Susanne contemplates Hong Kong Harbor

Monday, November 24
Hong Kong Reunion

Susanne and I checked out of the Reno Hotel bright and early, well before sunrise. Our flight to Hong Kong had originally been scheduled for 10am, but during our down time in Bangkok, we realized that this itinerary would get us into Hong Kong just after 2pm local time. By the time we settled into our hotel in Kowloon, half the afternoon would have already been wasted. So having paid a visit to the Cathay Pacific office the day before the flight, we were able to re-book ourselves on an 8am flight instead.

Despite starting our morning departure in the heart of Bangkok's Siam Square area, traffic was surprisingly light, especially by local standards. We managed to reach the airport in less than 45 minutes, just in time for the 6am check-in time. We were both quite excited about our first visit to Hong Kong, but I must admit that the burden of my backpack was beginning to take its toll on my body. To complicate matters, I was now lugging around that wooden folk banjo I had purchased in Chiang Mai. Though the Lisu woman from whom I bought it had been kind enough to wrap in several layers of newspapers and tie it in a plastic bag, I was concerned about its safety in transport. I didn't dare check it at the counter - I barely trusted people with my unbreakable backpack, let alone a delicate instrument - but I was nearly forced to do just that by customs officials, who insisted that the banjo's length exceeded acceptable carry-on standards. Frustrated and impatient, I returned to the Cathay Pacific counter and begged them for a size limit waiver. They took mercy on me and placed a tag around the banjo, granting it safe conduct through customs, to the dismay of the officials who had earlier obstructed its passage. Our next challenge was immigration, usually a simple process, but today we were forced to face the peril of queuing behind a British family that hadn't filled out its departure forms ahead of time. If this had been any other flight, I probably wouldn't have been bothered by the delay, but Susanne and I were clearly ready to get the hell out of Bangkok. As much as we had enjoyed our trip overall, Bangkok just didn't really sit well with us.

We arrived inside the departure hall 45 minutes before boarding. Our gate wasn't officially open yet for some unknown reason, so a group of us stood outside its large glass doors, waiting for an airline representative to let us in. Once we were allowed inside the gate, time passed quickly, and before I knew it we were back in the air again - our ninth flight of the trip - and on our way to Hong Kong.

Once again we had the opportunity to view our progress on an in-flight map displayed on the monitor in front of us. As we crossed over Laos and Vietnam into the South China Sea I realized that this was the beginning of the end. Indeed, we had two full days in Hong Kong to which we could look forward, but our visit there would only be a glorified layover, a stop-gap measure stalling our inevitable return to America, to our homes and our jobs, to our usual routine. Usually I don't get nostalgic about our journeys until we're halfway across the ocean, but for some reason I felt as if the trip were truly over at this point. Perhaps Hong Kong's metropolitan urbanity would be a taste of home, an all-encompassing Chinatown of sorts. No matter what, though, I was truly glad to be away from Bangkok. As much as I like big cities, Bangkok did not work for me. It possessed all that is wrong with the West - smog, traffic, fast food, crime - and all the while seemed to have lost its connection with its history, its culture. Bangkok is indeed a city of the modern world; it's just a shame it's struggling to maintain a lifeline to its past.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, is a city of the modern world because it has no past. Once considered a worthless, desolate island, Hong Kong's earliest claim to fame was as refuge and hiding place for pirates of the South China Sea. The British arrived and claimed the empty landscape for themselves in 1841. In 1898, they signed a treaty with China that would allow them to lease the property until the end of June, 1997 - a term of 99 years. The popular press at the time lambasted the lease as a grievous error - who on earth would want to settle on a barren island, especially when you could enjoy colonial splendor of Shanghai or the exotic, royal atmosphere of Beijing?

Over time, the Hong Kong colony attracted more Europeans, but the city itself had yet to blossom. It took the communist takeover of China in 1947 to force Hong Kong through an awkward puberty into adulthood, as tens of thousands of Chinese citizens fled the mainland and took refuge there. Suddenly, the British found themselves with the last bastion of capitalism in China, and Hong Kong soon emerged as a commercial powerhouse.

