Hong Kong Part 1

Weekend Getaway:

Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China

Part 1

A Brief History–Seven Million Can’t Be Wrong–A Walk in the Hills–The Ongoing Book of Pork: Part 2–A Swim at Dusk–Makumba Africa Bar–Dim Sum, and then Some–Sunday in the Park with the Filipinos–A Hookah in a Whorehouse–Salsa: The Revenge

It was only a matter of time before I made the trip across the Taiwan Strait to Hong Kong. Since coming over I’ve have a constantly evolving checklist of places to see while I’m living in this part of the world and Hong Kong had always been the first on the list–a sort of training wheels for other adventures in the region.

For foreigners working illegally in Taiwan the city serves as a convenient destination for the daunting visa runs, weekend or single day getaways taken every thirty days solely for the purpose of leaving Taiwan and renewing the tourist visa. It’s a bizarre loop in Taiwan’s immigration system that seems to have been implemented for managing the amount of foreign laborers coming to the island to work. For teachers who aren’t fortunate enough to land visa through their individual schools, it’s a bit of a hassle, albeit one that allows for travel.

I travel to Hong Kong strictly out of leisure.

For the Taiwanese trips to Hong Kong are easy and the national frame of mind is that the city is less a tourist destination and more a convenient hub for shopping. This “shop to you drop” notoriety was originally a bit of a turn off but then I did my homework.

It’s safe to say Hong Kong is unlike any other place on the planet. It’s a huge, densely populated city packed into a series of small islands that, like Taiwan, is “China Lite.”

With the city center’s population at roughly seven million (15 million if you include outlying suburbs and the city of Shenzhen, China) not to mention a flood of Westerners (primarily Brits) the city at times feels like a New York City of the Far East. Having not ventured to other East Asia metropolis’–Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, and Osaka–this is merely my initial reaction. That Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay, a decadent part of the city that is one of the most expensive places to live in the world, is on par with say New York City’s Fifth Ave, only furthers this comparison.

The city is extremely diverse (something I’ve come to realize Taipei is not) with not only its European and American pockets but also large clusters of immigrants from India and Pakistan, the middle East, West and North Africa, and of course most corners of Asia proper.

Coming from Taipei where English is seldom heard other than amongst foreigners (or in my case at work) Hong Kong was also quite a shock when I discovered how easy it was to speak my native tongue.

As part of China’s Guangdong Province, Cantonese is the preferred language but the British rule has the left most of the city a linguistically pleasurable city. With the comforts of the English language at every corner and all the luxuries of Western culture at your disposal it’s easy to get lost in the city’s glamour and even easier to forget you are in China.

My gracious host in Hong Kong is one Stuart Wallace, my ex-housemate during my Salamanca, Spain stint, a fellow traveler and to readers of this travelogue, my first and only out-of-town guest in Taipei.

The best way to describe Stuart in Hong Kong is comfortable. He openly admits to being spoiled by the city he has resided in for over a year and a half now. His job is the kind of teaching gig most serious foreign teachers strive for–a well-established Japanese International School, tucked away in one of Hong Kong’s wealthier districts that pays a generous salary, grants extended PAID vacations, and allows for all the perks of living in Central Hong Kong. His demeanor throughout my stay in Hong Kong was that of a jovial king surveying all that was at his disposal.

He shares a flat with his old college buddy who previously worked for the International Herald Tribune (sigh…) and now has a cushy publishing job. Hong Kong can be an expensive place to stay so I was fortunate to be welcomed into Stuart’s world for my four day sojourn.

Hong Kong is made up of a series of small islands, with Hong Kong Island serving as the central hub for all commerce, in many ways a miniature Manhattan. To the North is the Kowloon peninsula, which is a much more realistic look at Hong Kong’s Chinese influences with only subtle Western influences, primarily in regards to shopping. The northern regions bordering Shenzhen and Mainland China are referred to simply as the New Territories but are hardly as menacing as they sound. The New Territories are the result of what happens when you can no longer build UP in a densely populated urban center–it’s a sprawling suburb district of dotted high-rise utility housing complexes.

Shenzhen lies directly over the border with Mainland China proper and is also, in many ways, a suburb of Hong Kong, although its notoriety as the fastest growing city in China and one of the fastest growing cities in the world seems to proclaim that the young city is catching up with Hong Kong as a major East Asia port.

