My first visit to Hong Kong was a quick stopover in 1995, on my way back to Singapore from Tokyo. I was travelling alone and stayed for just one night at a cheap hotel recommended by my travel agent. She had assured me that it was a reasonably good hotel located on a ‘good street’. As I discovered to my horror, the reality was somewhat different.
My one and only window opened to a large block of rundown residential flats. The carpet in the room was damp and reeked of spilt urine. My view of Hong Kong consisted of clothes strung on bamboo poles hanging precariously from the balconies of the flats, their walls stained and grimy, weather worn with rubbish littering the balconies.
Needless to say, it was a long night! I was grateful to check out the next morning and leave via the old Kai Tak Airport. That was the memory of Hong Kong I took with me; that is until January this year.
Erasing a bad memory
My partner Cary wanted to combine a holiday with a meetup with his brother, Steve, who had been transferred to live and work in Hong Kong. We had not seen Steve and his wife, Sindy since they moved here from Australia two years ago.
From the moment we landed at the airport until our last day, I was mesmerised by a country so vibrant, colourful and exciting. I was immediately enchanted and amazed by what I saw, asking myself “whatever happened to the old Hong Kong that I used to know”? How can one country change so much and so quickly?
Deluxe Hong Kong, but food still affordable
We arrived at the new airport, now known as the Hong Kong International Airport at Chep Lap Kok and I could immediately feel the difference. We were picked up in a limousine and driven along the new expressway, past Kowloon and through the city to Steve’s apartment at The Peak on Hong Kong Island. Massive, modern high-rise apartment blocks and shopping centers lined the streets on both sides, with the occasional clutter of old apartment blocks wedged conspicuously between some of these buildings.
Steve and Sindy live in a luxurious apartment high on Old Peak Road that offers sweeping views of the harbour and the city from the living room. We were lucky to be staying with them, as with their good advice, we were easily able to find our way around on our own. Steve’s binoculars became a happy past-time, bringing the Admiralty and the harbour district right into our lounge. The only disappointment for us was that the busy harbour was shrouded in a light smog for much of our stay.
So how does one begin to describe a country that felt so wonderful me? Perhaps we can start with the people. Like any developed country, Hong Kong society is a diverse mix of cultures, all going about their daily routines and activities. People are generally very friendly and helpful and we felt very comfortable wherever we went. A unique image etched in my mind was the image of a frail, bent, old lady, pushing a trolley laden with newspapers for sale uphill, while some sat begging on the streets with a can in their hands. Others slept on the streets blissfully unaware of the world around them. And yet, despite their apparent hardship and probably lonely existence, they seemed to have accepted their lot and went about making the most of each day. This is a testament to the “life must go on” spirit of this city.
The next memory that comes to mind has got to be the food…lots of it everywhere! Not only was the taste far better than expected, the prices were surprisingly affordable. We ate out every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So many varieties of cuisines from the different Chinese provinces — Hunan, Peking, Chiuchow, Canton, etc. Couldn’t tell the difference but who cares – we enjoyed it all.
While wanting to ‘play’ tourists and go to all the interesting places, we decided to take our time to enjoy each attraction fully as we had decided by our second day that we would definitely return for a longer visit.
Wanting to experience the ‘old Hong Kong’, we crossed the harbour to Kowloon via ferry; it costs only AU$1.40 for the trip. The streets were lined with people spilling onto the roads, large colourful signs protruding above the shops, some seemingly suspended in space over the streets. The smell of food, the jostling of people and the myriad of shops selling pirated DVD’s and watches and cheap clothing. Even being cajoled for sales from every direction has its own characteristic and charm. What a sight! What an experience!
The profundity of Buddha on Lantau Island
Next on our list was Lantau Island, south-west of Hong Kong mainland. It is home to the world’s largest seated, outdoor bronze Buddha and was opened to the public in 1993. The statue, perched on top of a hill within the grounds of the Po Lin Monastery, overlooks the island. We took the fast ferry to the island and then a connecting bus from the ferry terminus to the monastery, each trip lasting an hour.
The first thing we saw as we alighted from the bus was the magnificent statue at the top of what seemed like an endless flight of steps. I was out of breath by the time we reached the top, but what a sight awaited! Rising up towards the sky, the Buddha is sitting on a pedestal looking serene and noble. The pedestal is a three storey high building and acts as an exhibition hall and tourist shopping/information base. The building also serves as a columbarium, where urns holding the ashes of the dead were kept in small compartments around the walls. We could see the temple at the base of the steps as we made our way down. We mingled with the tourists and worshippers. When it was time to go, I took one last look at the awesome sight on top of the hill and went away feeling serene and humbled.
Our trip to The Peak has struck a particularly uneasy cord which returns to me every time I recall the experience. It was late afternoon when we took the Peak tram to the top. The tram is reportedly the oldest and steepest of its kind in the world. The Peak offers spectacular scenic views of the harbour and the city. It offers a variety of high tech entertainment housed in the Peak Tower and has a Hong Kong edition of Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, with figurines of famous personalities such as Sylvester Stallone, Sean Connery and of course the ubiquitous hometowner Jackie Chan. There is also a modern shopping centre but since it was selling the usual tourist wares, we gave that a miss. After enjoying the scenery and taking some photographs, we stayed for dinner at a steak house.
The Spook’s Train
Dinner was a hearty meal and the four of us decided to walk back to the apartment one kilometre below, taking the Old Peak Road. This is a dimly lit and winding road made up of a mixture of steps and a steep incline. Wooden seats remain where once the road was frequently travelled.
Steve told us that buses still operate along this route but that the “Spooky Train only comes to collect the souls of those whose time is due. It was said that if you look carefully, you can see some poor souls sitting on the seats waiting for the train.” He then let out a loud mournful “Choo-Choo”. Sindy and I let out a cry and we both punched him hard on the arm. The men could laugh all they wanted but at that moment, we all had shivers running through our spines while we strained our ears to catch that faraway toot. Looking nervously over our shoulders and jumping at every shadow from that point on, we must have flown down the road because we made it home in record time. Later that night, Steve had to work overtime to make up to Sindy and I.
Over the next few days, we found our way around shopping centers and eateries by taking the MTR train, buses and trams. We stopped at various open markets where the streets were coverted into shopping malls with imitation branded goods, CDs, clothes, cosmetics and toys on sale. Everything was on sale at bargain prices and haggling was the rule and ‘half the fun’.
All too soon, it was time to leave. Despite our regret that the holiday was rapidly coming to an end, we were glad of it at the same time, having just about run out of money and feeling the onset of homesickness. Looking at the view from our 35th floor apartment, we made a promise that we would surely return to savour more of this most interesting country’s offerings.
Don’t change too much, Hong Kong, I like you just the way you are.