Over the last 50 years, Hong Kong became one of the most successful cities in the world; and for the British its last (and most profitable) major colony in the Pacific Rim. But on July 1, 1997, less than six months prior to our visit, Prince Charles officially handed over the island and its surrounding properties to the People's Republic of China. Though many people feared a radical transformation in the city, the Chinese government was smart enough to recognize a cash cow when they saw one. For the next 50 years, Hong Kong will keep its special status as a unique province of China, with its liberal economic policies intact; in 2047, China will have the option to change the policies if they see fit (assuming there's even a communist government to make that change at that point). But for now, the People's Republic and the residents of Hong Kong chant the same mantra: One Nation, Two Systems. Only time will tell how well it will work.

The July 1 handover has taken its economic toll, though; worries over the future of Hong Kong has caused severe fluctuation in the Hang Seng stock market, not to mention fluctuation in the confidence of would-be tourists (in fact, one of the reasons we came to Asia this year was because of great flight bargains through Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific airline). But from everything that I had seen in the press, it sounded as if very little had actually changed in the daily life of Hong Kong. I would soon find out if there was any truth to this claim.

Our flight arrived on time, just before noon. As we descended through the clouds we were treated to a closeup view of the crowded apartment blocks of Kowloon, on the Hong Kong mainland across from Hong Kong Island. I had been told that when landing in Hong Kong you could practically see apartment residents looking at you at eye level; there was literally no exaggeration in this claim. One of the most population-dense cities in the world, Hong Kong has built up its living space wherever there was room, including the land surrounding the airport. A growing number of Hong Kong residents could afford building spacious homes on the side of Victoria Peak, but for the six million Hong Kongers who didn't have $50 million to spare for such breathing space, they have to make do with the cramped vertical highrises that are so prevalent in this city.

Having completed immigration and customs, Susanne and I boarded the A1 shuttle bus to downtown Kowloon. While Hong Kong island is the financial heart of the province, Kowloon is undoubtedly its soul. Everything from concert halls and luxurious hotels to strip clubs and tenements can be found all within a few blocks at the southern tip of Kowloon, an area known as Tsim Sha Tsui. The majority of visitors to Hong Kong stay in Tsim Sha Tsui along Nathan Road, its roaring traffic and neon lights a 24-hour-a-day affair. Susanne and I intended to stay at the Man Hing Lung Guesthouse, a family-run place on the 15th floor of Mirador Arcade. Mirador Arcade is the smaller (and undoubtedly less notorious) neighbor of Chungking Mansions, an monstrous conglomeration of several dozen guesthouses infamous for trash-littered hallways, terrible elevators, and occasional police raids for either illegal immigrants or prostitutes. Happily for us, Mirador Arcade enjoyed a much better reputation - better choice, better value, better safety. We made our reservations there a month in advance, not wanting to take any chances of being homeless upon our arrival. I was very curious to see what the Arcade would be like, especially after hearing numerous (and often hilarious) backpacker horror stories about Chungking Mansions.

Hong Kong street scene
Twenty minutes after leaving the airport we reached Nathan Road. Each side of the road was packed with double-decker buses, taxis, luxury automobiles and hundreds of people. As soon as we climbed out of the bus we were accosted by an Indian man who demanded we follow him to his guesthouse at Chungking Mansions - an obvious scam in search of just the right sucker. He continued to hound us even after I made clear we had reservations elsewhere, so eventually we shoved him aside and marched the half block north to the entrance of Mirador Arcade. Through the archway we found what appeared to be an indoor mall packed with junk souvenir vendors and money exchangers. To our right stood two elevators, one for even floors and the other for odd ones. We waited for the even elevator as a crowd gathered and crammed their way into the odd elevator. Politeness is not a trait common in the Hong Kong archetype; it was shove or be shoved as people pushed their way inside. After seven or eight of them had successfully made their way through the elevator door, the elevator let out a series of loud beeps; apparently its weight limit had been exceeded. The last man to get inside dutifully stepped out and allowed the elevator to proceed upward. At least we now knew how the game was played here.

