January 27 to February 2, 2006
Zac and I spent the week of the
Lunar New Year in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the
People's Republic of China, better known simply as Hong Kong. It is
separated from mainland China by the Sham Chun River, and consists of
the New Territories, Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, and the outlying
islands. After spending 6 days there, we learned that
Hong Kong is separated from mainland China by far more than a
river. We conducted careful research the whole week and gathered the
following evidence which proves that regardless of any British
handover in 1997, Hong Kong remains “of the People’s Republic of
China” in name only.
In Hong Kong, there are no cars on the sidewalks
and the tall buildings are all occupied. The bakeries make pastries
that are not filled with sweet bean paste and the grocery stores stock
western food. The society is very multicultural and there is actual
freedom of speech and religion. People throw their rubbish into the
trash bins and they don’t spit and vomit on the sidewalks. The
restrooms come equipped with toilet paper and hand soap, plus they
often have western-style toilets. Hong Kongers wait at the crosswalks
and don’t walk in front of cars, causing traffic jams. They make
queues and no one pushes to get on or off the busses. And best of
all, nearly everyone knows a little English and isn’t afraid to use
it. This was especially important for us since even the little
Mandarin Chinese we knew was useless in this Cantonese-speaking
We arrived in this magnificent land on Friday
night, after flying from Dalian to Hangzhou to Shenzhen, then taking a
bus from Shenzhen (mainland China) across the border to Hong Kong. As
further proof that Hong Kong is not China, Zac and I didn’t need a
visa to enter Hong Kong whereas the mainland Chinese needed a visa to
go there. We also had to change our Yuan into Hong Kong dollars,
since they still maintain their separate currency under the policy of
“one country, two systems” that will be in effect until 2047. (Please
note: HK$ is Hong Kong dollars. Y is Yuan, the mainland Chinese
currency. $ represents good ol’ American greenbacks. HK$ and Y are
basically equal in value, and it takes about HK$8 or Y8 to equal $1).
Once in Hong Kong, we took the metro to our
hostel, located on Nathan Road, the famous “golden mile” shopping
district in Tsim Sha Tsui on the very tip of the
Accommodation in Hong Kong is expensive, so we had booked the cheapest
option: a 4-bed dorm at the Cosmic Guesthouse in the Mirador Mansion.
For about $100, we slumbered for the week in cramped quarters with a
variety of roommates from Spain, Ireland, France, England and Canada.
After dropping off our bags upon arrival, claustrophobia began to set
in so we quickly headed back out to find some supper.
Hong Kong is famous for its restaurants, but Zac
and I were floored by the prices. The cheapest proper meal for two
people cost at least HK$100 (we can eat supper in Dalian for
Y12-Y25). Even street food and dumplings were expensive
(HK$24.00 for dumpling soup that we can buy in Dalian for
Y3.50, HK$15 for a roasted sweet potato we can buy in Dalian for Y3),
so we figured as long as we were paying high prices, we might as well
take a break from Chinese food and indulge in the international
restaurants. That first night we ate Malaysian food, and throughout
the week we dined on Indian and Mexican cuisine, ate pizza twice, and
went to McDonalds (with a sandwich, drink and fries costing about
HK$22, it was one of the cheapest dining options).
After our repast, we headed down to the
waterfront to view the Hong Kong skyline, which is perhaps one of the
most beautiful in the world. From the Walk of Stars (Hong Kong’s
shoreline version of the Walk of Fame in Hollywood) we had an
unobstructed view of the impressive Hong Kong Island skyline across
Victoria Harbour. The promenade was decorated with red lanterns for
the Lunar New Year, and was swarming with people posing for photos
next to a Bruce Lee statue with the skyline in the background. It was
about 11:00pm by now, and the city was still very much alive—much more
so than at 9:00 the next morning.
Saturday was rainy, so after visiting Kowloon
Park in the morning, we decided it was a good day to take in some of
Hong Kong’s museums. We went to the Hong Kong Museum of History, had
some pastries for lunch, then spent the afternoon at the Science
Museum. After the museums, we were quite ready to sit down for a
while, so we took a bus that went clear out to the New Territories
(the northern part of Hong Kong). It turns out that taking a bus
around the city at night in the rain isn’t such a good idea, because
we couldn’t see much. Later, we returned to Kowloon, where we went to
the famous Temple Street night market. Zac and I actually weren’t
that impressed with the market, having seen better ones in Dalian.
