Hong Kong: Divided In Unity

July 14th, 2001

I don’t know that much about Hong Kong but I do know about the Opium Wars through which Britain ‘obtained’ control of Hong Kong.  The wars started because the British used the opium trade to offset the cost of importing tea from China on which Britain had become heavily dependent.  Queen Victoria also liked a bit of a dabble which I guess helped.  In 1839 the Qing Dynasty refused to import opium which the British were trading for tea resulting in the First Opium War between China and Britain.  By 1841 the British occupied Hong Kong Island which was formally ceded a year later and one more year after that established a Crown Colony founding the City of Victoria.  Then in 1860 after the Second Opium War, Kowloon Peninsula was annexed by the British which interestingly became the last stop on the trans-Siberian rail link that brought travellers to Asia from Europe.  Then finally in 1898 the New Territories and Lantau were obtained on a 99 year lease.

A little later on Christmas day 1941 the British surrendered Hong Kong to the Japanese and during this occupation the islanders suffered murder, rape and starvation.  But being ever resourceful the people of Hong Kong bounced back after 1945 and thanks to the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 many of Shanghai’s corporations moved to Hong Kong helping make it what it has become today.  Finally as agreed by the UK and China, barely four years ago on the 1st July 1997 the sovereignty of Hong Kong changed back to China.

Hong Kong is possibly ‘the’ place I always wanted to visit since childhood.  The images of bright flashing neon lights, the noise, the thousands of people in the streets has somehow always appealed.  It’s always appeared so different to the relative peace and quiet of where I was raised.  But times have changed, the relationship has changed, Hong Kong if it ever was, is no longer its own master and now is merely a small part of a greater China.  Have things got better or worse for the people here?  Has the special administrative region status meant that the people of Hong Kong have lost their identity or have they regained their soul?  Has communism controlled the free thinking Hong Konger or have the neon lights of capitalism captivated and repressed it?

Day 60: Border Control

July 14th, 2001

Day 60. I left early for the airport for the second time in two days but was really sad to be leaving Nepal as I’ve seen very little of the county and most of that was from the window of a brightly coloured bus and a very small plane.  I’ll have to go back when the troubles have died down and when my stomach is better!  I sat in the departure hall for three hours reading information on all of the other sites in Kathmandu I’ve missed out on.  The departure hall wasn’t quite up to the standard I’m used to, I’ve always come to expect lots of duty free shops and over priced food stalls in these places but all I could find was a shop which sold cigarettes and funny Nepalese hats which are meant to be in the shape of a sacred mountain in the Himalayas.  The first part of the flight was equally bizarre, people could actually smoke for the first part of the flight but then as we left Nepalese airspace an announcement told everyone to stop smoking!  This was surreal, more importantly how were the Chinese, whose land we were now flying over, going to check what people on board were doing!  Weird!

Days 60 to 61: Back In India!

July 15th, 2001

Day 60. I arrived in Hong Kong feeling extremely ill, again!  I’ve got no way of telling whether it’s the parasite causing this or all the drugs I’m taking in combination with the flight.  At the airport I met a tout who was trying to get people into his hotel, I wasn’t going to go along with him as he would rip me off a little but decided that if the price was right and if it had air-conditioning I’d go for it.  It’s very hot and humid here and feeling so unwell I really needed air-conditioning.  He was however a tout from one of the places my guidebook warned about, the ‘fortunate’ guest house located in the infamous Chungking Mansions in Kowloon.  He was basically offering a room at about £50 a night but I knew what I was aiming for and I knew that I should expect pay about £25 for what I wanted.  This is quite a lot compared to the last two months but I planned to pay a little more to have an en-suit room on my own with aircon and a TV, it’s also not too much for being right next to Kowloon harbour.  I also didn’t want the hassle rushing around town trying to find something when I was feeling none too great, I just wanted to lie down.  We eventually settled on a price of £20 a night but as predicted when I got to the hotel ‘taxes’ were added on to the price which although only added £3 to the price I still found this irritating as it was probably made up.  What was more irritating was the fact that when I headed out to the cash machine to get some money to pay, he actually followed me to make sure that I did not run off, I couldn’t believe it, his tactics really irritated me and I did tell him that I didn’t have to stay.  Then he ‘accidentally’ overcharged me but luckily I’ve always been a bit anal in calculating money and so had a bit of a go at him.  However, the room is very clean, the air-conditioning works perfectly and quietly, it’s spacious and not more than five minutes walk to the ferry terminal.  Time to lie down and relax.