Soon enough we charged our way into the even elevator with Machievellian precision; the weight of our backpacks alone probably prevented one full person from joining us for the ride up. We climbed out at the sixteenth floor and found ourselves in an open courtyard, with paths running ahead and to the left until they formed a square. The hallways were littered with open cans of paint and splattered drop clothes; dozens of clothes lines hung across the courtyard, one floor after another. As we walked towards our guesthouse I could see what appeared to be sewing shops through several open doorway. Taoist shrines with burning candles and incense stood beside two of the doors, leaving an odd blend of exotic perfumes and wet paint hanging in the humid air.

Inside the Man Hing Lung Guesthouse we were greeted by an older man who told us he had a room for us on the 15th floor, directly below, for HK$300 a night - about $39 in US currency. He insisted that we leave him with one night's deposit, so we secured our bags inside and accompanied his friendly wife to one of the moneychangers downstairs. I didn't feel great about using one of the local shysters for exchanging dollars, but the presence of the guesthouse manager's wife apparently caused the exchanger to give us a reasonable rate. Back upstairs, the older man brought us to our room: a cubicle of five by eight feet, plus a bathroom big enough for standing room only - sitting on the toilet, I'm sure, will be a challenge. The bed was a tad larger than a standard American single. Somehow, we would make due here for two nights. Otherwise, we could choose to spend hundreds of dollars more for a modicum of comfort. But the room was clean, the water was hot, so all things considered we didn't see the need to get uptight about it.

It was now a little past 1pm, so Susanne and I planned out a cursory itinerary for our stay. Tomorrow we would visit Hong Kong Island, walk around its neighborhoods, and ascend the top of Victoria Peak, which undoubtedly possesses one of the most famous city views in the world. Today, though, would be a day of colonial leisure, for we decided to kick things off with high tea at the Peninsula hotel.

I've always had a thing for grand hotels; in Hong Kong, the Peninsula is as grand as they come. Like the Raffles in Singapore, the Peninsula harkens back to a time when only the rich would travel - and would demand the comfort of traveling well. Even with the demise of British colonialism, the Peninsula has successfully maintained its historical ambiance and continues to attract the wealthy. Staying here would have set us back about $300 a night for starters; high tea, therefore, would have to satisfy our fix for elegance and pomposity.

While the culture of high tea isn't what it used to be (even in England) high tea at the Peninsula remains the hip thing to do during an afternoon in Tsim Sha Tsui. It's a quick five minute walk down Nathan Road from Mirador Arcade to the Peninsula; the difference between the two structures could not be more evident. At the Peninsula we are greeted by giant wooden nutcracker soldiers (Christmas starts early in Hong Kong) and a magnificent glass entrance. Inside we find a spacious room decorated in red oriental carpets, antique furniture, brass, marble, opulence. To the left and right dozens of visitors sit at small tables with classic three-tiered high tea sets filled with delicious snacks. A string quartet played Beethoven's Fifth on a balcony in the far left corner of the hall. No wonder the British never wanted to leave this place.

Tea time had just begun a few minutes earlier, so we were lucky enough to get a table without having to queue up, as subsequent guests had to do throughout our stay. A waiter quickly took our order of high tea, with Susanne having Earl Grey while I requested Darjeeling. As the waiter departed, Susanne and I looked around the hall, observing well-dressed guests come and go as Beethoven continued to fill the air. We then looked at each other and immediately burst out laughing - what the hell were we doing here? As much as the two of us revel in mocking the whole colonial globe trotting lifestyle, we both knew that we secretly coveted it. I certainly would never defend the imperialist exploitation perfected by the British empire, but I still admired the occasional elegance they left in their wake. Two years earlier in Luxor, Egypt, we decided to spend a night at the grand Winter Palace, Egypt's answer to the Peninsula. Having survived a nervous night at a Luxor pit-of-despair guesthouse, we rewarded ourselves with a night in comfort, a night where we could play Upper Crust. While none of our nights in Southeast Asia had been so terrifying as to compel us to throw away several hundred dollars for a stay at the Peninsula, we both knew that a relaxing afternoon of high tea would certainly help make up for some of the less desirable moments we had endured in 20 days of travel.

