A traditional Purim in Hong Kong requires an obligatory visit to Pottinger Street in the bustling Central District. Also known locally as Stone Step Street, Pottinger Street is more of a steep, irregularly paved pedestrian stone path (with steps too small for Western feet) than a street. My children run ahead up the stone slabs as I carefully balance my size nine feet on the thin, uneven stairs. My five year old stumbles but quickly recovers and catches up to the big kids.
There is a cacophony of bartering and city sounds surrounding us. And while the buzz of Cantonese is expected, sounds of Hebrew, French and English also fill the air. My children bounce from stall to stall, greeting their friends on similar Purim missions. I have counted 11 children from the Jewish community though we have been here for less than 30 seconds.
It is not mere coincidence nor fate that has brought us to totter together on these indiscriminately paved concrete slabs the day before Purim, it is rather the work of our own procrastination and Asian efficiency. In Hong Kong, similar to other cities in Asia, markets are often segregated by the types of wares they specialize in. For sneakers, there is Sneaker Street, for computers the Computer Centre, for games the Gaming Center and for aquariums and related goods, the Goldfish Market. There is a flower market, a street of only fabric shops, one of only costume jewelry and another of only beads. And at some point in time, long predating our arrival in Hong Kong nearly a decade ago, Pottinger Street became the costume cornucopia of Central. Synthetic wigs in every color and style hang from above, stalls are crammed with thousands of props, costumes are bunched together on racks and rubber masks line the walls.
Between haggling with stall owners and negotiating with my children, I tell them the stories of Purim from my childhood. They have heard them all and can likely retell them as well, but this retelling is all part of our tradition. A favorite, of course, is the story of my brother’s post-Megillah reading fall that necessitated five stitches in his knee. The highlight of the story not being his unfortunate hospital visit, but the image of my Synagogue’s chazzan, dressed as a surgeon, now speckled with real blood on his full operating theater gear, running by carrying the patient to my parents’ car.
To me, Purim-costume-past also conjures up a secret, unmet childhood longing. I coveted those leftover Halloween flimsy, tie-on, extremely flammable costumes that came neatly folded and incased in plastic that other kids were allowed to don. Those costumes, with their lingering scent of toxins and plastic, spoke of seventies and eighties pop-culture. But my parents were unimpressed and, although secular, when it came to Purim, they were costume traditionalists and Purim theme purists. I am pretty certain that I was about 12 different renditions of Queen Esther, one every year until I was finally old enough to protest. And, of course, my mother sewed my classic costumes from neatly planned patterns. While I am more of a pen than a pincushion type of person, I do now appreciate the process.
When it came to my own parents and their friends though, Purim was decidedly a children’s holiday. Aside from the chazzan and the rabbi, few adults dared to don costumes. I wonder if there is any irony to the fact that many of the adults in my community seemingly declined to fully engage in a holiday that speaks to a theme of assimilation. Likewise, while many of my friends grew to relish the costume tradition, they simply referred to Purim as the Jewish Halloween.
In Hong Kong, however, the return of the humidity also invariably signals the joy of Purim for many. As I stand in the courtyard of the Ohel Leah Synagogue, which itself is in costume this year, complete with a clown hat, I watch the parade of costumes swirl around me in the heavy spring air. Adults and children alike, decked in unmistakably Pottinger Street purchases, happily chatter outside as they await the notoriously late start to the Megillah reading. I sometimes struggle to recognize even my own friends. There are pop culture connected costumes, a strong showing for Disney characters generally speaking (with an overabundance of Disney princesses, a phase that fortunately dissipates by age 7), historical figures, career-themed costumes and creative interpretations of favorite foods. Not surprisingly, a couple of giant homemade iPods wander past. My fellow last minute shoppers and I nod in approval at our final decisions and purchases.