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.