Highlights of Hong Kong

Highlights of Hong Kong

Ted Kreiter

Highlights of Hong Kong

In Chinese mythology, every hill contains a dragon. If that is so, the biggest dragon in Hong Kong resides at Victoria Peak. Victoria is the tallest in a serpentine range of hills that holds Hong Kong firmly at bay. With nowhere else to go, the most frenetic city on earth has grown straight up, until its crushing mass threatens to capsize the whole island and slide into the harbor. The city has also leaped over the harbor and spread its obsession for neon and concrete across the hills of the Kowloon Peninsula.

By day, the view from the 1,300-foot summit of Victoria Peak is like a steamy vision. People come here not just for the view, but also to escape the oppressive heat under which the city simmers for half the year. They come up on the Peak tram. This Sino-British version of The Little Engine That Could was installed in 1888 and has been giving anxious passengers a precarious lift ever since. On the way up, it sets a record for the steepest passenger ascent in the world.

The Peak tower echoes the theme that runs rampant in the city below –shops, shops and more shops. Only here, due to the altitude perhaps, the prices seem a little steeper.

Hong Kong is the bargain basement of the world, and news of the imminent Chinese takeover in 1977 seems to have spurred a new shopping boom. People from abroad are rushing over to cash in on what could be the greatest going-out-of-business sale ever. The Japanese, the Americans and the Australians are leading the pack. The average American spends $5,000 H.K. (about $700 U.S.) here during a three-day stay–but he is not Hong Kong’s biggest spender. That honor goes to the Australians. It’s not that they have more money; they simply refuse to bargain, and that’s bad news for you billfold in a city where a little horse trading can mean a 10 to a 50 percent discount.

Almost every new gadget in the world makes its debut in Hong Kong, and some ignite insatiable desire among tourists until they are finally bought and bagged. The siren to one recent group was a small, computerized typewriter called the Typestar 5. One whiff that this little gem was available at unheard-of prices and the whole herd was off and running.

First stop–a little electronics shop in Kowloon’s New World Center. “We’re temporarily out,’ said the Chinese proprietors, “but we can get more.’ While some sweated it out hoping that Hong Kong’s supply-on-demand ethic would prevail (their plane was scheduled to depart in two days), the others marched off through the sweltering heat of the jam-packed streets in search of an even better bargain. When the dust finally cleared, the score stood four proud new owners to zero, all with their noses buried in instruction manuals during the long flight home. The average price –$130 each. In the States, the same machines sell for $190 to more than $400, case not included. Eat your heart out–I did. I didn’t get one.

Both Kowloon and Hong Kong are bursting with bargains, so the first trick new Hong Kong shoppers must learn is how to negotiate the harbor. One option is to take the no-frills tunnel that runs straight underneath the harbor and costs about $10 H.K. extra in cab fare. Another, more popular, is the Star Ferry, a quasiromantic but practical flotilla of green double-decker boats made famous by Suzie Wong. One simply inserts 70^ H.K. into the turnstile and follows the mob. The ferries depart every 15 minutes and disgorge passengers in quantum bursts at docks in Hong Kong Central and at Tsimshatsui, Kowloon’s shopping paradise on the opposite side.

All this harbor-leaping can cause confusion, and a major problem is remembering just what side you are on when it’s time to return to the hotel.

Another chronic phenomenon among tourists is chopsticks cramp –a painful, but fortunately temporary paralysis of the thumb caused by an overzealous attempt to eat as the Chinese do. It never fails to strike when you are at your hungriest, such as when seated for lunch at Aberdeen’s jumbo floating restaurant, one of Hong Kong’s fleet of rococo dining palaces–so large they can float meals for 2,000 customers at a haul. That’s 4,000 competing chopsticks, and because the food is served family style, wielding them becomes a highly precarious feat, accompanied by much reaching, grabbing and gnashing of teeth. The best strategy is to take the offensive and ignore the looks you get when the parcel you’ve just laid claim to suddenly flies into your neighbor’s almond soup.

Aberdeen lies on the quieter side of Hong Kong island. Most of its residents live right on the water–20,000 of Hong Kong’s 70,000 boat people live, eat, sleep and watch television here on sampans that come in three basic sizes: small, medium and large.

Life on the sampans seems a world away from the luxury hotels at Tsimshatsui, but both worlds have one thing in common–the struggle for Lebensraum. With tourist travel at high tide, hotels can invest millions here and get their money back within three years. The result has been an expensive game of high-rise one-up-manship. For example, the venerable Peninsula Hotel, built in 1928, once the pinnacle of perfection on Kowloon Peninsula, has been leapfrogged by a modern hotel of a different breed. Lacking a suitable building site, the Regent pressend right onto the harbor and made its own, thus capturing for its guests the panoramic view of Hong Kong Central in all its splendor. A respected travel guide recently gave the Peninsula a perfect rating of 5 stars and then stretched the limits to give the Regent 5 1/2.

Every day the Regent dispatches a fleet of charcoal Daimlers to the airport to retrieve fresh batches of guests who’ve had to book as far as half a year in advance. Service is so quick here that a touch of the wrong switch by your bed brings a service genie tapping on your door before you can cancel the mistake.

