by Lee Foster
The people of Hong Kong, following the transfer of political control from Britain to China in 1997, resembled the song birds in bamboo cages that are so popular in China. The transition went well, and now the Hong Kong song birds are compelling voices in the new China century.
Song birds can be seen in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong at festive bird markets, one of the major concessions to levity you will find in China. Birds are among the most appreciated pets. In Hong Kong, if you go to the Bird Market in Kowloon, at Hong Lok Street adjacent to the Mong Kok subway station, you will see thousands of birds on display in ornate cages, usually made of bamboo but sometimes even of silver. The bird-masters will pass time there, comparing their birds, delighting in the songs, and feeding the birds crickets, a lively item of commerce. The bird-masters cajole their avian treasures during the feeding.
After 1997, Hong Kong’s people were the birds and the Beijing-based political leaders of China were the bird-masters. Between the two there was hope and tension. Some believed that the Hong Kong birds would be the canary in the coal mine, but that metaphor was not correct. Beijing and Hong Kong began to sing the same notes, complementing each other, insuring ever greater prosperity, a basic Chinese wish.
The cage itself was lovely, closer to silver than bamboo, because Hong Kong was and is a prosperous business center of Asia, booming as few other regions of China did before. Hong Kong rates itself as one of the larger financial centers in the world, after New York, Tokyo, and London.
The people, the birds, knew that the future of their cage was uncertain. They were absolutely dependent on their bird-master for food and water. China controlled the fresh water supply for Hong Kong. Turn off the water and Hong Kong would die immediately. China also provided much of the food, especially produce, for Hong Kong.
When the door of the cage was open, the birds had the opportunity to fly away, and some did. Many positioned themselves for emigration, flying to sites such as Vancouver. But the cage was difficult to abandon, and those who stayed made a wise decision. Hong Kong was their comfortable, tropical home, where 98 percent of the population is Chinese. Should this be exchanged for the wind-chill winters of Canada or the caucasian social world of Australia? The door was open, but some who have flown away have also flown back. Hong Kong prospered, even amidst the uncertainty.
The bird-masters of Beijing viewed their Hong Kong birds as exotics, high fliers of finance and commerce, living in a world of personal freedom that the rest of China did not experience. The flourishing capitalist milieu of Hong Kong contrasted sharply with the then-prevalent socialism of China, though this was changing. The feathers of Hong Kong were almost embarrassing in their gaudiness for the leaders in Beijing. The birds of Hong Kong were almost a different species from the bird-masters of Beijing.
Song and cajoling between the gregarious Hong Kong residents and the strict Beijing government control implementers are not guaranteed to be cordial at all times, but decorum and mutual prosperity can be expected to triumph over ruffled feathers. Beijing is an inland, insular, imperial city, laid out for political purpose. Hong Kong is a coastal, outgoing, commercial city, created for the purpose of trade. The temperaments of the places are different. One main issue was the new airport, critically necessary for the continued long-term growth of Hong Kong. Hong Kong decided to push ahead with this without involving Beijing. Beijing was disturbed because the investment would draw down the cash reserves of Hong Kong. All this is behind the participants now.
Both birds and bird-master know that the fate of birds can be precarious in China, where birds may be consumed. Sparrows can appear on the menu. The bird nest may end up in the soup. China can consume every part of every thing it desires.
The resultant inherent tension in Hong Kong makes the city a fascinating place to visit.
Hong Kong Island
Today Hong Kong is a vibrant destination, a worldly commercial city that is a special blend of East and West, a cultural fusion of tradition and the latest innovations, all set in a venue of striking natural beauty, combining a harbor and mountain or island views.
The place to start, after resting up from your flight, is the Star Ferry Terminal on Hong Kong Island. Shortly after daybreak on any given workday, you can get a glimpse at the essence of Hong Kong.
First, there is the deep harbor, directly in front of you. This was the rationale for the British forcing China to give them the territory in the first place. Huge ocean freighters pass small sailboat junks. Ferry boats scatter from here to Kowloon and other points north to pick up commuters.
The mass of people converging on the Central District of Hong Kong Island each morning is impressive. They are purposefully setting out for a day of acquisition, for Hong Kong lives by an ethic of hard work and its just rewards. The noise of jackhammers and the cellular phone in the hand of commuters are aspects of the getting and spending essence of Hong Kong. The area’s prosperity depends not on natural resources, but on consummate human resourcefulness.
