Archive | May, 2013

HONG KONG — More than just a stopover.

27 May

Hong Kong is a relatively easy but highly exciting portal into the “Chinese world.” It’s a cosmopolitan, international city where east meets west. However, it’s still a very Chinese experience where Cantonese is the first language of most of its teeming inhabitants. 96% of the population are ethnic Chinese. It provides an intense and fascinating experience for the visitor. The fascination comes from the many contradictions and striking contrasts. The overcrowded pavements and streets of the CBD contrast with the green mountainsides above and beyond the high-rises. Modern technology exists side by side with ancient traditions. You can step out of a state of the art, multi-storey shopping mall( of which there are many), walk round a couple of corners and be confronted by an old Buddhist or Taoist temple. Equally, you can be cruising through hi-tech electronic stores one minute and in the next be viewing massed ranks of dried sea creatures used for traditional food dishes or Chinese medicine. We leapt from the latest cameras and lap-tops to jars of ginseng and the ingredients of birds’ nest soup. It is a bit mind boggling.
My wife, Chris, and I stopped over in “Honkers” on our way to visit Chris’s son in Australia. However, we soon discovered that the city is much more than a mere stopover. We spent the best part of 6 stimulating days there and there’s still plenty more to see on a return visit.
I had previously shrunk away from visiting China because of its appalling human rights record and brutal occupation of Tibet. So it’s ironic that I should finally visit Hong Kong which, although now part of China, is mostly associated with the British Empire with its equally bad human rights abuses and bloody conquests. Putting this to one side for the moment, Hong Kong is a very good compromise for those wanting to experience a Chinese city but not give their full stamp of approval to the Communist regime’s abuses. It is officially part of China but still separated from the mainstream due to its long-term British connection, which only ended in 1997, and its status as a Special Administrative Region. Capitalism still rules and the visitor wouldn’t get any clues that they were in a totalitarian, Communist state. Hong Kong is a great example of the Chinese leadership’s doctrine of ” One country, two systems.” Of course many other Chinese cities have embraced capitalism with open arms and are developing at break-neck speed. But Hong Kong was the prototype due to its role an an important port and communications centre in the British Empire.
The story of how Britain came to acquire Hong Kong does not make pretty reading for anyone of a sensitive disposition. Following in the wake of the Portuguese who established Macau as their main Chinese trading base, the British were also keen to acquire goods from China. From the mid 18th century onwards there was great enthusiasm in Europe for Chinese commodities such as: tea, silk, ceramics and other luxury items. Unfortunately for the British and other western traders, China insisted on being paid in silver. It was not interested in any of the European goods being offered in exchange. Thus the balance (or inbalance) of trade was weighted heavily in China’s favour.
Incredible as it may seem in today’s moral climate, Britain’s answer to this problem was to smuggle the addictive drug Opium from India into China. The Chinese government’s attempts to stop this evil trade were nullified by the corruption of local officials and by British military force. We are used to reading about the war on drugs, but in the mid 19th century Britain went to war in order to peddle drugs on to an unfortunate victim. The health of Chinese citizens and the independence of their government were both trampled into the dust by this unscrupulous trade. When the Chinese authorities destroyed 20,000 chests of mostly British opium in Canton, a British military fleet was despatched from India to attack Chinese forts that had been set up to protect their coast from smugglers. The Chinese defeat in 1842 led to them having to open up 5 ports to foreign trade and to cede Hong Kong island to the British “in perpetuity.” Later a second Opium War in which the British were aided by the French, led to more land being annexed by Britain, including the Kowloon peninsula opposite Hong Kong Island.
The main attraction of the site was its sheltered, deep-water port, still called Victoria harbour today. Britain developed Hong Kong into an important port, international communications centre and industrial city. To create more space, land was reclaimed from the sea and the tops of the surrounding hills were chopped off. Apart from the Japanese occupation during the 2nd World War, the British ran the territory until 1997, when it was formally handed back to China following an agreement made in 1984. The powerful post- war China could have easily taken it back anyway but preferred to bide its time as it was enjoying the foreign trade and revenue that the port brought in.
The centre of Hong Kong today, conveniently named “Central”, is just as I imagined it — big, busy and choked with traffic. Our shuttle bus took an age to fight its way through from the airport. We crossed striking suspension bridges and plunged into tunnels, all the time being held up in jams at the frequent bottle necks. Later we learnt that the roads are probable the worst way to travel around the city. The local rail system, the MTR, is quick, clean and efficient. The ferries and hydrofoils constantly ply in and out of Victoria Harbour from the outlying islands. Charming old trams trundle across the top of Hong Kong island, providing a cheap and easy way to see city life, especially at night when the centre is a dazzling riot of neon. Finally, if you wish to explore on foot, there is a web of well-signposted, elevated walkways in the central area, which keeps one away from the noise and fumes at street level. These walkways link up shopping malls, banks and office blocks, providing an easy, convenient way to negotiate the city. At first we tried to avoid the malls because they just replicated what we have back home in the west. However once we realised that they represented an air-conditioned, quiet and safe way to get from A to B, without having to fight the traffic below, we looked forward to entering them. At one point the walkways link up with the Mid-Levels Escalators. These connect the business areas with residential districts up the hill. The escalators cut up the hill side for 800 metres, the longest continuous escalator system in the world. They carry 30,000 commuters a day, running downhill in the morning and uphill in the afternoon and evening.
