Highlights of Hong Kong Essay

Highlights of Hong Kong

In Chinese mythology, every hill contains a dragon. If that is so,
the biggest dragon in Hong Kong resides at Victoria Peak. Victoria is
the tallest in a serpentine range of hills that holds Hong Kong firmly
at bay. With nowhere else to go, the most frenetic city on earth has
grown straight up, until its crushing mass threatens to capsize the
whole island and slide into the harbor. The city has also leaped over
the harbor and spread its obsession for neon and concrete across the
hills of the Kowloon Peninsula.

By day, the view from the 1,300-foot summit of Victoria Peak is
like a steamy vision. People come here not just for the view, but also
to escape the oppressive heat under which the city simmers for half the
year. They come up on the Peak tram. This Sino-British version of The
Little Engine That Could was installed in 1888 and has been giving
anxious passengers a precarious lift ever since. On the way up, it sets
a record for the steepest passenger ascent in the world.

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The Peak tower echoes the theme that runs rampant in the city below
–shops, shops and more shops. Only here, due to the altitude perhaps,
the prices seem a little steeper.

Hong Kong is the bargain basement of the world, and news of the
imminent Chinese takeover in 1977 seems to have spurred a new shopping
boom. People from abroad are rushing over to cash in on what could be
the greatest going-out-of-business sale ever. The Japanese, the
Americans and the Australians are leading the pack. The average American
spends $5,000 H.K. (about $700 U.S.) here during a three-day stay–but
he is not Hong Kong’s biggest spender. That honor goes to the
Australians. It’s not that they have more money; they simply
refuse to bargain, and that’s bad news for you billfold in a city
where a little horse trading can mean a 10 to a 50 percent discount.

Almost every new gadget in the world makes its debut in Hong Kong,
and some ignite insatiable desire among tourists until they are finally
bought and bagged. The siren to one recent group was a small,
computerized typewriter called the Typestar 5. One whiff that this
little gem was available at unheard-of prices and the whole herd was off
and running.

First stop–a little electronics shop in Kowloon’s New World
Center. “We’re temporarily out,’ said the Chinese
proprietors, “but we can get more.’ While some sweated it out
hoping that Hong Kong’s supply-on-demand ethic would prevail (their
plane was scheduled to depart in two days), the others marched off
through the sweltering heat of the jam-packed streets in search of an
even better bargain. When the dust finally cleared, the score stood four
proud new owners to zero, all with their noses buried in instruction
manuals during the long flight home. The average price –$130 each. In
the States, the same machines sell for $190 to more than $400, case not
included. Eat your heart out–I did. I didn’t get one.

Both Kowloon and Hong Kong are bursting with bargains, so the first
trick new Hong Kong shoppers must learn is how to negotiate the harbor.
One option is to take the no-frills tunnel that runs straight underneath
the harbor and costs about $10 H.K. extra in cab fare. Another, more
popular, is the Star Ferry, a quasiromantic but practical flotilla of
green double-decker boats made famous by Suzie Wong. One simply inserts
70^ H.K. into the turnstile and follows the mob. The ferries depart
every 15 minutes and disgorge passengers in quantum bursts at docks in
Hong Kong Central and at Tsimshatsui, Kowloon’s shopping paradise
on the opposite side.

All this harbor-leaping can cause confusion, and a major problem is
remembering just what side you are on when it’s time to return to
the hotel.

Another chronic phenomenon among tourists is chopsticks cramp –a
painful, but fortunately temporary paralysis of the thumb caused by an
overzealous attempt to eat as the Chinese do. It never fails to strike
when you are at your hungriest, such as when seated for lunch at
Aberdeen’s jumbo floating restaurant, one of Hong Kong’s fleet
of rococo dining palaces–so large they can float meals for 2,000
customers at a haul. That’s 4,000 competing chopsticks, and
because the food is served family style, wielding them becomes a highly
precarious feat, accompanied by much reaching, grabbing and gnashing of
teeth. The best strategy is to take the offensive and ignore the looks
you get when the parcel you’ve just laid claim to suddenly flies
into your neighbor’s almond soup.

Aberdeen lies on the quieter side of Hong Kong island. Most of its
residents live right on the water–20,000 of Hong Kong’s 70,000
boat people live, eat, sleep and watch television here on sampans that
come in three basic sizes: small, medium and large.

Life on the sampans seems a world away from the luxury hotels at
Tsimshatsui, but both worlds have one thing in common–the struggle for
Lebensraum. With tourist travel at high tide, hotels can invest
millions here and get their money back within three years. The result
has been an expensive game of high-rise one-up-manship. For example,
the venerable Peninsula Hotel, built in 1928, once the pinnacle of
perfection on Kowloon Peninsula, has been leapfrogged by a modern hotel
of a different breed. Lacking a suitable building site, the Regent
pressend right onto the harbor and made its own, thus capturing for its
guests the panoramic view of Hong Kong Central in all its splendor. A
respected travel guide recently gave the Peninsula a perfect rating of 5
stars and then stretched the limits to give the Regent 5 1/2.

Every day the Regent dispatches a fleet of charcoal Daimlers to the
airport to retrieve fresh batches of guests who’ve had to book as
far as half a year in advance. Service is so quick here that a touch of
the wrong switch by your bed brings a service genie tapping on your door
before you can cancel the mistake.

