There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Hong Kong: Part 9 of China's Far South West

This was our third visit to Hong Kong, but the first as the postscript to a mainland trip rather than a prelude. Hong Kong has been part of China for over a decade, but they are one country in theory only. Hong Kong people are larger, better dressed and have more confident body language. Unlike any mainland paper, the South China Daily engages in debate and open criticism of the government. Less positively, our room in a Kowloon budget hotel did not just seem small compared with the spacious accommodation we had become used to, it really was miniscule and the window commanded a fine view of next door’s wall. On the other hand, it was clean, had all the necessary offices and the softest bed we had encountered for weeks.

Central, Hong Kong

With four days to reacquaint ourselves with old favourites and find some new ones, we started with our first ever trip to the south side of Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong public transport was, as ever, quick, clean and efficient. The MTR whisked us from Yau Ma Tei under the harbour to Central, a short walk took us to the bus station, and very soon we were climbing through the Wong Nai Chung Gap. The gap is hardly a mountain pass, Victoria Peak is a mere 500m high, but it is the easiest route over the island’s formidable rocky spine. Hong Kong Island is small, so we were quickly at the top of the gap looking down on the south coast and the South China Sea sparkling in the sun. On the top of a double-decker, on the left hand side of a narrow road approaching a mini-roundabout, we could almost have been in England, but for the subtropical vegetation.

Looking back from the Wong Nai Chung Gap

We reached the coast at Repulse Bay, probably named for HMS Repulse which helped free the area from pirates in the 19th century.  It is a resort with a fine sandy beach, though the Repulse Bay Hotel, once a rival to the Peninsula and a British command centre during the Battle of Hong, was demolished in the 1980s. The Japanese attacked Hong Kong on the 8th of December 1941, some eight hours after the assault on Pearl Harbor. Vastly outnumbering the British and Canadian defenders, they landed on the north coast of Hong Kong Island on the 18th and fought their way through the Wong Nai Chung Gap and down to Repulse Bay on the 19th. The defending forces eventually surrendered on Christmas Day 1941.

From Repulse Bay the bus followed the coast eastwards to Stanley which sits at the base of a small peninsula. Alexander the Great rampaged round the then known world for eleven years and founded a dozen ‘Alexandrias’ from Egypt to Tajikistan. Lord Stanley, British Secretary of State for the Colonies in the 1830s and 40s (and later Prime Minister), did no personal rampaging, but still gave his name to a county in Queensland, a town in Tasmania, the capital of the Falkland Islands and the Stanley we were arriving at.

Instead of alighting at the market we continued to the terminus at Stanley Prison, hoping to find a short cut through to the military cemetery. From 1942 until the Japanese surrender, Stanley Prison was a particularly grim civilian internment camp. It is now a maximum-security prison, and although today’s conditions are, I hope, more humane I would still rather be outside than in.

Looking across Stanley Bay to Chung Hom Kok
We had made a misjudgement and walked most of the way back to Stanley before finding a road down the west side of the peninsula to the cemetery. Built on sloping ground above St Stephen’s beach, it was the burial ground for the British Garrison from 1841 to 1866. Deaths were often the result of disease rather than enemy action, and there are many graves of the soldiers’ wives and children.

After 1866 the cemetery lay unused until the Second World War. Stanley was the last town to fall and the cemetery was itself the scene of fighting. Twelve Canadian soldiers are buried in the graveyard where they fell, though most of Hong Kong’s military casualties are interred at Sai Wan on the island’s northeast corner. The majority of graves are of civilians, many of whom died in Stanley Internment Camp. Among the British and Canadian dead are many local Chinese who died alongside them, a number of Indian soldiers serving the crown, and representatives from many other nations.

Stanley Military Cemetery
Like every Commonwealth War Cemetery we have visited, in France, North Africa and the Far East, it is an immaculately kept haven of peace.

Stanley Military Cemetery
Beaches apart, Stanley’s main attraction is its market which fills the streets between the beach and the bus station. It sells clothes, jewellery, electronics and just about anything else you can think of. It was fairly quiet and many of the visitors were from cruise ships, each wearing a badge with the name of the ship and the number of the bus that had brought them. You need every advantage you can get when haggling with Chinese stallholders, and wearing a big badge saying ‘I’m a sucker’ is not the best gambit.

By the time we had finished with the market it was lunchtime, but the dai pai dong (street food restaurants) promised by our guidebook had gone, dispensed with, like so many others, in the name of tidiness. By the sea front, a line of smart restaurants offered every cuisine under the sun (even including Chinese) at prices that looked eye watering – at least to new arrivals from the mainland. Eventually we found a reasonably priced dim sum place and enjoyed a good meal, including some chickens’ feet, the glories of which I have described before.

