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(Rather than writing in chronological order, I've decided to finish with Hong Kong first, to organize my thoughts. I'll write about my China experience (between my two HK trips) later.)
SECOND VISIT TO HONG KONG
I had left Hong Kong on Monday, May 26, when I crossed the border to Shenzhen, China. Now, on Friday, May 30, I'm coming to Hong Kong, again, this time on a ferry from Macau, the Portuguese territory.
I took the 4:30 p.m. ferry. I'm alone with my heavy luggage. Basheer had left very early in the morning to meet his wife and kids, who were arriving at the Hong Kong airport on a flight from Houston. Sukran had taken a noon ferry. I had stayed behind to explore Macau a little bit longer. Being of Portuguese ancestry, I was interested in learning more about Macau's rapidly fading Portuguese background.
My "ferry" is a turbocat, a jet-powered catamaran, similar to the ones I used to take between Montevideo and Buenos Aires. There are 65 km of water between Macau and Hong Kong, a distance the ferry covers in about one hour.
It's my second trip across Zhujiang Kou, the huge Mouth of the Pearl River. (A few days earlier I had taken a ferry between Shenzhen and Zhuhai.) It's a heavily transited body of water: ferries, junks, cargo ships, cruise boats ... everywhere I look. The ferry passes through the strait between Tuen Mun and the new HK Chek Lap Kok airport (still under construction), in a man- made island next to Lantau.
I love the sea. I love the trip. I get to see the beautiful HK Victoria Harbor from yet another angle ...
It's too late to call my friend Felipe Cucker, I decide. Besides, I have a hotel reservation that requires a 48-hour advanced notice for cancellation.
Space is not cheap in crowded Hong Kong, and hotel prices rank among the highest in the world. To save *some* money, I had made a reservation in a hotel in Tsuen Wan, far from the very expensive tourist areas near the harbor. It took me forever to get there ...
Tsuen Wan is the last station on the red line of the Hong Kong MTR metro (subway). It's actually on the New Territories, north- west of Kowloon. The main attraction of Tsuen Wan is the Yuen Yuen Institute -- a Taoist temple complex -- and the adjacent Buddhist Western Monastery. However, I don't have time to visit that. It's already 7 p.m. when I arrive at the hotel.
Basheer is staying overnight, with his family, in the dorms of a Hong Kong university in Kowloon. He was invited to give a talk there on Saturday 31, the next morning. Sukran is staying in my same hotel, but I cannot find her anywhere.
I take the metro to Tsim Sha Tsui. It's very crowded.
I'm not the shopping type, but I cannot help but being impressed by Nathan Road. Shop after shop after shop ... Everything imaginable is sold here. This could be very well the shopping capital of the world. I walk from the Kowloon Park to the Peninsula Hotel, about six blocks of shops, shops, shops, ... and neon signs after neon signs. It's 9 p.m. but it seems daylight.
I get into the luxurious Peninsula Hotel. Before W.W.II, it was one of a very short list of prestigious hotels across Asia. The list includes the Raffles in Singapore (which I would visit a few days later), the Taj in Bombay, the Cathay in Shanghai, and the Strand in Rangoon.
Everybody who is anybody stays here. I'm nobody but I want to be somebody for 15 minutes, so I get into the lobby ... Spectacular high-ceilings ... packed with elegantly dressed people spotting other elegantly dressed people. At the entrance, Rolls Royce after Rolls Royce unload more elegantly dressed people. I'm in shorts and T-shirt, and I drive a Ford back home (when I'm not riding my bicycle). I don't belong here, so I leave soon.
The Peninsula used to be right on the waterfront, but land reclamation has extended the shoreline south another block. It has somewhat decreased the appeal of the hotel ...
But that land gained from the sea, south of the Peninsula Hotel, is my favorite spot in Hong Kong. That's where the Cultural Centre, the Museum of Art, and the half-golf-ball-shaped Space Museum are.
And that's where my favorite waterfront is. It seems I can never get tired strolling through it. I don't mind the heat, I don't mind the humidity. I'm absorbed by the views of the harbor, the interminable procession of ships, the Peak, the lighted skyline of Hong Kong Island, the rainbow of neon reflected in the water ...
I can be there forever.
But I have to get back to my hotel in Tsuen Wan. It's almost 11.
Hong Kong's tallest building is Central Plaza, in the Wan Chai district, in Hong Kong Island. The four colored lights on the top function as a clock. However, it's not a simple one. The color of the bottom light indicates the hour (for example: red=6, white=7, purple=8, yellow=9, etc.). If the top light is different, it's a quarter past. If the top 2 and bottom 2 differ, it's half past. If top-3 match, it's 45 minutes past the hour. When all four match, it's on the hour.
