Price of belonging

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 January, 2011, 12:00am

When life gets difficult, I think about my hometown. My mind wanders to the carefree days of my childhood, when there were few responsibilities and always someone who could be counted on to get me out of trouble. I dream of my grandmother's Sunday roast dinners, playing cricket in the park and long weekend drives in the countryside. It's been 25 years since I lived there, but I've long considered it a retirement option or a place to return to should life get turned inside out.

Those were my thoughts at the weekend after trawling property agents in search of a flat to buy. The sky-high asking prices had been a shock; convenience to public transport is my priority and even poorly maintained 600 sq ft boxes in 50-year-old buildings in undesirable parts of North Point have HK$3 million price tags. I kicked myself for not buying at the height of Sars or when a work colleague suggested putting down a deposit on an apartment in Taikoo Shing just after I arrived in Hong Kong in 1988. Then I thought of that big country town in eastern Australia where I hail from and checked what that amount would get there.

Far more than four walls 10 floors up and a few hundred thousand dollars in renovation costs is the unsurprising answer. I'd have a 2,000 sq ft brick house about a decade old on 1,000 square metres of land with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a two-car garage. It would be in the suburbs a 10-minute walk from a shopping centre. There would be clean air, a few tall trees, plenty of room for a vegetable garden and bushes giving privacy.

That's despite ever-rising property prices. The state I'm from, Queensland, is undergoing a mining boom that's sent the economy rocketing and it's long been a magnet for Australian retirees because of its favourable climate. That's especially so for my hometown, Toowoomba, on the top of a mountain range where temperatures in the sub-tropical summers are fairer.

And thoughts of Toowoomba instantly evoked another feeling: a sense of loss. Just two weeks ago, it topped international news bulletins when a freak storm dumped 152mm of rain on the downtown area in half an hour. A two-metre surge of water smashed through buildings, sweeping people to their deaths, taking out bridges and tossing cars about in the muddy torrent. My mother's home was untouched, although the flood at its peak had lapped the lower side of her garden.

She's given me regular updates, telling me which shops have been forced out of business due to damage, which landmark I'm familiar with will have to be torn down. I didn't know any of the victims, but some of the surnames were familiar. I've never stayed much in touch with Toowoomba since leaving - a dozen visits is all I have notched up. But with each new familiarity gone forever, it was as if another piece of belonging had disappeared.

It's been a sense each time I've been home after a long time away. Places and names change and family and friends either move elsewhere or pass on. Food favourites when I was a child don't taste the same. The flood means that there'll be even less to relate to next time I go back.

It's making me realise that it's folly to think I can transplant myself to the past. I left Toowoomba for opportunities and experience and I've grown and matured. I'm no longer the same person as the one who left. And, just as I've changed, so has the place I grew up in and turn to for comfort in my memories.

It recalls a saying coined by the title of American author Thomas Wolfe's 1940 novel You Can't Go Home Again. The term implies attempts to relive memories will fail, especially when moving back to a small-town home from the sophistication of big city ways. The expected happiness won't be there because little will be the same. Look to the future, not the past, is the message.

Unreasonable property prices have given me and many others in my situation cause to think twice about Hong Kong being home. That's despite having lived half my life here. Toowoomba may be off my list, but where I'll be years from now depends either on a gambling windfall or government will to rein in costs.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post