Short stop in Hong Kong

As anyone anticipating the return to a lover or mistress, enough months had finally fallen off the calendar and by the latter part of December, Donald and I required only one hand on which to count the days to our departure. We were heading back, ready to add another year to our nine year long adventure in Cambodia.

Thinking the grand plan had been finalized, Donald left Knoxville on December 19, traveling to New York to spend Christmas with his family while I left Knoxville two days later to spend time with my father in his retirement home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, twenty minutes north of Palm Beach. All the arrangements had been made by our long time travel agent, Tomas, from Footloose Travel Guides company in Lakewood, Colorado. I was scheduled to fly to New York on December 26 to spend a short time with my daughter and on the morning of the 27th, I would meet Donald at JFK Airport. We were booked on Delta Flight 173 that would bring us nonstop to Tokyo and with a change in planes on to Hong Kong where we planned to spend New Years. However, snow storms would soon ravage the East Coast as well as our travel plans. All flights in and out of New York were canceled leaving us lingering on the brink of departure.

After spending an hour and a half with a Delta agent at the Palm Beach Airport, the best Delta could provide were the last two seats on a flight departing from Detroit on December 30th. With a click of the computer, our five nights in Hong Kong were reduced to two, wiping out our reservation at Peking Garden, reputed to be the best duck in Asia, the China Club, the oldest dining club in Hong Kong, brunch at the Stanley Market, a list of additional restaurants plus a trip through the Jade Market, all of which had been suggested by daughter”s friend and his colleague both who had lived and worked in Hong Kong for a long time. Also vanished was any possibility of eating at the dai pai dongs, the street side food stalls. My taste buds were in mourning yet we still had our New Year”s dinner reservation at the Shang Palace restaurant in our hotel, the Shangri La in Kowloon and Lung King Heen, the Chinese restaurant in the Four Season. We were looking forward to both restaurants as the former has received two stars from Michelin and the latter three.

Finally, just happy to be leaving, we found the airport in Detroit to be new, beautiful, and modern. Delta Flight 27 turned out to be a better flight because it was nonstop to Hong Kong and the plane was fitted out with Delta”s latest flat beds. The 15 hour and 40 minute flight passed almost as in a dream. We arrived in Hong Kong around 8:30 PM on the 31th just in time for our New Year”s dinner plus a walk about in the Tsim Sha Tsui area, located on the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula. We mingled with the crowds, drank champagne, and shared New Year greetings with delightfully pleasant total strangers. Previously, in search of fireworks displays in Singapore and Taipei, we knew ahead to time not to expect too much as they save the good show for Chinese New Year. This information was not incorrect and we spent very little thought on being underwhelmed.

New Years day was cold and grey with a chilling wind blowing off Victoria Harbor, in the narrow waterway separating the island of Hong Kong from the mainland of Kowloon. I covered up in my winter coat that I expected to have used in New York and we began to walk from the hotel toward the Star Ferry where we would board one of their iconic green and white ferries that would take us over to the island. We found ourselves walking along the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, the only place at ground level where you can get an unobstructed view of Hong Kong”s famous skyline. This wide walkway, begun in 2004, was crowded with tourists, mostly from mainland China. Chinese New Year is a time to spend with their families but on Christmas mainland Chinese come to Hong Kong to shop tax free and to enjoy good food. The many malls compete with each other to lure in the shoppers with ornate Christmas displays. Christ has been definitely left out of Christmas and replaced with Mr. and Mrs. Claus, Christmas trees, elves, rocking horses and lots of kitsch, glitter, and crystal. Our traditional colors of red and green have been eschewed in favor of blues, pinks and various shades of purples. When we walked through the Harbour City Mall, Hong Kong”s largest, we saw their four million dollar Christmas display which had been featured in a New York Times article.

Situated on the Promenade is the “Avenue of the Stars”, a tribute to Hong Kong”s film industry that consists of plaques in the cement with the name of the star and their hand print. We stopped in front of the bronze statue of Bruce Lee to pay our respects and we were soon accosted by a Chinese tour group. Even though they were not throwing garbage on the ground or spitting on the sidewalk, they just have no concept of personal space and we found ourselves no longer in front of the sculpture but cocooned in the middle of the group, Donald being the tallest, with his head sticking out above all of them. The tour leader addressed the group and soon thirty plus people were imitating Bruce”s fighting stance and issuing forth the funny sound he made before attacking his enemy. As fast as they arrived, they were off leaving Donald and I staring at each other wondering, “what was that?”

As we walked toward the ferry, colorful lion and dragon dance groups began to pass us going in the opposite direction, one person under the head and the rest forming the long body, their bobbing and weaving announced by young men beating large drums with scarves tied around their heads. The Chinese have maintained this tradition for over 1,000 years and we see these troupes every year in Cambodia during Chinese New Year. As we walked, they kept coming and we felt like fish swimming up river. Finally, we passed a sign that explained they were attempting to set a new Guinness World Record for the largest lion/dragon dance display. Totaling 1,111 in attendance, they broke the old record, and we had the pleasure of passing each one of them, a colorful noisy spectacle composed of men, women, and children.

Still walking on the Promenade, before reaching the Star Ferry Terminal, we passed the Hong Kong Space Museum, partly in the shape of a golf ball housing one of the world”s largest planetariums, the Museum of Art and the Cultural Center. This large building appears to be without windows and if seen from above its two sloping roofs must look like a giant skateboard venue. Close by was the old Clock Tower. Built in 1915 as part of the Kowloon-Canton Railroad Station it is one of the few remembrances of British Colonial times still standing.

