Mike and Dan Do Hong Kong
Daniel Emberley, October 1998
Where to begin? This is likely to be an even longer missive than our usual. Hong Kong, and China in general, proved to be the biggest culture difference of any place we’ve visited, so there is a lot of background we need to cover. As always, print out and read outside if you’re at work, and feel free to skip over our editorializing.
The big picture: We landed in Hong Kong together. Michael spent many days doing family business. Dan stayed for two weeks, and returned to D.C. just before Columbus Day weekend. Michael stayed an additional week. Together we saw, we ate, we shopped. We marveled at the world the Chinese have created, and pondered how long the British influence would linger.
Our flights were uneventful. We left Dulles early,
and changing planes in San Francisco just had time to pick up two pounds of
See’s chocolate. Good thing, as the Chinese proved bitterly disappointing in the
chocolate arena. We crossed the International Dateline after “Sliding Doors” but
before “Deep Impact”. We only watched the flooding parts of Deep Impact, which
seemed to be the best stuff. There’s something wonderful about apocalyptic
scenes featuring the Statue of Liberty, reminiscent of Charlton Heston in
“Planet of the Apes”. The flight with change takes about 24 hours, and we
arrived in Hong Kong twelve hours off from Washington - probably as dislocating
a flight as it is possible to take.
We arrived in Hong Kong at Chek Lap Kok, the cool new airport. I took great pride in pegging it as a Norman Foster structure. Very well designed, a major piece of transport engineering. It is part of a project that is transforming Hong Kong, adding new land and connecting areas that had been islands and wilderness with highways and two new subway lines. The world’s largest suspension bridge, Tsing Ma, carries you from Lantau, the island the airport is on, across to the mainland. It is wonderfully lit at night, in vibrant blues and reds.
A word on Hong Kong’s layout: it is basically a mountain range that has been invaded by the sea. The current islands and peninsula are just the highest points of that old range. That means that the land comes steeply down to the ocean. Nothing like the shallow coastal beaches we’re used to in the States. One has prospects from almost everywhere, since everything is built on an incline, and ships can come very close in to land, which makes it such a great port. It also means that most walking is either along the side of a mountain, or straight up or down one. Take San Francisco’s views, Pittsburgh’s bridges and tunnels, and Los Angeles’ close proximity of urban to wilderness and you approximate the setting.
Hong Kong proper is an island, on the north shore of which stretches the city of Hong Kong. Sometimes called “Central”, but never “Victoria”, the legal name. West of Central stretches Western, and eastward the neighborhoods of Admiralty, Wan Chai, Happy Valley, and Causeway Bay. All of this is crammed up against The Peak, home of the happy Anglos. Despite 100 years of landfill, these neighborhoods are only level for at most 10 blocks from the harbor, facing steep inclines up the mountains after that. Most of the island is uninhabited hillside. The south coast holds the European neighborhoods of Repulse Bay, Aberdeen, and Stanley. Directly across the harbor from Central is the tip of the Kowloon peninsula, Tsim Sha Tsui (that’s pronounced “shim sa shoy”). The peninsula up to Boundary Street went to Britain with the original grant of Hong Kong Island, and extends like an inverted triangle north from the harbor. North of Boundary Street Kowloon continues seamlessly up to the higher hills. These begin the New Territories, a series of mountains and harbors that reach out east and west into the ocean. Very little of the New Territories area was settled until about thirty years ago, when the government began one of the biggest public housing projects in the world, creating “new towns” in former market gardens and rice paddies. Circling Hong Kong and this chunk of mainland are other large and small islands. Some are uninhabited, most are settled and with regular ferry service, and some, like Lantau, are being connected with the city proper by subways and bridges. Most of the region is still rural, covered with tropical forest. Urban settlements cling to any flat or buildable space. No settled area is more than 45 minutes from Central by ferry, bus, and/or subway.
Got that? Get a map. It’s bigger than a city, and smaller than Rhode Island.
So, we caught the United shuttle bus service from Chek Lap Kok to the Kimberley Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, right off the Nathan Road. Nathan is the main drag in Kowloon, running straight north from the Star Ferry to Boundary Street, neon and high rises all the way. We walked down Nathan to the harbor, checking out the old clock tower, 1970’s cultural center, ferry terminal, and Peninsula Hotel. The lights, smells, and action made us both connect to New York, as if Chinatown had taken over all of lower Manhattan, and spread Times Square across itself. Down alleys between the high rises are discount shops and cheap food stalls. This neighborhood is “tourist central”, with the highest Anglo quotient of any area, but we didn’t know that yet. We staggered back to the Kimberley and crashed, having pushed ourselves to almost normal time across the time shift.
We walked up the Nathan Road through the Jordan and Yau Ma Tei areas to Mong Kok, where Michael’s Mom and Dad were staying at the Hotel Concourse. The hotel is owned by the Chinese government, and has been refurbished recently to reach out to Western tourists. Mong Kok is well off the usual tourist track, filled with older 1940-60’s concrete apartment buildings and high rise factories.
Mom took us over to Fife Street, where the family condo is located. This piece of property, and discussion of what to do with it, was the main reason for our being there. Michael’s father and uncle inherited it when their mother passed away several years ago, but title had not been cleared up and the unit was sitting vacant. The building is no Hilton, but it is usable, with some units being lived in, others used as sweat shops, and some both. The Seto family unit is in pretty poor condition, as the windows are original cast iron frames which no longer close, letting in the monsoons and allowing deterioration of walls and floors. A look out the alley showed that every other window around had been replaced with aluminum in the last twenty years. The rooms are typical for Hong Kong, what we would use for walk-in closets, but they work as bedrooms, with a central living room and small kitchen and bath off a narrow corridor.
