We went to Hong Kong when we did because the Chinese are taking over on June 30. But that doesn't mean we went to report on anything, or that I can tell you what's going to happen. Yes, in a sense we established a baseline, so if we go back in a few years we'll know what's changed. But change seems to be the basic reality of modern Hong Kong--construction is everywhere, often on land recently reclaimed from the harbor--so there is no easily defined "before." That's true of most places, but after making a trip I'd thought of for a while, and one that Lise Eisenberg had had in mind for years, at a particular time because the British lease was running out, I at least expected something different. I may yet find it, but I hope not: everyone in Hong Kong seemed to be racing cheerfully into an uncertain future, and the only sudden change that seems likely is that they'll find a brick wall in their way. I don't think that's likely--Hong Kong as it is is too valuable to China--and I certainly hope it doesn't happen. Much to my surprise, halfway around the world in a city where I couldn't speak the common language, I felt at home, and I fell in love with the place. Oh, it's a week's infatuation--I can't claim to really know Hong Kong--but it's a real feeling nonetheless, and it has me anxiously reading newspaper stories, trying to figure out from a brief paragraph what's going to happen.
The trip was originally Lise's idea, but she didn't want to travel alone, and once the suggestion had been made, it very quickly became something I wanted to do, to the point that I considered traveling alone if she couldn't make it. I collected brochures and read almost all of the Lonely Planet guide to Hong Kong and Macau, while we spent much of the fall and winter considering and discarding potential travel dates--too close to my or her birthday, tangled with either Western or Chinese holidays, and so on--with one eye on what we could manage, and the other on the end of June. When Lise emailed me the idea of going via two West Coast conventions, it seemed inspired: I'd have liked a little more time in Hong Kong, but Seattle for Potlatch and the Bay Area for Corflu were hard to resist. (We were actually in Hong Kong from March 4 through 13, 1997.)
I can't really supply a Potlatch report, because I didn't spend much time at the convention, and went to no programming. Instead, I went to the Arboretum with Alan Rosenthal, wandered to thrift shops in the rain with Freddie Baer, and otherwise delighted in the fact that I had flown from a New York winter to a Seattle spring, full of flowering cherries, dandelions, and bright green lawns. Throw in wonderful sushi, at a place Marci Malinowycz knows where she tells the chef "feed us" and all he asks is whether there's anything we can't eat, and a lot of good conversation, and I had everything I needed for a delightful weekend, but not a restful one.
Flying over Siberia was alien and delightful. Snow from horizon to horizon, covering a gorgeous mountain range. Further south, we reached snow-covered craters, round and perfect and utterly desolate. If a moonscape could somehow be covered with snow, it might look like this: there was no sign of life, let alone human activity. At a closer look I spotted what might have been frozen rivers, thin curving lines in all the white, like Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars. The Sea of Okhotsk offered vast expanses of pack ice, matte gray and brilliant white, a patternless collection of blocks, sometimes with bits of open water between. Winter again, but safely distant, a beauty not touching anything inside the plane, on our way to Hong Kong's humid warmth.
Landing in Hong Kong is impressive: I suspect you either love it or grip your seat in fear. At night, the land is a mixture of colored lights, the water is black, and the two are intertwined, producing colorful reflections. We circled around, as I tried to make sense of the view: that's water, and those are skyscrapers, and is that a mountain? Then over the city streets, between the apartment buildings, to touch down on Kai Tak's one runway.
Our hotel arrangements had been made by someone we'd never met, the sister of a friend of Lise's. We were surprised and pleased to find her waiting for us in the lobby of the hotel. After we checked in, she asked if we'd eaten, and then what we wanted to eat. We wanted something quick and simple, so we asked for noodles; Agnes led us to a nearby shop, found out what we wanted, and ordered for us in Cantonese. I don't think she knew quite what to make of us, two brash New Yorkers, both half asleep, but if we did anything embarrassing, she didn't react. At the end of the meal, she insisted on paying, made sure Lise had her card in case we needed help with anything, and walked us back to our hotel, where we collapsed.