Dim Sum in Stanley -
dirty work, but somebody's got to do it
Mazu, goddess of the sea, is widely worshipped in coastal southern China. She is described in Mandarin as ‘Tian Hou’, Empress of Heaven, which in Cantonese becomes ‘Tin Hau’. Tin Hau temples can be found all over Hong Kong but Stanley’s, built in 1767, is older than most. Apart from seeming bigger inside than outside, it is a largely unremarkable building. Beside the door, a tatty tiger skin hangs inside a glass frame. The tiger wandered into Stanley in1942 and was duly shot by an Indian policeman. How the tiger came to be there is not recorded.

Tin Hau Temple, Stanley
The nearby Murray House was moved, stone by stone, when its original site in Central was redeveloped. They must have had a reason, but it was not obvious.

A walk up through a housing estate brought us to the Kwun Yum Temple. Once we had located the entrance it was not hard to find the six metre high statue of the goddess of mercy looking out over the bay - just look for the scaffolding. Not much was happening there, but the gardens were luxuriant and peaceful.

Kwun Yum in her scaffolding, Stanley
We caught a bus back through Repulse Bay, across the landward end of the Ocean Park Peninsula, home to a substantial theme park, and on to Aberdeen.

I was looking forward to visiting Aberdeen, having heard as a child about the floating restaurants and the people who live on boats in the harbour. I was prepared to be met by swarms of touts offering sampan rides and I had composed my mind into its best haggling condition. There was almost no one there. One man offered a sampan ride to the floating restaurants – which are not visible from the harbour – but in mid-afternoon it was an understandably half-hearted offer. We walked the length of the promenade, looked a the fishing boats in the harbour, which was mildly diverting, looked up at the high rise buildings, found the bus station and left. Maybe we were in the wrong place, or maybe Aberdeen harbour has been tidied up and the residents of the floating village transported to the high rises; that would be the Hong Kong way.

Aberdeen Harbour
The Aberdeen tunnel is a quicker, if less scenic, north-south route and we were back in Wan Chai in time for the rush hour.

Back to Central, Hong Kong
We dined that night at the ‘Woo Sung Street Temporary Hawkers Food Bazaar’ a dai pai dong we have visited before and thankfully still exists. There are few things finer than Woo Sung Street clams in black bean sauce.

There a few things finer than clams in black bean sauce,
Woo Sung Street Temporary Hawkers Food Bazaar
The following day’s visit to Macau deserved a post of its own (click here).

The day after, we took the Star Ferry across the harbour. In a deeply unsentimental city where nothing survives if it does not prove its worth daily, the continued existence of the Star Ferries is a minor miracle. Crossing Hong Kong harbour is one of the world’s great short journeys and at HK$2.40 (20p) one of the cheapest. The boats, with a bow at each end so they never have to turn, run every few minutes and the whole trip is over in ten. One disappointing concession to modernity is that some boats are no longer painted the traditional sludge green, but are decked out in their sponsor’s livery.

The island terminal had moved onto newly reclaimed land since our last visit, making the journey fifty metres shorter and meaning it is now a very brief walk to the outlying islands ferry piers.

Ignoring the supercats, we took the slow boat to Chung Chau. Chung Chau is a small, dumbbell shaped island a leisurely fifty minutes cruise away. It is densely populated, though without high rises, but its size means it is car free. There is little to see; a Tin Hau temple, some rock carvings (three thousand years old and rather indistinct), and an impressive Banyan tree in the town centre with a grisly past (it was used as a gallows by the Japanese occupiers).

Ancient rock carvings, Chung Chau

The main attraction for us, and many others that Saturday morning, was the row of seafood restaurants stretching along the side of the harbour. We walked slowly along the row being accosted by the various proprietors and having menus thrust into our hands. They were all much the same and it was less a matter of choosing a restaurant as locating the last unoccupied table in the whole of Chung Chau.

the row of seafood restaurants stretching
 along the harbour, Chung Chau

We ordered a steamed brown spotted grouper and a dish of lightly fried scallops with celery. The scallops were as soft and flavoursome as we could have wished, the large grouper lay in a pool of soy-based sauce, his baleful eye defying us to eat him. We did defy him, and delicious he was too.

All around us, Chinese families were out for Saturday lunch. Teenagers and younger children sat with their parents and, very often, grandparents, eating in civilized family groups. And they were not being fobbed off with chicken nuggets or burgers, they were eating proper food. I thought we had something to learn from that.

