Tuesday, September 16, 2008
to hong kong
Sara and I flew to Hong Kong on September 9, the exact date my legal six months in Taiwan were up. We flew back on the 15th, two days later than expected, due to Typhoon Sinlaku hitting Taiwan. The first day was all amazement: that this wonderland existed in reality, that we were there, that it was all there for us. I guess that feeling is the child-like, even narcissistic side of travel: this place was made for us, and we happened to drink the lucky potion that brought us here. Except that instead of potion, it was an Eva Airlines jumbo jet. The moment it touched down I pumped my fist in relief.
The fast train from the airport to the downtown was a futuristic fantasy, with glinting blue lights marking the train’s progress in an arc just under the ceiling at either end of the car. The view, too, was futuristic: green-windowed towers rising next to the sea, and more distant buildings foresting the coastline opposite us.
That first day felt like I had never been there before, even though I had, three times. The first time I flew in was with Cheri in 1985, into Kai-Tak Airport, right in the middle of crowded Kowloon, the peninsula just opposite Hong Kong Island. I think I can remember watching rooftops skimming just below us as we landed – or is that just an impression from pictures I have seen? The second time I came in by train from China, at the end of a 24 hour bus trip from Hainan Island, where VIA had held its annual conference in 1997. I stayed two or three days before flying to Indonesia. The thing I remember most about that trip was taking a boat to Macau, the former Portuguese colony, for a day. I must have stayed again on the way back to China, a night maybe, though I don’t really remember. The third time was in 2002, when I flew into the new airport, and stayed two or three days while applying for a new visa for Taiwan to stay the rest of the summer. The thing I remember most about that trip was my surprise that the Taiwanese consulate was disguised as the “Zhong Hua (China) Travel Agency,” on the 40th floor of one of the Lippo Towers in the middle of the financial district. Not even a Taiwanese flag was to be seen,
or the word “consulate,” anywhere in the room.
But even as these memories lingered, everything nonetheless seemed new – especially the first day. How exciting it is to fumble for coins at the bakery or on the bus, and to have to peer carefully at them to make sure you are paying the right amount. Again, I think this feeling is a childish delight at being in a world made new and strange, without regressing to childhood or being on drugs. The money is alien, the street signs are odd, the slightest detail is often the most eye-catching to newcomers: the plastic blue ten dollar note with the transparent spot, the word “strawberry” spelled in Chinese but after the sound of the English word (shituo beili), the touch scan screens on the subway card vending machines. Sara right away wanted to enter every 7-Eleven we passed, to scan the shelves for similarities and differences with Taiwan’s stores. “No tea-leaf eggs,” she said, “lots more milk. No hot dogs.”
We walked from the airport train station to Tsim Tsa Tsui (Jian Sha Zu in Chinese), the very tip of Kowloon, to look for a room. We approached the two hulking buildings known to every budget traveler, the Mirador and Chungking Mansions, with mixed feelings. The guide book material I had printed out in Taiwan had given the odd advice to “avoid these places,” even while describing the bargains to be had. I was not concerned about staying there, but my memory of sharing a narrow dim room with ten Pakistanis in sagging bunk beds made me wonder about Sara. “Black Power,” someone had written in a dingy stairwell. Walking into the “Garden Hostel” on the third floor we were greeted by the sight of a man hitting a punching bag. They shared space with a martial arts studio. We were shown to a room tiny but pretty clean, and left to find the Star Ferry.
We could not walk far through Kowloon without being approached by South Asian tailors offering custom-made suits. I am used to the masses of signs rising above Taiwan’s unzoned roads, but Kowloon’s signs were absurd, reaching out from both sides far enough to touch and overlap in the middle. We passed the white mosque on the corner of Kowloon Park, and a fair number of veiled women and pajama’d men, probably from South Asia.
Getting on the old Star Ferry was a joy, the lower level maintained in the old style, with black-painted iron benches and open to the breeze. An open door gives a look down into the engine room. The ferry was nearly made obsolete with the building of the subway in the 90s, which tunneled under the harbor, but like San Francisco’s cable cars, was saved from elimination. With the coming of evening, digital LED light panels were going on across the Hong Kong skyline across the harbor. Men in blue sailor suits unroped the ferry and we rocked across the water.
