Friday, April 14, 2017

Long weekend in Hong Kong, part II

After another excellent breakfast (the Sheraton puts on quite the spread), we headed over to the Hong Kong History Museum.  Immediately we were confronted by a display of 2/3rds-size Star Wars stormtroopers, and then advertisements for a toy exhibit, including Transformers and Gundam.  It would appear the museum knows where the money's at, and is reorienting itself accordingly.  However, the original history exhibit was still there and free, so we went in.

We first toured a section on the formation and geology of the area, followed by prehistoric artifacts and life-size dioramas of paleolithic society.  The next section was the ethnography of South China in the Qing Era, so I assume nothing happened between 8,000 B.C. and 300 years ago.  We saw the floating home of some Boatdwellers, a shy Cantonese people who spend much of their lives afloat; and mockups of a bourgeois home and a humbler city dwelling.  There was a section on Chinese opera and lion dances, a giant festival tower made of buns, and a mockup of a Taoist temple.

The next section was colonial history, starting with the Opium Wars, followed by the British opening up shop and the founding of HSBC.  There were mockups of upper- and middle-class Chinese homes, a grocery, and printing and telegraphy offices, all in a replica Hong Kong neighborhood from 1900.  Then we wound our way to displays relating to the Japanese invasion in 1942.  Unlike Taiwan, Hongkongers did not find Japanese occupation to be a pleasant thing.  Still, they didn't dwell on Japanese atrocities much, and half the display was given over to the Japanese surrender in 1945.

Post-WWII was an economic boom for Hong Kong, in both banking and manufacturing, culminating in the roaring 1980s.  We milled past bright, shiny consumer goods and trappings of prosperity.  At this point, however, there began to be mentions made of the 1997 handover, and as the exhibit continued, and we came closer to the date, I became increasingly depressed.  Hong Kong, after all, was British.  They had never experienced republican or Communist rule.  It was a bit of a betrayal and not unlike trying to hand Florida back to the Spanish.

(Though, every U.S. presidential election, I seriously give the idea thought.  Maybe the French would like the Louisiana Purchase back, too.)

The exhibit more or less ended with the handover, as though time had stopped in 1997.  Of course it hadn't, but discussing events since then would be necessarily political, and HKers have felt like they've been treading water the last 20 years, with Beijing looming larger and larger in their lives.  We left the museum, had lunch at a Thai restaurant, seated beneath the paternal and reassuring gaze of the late Thai King Rama IX.  We then hoofed it back to the hotel, booked a harbor cruise for the evening, and had a nap.

Our first choice of conveyance, a motor junk with red sails, was booked up already, and the next evening wouldn't be available as HK was going dark for Earth Hour.  So we got tickets for a more conventional vessel, which happened to be twice as long a ride and with an open bar.  At the appointed hour after dark, we boarded the two-deck passenger boat and headed to the open upper deck.  Most nights, the skyscrapers put on a coordinated lights-and-laser show.  It's not as amusing as they sell it to be. But I had some nice watery Chinese beer, Laura had her cocktail, and once the light show was over, simply enjoyed being afloat, by turns overhauling or being overhauled by the red junk, our nautical dance partner.

Eventually we were put back ashore, and Laura, having had two rum-and-Cokes, was feeling munchy.  Lucky for us, food trucks lined the way back to the hotel.  We ended up with fried dumplings, scallion-and-ham pancakes, a strangely sweet montecristo sandwich, and something intriguingly branded a "Burger of Sorrow".  This turned out to be an egg on a porkchop on a bun, and the "Sorrow" part was a reference to a classic Cantonese movie we'd never heard of.  In the U.S., this thing would doubtless be covered in jalapenos and ghost chile sauce, to invoke real sorrow, but fortunately we were half a world away.  Full of greasy street food, we went to sleep on beds much softer then we've been used to in Taiwan, which are amazingly still softer than those in Korea.

The next morning, after again tanking up at the hotel buffet, we took the metro north and east to the outskirts of Kowloon, to see the Nan Lian Zen gardens, adjoining the Chi Lin convent.  It is a fairly large walled park in the middle of urban sprawl, and fairly well insulated against noise by the wall.  It's hard to describe the gardens, except that each turn of the winding paths present a new vision of the Buddhist Pure Land.  There are water features, fuzzy pines, and great "virtuous" stones transplanted from who knows where.  Gardeners silently trim the grass with hand shears.  The whole place was replete with excellent spots for a nap, were there no security guards roaming the place.  There was a golden pagoda in the middle of the lake, along with koi fish.  They were not particularly interested in people, as feeding them is forbidden and they can tell a stranger from whoever's job it is to feed them.  Koi are very smart.