We shopped the streets of Mong Kok and took Mom back to show her our hotel. We got lunch in a Korean barbecue place in Tsim Sha Tsui, where we were given dishes of raw meat and vegetables and our own mini-hibachis to grill it on. We found our first China Arts and Crafts store, the sign-name for what is actually Yue Hwa, a mainland Chinese department store, specializing in silks, needlework, statuettes, ceramics, drugs, and other stereotypically Chinese items, all of high quality and at incredibly cheap prices. We each made a note to come back for something.
The three of us caught the subway back to Mong Kok, picked up Dad, and took a cab over to Mrs. Law’s, in Kowloon City. The Law family are the Seto’s closest friends in Hong Kong. We are in their debt for their help with attorneys and contractors, moral support, and use of their condo. After a big family lunch Mrs. Law’s daughter and son-in-law Nancy and Peter drove us out to a condo they bought as an investment last year, in a newly built New Town, Ma On Shan, in the New Territories. I think they were not sure that Michael and I would be comfortable there, but it proved more than adequate for our needs, and we were grateful for the place to stay. Peter and Nancy showed us around the complex, which sits above a regional shopping mall and bus terminus (more on that later). We went for drinks at an oceanside restaurant, then drove back to town.
Picking up the rest of the family, we piled into cabs to Kwun Tong, where Nancy’s sister Judy and her husband own one of many restaurants. An even bigger family meal, at Coco Duck, which offered our first taste of what the Chinese consider American food. Despite the red-white-and-blue graphics, I don’t think anyone would confuse the menu with anything from Iowa, or even New York. Oddly off - opening dishes were borscht, escargot, and sushi, and my fried shrimp came with a mango/cantaloupe boat toped with mayonnaise. Hmmm. After dinner people split up, Michael and I heading onto the MTR (aka the subway, “Metropolitan Transit Railway”) back to the hotel. People in Hong Kong run about two hours later than we are used to, so dinner was at 8PM, and we called it a night on our return.
This was Michael’s first day of work. We discovered that we were in the midst of a series of holidays. Thursday and Friday were Chinese National Day, which no one could tell us what was being celebrated, other than that it replaced the Queen’s Birthday after the handover. The following Monday was the Moon Festival, which runs late, so businesses would close Tuesday. This didn’t give Michael a lot of time to work with lawyers, so he seized every opportunity.
I, on the other hand, was there as a tourist. This was my third day in Hong Kong, and I still hadn’t done one typical tourist thing. I made up for it by catching the Star Ferry in Kowloon across the Harbor to Central, then wandered around downtown. Chater Gardens and Statue Square were once British parks with statues in honor of great colonials and a cenotaph to their World War dead. They are now concrete plazas surrounded by the most important banks in Hong Kong. The Japanese melted most of the statues down in WWII, and the residents destroyed the rest in a splurge of 1960’s park paving. Even the fountains are dull: big, dirty, and concrete. Picture Farragut Square if redone a la Southwest, or 1970’s Copley Square in Boston. A waste, but indicative of something we would see all over Hong Kong: the citizens have little culture and much greed, and excuse any urban ugliness if it can be said to reduce maintenance or make money.
The redeeming feature of all this is Norman Foster’s
Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building, which frames the plaza and the ferry
terminal to the north. As the most important bank in the city it makes an
appropriately grand gesture, welcoming the public in a way its competitor office
towers to either side do not. The ground floor is open to the mountains just
behind it, allowing pedestrian access through the Government House gardens
behind to the Peak Tram, and feng shui access for the mountain dragons to the
Queen’s Road Central is the main drag here, and I
followed it west, passing major department store Lane Crawford to the ladder
streets. Remember that mountain behind the bank? The roads here hug the
mountain, and the short cross streets climb the lower hillside in steps, crowded
with Chinese shops and market stalls. People sell vegetables, repair elevators,
market joss paper and lanterns, and trade junk, all on the sidewalk or right in
the middle of the street. This would prove less amazing as I saw Chinese
colonize the streets all over the area, but this was my first exposure, and the
one most captured by tourists.
I found myself on Hollywood Road, headquarters for
antique and forged antiquities dealers. Wandered into the Man Mo temple, beneath
spiral cones of incense and past tables laden with oranges and burning
offerings. No one could tell me who Man Mo is, but he has the only single story
building in the place, surrounded by concrete apartment blocks up twenty and
forty stories all around. Western Market proved a nice Victorian brick hold out,
renovated for European-style tourist shops. Cat Street and Upper Lascar Row may
once have been romantic and mysterious, but are now just more Chinese markets.
I went on a quest for the Tsui Museum of Art. Mr. Tsui is one of the only local collectors who has made his art available to the public. It proved the best assembly of Chinese artifacts of the trip, all housed on the 4th floor of an office tower, above a Benetton’s. They’d recently moved into that space - before I found it, I had an interesting confrontation with the non-English speaking staff of the private bank that had taken over the former site three towers over. Wonderful porcelain, especially the celadon, although I have to confess that Han tomb statues leave me cold.
Over to I.M. Pei’s Bank of China, whose glass triangles soar over two waterfall stairs/parks on either side. The upper landing leads directly to Hong Kong Park, where I caught lunch in a cafe beside a water park. Michael and I decided Hong Kong is Chinese people leading an American life in a setting mapped out by the Brits. One example was the “set lunch” at this cafe, which was the daily special, and a not bad fried garoupa with cream sauce and chips. Umm, French fries.
