I have to admit: like many (including the writer of this Atlantic article), I’m not the biggest fan of New Year’s Eve. The celebrations always feel contrived, the parties overwrought. Not to mention that in a globalized world, there’s a celebration happening every hour, and you’re reminded of this every time you turn on CNN or log on to social media. It’s someone’s New Year somewhere, but not yet yours (perhaps an apt motto for life in general).
That said, my most memorable New Year’s Eve was probably the New Year’s Eve that never was: I was twenty years old and traveling with friends in China and Hong Kong (I was living in China and my American friends came to visit for the holidays). Days before, we’d taken the long, slow (30 hour plus) train ride from wintery Beijing to the flashy, tropical isle off the Mainland’s southern shore—Hong Kong. Flights were expensive and lush—the train suited us better.
A friend’s Chinese father’s friend (one of those tenuous ‘guan xi’ relationships that only happen in China) put us up in a hotel none of us could afford and we felt like queens stuffed together, five to a room, saving up to try the afternoon tea service at the Peninsula in Kowloon (it did not disappoint).
Then New Year’s Eve arrived. Someone had heard of an all-night party taking place on the hippie backpacker enclave of Lamma Island. The plan was hatched to go to dinner on Hong Kong Island, grab some drinks at the bars near Lan Kwai Fong, then hop the last ferry to spend the evening on the beach, drinking and waiting for the sun to rise in this foreign land.
There were four of the six of us who decided to head to Lamma—Liz, Marcella, Liz’s brother Dave, and myself. We bought blue wigs and angel wings from a vendor near Central. We grabbed a quick meal (I remember nothing of the meal, where it was, what we ate) and then imbibed with locals and expats at some bar on a hill. I recall checking our watches too late and realizing we only had five minutes before the ferry departed (this was back before cell phones and when everyone wore a watch yet still forgot the time). We quickly settled our bill and jogged into the crowded streets, hailing taxis but failing miserably.
Angel wings pinned to our backs, blue wigs atop our heads, we ran down the island’s steep terrain toward the water. The ferries beckoned, white ships puffing smoke into the clear, humid night sky.
“Lamma Island!” We shouted to taxi drivers who sniffed at our requests. The streets were full of people drunkenly stumbling between bars, idling taxis bumping bumpers, incapable of moving past the crowds.
Finally, past the mayhem of the city center, a driver picked us up, and with our frantic calls for him to hurry, sped us to the ferry terminals.
“Here,” he pointed and stopped the meter. We paid, disembarked, ran to the nearest ferry, but it was not the Lamma Island one. A dock worker directed us down the long row of ferries. It was nearly a quarter mile to the Lamma Island ferry. We knew it left at 1120pm. The clock was ticking (again, this was when clocks had second hands that made sound, reminding us of time’s impertinence). We ran as fast as we could, angel wings fluttering behind us, blue hair flapping in the dense warm wind.
“Here!” my friend Liz shouted. Marcella ran to the ticket counter. But the ticket seller shook his head. The ferry wailed once, announcing its departure as it peeled away from the docks.
Dave collapsed in a heap at the ground, arms spread astral, eyes open to the night sky. Liz watched the ferry depart, standing silent and forlorn, as if this was the worst travesty she’d ever witnessed. It was 1122pm.
We remained there for a few minutes, not saying a word. There was the collective, unspoken sense we’d missed an opportunity we’d never again be given. Inside, we felt deflated and useless, that all we’d ever hoped from life was taken from us in one quick instant: the image of that ferry backing away, chugging through the sluggish Hong Kong waters to that distant, glittering isle.
We could picture the beaches crowded with partiers. We could imagine ourselves sitting on the sand, drinking one last beer as the sun rose over the water, orange and red and full of the promise of something we could see but not yet touch. We were twenty years old. The party was all that mattered. The party we would never attend.
I don’t remember much about the rest of that night. I’m sure we eventually consoled one another that we’d find a better party. I’m sure we folded up our angel wings, took off the wigs, meandered through the streets to find a crowd somewhere off Central, a crowd filled with party goers, cameras pointed to the sky, the faint whiff of firecrackers drifting down a damp alleyway. I’m sure we counted down the requisite 10-9-8… someone leading the count too early and someone else calling for the count to be repeated. I’m sure there was the lingering sense of one year passing into the next without much cause for celebration, that despite the teeming masses around us, despite the cheers, the blowing of plastic horns, the glitter painted onto cheeks and eyelashes, that it all felt mostly a farce: that this day was not much different than the one before, or the one to follow. What was it we were celebrating exactly anyway? Someone said before taking one last swig.
But on Lamma, we assured one another, the party would have meant something. On Lamma, we would have survived the night in order to witness the birth of a new year. We would have been a part of something larger.
Of course now I know this is all a farce, like most New Year’s celebrations. Since the Lamma Island incident, on New Year’s Eve I’ve hardly made it to midnight. I’m usually with a few friends, family, or maybe just my husband and our sleeping cat.
Still, there’s the lingering sense that this night is supposed to mean something. That we are supposed to look to the coming dawn with hope and inspiration, and that tomorrow will be different, and so will we. So will we.