We popped our heads into a pavilion where they were displaying works by students at a pottery school the nuns had sponsored to be run by a famous master potter.  Indeed, the gardens themselves were a partnership between the nuns and the city.  For being aloof from the world, these venerable ladies can cut a deal.  Having circled at least the larger part of the gardens, we headed across the road to the convent (or "nunnery" as the signs had it) to see these wizened lady-monks for ourselves.

Alas, they were nowhere to be seen.  The place is lavishly constructed on the usual Chinese model of outer, middle, and inner hall, with two courtyards.  Behind the third hall there are dormitories, which is where we suspect the nuns were cloistered during the day.  The first courtyard featured lotus ponds, but beyond the threshold to the middle hall, no photography was allowed.  All around the second courtyard were shrines with giant gold Buddhas.  Incense wafted from every direction, and a PA system droned "Amitofo," the Chinese name for the Amida Buddha, being chanted over and over.  When we'd absorbed enough sanctity, we exited through the gift shop, where Laura found a nice purse possibly made by the nuns.  I doubt we'll ever know for sure.

We made our way back to the metro and took it all the way to HK Island and the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.  If there's anything I like, it's old nautical shit.  We first had lunch on the top floor in a bistro usefully and charmingly staffed by adults with developmental disabilities.  We then paid our way into the exhibits enjoyed  all sort of models, replicas, dioramas, and artifacts.  Laura was very pleased to find a giant lighthouse lens (glass, of course), and I stepped into a bridge simulator run by merchant navy cadets.  Now, granted, my competition were children who enjoyed smashing the simulated passenger ferry into things, but my piloting impressed the cadets, I could tell.  I sailed the length of a simulated Victoria Bay with nary a near-miss.  I believe I stepped out of that museum a couple inches taller.

We took a real ferry back to Kowloon to rest up before dinner.  We came back to signs telling us the hotel would be observing Earth Hour and dimming the lights.  This might have proved interesting, as we decided to dine in the traditional Cantonese restaurant located in the hotel.  Laura got the tofu (usually a safe bet), but I figured if I was in a foreign land, and the company is paying for it (after all, these are the people that make me live in Nowhere, NY), I was going for the whole hog, by which I mean fried squab and a chicken and frog legs stew.  Laura wasn't thrilled with her dinner, alas, but I rather enjoyed pigeon, and the frog legs were the best I've ever had, scarcely distinguishable from the chicken apart from being bone-in.  Laura had a light, floral tea, and I went for the pu-erh, a completely fermented tea I'd come to enjoy in Hong Kong.

The promised dimming of the lights had not happened, and the only candles were the tea lights under our respective teapots.  We decided to take dessert in the rooftop lounge to see how Earth Hour had changed the skyline.  It was definitely subdued compared to usual, but it was still light enough to read by.  Surely HK has a record somewhere for light pollution.  Without blackout curtains, I'm not sure I would have slept the weekend at all.

Having gone to bed and rising again to enjoy our last lavish hotel breakfast, we climbed into a cab and headed back to the airport.  Apart from the trials and vagaries of air travel, not much remains to be said.  Taiwan immigration hardly looked at my passport before stamping it with another 90 day visa.  Not to be preachy, but it's amazing how disinterested immigration officials can be when their country isn't hated by half the world.  Such comparisons--which country does what differently and possibly better--are one of the intellectual joys of international travel.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Long weekend in Hong Kong, part I

A few weeks ago, we went to Hong Kong for a long weekend.  Laura's experiment was running long, and in order to extend our visas, we had to leave Taiwan and come back.  Since it's less than a two-hour flight west, Hong Kong suited our purposes nicely.

Hong Kong is a collection of islands and a peninsula on the coast of mainland China.  From 1842 to 1997, it was a British colony.  (Fair warning, I'm about to launch into a history lesson.)  In the early 19th century, the British wanted Chinese porcelain and tea.  The problem was, the British didn't have anything the Chinese wanted in trade.  The imperial government insisted on cold hard cash, in the form of silver.  The British didn't want to part with their silver, so they managed to smuggle live tea plants out of China and start tea plantations in British-held India.  But unlike tea, porcelain doesn't grow on trees.