On the other side, we found one effect of Hong Kong’s mad density: with space at such a premium, especially on the island, pedestrians are often shunted up onto pedestrian bridges above the complex road network. These bridges are linked into their own networks, going through and around buildings. But without knowing of them, we often bumbled around, not even sure how to cross a road. We bumbled around until we found a bus station – under a shopping mall – that could take us to Taiping Mountain, once called Victoria Peak. The small bus groaned up steep grades, past tall thin apartment towers standing like a pine forest. As we climbed, the driver would place a new plaque in the front window, showing the revised price for the rest of the route. There was no call button. Riders called out “stop please” – most of them in English. Some were wealthy Americans or Europeans, living in exclusive enclaves high above the city. More were Filipino maids or nannies.
At the top we found a spectacular nighttime city-scape crowded with tourists, as well as several malls. We were to find malls all over the city, often combined with transit points like subway stops or ferry terminals. More than once, we would be following signs on the pedestrian bridge toward some destination, only to get lost once the bridge led us into the mall and the signs mysteriously disappeared. Looking for bathrooms was maybe even harder than in American cities: invariably, these luxurious shopping centers placed their bathrooms in some basement tunnel far from the shops, or even outside the premises. Even more remarkable than the skyscrapers of downtown Hong Kong just below the peak are the forests of anonymous white towers out toward the horizons, spreading along the coast in both directions. It is a vision beautiful but a little terrifying, that enough collected money can produce a mad wonderland of buildings.
Walking about the streets in the coming days we were to be reminded of this double-edged uniqueness – that the absolute lack of space and excess of capital had produced both an inhuman system of stacking people up into the air in tiny boxes, as well as an amazing ingenuity in dealing with the tightness. I’ve mentioned the pedestrian walkways all over Hong Kong island. Another is the double decker buses swerving and racing around the tight curves. Still another method for dealing is the almost total lack of street stalls, so different from Taiwan: absolutely nothing can get in the way of traffic, even on the sidewalks (there are some streets dedicated to pedestrian markets, though). So there are tiny shops several feet wide, or stuck in the triangular space under stairwells in building entrances, mere closets for selling fruit juices or changing money. One of our funny moments was trying to maneuver in a closet-sized photo shop as other people were trying to come in the door. The door only opened inward, so as not to knock people off the narrow sidewalk outside. Yet pushing it inward pushed it right into the back of anyone standing at the counter. So there was much struggling and maneuvering as a couple with a small baby tried coming in for passport photos. I set off the copy machine by accident. Yet another sign of the tightness is the poles stuck straight out from apartment windows on which Hong Kongers hang laundry. Even in crowded Taiwan, there is still enough space in houses to hang laundry in the open-air balcony, but in Hong Kong space is too expensive to use for balconies.
Talking about laundry with Sara, I recounted Cheri and I’s memorable first night in Hong Kong, in a tiny apartment in Yuen Long, an industrial suburb. We were tickled to no end at the bathtub too tiny to squat down in, in the bathroom too small to lie across. The next morning, I think, one of our towels dropped from our laundry pole down to downstairs neighbor’s line. We tried knocking on their door, I think, but ended up using a hanger and a rope to fish it back up. I remember seeing Donald Duck speaking Cantonese in that apartment, as well as our visit to a hair dryer factory where our kind friend was a manager, and buying a “peanut butter bun” at a store – already conveniently spread with peanut butter.
We rode the famous cable tram back down to the downtown. I remembered having ridden it with Cheri, and the shock at the steep grade was the same – riders are seated facing forward as the tram backs down the mountain. At the steepest point, we were leaning so far forward our noses could touch the back of the seats in front of us. Adding to the shock of the grade is the sight of narrow apartment towers rising intrepidly from it. As they are shooting up beanstalk-like, tram-riders are falling, Spider-man-like, down through the city, past the lit windows. At certain points the tram passes under roadways, adding to the illusion.