The waiter soon returned with our layered tray of snacks and our teas. It was a nice selection of food, including bite-size salmon sandwiches, pink frosted cakes, shortbreads and chocolates. The tea was good and strong - strong enough for repeated fresh dousings of hot water. As tempting as it was to waste away the entire afternoon here, we knew time was precious in Hong Kong, so eventually we left the splendour of the Peninsula and made our way towards the waterfront for a leisurely stroll.

Down the road from the Peninsula we reached the Star Ferry Terminal, the main crossing point to Hong Kong island for seafaring commuters. The terminal itself blocked much of the view of the island, so we proceeded left beyond the old colonial clock tower to a long paved boardwalk. From here we enjoyed our first view of the new Hong Kong, its scores of magnificent skyscrapers darting upwards just below the cloud enshrouded summit of Victoria Peak. Easily as glorious as Manhattan's skyline, Hong Kong's possesses the added bonus of Victoria Peak and its surrounding foothills. And all of this, built in the last 50 years - I was truly amazed at the capacity for humanity to construct such a testament to the modern world. Hong Kong is indeed a city for the 21st century; even one glance of its infinite skyline would confirm this for skeptic and believer alike.

There were surprisingly few westerners on the boardwalk that afternoon; perhaps the black-as-night storm clouds hovering over Victoria Peak had steered them away today. Along the water we spotted numerous people fishing with a simple rod and string, sometimes alone, sometimes as a family. A large wedding party crowded around a plaza as professional photographers captured the happy bride and groom, with the Hong Kong cityscape as their backdrop. Two old men play a game of backgammon inside a stone stairwell, both guzzling large bottles of lager. For such a massive, crowded city Hong Kong at least had the waterfront to offer its people peace of mind.

The storm over Hong Kong island grew steadily. The city had been blessed with near perfect weather for two months; as luck would have it, showers were forecast for the entire week. But the impending rains did little to dampen our enthusiasm for Hong Kong; we had both waited a long time to visit this city, rain or shine. All we could do was cross our fingers and hope for the best.

A junk manouvers stormy Hong Kong waters

We stood awhile along the boardwalk, observing a traditional Chinese junk amble to the island and back, its sturdy red sails giving it an almost plastic appearance. The afternoon was getting late, so we decided to find the nearest hotel and use their phones to call my friend Susie. Susie and I had gone to school together, from first grade through high school graduation. Not unlike myself, Susie had been possessed by the travel bug and had spent much of college in Paris, where I last saw her in 1991. It was only appropriate that the two of us reunite in Hong Kong, so far away from home. I wasn't totally sure if she was even in Hong Kong, though; last I had heard from her family she was planning to visit Thailand. And since we hadn't the good fortune to bump in to each other somewhere in Southeast Asia, it would take a phone call to verify her whereabouts.

We entered the Regent, one of the many large hotels along the waterfront, and went in search of a payphone. After an extended period of wandering, we found a row of phones but soon discovered we lacked the right combination of coins to make a call. I headed down the hallway into a bar and asked the bartender if he had change for 20 Hong Kong dollars. He gave me a handful of one- and two-dollar coins, but then inquired, "Do you need to use the phone?" When I said yes, he pulled a cellular phone out of his jacket pocket and handed it to me, asking, "it's a local call, right?" I smiled back and nodded, taking the phone to a comfortable stool by the bar.

As luck would have it, Susie was indeed in Hong Kong, and we agreed to meet for dinner at 7pm in front of Chungking Mansions. This gave us ample time to stop at a cybercafe to check email, get back to the guesthouse, shower, and relax for a bit before going out for a night on the town. Susie suggested that we head to the island for dinner with her boyfriend Ian and a friend. I guess we'd be visiting the heart of Hong Kong tonight after all.

