Sub-Zero in the Sub-Tropics

Shanghai and Hong Kong, China

February 19 – 20, 2012 / January 31 – February 4, 2018

I went to bed fully clothed: padded jacket, sweater, scarf, shirt, jeans, thermal undies, socks, gloves, beanie. The works. Only my shoes were off. The wintry chill crept in through the tightly-shuttered windows and into several layers of my clothing. I threw the comforter over my head and curled up in a fetal position. There was nowhere to take cover from the cold. My only source of precious warmth was a portable heater, just slightly bigger than a computer speaker.

Wintry Trees @ Shanghai

Apartment Buildings @ Shanghai

The temperature dipped to about zero in Shanghai. But I left my cozy hotel room to spend the night at my American friend’s apartment. Bob was staying at a relatively old housing complex near Shanghai Jiao Tong University. There was no central heating in these residential buildings. China, the dragon sprawled across a huge chunk of continental Asia, could not install heating in its entirety. Otherwise, toxic emissions from coal burning, used for heating in the country, would reach apocalyptic levels.

Portable Heater @ Shanghai
With my friend Bob @ Shanghai

In China, the borderline between north and south was a river slicing through the country from west to east. The system was simple enough: Provinces north of Huai River received central heating, those in the south did not. Shanghai lay at the gray area. Although the city was further up than most of sub-tropical China, it was considered – culturally and geographically – South China having shorter, milder winters. Well, no. Not really. There was also windchill to consider. The coastal city facing the Pacific shivered from oceanic gusts – a welcome breath of fresh air in summer, not so much in winter – pulling the temperature further down.

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Ki @ Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Old and New @ Hong Kong Island

That was how I underestimated Hong Kong, located at a balmier latitude, just two hours away from the perennial summer of Manila. But like Shanghai, decades-old apartment buildings still stood with updated ground floors. At street level, they gleamed with glass and steel. Behind their face-lifted façades, they unabashedly – and quaintly – looked their age: tired concrete, clunky elevators, and an oh-so-obvious lack of central heating! The cold front blowing into the city the week of my visit literally gave me goosebumps.

Hong Kong Hostel @ Paterson Building, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Hong Kong Hostel @ Paterson Building, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

I was appalled to find our digs, Hong Kong Hostel, in rundown, mixed-use Paterson Building: apartment units and short-term rental run by the hostel sharing the same floors. The location seemed promising enough: Causeway Bay, one of the world’s swankiest addresses. Sure, rates were enticingly low-range, but I expected, at least, provisions for human survival – heating being a basic necessity. Nighttime temperature plummeted to -1 on the day of our arrival. And it was raining. In all fairness to the hostel, it was the closest I could get to living in a shoebox, Hong Kong style, as I had wanted, and it was sufficient for backpackers. Even for myself. In summer. But winter was too harsh; I dreaded doing my morning rituals despite the hot shower.

Ki and Me: A Contrast in Counteraction to Cold @ Hong Kong

Strangely enough, I was not a stranger to winter. I just had not expected sub-tropical Hong Kong to have a real one. I almost did not take my winter coat as I deemed it overdressing. Thank goodness Ki convinced me to take it to town for Instagram swag. It was his first winter, but he took to cold weather like an Eskimo. While I was wrapped in insulated clothing still shivering, Ki was nonchalantly taking selfies with glove-less hands and beanie-free hair blowing in the wind, chill factor notwithstanding. I was feeling the sub; he was just feeling tropical.

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