Reaching the Star Ferry, we followed the crowds to Pier 7 to catch the ferry that crosses over to Central on the Hong Kong side. The Star Ferry has been in business since 1868 and until the late 1970″s with the building of the Cross Harbour Tunnel and the MTR, Hong Kong”s Mass Transport Railroad, it was the only way to travel between Hong Kong Island, mainland Kowloon, and the outlying islands. The ticket machine does not make change and with the help of a finely dressed British couple, Donald was able to obtain the two necessary tokens. We boarded to ferry, flipped the seats back so we would be facing forward and with Victoria Harbour at our back and Hong Kong”s fabulous skyline in front of us we moved swiftly over the water for the approximate one mile trip.

Reaching the Hong Kong side, we were confronted with various ways by which to exit the ferry terminal and found ourselves walking through the International Finance Center Mall, the base of an 88 story office building, before being able to reach the street. In Hong Kong, shopping malls and buildings are all interconnected so one never needs to step outside. Today called Central, this area was originally referred to as Victoria, in honor of the British Queen. This is the location of the original 1841 British settlement , prodded along by two Scots traders, Mr. Jardine and Mr. Matheson of Noble House Fame. (Matheson never set foot in Hong Kong) Today it is the main business district expressing itself in a densely packed assembly of magnificent buildings each vying to be the tallest and the most splendid.

Finally, achieving street level, we found ourselves standing in front of the Hong Kong Club, the former bastion of Crown Colony expats who excelled in excluding the Chinese. Their original colonial structure was torn down in 1981 leaving in its place a somewhat less attractive building. We walked by Jardine House easily recognized by its port hole shaped windows. Built in 1973 to 52 stories, it is considered Hong Kong”s first skyscraper. We walked around Statue Square, noticing the Cenotaph dedicated to the residents who died in World War I and II thinking at one time a statue of someone must have occupied the top. We noticed a granite neo classical building, erected in 1912 to serve as the Supreme Court and today functions as the home of the Legislative Council, again one of the few remaining colonial structures. We saw the Mandarin Hotel where I stayed during my first trip to Asia in 1980. Built in 1963, I am sure it is still a magnificent inside, but today its stature is diminished by the much larger buildings towering over it.

Our intended walk was impeded by the continuous underground passages and pedestrian overpasses. The only people we encountered were the hundreds and hundreds of Filipino housekeepers who gather in this area on the weekends. They bring their lunch, set up a “camp site”, turn on their music, play cards, and enjoy each other”s company.

When it was time for our dim sum lunch, we returned to the Kowloon side thinking that while Hong Kong Central maybe the epicenter for business it was not a friendly place for people. After lunch, we stepped into the Peninsula Hotel to look at the grandiloquent lobby with its gilded pillars. Affectionately called the “Pen” by the British colonials, it was built in 1928 and joins the ranks of the other fabled colonial hotels such as the Strand in Rangoon, the Metropole in Hanoi, and the Raffles in Singapore. In the past, it was famous for its afternoon tea and judging by the length of the queue, the tradition is still going strong. We found our way through part of the massive Harbour City Mall and walked along the famous Nathan Road. Laid out in 1860 when China ceded Kowloon to Britain, it is the oldest road in Kowloon named after Governor Nathan who had it rebuilt in 1909. Here the neon signs hang so closely together they seem to form an unbroken tableau. As opposed to Central, Kowloon is on a more human scale with shops offering a dazzling array of merchandise and services and we had plenty of opportunity to have personal contact with a variety of touts who wanted to sell us copy watches or offered to make Donald a suit.

Due to our curtailed visit, the planned trip to Macau along with a trip to one of the outer islands to enjoy fresh seafood in a small fishing village remained undone. In addition, we had planned a journey up to the peak and a drive to explore the other side of Hong Kong Island plus visits to a variety of Chinese temples. If there would be a Chinese cook off challenge, I would bet the cook at our local Plum Tree restaurant in Knoxville could prepare better dishes than what we had at the two Michelin star Shang Palace and the 3 star Michelin Chinese restaurant in the Four Seasons. These two disappointing dinners were accompanied by a mediocre dim sum lunch recommended by the hotel.

Hong Kong is a visual city and we enjoyed sitting in our room watching the harbor traffic and yes, as many books describe, the water is a dark shade of green. The colorful junks, the walla wallas, and the sampans maybe long gone but we were treated to one of the world”s most stunning skylines. At the time, I was rereading James Clavell”s Tai-Pan, a novel about the founding of Hong Kong set in 1841 and looking out the window, I felt I was looking at places the author was describing. We remained at our window perch as daytime morphed into dusk and then as if someone had thrown a switch, Hong Kong lit up, an electrified city sending colorful lights shimmering across the now blackened water. The last time we were in Hong Kong, 1994 it was still a British colony. Today, the Bank of China dwarfs anything that represents a previous time and serves as a poignant reminder to the world of what is to come.

A hotel driver returned us to the airport. Navigating through newly constructed over passes, under passes, and world class suspension bridges, we passed container ports, small outer islands, and forests of high rise apartment buildings, attempting to crowd more people into an already overcrowded space. The Hong Kong International Airport, completed in 1998, replaced the famous Kai Tak Airport and its infamous runway #31 which tested a pilot”s ability to keep from crashing into the surrounding buildings, mountains, or sea. Laid out in eight levels, this uber modern airport moves people through in an efficient manner and providing plenty of opportunity for what Hong Kong does best, shopping, eating, and making money.

I had spent several months reading about Hong Kong and Macau, gathering information to enliven my e-mails all of which will be shared if we ever return and stay for longer than two nights. But as we boarded Dragon Air Flight 206, Kong Kong became an instant memory and by 5:30 PM on January 2, we finally arrived in Phnom Penh. Our French friend, Jean Paul, as always, was there to meet us. Conscious, but yet like in a dream, we loaded all of our stuff into his Toyota land cruiser and we were off, down Russian Boulevard, headed once again to our hotel, the Le Royal.


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