Hong Kong Takes a Holiday Part 2

Museums were closed. So were all public buildings and a surprising number of shops. But Hong Kong was certainly not lacking in things to do. Best of all, most of them were free or very cheap.

We wandered through Hong Kong’s gorgeous park, an oasis of green plunked down in the midst of some of the world’s most expensive real estate. The towering buildings that surround it, including I. M. Pei’s Bank of China Building and Paul Rudolph’s Lippo Center, as well as the more anonymous but equally soaring high-rise apartment buildings, seem to eye the park covetously.

We strolled through the park’s towering aviary which has to be one of the nicest gifts any bloated plutocrat ever gave to any city. It’s a spectacular enclosed jungle, large enough that its limits are not readily apparent from the raised wooden walkway that snakes and slopes through it. Some 600 birds fly free here and tiny pygmy deer tiptoe through the greenery far below. Nearby is the Conservatory, which even with its waterfall is not as spectacular, though it’s very pleasant. And both of them are free.

hong kong brideThe usual parade of brides was moving through the park’s marriage registry and then out into the park for the obligatory photo shoot. It seems Hong Kong has passed a law that only beautiful women can get married in public this way, as all of them were uniformly lovely.

From there we walked through the posh Pacific Center shopping mall that on an earlier trip had become my unofficial headquarters. Alas, the cybercafe from which I had dispatched my missives was not to be found, but many of the ultra-upscale shops were open. There is an incredible concentration of high-end merchandise on display here that fosters the overwhelming impression that Hong Kong is built on money.

A tram ride through Central to the end of the line in Kennedy Town provided a fascinating contrast. I wonder how many foreigners make it this far. It’s well worth the (very cheap) trip. Upper deck seats offer a fascinating perspective as Hong Kong changes from the glitzy, energy-charged business center to more modest commercial and residential areas.

The next day we did what many Hong Kong residents do on their day off — we visited one of the outlying islands for a taste of the country. I decided that Lamma Island would be a splendid place for a leisurely hike and off we went to the new ferry terminal on the massive landfill that is adding yet more expensive real estate to Hong Kong Island.

We were soon caught up in hordes of people heading toward the ferry which caused me some apprehension at first, but it turned out that the destination of choice that day seemed to be Lantau Island and I mentally patted myself on the back when I saw that the crowds headed to Lamma were much thinner.

A mere HK$2 takes you to Yung Shue Wan, the gateway to Lamma. It’s a nice little village, its narrow streets jammed with the seafood restaurants, for which it is known. We went terribly native by stopping at the Bookworm Café, which is run by expat Brits who serve up a regimen of health food. I managed to be reasonably unhealthy by ordering a yummy carrot cake but excellent salads were also on offer.

We had determined to take the cross-island walk to Sok Kwu Wan a popular destination, also renowned for its bayside, open air seafood restaurants. I had vaguely imagined a pleasant stroll through the country and, in fact, the lush “suburbs” of Yung Shue Wan held out some promise. One thing that bothered me a bit was that the “path” we followed was a concrete sidewalk — and it was packed. We proceeded like a line of worker ants trekking dutifully in the footsteps of our predecessors.

This was the day of Ching Ming, the Grave Sweeping Festival when people go out to the countryside to tend the graves of their ancestors and burn incense, along with real money and paper effigies of gold ingots, houses, and cars, to wish those who have gone before a prosperous afterlife. An inevitable result of this quaint practice, given the tinder dry conditions at this time of year, is a rash of brush fires.

Not too far out of town we saw the first evidence of Ching Ming – a broad charred expanse of hillside stretching bare, black and forlorn into the distance. Lamma turned out to be a rather rocky and scruffy place. Only in a few spots does the arid terrain give over to pockets of lush, semitropical jungle. Most of the island seemed to be covered with ground-hugging scrub brush and most of that was now ash. Far ahead, we could see the vanguard of our ant column, hiking steadily on over distant hills, since there was precious little to stop and enjoy. As our walk continued, we saw several fires burst out, fortunately at a safe distance. Later, we heard television reports of elderly worshippers trapped by flames and rescued at the last minute by helicopter.

Despite the grimness of the burnt terrain, Lamma has its attractions, odd though they may be. We passed a lovely white sand beach that looks out on a massive electrical power plant that lights up all of Hong Kong island. For those who want to stop to swim or sunbathe, the changing facilities are excellent. Farther along, fancy junks of the sort corporations use to treat their employees and business associates bobbed just off shore hinting at lovely little bays just waiting to be explored. At one point we passed through a bamboo glade that gave an all-too-brief hint of what the island might be like in better times.

