MY mother used to call him Gim San Hock, the gold mountain stranger. He was a man from the village who had sailed years ago to California to dig his axe into the hills of gold. She would see him once every three years or so, when he would suddenly reappear in the village. The children would gather around, point and shout, 'Hey, look, Gim San Hock's come back!' Gim San Hock, a tall skinny figure in a grey three-piece suit and a felt fedora, would single out my mother, look her straight in the eye and tip his hat. He smelled of tobacco and cologne and an undeniable foreignness. What he smelled of was America. He would wander through the village, the children trailing behind him, until he came to my mother's house. Without knocking, he would open the door, let himself in and settle down at the head of the table. Gim San Hock was my mother's father. For decades, my grandfather sailed back and forth between his home in China and America, the land where he spent his 28th, 30th, 35th and even his 40th birthday - alone - but never considered home. All for the sake of sending gold to the people who thoughtof him as a stranger. 'Dear Mother,' I had written last month, 'It occurred to me that I don't have a single photograph of the two of us together. Please dig around in the albums and send me one where the two of us look really gorgeous.' I received her return post this week: 'Dear Ali, I looked in the family albums but all I could find was this.' The enclosed photograph was from 1986, when my mother had come to see me accept an award at university. My mother is wearing a powder-blue polyester leisure suit, I have 'bangs' and am wearing virginal starched white dress - which, needless to say, I haven't worn since. Not exactly what I had in mind, Mom. 'I try to find something recent,' her letter continued. 'But you have been overseas too many years. You have become Gim San Hock.' Ouch. How many of us are present-day Gim San Hocks who have sailed here from places like Australia, Canada, America and Britain? Sojourners in Hong Kong, who are here solely to extract gold from these mountains. People whose Cantonese vocabulary rests precariously on 'Lee-doh, m'goy' or, for the more advanced Gim San Hock, 'Jo san. Si nai cafe, m'goy'? People whose Hong Kong experience consists of dinner every Thursday at Harry Ramsden's and brunch every Sunday at Dan Ryan's? People who when they say, 'I'm going home,' don't mean Happy Valley or Pokfulam, but a place that only a 747 and a few weeks holiday can deliver? Believe me, I'm not prostelytizing. Because I'm at American Pie as often as the next guy. I'm wondering if my mother is right - that I really am nothing more than a temporary visitor to these shores. Because lately I have also been wondering if she's wrong. HONG KONG EPIPHANY THE Ikea people came again last night. That's their third trip to my house in two months. These professional home-makers are efficient to the point of being officious, the way they burst into your flat, wheel in this new addition to your life and disappearin what seems like a nano-second - without any idea of what havoc this beast in linen or leather or unstained pine might wreak in your life. These days, I find myself in Causeway Bay more often than I'd like to admit, wandering the path that winds between softly-lit 'environments' - the Natura Bedroom, the Tomelila Family Room - searching for home. So the Ikea people came to my house just as a few friends and I were about to dig into a tub of Haagen-Dazs. 'Great sofa,' they said as we pushed the wooden crates we had been sitting on into the hallway and claimed padded seating with a sigh of relief. Iwas thrilled to have received the first installation of my Tomelila environment. It wasn't till this morning that I woke up in a panic. I jumped out of bed and peered into the living-room. Aiya! It wasn't just a bad dream; there it was, its linen pillows plump and askew as if it had just had a good laugh at me. I had done it; I had bought a sofa. And that's when it hit me: 'Oh my God, I live here.' This psychological phenomenon is called the 'Hong Kong epiphany', the moment, characterised by a frisson of exhilaration and panic, when a recent arrival finds himself with the first dead two minutes he's had since he landed. He passes by a woman selling kittens for dinner or catches a whiff of stinky tofu and wham, on comes the revelation: 'Oh my God, I live here.' For Stephanie from a small town in Minnesota, it happened when she was queuing up for the cash machine at the intersection of Queen's Road and Pedder Street. As queue-jumpers elbowed their way in front of her, she looked up at the dizzying skyline of concrete and steel and said, 'Oh my God, I live here.' Ron from San Francisco realised he had actually accepted Hong Kong as his home when he decided to move out of Chungking Mansions and started dating a woman who wasn't a flight attendant. 'I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, I live here'.' For Susan from Sydney it happens whenever she drives along the Eastern Corridor in the car she and her husband actually purchased. 'Every time I see all those skyscrapers lined up against the shore I think to myself, 'Oh my God, I live here'.' Benjamin, who comes from London, first 'suffered' the Hong Kong epiphany when he was waiting for the MTR. Just to the right of him, a woman pulled down her young son's pants and encouraged him to 'do the deed' right there on the tracks. 'At that very moment, I thought to myself, 'Well, that's rather unlike the land of our dear Queen, isn't it?'' AN EARTH-SHATTERING REVELATION AS A child in Los Angeles, we used to practise earthquake drills at school. 'Drop!' the teacher would shout at random, and we would all scramble under our desks, curl into the foetus position and place our arms over our heads. I can't count the number of times I have awoken to the sound of the earth moaning like a dying man and the lamp above me swinging wildly. So having heard about the 6.6 earthquake that levelled LA the other morning, I called a friend at his La-La Land office. His none-too-brilliant secretary, Debbie, answered. 'Oh my God, like the whole place was shaking and it didn't stop shaking for, like, a week.' Then she said what I prayed she wouldn't say: 'Uh, did you guys feel it in Hong Kong?' Leaving me to suffer yet another revelation, 'Oh my God, I used to live there.'