Back downhill on the Queensway is the Government Publications Office, where I picked up trail maps of the New Territories. It proved to be too hot to do too much hiking, but the maps showed us the area where we’d be living, never covered by the tourist maps, and gave us a good overview of the region.
“Across the street” proved to be a difficult concept - many Hong Kong intersections require you to climb two to three stories to walkways between buildings. Think of Rosslyn’s skywalks, now picture them actually going somewhere. Finally figured out I was not getting across the Queensway on the surface, and via skywalk entered the world of Pacific Place in the Admiralty. Until about ten years back this was the home of the British Navy. Despite objections from the Chinese government, who would have dearly loved a military encampment right in town, the British pulled out and allowed developers to put up several high rise projects (Bank of America, Lippo Center). Pacific Place is the best of them, some of the finest shopping I ever expect to see in a mall, crowded with Japanese tourists and affluent Hong Kong kids. I was decidedly under dressed, but Americans seem to be able to get away with anything here. Was distinctly odd to stand out so, but not unpleasantly.
That was a hike. Caught the subway under the harbor two stops to Tsim Sha Tsui, and met up with Mike and Mom at our hotel. We shopped Granville Road for discount clothes, and found an inexpensive Chinese cafeteria for dinner. We took Mom back to her hotel, and checked out the IKEA in Mong Kok. I bet you thought IKEA could not be done w/o a car, but the concept seems to have traveled pretty well. Only major differences were a merging of the show room and market sections, and a replacement of the customer loading dock with a “wrap it yourself for the subway” area. Discovered that yes, we COULD walk out of an IKEA with empty hands.
This was our last morning in the Kimberley Hotel. We
headed across Nathan Road to Kowloon Park, behind the main mosque. A very
intensively developed park, but very fun, too. Great hedge maze, and aviary,
with South American parrots. Mediocre sculpture garden taken over by the tai-chi
pod people. Mega fountains, and great banyan trees.
Discovered that under our very modern high rise hotel was the Kimberley Street Wet Market. This was a shock to our sensibilities, but fairly common in Hong Kong. Picture a crowded city street, with construction sites, 7-11, glitzy hotels, neon-lit karaoke bars. Now, in the basement of that glitzy hotel, put 100 vendors of food and goods: eels swimming in Rubbermaid carriers, live chickens in wire crates ready for slaughter, noodle vendors, fresh vegetables, cooked foods to take away, gutted fish. Most of the food prep, the killing, gutting, bleeding, and boning are being done right there, the blood and water running on the floor one stall over from the guy selling magazines and kid’s clothes, and across from a stall that sells soups. Michael found a place that sold juk, traditional Chinese breakfast rice gruel, and gleefully had them add charred pork bones and gelatinous black-purple 1,000 year eggs. Dan abstained. Once we got over the sight and smell, we got some of our best meals in wet markets around the city.
We checked out of the Kimberley, schlepped our bags up to the Seto’s hotel, and took the ‘rents downtown to Central. I showed them around the business district, and Mrs. Seto found us a place for yum cha (in the States we call it dim sum, not sure why the difference) over by Central Market. Yes, I was showing the Hong Kong natives around. Very little is left of the Hong Kong they left thirty years ago, and I had cased the ground just the day before.
We took photos in Statue Square in front of the Legislative Council Building, walked up the fountain beside Bank of China, through the gardens around Government House and the Anglican cathedral to the Peak Tram. The Tram is astounding, at points it must ascend the hill at a grade of 45 degrees, it is so steep. Seemed even steeper than Angel’s Flight in LA or the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh, but maybe that was just a trick of the seats. The tram makes four flag stops at streets that skirt the mountain before ending at the Peak Tower. This is still not the summit of the mountain: it was high enough for the English rulers to build residences at an altitude several degrees cooler than at the waterside. Before the tram, they were conveyed up by Chinese-borne palanquins and rickshaws. The Tower is a major tourist attraction, with a Haagen Dazs, sensational views, a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not Museum, and several “dark rides”. Mr. Seto rested in the courtyard as Mrs. Seto, Michael and I took the “Rise of the Dragon” ride. This was sort of Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” telling the story of the rise of Hong Kong. Not too much depth there, but fun.
We took the tram back down and the subway to the
Concourse, grabbed our bags and caught a rush hour cab through the construction
markets on Reclamation Street over to the Law’s. Mrs. Law had made us a
delicious meal of chicken, Chinese broccoli, and frogs legs. I think I was being
tested by the latter - Peter, Mrs. Law’s son-in-law, asked how I liked it, and I
of course said it was terrific: was it frog, or squab? They were a little
stunned that I didn’t drop my chopsticks, but my aplomb seems to have been the
correct response. Actually, it tasted a lot like the way my grandmother used to
cook rabbit. After dinner Peter drove us out to his condo in Ma On Shan, with
mattresses and linens to outfit the place for our stay.
The condo is in a development called Sunshine City.
Setting it up, we got our first sense for how really sensational Hong Kong’s
setting can be. Through the condo windows the sun set over Tolo Harbor, and we
had a view across to Plover Cove Reservoir and the mountains behind.