We’ll allow that maybe the market was small because of the bad weather
and the holiday. We did buy some small flashlights (which we found
again a few stalls later for half the price we’d just bargained for—doh!)
and two small pieces of watercolor artwork.
On Sunday, the weather was better, cloudy but
quite warm (mid 60’s), so we took the Star Ferry over to
Hong Kong Island.
Hong Kong Island was beautiful. The north side of the island was
packed with skyscrapers, but it still managed to have plenty of trees
in addition to a botanical and zoological park right in the middle.
The city was impeccably clean, the streets were not congested, and the
shopping was decidedly upscale. As far as city life goes, I don’t
think it gets much better than Hong Kong Island. But there was one
strange thing: the city was full of Filipino women, camped out on
newspapers or cardboard with their friends, playing cards. Later, we
found out that most of them work as domestic maids and live in a small
room in their employer’s house. On Sunday, their day off, or in the
case of the Lunar New Year holiday 3 days off, they meet their friends
in the city, and spend the day sitting on the pavement playing cards.
We first went to the Mid-levels Escalator, which
is the world’s longest covered escalator. It’s essentially a series
of connecting escalators serving as a moving uphill sidewalk. We
hopped on it and road up to Hollywood Avenue where we visited Man Mo
Temple—a Buddhist temple clouded with incense smoke and housing plenty
of altars to various gods. Honk Kong religion can be described as an
eclectic mix of local beliefs, basically Buddhist but including plenty
of traditional deities and superstition. Throughout the city, there
are many door shrines with little gods and fruit offerings, plus the
obligatory incense sticks. The whole city smells quite meditative,
which provides a wonderful contrast to the city’s business-oriented
In the afternoon, we took a mini-bus ride up to
Victoria Peak, where we had a spectacular aerial view of Hong Kong
Island. At times I felt I was looking over some futuristic city
because there were so many tall buildings packed so closely together.
We took a walk around the peak, which provided incredible views of the
Hong Kong Island, Victoria Harbour, and Kowloon. I was impressed with
the way Hong Kong had developed so rapidly without completely
destroying the natural environment. All the hilly areas on the island
are lushly vegetated and quite jungle-ish.
On Monday morning, we took a ferry to
Lantau Island. It
is the largest of the islands, nearly twice the size of Hong Kong
Island, although its population is a mere 45,000. At Mui Wo, the
sleepy southern side of the island where our ferry arrived, we
wouldn’t have guessed the island was home to Hong Kong Disneyland and
one of the busiest international airports in the world. Our
destination on this island was Ngong Ping, home of the world’s largest
seated outdoor bronze Buddha statue. The Tian Tan Buddha is 100 feet
tall and towers serenely over the Po Lin monastery. We climbed the
260 steps up to the Buddha and confirmed that it was definitely big.
After circling the Buddha a few times and wandering around the
monastery, we took the metro back to Hong Kong Island.
We spent the afternoon in the town of Stanley, on
the southern side of Hong Kong Island. It seemed like a quaint little
shopping town compared to the central district of Hong Kong Island.
We walked to the beach there, then looked around the shops, and ended
up at a bakery that sold really wonderful bread. We ate our
non-bean-pasted bread and sat outside the Murray House, a historic
building from 1844 that was dismantled brick-by-brick and moved from
downtown Hong Kong to Stanley. We took a little walk to a nearby
temple, then took a riveting bus ride back to central Hong Kong.
We were lucky to be in Hong Kong for the Chinese
New Year because on Monday night there were fireworks over Victoria
harbour. We got to the Walk of Stars on the Kowloon side around 6:30
to ensure a good view. We joined the diverse crowd of tourists,
immigrants, and locals who were also waiting until the fireworks
started at 8:00pm. It was quite uncomfortable to sit on the pavement
for an hour and a half, and that was barely a taste of the three whole
days the Filipino women spent sitting on the ground playing cards. It
turned out to be worth the wait for the good view because the
fireworks were incredible, with coordinated explosions from three
different launching points and an accompanying soundtrack. We were in
a very international crowd, where everyone spoke a different mother
tongue, but “oohs” and “aahs” seemed to be universal.
