It’s almost certainly a cliché to write that Hong Kong is a city of contrasts but it’s true so I’m going to write it anyway. It’s a city where east meets west, colonial past meets financial hub, Chinese proverb meets conspicuous consumption, Mr Miyagi meets Gordon Gecko. You get the idea anyway.
The build up to the trip started over the weekend of 17th / 18th April with some trepidation as I was glued to Sky News watching the unfolding disaster of the Icelandic volcanic eruption and its after-effects. I was extremely fortunate in that UK airspace was reopened the day before I was due to fly otherwise I would probably still be sitting in the UK now cursing the civil aviation authority. As it was I sat in the Heathrow departure lounge feeling even more trepidation about two things:
1. The impending journey ahead.
2. The fact that the BBC weather forecast for Hong Kong was for torrential downpours all weekend.
I managed to reduce my nervousness on the first part by two swift double vodkas and need not have worried about the latter as the BBC forecasters are obviously as incompetent in Asia as they are in the UK – Hong Kong was bathed in gorgeous sunshine and very pleasant 20 degree plus warmth for my three days there.
The flight was uneventful and I can highly recommend Cathay Pacific – they had at least one hundred films to view and double that in albums to listen to. Initially I did wonder of the flight was going to be long enough for me to see everything that I wanted to although the novelty had well and truly worn off by hour four though.
I landed in Hong Kong to face the traditional Asian greeting of banks of immigration staff wearing surgical masks, as if I had inadvertently landed in a leper colony. I managed to clear these without too much incident and made my way to the very modern and efficient airport express which took me to the centre of town, it was a bonus that the train contained a TV for in-journey entertainment but less of a plus that said entertainment consisted of an endless loop showing highlights of the recent Crystal Palace v QPR match. Luckily the journey was mercifully short and, after negotiating the equally smooth, efficient and cheap (around 30p for a short journey) MTR (underground) system I arrived at the location of my hotel, Wan Chai. It is worth pointing out at this stage that Wan Chai was recommended as a desirable location by my Hong Kong friend Melissa who subsequently pointed out that
1. She had only been to Wan Chai once and that was when she got off at the wrong MTR stop and quickly rushed back down to the station again after taking one look at the place.
2. It is well known for two things – Triads and general seediness.
From the outside, my hotel looked alarmingly (or enticingly, depending on your perspective) like a brothel. A perception that was seemingly confirmed when I discovered that the password for the Wi-Fi was ‘Fanny’. I needn’t have worried though – there was no way my room could have been used for any bordello-type activities as there was no physical way that two people could have fitted in it. It was tiny – a bed and a very small bathroom plus about a postage stamp’s worth of floor space was all I got although I didn’t plan on spending any reasonable amount of time there so it scarcely mattered.
I quickly dumped my bags (or rather piled them up on my bed) and headed out to discover what horrors lay in store in Wan Chai.
To be honest I probably do the area something of a disservice – it is a reasonable part of the city to stay in – close to the centre and with a certain amount of appealing Asian bustle to it. That said I am used to living in Bow so a hotel in downtown Baghdad would be fairly appealing. I intended to do the Lonely Planet ‘walking tour’ of the area but after wandering round aimlessly trying to find the start of the tour I gave up, happy that I had seen most of what Wan Chai had to offer i.e. block after block of convenience stores and an interesting, albeit slightly disturbing, wet market where locals shop for fish that are literally flapping around on stalls at the side of the road. So far, so Asian. I decided to head a few stops on the MTR to Central and discovered a whole different side to the city.
Central is the CBD (central business district) of Hong Kong and has a very modern, almost European feel to it. Astonishing high rise office blocks are sandwiched between designer stores of almost every hue you can imagine with Bentleys and BMWs constantly cruising past. I’m a slight building geek so I was particularly impressed by some of the skyscrapers on display – the HSBC, Lippo and Bank of China buildings are worthy of particular mention; they laugh in the face of the sterile offerings of Canary Wharf.
After a few hours looking in shops and at cars that I will never be able to afford I decided to check out one of the ‘must-do’ Hong Kong experiences – The Peak.
The Peak is basically a viewing point that overlooks the dramatic Hong Kong skyline and is accessed via a gravity-defying near-vertical tram that climbs the side of one of the mountains surrounding central Hong Kong. It is an impressive feat of engineering that is slightly cheapened by three floors of shops selling the ultimate in Chinese tat that you have to negotiate before you reach the viewing area. Worth it though – the city is stunning when viewed from this height. I was disappointed that the conditions were not really good enough in the evening to justify a second trip up there to see the same view by night.
