circles until it has located it precisely, before it defeats the smaller birds’ protective barriers to feast on the nestlings. Snakes, too, are fond of baby birds (and cats!). After realising how hard it is to survive the nest, I now look at grown bulbuls pecking into the cotton flowers with satisfaction. They made it… perhaps we can too?

The New Moon Library, Just Look Up: An Ode to Hong Kong, photograph by Alice Ho
Photograph by Alice Ho

Green Thumbs Up

I never cease to be amazed by how many people in Hong Kong are fond of plants. I admire the improvisation skills it must take to grow these unexpected micro-gardens in the most unlikely places. Near Shun Tak Centre at the Citybus terminal, someone has cultivated the most gorgeous orchids by a little yellow office shack, alongside the healthiest purple oxalis I’ve seen. And keep your eyes peeled: improvised hanging gardens and alternative uses of public spaces are everywhere. From Hollywood Road all the way up to Castle Peak Road and everywhere in between, you’ll find gardens within gardens, if you try. Old containers are repurposed for leaves and flowers, while stools or wooden delivery boxes become pedestals to allow for even the smallest of planters to reach sunlight.

For every passer-by willing to look, there is the gift of a makeshift flower bed. Even the most dour of doormen and women reveal their softer sides by tending to little money plants, wrapping ribbons around bamboo stems, and hydrating lily bulbs in ceramic planters. By looking for these wonders you’ll have the pleasure of viewing; but if you show a little appreciation on sight, you may also make a new friend of a fellow Hong Konger.

The joy of Hong Kong’s details emerge most sweetly when you are willing to look; to be open to seeing beauty peeking out of the smallest nooks and the most awkward crannies. If you are, you’ll be in for the joy of endless every day surprises.