The British finally found something the Chinese would accept in trade: opium, made from vast poppy plantations in India.  The stuff is seriously addicting, and was wreaking havoc on the Chinese middle bureaucratic class particularly.  The Emperor in Beijing told the British to stop, the British said "Make us," and the two sides went to war.  The Chinese, being militarily backwards, lost, and gave the British Hong Kong Island in 1842.

A second war resulted in the British getting the Kowloon peninsula in 1860.  In 1897, the British leased additional land (the "New Territories") north of Kowloon for 100 years.  Fast forward a century, the lease on the New Territories was running out.  And though the British held Hong Kong Island and Kowloon in perpetuity, they doubted they could hold it against the Red Chinese.  Further, they wanted some of that sweet, sweet Mainland trade (cheap plastic shit!), and Hong Kong was a sticking point.  So in 1997, they lowered the Union Jack and handed the colony over to the People's Republic of China.

With Hongkongers (the preferred demonym; I kept calling them Hongkongolese or Hongkongolians, though, of course, not to their faces), the handover has not been popular.  While under the "one country, two systems" rule, HK has been allowed a degree of self-rule, self-policing, separate trade policies and its own border controls, HKers perceive greater encroachment by authorities in Beijing, including efforts to supplant Cantonese culture and language with Mandarin.  Futher, they've seen their economy's growth rate slow to a crawl since 1997.  Unscientific polls conducted by local newspapers suggest a majority of HKers would return to British rule if they could.

The flight, on Hong Kong Airlines, was fairly pleasant.  The seats are more comfortable, slightly roomier, and they fed us, even on a short flight.  It puts the lie to American carriers' claims that they have to squeeze us the way they do (figuratively and literally) to remain competitive.  Still, flying is flying, so when you factor in getting to the airport, getting through the airport, takeoff, flying and landing, going through immigration and customs, and finally getting to our hotel in Kowloon, Laura was perkier but I was bushed.  So we managed to take a stroll around a very long block and get dinner at the first thing that appealed, a British pub-themed restaurant with somewhat indifferent fare.  But we were fed and ready for bed.

Early the next morning (after a sumptuous hotel breakfast) we checked out a park we'd seen the night before, which has an old masonry observation tower that offers views of the Bay.  We wandered to another park closer to the water, dedicated to Bruce Lee and Hong Kong cinema, including handprints of many famous stars.  We then found a 7-Eleven (they are almost as ubiquitous there as they are in Taiwan) and bought metro passes.  Descending to the subway, we found the sort of clean, efficient mass transit system we see everywhere in the world (except for the U.S.), and took the train under Victoria Bay to Hong Kong Island.  It became noticeably cooler and breezier as we zipped along under the ocean.  Emerging from underground, we could see immediately that HK Island was much hillier than Kowloon, with most walkways on a grade.  

A few, miscellaneous observations about Hong Kong.  It is similar in many ways to Taichung or even Seoul, with a lot of modern buildings, including some very tall skyscrapers.  These tend to sit close to the shoreline where the land is most flat.  There are also a lot of signs of former colonial rule: Victorian buildings, English signage, statues of British monarchs and colonists, driving on the left, and British-accented English is spoken about half the populace--though mostly as a second language and not without traces of a Chinese accent, too.  It's very pleasant to hear.  Police are dressed much as you'd see in Britain.  Taxis are all red, and share the same body type regardless of manufacturer.  These are not quite as comfortable as the ones we've been enjoying in Taiwan, but most of the cabbies speak enough English not to have to write directions in Chinese, as we do here.  Hong Kong is also a lot more diverse than Taiwan.  Here you can go a day without seeing another foreigner, but the streets and subways of HK are thronged with people from all over the world, particularly the West and the Indian subcontinent.  The latter of these seem very heavily involved in the suitmaking business there, and everywhere near our hotel there were men outside tailor shops, trying to entice people to come in for a fitting.  As I aspire to only wear Hawaiian shirts, I declined every time.

Now on HK Island, we wended our way up a hill to the botanical gardens.  I am a hillwalker with sturdy calves, but the severe grade winded even me.  The gardens were very nice, with a large fountain and a sweeping view of skyscrapers up and down the hill.  We found a statue of King George VI, and, pious Anglican that I am, I knelt for a short prayer for the repose of his soul.  The gardens are also home to various bird enclosures, including some very pink flamingoes.  In the wild, the flamingo is pink from the tiny shrimps it eats.  Here in their enclosure, however, their water was dyed red!