The harbour is the raison d’etre of Hong Kong and it is what first caught our eye. Our hotel was opposite its western end. Boats of all shapes and sizes constantly come and go. Both shores are crammed with a spectacular array of sky-scrapers which provide a memorable light show at night. We crossed the harbour from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon by the old 1950’s Star Ferry. Its old, wooden interior provides an atmospheric ride, and the views from the top deck are stunning.
It’s obvious why Hong Kong has so many high rise buildings as space on the ground is at a premium. However, skyscrapers are particularly thick along the shoreline because a waterside location represents very good feng shui. This Taoist concept states that buildings must be positioned so as not to disturb the spiritual attributes of the surrounding landscape. It is believed that wealth is borne along by water; hence the sky-high value of harbour-side real-estate.
This beguiling mix of old and new is what makes Hong Kong so interesting. One cannot imagine new buildings in London or New York being dictated to by the ancient principles of feng shui. A particularly interesting example of this is the HSBC HQ in Statue Square, designed by Sir Norman Foster in 1985. At the time it was the world’s most expensive building. It is a huge steel and glass structure built on top of 8 groups of giant pillars. These pillars raise it above ground level which remains an open, public space. Thus one can walk right underneath it and gaze up at the cavernous glass atrium above. The reason the building has been raised is to fit in with the feng shui idea that the old centre of power ( Government House) should be connected by an uninterrupted line to the original place of arrival ( The Star Ferry pier.) The HSBC Headquarters has been lifted up so as not to break this line and this rule.
Statue Square has only one statue left but its gardens and fountains are a pleasant oasis. It is surrounded by soaring skyscrapers but at its heart sits an old colonial building from the late 19th century which is home to the Legislative Assembly. Its stone dome, pillars and portico are in sharp contrast to all the streamlined glass and steel shooting up around it.
Another great place to view the spectacle of Central’s skyscrapers is up at the top of Victoria Peak. This is the big hill that rises up behind the CBD. It is very popular with tourists who flock up it on a 1.4km funicular railway started in 1868. Unfortunately because of the tourists, the peak has 2 tacky malls full of souvenir shops, cafes and amusements. It even has a Madame Tussaud’s up there. The rest of the Peak offers quiet wooded walks, glimpses of exclusive properties and sensational views over the city and harbour.
Although the skyscrapers and striking modernity seem to dominate the city, it was the older, more traditional aspects of Hong Kong that I enjoyed the most. The quaint shops in Sheung Wan, the old ferries, the street markets and the temples. The Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road nestles in an area of expensive antique and art shops. It is dark and atmospheric inside, only lit by lanterns. Built in the 1840’s, it is decorated with items from mainland China. It is festooned with large, smouldering, sandalwood, incense spirals that hang like weird lamp shades from the ceiling. Some take up to 2 weeks to burn through. The Taoist deities are represented by garish statues and sit in shiny shrines, in front of which the worshippers bow and wave their incense sticks. In contrast to western congregations and their set services, worshippers here come and go as they please. Man,the god of literature, wields a pen and is dressed in red. Mo, the god of war, holds a sword and wears a green robe. Most of Hong Kong’s population are Taoist or Buddhist.
A popular Buddhist pilgrimage is to Po Lin monastery and the Big Buddha on the wooded, mountainous island of Lantau to the west of the centre. It is also popular with tourists who often outnumber the devotees. The monastery was established by monks in the early 20th century and the big bronze Buddha was erected in the 1990’s. One reason for its popularity, despite being in a remote area up a mountain, is that a cable car has now been built to connect it to the nearest town Tung Chung, which, in turn, is at the end of the MTR line from Central. The cable car is a spectacular ride with 360 degree views over wooded mountains and the sea. This new accessibility has led to a rather tawdry tourist “village” being set up next to the monastery. This rather detracts from the spiritual atmosphere. You can even buy t-Shirts featuring Buddhist quotes and have a coffee at Starbucks! The monastery is still interesting to visit ( though you cannot actually go inside), and going up the long flight of steps to view the Big Buddha is an exciting experience. When we went, the giant Buddha’s head was often obscured by swirling cloud. He sits on a huge lotus flower and is flanked by Buddhist saints or Bodhisattvas. The trip out to Lantau island also gives one a chance to get out of the crowded city and note that Hong Kong has quite a bit of countryside. It has beautiful quiet beaches, traditional fishing villages and empty wooded mountain-sides. I just hope that all this is not swamped by the increasing drive toward commercialisation. Ominously, Lantau island now hosts the airport and the Asian branch of Disneyland. Fancy going all the way to China to walk down “Main Street USA” or meet Donald Duck!
The place we probably enjoyed the most on our all too brief visit was Hong Kong Park. It seemed to summarise many of the attractions and contradictions of this fascinating place. It is beautiful and peaceful with: ornamental lakes, waterfalls and terraced gardens. It’s a favourite place for Hong Kong brides to pose for their wedding photos. The lakes are stocked with colourful carp and terrapins cluster together on rocky islands to soak up the sun. There is a cafĂ©, a conservatory and a wonderfully exotic, walk-through aviary that recreates an area of rain forests, complete with colourful parrots and Minah birds. There is an interesting Museum of Teaware which sounds very dry but isn’t. It is set in a cool, elegant colonial house from 1844 and tells the story of China’s 200’s year love affair with tea drinking. And all this is surrounded by a girdle of soaring skyscrapers which make for exhilarating photography.
So, if I was writing some tourist blurb about Hong Kong, I wouldn’t be short of cliches. ” A fascinating mix of old and new, where east meets west and capitalism cuddles up to communism.” It’s less of a stopover and more of an outstanding destination in its own right.