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.)

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