Some of my tourist literature claim that Central Plaza is still the tallest building in Asia. However, I've learned to mistrust this type of claim. In Shenzhen, a few days earlier, they had told me that a building there (I forgot its name) is the tallest in Asia. And in Kuala Lumpur, a few days later, they would tell me that the 112-story Petronas Towers are the tallest buildings in the world!
Wan Chai was made famous by Suzie Wong, the book and the movie. It used to have a seedy red-light reputation during the Vietnam War, but now brothels have been replaced by high-rise office blocks spreading out from Central. However, a walk down Lockhart Rd. gives an idea of what it was like in the old times. There are still plenty of topless bars and massage parlors.
A foreigner is often referred to as a 'gwailo' -- a Cantonese word which literally means 'ghost person', but which is more accurately translated as 'foreign devil'. It used to have a negative connotation, but not any longer. More polite terms would be 'sai yan' (Westerner) or 'ngoi gwok yan' (foreigner), but gwailo is heard most often.
I feel like a gwailo in the metro. It's surprisingly crowded at 11 p.m. Friday night. I even see what appear to be school children in uniform, by the hundreds. From which school do they come so late at night? Maybe from a boarding school, back home for the weekend.
I'm standing, hanging from a bar on the ceiling. I look around ... I'm not very tall (1.75 m), but I'm the tallest person on the train, towering above a sea of Chinese heads. I'm the only Westerner on the train. The sound of people's voices is deafening loud, but I can't understand a single word. I realize how foreign I am. A foreign devil, a gwailo. Before this Far East trip, I had never been on a place where I looked foreign. Not in the US, not in Mexico, not in Central America, not in South America, not in Europe. But I definitely look foreign on this train. A gwailo!
Hong Kong has a total area of 1074 sq km for a population of 6.4 million. That's almost 6000 people per sq km. Compare that with Uruguay, with a population of 3 million in 186000 sq km, for a density of 16 persons per sq km. The US density is 23 people per sq km. Hong Kong is crowded! It's density is 375 times that of Uruguay! However, even these figures are deceiving because there is an extremely wide variation in density in Hong Kong (and in Uruguay too, by the way). Some HK urban areas have tens of thousands of people per sq km, stacked into multi-block, high- rise housing estates, while many areas are genuinely rural. And many of the Outlying Islands are uninhabited.
There are 234 "Outlying Islands" in the Colony (not counting Hong Kong Island, and Stonecutters, which is not an island anymore.) Together, the Outlying Islands make up 20% of the Colony's area but only 2% of the population. Felipe says that the best of Hong Kong is to be found in some of the most remote islands, with wonderful beaches, no crowds, lots of sailing, lovely tiny traditional fishing villages, and fresh, delicious, seafood. I believe him, but I don't have time to visit them now. Next time, next time ...
Much has been said about Hong Kong's economic miracle. And it is true, it is a miracle. Hong Kong is tiny, but an economic giant, with one of the highest per capita income in the world. It's regarded by many as exhibiting the best of capitalism. (Although others say it also shows the worst of it.) It's laissez faire economic policies are a capitalist's dream: free enterprise, free trade, low taxes, a hard-working labor force, a modern and efficient port, excellent worldwide communications, excellent banking system, excellent services, and a government famous for a hands-off approach.
Hong Kong has been moving towards capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive industries. Most of the manual labor is now done across the border in China. Hong Kong currently enjoys the best of both worlds: a high standard of living with a well-educated workforce and sophisticated service industries -- and a nearby pool of sweatshop labor to do the dirty work.
It is true. It is an economic miracle. But it is also a very artificial one -- and a very fragile one. It would be a mistake to blindly extrapolate Hong Kong's recipes to other parts of the world. Hong Kong's prosperity is the result of a unique geographic location and very special historical and political circumstances. Hong Kong's miracles would never have occurred without the existence of a dormant, very poor, closed-door, xenophobe, anti-capitalist giant next door.
China and Hong Kong are like a big reservoir with a dam between them. One side is huge, but with very shallow water. The other side is tiny, but the water level is very high. The tiny side has in fact been extracting water from the big side, and its water level has been rising and rising and rising. But the water level could never have gotten this high without the dam.
And now the dam is going to be broken ...
Hong Kong is unlikely to be democratic under Chinese rule. But then, Hong Kong has never been a democracy (which disproves the belief that a free economy can only flourish in a free society). Britain has always appointed the governor and the members of the legislature, until very recently. Only after 1992 (too late! only five years before the handover!) there have been timid experiments to choose legislators by direct election.
Saturday morning, I'm too tired to go to Basheer's presentation. I call Felipe, who sounds a little bit disappointed I didn't stay at his home on the previous night. I tell him about my impressions about my visits to Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Macau. \ This my last day in Hong Kong. I ask Felipe for advice. He tells me the Peak is too crowded on Saturdays, that it's cloudy, that I'd be better off touring Tsuen Wan and the New Territories ...
I thought it was a good advice ... But then, they say that if you haven't seen the Peak, you haven't seen Hong Kong ...
