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Published: October 13th 2012
Oct. 11. We arrived at the Hong Kong airport on time at about 10:00 a.m. and went through customs and immigration. This may seem odd since we're still in China, but the border between the mainland and Hong Kong is not completely free. Hong Kong is a special administrative region (SAR), which, as our local guide William pointed out, had an inconvenient connotation for tourists during the SARS outbreak in 2003. He sat idle for five months. Anyway, speech, etc. is more free here, and mainland Chinese need permission to cross the border.
A little history of Hong Kong: there are three main parts of this city of seven million people: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories. In 1841 Britain took only Hong Kong Island after winning the first Opium War. In 1859, they claimed part of the Kowloon Peninsula as well, even though they defeated the Chinese all the way to Beijing. Both of these territorial cessions were in perpetuity. In 1898 there was yet another trade war that resulted in Britain claiming a little more of the mainland territory, called the New Territories, up to the Shenzhen River. This land was granted for a limited
time, however, to be returned to Chine in 99 years.
In 1984 Margaret Thatcher met with Deng Xaoping and announced, to the great surprise of Hong Kong residents, that in 1997 Britain would return not only the New Territories but all of Hong Kong to China. Why? There is speculation that China threatened to cut off the water supply to Hong Kong, or said that England would have to permit those who wanted to leave the new territories to resettle on Hong Kong Island, which has no space left. Many Hong Kong residents fled in the years leading up to 1997, fearing a loss of freedom. Today 98% of the residents are of Chinese ethnicity, according to our guide. I was surprised that there were not more people here who had come from Britain. English is an official language here, and signs are in English as well as Cantonese, but in practice it is still pretty hard to get by with only English. Many people do not speak any, and menus, etc. may be only in Cantonese, which is different from the Mandarin we've been hearing as well.
We had a short orientation walk from our Charterhouse Hotel
to Times Square so Michael could show us how to use the metro system and give us some ideas of things to do in our free afternoon. We chose to eat lunch at the Istanbul Restaurant across Wan Chai St., and the owner, an immigrant from Turkey, was very friendly and gave us personal service along with the story of his immigration here and some excellent falafel that satisfied our craving for something different from Chinese fare. Then we tried to walk along the waterfront, but this proved easier said than done. Pedestrian pathways are tightly controlled with fencing, so we found ourselves having to backtrack to reach overpasses to get across highways or to detour around construction sites. Everywhere there is building going on. We finally reached Victoria Park and had a more peaceful walk along a shaded, rubberized path. Two men were using the reflecting pool to race their remote-control toy boats.
We headed into a shopping complex called Windsor House ready for some serious grazing and happened upon Sweet Garden which had no English menu board but seemed to have some attractive looking ice cream sorts of things. We took a chance and pointed to one, which proved to be coconut ice in a huge pyramid accompanied by sliced peaches, passion fruit sauce, and passion fruit bubbles (boba). Yum! Glad we decided to split one as it was certainly enough for two and had mega-ice-cream-headache potential. An almond bear claw type of thing and a couple of sushi rolls followed. The streets of Hong Kong were bustling at night. We enjoyed people-watching for a while, although we also felt oddly adrift without direction from a guide or the company of our group that we've become fond of. We're glad tomorrow starts with another tour.
Oct. 12 Life-long Hong Kong resident William took us down Queen's Way to the Soho section of the city to ride a couple of the escalators that cover a 2500-foot elevation change from the residential to commercial area. Space is at a premium in the whole city, so many buildings are very tall but small in cross section. A two bedroom apartment may be only 250 square feet and rent for thousands of US dollars per month.
Some people avoid the housing market altogether and live on boats in the harbor. We had a sampan ride around one of their "neighborhoods" and saw plants, pets, drying laundry, and cooking pots alongside the fishing nets. What happens during a typhoon?
Our afternoon was free, so we joined up with four friends and visited the Hong Kong History Museum in Kowloon. Highly recommended, excellent displays. Two hours was too short to see more than one of the three floors in depth. I wish we had allowed more time for the top floor that covered recent history. The World War II period would have been interesting, I think. The Japanese invaded Hong Kong on December 8, 1941, probably at just about the same time they were bombing Pearl Harbor, and of course there were many hardships endured at that time. I'd like to revisit this museum!
Since no taxi driver was willing to take us over to HK Island at rush hour, we had our first experience on the metro (subway). Our small group managed to stick together and figure out the ticket machines and routes. It's really a much more user-friendly system than Boston's, especially once you are on a train, because little lights indicate exactly where you are on the map in every car.
This evening, a Thai dinner (Yay!) at Thai Sawadee followed by some tacky (i.e., fun) souvenir shopping at Temple Street, a Star Ferry ride, trolley ride, and a drive up to Victoria Peak for the spectacular view of the whole city. Like other cities in China, Hong Kong lights up its buildings at night with colorful outlines, changing patterns, even lasers, and given Hong Kong's density and profusion of skyscrapers, the effect is stunning.
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