Ma On Shan itself was paddy and forests ten years
ago, hugging Tolo Harbor north of the mountain the neighborhood takes its name from. It is
now a highway string of construction sites and completed developments. Almost
all the projects are the same, a mall and parking garage surmounted by 50 story
condo towers, eight units to a floor. Following English precedent, the plumbing
is all on the exterior of the building, in long shafts that run between picture
windows. Air conditioning is by window units rather than central systems, even
though the construction is all new. Hot water is generated as needed in small
units in each bathroom. Front doors are double, with the exterior an industrial
metal one that slides against the wall instead of swinging outward. This is a
good example of the conservative nature of construction: the AC, hot water, and
doors would all have made sense in the retrofitted factory spaces in older
Kowloon. In new buildings the same paradigm is followed, despite the cost
savings that would accrue through central systems. At least, the condo fees must
Who lives out here? It seemed to be mainly families.
There are lots of kids, lots of elders, and the mall roof is nicely landscaped
with fountains and play lots for them to use. We were the only non-Chinese we
saw in the building, and know from what Michael picked up that we were a topic
of conversation for the concierge and staff. They were always nice to us,
however, buzzing us in rather than making us enter the door codes. Maybe they
thought we couldn’t handle the numeric keypad? <smile>
This morning Michael and I separated, each finding our way down to the bus terminal and taking different routes into town. Most of the public buses are double decker, and the seat upstairs in front, above the driver, is almost like an amusement park ride, as you screech to a stop almost running people over. Michael took the bus to the MTR station at Diamond Hill, which proved to be the easiest way into the city. I caught the express bus to Central, which gets caught up in traffic downtown. Both go through the Tate’s Cairn Tunnel, one of several long tunnels through the mountains connecting the older settled area with the ‘burbs in the New Territories.
From Central I explored the Mid-Levels. These are the lower slopes of the Peak, row after row of apartment towers housing young professionals from around the world who work in Hong Kong’s financial industries. The government has built a system of escalators and moving sidewalks which carry folks up and down between the streets. The system goes downhill until 10AM, taking yuppies to the office, and uphill the rest of the day. Escalators here travel very fast, which was an absolute pleasure: it’s torture now to ride the crawling escalators of DC’s Metro. I took the system from bottom to top, where it ends at Conduit Road, well below halfway up the Peak, but as far up as one can pin a condo tower against the mountain. Along the way are bars, clubs, and a plethora of china shops, selling tourist and better ceramic wares. Very fun, especially the streets just downhill from the mosque.
Back at the base I cased Exchange Square, an office complex sitting above the main bus terminal. From there I caught a doubledecker bus to Stanley. This has got to be one of the world’s best bus rides: the road goes through the Aberdeen Tunnel under the Peak, then careens on narrow cliff-side roads hugging the island. You can’t believe a bus can do this route, much less at this speed and against oncoming traffic. Incredible views of Repulse and Deepwater Bays, beach communities backed by highrise condo walls lived in mainly by Australian, American, and British ex-pats.
Stanley sits at the end of the southernmost
peninsula of Hong Kong island. It is dominated by
Stanley Market, once a home of deals, but now a major tourist tschotshke center.
Very fun to
shop and bargain, as long as you take it in stride that it is all built around
emptying your wallet.
Got a straw hat to really play the tourist part, and a variety of statues,
t-shirts, and beaded items.
I caught a different bus back, this one going overland and winding through Happy
Valley and Wan Chai to town. Happy Valley is home of the major horse track, and
the bus gives good views of the track and the old colonial cemetery on the
hillsides around it. The Hong Kong Jockey Club is the biggest philanthropic
institution in the city. You see their logo on parks, hospitals, and schools in
every neighborhood. Horse racing is the only legal gambling in the former
colony, and the Happy Valley experience is a religion among the locals.
I caught the subway up to Diamond Hill and
discovered that the bus back to Ma On Shan departs from under the Plaza
Hollywood shopping mall. No, not Planet Hollywood, that’s in the Star Ferry
Terminal, but the same graphics in the mall, which is a decent vertical complex.
Coming back to Sunshine City I got lost in the retail levels, trying to find the
lift up to the residential plaza. As the regional mall, Sunshine City gets a lot
more visitors than just the residents, and the two elevators up to the residence
plaza are pretty well hidden from the shopping areas. More than once Michael and
I had to return downstairs to the bus concourse to find the elevators.
After dinner I did a tour of the park across the road. Sunshine City is separated from a newer complex, Ma On Shan Plaza, by a highway, and connected by pedestrian bridges. These lead to a still-under-construction regional park. Each major neighborhood in Hong Kong has a city-run park, usually combining swimming pools, gyms, play lots, and some nature. Ma On Shan’s has a large swimming pool and library complex, shore promenade, maze, and displays of rocks and exhibits interpreting the mining industry that once extracted iron and stone from the mountain. Very nicely done. It was great fun to see families sending their kids to run through the maze.
Michael had spent a long day with his parents, visiting his grandmother’s grave and talking with his uncle about the inherited property. These discussions were tortuous and often heated, but at the end of three weeks they had signed the paperwork bringing the property legally into their hands. My husband the lawyer, he’s just amazing!
I took Michael through Ma On Shan Park, just as beautiful by daylight as it was at dusk. We took the subway out to the end of the Red Line to Tsuen Wan. This is one of the oldest New Towns, developed in the early 1960’s, and is decidedly lived in. There’s nothing like old concrete, smokestack industries, overcrowded and undersigned pedestrian walkways, and the smell of rotting fish to make an area cheerful.
The draw here was the Sam Tung Uk Museum. Surrounded by apartment complexes, this is a walled Hakka village that was restored by the city government when they developed Tsuen Wan. It is one of a series of museum-ettes; the government tried to include one in each New Town. The village dates back to the 1600’s, and does a great job interpreting life under guard in what was then the rural hinterlands of the Manchu Empire. An exhibition hail displayed Chinese commercial art of the 1920’s and 30’s: enough smiling Chinese maidens to last a lifetime, but it told well the intersection of Western ideas and technology with an Asian market.