Day 61. After a fantastic night’s sleep I thought I’d head out for a walk.  Getting out of the lift on the ground floor I got the biggest shock ever.  As the lift doors opened before me was a scene right out of an Indian Bazaar.  Within seconds I was rushed upon by people trying to sell me lighters, wallets, watches and loads of other things I didn’t want, the noise got louder as I walked further into the melee.  Not much more than a week ago I left India and all of its hassles behind me only to end up back in the middle of it in a tower block in Hong Kong!

Chungking Mansions, Kowloon

Chungking Mansion is a very well known building here made up of many dodgy cheap sleeps and shady shops with illegal immigrants, petty criminals and drug dealers hanging around the lower floors.  It’s also a place where many ethnic minorities from Central Asia gather giving the place a unique atmosphere of an Indian Bazaar mixed with the dangers of downtown Beirut.  So infamous is this place that the film ‘Chungking Express’ was based here showing the seedier side to Hong Kong.

Luckily I managed to find the back exit to the building and once outside everything appeared calm, well relatively so for this place.  The streets are quite overpowering, walking down them is like walking through a canyon with grey concrete buildings rising up on either side.  And very much unlike a canyon, the buildings on either side are covered in flashing neon and when space ran out on the front, they stretched the light displays right across the street like a bizarre collection of Christmas decorations.

Kowloon, Hong Kong.

While walking along the sea front at Victoria Harbour which separates Kowloon from Hong Kong Island, a young boy came up to me and asked in basic English whether I could help him fill in a questionnaire for a school project.  The questions were all about what I thought of Hong Kong and how it was different now it was under the control of China.  Mmmm, he said it was a school project, but I was thinking he was a spy and that anything I said was going to get me thrown out of the county!  I finished the questionnaire anyway at which point he asked a question for himself which did surprise me somewhat.  He said, “Why did you (British) leave, things were better when you were here.”  I was surprised at this but this was generally because everywhere you go in the world people hate the British.  He added, “My parents said that the government now controls everything.”  It was really sad to hear someone so young say something like that and it was impossible for me to answer.  It would have been hard to explain that if Britain tried to hang on to things it would have been a lot worse, in fact the consequences would have been dire.  However, I have a feeling that somehow Hong Kong will be ok, the people here seem to know what they want and they won’t let others take it away.  I don’t think China could ever remove its identity, it’s too powerful.  Walking around I couldn’t help comparing this old British colony with that of India, Hong Kong is such a success story in comparison but hopefully India will be soon, it has so much to offer and so much potential.  They’ve just got to get rid of the parasites in the water!

Days 62 to 63: Just Another Big City?

July 17th, 2001

Day 62. I jumped on an early 20th century passenger ferry, the old Star Ferry Line to Hong Kong Island.  The sailors dress immaculately in royal blue sailors outfits which wouldn’t look out of place on a toddler from a posh family, all very 1920’s.  I paid slightly more and went upstairs on the boat which made me glad to know that you still have 1st and 2nd class in communism!  Hong Kong is a bit of a surprise, I was really expecting just another big, faceless, impersonal and smelly city but although this place definitely has all of these qualities there is also another side.  Although the tower blocks are tall, nature still reigns supreme with cliffs lush with vegetation and the Victoria Peak towering over them.  A network of roads wind their way over the hillsides supported on pillars high above ravines full of tropical vegetation, seeming to show Hong Kong’s desire to subdue the power of nature.  This is also demonstrated by the bizarre sight of the Central-Mid-Level escalators which take you for nearly a kilometre up the hillside and are designed to make it an easier trip to and from work.

