Tue, Apr 21, 2015
Glimpses of Hong Kong
The overcast first week of April in Hong Kong was unexpectedly beautiful. Our five day trip was rather spontaneous and the 14 day visa-free stay for Indian citizens, helped.
Hong Kong is a fusion of contradictions. Even though a part of China, it enjoys a high degree of autonomy as it is a “Special Administrative Region”, the only other being Macau. In the city, legions of people moved in harmony and made use of the extremely efficient public bus, tram (locally known as “Ding Ding” for the sound they make), and train networks. Countless overarching ultra-modern skyscrapers surrounded densely populated tenements. Traditional Chinese grocery stores dotted innumerable luxury goods outlets. Young magnates drove around in their lavish cars while senior Hong Kongers pushed around carts of trash. One could go on and on.
The Hong Kong Island ("Island side") and Kowloon make up integral parts of Hong Kong, alongside other islands. The Island side is home to the ubiquitous skyline seen in photographs everywhere. A large number of people there speak English, thanks to the ever increasing influx of tourists and the strong Colonial influence. We took the Central Mid Levels Escalator System, the longest such outdoor system in the world, to travel up 800 meters from Queens Road Central to Conduit road. From there, it was a 45 minute hike up the impressive Victoria peak, the highest mountain on the island. Along the way, an elderly Chinese lady struck up a conversation and fondly recounted her visit to Kashmir and Bombay in 1986. The moderately difficult hike was rewarded with a beautiful view of Central Hong Kong and Victoria Harbour. Although the more popular option is to take the "Peak Tram" that has been operational since 1887, it usually requires hours of queuing.
Exploring a city on foot helps feel its pulse, revealing sights otherwise unseen. Down below, we wandered about in the maze of gridded streets. SoHo and Hollywood Road were lined with chic cafes, European gourmet restaurants, and numerous pubs and bars. Causeway Bay and Times Square flaunted extravagant shopping malls. Central district was packed with skyscrapers of financial giants. Amidst all these, the Sun Yat-sen museum, Blake Garden, and the Taoist temples—Man Mo and Tin Hau—were the few places where one could feel an air of the old Hong Kong. The street art decorating many decrepit alleyways were also an interesting sight.
The Kowloon side, once home to the notorious ungoverened Kowloon Walled City which was demolished in 1993, today, is a well developed urban area with a large number of residential settlements. Interestingly, it had many images of the yesteryear bleeding into modernity. One could see how average Hong Kongers went about their daily lives, be it shopping for vegetables on Shanghai street or senior citizens chatting away playing Go at sundown. Away from the glamour of the Island side, poverty and struggle were especially visible, although the Kowloon side had its fair share of eye candy to offer—Tsim Tsa Tsui Promenade, Nathan Road, world renknowned Peninsula and Continental hotels, and more.
Avenue of Stars on the Tsim Tsa Tsui Promenade is a popular tourist attraction overlooking the Victoria harbour. It is Hong Kong’s own Hollywoord Walk of Fame celebrating 100 years of Hong Kong cinema. At night, huge crowds gather to watch the Symphony of Lights light and sound show which holds the Guiness record for being the largest of its kind. In the evenings, street musicians hold impropertu performances attracting crowds around them. There is also a wonderful display of contemporary and historic art at the adjacent Hong Kong Museum of Art, and a great deal of relics at the Hong Kong Museum of History.
In Mong Kok, the Flower Market was littered with shops selling everything from common garden variety flowers to rare exotic ones. Nearby was Bird Street, where pet owners got together to show off their birds. Dozens of shops sold beautiful song birds, much to our dismay, confined to tiny cages.
A few blocks away, by evening, The Temple Street Night Market in Yau Ma Tei and Ladies’ Market near Mong Kok became home to hundreds of make-shift stalls selling everything from street food to clothes, toys, and electronics. Although the lack of anything local in the sea of counterfeit accessories and plastic goods was disappointing, a torrent of tourists steadily flowed through the narrow pathways, keenly eyeing for good bargains.
Later in the evening, we took the Star Ferry from Kowloon to the Island Side. Star Ferry has witnessed the evolution of Hong Kong since it was founded in 1888. It seemed that the ferry fares were cheaper compared to the other modes of transport. Like buses, trams, and trains, the ferry terminal also accepted the Octopus card, an electronic smart card which is ubiquitously accepted as payment not only at transport stations, but retail stores as well. We had picked up the returnable and refundable Octopus cards at the airport on our way in.
Of course, one cannot write about Hong Kong without mentioning its cuisine. We had a wonderful mix of Cantonese, pan-Asian, and Hong Kong food, from succulent savoury dim sums and rice rolls to delicious bean curd desserts. What stood out though was the large portion size of dishes, be it soup, noodles, or rice.
Hong Kong has a strong cultural identity of its own, very distinct from mainland China—tradition, language (majority of Hong Kongers speak Cantonese as opposed to Mandarin), and even the cuisine. Hong Kongers pride themselves in what they have achieved, the meteoric rise from toils to a world class metropolis. Nonetheless, the income and class divide is stark. As tourists, we may never be able to truly gauge the hardships and sadness that lurk within the world’s most vertical city.
On the sixth day, pondering and reflecting, we bid adieu to Hong Kong aboard a train to the airport on the Chek Lap Kok island, where the flight back home awaited us.
An edited version of this article was published in the Deccan Chronicle, 25 April 2015, Kerala edition.