Pimp My Balcony

When I tell people that I have a balcony — in Hong Kong, too, where this is as rare as well-adjusted, commitment-minded gentlemen — they sometimes imagine some sort of lush, green Babylonian paradise with cozy outdoor furniture and a romantic view of the city’s skyline.

Then they walk through my glass doors and are met with the kind of dusty, weather-beaten, uncoordinated, vaguely depressing cement hole that gives them the feeling of diving off the ledge. Thankfully, my hospitality and the cozy, much more utilized extension of the veranda has prevented any such mishap.

A nook like this would be PURR-fect, actually.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had many good memories here. I remember playing six rounds of beer pong with Justin, winning four of them, and solidifying a wonderful friendship.

I’ve subjected to various levels of discomfort the 12-year-old girl in the building across from mine who, when she is studying in their dining room, has the best view of my nocturnal activities (mostly involving cleaning).

I have had numerous enjoyable al fresco dinners with Joe, often requiring the stacking of those two tiny wooden tables and using the ancient washing machine as a buffet table.

What I have to work with. Note the single tatami mat. Don’t know where the rest went!

But it’s just under-utilized, which is a shame. And I’d like more pleasant memories like this without my friends ruining their spinal columns on the dusty, foam-padded chairs as they bend down to eat their food on midget-sized tables. This is why over the next few weeks, I’ve decided to do more harm to my flimsy credit by pimping my balcony, in the hope of turning it into my own personal oasis.

STEP 1: BUYING FOLIAGE

With unsuccessful trips to some overpriced plants stores in Central and the understocked IKEA in Causeway Bay, Joe thankfully suggested we hit the much cheaper Flower Market in Mong Kok, along with a quick stop at the Bird Market just next to the big stadium.

Mong Kok is one of those bustling, extremely Chinese parts of Hong Kong that, as an expat, you visit only when there is a specific need for it. My friend knew it well because he said he’d once worked here for an NGO.

On this day, I had hoped to purchase a Stornäs extendable outdoor table, but hey, IKEA still needs to kill more trees to make more of it. Or maybe the attendant simply decided I could not possibly haul a 48.5 kilo package out of there in my four-inch wedges.

So I settled instead on meeting Joe at Prince Edward Station, Exit A, where we walked past the Fish Market (just rows of shops with small plastic bags of water filled with various decorative fish) into a pretty awesome dumpling shop.

It had both steamed and pan-fried ones, with four different fillings: yellow curry, pork and leek, kimchi and just plain pork. They were all delicious — and cost us just under HK$100.

Then we started walking about 5 minutes away to the Flower Market, helpfully located along Flower Market Road, which has rows and rows of flower shops, a quarter of the curb piled with crates of wrapped bouquets brimming with carnations, daffodils, daisies, irises, purple-tinged white orchids, mums and clusters of flowers that looked like pom poms.

They also had bonsai, ivy and an assortment of voluptuous cacti in suggestive ceramic bowls.

The shops on the romantic part of the street (that is, in front of Mong Kok Stadium, whose front has cement paths and Edwardian street lamps strung with flowers spilling from ceramic pots) tend to jack up the prices.

As you get further along to the main thoroughfare, Prince Edward Road, the costs go down considerably, such that I was able to buy five medium-sized pots of English ivy, with triangular spired leaves, for about 30 bucks each.

I also got a bigger tree (?) with buds of white flowers that I forgot to ask the name of. It was a lot better than that small evergreen, less intimidating than the palm fronds (not going for a poolside vibe) or the three-tiered, sculpted plant that reminded me of those prim poodles.

For about HK$100, they can deliver it to my doorstep, which I scheduled on Wednesday, a public holiday.

While we were at it, we also swung by the Bird Market, which was on a white temple-like structure with cobblestone paths. It was marvelously clean (a consequence of Sars. Or bird flu.) and observed our feathered friends with a mixture of awe and pity.

I really liked a small, fluffy brown bird with a splash of bright orange on its neck and another that was lime green with a perfect ring of white around its beady black eyes, which had the overall effect of making it look perpetually surprised.

There were also plenty of long-tailed parrots, one of whom was incessantly chewing on the chain on its foot, while another had stilted conversations and what sounded like good laughs with amused Chinese children.

Joe seemed to have this overwhelming urge to buy crickets, which he said I should sprinkle on my balcony plants. They do sell crickets of varying sizes in mesh bags filled with long grass. I think the bigger ones are cheaper because they’re harder to chew.

I was comforted to know there were quaint little gems like this hidden away in the hectic city, and was encouraged to create one of mine.