I spent most of the day just walking around using some tourist information sheets I’d picked up outside the ferry terminal.  The day seems to have flown by even though I’ve done very little apart from jump on the old trams and walk around, it’s mesmerising.  I’m starting to see why Governor Patten looked so upset when he left the old place.  I did try to see the Old Governors residence but the Chinese army wouldn’t let me get anywhere near it.  I am starting to really like Hong Kong but it’s hard to put your finger on why, there’s nothing really happening, nothing actually that interesting to write but that’s maybe why I’m enjoying it.  There’s nothing weird about the place, nothing stressful.

Day 63. I jumped back on the boat to Hong Kong Island and headed off to Hong Kong Park and Botanical Gardens which both sprawl up the hillside below Victoria Peak.  These are hidden gems and were both still extremely pleasant even considering the almost constant drizzling rain.  Within the Botanical Gardens is a zoo stretching up the steep hill side which has to be seen to be believed.  Whether you like idea of zoos or not it’s weird to see animals such as those here so close to the centre of a big noisy city.  The zoo is set amongst a manmade rainforest of foliage which at least gives the caged, but well kept animals, a nice pristine environment.  Heading down the hill I could see part of the old Governors House which is built in mock Chinese fashion.  Almost to symbolise Hong Kong’s current position their new flag of a five white-petal bauhinia and star on a red background was hung hidden over the front door however like an angry father looking down on a child, a larger Chinese flag flew from a higher position on top of the building which can be seen from everywhere.  Who’s in charge of whom?

Governors House. Hong Kong.  Big flag little flag!

Passing further down the hill into Hong Kong Park a huge net has been placed over and amongst the forest canopy in which a large collection of birds are kept.  The size of the Aviary is such that birds can fly freely about the trees and animals can forage below the walkways which lead through it.  Further down still, the contrast of nature and city give way to the contrast between old and new.  Hidden behind the modern and somewhat bulbous twin lippo skyscrapers is the oldest colonial style residence in Hong Kong called Flagstaff House.  Before becoming the museum of Tea Ware, originally Flagstaff House was the office and residence of the Commander of the British Forces in Hong Kong but even though it lies in the shadow of such large buildings the extreme contrast somehow works.  Anything less contrasting would strangely look out of place.  Back in the city centre, I got one of the old 1950’s trams along to the surreal sight of the Happy Valley race course.  An oasis of short lush bright green grass lit by a large number of floodlights all surrounded by a backdrop of tower blocks which are in turn silhouetted against mountains.  This place is amazing.

Flagstaff house and Lippo Towers

Days 64 to 65: Big Buddha Or Benny Hill?

July 19th, 2001

Day 64. As seems usual for Hong Kong it was raining again, I haven’t seen the sun for four days now.  Even with the rain I decided to head off to do a little island hopping and got the ferry to Lantau.  Leaving the noise of the main island behind I was slowly transported past small forest covered islands many with houses dotted around their shores.  The views were idyllic and very surprising as I’d assumed Hong Kong was just one massive city with little else.  After about forty minutes we reached Mui W, a port set in a cove with a golden coloured beach, definitely the last thing I expected to see in Hong Kong.  I quickly jumped on the number two bus and headed up one of the highest hills in Hong Kong to Po Lin Monastery.  Passing through beautiful nature reserves we slowly climbed higher into the clouds until we reached the top of a particularly damp cloud covered mountain.  I found it hard to get my orientation at first as the clouds hid any landmarks.  Every now and again the clouds would break and suddenly I would get a brief glimpse of the main landmark, the world’s biggest sitting Buddha sat upon the mountain top.  An unusual claim to fame but one people here seem quite proud of.  Sitting below the Buddha toped mountain peak a monastery nestles amongst the trees.  In the buildings monks in bright orange habits chanted, rang chimes and burnt incense, the peace was in complete contrast to Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

Is it Big Buddha or …………

Day 65. I headed off to get the funicular railway to Victoria Peak.  From the top, and in-between the breaks in the cloud, the views were great.  From here I was looking down on the tops of tower blocks, roof top swimming pools glistened while the idle rich surrounded them.  Looking down on pools on top of 50 storey buildings is a little bizarre.