Right on schedule, we found Susie in front of the Mansions at 7pm. She looked pretty much the same as she always had; some things never change, I guess. Susie suggested we take the Star Ferry to Wanchai, where we would meet Ian and his friend at a bar and then find a place to get some good Chinese food. Since Hong Kong is largely populated by Cantonese Chinese, I suggested we go for Cantonese cuisine. Susie grimaced and recommended otherwise; Cantonese, she said, was probably too oily for our Western palates, even if we were in an adventuresome mood. Instead she suggested the Peking American restaurant, which despite its name was actually Pekinese and Szechuan style, with no Americanized dishes to be found. It sounded great to us.

For less than three Hong Kong dollars each we boarded the ferry to Wanchai. Each ferry comfortably sat several hundred passengers, though this particular boat had plenty of seats available. The ferry slowly pitched and rolled with the currents as we made the short ten minute journey to the island. The sun had set and the island was illuminated with the glow of neon billboards and architectural backlighting, much of it reflecting and diffracting on the churning waters ahead of us. The skyline drew nearer as Susie and I caught up on each other's whereabouts for the last several years. Susie and Susanne, not surprisingly, got along well, though I always feel bad whenever I conduct a reminiscence marathon with someone from my past while someone from my present must endure it.

Hong Kong Harbor at night

After disembarking the ferry, we started our walk by climbing atop a long cement skyway that linked up numerous buildings several stories above the ground. Susie pointed out with considerable disdain the central immigration office, which had recently denied her an extended visa and was forcing her to return to the US by Christmas. We soon reached Wanchai, a colorful neighborhood known for its trendy nightlife as well as its pricey red light district. We arrived at BB's, a popular expat bar filled with Brits and Australians drinking expensive imported beer. We hung out and enjoyed the scene until Michael arrived first. Michael was a half-Cantonese, half-Italian Australian who specialized in supermodel photography (I swear I'm not making this up). He had just returned from a successful photo shoot in the Philippines. Ian was running a little late, but he eventually caught up with us around 8:30. Ian, a Hong Kong Cantonese, moved to South Australia as a child and had since become an Australian citizen. Both his and Michael's Cantonese heritage made it much easier for them to stay in Hong Kong for extended periods. If you're not Chinese, you need to demonstrate that you have an essential work skill not easily found among the permanent Chinese population. Susie, unfortunately, had been working as a software trainer, and over time, that particular skill had become more common among the locals. Thus, Ian and Michael could stay, while Susie eventually had to go.

After a couple of beers our stomachs started to rumble so we walked a few blocks to the Peking American restaurant. Its one dining hall was already quite crowded with an even mix of Asians and Westerners. Somehow, though, we managed a large round table without reservations. As we settled in with some tea and a couple of large bottles of beer, Ian asked us what we'd like to eat. Having no idea what the house specialties would be, we strongly suggested that he play it by ear and order for us. He spoke to the waiter in Cantonese, which only added to the suspense, but he promised us that we didn't have to worry about getting platters full of Crispy Serpent Head or Fried Lard with Blood (again, I'm not making these things up). Apparently on previous occasions Susie had eaten with Ian's family, who delighted in ordering Cantonese favorites that would turn even the strongest American stomach inside out. Since then, Susie has forced Ian to promise not to subject her or her friends to such stressful culinary abuse again.

The first course to arrive was the soup, a basic hot and sour that our tastebuds recognized as both familiar and safe. The rest of the meal arrived as a series of individual courses - not in any particular order, just in terms of what came out of the kitchen next. There were no western illusions of serving every entree simultaneously; as is true in other parts of Asia, Hong Kongers eat family style, so each entree should offer a little something for everyone at the table no matter what time it arrives.