The Regent shares its precious beachhead with the huge
spheroidshaped Space Museum that appears to have dropped in uninvited from someplace with no architectural taste. The hotel has one other
strange bedfellow, too, which remains graciously invisible. It’s a
dragon. The dragon doesn’t live at the hotel, but it does pass
through to take its bath in the harbor–or so say Hong Kong’s
geomancers. The geomancers are like lobbyists for Chinese dragons and
other spirits, and they know what can get them riled. Building a hotel
here might have been bad fung shui, as they call it. Fortunately,
dragons, like everyone else in Hong Kong, are willing to bargain. Thus,
the hotel installed huge floor-to-ceiling plateglass windows that allow
the dragons to pass through readily.

“Smart’ contractors in Hong Kong always seek the advice
of Chinese geomancers, who seem to know all the right moves for
attracting the good spirits and avoiding the bad.

After thousands of years, pantheism is still in vogue here, and as
one guidebook puts it, the pervading religion is superstition. In the
last auction of lucky license plates, for example, the number
“6′ (for longevity) went for $336,000 H.K.

Hong Kong’s greatest fortunes are based on luck and the
biggest traders in Hong Kong futures are fortunetellers. They’re
everywhere, but seem to be concentrated most heavily near temples such
as Kowloon’s Wong Tai Sin. Although Wong Tai Sin temple was built
in 1973, it looks ancient. It is completely surrounded by modern
high-rise apartments themselves camouflaged by thousands of washings
hanging out to dry. (Every day seems to be washday in Hong Kong.)
Before climbing the steps to the temple, visitors must run a gauntlet of
hawkers’ stalls, resplendent in yellows, golds and reds of joss
sticks, prayer papers and offerings of apples, oranges, barbecued
chickens and wine and oil in gold-foiled bottles.

Near the temple steps, a lively group of worshipers creates a
hullabaloo around a long table, lighting joss sticks and tossing
colorful prayer papers into flaming containers. Others kneel at the
altar amid mouth-watering spreads of offerings.

Forget the fortune cookies–they don’t have them in Hong Kong.
You learn your fortune here by the stick method. The procedure: Take
one wooden cup called a chim. Get down on your knees. Shake well.
Note the number of the first stick to fall out. Take that number to a
fellow down the walk and buy the corresponding pink slip for 50^ H.K.
Then head for fortunetellers’ alley to the stall with a placard
that reads: Buddhist Laity of Mr. Omi, Physiognomist. For $5 H.K. Mr.
Omi, who looks like an aging professor of physics, will decipher the
slip. For considerably more (if you’ve got 45 minutes to spare),
he’ll perform a full palm and facial. This can be very
enlightening. I learned, for example, that I will marry at 28.
Unfortunately–or perhaps not–I’m 37 and still a bachelor. If a
fortune looks really bad, Omi may sentence you to return to the temple
to burn a few joss sticks–so hope for a good one.

Obviously, Taoist temples are no place to find peace of mind.
Points of relaxation in Hong Kong are as rare as a hair on a Buddhist
monk’s head.

The closest thing might be to take dinner a la Chinese on a sampan
in the Causeway Bay Typhoon Harbor. Sampan dining is the Hong Kong
equivalent of the backyard barbecue. For best results, take a taxi to
the harbor and duck down while a Chinese bargains for your boat. Climb
aboard and take a very, very deep breath and hold it as long as you can
while you slip past the opening to the Hong Kong sewer. Farther out,
hook up with Hon Kee’s restaurant boat. Hon Kee is the most famous
of Hong Kong’s water-top restaurateurs. Working before a row of
gigantic works that seems to be fired by army-surplus flamethrowers, he
directs his meals with the inspiration of a symphony conductor. The
works sizzle and steam and give off a pungent smell of sesame, oyster
sauce and garlic that soon revives your nose from the hazing it received
earlier. Heaping platters of crab, shrimp, mussels, clams, succulent
Chinese chives and broccoli arrive at the table carried by young girls,
“boathops’ who later present the tab. Give a yell, and a
grocery sampan stops by to deliver deer.

After the meal has run its last course and the paper-covered table
is heaped with refuse and shells, you’ll cast off and tie up to an
entertainment sampan where a stone-faced, three-woman orchestra, armed
with flutes, bells, drums and unfamiliar stringed instruments, knocks
off barely intelligible renditions of Western tunes you select yourself
from a song menu.

As the sampan gently rocks, your thumb slowly regains its feeling.
Your jet lag is abated. You fall into a reverie. The lights of the
towering buildings onshore suddenly seem protective, even friendly.
You’ve fallen in love with a city. Hong Kong, for the moment at
least, is a great, glowing neon dream come true.

Photo: An image of Hong Kong comes to light in the glowing neon of
the central city at dusk, the joss sticks ignited by worshipers at
Kowloon’s Wong Tai Sin Temple and the faces of brightly dressed

Photo: Junks and the Star Ferry go about their business in busy
Hong Kong Harbor while sampans glut the bay around the coast of

Photo: It’s only a short sampan ride to the gigantic floating
restaurants of Aberdeen, where thousands at a time pursue Hong
Kong’s most lively pastime–eating.


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