She was my first and in the end our meeting was not so bad. She showed me a different side of Hong Kong, the side of empty streets and lone figures hurrying home. She showed me glass doors with crosses of sticky tape over them in case the glass should blow out, and she showed me neat little rows of sand bags in front of smart office blocks to stop the rain getting in. She showed me a Hong Kong where the bars shut early and the rooftop terraces were deserted. She showed me what a Hong Kong without the chatter of a thousand voices, the tramping of a thousand feet, and the tinkling of a thousand glasses sounds like. She even taught me that sometimes it is OK to be tired in Hong Kong, because sometimes there is nothing to do outside and snuggling under the bed covers in the hotel with the curtains drawn tightly against the wind and rain outside is both welcoming and the best to be found.
In Hong Kong there is always another swanky bar perched on a thirtieth or fiftieth floor. There is always another glimpse of the stunning nocturnal city-scape. It is what you come to Hong Kong for: the envelopment of the city, its sights, its movement and its night life. Mainland China’s megacities cannot quite match Hong Kong for this, but the mainland has other charms and other pictures to tempt you with.
The days have flown by. Hong Kong never shrugs off its glitzy allure but it will quickly suck you into the rat race of work and meetings and meetings with friends. The last three days have vanished in a blur but tonight, despite everything, felt almost like the calm before the storm. It is Sunday after all, and Monday is anther day.
So, in this calm, I sat down to a last supper under the arches near the hotel. Authentic Typhoon Shelter Crab was on the menu. Goodness knows exactly why the dish has that name, but I didn’t write the menu. There were six grades of spiciness. I went for the mildest. It still had a kick like a mule’s hind legs. No wonder the the waiter said it was a wise choice.
I have never been to a Disneyland before. Today I accompanied a friend and his family. It was weird: at once both grim and enjoyable. Mao must surely be turning in his grave.
The walk to the entrance was lined with flags emblazoned with pictures of famous (apparently) Disney characters. The walk from the ticket office to the main park was lined with shops selling toys associated with these characters. Right from the start there was no pretence. This wasn’t just a fun fair, it was a theme park with clear intent: to reinforce Disney’s marketing and extract the cash.
The rides themselves varied from the tedious to pulse-quickening. Space Mountain was a roller-coaster: indoors, in darkness, and full of surprising twists and turns taken at great speed. Pooh Bear was a slow paced ride through the pages of a quite corrupted literary lineage. Winnie-the-Pooh was no where to be seen. Instead, a sickening smiling yellow creation with a red shirt waved from the side-lines. Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga, Piglet; they were all on display, but as crudely twisted forms of Milne’s and Shepard’s renderings. Small World was another cloying ride. A little boat took you along a river through the world, with the sorts of mannequins beloved by horror films dressed up in pseudo-regional dress, with eyes fixed ahead and arms mechanically waving in some disturbing dance. It wasn’t culturally insensitive; it was culturally annihilating. It was a parody of stereotypes that left you sometimes bemused and sometimes amazed at how the different peoples were presented. Of course, like the garishly coloured Pooh Bear ride, it was loved by the little children that the park targeted. Slightly cynical thirty-somethings appeared not to be the demographic Disney had in mind.
Of course the three-year-olds loved it. They loved the parade as well. A line of dancers and floats with waving, jiggling characters aboard. The performers aboard the slow-moving floats were all tethered to posts and anchor points. Was it purely for safety in case the dancers fell the couple of feet to the ground; or was it in case the true nature of the animals the dancers were impersonating should suddenly surface and drown out the choreographed smiling that the Disney parade was all about? Pah! Why do I cavil? As I said, the three-year-olds loved it. There were cries of delight when Mickey Mouse was seen (a mouse with his own theme tune, sung on loop in three languages).
It was just weird to see this most American of institutions peopled by the Chinese.
After lunch, with a little time to spare I went pottering through some of Kowloon’s markets looking for Christmas presents for my nephews and nieces. Trying to find something which would appeal to them while not at the same time gaining me the enmity of their parents almost defeated me, but it wasn’t frustration that drove me from the streets. It was pain.
Walking along as I was, minding my own business as I was, I was hit in the face by a remote-controlled helicopter. Full throttle it smacked into me, bounced off and fell to the floor.
Apparently, while Judaism kept Saturday as their Sabbath Day because of the creation story, Christianity took Sunday as their Lord’s Day because of the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. Either way, Hong Kong has never struck me as the sort of place to have a day of rest.
Hong Kong really packs the people in. Kowloon might have the really crowded streets, perhaps because it is a little cheaper than the island, but space everywhere is at a premium. Hotel rooms can be a marvel of physics. How can so much be fitted into so small a space? Never mind the room being so small that the bed must enter unassembled, one wonders how there was enough room to assemble the thing at all. Private flats, even posh ones, have the same limitations on space.
It might be in a brand new building. It might be on the fifty-second floor (except that it isn’t because they miss out any floor that ends in the number four: bad luck surrounds that number). It might have spectacular views across the Harbour and into Kowloon. It might be a splendid one bedroom flat, ideal for a couple with space for a small study. It might be all these things but it is advertised as a three bedroom flat suitable for up to six people with a spacious room for a maid (and everyone seems to have one here, not just ex-pats and the seriously wealthy). Three bedrooms? Six people? Spacious? It is time to think Hong Kong style. Pack them in and pile them high. Wal-Mart has nothing on this place.
Google Maps and Hong Kong actual don’t quite match up on the ground. I was pretty lost pretty quickly as I tried to get myself sans taxi from the railway station to the harbour.
