Monday, November 26, 2007

Hong Kong, Day One

I got up early Sunday morning for my two-day trip to Hong Kong. While the process of getting there from the campus is relatively easy, it takes long enough — a one-hour bus ride to Zhuhai city, a short hop by cab to the port, then an hour-and-a-half ferry — that anything other than an early start would seriously cut into my time there.

Two ferries go from Zhuhai to Hong Kong; one arrives at Hong Kong Island, on the south side of Victoria Harbour, and the other at Kowloon, on the north. I'd planned to take the latter, since the terminal is just a short walk from where I'd booked a room. But when I got to the port in Zhuhai I was told the boat to Hong Kong Island would be leaving in a few minutes, so I decided to take that one instead of waiting another hour to go to Kowloon. I'm glad I did: I hadn't planned to spend any time on the island, which is modern and westernized (at least in the area near the harbor) compared to the more Chinese-feeling districts of Kowloon, but I enjoyed wandering around Soho, a neighborhood in the Central district (south of HOllywood Road) that I remembered from my previous visit ten years ago.

A short walk from Queen's Road Central (a major east-west thoroughfare) leads to the pedestrian escalator (in Cantonese dihn tai, or electric ladder) that carries foot traffic up the steep hills to the Mid-Levels.

The nearby streets are filled with Western restaurants of all varieties (including this Krispy Kreeme doughnut shop). Although the options — from pizza to tacos — seemed alluring, I figured that since I'd be home in about a week (and since it wasn't quite lunchtime), I'd hold out a bit longer before indulging myself in comfort food.

The escalator passes by the Graham Street Market. Although the requisite array of produce and unrefrigerated meat and fish were on display, it seemed a bit tame after the freewheeling markets on the Mainland. Maybe it was the occasional English-language signage or the hilly bisecting streets, but it seemed more like shopping on Stockton Street in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Since there's no Thanksgiving here to give them the official go-ahead, the shopping malls were just now getting around to putting up their Christmas decorations.

Landing on Hong Kong Island gave me another opportunity to take the Star Ferry to Kowloon.

The view across the harbor to Hong Kong Island remained magnificent.

I'd originally thought of booking a room in the Chungking Mansions — the grungy cluster of guesthouses depicted in Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express — but I chickened out and booked a room at a nearby place that was slightly more respectable and nearly as cheap, just a few blocks off Nathan Road, Kowloon's main north-south drag.

The room was spartan and as small as any I've ever stayed in — even standing outside the doorway, I couldn't get far enough away to shoot the entire room — but it was spotless and comfortable. The price was certainly right, just HK$300 (about US$38).

I decided to get some background for my exploration of the city by beginning at the Hong Kong Museum of History, which is larger, newer (it opened in 2001) and more elaborate than its counterpart I'd visited in Macau.

After a couple of hours at the museum, I walked north towards the Mongkok district. It don't know if it was a Sunday-only thing, but a number of large east-west roads were closed to auto traffic, and pedestrians were taking full advantage of having the street to themselves.

The last time I was here, I regretted not making it to the famous bird garden . . .

. . . where (mostly elderly) men take their feathered pets out for a walk and while the time away chatting (presumably about avian topics)..

Adjacent to the bird garden is Flower Market road, where locals come to buy — surprise — cut flowers.

A park near the bird garden has public ping pong tables.

It looks as though the ballet and foot boxing may be taught in the same facility.

By this time it was getting near dusk, so decided to walk back to Nathan Road and head south to the Temple Street Market, the city's most famous night market. I figured I wouldn't buy anything — the Mainland prices make even Hong Kong's best bargains seem wildly overpriced, and most of the clothes for sale weren't anything I'd be seen wearing anyway — but I knew I'd enjoy the lively scene.

I'd read there were some shops on Temple Street selling bootleg DVDs, but I figured the prices would be so much higher than on the Mainland that I wouldn't do more than browse. The pre-bargaining prices were indeed about twice those in Zhuhai — just over US$3 each — but nonetheless I bought a few music DVDs, including the new release of Bob Dylan's early appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, as well as some nicely packaged sets that crammed the entire oeuvres of Wim Wenders, Antonioni, and Ki-Duk Kim onto three discs apiece (now I can catch up on the early works that I'd missed in the Film Center's Antonioni series earlier this year).

The outdoor dining scene was tempting, but rather than join the diners here, I decided to vary my usual fare. If I was going to pay Western prices, I felt, I may as well have some Western food. Actually, I didn't venture all that far west: I opted for a mutton curry at a Pakistani restaurant not far from Temple Street.

A large reason I'd wanted to return to the city after the brief day trip I made with C***o and R***i a few weeks ago was to bask in the visual splendor of Hong Kong at night, especially the dazzling neon signage.

Although the increasing commercialization of the Mainland is producing similar scenes, especially in the largest cities, there's still nothing quite like that to be found in Hong Kong.

Some of the swank retailers on Nathan Road are decked out for the holidays.

I topped off the evening with my absolute favorite thing about Hong Kong: the nighttime view of Central and Wan Chai from the promenade along Victoria Harbour. My piddly little Kodak point-and-shoot can barely suggest the magnificence of this vista, which I strongly feel to be one of the absolute glories of modern civilization. I was tempted to purchase a postcard of the view and take a photo of that for posting; but since it's probably one of the world's most-photographed scenes — a guess borne out by the dozens of shutterbugs I saw with tripods and decent equipment along the promenade — I'll have no trouble locating an image any time I want to remember it.

Heading back to my guesthouse, by this time — nearly 11 — I was pretty well exhausted from my day's ramblings. But even at this late hour — and on a Sunday, no less — I was amazed at the number of shops that were still open: not just tourist traps and convenience stores, but clothing boutiques and other retailers.


dejanews said...

I'm confused. Isn't HK supposed to be one of the more expensive cities in the world? If so, how could one snag a decent (if small) room for $38 US a night? A similar room in Manhattan would run at least $125 and probably not be nearly so clean. Am I mistaken about the cost of living in HK? If so, I'm calling my travel agent tomorrow. --VW

Gordon in China said...

I\'m guessing that HK, like most European cities, has a tradition of affordable but spartan hotel rooms catering to relatively intrepid (or undemanding) travelers. This one wasn\'t hard to land: I booked it about a week before arriving, and I have a feeling that rooms would have been available to walk-ins. And the area is full of other such guest houses, some of which (like the notorious Chugking Mansions) charge as little as half what I paid.

Living there\'s another matter: My guidebook(Lonely Planet) says a one-BR apartment in the Mid-Levels will run around HK$10,000 (US$1,284), and rents on Kowloon are a bit less. That\'s not cheap, but strikes me as about as affordable as NYC or SF, if not moreso.