Hong Kong has a wonderful variety of mass transit. Part of that is simple necessity: between the mountains and the South China Sea, there isn't much room for cars. Private cars are more a matter of prestige than practicality. Practicality is getting up Victoria Peak by the Peak Tram, a steep old funicular railway with wooden cars, simultaneously a tourist must and a regular part of many people's daily commute. At the uphill terminus, there's a fancy mall and an incredible view: Hong Kong Island, the harbor, and Kowloon Peninsula spread out below. At night, it's a wonderland of light, hazy in the distance. Or, if you're only going partway up the Peak, there's a series of escalators and "travelators," the latter being the Hong Kong term for what Heinlein taught me to call slidewalks. The lowest is flat, then there are two slanted travelators, not the most practical idea in the world, before you reach the escalators. The whole system is free, and it moves a lot of people, downhill in the morning and uphill the rest of the day. If you're going against the traffic, there are stairs, or you can take a cab up the steep streets.
Practical is double-decker buses and electric trams, the latter one of the great Hong Kong bargains: HK$1.60 (about 20 cents in American money) takes you as far as they go, with a nice view of the neighborhoods you're going through, if it isn't too crowded to see out. At the end of the tram line, we found a wonderful wet market, people selling vegetables and roast duck and live chickens. We were going to buy a roast duck and have a picnic dinner in the local sitting-out area, a miniature plaza, but we stopped to play with a shop cat on the way, and by the time we got back to the duck vendor he had nothing left but a few necks. He cheerfully gave Lise one, insisted (with gestures) that I take a picture of him, her, and the duck, then gave me another. A nice snack, and we only regretted not being able to tell him that we eat Chinese roast duck all the time at home (though not, I must admit, the necks). The buses are a little more expensive than the trams, but still worth it: we enjoyed the ride to Stanley Market, sitting at the front of the upper deck as the bus wound around the edge of Hong Kong Island, with steep slopes below, past greenery, beaches, and the occasional expensive housing development, as much as the destination.
Practical is the Star Ferry, HK$2 or $1.70 (depending on whether you ride upstairs or down) to cross the harbor from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, with a nice view as you go, ten minutes and you're there.
Above all, practical is the Mass Transit Railway, the local subway system. It doesn't go everywhere we wanted, but we rode it a lot. They sell stored-value cards, for HK$100 (about $14 American) or $70. A friend advised us to get the less expensive card, because we wouldn't use it up. We each bought a $100 card, and we used them up in the first four days. I don't think our friend counted on our finding ourselves at the end of the tram line, and needing to ride back to Kowloon. Or using them to take the Kowloon-Canton Railway as far as is legal without a China visa. Or just hopping on to ride two stations, at HK$4 a pop except once when the computer glitched and gave it to us for 90 cents each. The cards are nice little souvenirs as well; Lise fed coins into machines for one-station senior citizen discount tickets to give people. One of the few symbols I learned to recognize in Hong Kong is the MTR logo: there are signs for blocks around, with the MTR logo, a picture of a person walking, and an arrow, to point you to the nearest station. Once you're in the stations, you get escalators that work, the signs and announcements are bilingual (I think I would recognize the Cantonese for "Please stand clear of the doors" if I heard it somewhere else) and understandable, and people actually queue up to get on the trains. Not only that, it's so modern it's science fictional: the MTR is wired for cell phones, and runs quietly enough that it's practical to talk on the phone while the train is moving.
When we weren't following signs to the MTR or taking advantage of printed bilingualism--street signs, when you can find them at all, are in both languages, and restaurants tended to have at least some English on their menus--we pointed and smiled a lot. It worked, in part because the people who sell things are clearly used to customers who don't speak Cantonese. The prices are posted in Arabic numerals, and it's no real problem to walk up to a stall, point at the container of watermelon juice and smile, point at a cup if they have more than one size, and give the vendor money. I'm sure there are things I didn't see that could have gotten if I'd spoken Cantonese--the menus don't give English for everything--but it worked, and felt pleasantly adventurous.
As part of our transit tour of Hong Kong, we visited the railway museum. It's a nice little place, in a converted station, with old train cars you can walk around in, and the modern electrified railway passing on the other side of a chain link fence. Getting there involved asking directions at the subway station, and being handed a note written in Cantonese, with instructions to show it to the minibus driver. The trip back was trickier, but we eventually found a taxi, and I showed the driver my MTR map to let him know where we wanted to go; unlike the tourist district, that part of Hong Kong felt as though English was a thin veneer, of which all vestiges would vanish on the third of July. The locals weren't hostile to us, just indifferent, but it was a disquieting experience.