On Tuesday morning we again took the Star Ferry
from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island. There we boarded one of the green
trams and went to Victoria Park on the eastern side, where we watched
a group of women practicing a Tai Chi sword form and people of all
ages jogging and walking. Later we took the historic Peak Tram up to
Victoria Peak. In 1888 the tramway replaced sedan chairs as the most
common way to reach the peak. We wanted to ride the Peak Tram because
it resembled a really slow roller coaster by reaching a gradient of 27
degrees with stunning views of the city on the way up. The tram was
crowded, but the ride was steep and the views were immaculate, so we
were not disappointed.
We took the Peak Tram down again and walked back
to the Mid-levels escalator. In Soho, we ate an entire large pizza
for lunch (oops), then walked across town to the convention center.
There is nothing very special about the convention center other than
it looks really cool and it hosted the ceremony where Hong Kong was
transferred from British rule to Chinese rule. Outside the convention
center there is a pillar (erected in 1999) commemorating the peaceful
return of Hong Kong, and a large golden Bauhinia statue, the flower
symbol of Hong Kong. I found it interesting that in Hong Kong itself
there was only a pillar to honor the return, while in Dalian where the
handover had little to no actual effect, they built the giant Xinghai
Square. One might draw the conclusion that mainland China was much
happier about the return than Hong Kong.
We took the ferry back to Kowloon where we spent
the next couple of hours at the Space Museum. I learned two
interesting things there. When the Russians sent the first dog into
space, they didn’t have a plan to bring it back so the poor thing
asphyxiated up there. Secondly, in China the constellation known to
us as The Big Dipper is known as The Celestial Bureaucrat and forms a
sort of throne that the bureaucrat sits on while listening to
petitioners. So it seems that both beauty and constellations are in
the eye of the beholder.
On Wednesday, we took a
ferry to Lamma Island,
the third largest island. There are no cars on Lamma Island, so the
island is covered in paved footpaths connecting the houses and shops.
It was a warm and beautiful day and after about five minutes of
traipsing along the sidewalks bordered by banana trees, I decided I
wanted to live on this island. (Surely they needed English teachers,
too.) After a while, we veered off the main track and followed a
little path to a deserted beach. We lazed about and enjoyed the
unspoiled scenery and sunshine. We eventually reached a village on
the other side of the island, where after some confusion, we managed
to board a ferry back to Hong Kong Island.
Thursday was our last day in Hong Kong. For
breakfast we dined on chocolate milk and donuts then took a ferry to
Island. It’s a small dumbbell-shaped island that also has no
cars, so most of the population is crowded into the isthmus near the
harbor. We arrived early in the morning and observed the locals
opening their shops and breakfasting on dumplings. The harbor was
full of colorful Chinese junks and the promenade was lined with
flowering Bauhinia trees. We walked to a temple, then a beach, then
visited a stone carving from the bronze age, then saw another temple,
then another temple, and finally wandered into a used bookshop run by
an old Canadian who had lived on the island for 21 years. He was
quite talkative, and we wished to hang around and hear his stories,
but alas, we had to make the 12:15 ferry back to Hong Kong to begin
our trip back to Dalian. We weren’t ready to leave, as it seemed like
there was still so much to see and do in Hong Kong.
Ten hours later, we stepped off our plane and
onto the Dalian runway. I literally yelped when I stepped outside,
trying to expel the 7 degree air that had entered my lungs. Were we
really lounging on a beach just that morning? When I walked to work
the next day, bundled up against the icy wind, dodging frozen
globs of spit and the occasional crusty splash of vomit, weaving
through traffic jams at intersections, how I wished I could still be
on a Hong Kong island basking in the warm sun on a pristine secluded
beach! But later that night, at our favorite restaurant with our
friend Charlie, catching up on the Spring Festival activities, we were
content to be back home in Dalian.
Click here for more photos from Hong Kong