Besides the ferry and the cable tram, the other archaic transport we rode was the electric tram, which runs most of the north shore of Hong Kong island, the heart of the city. The trams, most of which are now wrapped in advertisements, are as delightful to ride as the ferry. They are double-decked, and their rectangular, spare, tall silhouette is as far from modern design as possible. “Quaint” is the word. So tall and narrow you expect them to wobble at turns, or in the wind; they look like cigarette boxes teetering about. But they don’t wobble. They glide along to a low metal hiss. One enters from the rear door, and immediately on the right is a narrow staircase twisting upwards. All tourists climb up and try to sit in the front, where one can put one’s face into the wind, dog-like, and survey the streets below. On the tram, I feel like a privileged viewer, a voyeur, a spectator. That is what a tourist most wants, isn’t it? To be able to sit and do nothing in a special vantage point which lets you watch life flow past, as if unobserved. Ang Lee’s latest movie, “Lust – Caution,” filmed a scene on one of these trams, in which the female lead is sitting contemplatively, dreamily looking out, and a male character, a fellow student actor, approaches her from behind and tries to talk to her. There is something dreamy about the tram’s slow, mechanical glide, and the second floor view. Just as with the Star Ferry, most of the people riding are not tourists, but locals. I saw a man sitting reading the Chinese-language horse racing news. You pay when you get off.
One time we took the tram bound for “Happy Valley,” which is the horse-race track. We rode a slow loop around the track, and as we headed back for the main street, mountain slopes on our left, we began passing old cemeteries, relics of the colonial era. As was the British custom of dividing people by races and religions (done very efficiently in America, for example), we passed the “Christian Cemetery” first, then the “Catholic Cemetery,” then the “Parsee Cemetery,” then the “Hindoo Cemetery,” and finally the “Moslem Cemetery.” The Parsees, as far as I know, are Iranian Zoroastrians, followers of a 2500-year-old religion, many of whom migrated to Indian cities as merchants, finding in India greater tolerance for religious difference. And I suppose from there, many came with the British to Hong Kong.
I wish we had just got off the tram right then and there, and explored those old cemeteries. I kept hoping we would have time to go back, but we never did. Nor did we make it to the Hong Kong wetlands park, a bird sanctuary near the China border Sara wanted to see. Nor to the Hong Kong Film Archive, which i hoped to tell Rob about. Somehow a combination of exhausting days (especially after shopping or museum viewing) and fights between Sara and I (the most memorable climaxing in me following Sara back and forth through a maze of underground passages connecting two subway stations) meant we never got outside until 10 or 11 am. But in the 6 days we had, we did see (and eat) some great things. The best were: the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Lamma Island, Caine Street, numerous restaurants, and Hong Kong and Kowloon Parks. Oh, and the Mirador Mansion, where we stayed four nights.
At the museum, the best exhibits were on calligraphy and modern ink paintings. Chinese calligraphy is a combination of writing and martial arts technique: you can see the bodily movements in the characters, from blocky muscular ones to flowing, fluid ones that are hardly (or not at all) legible. There was an excellent ceramics exhibit, but by that time we were too tired to do more than rush through it. We even saw ceramic pillows!
Lamma Island was a place I had stayed, foolishly, in 1997 at the tail end of my 24 hour bus trip. An eccentric man named Micheal I knew in Beijing had told me, with total certainty, of an excellent place to stay there. But it wasn’t long after getting off the ferry at 11:30 pm, that I realized his directions (which prominently featured a “big tree”) were not adequate. I ended up wandering around in the dark on narrow paths before giving up and deciding to sleep on the wharf. I found an eatery still open on the main street. I chatted with the owner and his friend, and the friend invited me to sleep at his place.
The 20 minute ferry ride takes you past cargo ships anchored about, many with crane-equipped barges loading or unloading containers. You see the three huge smokestacks of the power plant occupying Lamma Island’s one end approaching. The main street runs along the small harbor, past seafood restaurants and shops selling flip flops, mu-mus, and cold drinks. The island’s popularity with Westerners is obvious in the gourmet cheese shop and wine shop mixed in with the stores selling local things. There are no cars on the island, though I did notice little tractor-trucks for carrying supplies around. The morning we left the island I walked the 20 minutes to the beach on the other side. It was an idyllic spot, with mountains to the left, the power plant to the right, and numerous signs everywhere, forbidding almost everything imaginable. Sara was often tickled at the detailed threats spelled out in these signs: “feeding of wild birds in the park will result in a 1,500.00 fine or 3 weeks in jail.” “Failure to fasten seatbelts on this bus may result in a 5,000.00 fine or 3 months in jail.” I suppose the British are to thank for this sign- and rule-happy trait of Hong Kong. Out to sea were visible many ships anchored. Even in the most idyllic spot in Hong Kong, one is never out of sight of massive buildings, ships, signs of the global economy.