Dried fish stall, Chung Chau
Seafood restaurants are as attractive to cats as to humans and from our table by the harbour wall we could see several patrolling the shore, eager for a scrap or two to be thrown their way. One cat was stalking an egret. Its belly close to the ground, its gaze focussed and its head totally still, it crept forward as only a hunting cat can creep. It seemed unperturbed by being only half the size of the egret, or by the two metres of open water between the shore and the buoy where the bird perched. The egret took lazily to the air, thwarting the hunter’s lofty, if impracticable ambition. The cat raised his tail and sauntered off pretending, as cats do, that it had been what he was planning all along.

After an equally leisurely trip back, dusk found us in the Sheraton Skylounge, 26 stories up on the tip of the Kowloon peninsula. The big windows are designed to give the best possible view of the world’s finest free show, the lighting up of Hong Kong. The show might be free, but you need a drink to justify occupying their chairs. The £8 spent on Lynne’s Singapore Sling would have bought dinner for two (with beer and change) in Guilin while I found the price of a Dry Martini had escalated since our last visit. I settled for a frozen Gintini at the same price as the Singapore Sling. It was, I discovered, a gin slush puppy, though in a cocktail glass not a plastic tube. I rather liked it.

The lights come on, Hong Kong Island after dusk from the Sheraton Sky Loung

The next morning, our last day in Hong Kong, we took the MTR north to Diamond Hill where a short and well-signed walk took us to the Nan Lian (Western Lotus Pool) Gardens.

Having walked under a flyover from the Hollywood Plaza shopping mall, the peaceful atmosphere of the gardens came almost as a jolt. Small paths wound through a formal Chinese garden of precisely clipped trees and shrubs, opening up views of wooden pavilions and shimmering carp pools. One pavilion contained a display of exquisite models of Chinese traditional buildings, while another housed a zen rock garden. Looking up from the calm order of Nan Lian to the towering apartments blocks on the hill opposite gave a extraordinary feeling of cultural dislocation. Even stranger was the thought that before the apartments blocks were built in the 1980s we would have been looking at a poverty-stricken shantytown.

Nan Lian Gardens

Across a rustic bridge – actually spanning a busy road - we entered the garden of the Chi Lin nunnery where gravel paths form a grid around a series carp ponds festooned with water lilies. The nunnery was founded in1936 although the current building dates only from 1990. It is a traditional building in the Tang (10th century) style, its wooden beams held together without the use of metal nails. We walked clockwise, as one should, around the temples area, which houses statues of Sakyamuni Buddha, Guanyin and other bodhisattvas. It was not the first Buddhist temple of our trip, but it was by far the youngest, and convincing evidence that the Chinese genius for creating oases of serenity amid the frenetic bustle of daily life remains undiminished. A big ‘thank you’ to Brian and Hilary who know Hong Kong so much better than we do and recommended this place. Further thanks for the loan of their oyster cards, which made getting on and off trains, boats and buses so quick and simple.

Chi Lin Nunnery
Returning to Yau Ma Tei, we ate lunch before wandering through the jade market. We had an introduction to jade in Hotan in 2008. Offered jade in the street Khalil, our guide, could easily distinguish between mountain jade and the more highly prized river jade. Later, fossicking in the river, he lobbed a couple of apparently promising stones back into the water saying they were just green pebbles. Bewildered by jade, and slightly in awe of it, I would be frightened of buying anything in the market – I am convinced I would leave with an extremely expensive piece of green plastic.

Jade market, Yau Ma Tei
I felt less out of my depth in the vegetable market, though I had never realised the world held such a huge variety of root vegetables. We finished the afternoon joining the crowds for a Sunday afternoon promenade in Kowloon Park’ strolling through the gardens, watching the birds in the aviary and listening to the open-air concert.

Tofu, Yau Ma Tei market
In the evening we returned to the Woo Sung Street dai pai dong. The weather had warmed steadily since we had shivered in Kunming three weeks before. November in sub-tropical Hong Kong meant sitting comfortably outside at nine o’clock in short sleeves. We ate deep fried squid and an unspecified fish in black bean sauce - it was almost as good as the clams. I hope we will return to Hong Kong before too long, and when we do, the Woo Sung Street Temporary Hawkers Food Bazaar has not been replaced by tidy but soulless modernity[Update November 2017: I am delighted to say it is still going strong].

Music in Kowloon Park
The next day we had breakfast in Hong Kong and dinner in Staffordshire.

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