Be sure to cross on the Star Ferry from the Central District to Kowloon and back just to steep yourself in the flavor of the harbor and skyscraper waterfront, dominated by the visually-innovative Bank of China building, designed by I. M. Pei. The 74-story structure, with its angular form and diagonal bands, is one of the taller buildings in Asia.
Then walk back from the Star Ferry Terminal to the Peak Tram and take the famous ride up this funicular to Victoria Peak. The tram ride is notable because the ascent is steep, 45 degrees, but it seems even steeper. As you rise on the hill, passing more lavish homes with each gain in elevation, you proceed up the economic and social pecking order of this society.
From the top of Victoria Peak you can survey the Hong Kong region in a magnificent panorama. The view is a testimony to the happy marriage of three ingredients: the disciplined Chinese work force, the political stability of the British administration, and the decision to make the area a free-trade zone, with no tariffs in or out, and where nationals of any country can do business.
Descend again to Central, as the main business district on Hong Kong Island is called, and observe the bright new world there, in contrast with the nostalgic older world to the west, in an area appropriately called Western. Individual sites in Central and Western can be located with a handy self-guided walking tour booklet published by the Hong Kong Tourist Association and available in their Hong Kong office.
Central’s symbols are the sound of the jackhammer, the whiff of diesel smoke, the neck-straining at highrises, the double-decker trams as billboards, and the bustle and hustle of a determined and energetic people doing business.
Western is the old Hong Kong, and what remains from the era before skyscrapers became dominant. Be sure to see Cloth Alley, one of the first of the textile streets and still a small market for cloth. Egg Street is devoted exclusively to eggs. You’ll see crocks with “thousand year old” eggs, those seven-month-old delicacies that the Chinese like to eat with pickled ginger. On Man Wah Lane you can buy “chops,” the stone stamps on which your name can be engraved in Chinese. On Man Wah they can also print the reverse side of a business card with the Chinese equivalent. On Bonhomme Strand East you’ll find snake shops with fattened live snakes, ready for a gourmet’s table. At #6 you’ll see one of many shops in the district devoted exclusively to birds’ nests, those coveted swallow nests imported from Thailand and Indonesia and favored for soups. At 233 Hollywood Road they serve birds’ nest in sugar, as a kind of dessert, or birds’ nest in soup. There are numerous ginseng and other herb shops, all suggesting the medicinal emphasis the Chinese ascribe to various plants. Hollywood also has the coffin specialist, at 190, and numerous antique shops. The Man Mo temple gives you a sense of the incensed aura in Chinese worship. Cat Street is an open-air flea market. This list is typical of discoveries to be enjoyed during a walk in Western.
Spend another day exploring the southern part of Hong Kong Island. Renting a taxi with driver is the easiest strategy, but public transportation is also possible.
The first interesting stop is Aberdeen Harbor, where the fishing fleet of live-aboard junks anchors between trips to the South China Sea and other waters in search of an abundant catch. You can take a sampan ride around the harbor and eat at the floating seafood restaurants, which have an exotic atmosphere.
Further along, at Repulse Bay, you can swim or just relax at a relatively clean, yellow-sand beach. Especially in summer, when Hong Kong is both hot and muggy, Repulse Bay provides seaside relief. Months other than summer are the recommended times to visit Hong Kong, especially autumn, from October to December.
As a final stop in your island tour, look at Stanley Market, a large open-air market emphasizing clothing.
A tour around the island begins to alert a visitor that there is much more to see in Hong Kong than the urban metropolis. Actually, the total Hong Kong region consists of 413 square miles, including 235 outlying islands, several of which are easy to visit.
Immediately north of Hong Kong Island is Kowloon, the mainland extension of the urban area. Beyond that is the region known as The New Territories.
Kowloon is a short Star Ferry ride across from Hong Kong Island. If you’ve done your Star Ferry outing, you can also take the subway from Hong Kong to desired points in Kowloon. The area is intriguing to explore. Beyond the shopping and residential section stretch the main manufacturing centers, where the #1 and #2 revenue producers (textiles and electronics) are created. You and the millions of other travelers who come here each year are the third largest industry.
The Kowloon shore immediately across from Central should be your first stop. From this shore you get stunning views of the skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island. The Hong Kong Cultural Center along this waterfront has a citizen walkway, giving you good access and views of the passing parade of ships. Ferries, junks, large container ships, small fishing vessels, barges, tugs, cruise ships, hydrofoils, and tankers are among the vessels. The signature boat of Hong Kong is a red-sailed junk, but in truth most junks now are powered and you will not likely see a red sail junk except in a tourism brochure.
