Three hours after leaving the rain in Shanghai, our Dragonair flight landed in the newish airport in Hong Kong. The new airport is outside of the city so there was no white knuckled landing in between sky scrapers. In less than 30 minutes we were on a high speed train heading to our hotel in Kowloon. From my childhood movie notion of Hong Kong, I expected a skyscraper lined harbour filled with Junks, mansions on top of the hill and James Bond in kung fu battles with pony tailed Chinese agents in dark alleys.
The skyscraper lined harbour was there. But there were no junks, spies or hollywood stereotypes of Chinese villains. Instead, there were bankers, office workers and tourists. The areas closest to the water on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were unremarkable with their modern office towers and shopping centres. Once you left the level ground and headed up the escalators and down the narrow alleys, you could see the real Hong Kong. Every alley had a market every flat space a stall or a store. The city was dense, compact and diverse. In a 30 minute walk, we passed modern financial buildings, roast duck restaurants, Anglican churches, old high rise apartment buildings, smoky buddhist temples, mosques, Chinese apothecaries and a Marks & Spencer. The people were diverse as well. Asian, Caucasian and South Asian office workers and professionals, tourists and Rugby Players in town for a tournament. The streets had English, Scottish and Chinese names with improbable intersections like Pok Fu Lam and Bonham street. To a Vancouverite, this is not unusual, however, Hong Kong has had been a meeting place of European and Asian cultures for over a century.
Everyone seemed to be very busy and they had no time for indecisive tourists. In one market a fruit seller yelled “fack you” at me after I decided not to buy his mangos. Eliot thought that this was hilarious and wanted to leave me with him for a week to cure my indecisiveness. In reality, this vendor was the exception. Most of the locals we met were polite but purely interested in business. They were not as curious or friendly as the people we met in Xian and Beiing. There were exceptions including a very friendly tourist office employee with family in Vancouver.
On the Kowloon side we went to Mong Kok with its street level markets and vertical food courts (one building had 16 restaurants on separate floors). The neighbourhood was something out of blade runners- tall modern mixed in with grit and decrepitude. Satellite antennas, LED advertising boards mixed in with panties and other laundry hanging from tiny balconies. From the posters there was a vibrant cultural scene with LGBT movies and Symphony concerts. We also saw a Falun Gun protest and counter protest,
For most of our visit we walked, gawked and shopped. Hong Kong is a tax free city. I have never seen so many Rolex shops. We were able to buy Birkenstocks for our trip to India at a price that was far below the price in Canada (or Germany). For lunch one day, I bought samosas from pakistani vendors in a mall catering to South Asians
One of our best experiences was to have Dim Sum in an old school restaurant on Hong Kong island. The place was packed at 11 am. The woman with the cart full of steaming dishes was mobbed when she got out of the kitchen and I quickly learned that you had to get into the fray if you were going to eat. The food was top notch. I was not always sure of what I ate although I am sure it was not kosher. Despite the cutthroat completion for Sumai the customers were very friendly with each other at the tables. People from different tables were joking with each other and one woman brought almond cookies for the people at our table and forced a lady to take them. There was this great familiarity that reminded me of some of the delis in Montreal. Our table mates were from Hong Kong and the mainland. They welcomed us warmly and explained that Dim Sum was for friends. They emphasized that Hong Kong is different from China that it was a truly international city.
Despite our short time in Hong Kong I would tend to agree that the place felt very different from the cities we visited in China. There were a few remaining signs of British rule including old double decker trams, Star Ferries and the Peninsula Hotel. There were places named after British traders such as Jardines which had an aura of prestige despite the fact that many of these traders made their fortunes dealing in Opium – the one western product that the Chinese wanted in the 19th century. Later on, I would read a series of novels by Amitav Ghosh about the British opium trade and its effects on Northern India where it was produced and China where it was consumed. However, at the time my impression was that this was an amazing place a meeting of european and Chinese cultures. Eliot and I were sad to leave Hong Kong and both agreed that this was a city worth visiting again.