The Regent shares its precious beachhead with the huge spheroidshaped Space Museum that appears to have dropped in uninvited from someplace with no architectural taste. The hotel has one other strange bedfellow, too, which remains graciously invisible. It’s a dragon. The dragon doesn’t live at the hotel, but it does pass through to take its bath in the harbor–or so say Hong Kong’s geomancers. The geomancers are like lobbyists for Chinese dragons and other spirits, and they know what can get them riled. Building a hotel here might have been bad fung shui, as they call it. Fortunately, dragons, like everyone else in Hong Kong, are willing to bargain. Thus, the hotel installed huge floor-to-ceiling plateglass windows that allow the dragons to pass through readily.

“Smart’ contractors in Hong Kong always seek the advice of Chinese geomancers, who seem to know all the right moves for attracting the good spirits and avoiding the bad.

After thousands of years, pantheism is still in vogue here, and as one guidebook puts it, the pervading religion is superstition. In the last auction of lucky license plates, for example, the number “6′ (for longevity) went for $336,000 H.K.

Hong Kong’s greatest fortunes are based on luck and the biggest traders in Hong Kong futures are fortunetellers. They’re everywhere, but seem to be concentrated most heavily near temples such as Kowloon’s Wong Tai Sin. Although Wong Tai Sin temple was built in 1973, it looks ancient. It is completely surrounded by modern high-rise apartments themselves camouflaged by thousands of washings hanging out to dry. (Every day seems to be washday in Hong Kong.) Before climbing the steps to the temple, visitors must run a gauntlet of hawkers’ stalls, resplendent in yellows, golds and reds of joss sticks, prayer papers and offerings of apples, oranges, barbecued chickens and wine and oil in gold-foiled bottles.

Near the temple steps, a lively group of worshipers creates a hullabaloo around a long table, lighting joss sticks and tossing colorful prayer papers into flaming containers. Others kneel at the altar amid mouth-watering spreads of offerings.

Forget the fortune cookies–they don’t have them in Hong Kong. You learn your fortune here by the stick method. The procedure: Take one wooden cup called a chim. Get down on your knees. Shake well. Note the number of the first stick to fall out. Take that number to a fellow down the walk and buy the corresponding pink slip for 50^ H.K. Then head for fortunetellers’ alley to the stall with a placard that reads: Buddhist Laity of Mr. Omi, Physiognomist. For $5 H.K. Mr. Omi, who looks like an aging professor of physics, will decipher the slip. For considerably more (if you’ve got 45 minutes to spare), he’ll perform a full palm and facial. This can be very enlightening. I learned, for example, that I will marry at 28. Unfortunately–or perhaps not–I’m 37 and still a bachelor. If a fortune looks really bad, Omi may sentence you to return to the temple to burn a few joss sticks–so hope for a good one.

Obviously, Taoist temples are no place to find peace of mind. Points of relaxation in Hong Kong are as rare as a hair on a Buddhist monk’s head.

The closest thing might be to take dinner a la Chinese on a sampan in the Causeway Bay Typhoon Harbor. Sampan dining is the Hong Kong equivalent of the backyard barbecue. For best results, take a taxi to the harbor and duck down while a Chinese bargains for your boat. Climb aboard and take a very, very deep breath and hold it as long as you can while you slip past the opening to the Hong Kong sewer. Farther out, hook up with Hon Kee’s restaurant boat. Hon Kee is the most famous of Hong Kong’s water-top restaurateurs. Working before a row of gigantic works that seems to be fired by army-surplus flamethrowers, he directs his meals with the inspiration of a symphony conductor. The works sizzle and steam and give off a pungent smell of sesame, oyster sauce and garlic that soon revives your nose from the hazing it received earlier. Heaping platters of crab, shrimp, mussels, clams, succulent Chinese chives and broccoli arrive at the table carried by young girls, “boathops’ who later present the tab. Give a yell, and a grocery sampan stops by to deliver deer.

After the meal has run its last course and the paper-covered table is heaped with refuse and shells, you’ll cast off and tie up to an entertainment sampan where a stone-faced, three-woman orchestra, armed with flutes, bells, drums and unfamiliar stringed instruments, knocks off barely intelligible renditions of Western tunes you select yourself from a song menu.

As the sampan gently rocks, your thumb slowly regains its feeling. Your jet lag is abated. You fall into a reverie. The lights of the towering buildings onshore suddenly seem protective, even friendly. You’ve fallen in love with a city. Hong Kong, for the moment at least, is a great, glowing neon dream come true.

Photo: An image of Hong Kong comes to light in the glowing neon of the central city at dusk, the joss sticks ignited by worshipers at Kowloon’s Wong Tai Sin Temple and the faces of brightly dressed schoolchidren.

Photo: Junks and the Star Ferry go about their business in busy Hong Kong Harbor while sampans glut the bay around the coast of Aberdeen.

Photo: It’s only a short sampan ride to the gigantic floating restaurants of Aberdeen, where thousands at a time pursue Hong Kong’s most lively pastime–eating.

COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group