<A> Dashing through Hong Kong

Written by Jun 15, 2005 11:06
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There are some things through which it cannot be seen, early morning fog is one of them and thus we missed our early morning flight to Hong Kong. Fog is actually quite a big problem around Shanghai. Such much so that it often results in the closure of the motorways, meaning a drive to the airport which should have taken an hour and a half ended up taking four. Not that I saw any of it, I was fast asleep in the back seat and was only woken as we pulled in to Pu Dong Airport. Considering we left Suzhou at five o’clock in the morning I was glad of the prolonged inactivity but Tom, my Vietnam-veterned, former bus driving, one time private detective but now teaching colleague filled me in on the details later.

I wasn’t overly excited about the prospect of a few days in Hong Kong. Not that I wasn’t happy to be going, it’s just that I have long since given up trying to second guess what a particular place is going to be like. When I was younger, I always had an idea in my head about where my family were going on holiday. I was always wrong often leaving me bemused and disorientated for the first day or two. So I went to Hong Kong knowing absolutely nothing about it. I’d heard of it of course but I was sure I must have known more about it than I actually did.

I didn’t know that Hong Kong was an island and a small island at that. I didn’t know that it was the most densely populated city in the world. I’m still not even sure if that’s true but having trudged through its crowded streets and elevated walkways for three days with the sun all but blocked out by towering edifices lined up on top of one another, I could well believe it.

We eventually got on a plane, leaving behind a chilly Shanghai for a delightfully mild Hong Kong. Delightful that is in the middle of winter. Summers are hot, hot, hot but then so is any other Asian city worth its salt. If you’re planning to visit Asia in the summertime, think of it like back-packing on the sun.

The deceptively cold Shanghai winter had given me something of a cold, not helped it should be said by the age old Chinese custom of not turning on the heat until it’s as cold inside as it is outside. It’s seems to me that they are stubbornly holding out this year, maybe they are going for the record or maybe it’s a sign of strength to see how long you can go without heat. In Ireland it might be like seeing how many pints you can drink before you keel over to show you’re a real man.

I hoped the sunshine would provide the perfect antidote to my sniffling only to discover that long before Hong Kong had been providing antidotes of a different kind. Britain having gotten the Chinese hooked on opium in the 18th and 19th centuries used Hong Kong as one of its’ major distribution points. Two opium wars followed. Apparently the Chinese authorities were not best pleased that British opium was turning their yeomen into junkies and ceded Hong Kong and the Kowloon peninsula just to get rid of them. In 1898 this concession took the form of a 99 year lease, which ended in 1997 when Hong Kong returned to the motherland.

Tom had told me that the old airport was right in the middle of downtown and landing there was the scarier than Saigon in the sixties because you didn’t know whether you were going to land in to the ocean or fly into a building. It was hit and miss. There is no such excitement in the new airport. It’s built on an island about 45 minutes from Hong Kong and getting the Airport Express into the Central is one of the more luxurious brushes with public transport that you’re likely to have. From there it’s onto the Subway and you’re in your hotel in no time.

Wherever you stay in Hong Kong, you are always in the thick of the action. Only the filthy rich can afford to get away from it all in the mountains beyond the metropolis. It’s rather paradoxical that Hong Kong as part of the world’s largest communist country should be most famous as a commercial Mecca. Also rather paradoxical is that so many people come to Hong Kong to shop when they could probably get it cheaper at home. Hong Kong is not cheap and what was cheap looked to be poor quality.

What Hong Kong does have in abundance is vibrancy. It looks and smells like New York. Skyscrapers, subways, a million taxis and deli’s on every corner but its atmosphere is distinctly British. They drive on the right, the street names were surely picked out of some Commonwealth book of street names, double-decker buses and trams abound. Just like the good old days, and unlike New York, the subway is clean and comfortable one of the many positive legacies left by the colonials. The night life is buzzing especially around Wellington Street in Central but I found a nice little German bar in the Wan Chai district called “Brechts” where we happily took advantage of the two for one Weiss biers, being overlooked all the while by a surreal looking sculpture of a gagged Hitler, who stared at us angrily.

