The only way to bookend my 1996 pre-handover trip to Hong Kong was to do a post handover trip sometime after 1997, just to see what was different. It's taken until 2003 for that to happen, and the verdict is that from a tourist's point of view it's hardly any different. There is more apparent impact by SARS than there is by the Chinese rule. I understand that if you live here then the changes are much more obvious, but if you're on holiday? Well, it seemed the same to me. Only the policemen's uniforms were different, and it seemed more tidy. Other changes, such as the less blatant selling of pirate DVDs, are more than likely due to the Americans, not the Chinese. What of Britain's legacy to one of it's prize colonies? Well, the presence of speed camera signs is indicative of Britain's current petty small-mindedness and obsession with surveillance and motorist harassment. In this past we had given countries the Rule of Law, trains and MTR systems. Nowadays - speed cameras.
The opportunity to check out some of the things I'd seen in the past was too good to miss. Comparisons between the old and new photographs show that despite the impossibility of it, more skyscrapers and tower block apartments are now crowding the same small area. So many panoramic vistas of tower blocks are now obscured by completley different tower blocks.
There is a new airport on Lantau island at Chep Lap Kok. It is about as fantastic as an airport can get, which is not a lot, but it shames something much older such as Heathrow. Airports themselves are always a bit dull and similar to each other with endless rows of check in desks, franchised shops and burger outlets but at least this one is new and trying as hard as it can to be to be good, at which it succeeds. The ride into Kowloon is much more interesting - past the massive docks, cranes, ships, harbour and the long long suspension bridge. You would think watching all the thousands of multi-branded containers in the cargo area that all the world's goods pass through Hong Kong at some point - especially given the fact that most of the world is now made in China. More incredible is the knowledge that similar sized ports and container areas exist all over Asia and the rest of the world. No view can make up for the loss of flying into Kai-Tak though, with it's close up through-the-window shots of the neighbouring tower blocks. I'm sure the Cathay pilots are a lot more grateful for Chep Lap Kok however.
This time I was based on the island, not Kowloon. My hotel, the Newton Hotel at North Point is typical of Asian hotels and is more than adequate for a stay, being conveniently located right near an MTR tube station, a 7-11 and, if you are desperate, a McDonalds. Not far from the Newton hotel is the area of Causeway Bay. In amongst the expensive yachts are still many old boat/houses, with elderly Chinese living and working on the water, seemingly oblivious to the high-tech world going on all around them. Lots of little powered boats were moving about with the owners transporting vegetables, animals and drums of liquid between different boats and the shore.
So what to make of Hong Kong over Christmas? Well, it's not really any different to any other time. On Christmas day I found myself shopping at the massive crowded night market in Mong Kok, apparently the most densely populated part of the planet. The locals were out in big numbers, and the shops and markets open well into the evening. The only signs of Christmas are the fake pine trees dotted around shops and the never ending stream of Christmas musak in hotel receptions, lifts and shops. Alternative lyrics to fit with the Hong Kong ethic might be "Shopping in a winter wonderland" and "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, had a very shiny Rolex copy". You cannot completely escape Christmas in Hong Kong, but you can get pretty far from it. When you can buy satay fish ball kebabs with chilli sauce or orange curried squid on a skewer from a street vendor for your Christmas lunch, you know you have to be far from home. As ever the night markets cater for almost anything you want, all at reasonable prices which can be made even more reasonable by a bit of haggling. By this method we became the owners of a number of Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts, some jeans and other tourist goods. You want it, and they have copied it and printed it onto a t-shirt. The t-shirt stalls are a barometer of fashion and hip logos, and some of the current favourites are Japanese car tuners, such as Mugen-Honda, Ralliart and Toyota TRD. These all went into the shopping bag - a bargain at some £1.20 each (post haggle). Being Asia, you can also find all the Hello Kitty goods you could ever wish for. Everything is made in China anyway so you might as well buy near the source. I don't know whether it was Christmas or post-SARS lack of tourism that had decimated the Temple Street night markets, but they were not very busy or filled with stalls compared to last time. One explanation is that many stall-holders had decamped to Mong Kok instead, which on Christmas day feels like it contains just about everything and everyone. Down below street level are small shopping malls containing a lot of camera film processing centres, fast food places and busy amusement arcades, filled with rows of driving and fighting games all competing to be the loudest. McDonalds, that hub of public toilets and food consumption had big queues outside. Given the way the Chinese crave these burgers means that a Big Mac and fries will soon be an authentic Chinese takeaway. I only wish that the rest of the world gave you unlimited Thai Chilli sauce for your fries like Asian McDonalds do.