Shenzhen’s close proximity to Hong Kong (it’s on an extension of the city’s MTR metro train line) makes it entirely possible to live and work in Shenzhen and commute to H.K. for play. Shenzhen is also predominantly a Mandarin speaking city, despite its location in the Cantonese-speaking Guangdong Province, due in part to an influx of immigrants from other parts of Mainland China coming to the region for work. If I head back to Hong Kong (and after this trip I’m almost certain I will at least once more) Shenzhen will be toured.

Let’s get back to the trip.

The October 10th weekend in Taiwan is a celebration of the island’s independence from China. For foreign teachers, it’s a free Saturday, which meant early on that some sort of trip was in place.

I left Taipei late on Friday after my classes, catching the Airport Express Bus, which is, I might add, anything but. At the bus stop I met a nice Dutch woman who was heading back to the Netherlands for three weeks to see family. She’s lived in Taiwan as a missionary for the past 20 years and what she had to tell me about her experiences was fascinating, filling the entire duration of the bus trip, and spilling over into the time spent walking to our individual departure gates.

She came to the island through a missionary training program that paid for intensive language lessons in return for volunteer work with the homeless, female prostitutes, drug addicts and other parts of Taipei’s underbelly, many of whom are kept well-hidden from the general public’s knowledge.

I’ve noticed that there are certain parts of the city that have homeless problems and the old ladies who collect my trash and recycling on Saturday nights (a self-made form of social welfare–a couple kuai dollars for each bottle of Taiwan Beer, etc) seem to have been left behind in Taipei’s economic boom of the last couple decades. Still what I heard from this woman was shocking.

Taipei’s homeless men are exploited by the local crime syndicates through identify theft. They don’t have many options it seems but the ones they do come across only bring eventual doom. People will pay or offer drugs to these poor souls in exchange for their identity, which is then used to obtain marriage certificates for women from the mainland looking to cross the strait for a better life (one, mind you, that is often in the seedy human sex trafficking industry). Once on Taiwanese soil, the women split, leaving the men with the bulk of the blame if officials get involved.

Drug addicts I learn are rarely granted opportunities for kicking the habit and instead are locked away in over-crowded prisons with the keys seemingly thrown away.

The conversation was of course not all bleak in theme. We compared teaching stories, discussed Taiwanese food, which I’m starting to think is a terribly underrated world cuisine, just waiting to be discovered, and, like all fellow travelers, discussed our past and future adventures.

***

Before boarding the plane I picked up a thank you gift bottle of Green Label from the duty free shop. Scotch is surprisingly cheap over here, which I must say is a net positive for all parties involved.

The flight across the Taiwan Strait is just shy of 90-minutes, though you wouldn’t have guessed it on the luxurious China Airline 767 that flew me over. A meal was served as soon as the Seat Belt Sign went dormant, I had a wide selection of movies to view on my personal LCD television (though I was buried in a secondhand copy of Lonely Planet’s Hong Kong guide for most of the flight), and the plane’s leg room was just begging for me to stretch my shit out.

At 11 PM Hong Kong airport was bustling with business travelers from all over the world. An American suit spotted my passport and approached me in the immigration line. He told me of his past two weeks of business trips from Boston to Hong Kong by way of Zurich, Tokyo, Osaka, and now H.K. He noted that he did, however, fly Business Class the entire way, which he cited as reasonable at just under $7,000. I’m not sure if he saw the serious businessman in me hidden beneath my giant-ass hiking boots and traveler’s backpack but my indifference to his travel tale caught him off guard.

Hong Kong is best summed up as a city of commerce. Everywhere I went it seemed like some deal was being made and I seldom strolled down a street where I wasn’t offered heavily discounted designer suits, “copy watches,” and cocaine, which may or may not aid the fast-paced nature of this city. After all before Redbull energy tonic, there was blow to keep the markets rolling.

The airport express train, a futuristic modus operandi, which looked like the inside of the plane cabin I had just left behind, was packed with business travelers of all types with their neatly packed carry-on suitcases tucked away in a the train’s luggage compartment like perfectly erect black rolling monoliths.

Arriving late Friday night didn’t allow for more than a bit of catch-up conversation. We were both tired and Stuart had to put in a half-day shift at work the following morning.

Saturday

I rose early and left with Stuart towards one of many hiking trails that wrap around Hong Kong’s outlying hills. I’ve been a bit spoiled in Taiwan with its abundance of hiking opportunities but Hong Kong still managed to deliver.