STEP 2: ARRANGING FOLIAGE

This was surprisingly easy. I basically got a call from the affordable plant store, Plant Terrace (G/F No. 196 Prince Edward Road, Mong Kok; tel. 2787 1298), confirming the delivery time about 5 minutes before the driver got here.

The driver, also delivery man, couldn’t speak much English so he resourcefully enlisted the help of a bilingual Cantonese dude coming out of my apartment building. Then he scoffed at my slow elevator, but dutifully carried my plants into my flat and out onto the now spare balcony (chucked all the bad furniture), and there they now stand.

I have to be careful about the hanging plants, though, making sure that they are secure on the rafters. Falling objects “may be” a criminal offense, and there are small fines for falling flowerpots. I left them overnight to stew in a slight storm, though, and they clung on quite well. Exposed to the elements, I realized the veranda’s tiled floor gets wet, a problem that should probably be solved by the canvas Roman shades I got from IKEA.

P.S. My landlord was not happy about the hanging plants.

STEP 3: SHOPPING FOR DINING FURNITURE

I think my first brush with IKEA was when Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club was talking about his yin and yang coffee table, which was one of the first casualties of his subconsciously planned, schizophrenic gas leak explosion. That, or when my dad mentioned getting a pine dining table for his former bachelor’s pad.

There are only three IKEA stores in Hong Kong, and the closest to me is the one in Causeway Bay. This is a surprise because I would’ve imagined that in a city of narrow spaces and a lucrative market for tiny furniture, IKEA would operate like a 7-Eleven.

Turns out it works more like an Easter-egg hunt, which probably made it fitting that I wandered there on Maundy Thursday. You basically have to follow a slithering path through two floors, starting from the Living Room to the Self-Serve Furniture area down in the basement.

Wall decals! Makes the kitchenette less boring.

Unless you’re just there to marvel at Swedish mass production and sniff at the bath salts, you’re required to get a pencil and small leaflet, on which you will have to write the quantities and item numbers of the stuff you would like to buy (especially if they’re for delivery).

I spent about two hours in there, several times resisting the urge to buy an attractive ornament or fixture.

Oh, that portrait of a nude hippie would look amazing hung above the headboard of my bed! (Ended up with cheaper, easier wall decals.)

Or, Yes, I think I need a honeycomb mirror set! (I don’t, but I got them anyway, perhaps as a useful present to a bee-loving narcissist.)

Taking a cue from the model patio in the Outdoor Furniture area (next to the fake plants section), I just had to buy that mosquito net, which I envisioned to be this romantic canopy over the dining table, but when I later hung it one one of the rafters instead looked like a porch ghost.

After I plied my cart with a white, cubist desk stool that doubles as storage (nifty!) and an assortment of canvas throw pillows in avocado green and bright red (salsa!), I went to the check-out counter, where staff will list down the items for delivery and then snappishly tell you which ones you have to hand-carry out of there. It took a whole lot of bicep power, but I got home in 12 pieces.

STEP 4: INSTALLING DINING FURNITURE

It was fortunate I’d spent the better part of the weekend hiking in Chek Keng, because otherwise I would’ve been too stressed out to handle my landlord freaking out when the sounds of power-drilling and screws falling on the floor started.

I don’t see why he should complain about an IKEA handyman setting up a foldable table, a small storage bench (for my “reading nook”) or two matching chairs; when everyone in the neighborhood wakes up to the sounds of three wrecking balls — at three separate construction sites!! — making mild earthquakes around the Mid-Levels.

You pay a 10 per cent surcharge for installation service (if you’re not into DIY), though IKEA Hong Kong doesn’t install curtains for you (they’ll refer you to an outside contractor instead, who will charge a minimum of HK$350).

Anyway, it took the guy just an hour to assemble everything, I gave him a hundred for his effort, and was pretty happy with the end result:

And then, perfect timing, that night one of the strongest storms came and peed all over the new furniture.

STEP 5: FIGURING OUT WINDOW SHADES SITUATION

This is by far the hardest part I’ve had to deal with. I’m racing against time here to put some waterproof shades up (or just whatever protective layer) on the uneven windows, which are framed by metal such that it’s prohibitive to metal screws.

I figured out by taking down that solitary tatami curtain that I need some sort of wood glue and a layer of soft wood to act as the anchor for the curtain rods, which I have to screw on manually.

I’ve already bought some thin Roman shades (not waterproof, which I’m kind of apprehensive about), but am at a loss on where to get the appropriate hardware to put them up. I already have a toolbox and some screws from IKEA (of course they would be the wrong size), but suck at basic carpentry.

Although tonight, after work, I did manage to put up one shade, which flew like an errant flag in the wind. Pathetic effort, really, and I’m starting to get really frustrated about this whole project.

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