Just beyond this waterfront is some of the best shopping in Hong Kong, an entity that means shopping. Hong Kong offers one of the largest concentrations of consumer goods assembled in one location on earth. If you have an idea about one category of thing you want, from computers to jewelry, you can obtain from the Hong Kong Tourist Association a list of several stores that carry it. Or you can be a freeform shopper, liable to be carried away, and you will be. The Chinese Arts and Crafts store near the Star Ferry terminal can offer you a beginning look at the indigenous items of the region. Nearby Nathan Road has a “Golden Mile” of stores.
One of the insightful encounters possible in Kowloon occurs if you visit the Wong Tai Sin Temple, the largest temple in the urban region. Hop in a taxi or onto the subway and proceed to this Taoist temple, where the spiritual life of the Chinese is apparent. You will see hundreds of people buying incense joss sticks, lighting them before the altar to the gods, or perhaps inserting them in an offering of oranges. After many prayers have been said, regarding a wish, a fear, or a troubling matter, the true believer then rattles a container of fortune sticks until out pops one stick. Each stick has a number. The next step is taking the number to a stand to get a slip of paper with the fortune corresponding to the number. Then the fortune needs to be interpreted, perhaps with the aid of a cadre of professional fortune tellers, who wait in nearby consulting shops for clients. The role of the gods in determining fortune is a major element in the spiritual life of many Chinese. The temple itself is handsome, painted red and gold.
After the temple, consider a walking tour of the Yau Ma Tei area, using a self-guide booklet available from the Hong Kong Tourist Association. The walk is for travelers unafraid of plunging into one of the most densely populated areas on earth. Some aspects of the underbelly of this setting will not appeal to the fastidious, but there are also sights quintessentially Chinese, such as the Jade Market. Here you will see hundreds of stalls selling jade-family, pale-green minerals. The trade in pendants, rings, and bracelets is immense. Other shops you won’t find on Main Street USA are those of the local herbalists, who prescribe herb remedies for various human ills. After consulting with the client on what is the ailment, the herbalist goes into his drawers and bottles for the various elements and perhaps grinds them together to form a substance to be steeped in hot water. This brew is then consumed, presumably to good effect. Chances are the herbalist will also calculate the sale on an abacus, with computer-chip speed.
The main image of Hong Kong involves population density and skyscrapers, but that perspective is not complete. There are 235 outlying islands with relatively few people. The islands offer a slower-paced environment, pleasant nature outings, plus rustic hotels and restaurants.
Ferries and high-speed hydrofoil boats make regularly scheduled trips across these waterways. One added benefit of an island excursion is that it provides a visitor an appreciation of the vast harbor and its hundreds of container ships awaiting offloading.
One interesting island to visit is Cheung Chau, with its large fishing fleet, lively morning market, swimming beach, and temple.
As you enter Cheung Chau harbor, you see hundreds of the junks that are the typical fishing boat of the region. When you disembark from the ferry, the dockside market illustrates an important aspect of fishing here: keeping fish and shellfish alive for sale. Fishing fleets of other nations will tend to kill and freeze the fish, but the Chinese like to keep the fish alive or else dry the fish to preserve it. Each of the fishing boats has barrels within it to keep alive the catch until the boat returns. Dead fish have no sale value. Once in the market, fish and shellfish, from scallops to shrimp, are kept alive in shallow pans. Fish not sold immediately are cleaned and then dried in the hot sun. Bamboo trays with drying fish can be seen everywhere. Drying is the basic strategy here for preserving foods from egg yolks to cabbages.
While strolling around the island, be sure to see the Taoist temple Pak Tai and the good swimming beach Tung Won. When you walk about, you get a sense of village life, seeing the tin smith and the local barber at work. Hotel Warwick is the air-conditioned lodging on the island. Its terrace restaurant overlooks Tung Won beach.
The New Territories
What is particularly fascinating to watch in Hong Kong is the meeting of East and West, the veneer of a western language (English) and modern technology coupled with ancient Chinese perceptions. One such perception is the pervasive reliance on a belief in good and bad luck, a set of precepts known as fung shui. The term fung shui literally means wind and water, and concerns the relationship of buildings and man to nature.