The Wilson Trail is an impressive 78K trail that goes from Hong Kong Island and continues on into the New Territories. I started at around eight in the morning and had until 12:30 to explore. A co-worker of Stuart’s told me that Stage Two of the massive undertaking offered the best views of the city and the smaller islands. This particular day the trail was a bit congested with locals participating in a massive 78K thru hike sponsored by the Hong Kong chapter of Raleigh International, a British adventure travel and outreach organization.

There was an unfortunate haze settled over the city but the views were still superb. The city’s sea of tall edifices look almost artificial from the hills, like a city planner’s twisted dioramic vision of a perfectly efficient city by the sea.

Along the way I encountered some pleasant surprises–a dam lake, a quarry of sorts, and most notably a shrine of various porcelain effigies that sit by a clearing just waiting to be stumbled upon.

This particular leg of the trail descends down into a densely packed urban residential jungle, a more realistic look at the vast array of towering buildings I peered down at before.

The high-rise apartment complexes are truly remarkable in a looming and hideous fashion. They bring to mind the Soviet era concrete slab housing projects that are scattered all over Eastern Europe.

These homogeneous utility dwellings dare onlookers to conduct mental calculations of the number of windows to people ratio. The speckles of garments hanging on lines outside each window do however rescue these sights from being completely bleak by adding a human element to their otherwise sterile nature.

At the bottom of the trail I rehydrate in a small park while watching the local elders play Go. The rules and strategy of this game continue to elude me but the Chinese (and Taiwanese) can’t seem to get enough of it.

At around 12:45 I rendezvous with Stuart at a landmark near his house and we head off for lunch, which, after the long walk, “must be,” as I explained, “an orgy of meat.”

Hong Kong is a foodies’ utopia with a steady diversity of cuisines, not just Chinese, and it seemed appropriate that the first proper meal be pork or duck related.

Siu mei restaurants are essentially hole in the wall establishments that specialize in glowing bbq meat products hanged window side from glorious hooks and skewers to beckon streetwalkers. Char Siu pork was described to me in an earlier email from Stuart as, “BBQ pork that will make your pants wet.” This is a prime example of Stuart’s twisted way of embracing food that instantly brought back memories of our culinary adventures in Spain, particularly with the drip off the bone goodness of Serrano ham.


No comment.

Stuart ordered for us his usual, two heaping servings of char siu bbq pork (the soy and color red glazed slabs hanging bottom left) and siu mei, which is a fatty cut of cured roasted pork that looks like bacon (pictured bottom right). The meat is served over unassuming white rice, drowned in a sweet soy sauce blend with a handful of delicious sauteed Chinese greens for roughage and color variety. A rather odd complimentary soup is served but only a fool would waste stomach space on such an undertaking when the challenge of way-too-much-meat lays before you.

A wise nuclear family man once said, “You don’t make friends with salad.”

Zen and the art of pork

We stuffed ourselves and were content upon leaving to the point that both of us could’ve used a good old-fashioned siesta. Still we decided to go back to apartment to change and then head back out to explore the Stanley district and its Repulse Bay.

Repulse Bay

Stanley is a charming albeit Westernized boardwalk getaway that is a simple double-decker tram ride away from Central Hong Kong island. There are tourist shops, over-priced lemonade stands and plenty of English style pubs with outdoor seating overlooking the picturesque bay.

We walked the area and ended up finding a place for a beer before hitting the beach for some casual Frisbee and a sunset swim.

The leisurely swim out to a stationary floating raft (which instantly brought to memory Northern Michigan lakes) with the city lights of the hills around us and a series of small islands lit from the descending sun brought on that daily feeling of pure bliss when I need to blink to realize that I’m really here in this part of the world.

Later that night we grabbed a quick sandwich at a Doner Kebab joint near Stuart’s house (despite the fact that neither of us were hungry it was agreed that it was necessary to prepare our stomachs for the tortuous libations that we were undoubtedly going to indulge in later on in the evening).

Our first stop on the booze train was Hong Kong’s legendary Lan Kwai Fong street, which is an overwhelming and fairly obnoxious Central nightlife drag that is unlike anything you would find in the States. The street, which is built surprisingly on a rather steep hill, is a cluster of open-door bars that issue loud club music and even louder inebriated foreigners. The closest thing I can compare it to is a similar drag in Lisbon in which nobody actual drinks in the bars but rather congregate in the street forming one massive amalgamation of belligerence.