We caught a ferry from Tsuen Wan to Central, another
cool ride, in a small boat barrelling right through the middle of the harbor.
The new Hong Kong Airport subway terminal is right at the ferry landing, and we
checked it out. Like all things Hong Kong, it is surmounted by shopping and
towers, these baptized International Financial Center. Decent Seattle-based
coffee house that was NOT a Starbucks. I showed Michael the Mid-Levels escalator
system, from whence we descended to:
The invasion of the Philippine amahs!
Turns out that the cheapest labor in Hong Kong comes
from the Philippines. It is common for a family to have a live-in girl to clean,
watch kids, care for grandparents, etc. The amahs get very little time to
themselves, often sleeping on the living room floor or on a roll-out bed. On
Sundays and holidays, they congregate in the skywaiks that connect the offices
downtown. Capturing sections of the elevated sidewalks, they set up coffee
klatches with friends and sisters, using portable coffee makers, folding chairs,
and sheets of cardboard. Really, it’s almost impossible to walk the sidewalks
for the crowds, all female, none above five feet high, with a running chatter of
This being the National Day holiday, the girls were out in force. We escaped the skywalks as soon as we could and met Mom and Dad for a Cantonese meal in a little noodle shop near their hotel. After more family negotiations Michael and I caught the subway out to Diamond Hill, where we checked out Plaza Hollywood before running out on the bus to Ma On Shan. Found one of the few bookstores of the trip, a Crown. Really, Hong Kong is deplorably under cultured. The bookstore was mainly Disney-themed children’s books and movie tie-ins. We rarely saw anyone reading anything other than a newspaper or a racing form, except for a few students with text books. A little scary.
McDonald’s is fairly ubiquitous here, and was running a promotion for four weeks. Every day they had a different Snoopy doll with the sale of a Happy Meal, in the costume of different countries. Asian nations well represented, of course, and the U.S. oddly depicted four times, with an Alaskan, Hawaiian, Wild West, and Uncle Sam model. Well, hearing “cheap”, “collectible”, and “future value”, the Hong Kongese went crazy. Lines began forming at McDonald’s early each day, although Snoopy’s did not begin to be distributed until 11AM, and snaked around the block. I’m the last person who should be allowed to make fun of people buying toys in fast food restaurants, but even I was taken back by this display of greed.
Hearing a lot of subway in this report? It taught me the only Cantonese I learned. “Shan” means mountain or hill, as in Ma On Shan and the character for Diamond Hill. “Sing mah cow gon tear goon” means “Please step away from the doors”. That’s it: if I’m ever abducted by my mom’s threatened white slavers and sold to China, I can always run a mountainside elevator.
Mrs. Seto had found a cheap cleaner operating from a sidewalk window, so we took our laundry down to Mong Kok. Six hour service, and they folded it back into our suitcases for us. Cool. We headed over to the disputed apartment and gave the windows a working over with steel brushes and WD-40. Eventually got them closed, or at least down to minimal cracks, to reduce further water damage. Lunch with Mom and Dad at a noodle shop, then we took Mrs. Seto for a long shopping walk south through Kowloon. We found the site of the Bird Market, but the city has leveled it and is building some new project there.
A block over is the Ladies’ Market, about eight blocks of street market. Think about the wet market I described above. Put that into shops on either side of a decent width street, with some more standard Western type emporiums like Circle K and hardware stores. Now, in the street itself, erect two facing rows of metal and canvas stalls selling clothes, beepers, and fabric. At intersections have food vendors cooking over gas cans: noodles, soup, squid-on-a-stick. Only leave about three feet of passage space for pedestrians between the stalls, and you get the idea. Amazing, and fun. Some great food noshing on Dudley Street, with sausage buns, grass jelly, and dried pork.
We ended up at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Probably the biggest disappointment of the whole trip. This is a very large ugly building, beige brick, 1970’s style w/o windows street-side, blocking the ferry view up Nathan Road in Kowloon. The harbor side has great walls of windows, and the harbor views are the only thing worth seeing in the place. Hong Kong’s elite might collect art, but if they do, they don’t give it to their city. Some mediocre Chinese pieces, a temporary show of contemporary Hong Kong artists, and a gallery of historical paintings of the city and Canton. Period. Not even any Japanese or South Asian galleries. I wasn’t expecting any masterpieces, but I figured they’d have a token collection of modern Western art - you can pick that up in half an hour in SoHo. The museum is a triumph of style over substance. The citizens know they need an art museum for prestige, so they built one. Any art worth showing, however, is kept privately or sold, but not donated. A sad statement of the values of Hong Kong’s residents. On the flip side, if someone cared about culture, they wouldn’t come to Hong Kong in the first place. The draw here is money: it’s like China has self-selected its most mercenary residents and relocated them to a remote peninsula.
We dropped Mom off at the hotel, and MTR/KMB’ed it back to Ma On Shan. KMB is Kowloon Motor Bus, which runs those nice air conditioned double deckers. There’s also a systems of vans which circulate around the city and apparently will drop you off anywhere reasonably close to their regular route. We never got the nerve to try them out, but they’re cheaper than KMB and more flexible, and quite popular. Back at our mall we shopped for eye glasses, which were a steal at US$100/pair. We got two each!
