What to do if you throw your back out in the middle of Hong Kong’s Central Station

On each visit, I’d get to see the museum’s construction advance, get delayed, advance some more, and on and on. I dreamed of arriving one day to a finished, opened, bustling cultural center, but COVID happened, and our stories diverged.

What to do if you throw your back out in the middle of Hong Kong’s Central Station
Walking through the Hong Kong MTR

I’m having a hard time understanding how it’s already been a whole year since the last time I wrote a lengthy blog post on September 11th. And yet, here we are. A year ago, I remember thinking that I’d be writing more and more of these kinds of posts—my lengthy recollections of little moments. I thought I’d write one every week, or every month at least, but after a year, it just hasn’t turned out that way. Maybe I should do this once a year instead—a nice way to mark this important day.

My first visit to Hong Kong was in March of 2016. It was a short trip to deliver a lecture and hold a few meetings about my work at Cooper Hewitt in developing The Pen, the Collections Website and API, and everything else the digital team did before re-opening the museum. I was invited by the M+ Museum to visit their offices (which at the time were above a shopping mall in West Kowloon) and help them understand some of the reasoning behind what we created at Cooper Hewitt in a way that would hopefully inspire their work in the years leading up to their eventual opening.

M+ at the time was just an idea, a floor of office space, renderings, models, and a rapidly growing collection of contemporary art from all over the world. It was a fascinating concept—a museum of visual culture, situated in what will one day be a vast cultural district of the future.

Over the next 4 years, I’d make numerous trips back to Hong Kong, first as a consultant to the museum and later as the head of a small digital product studio, contracted to deliver the museum’s API and beta collections website. I’d usually spend a week each visit, and would visit about once every three months or so at the peak of it all. After a little while, I became an expert at getting from my apartment in Brooklyn to my hotel in Shek Tong Tsui, and eventually Cyberport, a strange tech campus, movie theatre, bus depot, and shopping area where M+ relocated its offices to while the museum in West Kowloon began to emerge from the hole in the ground it was when I first visited in 2016.

On each visit, I’d get to see the museum’s construction advance, get delayed, advance some more, and on and on. I dreamed of arriving one day to a finished, opened, bustling cultural center, but COVID happened, and our stories diverged.

So many little memories, all jumbled together. Take an Uber to JFK, sit in the American Airlines lounge for breakfast, waiting to the last minute. Walk over to the same gate as last time, find may way to the same seat, set myself up for the same 15 hours before landing in Hong Kong to the same incoming typhoon, the same elevated humidity, the same Red Taxi to my hotel, the same four sleepless, jet lagged nights.

My time in Hong Kong was work time. I had the pleasure of meeting lots of lovely M+ people, who were happy to entertain me, invite me into their homes, meet me for a beer or an after work dinner party. I was fortunate to experience many, many restaurants around the city, and a handful of cultural events, but for the most part, I spent the majority of my time in Hong Kong at the M+ offices, in conference rooms, at my temporary desk space, or with Lara, at the Cyberport coffee shop, where we plotted out digital strategy for the next five years.

I was never a tourist in Hong Kong. I never visited “The Peak” or went hiking on Lantau Island, although I made plans to do it next time, each time I boarded the plane back home. Except for this one time, when I decided to go stationary shopping in Kowloon before my flight.

It was one of my final trips. Each trip was set up so that the last day would be a Saturday after a long week of working with the museum. I’d planned it so my flight would be late in the afternoon and I’d have some time to myself to relax before heading home. Usually, I’d spend the day hanging around the hotel, eating lunch with a friend, or just watching TV before making my way to the airport, where I’d begin to see familiar faces, like “first class blue blazer guy” who seemed to always be on my flight home. We’d start to nod hello after the first four or five trips.

But there was this one trip where I decided I wanted to spend my morning walking around Kowloon, checking out the shops, with the mission of finding some nice stationary to bring home—like a notebook or two, or some fancy paper. So, that morning I took a taxi to Hong Kong’s Central Station where you could drop your bags and check in to your flight without going all the way out to the airport.

I handed over my large suitcase, and held onto my backpack, which contained all my cary on items, including my laptop, iPad and camera and a change of clothes. The Cathay Pacific ticketing agent handed me back a boarding pass, and an upgraded lounge pass from Business to First and told me to have a great trip home. I threw on my backpack and headed down into the MTR and off to Kowloon Station.

I had a pleasant morning. I found a nice spot for some lunch, and spent a couple hours wandering around to a few shops a friend had recommended I check out for stationary. I didn’t find anything I wanted in the end, but I remember really enjoying feeling like a tourist for a couple hours. It was a typical hot and sunny day in Hong Kong, and eventually I started to get a little tired from all the walking, and decided it was probably time to head off to the airport.