I think one of the reasons I felt at home in Hong Kong was simply scale: it was nice to be in a place where most people are about my height, and where things like the hand-holds on the trains aren't designed for people a lot taller than me. Visually, of course, Lise and I stood out: two plump, long-haired American tourists in a Chinese crowd. But it was nice to be able to see through the crowds, and reach things. The British influence also helped: Lise and I have both been to London, so little things like the style of the license plates and the use of "subway" to mean a pedestrian underpass instead of a means of transport were familiar and friendly. (I'm trying to explain, at least to myself, something that just happened: I felt like I belonged there, and an odd variety of things have come to say "home" to me if I'm not quite paying attention. Palm trees, for example. I'd seen palms before, and never quite believed in them: in Orlando they look like plastic, and in Scotland they clearly didn't belong, exotic plants being grown because of their exoticism. But now I see potted palms outside a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, trees probably meant as exotic, and I consider stopping in because they look homelike.)
Breakfast came with the room, a choice of a continental breakfast or an Oriental one. The continental breakfast was an immediate reminder that Hong Kong was a British colony (though the accepted term for the last few years has been "territory"): the tea was good, strong Ceylon, but the toast was cold. The Oriental breakfast was congee, a sort of thin rice porridge, plus either noodles or some kind of dim sum, depending on the day, and weak tea. Lise immediately negotiated, for a few extra dollars, Ceylon tea and orange juice to go with the Oriental breakfast. After dealing with the cold toast once, I did the same. I'd never had congee before, and sipped it gingerly at first, while eating my noodles, or vegetable samosa (that's what they looked and tasted like), or whatever else came with it. But as the week went on, I found myself eating the congee more willingly. The last morning, we got to the airport in time to buy breakfast after we'd checked in for our flight, and I passed up assorted western options in favor of congee with shredded chicken and black mushrooms. It's definitely an acquired taste, and one I have acquired. Maybe one of these years I'll try oatmeal.
Macau was our big disappointment. The guidebooks all recommended it as a side trip, worth a day to look at interesting buildings and eat Portuguese food. So we got on a jetfoil one morning and went over. Not having arranged anything in advance, we arrived too late for any kind of organized tour, and we had no faith in the unaffiliated men offering us tours in bad English: even if they were honest, they probably couldn't have told us much. So we wandered around on our own, which worked so well in Hong Kong. In Macau, we found ourselves on an overcrowded, un-air-conditioned bus, driving past what seemed like endless tenements with dilapidated signs and laundry hanging out to dry. (There's laundry hanging out the windows in Hong Kong, too--on bamboo poles in public housing, and more convenient laundry racks in private housing--but it didn't seem as drab, somehow.) It was a long, hot ride to the end of the bus line, where we looked at the old gate to China. This may have been exotic once, a glimpse of the forbidden, but now that anyone can buy a tourist visa to China for a few dollars, it was just dilapidated. We took a taxi to a famous temple to Kwan Yin, in part because it was one of the few things we could think of and explain to the driver. The temple was a low-key place, with lots of incense burning, and a few monks performing some kind of service in one room. There was a man selling incense and candles, so I bought some incense and offered it to the goddess, and Lise bought two pretty candles, one to offer and one as a souvenir: neither of us is Buddhist, but we both feel a certain affinity for Kwan Yin, and were comfortable doing this. It was also nice to be in the cool shady temple, even though it was as run-down as much of what we'd passed on the bus. After a glance at a museum and a visit to another temple, we gave up on the idea of staying in Macau for a Portuguese dinner, and headed for the ferry terminal home, which was already how we were thinking of Hong Kong after two days.