During my visit, one illustration of this occurred in the New Territories, where there was a riot in one village because a developer was erecting a building to house ashes of cremated people. The villagers objected that he wasn’t doing it the right way and that he would bring bad luck to the village. Normally undemonstrative Chinese, including elderly women, went up against the police truncheons in the clash. The rules of fung shui, what is needed to bring good luck and avoid bad luck, are not taken lightly.
The New Territories show a further side of Hong Kong. Most of the area is heavily populated, although the northeast is pleasantly rustic. Prepare to encounter traffic jams and road construction delays as you seek out interesting tourist stops and glimpses of the local high-rise life. The best way to see the area would be in a rented taxi or on a guided tour organized by the Hong Kong Tourist Authority. The New in New Territories refers to the historic fact that China ceded the area to the British at a date later than the grant of Hong Kong Island.
As you pass up the west side of the New Territories, planning a circular route for the trip, the brawny container port is your first vision. The amount of goods coming in and going out is staggering. Hong Kong’s skilled work force produces abundantly, especially in electronics and textiles.
Interesting New Territories stops include:
*The Chuk Lam Sim Yuen Buddhist Temple. If you happen to arrive amidst a major temple ceremony, with robed monks and intoxicating chants, the scene is particularly lively. However, on any day you will see worshipers lighting their incense sticks and praying to the large golden Buddhas in several temple buildings.
*Tai Mo Shan County Park Lookout. This is one of those mountain views that you might associate with meditative scroll paintings. The scene is pleasing, even though the plain below is now rather built up, reducing the rustic effect.
*Hakka Walled Village Kam Tin. It’s difficult nowadays to get a sense of the clans that made up the original population base here, such as the Hakkas and the Tangs, whose women wear traditional hats. This small, remaining walled compound contains a few elderly Hakka women, who pose for pictures for a small fee. One senses that this walled village was a more satisfying phenomenon to see in the past, before the area became so built up.
*Wholesale Fish Market Lau Fau Shan. This fascinating glimpse at wholesale fish and shellfish selling shows how the Chinese keep all fish alive until the moment they are consumed. The catch is carted around in huge tubs as traders buy and sell the catch. You can order lunch at the restaurant Oi Manor, meaning Loving the People, and the proprietor will go into the market to bring back your fish, show it to you, then cook it at once. Fried oysters are a specialty. Wisely, considering the potential hygienic problems, the Chinese cook all food they eat.
*Important Man’s House Tai Fu Tai is an architectural gem from the 1860s, showing how a scholar-gentleman lived. Fine architectural details of the building have been stabilized.
*Duck ponds and wild landscapes of the northeast at Plover Cove Reservoir. As you are about to conclude that all of the New Territories is built up, the northeast section comes as a pleasant green retreat, starting at Sha Tau Kok. You will see some intensive agriculture and large ponds used to raise the white ducks so prized as Peking Duck in restaurants. Driving south along Plover Cove Reservoir, there are numerous scenic turnouts with picnic tables where Hong Kong residents like to come on weekends to experience an outing in nature. Tolo Harbor has a long bike path.
Impressions of Hong Kong
Hong Kong remains in memory as a truck loaded with white ducks going to market, a perpetual construction site where much of the scaffolding is done in bamboo (the better to sway with the typhoon winds), a treasure trove of seductive shopping areas, and the capital of high-stress business living. You won’t find wide boulevards for the leisurely citizen or a grand design in urban planning, but you will find vitality. Even the Chinese language is an aggressive semi-shout, as if saying “let’s get on with it, whatever we’re doing.” The friendlier the conversants, the higher the decibel level.
Hong Kong has become defined by the cell phone, allowing its residents to work diligently even while commuting or sitting in restaurants. Helicopters hover over the water with tycoons who can’t waste the time it takes a limo to get from the airport to their deal-making meeting in Central. Hong Kong is businessmen in suits sneaking time for a tai chi exercise motion. Hong Kong offers a human encounter that is brusque rather than outgoing friendly, the relationship you expect from an honest merchant. Hong Kong wears wealth proudly, whether it’s all-gold fillings in the mouth of a Hakka fisherwoman, the designer-jacket teenager with his iPad, or the marbled office building. There is a slight element of British formality in this well-dressed world, coat and tie for the gentleman.
Hong Kong is also always a little nervous about its future, as is appropriate for a merchant city. The good-value Chinese merchant side of the sensibility is always ready to exert itself. Hong Kong has about 42 million visitors a year, and doesn’t want to lose a single one in the future.
Hong Kong: If You Go
The tourism information source is the Hong Kong Tourism Board, www.discoverhongkong.com.