There is a saying: “If you stay seven years in London, you will never leave.” This is where our story begins. Roughly twelve years ago I lived in London working as an architect. I had been there for six years and eleven months. London was a great place, full of music, culture, and art, but something was missing in my life, something was not quite right. I would find myself flicking through Time Magazine on weekends amazed by how many things could be done, all the while I was doing nothing apart from laying on my red sofa, lazily strumming an old guitar. It would cost me more and more effort to get out and catch buses to go and meet up with friends and then to catch those same night buses back home again. As un-loyal to the city I loved so much as it may sound, I was bored and needed a change of scenery. One night, a colleague and a good friend of mine, Anthony, an Australian born Chinese, came to my rescue. He invited me over for dinner. I still remember he cooked some beautiful Vietnamese rolls. I should have suspected Asia was really on the menu.
After quite a few cans of Red Stripe, as we watched the sunset going down over the brick walls and tailed roofs of old Hackney, he dropped it. “Francesco,” he began, “I’ve been in London for three years, I’ve visited Europe: the Spa of Peter Zumthor in Switzerland; the antique churches of Rome; we drove together to Land’s End in Cornwall. The time has come for me to go back to Australia.” Sad at the prospect to see a very good friend go, but happy and excited for him at the same time I exclaimed, “Cool!”“I am planning to go to Sydney overland,” he continued. I was struggling to grasp where Sydney is comparatively to London, and starting to feel dizzy from a mix of geography and Red Stripe. “Cool,” I managed to repeat.Then he asked, “Would you like to go with me?” And this is where a little bit of booze may smooth decision making. Three weeks after that we were on the road.
There were buses, ferries, more buses, and a train – the Trans-Siberian. There are nine times zones in Russia and there are three trillion trees in the world, it’s more than the stars of the Milky Way they say. Russia, apparently, has roughly one third of the world’s trees. I tried to count a few of those beautiful silver birches between a game of cards, an instant coffee and a shot of vodka, as the train cut its way through that vast, open country, but I couldn’t keep up. After Russia we passed through Mongolia and then into China. In Beijing we split up: Anthony went to Japan to attend a wedding of a friend and then back to Beijing for a month long course of Mandarin. I suspect he was on a journey to rediscover his own roots. I caught more trains and more buses, zigzagging my way through China with the goal of catching up again with my traveling companion Anthony in Hong Kong a couple of months later. Needless to say, we never made it to Sydney. The pull of Asia proved too strong.
To make a long story short, Anthony fell in love with his Mandarin teacher, Julia, found a job, got married (I was his best man at the wedding), and they now have two beautiful kids. I also found a job in Hong Kong. After buying a cheap shirt at a street market, shaving my hairy and tanned face and borrowing the “lucky shoes” of Yutaka (an old Japanese friend who kindly offered me a bed in those backpacking days in the late summer of 2005 and somehow had previously planted the seed of Asia in my brain during a softball game in a north London park) I went for an interview at a big architectural firm. To my surprise, Yutaka’s footwear worked quite well, I guess. I worked for that company for more than eleven years.
I have now been based in Hong Kong for more than a decade. “Why?” You may ask. Immediately after arriving in Hong Kong I stayed at a dingy guesthouse in Tsim Tsa Tsui and, too excited to stand still, I started aimlessly walking the busy streets until I naturally drifted towards the harbor front at sunset. And then I saw that view. It was as if natural perfection had met the perfect human touch. I was mesmerized, and instantly fell in love with the place. There was no turning back. I had to capture it.
After settling in Hong Kong I felt very comfortable in the city. It soon became my home. I started appreciating and enjoying the vibrancy, the energy, and the rare combination of a dense urban environment mixed with pristine outdoors that render this place unique.
For the record, I did eventually manage to go to Sydney a few years ago. It’s a beautiful city with another fantastic harbor, which I painted a couple of times after that trip. That time, maybe smarter, certainly wiser, I figured out a Qantas flight would do, but who knows, maybe one day I will finish off the second leg of that original journey.
by Francesco Lietti