A lot of people seem surprised that we didn't go to Hong Kong to shop, but it's true. That doesn't mean we bought nothing, or even that we stayed out of the markets, but we were more interested in walking around and seeing the city. We did spend part of a morning at the jade market. The trick here is to remember that, unless you really know what you're doing, you shouldn't assume that you're getting real jade: you're shopping for souvenirs, not for inherently valuable stones. A minor point is that it's worth going early, because a lot of Chinese merchants want the first bargaining of the day to result in a sale, so they may be willing to give you a slightly better price. They've come up with an interesting way of bargaining between people who don't share a language. The customer points at an item. The merchant picks up a calculator, enters the initial asking price, and hands the calculator to the customer. You press the "clear" button, enter your offer, and give the calculator back to the merchant. This can go on for a few rounds, until either a price is agreed on or the customer walks away. I suspect the process is subtler, and possibly slower, if both parties can bargain in Cantonese. Using this technique, I bought a pair of malachite earrings, two small jade cats, and an odd carving of a turtle with other animals sitting on it: I don't know if I could have gotten better prices in New York, but this way, when I wear the earrings I think of Hong Kong. (It doesn't help any that I don't remember how much I paid for any of this: I can bargain in Hong Kong dollars, and think in them well enough while I'm shopping, but I didn't either write the amounts down or convert them to American money, and they slipped right out of my head. Instead, I remember that it's HK$7 for watermelon juice from the stand nearest our hotel, on Nathan Road, and can't bring myself to pay $2.50 here in New York for the same thing.) The other souvenirs I'm fond of are an Asterix the Gaul shirt, almost certainly a trademark violation but a gorgeous piece of work, which I picked up from a vendor in Stanley Market, a place so touristy that some of the stands have prices in American dollars; a "chop" of my name in Chinese characters, from the same place--it's a tourist thing to buy, but I'm fond of playing with rubber stamps; and two pieces of beach glass that I picked up on a tiny beach, to remind me of the South China Sea. That was also the afternoon that I was standing in the hot sun, suddenly remembered the line about mad dogs and Englishmen, and ducked into the shade, where I bought and drained a half-liter bottle of water. I found it easy to ignore the heat and humidity, which were mild for a New York summer but not what I was used to in March, until I glanced up and saw how high and bright the sun was.
The world's best natural harbor is the reason the British wanted Hong Kong, and a large part of why the Chinese want it back. The city is built around the harbor, and in it: large parts of modern Hong Kong, including most of the tourist districts on Kowloon Peninsula, are reclaimed land. There's plenty of empty land--a couple of hundred little islands--but people want to be in the center of things. We spent a pleasant hour walking on a promenade on the Kowloon side of the harbor, near the ferry terminal, looking across to Hong Kong island at all the bright lights, including one skyscraper whose lights change color every fifteen minutes to serve as a clock. The daytime view is less flashy, even quiet on the foggy mornings, but you can usually see Victoria Peak above and behind the business district of Central. On the other side of the island is Aberdeen, an old fishing village where a few people still live on their boats, racks of shrimp and cuttlefish dry in the sun, and old women will try to sell you sampan rides; the land on the other side of the channel is covered with modern skyscrapers. Anywhere else, I'd assume the old houseboats were being deliberately preserved; in Hong Kong, it seems likely that the government just hasn't found the right incentive to get the people to move ashore, away from the risk of typhoons.
It's impossible to walk down Nathan Road, the main street in the tourist area of Tsimshatsui, without having men offer to sell you fake Rolexes, just as they do on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. The difference, which I found charming, is that in Hong Kong they say "Fake Rolex, miss?"
Once a year, on a random Sunday in the Spring, the colonial government opens the grounds of the governor's mansion to anyone who wants to come. They happened to pick the Sunday we were there, so we made an early-morning trip to the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, then queued up. The hardest part was finding the end of the line: the policemen didn't seem to speak English, and there weren't any signs, but after we followed some people down a path that wasn't, a complete stranger helped us squeeze in, somewhere in the middle. An hour later, the gate opened, and we became part of a large, slow crowd, looking at an assortment of flowers. The garden was pleasant enough, and the glimpse of the house we got was nice, but it was worth waiting in line for only because of the rarity, and because it may have been the last chance, ever, to see this: Chief-Executive-Designate Tung won't be living there, and it's anyone's guess whether that means the garden will be open every week, or never.
Our guidebooks were useful for facts, but kept getting the tone of things wrong. I guess none of the authors think quite the way we do. The oddest part was the Lonely Planet guide's claim that there is no free entertainment in Hong Kong. I wanted to grab the author and take him to Hong Kong Park: even if people watching doesn't appeal to you, the free entertainment includes a wonderful walk-through aviary, where I used up large quantities of film, and an exhibit of old pottery and signature seals. There are wonderful fountains, with water flowing down tiled steps, ponds full of turtles, lots of greenery and flowers, and half-tame birds. It's full of people on the weekends--Hong Kong is a crowded city--but a delightful oasis on weekdays. Completely artificial: everything from the ponds to the palm trees was put in from scratch in 1990, and you can see the skyscrapers all around, but in an odd way that just adds to the charm. There's no attempt to pretend you're not in the middle of a city: but the city is Hong Kong, where they keep tucking bits of green in next to the glass and steel, and would rather build one skyscraper on an otherwise green hill than cover it with lots of low buildings.