At the Victoria Peak centre I saw possibly the strangest sight in Hong Kong.  Outside the entrance to the mini Madame Tussauds stood the wax work figure of the most honoured and most revered person in ancient Hong Kong culture.  People were queuing up for ages just to get a picture with this great holy image, a person who had bought happiness and joy to the people of Hong Kong through his teachings.  It was not one of the Ming dynasty who are famed throughout the world, nor was it Chairman Mao, for his ‘visionary’ interpretation of socialism and communism through the Cultural Revolution.  It wasn’t even the great Buddha himself who taught that a greater understanding of oneself would lead to spiritual enlightenment.  Nope, it was none of these.  To my horror it was a diminutive and rather fat squat figure who had, back in Britain, passed into distant memory in these more politically correct times.  Stood there in a bright green cinema ushers uniform, silly grin and squint, round glasses and army salute was the wax work figure of Benny Hill!  Here, he seems to be worshipped as if he were a god.  What in the UK is seen as extremely un-PC, here is seen as just funny.

…… or Benny Hill!

After the shock of seeing this figure and contemplating the fact that this would soon be changed to Mr Bean I took a scenic trek around the top of Victoria Peak.  The walk is something everyone should do if they have a spare afternoon in Hong Kong.  The circular route around the peak allows you to see the coast on all sides of the Island and highlights the complete contrast between the noisy industrial north side and the peace and tranquillity of the south.  Sadly the peak itself is not accessible as there is a military base there, however there is a nice park near the peak where I rested for a bit.  The walk made me feel a bit unwell so I just sat there for an hour or so.  I eventually headed back down the hill walking past old colonial mansions which overlook the city below.  I walked down the old path on which rich Colonial British used to pay local men to carry them to the top.  Walking down this path is difficult never mind walking up it with a fat pompous European on your back.

Day 66: Chinese Charm!

July 20th, 2001

Day 66. I woke up feeling really tired this morning mainly because late last night I had to change rooms because of a so called broken tap.  Yes it was dripping but I couldn’t think why they had to get a man to come around and fix it at 11pm.  Luckily the airport bus passed outside the hotel so I just jumped on it and dosed to the airport.  Probably because I was still in a daze I managed to leave all the postcards I was going to send on a trolley before I went through customs.  When I realised I’d left them behind I headed straight to the information desk and asked if someone could get them for me.  The lady who was not particularly approachable said I would have to go back through customs to get them.  When I asked where I’d have to go to get back through customs she replied, “You can only go through customs if you are landing in Hong Kong.”  Did she think that I was going to fly out and fly back in just to get them back?  I asked whether she could get someone to find them and post them for me but she said, “if they found them they would be left in lost property until I went to pick them up.”  Great!  She would not do anything at all to help.  I’d really enjoyed my time in Hong Kong but this was now my last memory of the place, Chinese charm!

Thailand (part 1): Temples, Transvestites And Tuk-Tuks

July 20th, 2001

When people mention Thailand it puts many different thoughts into my mind from the temple city of Bangkok to the sleazy sex trade, go-go girls and transvestites.  I don’t really know what to expect of this place, I’ve seen the TV drama ‘Bangkok Hilton’ so am a little apprehensive about corrupt custom officials, but my rucksack is more secure than Fort Knox so I have very little to worry about.  I know that Thailand due to its location is the only country in South East Asia never colonised as it acted as a cushion between the British and French Empires.  Unfortunately this juxtapositioning with different powers for personal gain led to the country being allied with Japan during the Second World War.  As a result around 100,000 Asians and 16,000 Allied Prisoners of war died at the hands of Japanese and Thai while building the infamous Thailand to Burma ‘Death Railway’.  The country contains a number of sad reminders of this time including the infamous Hell Fire Pass, the more widely known ‘bridge over the River Kwai’ and numerous war graves.  My first visit to Thailand will only centre on Bangkok as I want to head out to Hanoi in Vietnam as soon as possible.  I do have a few preconceptions about Thailand however I’ll try to keep my mind open.