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 isthe tallest in a serpentine range of hills that holds Hong Kong firmlyat bay. With nowhere else to go, the most frenetic city on earth hasgrown straight up, until its crushing mass threatens to capsize thewhole island and slide into the harbor. The city has also leaped overthe harbor and spread its obsession for neon and concrete across thehills of the Kowloon Peninsula.
By day, the view from the 1,300-foot summit of Victoria Peak islike a steamy vision. People come here not just for the view, but alsoto escape the oppressive heat under which the city simmers for half theyear. They come up on the Peak tram. This Sino-British version of TheLittle Engine That Could was installed in 1888 and has been givinganxious passengers a precarious lift ever since. On the way up, it setsa record for the steepest passenger ascent in the world. 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 theimminent Chinese takeover in 1977 seems to have spurred a new shoppingboom. People from abroad are rushing over to cash in on what could bethe greatest going-out-of-business sale ever. The Japanese, theAmericans and the Australians are leading the pack. The average Americanspends $5,000 H.
K. (about $700 U.S.
) here during a three-day stay–buthe is not Hong Kong’s biggest spender. That honor goes to theAustralians. It’s not that they have more money; they simplyrefuse to bargain, and that’s bad news for you billfold in a citywhere 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 finallybought and bagged. The siren to one recent group was a small,computerized typewriter called the Typestar 5.
One whiff that thislittle gem was available at unheard-of prices and the whole herd was offand running. First stop–a little electronics shop in Kowloon’s New WorldCenter. “We’re temporarily out,’ said the Chineseproprietors, “but we can get more.’ While some sweated it outhoping that Hong Kong’s supply-on-demand ethic would prevail (theirplane was scheduled to depart in two days), the others marched offthrough the sweltering heat of the jam-packed streets in search of aneven better bargain. When the dust finally cleared, the score stood fourproud new owners to zero, all with their noses buried in instructionmanuals during the long flight home. The average price –$130 each.
Inthe States, the same machines sell for $190 to more than $400, case notincluded. Eat your heart out–I did. I didn’t get one. Both Kowloon and Hong Kong are bursting with bargains, so the firsttrick new Hong Kong shoppers must learn is how to negotiate the harbor.
One option is to take the no-frills tunnel that runs straight underneaththe harbor and costs about $10 H.K. extra in cab fare. Another, morepopular, is the Star Ferry, a quasiromantic but practical flotilla ofgreen double-decker boats made famous by Suzie Wong.
One simply inserts70^ H.K. into the turnstile and follows the mob. The ferries departevery 15 minutes and disgorge passengers in quantum bursts at docks inHong Kong Central and at Tsimshatsui, Kowloon’s shopping paradiseon the opposite side. All this harbor-leaping can cause confusion, and a major problem isremembering just what side you are on when it’s time to return tothe hotel.
Another chronic phenomenon among tourists is chopsticks cramp –apainful, but fortunately temporary paralysis of the thumb caused by anoverzealous attempt to eat as the Chinese do. It never fails to strikewhen you are at your hungriest, such as when seated for lunch atAberdeen’s jumbo floating restaurant, one of Hong Kong’s fleetof rococo dining palaces–so large they can float meals for 2,000customers at a haul. That’s 4,000 competing chopsticks, andbecause the food is served family style, wielding them becomes a highlyprecarious feat, accompanied by much reaching, grabbing and gnashing ofteeth.
The best strategy is to take the offensive and ignore the looksyou get when the parcel you’ve just laid claim to suddenly fliesinto your neighbor’s almond soup. Aberdeen lies on the quieter side of Hong Kong island. Most of itsresidents live right on the water–20,000 of Hong Kong’s 70,000boat people live, eat, sleep and watch television here on sampans thatcome in three basic sizes: small, medium and large. Life on the sampans seems a world away from the luxury hotels atTsimshatsui, but both worlds have one thing in common–the struggle forLebensraum. With tourist travel at high tide, hotels can investmillions here and get their money back within three years. The resulthas been an expensive game of high-rise one-up-manship.
For example,the venerable Peninsula Hotel, built in 1928, once the pinnacle ofperfection on Kowloon Peninsula, has been leapfrogged by a modern hotelof a different breed. Lacking a suitable building site, the Regentpressend right onto the harbor and made its own, thus capturing for itsguests the panoramic view of Hong Kong Central in all its splendor. Arespected travel guide recently gave the Peninsula a perfect rating of 5stars and then stretched the limits to give the Regent 5 1/2. Every day the Regent dispatches a fleet of charcoal Daimlers to theairport to retrieve fresh batches of guests who’ve had to book asfar as half a year in advance.