Whilst marvelling at the display I fell into conversation with an American guy who excitedly told me that his company were soon moving him to London as part of his job. I asked him which part of London. “Slough” he replied. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
After I descended from The Peak I headed for a well earned couple of beers before the effects of jet lag as well as twenty four hours without sleep began to hit me and I returned to my shoebox for a couple of hours of rest.
Fifteen hours later I awoke in sheer panic that I had wasted some of my precious time in the city and immediately jumped in the shower and headed out again.
I spent the first part of the day in Causeway Bay whose notable feature (apart from endless rows of designer shops) is the Noonday Gun which is fired across the harbour each day (no prizes for guessing at what time). The gun was apparently made famous by Noel Coward’s satirical song ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. No, me neither.
After being deafened by the gun I headed off to Stanley which is a small coastal resort
about nine kilometres out of the city. This was a welcome break from the frenetic pace of Hong Kong and there was also a market to explore if you like that sort of thing (which I don’t, but still).
After a few hours here I made tracks for the hotel and prepared for my evening’s entertainment courtesy of Melissa. We met in Tsim Sha Tsui and went to a Korean barbeque, the novelty of which is that you are presented with the meat you order raw and then you (or more specifically Melissa) cook it at the table. All very good.
We left there around 8PM to go and see another of Hong Kong’s ‘must-do’s’ i.e. the light show. This basically involves the various skyscrapers around the harbour being lit up via lasers in time with classical musical pumped out around the harbour. Call me a philistine but I have to say I was slightly underwhelmed by it all and left after about five minutes. Apparently it is an unspoken secret amongst Hong Kongese that the light show is a bit, well, shit.
Never mind, we soon managed to mask this disappointment with several bottles of wine at a bar on the 25th floor of the Princes building which offered stunning views of the Hong Kong skyline including the aforementioned HSBC building. We were soon accompanied by Mel’s husband Jonathon and a friend, TC. It was here that I learnt that white westerners are sometimes referred to (in a not altogether complimentary manner) as ‘Gwei Lo’ which literally translates as ‘White Ghost’; I think it has similar connotations to ‘Farang’ in Thai. Not to say that the locals aren’t unfriendly – I found them to be very welcoming and hospitable in general.
Anyway all in all it was an excellent night which my sore head the next morning attested to. My pounding head, combined with the on-going jet lag that I was suffering from meant that a nice relaxing final day in Hong Kong was called for. My to-do-list for the weekend had other ideas though and I soon found myself in a terrifying (or at least terrifying in my hungover state) cable car carriage on the way to Ngong Ping Village to see the famous Buddha statue. Whilst the Buddha, standing at over twenty six metres tall, was impressive, the Hong Kongese once again showed that they never miss a chance to fill an area (no
matter how holy) with tourist crap: The road up to the Buddha was littered with dozens of stalls and shops offering all manner of buddha-related tut.
Apart from one other harrowing experience where I became trapped in a seemingly inescapable shopping centre in Kowloon which was too traumatic to recount here, that was pretty much me done in Hong Kong.
As it turned out I had nowhere near enough time, mainly due to the jet lag which I couldn’t shake off, so I will definitely have to return. It’s an amazing city with a huge amount to see and do and, after hearing how much a Gwei Lo can earn teaching English there; it is also an attractive place to live and work. Cheap it ain’t though – my shoebox hotel room was £70 per night, a mid-range bottle of wine in the bar that I went to with Mel was about £50, another bar I managed to end up in sold local bottled beer for over £5 a pop and the copy of The Economist (check me out) that I bought at Hong Kong airport for the flight to Sydney was £7!
That said, I still think it is worth every penny. It’s a very good introduction to Asia for the uninitiated as there’s still plenty of touches to remind you of home – three-pin plugs, signs in English and the fact that they even say “Mind the Gap” on the tube but the Chinese influence is also obvious: Feng Shui is huge (before the construction of any building is started, a Feng Shui master is consulted) and the fact that ninety five per cent of the population are of Chinese descent means that you are always aware that you are many miles from the west.
I will definitely be returning at some point but for now – next stop Sydney.