Caine Street, or Shelley Street in one section, is yet another ingenious bit of urban design. It is a steep street running uphill from the flat downtown. I guess it used to be replete with long stairways, but now it is one long series of covered escalators! When one gets to a cross street, the escalator ends, you step out, cross the street, and enter another escalator. Or at major roads, the escalator takes you up to a pedestrian bridge for you to walk across to the next escalator. I wonder if all the restaurant and bar proprietors got the government to install all those escalators. Oh, going down you have to walk. Near the top we passed an old green mosque.
Mirador Mansion is about 15 or so stories and occupies a whole block. What makes it seem more massive, I think, is that the center is empty, a big square shaft of space for air circulation. So from each floor you can poke your head out and see the building rising up in dingy layers, laundry flapping and cooking grease dripping. The bottom few floors are shops, many selling Indian or Nepali clothing, groceries, or music. Some are work spaces where Africans pack up their thousands of cell phones for transport to their countries for sale. We read an article in the South China Morning Post about a local anthropologist studying the next-door Chungking Mansion. He called what he saw, “low-end globalization,” and said Hong Kong’s lax entry visas and closeness to Chinese factories made it attractive to people from developing countries to come and buy things like cell phones for resale. And the reason these dilapidated behemoths have not been demolished, apparently, is because they are owned collectively by hundreds of different owners. There is no single owner. On the third, fourth and fifth floors, Sara and I were amazed to pass many open doorways giving a glimpse of absolutely crammed workspaces – apartments turned into clothing production spaces! As dirty as the building seemed, it was undeniably fascinating, a labyrinth of people from everywhere, rich tourists, illegal workers, small scale manufacturers, and check-in-luggage importers. It was a bit like New York or any big city in microcosm – a massive structure in which people struggle and thrive. Like New York, one can see Hong Kongers rushing around, the weight of the world in their faces.
One night I called Mom and Dad, and it was fun to hear Dad’s memory of the place. He got a suit made at a place named “Jimmy Chan’s” in Kowloon, and he and his fellow soldiers were shown around Hong Kong to sites featured in a Hollywood movie – or was it the novel “The World of Susie Wong”? He said it seemed all they did was buy things, and I am not sure much has changed. Even we on our limited budget could not resist a few presents. Most of our indulgence was in food, however. I loved it; for Sara it was a little heavy and oily. I was surprised how American most restaurants seemed, middle-end restaurants at least. Except for the ducks hanging in the window, most of them looked like the interior of Denny’s, with stalls along the walls, tables in the middle, and uniformed waitresses. There was street food (sold from open store fronts, however, not stalls) that was oily and very tasty, and there were very fancy places. Unfortunately we never got to eat a full-on dim sum meal, though we ate a few things eaten a lot in dim sum. It was only the final day that I figured out, from reading signs, what local people call “dim sum.” Oh, and the hot dogs are amazing. Actually they are some kind of sausage that is much better than a hot dog. Taiwan’s hot dogs seem lifeless by comparison.
One thing we missed was talking to people, which in a city like that, as a tourist, can happen easily. We never talked to an African, or a Hong Konger, or even Indonesian maids strolling the parks in their Ramadan wear. And that is the downside of being at play in a futuristic playground of high buildings and narrow streets. We learned that Hong Kongers voted in some radical lawmakers in the recent elections from reading the newspapers, though we could not have seen the pressures of inflation and cost of living just from looking at people on the street. In their partial democracy, locals seem to be leery of replacing one colonial master (England) for another, China. While China has the support of most of the big business dynasties, it is in the quandary that ordinary people do not like their leaders to appear too obsequious. Another article talked about increased central funding for “national education,” meaning trips for students to the mainland, and more flag-raising ceremonies at primary school. After all, people are liable to forget which country they have been assigned too – it requires constant re-education.
The tainted milk scandal was hitting as we were in Hong Kong. What a sick mess. It is the kind of thing that happens when corporations and governments are in bed together: the farmers, of all people, get the blame! And it is the kind of thing that makes Hong Kongers, I suspect, want to keep China at a distance, even if that distance is more euphemism and down-playing than fact. I saw very few Chinese flags, for example, much fewer than posters of the cute Olympic mascots. And as much as Hong Kong elites, like Indians, have glommed onto the upper-class British education system, I doubt there is much nostalgia for that colonial rule among ordinary people.