On our last day in Hong Kong, we decided to take half an hour to visit Tiger Balm Gardens before wandering off on our separate agendas: I was going to go back up the Peak and see what the view was like during the day, and Lise wanted to check out one more transit system. The guidebooks warned us that the place was run down, and not to expect much besides a giggle from the images of Taoist hells. Run down it was, as Coney Island is run down, and at least as delightful. Built by Aw Boon Haw with some of the millions he made marketing Tiger Balm as a cure for all manner of problems, the Gardens are a wonderland of poured concrete--odd curved shapes, staircases leading to odd views, unexpected rooms, and animal statues everywhere. You go up an odd staircase, and find a tangle of stairs, a cool shaded cave containing a Buddha, an artificial rock you can sit on. Around one corner are turtles; around the next, a huge blue ox; then a tiger of sorts, a biped with a tiger's head and a yellow-and-black-striped blazer. There are gorgeous dragons on one wall, a green hill as backdrop to the whole thing, and the family still lives in the house next door. Here and there are moral lessons, if you want them, but they're easily ignored, or admired purely for the artwork. Even the old Ford truck in one of the Taoist hells fits in nicely, despite what our guidebook thought. Yes, the whole place could use a fresh coat of paint, and it might be nice if someone evicted the old woman selling doilies and other random souvenirs, but I suspect she's just as official as the useful vendor selling bottled water, film, and postcards. The whole thing works, and it's a delightful place to spend an afternoon: I felt sorry for the tour groups, herded around together, without the chance to really explore the nooks and crannies.
We spent most of one day on a bus tour, in part to spare our feet. By that point, we'd seen quite a bit on our own. We'd drive past something, and Lise and I would smile at each other in recognition. By the time we were explaining that we'd been to Tsuen Wan Town Hall the previous Friday for a Mongolian rock concert, our guide said "You've been to Tsuen Wan?! I've only been there once" and accused us of having seen everything. It wasn't quite true: we'd seen a temple and a wet market, though not the ones they took us to, but we hadn't been up the tallest mountain in the territory, or visited a fishing village, or looked at the egrets in the marshes. I wanted to hike the trails of that mountain, but we only had fifteen minutes: I did wander off into the woods a little way, enjoying the greenery and the feel of something other than sidewalks under my feet, and still had time to see the view they'd stopped for, photograph an ancient grave site, and buy a can of peach soda.
The last thing we did in Hong Kong was to visit a supermarket. It was late and we weren't really hungry for dinner, but we thought it would be nice to have something to eat on the plane the next day. (We already had assorted fruit from a street market, but it was going to be a long flight back.) Instead, we just wandered through the aisles, noticing oddities like the presence of both Marmite and Vegemite, and bought things we had no particular use for. Sitting in my kitchen right now is a package of melon-flavored pudding mix, which would make more sense if I'd made any flavor of pudding in the last ten years. There's some blackberry-flavored tea from New Zealand, which tastes oddly like Constant Comment. I helped Lise determine that the Twinings lemon tea wasn't the kind she likes (I had to sort through the German ingredients list for this, thus proving that I was thinking again, after being completely exhausted a half-hour earlier). Weirdest of all, we bought two boxes of coffee-and-tea bags, which claim to contain a mix of coffee and Ceylon tea. We auctioned one off at Corflu, for the slightly ridiculous price of $15. The purchaser [Pam Davis] was supposed to donate half to the con suite, so (if anyone was feeling brave) we could get a report on what it was like, but she took it home instead. I have the other box, which will turn up at some fannish gathering. To be served with, or maybe after, the crottled greeps.
The flight back was long and annoying, and I didn't manage to sleep at all. About an hour before we landed in San Francisco, I gave up on the idea, and opened my window shade, figuring the natural light would help me wake up and pretend I was on West Coast time. It was still dark, and the stars were wonderfully bright and clear, the W of Cassiopeia right in front of me. We're heading east, I'm on the left side of the plane, so that must be northwest: and there was Comet Hale-Bopp, my first glimpse of it. Suddenly I didn't mind having been up all night, though I regretted putting my binoculars in the checked luggage (how often do you need them during a flight?). I saw the comet later, several times, as it approached the Sun and then moved away, but never like that, in the incredible blue of a morning sky at 37,000 feet: that's miles less of atmosphere blocking the view, and there's no light pollution above the cloud layer. The tail was very clear, and I stared out the window until the morning sky lightened and the comet faded out of view. I only wish I'd opened the shade a little sooner.
Copyright © 1997 Vicki Rosenzweig. This page last modified 28 October 1997.
Back to Quipu.
Pictures from my trip.
Back to my home page.