We next set off to take a tram up the tallest mountain on HK Island, Victoria Peak.  When we arrived at the terminal, the line snaked on forever.  There was a short line, however: all you had to do was buy a ticket to Madame Toussaud's as well, which is located atop the Peak.  I've always wanted to see a Madame Toussaud's, so we did just that.  A short while later, we were in the tram, going up an impossibly steep incline, averaging 30 degrees.  The car looks rather antique, heightening the sense of excitement, and is pulled along the bottom by two braided cables as thick as your wrist.  A soothing ratching sound was heard as backstops popped up behind us to arrest any sudden backward motion.  The foliage obscured the view much of the way up, but at the top we were treated to breathtaking views of the city and Victoria Bay below.

Madame Toussaud's is fun.  The wax statues are incredibly lifelike, they're not roped off and you're perfectly able to put your arm around Nicole Kidman, or (as I did) sneak a cheek-kiss from Audrey Hepburn.  The absolutely best part was Queen Elizabeth's statue, as it is the closest I am every going to get to my famous distant cousin.  There were figures of Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, Chou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping.  Sadly, nowhere to be seen was my friend, Chiang Kai-shek.  There was also a statue of Barack Obama in an Oval Office mockup.  They were charging to take pictures with 44, but the likeness wasn't entirely convincing and he hadn't gone gray yet, so we skipped.  There was a lovely section of Hong Kong cinema stars, including Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, and Michelle Yeoh.  And the tour finished with rock-'n'-rollers, from Elvis, the Beatles, and Freddie Mercury, to today's stars Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.  Taylor Swift is uncomfortably tall, but Lady Gaga is more our sizes.

Having seen a bunch of people we'll never see in real life, we went back outside to take in the sweeping views and walk along the mountainside a bit.  We then returned to the tram and went back down the hill.  Unsurprisingly, the seats still faced the mountain, as the 30 percent grade meant that facing the other direction, you'd never keep your seat.  The descent was faster, but not in an uncontrolled way, and very soon we were back on the streets to roam Hong Kong once more.

Almost by providence, one of the first things we stumbled across was the Anglican cathedral, St. John the Evangelist.  It is a somewhat vernacular Gothic church, with nothing to make it particularly stand out, apart from the side chapel, from the vault of which hung old tattered flags, a faded Royal Navy ensign and a blue colonial flag.  Along the walls were memorials to the local regiment, the merchant navy, and one Royal Navy ship in particular.  A book nearby listed all the former memorials the Japanese occupiers had removed and melted down in World War II.  The cathedral also had a bookstore, and I thought this was opportune for scaring up some postcards.  A sign said there was a clergy discount, so I meekly showed the clerk my business card.  Oh, she said, the clergy are on a retreat today but are coming back for vespers, you should wait for them in the church to have a chat!  I thanked her and made like I was going to do just that, but we quickly escaped down the hill.  I was in no mood to explain to yet another Episcopalian clergyperson, or gaggle of clergy, my bogus priesthood.

In search of a metro station, we ambled down closer to the waterfront, and crossed under the HSBC building.  HSBC, if you didn't know, is the Hong Kong-Shanghai Banking Corporation.  Out front were the bronze lions that grace all the HSBC-issued HK banknotes, with which Laura posed for a picture (other tourists were seen to do the same).  In the courtyard was a statute of a longtime governor of the bank in the 19th century, a bronze frock-coated baronet.  Nearby was what looked like a courthouse, built of stone in the reign of Edward VII, with the royal arms displayed in the pediment.  Really, HK is a British town, and the sight of the Communist Chinese flag fluttering anyway is somewhat jarring.

Descending back underground, we returned to Kowloon so we could rest before dinner.  We decided upon a place near the hotel we'd seen the night before, which specialized in Beijing and Szechuan cuisine.  The gimmick of the place were large mythloric masks hanging from the ceiling.  We had various dumplings and spring rolls, and then something advertised to us as "crispy beef."  It was crispy all right, but also candied.  I couldn't tell by the waitress' expression whether she was annoyed or bemused that we hadn't eaten it.  We then took a stroll along water by the glow of countless skyscrapers, in the same HK cinema-themed park we started the day out at.  Then it was back to the hotel to sleep the sleep of the dead, and recharge for tomorrow's adventures.

(To be continued.)