We headed down to the folks at the Concourse. I left the Setos to negotiate and took a walk through the garment district north of Boundary Street. This must be what Seventh Avenue was like in the 1930’s: high rise apartments and sweat shops above storefronts selling sewing machines, fabric, and the hardware on your clothes. Some stores sell only rivets, for blue jeans: the bags of gold stream off the shelves, it was so beautiful at first I thought these were jewelry stores.
We rendezvoused at the family property with Mrs. Law’s daughter Judy and a contractor she’s worked with, who was preparing a quote for work on the unit. Michael and I then headed south to Tsim Sha Tsui and the Hong Kong Museum of History in Kowloon Park.
Turns out the museum is closed for renovation, but they’re operating a temporary exhibit on Chinese inventions across the peninsula in Tsim Sha Tsui East, next to the Science Museum. The exhibit, “Heavenly Creations”, presented engineering discoveries in a very accessible way, which was great. It seemed to me that the museum redesign and this exhibit, obviously focusing on China rather than any European past, are a move by the Chinese government to white out the English impact on the city. We’ll know when the main galleries re-open.
We caught the Star Ferry across Hong Kong side, and rode the tram west. The trams cost less than a quarter American, were rebuilt to look old, and ramble their double decker way along the north coast of Hong Kong island. They’re slow, but a great way to see the city. At the terminus at the North Point street market they circle back. We got off in Causeway Bay and walked through Mitsukoshi, one of the big Japanese department stores there.
People think all is sweetness and light between Michael and me, but several days of family, city stress, and struggling with Cantonese was taking its toll. Michael was forced to deal with competing conversations in Cantonese, a language he’s not as fluent in as he’d like to be, and which is typically shouted by individuals across each other, in the manner of a contentious Italian family. I was just sitting politely in ignorance, smiling as seemed appropriate, and a little bored with family stuff that I couldn’t and shouldn’t participate in. We called a truce, and agreed to give each other a little time off. Caught the subway back north, Michael to dinner at Mrs. Law’s, and I to Ma On Shan.
What a difference a good night’s sleep makes! The two of us subwayed back to Causeway Bay, where we hiked up to Tiger Balm Gardens. The inventor of Tiger Balm lip gloss, Aw Boon Haw, created a concrete garden on the slopes above the neighborhood. Gaudily painted statues commemorate Chinese mythology, with Buddha and gods above, palaces of heaven and hell, pagodas, a Noah’s ark type display, vignettes of fabulous heroes and dragons, and re-creations of actual Chinese mountains, grottoes, and rivers cascading down the slope. All are connected by stairs through, behind, and in the sculptures. I loved it, of course. Makes a virgin-on-the-half-shell look downright conservative. The family home is cleverly kept off the tourist path, as it is still a prominent residence of the city, although in the very midst of the masonry extravaganza.
We picked up buns at a bakery and wandered along the
canal through Victoria Park. We stopped in to the Tin Hau temple, the first
Buddhist temple Michael had been able to visit. Tin Hau is the goddess of
sailors, and her temple was once on the waterfront. It is now about twelve
blocks inland. We met Mom at the hotel and subwayed out to Mei Foo.
Our destination was Sung Dynasty Village, an amusement park in the image of an ancient Chinese city. How quickly things change in Hong Kong! This was still billed in our 1997 guidebook, but oddly we had not seen any advertising for it. The nice man in the subway laughed when we asked directions. Turns out Sung Dynasty has been leveled, and the property being redeveloped as condos. A little disappointed, but making the best of things, we caught the subway back a stop or two to Cheung Sha Wan. Mrs. Seto remembered when the buildings here were being built as emergency housing for Chinese refugees in the 1950’s. The structures, low, concrete, and ugly, have been turned into factories.
Just past the factories and a down-on-its-heels New Town was our goal, the Han tomb at the Lei Cheng Uk Museum. This is another of those municipal museums in the New Towns, protecting the tomb of a provincial nobleman from almost 2,000 year ago. The tomb was found when the city was excavating the foundations for a high rise. The museum abuts the regional park, a nice fountain plaza with giant animal guardians and old men playing Chinese chess, poker, and mah jong.
We walked south from Cheung Sha Wan, knowing that in that general direction would be the Nathan Road and the hotel. On a street corner Mrs. Seto stopped, pointed to a tiled building, and announced that that was her high school. It turns out the area, Sham Shui Po, is the neighborhood where the Setos lived when they were first married. As we walked Mom recognized the hospital where Michael was born, streets on which they lived, and street markets they used to patronize. Very cool.
We picked up Dad at the hotel and took the subway down to Tsim Sha Tsui and the Peninsula Hotel, where Michael and I treated the Law and Seto families to high tea. The Peninsula is the grande dame of British society in the former colony, and tea an appropriately formal affair. Nothing to compete with our tea quest in London last year <grin>, although we were introduced to several new devices, including drip trays for the tea pots. The folks were very proud of their son.
The group broke up after tea. Michael and I wandered
up through the Night Market on Temple Street, the Jade Market, and around the
Jordan area of Kowloon. The anchor Yue Hwa Chinese department store is here, and
we invested in silk brocade. Not sure what we’re going to do with it, but it’s
gorgeous, and at US$8.50 a meter, we’ll never see it that cheap again.
We subwayed up to Diamond Hill and more exploring of Plaza Hollywood. Dinner at another horrible Chinese interpretation of American food, the “Boston Restaurant”. I had to go there just for the name. Evil food combinations. One example of the cultural misinterpretation, at Pizza Hut you have two sauce options, tomato and Thousand Island. Like the salad dressing. It makes
egg rolls, fortune cookies, and chop suey almost forgivable.