The train ride had been seamless. A direct Beijing to Hong Kong train, it stopped only once (why was unclear) but never opened its doors. Immigration and customs were carried out at either end and there was nothing to do but sleep, read and potter about. Walking through the train was far more interesting than it had been on the trans-Siberian train. The carriages were packed. Families were piled into cabins. Mothers and grandmothers lay asleep or sat gossiping and knitting. Fathers stood in between the carriages smoking. Children, teenagers and in fact almost everyone stared at screens, either watching a DVD, playing a game or just aimlessly pressing buttons on their consoles and mobile phones. I generalise, of course, but only slightly. Electronics were everywhere and this really was a commuter train. Far cheaper than the aeroplane, the one day journey was an easy and convenient alternative for those returning to university or work on the island. With the new high-speed trains China is building, the 25-hour journey should shrink dramatically and one can imagine it becoming an even more important route.
The end itself was almost an anti-climax after the border. China proper with its brown-grey industrial sprawl meets the lush green of the New Territories in an almost science-fiction like scene. Between the two stands a high barbed-wire fence, with guard-posts dotted perhaps every half-mile. The Government is very keen to avoid the Mainland Chinese entering Hong Kong. Visa restrictions are harsh, especially when you think that a Britisher can enter Hong Kong with nothing but a valid passport. But in Hong Kong there is much greater political freedom. Television and the Internet are not censored as they are in the People’s Republic, and as traffic between the two increases, ordinary Chinese (or rather, the ordinary middle class) will increasingly chafe against their Government’s controlling tendencies.
And so my great railway journey ended in Hom Hong station, Kowloon. I walked through Health Quarantine, Immigration and Customs with barely a pause. I had come to the end of fifteen days of travelling and was about to embark on another week’s worth. But before then, there were a couple of days to relax with a friend in Hong Kong and so it was with an easy air that I walked out of the railway station and into the relative warmth outside and quickly got very lost indeed.
I woke at 6:30am bathed in sweat. The air-conditioning did not work and there was no fan. My little cubicle had become a ferociously hot little oven. My skin was going white with red patches and my dreams had become vivid indeed, so intense was the heat. I dozed fitfully for a few more hours before caving in. I rose groggily and stood under a cold shower, the relief more than making up for the lack of water pressure.
If the centre of Singapore could be mistaken for the City of London on a (very) good summer’s day, Hong Kong never could. Huge neon Chinese characters flash from above; waitresses stand on pavements to tempt customers in; rogue traders try to tempt you with fake watches (almost always a ‘Rolex’); and Indian tailors hustle for your attention. The smell is different too, and so is the climate. It was verging on being unbearably humid. The sweat flowed freely and without cessation. It sometimes became a little grotesque. For all that, though, there was much that was familiar. London buses (perhaps not red but still the same as in London) were on the streets. There were familiar road markings too and even a ‘Get in Lane’ sign (quite out of place in Asia where all too often lanes are just pretty white lines on the roads). There was even a Marks and Spencer on the high street (and interestingly, also a John Lobb ready-made shoe shop).
Indeed, Hong Kong has an unmistakably British air to it and even though a red flag now casts it shadow where once a Union Jack fluttered in the breeze, Dieu et Mon Droit can be seen clearly, carved in stone on the legislative building. A statue of King-Emperor George VI still stands at the entrance to the zoo. To a lesser extent than Macau, which is still very Portuguese in its architecture, Hong Kong still retains a British colonial flair to some of its buildings. But for Hong Kong time is money and money is progress and progress is building anew. The old has largely been cast aside. In its place glass and steel skyscrapers stand everywhere. Never have I walked between so many so very tall buildings.
Hong Kong is all about height, it seems, and it is not just the office blocks that must puncture the clouds. Tenement buildings, too, go on for story after story. My guest house was on the sixteenth floor of one such building. The outside walls were blackened with filth and the whole place looked as if it would collapse in an instance. The lifts worked only erratically and rarely when I wanted them. But let us not forget, it was available at very short notice and it was pretty cheap. These ailing blocks of flats gave parts of Hong Kong quite a different feel from the super-smart, super-costly office blocks. Walking around the latter filled one with a sense of light and space; around the former one began to feel closed-in and in a gloomier world (however brightly the sun shone). Away from the banks and insurance buildings, little shop fronts (one of which tried to sell me 100g of tea for almost thirty pounds!) spilled into the streets. Voices and colour and electric light was splashed all around. Splashing around one too was a constant rain of water droplets. Outside every window on every floor was an air conditioning unit, and almost every single one seemed to dribble onto the street below.
Hong Kong is an energetic city. Unlike purely Asian cities like Bangkok or even the post colonial cities of Saigon or Bombay, Hong Kong has, despite its chaotic side, a western order and feel to it. There is the undeniable Asian freneticism about the place but there is also something that makes it stand apart from all the rest and that places it alongside Singapore (though nothing can be as ordered as Singapore strives to be).
The frenzy and the humidity can get a little too much but Hong Kong offers a delightful escape. Of course, being Hong Kong, the escape is vertical. Rising up out of the city is the tree covered Peak. The highest point, at Victoria Peak, offers amazing views across the city and harbour. Travelling up in a cable-towed funicular railway (built in 1888), the way is so steep that you brain makes the whole world appear skewed and at a slant. But away from everything on the ground, you can still see the bustle even if you can no longer really hear or feel it. You can see the wakes trailing behind the ships in the busy harbour; you can see the buildings jostling for position; you can see the outlying islands; and you can see mainland China. However close it looks though, and even though 1997 is already over ten years ago, when standing in Hong Kong, Beijing still seems a world away. Shanghai? Well there’s another story…