Names of cities are not just collections of letters. When you read "Rome" or hear "Hanoi" you get a firecracker flash. A row of mental lightbulbs pops on, you see a private marquee picture of the place, and then, when you think of something else, it's gone.
Your image of the city stays static. Accurate as an atlas, you think. That is, until you buy a ticket, book a hotel, and actually walk its streets.
Take Hong Kong. I have done a little traveling there. And I have to report that the Hong Kong postcard in my mind was ridiculously wrong.
On the long flight over I was dreaming, stupidly, of sampans. Drooping mustaches, rickshaws, and hammers banging gongs. Eighteenth and nineteenth century crowds doing eighteenth and nineteenth century things.
It takes me only seconds on landing to find out that I haven't flown back in time but ahead. Way ahead. Hong Kong isn't a sampan. It's a pair of Google Glasses.
Since it's night, the lights on signs and skyscrapers are on. Nothing unusual there. But unlike New York, the lights have high-tech acrobatic talents. They do back flips and tricks, shoot into the air and slide through a spectrum of electric colors, turning sides of buildings into Godzilla billboards and King Kong cartoons.
Here in the Hong Kong future, headquarters of banks and brokerages are screens for a cinema I do not understand. Some of the buildings spell out things in Chinese. Others show enormous movies that play again and again.
That one over there displays a purple camel eating a fig from a palm. Over here is a horse vaulting hurdles, and here a fifty-storey Mandarin bowing and bowing up and down.
My tour group and I sign up for an evening harbor tour aboard a charter boat, the Aqua Luna. Some secret conductor or computer taps its baton and there is music out on deck. Mysteriously, perfectly, like clocks, a harbor's worth of skyscrapers wink and flash in 4/4 time.
The show is known as the "Symphony of Lights" and, instead of an orchestra, it takes a city of millions to perform it. We bob up and down on the boat, sip our wine and beer, and stare.
Back in the crowded streets, a humdrum avenue corner feels as full as Times Square. A mall is a maze. One underpass divides into two and then four. A stairway leads to a sidewalk to an acrophobic outdoor escalator going up, up, up.
I ask our guide if somewhere there's a part of Hong Kong with rickshaws or with gongs. I am looking for warrens and alleys. I am hunting for wooden doorframes or temple details. Anything old.
"This building is old!," exclaims the guide at once.
How can you tell? I say.
My guide explodes into an ecstatic laugh. "Because it has no elevator!"
He has a point. I nod. I ride the escalator between floors and imagine myself on a horse. A slow and meditative climb with time to think and take in all the shops.
Later I go out alone. I get distracted, cross some streets and pat the pocket of my pants. I've forgotten my map. Where should I turn?
This is the future and there are a hundred helpful instructions. "When red light shows," warns a sign, "Wait at stop line." I do.
When I am allowed to go, I find myself on the edge of an outdoor market that is spread over an entire city park. This is a One-Way Market. Banners direct me down its lanes in several authorized directions and for a minute I forget that I have lost track of my hotel.
"Buy a Wife Cake," suggests an ad. "Come over," urges another. "Come to Premium Dried Seafood Show." Premium or not, I say no to the invitation and move on.
I get to the end of the market and the park. The banner says "No Exit." So I buy one futuristic flower: it's like a yellow balloon that's losing air. No scent. But the seller is beautiful.
She smiles. I smile, too.
In this brand new century I am shy. I would like to say something to her and to Hong Kong. Something smooth and smart.
But my mind is slow as a sampan. Mute as a mustache. Flat as a gong.
I turn with my flower and look up to the city skyline for its Chinese messages. Its mystic symphony. Its lights.
Night is falling. Soon the purple camel will wake up and stretch for its fig. The horses will jump their hurdles. And the Mandarin will come out to make his bow.
My private picture of Hong Kong may be flashing up there too. The world will see how wrong I was. The world will know.
My trip to the future is wavering, winking. It is nearly over.
My rickshaw is waiting.
It is time for me to go.