Michael went to work with the family, and I explored
the New Territories west and north of Ma On Shan. The Chinese University of Hong
Kong climbs and crowns a steep hill above Sha Tin, one of the major industrial
centers of the city. Fortunately, there’s a campus bus up to the very fine
university art gallery, with both ancient Asian ceramics and contemporary ink
At the base of the hill the University is served by the KCR, the Kowloon and Canton Railroad. Beginning not far from the Star Ferry Terminal, this railroad can be ridden, with connections, from Hong Kong to Paris, via the Trans-Siberian and Orient Express. Only took it one stop, up to Tai Po. A very confusing market and New Town, whose cultural monument is the Tai Po Railway Museum. This station, in honor of the adjacent market, was the only one the British architects designed in a vaguely Chinese style. You can walk through the old station and several generations of passenger cars and steam engines on adjacent track and learn the history of the railroad. Fun.
A bus runs east from Tai Po to Tai Mei Tuk, through areas that are still market gardens and paddy. Villages were built here in the 1950’s for farmers displaced by Plover Cove, before the city systematized the building of New Towns. Tai Mei Tuk is a beach stop, full of families flying kites and teenagers trying to look tough sitting on concrete walls. This is exactly across Tolo Harbor from Ma On Shan, and I’d wanted to see what the other side looked like. A dam runs from here across a former inlet of the harbor. The dam was built, salt water pumped out, and streams diverted to create Plover Cove Reservoir. This is very cool, you can walk along the bike path between reservoir and harbor, with freshwater life on one side and salt water on the other. Nature trails lead into the mountains north of here. I took the best marked, the Pat Sin Leng Nature Trail. This starts with twenty minutes of stairs straight up the hill, taking you to dirt paths in deciduous jungle. The views are fantastic, and the forest, after so much city, refreshing. My goal was to hike up to the Bride’s Pool, a series of waterfalls and mountain lakes. Unfortunately, time was against me. I figured I’d need another four hours to complete that hike. It was drizzly and slippery, the sun was going down, I was raining sweat, and the trails were deserted. I bagged it at a cut off and took stairs straight downhill for another half hour to the main road. It was an easy walk from there back to Tai Mei Tuk, the bus, the train, and another bus to Ma On Shan. I was a little disappointed to not make my goal, but pleased I’d done as much as I had, especially as the weather doesn’t really cool down for hiking here until November.
This was the night of the Autumn Moon Festival. All over the city for the past week we’d seen lanterns for sale: crepe paper, like we use for parties, but also inflatable cartoon characters, square plastic, and red acetate in the shapes of dragon boats and deer. A special lotus paste Moon Cake is made for the festival. We took the subway to Kowloon Park and watched families set up little enclaves of candle-lit lanterns, eating fruit and moon cake as their kids ran around waving lights. More sedate than we expected, but fun. Turns out the big city-run festival was on the waterfront Hong Kong-side and in Victoria Park, but we enjoyed what we saw. Did Temple Street again, checked in with the parents, and returned to the condo to share moon cake as we watched the evening settle over Tolo Harbor.
Got up early, picked up Mom, and headed for the Macau Ferry Terminal for a day trip to Macau. We took the hydrofoil, first class, and zipped across the Pearl River Delta in about an hour. Macau is an even older foreign enclave than Hong Kong, settled by the Portuguese in the 1500’s on a peninsula negotiated from the emperor. Unlike Hong Kong, there was never a formal transfer of the land from China to Portugal, but the countries have agreed to a handover in December 1999. In the meantime, it’s known as the gambling, underworld, and cuisine capital of southern China.
The customs paperwork was minimal, and we caught a bus to the Hotel Lisboa. This is a gem of 1960’s architecture: concrete, yellow tile, gold trim, and astro-sculptures popping out from minarets and domes. A little piece of Las Vegas transferred to the tropics. The governor’s mansion is closed for renovation, but we walked under the yellow barrier tape until politely asked to leave. Very lovely. As was all of the city. I remembered now what I was missing in Hong Kong: old buildings. Macau has done an excellent job of merging older and new construction, and preserved their old government center. All has a slightly decayed but not unpleasant air. We strolled up the Avenida Almeida Ribeiro, the main drag, which Michael christened the “Avenue Ricky Ricardo”.
A diatribe on Chinese jewelry stores: What is wrong with these people? In both Macau and Hong Kong, the jewelry stores sell really dull, really restrained merchandise, almost all gold. I suspect this is jewelry purchased more to safeguard wealth, as it can be worn or swallowed when fleeing, than for actual adornment. These places make the matrons of Chevy Chase look daring.
We found a very pleasant restaurant, where we savored Mecanese cuisine. An excellent merger of Portuguese wine and cooking with local ingredients. And bread! Who would have thought I’d miss so much biting into a roll and not finding a roast pork filling?
Strolled around the civic plaza, seeing an exhibit of celadon porcelain at the Leal Senado (old Senate building), the Macau Cathedral, and the Largo Do Senado market. Found some excellent furniture, which we came this close to having shipped to us via Baltimore. Uphill to the facade of Sao Paulo, all that’s left of the main cathedral after a fire two centuries ago, and main symbol of Macau. Behind Sao Paulo is the Fortaleza do Monte, the main fort of the city, which has had inserted into it a new Museu de Macau, a museum of the history of the city. It was great to have the main history museum in what is the city’s greatest historical artifact. Wonderfully done, exactly what I’d been hoping to find in Hong Kong but didn’t. Mrs. Seto enjoyed the recreations of Chinese neighborhoods and displays of family life as she remembered it. Michael really liked the views from the hilltop fort.