If anything, December is a better time to visit than the September of the previous visit. The weather is cooler, but still warm enough to wear only jeans and a t-shirt during the day. Without the summer's exhausting humidity it's possible to see a lot more in one day, and we got round a lot of the same tourist attractions and temples from the last visit. My favourite temple is still the Man Mo temple on Hollywood Road, Hong Kong Island. It looks grubbier, smaller and more worn than ever on the outside, but inside is an ancient Chinese world of statues, incense sticks and a lot of smoke coming from the curled up spring-type burning sticks hanging in large numbers from the low ceiling. Inside here, shut away from the bustling outside skyscraper world of Hong Kong, is a small world of peace that feels a thousand years ago and a long way from home. Perfect.
Not far from the Man Mo temple are hundreds of market stalls, mainly used by the Chinese, not the tourists. Most of these occupy the narrow stepped streets running up and down the hill in this area and in the absence of a indoor wet market here this is where the locals do their shopping. If it lives in the sea you can probably find it, or part of it on a market stall somewhere. It's fascinating to just stand and watch the locals go about their shopping, haggling over the price of a chicken or some tiger prawns. The hygiene looks highly questionable, and the smell is not great from time to time near the meat and fish shops, but their are always other stalls, such as the fruit stalls or the small shops which are ablaze with only red and gold, selling lanterns, incense sticks and those red-gold dangling things all drivers in Hong Kong hang from their rear view mirrors.
Much further down the hill from the markets are the tramways which run across the north side of Hong Kong island. I got onto one of these earlier in the day, to go west from Fortress Hill to Wan Chai, and they are a bargain. HK$2 for a trip of any length - pay as you get off. The only downside seems to be that the cramped interior of the tram seems designed more with the Asian frame in mind than the western one, with the ceiling being very very close to my head. If you're bored with the MTR, this is a slow, relaxing and inexpensive way to watch the street life go by. There was also some mad Chinese man on our tram, muttering and shouting to himself. He got off before we did, and went into the street to continue his diatribe against something or other. In a city of so many millions, we saw him again twice in the next few days. Weird. We didn't notice too many weird psycho types in Hong Kong though, perhaps we didn't go to the right bus station, which is where they all go in England. Check out Digbeth, Birmingham's excuse for a bus station if you don't believe me. I passed through this on the way back home from Heathrow Airport, and it couldn't make more of a contrast with Hong Kong's clean, warm and modern public transport areas.
It's interesting to note how much greenery there is in Hong Kong. You would expect a city of so many people and so many tower blocks to be a concrete hell, but there are smaller cities in the UK with many less people and tower blocks which look so much worse. Hong Kong has trees and plants growing from the most unlikely areas and on the tiniest patches of land, where as at home there would just be tarmac or concrete. There are many parks and other places of sanctuary in Hong Kong , including a huge covered aviary near to where you can take the tram to the peak. Also, unlike in the UK, these things are free. A £10 entry would be the minimum at home, and here you can just stroll inside. Even the tram up to Victoria Peak is a reasonable price, but i just know that at home it would be charged at the very maximum they could get away with. The entry price for something like the Tower of London is astronomical, but here all these types of thing are either free or a only a few pounds. Of course, there is a large shopping mall and lots of street traders selling paintings and tourist tat at the top of the peak, but you can just walk on by these and admire the view. Since Kai-Tak airport in Kowloon has closed, you can see the beginnings of higher buildings on the mainland from here, and in ten years I'm sure that both sides of the harbour will be of equal height.
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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2004