To get to the airport, I would need to get back to Hong Kong station so I could grab the Airport Express train, which I had already bought a ticket for. It was the easiest way to get there, and I knew where to go as I had done this same journey multiple times in recent trips. So, off I went, back down into the MTR.

Somewhere between Central and Hong Kong Station I found myself walking, backpack on, through a series of connecting tunnels that seemed to go on forever. There were people movers, and walking ramps, and thousands of Hong Kongers going about their day. I kept walking, keeping pace with the pedestrian traffic, heading down a long ramp, when suddenly something happened. I felt an incredible pain pulse through the left side of my back. I didn’t really know what was happening, but it quickly got worse and I had to pull over. I leaned against the wall, frozen, afraid to take another step. People kept walking by, not noticing me. My vision began to tunnel.

After a few moments, I decided to try and drop my backpack. It was excruciating, but I managed to get it off and let it fall to the floor. I reached around and grabbed the area of my back that hurt the most. It didn’t help. My breathing was beginning to intensify. It hurt just to breath. Everything hurt. I stood there, frozen, leaning against the wall for about 10 minutes.

My entire journey flashed before me. I wondered how I’d make it to the end of the hallway, I wondered how I’d make it to the Airport Express. I wondered where I’d have to stand vs. where I’d be able to sit. I wondered every little step along the journey that would get me to seat 24A. I wondered if the seat would recline fully, if it would hurt to sleep, if it would all be over by the time I landed in New York. And then I wondered again, how I’d even get to the end of the hall. Everything seemed overwhelming, like a giant hill to climb before the next one. I worked it all out in my head, but I still couldn’t move.

Time went by, and I decided to attempt forward motion. I realized that putting the backpack back on and standing up straight might be the best bet, and so I puled myself together, pushed through the pain, and made my way, slowly at first, all the way down to the entrance to the Airport Express. I found my seat on the train and tried to sit down.

The pain was like nothing I had ever experienced. I could barely sit, and couldn’t lean back in the chair. I was sweating and breathing heavily, and mostly grimacing in a way which I am sure was not what anyone else on the train was used to seeing.

As the train departed, I began to plan the next phase of my journey. I knew I’d need to get from the train to security. I knew I’d need to smile at the customs officer. I knew the long route from security to Cathay Pacific’s “The Wing Lounge.” I knew that lounge was right near my gate, and so I figured it would be a good spot to rest before boarding. It was my usual spot. On each departure, I’d hang out at The Wing, eating my Dan Dan Noodles, drinking my Tsingtao Beer. This time I just wanted to lay down and sleep.

I made it to The Wing, and presented my lounge pass to the attendant. She pointed out that I had been upgraded to the First Class lounge and showed me where it was. I asked her if there was anywhere I could stretch out and rest before the flight and she pointed me to their “Cabanas.” I didn’t really know what that was going to be, but it sounded good, so I took her up on the offer and signed in at the Cabana desk.

After a few minutes, someone else found me in the waiting area and told me my Cabana was ready. I was directed down a long hallway, backpack and all, and eventually walked through a door into what looked like a little studio apartment.

There was a large couch, and private bathroom, and a giant bathtub and overhead shower.

“This could work,” I thought out loud, and I dropped the backpack again before turning on the hot water in the tub.

I turned on the overhead shower as well, as hot as it would go, and figured I could steam the place up a little. I was in heaven. The bath took the edge off the pain, along with my Tsingtau beer, and I was able to relax my back muscles enough to the point where I could move around again without the grimace face and without profusely sweating anymore. I spent the next hour or so in the Cabana, soaking in the tub, relaxing, and mentally preparing for the upcoming 15 hour flight.

Eventually, I made my way to the gate, nodded to “first class blue blazer guy,” found seat 24A, and as soon as we were at altitude I reclined my seat and took a little nap. The rests of the trip home was mostly a blur of late night ice cream, endless movies, back pain, but tolerable.

When I got back to Brooklyn, I booked an appointment with my doctor, but all she was able to tell me was that I needed to work on my core. Eventually the pain went away, and life returned to normal. A final sliver of normal just before the pandemic hit and changed everything.

So, my only advice here, and the only takeaway from the experience that I can offer is, if you are ever in a similar situation, just make sure to always work a business class ticket into your contract before heading off on a potentially backbreaking trip. That, and the pairing of Tsingtao beer and the Dan Dan Noodles at The Wing should be enough to get you home in once piece.