Service is so quick here that a touch ofthe wrong switch by your bed brings a service genie tapping on your doorbefore you can cancel the mistake. The Regent shares its precious beachhead with the hugespheroidshaped Space Museum that appears to have dropped in uninvited from someplace with no architectural taste. The hotel has one otherstrange bedfellow, too, which remains graciously invisible. It’s adragon. The dragon doesn’t live at the hotel, but it does passthrough to take its bath in the harbor–or so say Hong Kong’sgeomancers. The geomancers are like lobbyists for Chinese dragons andother spirits, and they know what can get them riled.
Building a hotelhere 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 allowthe dragons to pass through readily. “Smart’ contractors in Hong Kong always seek the adviceof Chinese geomancers, who seem to know all the right moves forattracting the good spirits and avoiding the bad.
After thousands of years, pantheism is still in vogue here, and asone guidebook puts it, the pervading religion is superstition. In thelast 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 thebiggest traders in Hong Kong futures are fortunetellers. They’reeverywhere, but seem to be concentrated most heavily near temples suchas Kowloon’s Wong Tai Sin. Although Wong Tai Sin temple was builtin 1973, it looks ancient. It is completely surrounded by modernhigh-rise apartments themselves camouflaged by thousands of washingshanging out to dry.
(Every day seems to be washday in Hong Kong.)Before climbing the steps to the temple, visitors must run a gauntlet ofhawkers’ stalls, resplendent in yellows, golds and reds of josssticks, prayer papers and offerings of apples, oranges, barbecuedchickens and wine and oil in gold-foiled bottles. Near the temple steps, a lively group of worshipers creates ahullabaloo around a long table, lighting joss sticks and tossingcolorful prayer papers into flaming containers. Others kneel at thealtar 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: Takeone 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 afellow down the walk and buy the corresponding pink slip for 50^ H.K.Then head for fortunetellers’ alley to the stall with a placardthat reads: Buddhist Laity of Mr. Omi, Physiognomist. For $5 H.
K. Mr.Omi, who looks like an aging professor of physics, will decipher theslip. For considerably more (if you’ve got 45 minutes to spare),he’ll perform a full palm and facial.
This can be veryenlightening. I learned, for example, that I will marry at 28.Unfortunately–or perhaps not–I’m 37 and still a bachelor. If afortune looks really bad, Omi may sentence you to return to the templeto 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 Buddhistmonk’s head. The closest thing might be to take dinner a la Chinese on a sampanin the Causeway Bay Typhoon Harbor. Sampan dining is the Hong Kongequivalent of the backyard barbecue.
For best results, take a taxi tothe harbor and duck down while a Chinese bargains for your boat. Climbaboard and take a very, very deep breath and hold it as long as you canwhile 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 famousof Hong Kong’s water-top restaurateurs. Working before a row ofgigantic works that seems to be fired by army-surplus flamethrowers, hedirects his meals with the inspiration of a symphony conductor. Theworks sizzle and steam and give off a pungent smell of sesame, oystersauce and garlic that soon revives your nose from the hazing it receivedearlier.
Heaping platters of crab, shrimp, mussels, clams, succulentChinese chives and broccoli arrive at the table carried by young girls,”boathops’ who later present the tab. Give a yell, and agrocery sampan stops by to deliver deer. After the meal has run its last course and the paper-covered tableis heaped with refuse and shells, you’ll cast off and tie up to anentertainment sampan where a stone-faced, three-woman orchestra, armedwith flutes, bells, drums and unfamiliar stringed instruments, knocksoff barely intelligible renditions of Western tunes you select yourselffrom 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 thetowering buildings onshore suddenly seem protective, even friendly.You’ve fallen in love with a city.
Hong Kong, for the moment atleast, is a great, glowing neon dream come true. Photo: An image of Hong Kong comes to light in the glowing neon ofthe central city at dusk, the joss sticks ignited by worshipers atKowloon’s Wong Tai Sin Temple and the faces of brightly dressedschoolchidren. Photo: Junks and the Star Ferry go about their business in busyHong Kong Harbor while sampans glut the bay around the coast ofAberdeen. Photo: It’s only a short sampan ride to the gigantic floatingrestaurants of Aberdeen, where thousands at a time pursue HongKong’s most lively pastime–eating.