The first entree was a bit of a stumper for us: a plate of large lettuce leaves, a dish of some dark, ground up meal that was generally unidentifiable, and a bowl of dark liquid that appeared to be hoisin sauce. I was right with the hoisin sauce and the lettuce leaves were a no brainer, but the main plate was a mystery to me. Ian explained we were about to eat ground pigeon mixed with peanuts, soy sauce and garlic paste. The proper method of eating was scooping a couple of pigeon/peanut spoonfuls into the center of a piece of lettuce, drizzling it with hoisin sauce, and finally folding it like a tortilla wrap for eating. Susanne and I were shocked at how much we liked it. There wasn't a discernible meaty taste to it (let alone a pigeon taste) and the peanuts gave each bite a delightful crunch. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the dish was the combination of hot food and cold lettuce - the Chinese figured this out probably centuries before McDonalds came up with the hot and cold McBLT.

The waiter soon brought out the other dishes, which included a chicken and pepper stir fry, a marvelous platter of seared scallops, each the size of silver dollars, and a plate of what appeared to be slivers of beef jerky. The jerky was actually fine, fried strips of dried meat in a caramelized sauce. Accompanying the strips was a generous pile of palm-sized bread pockets. Ian demonstrated the proper method of stuffing the beef strips into the pocket and eating like a jerky sandwich. The meat itself was delicious but I thought the combination of fried beef and bread was too dry for my taste, so I improvised by stirring dollops of hoisin and seared scallop sauce in order to give it some moisture.

The five of us stuffed ourselves to the breaking point. Susanne and I both thoroughly enjoyed the meal and we commended Ian on his varied selection. It was just after 11pm and I couldn't decide if I was feeling tired yet, but Ian and Susie suggested we get ourselves some cans of shandy and head out to the waterfront. This sounded like a great idea to me, but I naively asked, "Is it ok to have open containers in public?" Our hosts laughed. "Where do you think you are, America?" Ian joked. "I guess not," I replied rather meekly. Hong Kong certainly had its restrictions, but drinking on public property apparently wasn't one of them.

We stopped at a local convenient store and purchased several bottles of shandy. A large basset hound barked at a small group of Chinese who were standing outside having a drink. I thought it was rather strange to see a basset hound in the context of downtown Hong Kong, but I suppose it's a little silly to think that America has a monopoly on stumpy old dogs.

It was a ten minute walk back to the waterfront. A continuous glow of neon helped guide along the road as we passed one skyscraper after another. Even at night, Hong Kong was an intimidating metropolis, but I felt quite at home nonetheless. Susanne too seemed to be in awe just as much as I was; I could tell she was thinking this would be a great place to live for a while.

We reached the Wanchai waterfront and walked around the outer edge of the Hong Kong Exhibition Center, which hosted the official handover ceremony this past summer. I immediately flashed back to the changing of the flags, the lowering of the Union Jack one last time. But Hong Kong had moved on since then: the exhibition center was again just another convention center, its waterfront just another gathering place for a few friends to have a late night drink. We made ourselves comfortable along a metal railing, enjoying a splendid view of two of the island's most famous buildings, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building and Jardine House. The conversation quickly turned to politics as we talked about the fate of Hong Kong as a Chinese province. It was interesting to get the Australian perspective of US-China relations; Ian's friend felt rather strongly that if the US was willing to choose Chinese engagement over containment, it was hypocritical for us to try to contain other countries such as Cuba or even Iran. I didn't necessarily disagree with him in that regard but nevertheless played devil's advocate for the sake of argument.

Midnight had now come and gone, and the last ferry had departed for Kowloon. We'd have to take the subway back to Tsim Sha Tsui. We made the short walk to the subway entrance and descended underground. While the subway was a much faster ride than the ferry, it certainly lacked the ambiance of shuttling across the water, the view of the Hong Kong skyline behind us. We departed Susie and Ian's company at Tsim Sha Tsui station. I'm really glad we had the chance to see each other, even if just for the evening. As we left, I said to her, "Well, I doubt I'll see you in Florida any time soon. Maybe in London or something." "Who knows," she smiled.

Back at Mirador Arcade, we returned to our lilliputian abode at the guesthouse. The low roar of street noise fifteen floors below lulled me to sleep.