Alice and I have long felt that no vacation is complete unless the riot police show up, so when Overseas Adventure Travel called us last Friday offering to cancel the Hong Kong leg of our trip, we didn’t discuss it for long before deciding to proceed. After all, we thought, what’s the worse that could happen?
Turns out that the answer to that question is, “A street skirmish a few blocks from our hotel, resulting in Molotov cocktails being thrown.” Fortunately, that took place a few hours before we arrived at said hotel, blissfully unaware that it had taken place. It did cause some traffic delays that prolonged our wait for the driver at the airport. We walked into our hotel room at about 11 PM and dashed of a note to our family assuring them that we were safe, we saw no evidence of unrest, and Mom, please lay off the Ambien.
The middle part of that sentence, as it turns out, was mostly but not 100% true. Looking down from our hotel room, we saw a fleet of police transport vehicles turning down the street, and a very small number of (presumed) protesters running very, very fast away from them. But from our vantage point on the 32nd floor, I would not characterize it as a visceral experience. (Turns out that our hotel is across the street from a large police station.)
Everything was calm the next day (yesterday), and the city is quite normal though there are scattered signs of unrest: graffiti, wall posters, and the like. But for the most part, it is business as usual in Hong Kong. And there is a lot of business: Hong Kong hums with a population of 7.5 M but a wall-busting population density of over 17,000 per square mile (almost 7,000 per square km). This year it will receive just about 60 million visitors, including us.
There are several regions of the city, distributed over the mainland and a few islands, but the hub and best known parts are Hong Kong Island itself, and — a stone’s throw across the bay — Kowloon, which is the peninsula at the southern tip of the mainland. Many of the major tourist destinations lie in those two areas. The city has changed unrecognizably in the 39 years since I was last here but a number of the major sites are eternal verities: Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island still offers spectacular panoramic views of the space-age skyline; the Star Ferry still plies the bay for under half a buck US; Stanley Market still has the look of a polite Moroccan souk. We only have two full days here, so in our usual fashion we checked off a fair number of boxes yesterday alone.
The weather is hot and humid, a damp hazy 90 F (32 C) at 85% humidity. The operative word is “sweat” so rather than deal with public transport we relied a lot on taxis to get us to various transportation termini. The first of these was the tram that runs up Victoria Peak, the 1800′ (550m) peak that dominates the island and is the go-to spot for the most traditional panoramic view. The tram ride is very steep and more than a little rattly with almost Victorian-looking cars, like some venerable theme park ride, and one of the primal HK experiences. The trip alone is, um, worth the trip, but the view is the destination.
The tram terminus at the top is now a virtual shopping mall, but you can hike upwards from there to the more idyllic Governor’s Gardens at the actual peak. It’s a steep uphill mile, which in this weather is an Olympic-class workout for your sweat glands. But we did it.
Returning to sea level, our options were either to return to the hotel for a shower or maximize the sweat content of our clothes by continuing to explore; we opted for the latter by taking a taxi to Stanley Market at the southern end of the island. It’s a less crowded area, with some resort beaches on Tai Tam Bay, which has beautiful aquamarine water. Stanley is basically a waterfront resort and shopping area whose traditional draw, as I mentioned, is a souk-like tchotchke market a couple of blocks long. It’s like Marrakesh with slightly fewer pickpockets, and if you keep your eye out there are some nice items to be found (found, of course, by Alice). But mostly, being a warren of narrow shaded alleys, it’s cooler than everywhere else.
(Historical side note: this being a former British colony, I wondered if the eponymous Stanley was the same Lord Stanley who was the late 19th century Governor General of Canada and after whom hockey’s Stanley Cup is named. It isn’t: Hong Kong had a different Lord Stanley, who was the British Colonial Secretary about 50 years before the hockey guy. Apparently Stanley was a good name to have if you were part of 19th century British colonialism, which was a growth industry at the time.)
We wandered around the market for a while before ducking into a side street into a pleasantly crowded hole-in-the-wall noodle restaurant for lunch. Hong Kong is notoriously expensive but in fact there are a myriad of such restaurants that can be both very cheap and excellent. This was one: we had enormous bowls of noodles, dumplings, and shrimp for a total of not much over US$20 for the two of us.
By this time we were the consistency of wet sponges and our clothing belonged in a pro football locker room so we retreated back to the hotel for a couple of hours before striking out again after sunset. Our mode of transport this time was the Star Ferry, which along with Staten Island is one of the most famous ferries in the world. It is certainly one of the most charming means of transportation in Hong Kong, making the five-minute shuttle across the bay between Kowloon and Hong Kong every few minutes for an utterly negligible amount of money — literally pocket change — while offering the most wonderful views of the skyline, especially at night. When in HK, you cannot not take the Star Ferry.
Hong Kong’s skyline does not even remotely resemble what I saw in 1980. It is now a sea of high-tech high rises, many of them pulsing with animated light displays; no still photo can do it justice but here’s one anyway.
The Star Ferry terminal on Kowloon is a block or so from the southern end of Nathan Road, which used to be called Hong Kong’s Golden Mile. It’s a less-impressive version of Tokyo’s Ginza, a straight two-mile neon stretch of traffic, high-end stores, boutiques, and legions of skeevy little guys (for some reason they are all five feet tall) trying to sell you Rolex watches and designer handbags. Oddly, they all phrase it exactly that way, like they all went to the same Skeeve School: “You want Rolex watch or designer handbags?” Even more oddly, a few seem to have pangs of conscience by actually asking “You want fake Rolex watch or designer handbags?” You have to admire their candor.
We successfully repeated our side-street-hole-in-the-wall restaurant strategy to get a good inexpensive dinner, then continued our humid hike up Nathan Road. (Even at 9:30 PM, the weather was oppressive.) Our end point was the Temple Street Night Market, a sort of demimonde version of Stanley Market, four or five blocks of close-packed white-tented vendor stalls selling food — the occasional wiggling crustacean — and… crap. To characterize the wares as knockoffs would mostly be an insult to knockoffs since that term implies the existence of a quality original. This stuff all looks like it’s designed to fall apart ten minutes after you buy it. The only possible exception might be the gaily-decorated USB flash drives, all of which I am quite certain come loaded with only the highest-quality malware sure to make your home computing experience an exciting one.
That is not to say that absolutely everything was low-quality and unoriginal. There were some decidedly original decorative metal plates, about the size of car license plates, sporting amusing slogans, designed perhaps to brighten up a dorm room or nursery. My favorite one said “NEVER ONE NIGHT STAND SHE CUT OFF YOUR DICK AND THROW IN RIVER”, although Alice preferred “SAUSAGE HUNTER.” Inspired by these new life mottoes, we strolled back down Nathan Road and took the Star Ferry home and to bed.