All of which made us late for our return hydrofoil. We raced in a cab to the waterfront, but were stalled by the ticket agent. Leading to the biggest non-family row of the trip, Michael and Mom against Hong Kong Jetfoil, Ltd. In the end we got seats back but (horrors!) not in First Class, and we had to pay for entirely new tickets. A theft and cheat, of course, but at US$40, not one that we couldn’t swallow.
Michael worked, I played. Caught the express bus
downtown to the Central ferry terminals. Had planned to take the ferry out to
Lantau Island, then the bus up to Po Lin Monastery for the giant Buddha, then
hike to the new airport and subway ... When I looked around, asked myself if I
was crazy, and proceeded to enjoy Hong Kong. I walked up the waterfront, which
is almost all new land, with the skyscrapers of Central to my right. Ended at
the new Convention Center, a Skidmore, Owings, Merrill essay in soaring curves
of concrete and glass. Very well designed, with some excellent restaurants and a
Design Center dedicated to innovators of Hong Kong industry. Had lunch at a
buffet overlooking the harbor, to the tunes of a player piano. This building was
rushed to completion to serve as the site for last year’s handover ceremony from
Britain to China.
Took the new Star Ferry from the Convention Center
to Tsim Sha Tsui. Walked along the waterside there to Harbor City, a large
office-hotel-shopping complex and home of the largest Toys-R-Us in Hong Kong.
Did you know there are two versions of Hong Kong Monopoly? An older one is
published by the British firm, Waddington’s, and an updated version by America’s
Parker Brothers includes real estate in the New Territories. I got both.
With a little difficulty I located the pedestrian bridge across the expressway to Kowloon Park, and caught the MTR and bus home. Met Michael there, who had spent a long day at the attorney’s.
This was my final day in Hong Kong, and we started it revisiting one of our favorite finds, the Peak Tram. We walked a bit around Lugard Road, then through Hong Kong Park and the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware. One might not have thought it, but this old colonial structure dedicated to the history of tea was intriguing, especially the display of recent artists’ conceptions of tea sets in porcelain. Lunch together in the food court at Pacific Plaza, then Michael was off to a showdown with Uncle at the attorney’s.
I strolled east, through Wan Chai, an area of new office blocks and decrepit 1950’s markets. Suzie Wong once worked the streets here, but she is as long gone as the American Korean and Vietnam era soldiers who made up her trade.
Revisited Causeway Bay, this time checking out the Sogo and Seibu department stores. Sogo is very traditional Japanese, with white gloved young women greeting you at the door and operating the elevator. It reminded me a lot of the Paris department stores, or those in America in the 1960’s, when we really had departments, of books, craft materials, tools, and toys, and not just women’s clothes. Seibu has a trendy, upscale design area on their basement level, where I stocked up on stuff that is not yet at Urban Outfitters.
Outside the stores, Jardine’s Bazaar and Jardine’s Market are traditional street markets, on the original location of Jardine and Matheson’s factory in the 1840’s. Jardine’s is one of the major trading companies in Hong Kong, owners of the noon day gun. Alas, they have relocated their headquarters to Bermuda.
Met up with the Setos in Mong Kok, where we proceeded to Mrs. Law’s for a last dinner. All was in an uproar, as things had not gone well at the attorney’s. We mapped out a course of action, and then took off for Ma On Shan. Bought a suitcase in the mall for my finds, and I packed for the return home.
We caught the bus to Diamond Hill, MTR to Prince Edward and transferred to the train to Central. Good thing I got a suitcase on wheels, it weighed a ton! Fortunately, they have baggage check-in right in the subway station, where we transferred to the Airport Express line. This is fast and easy, but a little disappointing, as it goes over several major bridges, and blocks the views with vanity panels so it seems you’re in a tunnel the whole way. A waste. The airport is very well designed. We caught a late breakfast in a restaurant there that very successfully captured the aura of a Hong Kong street market (stained concrete, rattan tables) without the smell or sense that a Swiss sanitary commission was needed pronto. A fitting symbol of the city. Michael kissed me goodbye, and I had an uneventful flight back to Dulles via San Francisco.
Week of 10/9-17
Michael spent his solo week in Hong Kong intensively on condo business. He and his family spent much time negotiating with his uncle. Although the resolution was not what they wished, they met their original goal: straightening out legal title to the condo. The only tourist site he visited was Ap Lei Chau. This was once an island south of Hong Kong, now connected by a bridge and home to dealers of good, inexpensive furniture. He now regrets not investing in that wardrobe <smile>.
We were both struck by the pervasive commercial/advertising culture. Every surface seemingly carried an ad, from the expected billboards to Shell logos on city-owned traffic cones. Scary. People tend to dress for success. Even t-shirts advertise stylish designers, if they don’t display popular cartoon characters. This didn’t even register until I was back in Arlington and saw some guy with a “Fort Worth Culture Festival” t-shirt - the idea of proudly stating a cultural affinity seemed suddenly odd.
Will English last in Hong Kong? More importantly, did it ever really take hold? I think it will still be spoken in the business world, but it’s already difficult to find English labels outside the main tourist areas. I’m glad we went when we did. The use of English is deplorably sloppy. Not just on t-shirts, where it can be seen as a joke, but in official and business publications. My friend Cameron the editor would need to bring a backpack full of red pens.
The city is beautiful, intense, and easy to negotiate. Cantonese food gets real tired real fast, which was a surprise. Neither one of us would want to live here, but we’ll be back for the shopping and the views!