Where there is Asia and vibrancy there is neon and in Hong Kong it’s ubiquitous. Space is tight and businesses compete for attention by trying to be brighter than the next. The neon signs hang over the streets like the branches of non-existent trees offering mobile phones, Panasonic dishwashers, Indian restaurants and anything else that can be advertised. I love the hustle and bustle as much as the next man but after a couple of pints of Guinness apparently “exported direct from Dublin” in one of the Irish bars and a gander through the markets around Graham Street, we headed towards to Peak Tram Terminus in a bid to escape the madness. Luckily in Hong Kong you’re never more than a five minute walk from the Subway and nothing is more than five minutes from the Subway but we were soaking up the sun and chose to walk.

The peak tram sucks you out of the metropolis, through the greenery of the botanical gardens and out of the jungle. Most of Hong Kong is covered with trees contrasting brilliantly against the urban sprawl of the city. You can see it all from the top, the trees, the city, the bay, more city eventually fading out into countryside and hills before disappearing over the horizon. We walked back down the other side through the National Park; we saw no one and could have been a million miles from anyone. It took about two hours to find a bus to take us back into town so maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.

Eating out in Hong Kong is fun if somewhat overpriced. A steak I didn’t have but which I sat down planning to order at the Outback Steakhouse would set you back an indigestion-inducing $HK200. I had an Indian off Wellington
Street the same night in a restaurant without windows in a room suspiciously similar in size to a storeroom on the sixth floor, down the hall round the corner and through an unmarked door. It was bloody excellent but impossible to find. It’s the kind of place you would have to know about to know it was there and now you do. There was a small Indian guy standing at the street corner shoving menus in the faces of passing foreigners and I almost walked out over him.

I usually resent being accosted by little guys with menus but there is no room for sheepishness in Hong Kong and having had the menu shoved in my face I noted the prices and the food didn’t look half bad at all. Normally I wouldn’t take a second glance at these guys, especially in Hong Kong where restaurants are two a ha’penny but I was hungry damn it and the little Indian fella assured us we’d be there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail or words to that effect. As I said the place was tiny. It had five tables, one beer tap, a condensed kitchen and two friendly Indian waiters. The tables were so close together that we struck up conversations with two of them.

Two American business men and a couple from Sheffield who were feeling overwhelmed by the whole place as I’m sure anyone would who had just spent three weeks on a beach in Thailand. I was sure I had discovered a gem that not even the locals know of. I thought to myself that I must have been using the karma credit I earned having had a particularly disappointing kebab in Frankfurt, on one cold winters evening I’d rather forget.

I can’t remember what we ate now except that there were five courses and my only memory is walking through the streets afterwards pleased that I had a taken a chance on the little Indian and that I had eaten well. I can’t remember because it’s over three months now since I visited Hong Kong. What can I say; I’m lazy and have the motivation of a castrated dog. I visited mountainous and very foggy Guilin a few weeks ago and as I blindly, carefully and stupidly felt my way up a fog smothered mountain, which on a clear day has wonderfully scenic views, I’m told, I happened upon a long-time Hong Kong residing Spaniard.

Since we couldn’t see anything and therefore had little of topical relevance to discuss I asked him about life in Hong Kong. As I was hungry wet and cold, the conversation turned to food and I was thinking only of Indian food, “you know where you can get a smashing curry in Hong Kong?” I asked smiling wryly at the thought passing on this spectacular piece of information to a local. ‘You wouldn’t find it in a million years’ I taunted.

“Is it the one on the sixth floor at the top of Wellington St. Small world or maybe Hong Kong is just a small town with too many people. It is a local secret of sorts he assured me but everyone keeps going back and bringing their friends so it probably won’t stay so well hidden for long. The people down there know how to live and after that I’d had enough of the mist and fog and made my way down the mountain with thoughts of warm weather and good food protecting me from the cold.

 More Hong Kong Travel Reviews
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Comments (2)


Jun 11, 2006 21:36 Reply


People drive on the left, not 'on the right.'


Jun 15, 2005 15:50 Reply


Simply, i love this article!

Hoping to read more.

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