We walked the area twice soaking it all in. Later we popped in a tourist trap Russian restaurant for a taste of vodka in its refrigerated ice bar. The bar is decorated with, well ice and its female patrons are greeted with the option of wearing lavish fur coats, you know, just like the Siberians. I hear the desert oasis city of Dubai has an ice bar, which is equally if not more ridiculous, and is truly a piss in the face to environmentalists all over the world.

A ten-minute walk away from the lights and noise of Lan Kwai Fong brought us to Makumba Africa Bar where we met up with a number of Stuart’s Japanese co-workers. The girls were sipping exotic cocktails and a live afro-funk group was just warming up. This was my kind of place and something I probably wouldn’t be able to find in Taipei.

The night was capped on a ritzy rooftop club overlooking the impressive night skyline and the towering IFC Building, which was where that latest Batman film staged a remarkable paragliding stunt. While the club itself was hopping none of else felt any urge to leave the amazing view before us.

Sunday

Completely spent from Saturday’s FULL day we took it easy on Sunday. We had a nice dim sum brunch with the Japanese friends from the night before and walked around the Causeway Bay area.

Too tired/hung over to notice, Stuart and I somehow managed to wear similar shirts to Dim Sum at H.K City Hall

There is a large population of Filipinos working in Hong Kong, primarily as housekeepers and nannies for the city’s middle and upper class. Sunday in Hong Kong is Filipino day.

Diasporas have always interested me in my travels. Certain places seem to attract particular ethnic and cultural groups and when you find their tightly knit communities it’s always intriguing. Moroccans have flooded parts of the Netherlands in recent years, Portugal has a surprisingly large Eastern European population, primarily from Ukraine, and sweet home Chicago at one point was rumored to have had more Poles than the city of Warsaw.

In most cities you find these groups congregated in their own neighborhoods but in Hong Kong most of the Filipino women are live-in helpers for families, therefore the city’s public corridors become their meeting areas, and every Sunday they gather, like clockwork.

Sunday is their citywide day-off and the majority of them spend the entire day picnicking with friends on blankets or makeshift hoboesque camps outside of MTR stations, covered underground walkways, and around Hong Kong City Hall and various other building vicinities. From morning to night they socialize, often over the sounds of small radios. They play cards, share food, both homemade and bought, and seem to ignore the rest of the world around them. It’s their day and they know exactly how they want to spend their free time.


Filipino Sundays

It’s a fascinating sight to see and I actually felt like an intruder with my camera out, hence this sole snapshot. We have a fairly large Filipino population here in Taipei, many working as kitchen line-cooks in restaurants. I have yet to find their common ground, if it even exists. In Hong Kong its damn near impossible not to stumble across these charming gatherings. At one point I asked Stuart why they chose these mundane concrete settings–underground walkways seemed to be the most populous of all the ones we encountered–over say, a nice city park. His responded with the intriguing, “oh the parks, those are the Indonesian’s turf.”

***

Sunday afternoon we somehow made are way to a hookah bar that Stuart had been to once prior to this excursion. Unlike most casual hookah/tea cafes that you find in most cities this particular setting was a seedy night club of sorts that seemed to be just cleaning up from the previous night’s escapades at four in the afternoon.

Over an apple flavored shisha we reminisced about the nargile café we frequented in Salamanca, switching between English and Spanish the entire time to let the nostalgia truly sit in. It didn’t take us long to figure out that the bar itself had another agenda especially after an eager Indonesian girl in a skimpy outfit approached Stuart while I was in the bathroom. The Turkish men who may or may not have owned the place seemed to have a number of these wide-eyed girls hanging around. Later after an hour or so we realized we were the only ones left lingering in the establishment and the upstairs office room overlooking the bar had a heavily fogged window.

That night we dined on Malaysian curry and made are way to a Salsa bar, where Stuart and one of the girls from work take lessons every Sunday night. While I wish I could put “Salsa dancing skills” on my resume, I simply can’t. I’ve tried at various stages in my life and it’s safe to say these hips DO lie. Normally I blame my awkward dancing skills on the fact that I tower over most dancing partners but a 6’4” gentleman who must have been well into his twilight years terminated this plausible excuse after he repeatedly humbled everyone in the bar with his masterful moves on the dance floor. Later, after I had spent a good 20 minutes trying to get a simple twirl step down, he had the audacity to ask me if I was having fun, while we occupied partnered urinals. The bastard.

Up next, tales form Monday and Tuesday.

A Trip to the New Territories, Spanish lessons, Indian food at the Chungking Mansion, Warner sits like Buddha, and an examination of Hong Kong’s market scene.

A glimpse at the amazing Tai-Po indoor market

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