We decided to pass on the lively and convivial restaurant scene in Sok Kwu Wan in favor of the Coral Restaurant in Mo Tat Wan, a few kilometers farther along. It seemed we had made the right decision since for the first time all day, we had the trail to ourselves. Unfortunately, when we got there, the restaurant was closed. Indeed, much of Mo Tat Wan looked as if it had been closed for a while. We were casting a skeptical eye on the lone, and distinctly unappetizing looking, restaurant when a ferry hove into view and the decision was made. We’d sail to Aberdeen, back on Hong Kong island and dine at Hong Kong’s ultimate tourist trap – the famed Floating Restaurants.

The appropriately named Jumbo is but one of three floating restaurants that squat on barges in Aberdeen’s busy and crowded harbor. They are monuments to excess. If you remember the late and unlamented Mama Leone’s in New York, multiply by ten. If you’re familiar with the over-the-top Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo you need only multiply by two.

The decor is gaudy enough to induce giggles and the scale of the dining rooms is vast. There are two to a floor and three floors, so it’s a wonder the places stay afloat when they are full. But it’s the prices that are likely to draw the oohs and aahs, not the food, which is only serviceable. I cannot in good conscience recommend the floating restaurants if you’re on any kind of a budget and, for the money – it’s easy to spend more than US$50 per person here — you can get far better food elsewhere in Hong Kong. Come to Aberdeen at night and gaze upon the neon excess of the floating restaurants and you have experienced them at their best.

The next morning we rode Hong Kong’s vertiginous tram to “The Peak,” as the observation platform atop Victoria Peak is universally called. Quite by chance we picked our day well. Hong Kong’s ubiquitous smog had lifted and we had excellent views of the city. We walked a short distance to an amazing white mansion on the side of the hill, surrounded by woods, and sneaked a sample of the rich man’s view.

Curious, we decided to see what our millions would buy at a real estate agent’s office in the small mall at the tram stop. For a mere six or seven US millions we could pick up a quite nice 3,600 square-foot townhouse with a view. The catch? Nothing is really “sold” in Hong Kong these days. Instead, you get a sort of leasehold that lasts until 2047, when Hong Kong’s status as a “Special Administrative Region (SAR)” expires and all bets are off. At that point the powers that shall be in Beijing will decide how to dispose of “private” property in the former colony.

After descending from on high, we wandered the still remarkably underpopulated streets gawking at Hong Kong’s architectural wonders. It was nice to be able to spend extended periods gaping skyward at Pei’s glittering needle of a skyscraper without fear of being bowled over by the onrushing crowds; it changed magically as each corner was turned. Not everyone in Hong Kong was as enchanted with the building as we were. With its sharp angles and reflective surfaces, the building touched off boom times for Hong Kong’s feng shui consultants, who made small fortunes advising the owners of nearby buildings on how to minimize the harmful vibrations the spiky newcomer had created in the surrounding area.

We also became fond of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building, a dark brooding edifice that looks like it could serve as the headquarters for the bad guys in a sci-fi movie. The beautiful and mysterious woman I travel with promptly dubbed it “The Batman Building.” Odd projections from the roof look for all the world like mooring stations for flying saucers. Odd looking panels on the sides of the building, designed to reflect natural light into the atrium, hint at darker purposes. And the soaring 11-story atrium, with its elongated escalators, looks ready to suck you up into its innards. Designed by the British architect, Norman Foster, it was the world’s most expensive building when built in 1985.

Also worth a visit, we discovered, is the new Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. Viewed from above, it takes the shape of a soaring bird. From ground level you can marvel at the world’s largest glass curtain, a seven-story tall curving expanse of window. Inside, the spaces are huge, the vistas vast. Outside, a stately promenade offers stunning views of Central and neighboring Kowloon. It was in this suitably imposing building that Britain ceremoniously returned Hong Kong to the Chinese.

After dining al fresco at a waterside McDonald’s, which surely must have the ritziest view of any fast food restaurant in the world, we took a short trip to another, earlier Hong Kong. In spite of, or perhaps because of the holiday, the Yuen Po Bird Garden in Kowloon’s Mong Kok district was humming, or should I say “chirping”?

The Chinese have a special affinity for birds. Not just the canaries and budgies we’re familiar with, but a surprising variety of song birds that are on display and for sale at this colorful outdoor market. Far more than a market, the Yuen Po Bird Garden is a social center to which bird owners flock, carrying their pets in delicate bamboo cages. The result is a cheerful cacophony of different chirps and calls as yet-to-be-sold birds greet their already owned cousins.

Our time in Hong Kong was drawing to a close along with the holiday. We made one last pilgrimage to the promenade on the Kowloon side of the harbor to gape again at Hong Kong’s amazing cityscape, aglitter in its nighttime finery. Reluctantly, we turned our backs and left the SAR a hop, skip, and a jump ahead of the bustling capitalists who would invade the communist-owned city the next morning.

This article is based on a visit in April of 1999. Prices and other information were accurate as of that date.