I visited Stanley on the last day of a two-week trip to China with the Entrepreneur Scholars program at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. By the time I got to Stanley, we had already had a week’s worth of setting up and attending business meetings, bargaining at street markets, and trying to learn basic phrases in Mandarin and Cantonese as quickly as possible. Traveling in China—even metropolitan China—meant that you had to have your game face on, because there was no time to stop and reevaluate your course of action once you started. Stopping in the middle of a subway station to check your map was impossible unless you wanted to be carried off in the crush of people. It was exciting and new, but incredibly exhausting.
Our last day in Hong Kong, then, the majority of my fellow students decided either to head to a particular market to buy knock-off electronics or to take the tram to Victoria’s Peak, a popular tourist destination. In lieu of either option, I decided to head to the far southeast corner of Hong Kong Island with a classmate, our two program leaders, a St. John’s alum, and an old friend of said alum. I don’t think I knew it at the time, but I was looking for an oasis, and I found it in Stanley.
A double-decker bus winds its way out of metropolitan Hong Kong along a narrow, twisting road, cut into the rock and barely wide enough for two cars. All around us, brilliantly verdant foliage and the gently seething ocean glimmered in the sunshine, and the sky was actually blue. After nearly two weeks of smog-induced clouds and haze, not to mention the constant headache and congestion that came with it, a clean oceanic breeze felt unbelievably refreshing, sort of the respiratory equivalent of taking a shower after cleaning out a really filthy old garage. Ahead of me on the bus, a German man cracked jokes to his teenage daughter, and in the seat next to mine, a blond-haired boy dressed all in white, with the thinnest, bronzest limbs I had ever seen, clutched a sports bag and tennis racket and stared dispassionately out the window.
The bus ride was relatively short, winding past Repulse Bay, a country club, and a few other route stops to end in Stanley, which might be most succinctly described as a cross between Duluth or Stevens Point in July, Oakland, and some mythological village in the Mediterranean with maybe a pinch of mainland China thrown in.
It didn’t feel particularly Chinese, and it isn’t—Stanley used to be an administrative seat for the British colonial powers, and many fairly wealthy families either live or vacation there now. We saw a real estate flyer shortly after arriving listing a two-bedroom, one-bathroom condo in town for $2 million HKD (about $260,000 US), which, while not terribly exorbitant when compared to lakefront property in Minnesota, is pretty high when you consider that you can get yourself a quality scarf from the Stanley Street Market for $3 US even without bargaining.
Despite the tourist-centric shops, restaurants, and attractions, Stanley felt relaxed, friendly, and not too pretentious—like the best kind of lake town in high summer. Unlike most Minnesotan lake towns, however, there was a huge cross section of nationalities and languages everywhere you turned. A group of children in blue polo shirts trailed a man bearing a South Korean flag, and just behind us, two Australians discussed a new in-law. For the first time in almost two weeks, it didn’t feel particularly unusual to be foreign.
The ocean was dotted with wind surfers and sail boats, children clambered over granite boulders, and glossy-coated dogs trotted alongside their owners. But what struck me immediately was the color and vibrancy: flowers, buildings, boats. It could have been the day, about 65 degrees and sunny, with just the faintest tickle of a breeze, but I realized almost immediately how much being outside, being by water, mattered to me. I’d grown up in the upper Midwest, where summers are hot and the water is clean, and I had come to take it for granted. But after almost two weeks of seemingly-endless cities and public transport lines, I began to see how important it was to balance the thrill of metropolitan life with the simplicity of open water and sunshine.
Although many of the locals were bundled up in sweatshirts or jackets, thanks to our veteran Minnesotan cold tolerance, my classmate and I roamed the Stanley Street Market in t-shirts. I was immediately enthralled, and despite my camera being slung across my back tourist-style, I was so completely focused on everything around me that I didn’t use it all that much. (I’ve supplemented some of my own shots with those from the public domain, so you can better get a sense of the place.) We wandered through the street market, smiling at the fact that you could find literally the same product in two or three stalls within the fabric-walled maze, and knowing that the strategy was time-tested and profit-approved. After one of our program directors bought a few rugby shirts for his grandson, my classmate and I split off to go look at the water while the non-collegiate adults headed for a pub.
Stanley is famous for its beaches, and we noticed a particularly nice one that filled up with kids and a pick-up game of soccer, a few low-slung houses overlooking it. We climbed to the break-water, beyond which an elderly woman was fishing. Waves crashed lazily over the low concrete wall. Above us, and partially hidden from view, three high school-aged boys were listening to Katy Perry through a portable Bluetooth speaker, and in the distance, a cargo ship inched across the horizon like a craft straight out of Star Wars. Although it was January, it felt like the best kind of summer vacation.
After clambering over the rocks and staring into the tide pools, my classmate and I returned to where the non-college-aged had sat down to enjoy the sunshine: the patio of a pub called The Smuggler’s Inn. Small-denomination notes from various countries decorated both the interior and exterior walls, and inside, we found a photo of the St. John’s alum and his championship dragon boat team from ten years earlier. Even more surreal was the section of the wall covered in school-issued business cards for the entrepreneurship program that I was a part of. When I decided to add my own to the collection, the bar owner handed me a hefty staple gun and I attached it next to a 2004 graduate’s card, wondering if I might come back and find it ten years later, and if it would last that long.
This philosophical aside completed, we decided to spend the forty-five minutes until the next bus on the patio. The beer selection was very British, with Chinese Tsingtao and Snow Beer thrown in for good measure. It was a little surreal to have touched the east side of the Pacific and ordered a beer from the west side of the Atlantic in the span of a couple of hours, but I was beginning to get used to this kind of strangeness. I was starting to like it–a lot.
After our drink, we had a last-minute change of plans and took a taxi back to the mainland, five of us squeezing into an itty-bitty cab. I wish I could say something poetic about my thoughts as we passed the almost painfully-beautiful Repulse Bay and mossy hillsides of the island, but to be totally honest, it didn’t feel like I was leaving. There was no sense of parting, of never seeing this place again; I simply thought that, hey, if I wanted to come back (and I did), I would find a way to make it happen. Because for as exhilarating and challenging as traveling through China had been, our afternoon in Stanley felt intensely real yet frozen in time, a snow globe moment not just of place but of mental presence as well.