Monday, 11 November 2013

Hong Kong

Hong Kong island and across to Kowloon from the Peak at dusk
Hong Kong has always fascinated me. Its superb natural harbour, strategic location in the South China sea and its links with the West secured an economy that became the model for South East Asian development. There is a fusion of cultures, an energy that defies its sultry heat and a landward area that has shaped the most remarkable urban design. Other cities with comparable seaboard locations such as Vancouver, Sydney, and San Francisco are beguiling places to visit. The Hong Kong map suggested it would be the same but I came away unconvinced. The influx of Global Corporates allied with the ambiguous special administrative arrangements agreed by China seem to have curtailed the spark of the dragon.

I had been advised by colleagues and friends who hailed from Hong Kong to visit in the winter months and steer clear of the hot muggy summers. With a trip to Vietnam pending it seemed like a good idea to have a few days in Hong Kong.

The Peak and Mid Level residential suburbs below the Peak
Soho in downtown HK
Bamboo Scaffolding
Marine Safety versus shimmering towers
Star Ferry

Kowloon streetscape

Can a Kowloon cat change its spots?
Kowloon Park, a haven of tranquility
On the Waterfront, Kowloon
Conference Centre, HK island from Star ferry
Hong Kong island and the Harbour from the Peak
HK island and Kowloon with New Territories on skyline
Lighting up time from the Peak
Symphony of lights from the Peak
Stanley Beach
Stanley Market
Downtown  Trams and Shops
We arrived at Hong Kong airport late in the evening but the superb rail link delivered us into the heart of Hong Kong island in 25 minutes and it was a short taxi trip to a 30 story hotel that was dwarfed by all the surrounding buildings. We soon realised that it would be difficult to do all the things we wanted in 3 days. We spent the first day crossing the channel of water between Hong Kong island and Kowloon on the wonderful Star ferry. Kowloon has the highest density of population of any city in the world. It also boasts a range of top end shops that make Bond street look like a line of roadside kiosks. As a consumer of luxury goods Hong Kong is amongst the world's elite with the indigenous rich augmented by the considerable tourist industry and the cruise liners.

It was a city that the term cheek by jowl does not do justice to. The juxtaposition of high end corporate headquarters, banks, hotels, retail stores and the most expensive real estate in the world is vertically and horizontally integrated with small markets, slabs of low cost housing, remaining religious buildings and studded with small parks. The incongruity of all sorts of things is marked. Skyscrapers being repaired by the use of bamboo scaffolding, elevated footways through and over street markets, cheap taxis and transport but pricey hotels and housing. Cheap food and cocktails but many goods more expensive than in Europe. Huge disparity amidst plenty. There are more Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McLarens than in most countries. They compete with ageing Toyota taxis, double deck buses and commercial vehicles of every vintage, size and drivership for the limited roadspace. All of these vehicles are lumbering giants outpaced by the buzzing low powered motor cycles which are driven by the proletariat with an élan that Confucius would have approved.

The airport, deigned by Sir Norman Foster, is one of the most modern in the world but suffers from the common high end belief that it is a shopping mall. Hong Kong is no longer the place to buy cheap goods. It is more of a service based economy with manufacturing taking place in the neighbouring Chinese megacity of Ghangzhou and its province. I went to buy a camera lens but all the shops that HK was famous for had closed and now operate as online businesses. Even the much vaunted cheap suits were not much less than in the UK and who needs suits anyway!

The highlights for us were the Star ferry with stupendous views as you cross from Hong Kong island to Kowloon. The views from Victoria Peak, the 1811 ft. mountain which is the backdrop to Hong Kong city, we watched the symphony of lights from the Peak as day became night. The Peak is largely built upon with high rise buildings despite slopes that would defy climbing in most parts of the world. We also escaped to Stanley, the seaside resort on the south side of Hong Kong island, and whiled away a Sunday afternoon on the waterfront and exploring its market.

The downside were the shopping malls, the overcrowding and frenzy, the hazy light, the incontestable fact that man had conquered nature and a sense of foreboding that there was such an imbalance in wealth between the super rich and the majority of residents of the city, whose lives seemed comfortably numb to the avarice that the Asian Tiger has generated.

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