I head for the Peak.
I check out of the hotel and take the shuttle van to Tsim Sha Tsui. Sukran is waiting at the Cultural Centre.
We take the Star Ferry to Central. It's my third crossing, but the first on daylight. The boats are green (bottom) and white (top), with two decks. The bottom deck (the green one) is open, with no windows, almost at the water level. The top deck has windows but they are always open. Boy, will I miss those green and white boats! I love them! And I love that harbor crossing ... That combination of green mountains, forests of tropical trees, forest of modern skyscrapers, old Chinese buildings, sea, boats of all shapes, sizes, and colors ... Spectacular!
Sukran tells me I should visit Istanbul (her native city), that the Bosporous crossing is twice as nice, that the ferries are three times as good, that the views are four times as spectacular, that the city is five times prettier ...
I think she's jealous. :-)
(Seriously, I'm sure I would love Istanbul. I hope I have a chance to visit it. The sooner the better ... Gosh, life is too short, too short! There are so many beautiful places to visit, so many things to learn, so many cultures to experience, so many foods to try, so many people to know ...)
I had to fight for a window seat, but it was worth it. I took some great pictures. The crossing takes only seven minutes, but it's un-for-get-ta-ble.
(Talking about ferry crossings, this one reminds me of the Tagus River crossing from Lisbon to Almada. It has a similar type of appeal. But I have yet to see the one in Istanbul! :-)
We take the free shuttle bus to the Peak tram lower terminal. It's a double-decker. We seat on the upper deck, which it's open, with no roof. It's hot! It's humid! I don't think I've ever sweated more in my life. I cannot complain about Houston's summers anymore.
Felipe was right. There's a looooong line at the tram terminal. It takes us an hour to finally get on the tram.
The famous tram is actually a funicular that goes up and down the mountain, on a steep almost-straight line. It's similar to the ones I've taken in Rio (to go up to the Corcovado), in Lisbon, and in Braga. The slope angle is 15 degrees, I read on my way. It feels steeper to me.
I'm glad I braved the long lines, the crowds, the heat, and the bad weather predictions. When I got to the Peak, it was all worth it. It was foggy, but the views were still breathtaking. Hong Kong looks even more impressive from up there.
There is a high-tech, multilevel Peak Galleria at the top, a type of scenic mall with all sorts of overpriced shops peddling everything from T-shirts to dim sum.
We take the trail around the Peak, along Lugard ad Harlech Roads. It's about a one-hour walk that offers a 360 degree view of Hong Kong Island. It's really interesting, with jogging trails, tropical vegetation, fountains, water cascades, expensive mansions, and awesome views.
Once in a while, our walk on the narrow road around the trail is interrupted by a Rolls Royce or a Mercedes on their tortuous way to one of the mansions on the top. The Peak is the most fashionable place to live in Hong Kong, but the price of real estate is astronomical. (Ditto for the prices charged in the cafes on the Peak -- they recommend to check the menu first to avoid indigestion later.)
It's almost 6 p.m. and I have to catch a plane at 8.
Sukran stays on the Peak, but I have to run down. Down the tram, onto the shuttle, run to Exchange Square, and onto the A20 bus.
I forgot about traffic jams. The A20 took forever to get to the airport! Well, I had a good chance to see plenty of colorful double-decker buses. They are cute!
I got to the airport around 7:20, and past check-in and passport controls at 7:40. My plane was leaving at 8. I was very sweaty, after walking, climbing, and running in Hong Kong 45 degree (C) heat and 100% humidity for 10 hours. I did something crazy. I went to the restroom and saw a sign "shower" in a small room. I asked for towels to the Chinese janitor, but he said "no, no" and something in Chinese. No soap either. So I took some soap from the sink, went into the shower room, undressed, got a shower, dried myself up with the sweaty T-shirt I had been wearing, put on another T-shirt I had on my carry-on bag, put the rest of my clothes on, and ran to get my plane. I got in just in time, when they were closing the gates ...
Bye-bye Hong Kong, I will surely miss you. I didn't get to know all of you, but I cannot complain about how much I learned in only two days. I hope to see you again soon.
(I was lucky to see Berlin a few months the fall of the wall -- and a few months afterwards. Now I've been lucky to have seen Hong Kong one month before the fall of another "wall". I hope my luck continues. I want to see it after the handover.
I envied my brother Martin, who was in Berlin when the fall of the wall. I envy Felipe, who will be in Hong Kong during the handover. They are first-row witnesses of history in the making.)
On to Singapore ... I'm arriving there around midnight. Would Marta be waiting for me? I'm not sure ...
(Marta Strinek is a friend I met the same way I met Felipe Cucker: through the Uruguayan Internet network. I didn't know her personally either. She had invited me to stay at her home, but I was arriving at such an odd time that I didn't know what to expect.)
(TO BE CONTINUED)
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